Project Spark – Create the Game!

Born out of a heritage of sandbox games that allow you to define the world around you, Microsoft showcased Project Spark at E3 this year. It rapidly became one of the most talked about “games” at the show.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Project Spark is just another iteration of Minecraft or Second Life. Microsoft are doing something very special with Project Spark.

So what is Project Spark? Simply it’s a game creation interface, but unlike games development environments like the Unreal Engine or Unity, anyone could pick up project Spark and create a game. However this explanation doesn’t do it justice.

Take a look at Minecraft and the first thing you’ll notice is that the graphics look like a game out of the early 90s. I know people will argue with me here that Minecraft has a sort of retro aesthetic beauty but personally I don’t see it. If I spend time building a world I want it to look beautiful. Second Life does this a little better and environments can look visually stunning but the time and effort required to create such a beautiful sim is significant. Both environments use scripting to give objects behaviours and in both cases this requires real scripting ability and in depth knowledge. In both cases, although you can create fun games, the emphasis is on environment creation rather than a game-play experience. Project Spark is still pre-beta so we don’t know yet if it will live up to the promise of its E3 demos but if it does it will have succeeded in achieving a defining change in the way we look at Sandbox environments. What’s the “secret sauce” Microsoft have come up with?

  • Don’t make building hard – learning from Minecraft they have created a world builder that allows you to create compelling gaming environments in minutes.
  • Make it beautiful – The landscapes and characters you can create are truly beautiful with a great deal of thought applied to how you create graphical components that flow together but don’t stifle creativity.
  • Make it easy to give things behaviors – Games programming is all about objects and their behaviours, by inventing a graphical development environment Microsoft have made it easy for anyone to apply behaviors to objects without having to resort to scripting.
  • Concentrate on the game – Make all these things come together to allow the user to create really fun games.

Recently I wrote an article on Disney’s Infinity which allows kids to build worlds in Toybox mode. Although it doesn’t look nearly as sophisticated as Project Spark it’s an interesting trend that several of the large gaming studios seem to be looking at ways of allowing us to be more creative in our gaming. I suspect that they’ve realised that by allowing people to be creative you engage them for far longer than if you provide a linear gaming experience and that translates into big bucks for game publishers, not to mention a whole genre of new exciting games for us!

The Science Fiction of Yesterday Becomes the Reality of Today

The Science Fiction of Yesterday Becomes the Reality of Today

Over the last couple of days there have been a several articles that I’ve read that have made me think “you know, the 21st century, we’re really here aren’t we”.

One of the first that caught my eye was of a new innovation by a gentleman called Jake Evil….I know! Really…he needs to be working from some secret tropical island volcano base doesn’t he. Joking aside Mr Evil (I so wish he had a doctorate) has come up with a great new way of providing a cast for broken bones that doesn’t involve lots of plaster and people writing rude messages in indelible ink.

As in traditional treatments the limb is first x-rayed to determine where the break has occurred. It’s then scanned to create a precise 3D model which can then be used to create a 3D printed lattice from durable plastic that clips in place and exactly fits the patients limb.

The plastic lattice looks very sci-fi. It’s almost honeycomb structure allows plenty of air to the limb preventing any itching and is far easier to clean allowing the patient to shower and wash without having to worry about getting a cast wet. Let’s hope the Cortex Exoskeleton hits our hospitals before any of us break anything!

Another article that caught my eye was the unveiling of a new truck design by Hanover based MAN trucks. MAN have radically veered from the path of traditional truck design by attempting to create a truck with the aerodynamics and overall wind resistance of a car. They report that this will reduce both fuel consumption and CO2 emissions  by a staggering 25%. In today’s environment with fuel costs so high that’s a significant impact on a company’s bottom line. As we move more and more to other forms of propulsion such as electric this translates into more miles on a single charge.

What caught me about this more than the aerodynamics though was the similarity to the design of this truck and the sci-fi comics I was reading when I was in my teens. I’m constantly challenged now by what a very exciting present we live in and how we are making the future ours. I can’t wait to see what the next 20 years of the 21st century will bring!

Social Media: The Signal and The Noise

Social Media: The Signal and The Noise

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Flickr, the list goes on and on. In fact there are hundreds of social networking sites and that’s if you ignore the proliferation of new community sites that companies, clubs and societies have integrated with their websites.

The difficulty for any new brand wanting to be noticed, wanting to be part of consumers’ conversations is how to break above the level of the noise.

It used to be the case that a new company could get noticed simply by being on Twitter. Now that medium is too congested with literally hundreds of thousands of companies trying to seem exciting and different. Unless you are lucky and just happen to hit upon a viral advertising idea or better still a meme (and you might have more chance of being struck by lightning), you’ll end up spending big bucks just like in any advertising medium to get noticed. Then there is the problem of which social media site do you talk to your customers on? There are a bewildering array of possibilities and a fragmented conversation amongst all of them.

So should new companies with small budgets abandon social media altogether? Absolutely not but you should understand what you’re trying to achieve. For any company playing in the social arena there are some general guidelines that may help you become more than just an addition to the noise:

1. Understand the benefits of your product and make it appear appealing in the most impactful way you can. This can mean spending at least a little money. A professionally produced video showcasing you and your product can be created for as little as a few hundred pounds. The internet loves videos and a well produced video posted to the right social media sites still has the ability to get you noticed especially if your product is particularly exciting or presented in a quirky enough way. In addition, keep on talking about your product and find something new and interesting to say each time. Keeping foremost in people’s consciousness is incredibly important in getting noticed and staying noticed.

2. Use social media to start a conversation with your customers. Choose a couple of the most popular social media sites and let your customers know that this is where they can talk to you and to each other. Creating a vibrant community who are discussing your product can be very useful for spreading the word about new launches and features. It can also help you understand how your customers are using your product and how to improve it.

3. Be responsive, run your own community and respond to your customers through that community when they have concerns. In other words, embrace social support. Increasingly customers will use social media as a channel to ask you questions and you need to be ready to answer them. Consider having your own community on your web site linked to other social media sites. Certainly you’ll need to think about how you integrate social media support into your support process so that it doesn’t become a way for your customers to get rapid ad hoc support.

4. Listen to the mood. Great new services like Datasift are appearing that look at a range of social media sites and can tell you a lot about how your customers perceive you. This can really help you to sift the signal from the noise and understand how your customers feel about you and your products. Interestingly this type of analysis works equally well in helping you understand how they feel about your competitors.

The social media world is complex and getting more so, but for company executives that take the time to understand why the social conversation is important there are potentially large rewards.