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!
When I was a kid a good few years ago I remember being given a Space Invaders game. It was one of those clunky black plastic monstrosities that any child would happily have sold his sibling to obtain and provided many hours of entertainment late at night under the bed sheets when my parents thought I was asleep. One dimensional game-play and the simplest of objectives didn’t make the game any less compelling. Move over the early 1980s and take a look at what our kids have to look forward to now! I’m going to leave aside the discussion over whether or not kids should be playing video games as that’s a particular can of worms that it will take more than this blog post to cover.
Disney Infinity launches this August and you can see that it’s an idea that has the hallmarks of success stamped all over it. I’m pretty positive that my kids will want a copy, in fact I think I may pre-purchase a copy just so that I don’t have to look at those little imploring faces. So why will Disney Infinity be a hit?
Collectibles – There’s something absolutely inherent in a child’s psychological make up that drives them to collect things, whether it’s sea shells, interesting flowers or any manner of other objects. In fact humans just in general are natural collectors. I imagine there’s probably something in our evolutionary background that selected for this particular behaviour. Maybe cavemen who always had that useful object tucked away somewhere tended to have a better chance of survival. Disney Infinity follows in the footsteps of Skylanders in having real world objects that activate game play when placed on a peripheral figurine docking station.
It’s Disney – Kids love the films, heck, I love the films. I could spend hours listening to Edna talk in The Incredibles. The idea that kids can play in the worlds inhabited by these characters and share their adventures is always going to be a compelling one.
Social Play with Friends – You can’t build a major gaming title today, whether it’s a big AAA title or a little iPhone game, without having some form of social play. I know from watching my kids play Littlest Petshop that the social aspect of play is very important to them and is certainly a factor in determing both the longevity of the game and the amount of time children spend playing. Disney Infinity looks to have very strong social play building on the learning Disney has had from other social titles it’s released.
Toy Box Mode – Here is where I think that Disney will “hit the ball out of the park” to use and American maxim. Toy box mode allows kids to actually build there own worlds then play in them with their friends. Disney have obviously seen the popularity of sand box environments like Minecraft and equated that to children’s love for being able to create. This is a great feature and this alone would persuade me to purchase the game for my kids just to see what they’re going to create and the games they end up playing.
From the point of view of a parent another thing I like about Disney is that they spend a lot of time thinking about “safe guarding”. I’ve worked in the past with people that work at Disney and I know they spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how to protect kids online. Disney Infinite should be a safe and creative environment for our kids imaginations to run riot.