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!

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Microsoft Tells Customers The Offline Strategy for XBox One is XBox 360

In a recent interview Microsoft’s Don Mattrick told a reporter that if customers didn’t have an Internet connection then Microsoft has an offline device, it’s called Xbox 360. Whilst this was a heavy handed and perhaps unwise statement, it underlines the company’s position pretty clearly.

So has the Microsoft senior management team lost all understanding of their customer’s needs? Certainly the discussion of this feature has flared across the social media channels and much of the response has been negative. Bearing this in mind, why insist on Internet connectivity for XBox One? The answer is simple, Microsoft want to make money.

Now before you throw your hands up in the air and say “Well they won’t make money if everyone buys a PS4” take a moment to consider that Microsoft have almost certainly taken a good long look at their customers and have still decided to go down this route. The question is why?

On the face of it the PS4 is a better gaming platform, with a more open development strategy to encourage indy developers. It doesn’t have to be online and it has a lower price tag. Gamers at E3 certainly seem impressed with comments like “They’ve listened to us and given us exactly what we want” being frequently heard.

The answer to what Microsoft are doing is that they are not aiming at hardcore gamers. They’ve noticed four important trends:

1. The market for hardcore gamers is significantly smaller than the entire home entertainment market. Customers want games sure, and your gaming console better not disappoint, but the on-demand entertainment market is just starting to become mainstream.

2. Net-neutrality has become pretty enshrined in U.S. law with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approving new rules in 2010 banning Internet providers from interfering with traffic from “over-the-top” service providers like Netflix.

3. Networks are beginning to have the speed with fiber optic roll outs to reliably deliver high definition, on-demand content in a reasonable time-frame.

4. The Fremium model has shown that you can make millions out of in app purchases on mobile platforms and that some games with very limited scope can perform beyond expectations.

So what does all this mean when we look at Microsoft’s strategy? Simply, they don’t just want to be a gaming platform, they want to be a home entertainment platform and for this they need to be online. They want a bigger bite of the cherry and they don’t mind offending a few hard core gamers to do it.

Expect to see more on-demand video, TV channel packages, non-AAA title games with fremium models and other web based pay-as-you-go services.

There’s no doubt that Microsoft are taking a bit of a gamble with this approach but ultimately time will tell whether they manage to successfully position themselves as a media provider and quarterly financial reports will inform as to whether the strategy is a success. However, they’re in good company with taking an online purchasing approach; Apple makes as much money from apps now as it does from the hardware.

Virtuex Omni – Shut Up and Take my Money!

Ever wanted to know what it feels like to really be in a video game? Virtuix has teamed up with the folks over at Oculus Rift to develop the Omni. The Omni is essentially a gaming platform that allows the user to move around freely whilst exploring a 3D environment and when combined with the Oculus rift VR head set it creates a very immersive experience. Not quite a Star Trek holodeck, but the next best thing!

Currently the Omni is fundraising on Kickstarter and has raised 650 K against a 150 K target with 45 days of fundraising left. The idea that you can actually physically move around in a game, walking, running, jumping, crouching and turning as necessary has obviously caught gamers’ imaginations. It also has great potential as a fitness platform allowing users to run through a variety of beautiful environments without ever leaving the comfort of their homes.

The technology consists of a circular concave base with carefully designed grooves that fit studs on the shoes that come with the Omni. These enable the users feet to slip over the surface of the Omni but still have good grip in the grooves enabling stability. A support belt with flanges that extend down to the base of the Omni provides further safety.

The technology works with Xbox Kinect and will support accelerometer and magnetometer solutions. Given that one of the features of XBox One will be a much more sophisticated version of Kinetic, Omni will probably be able to support an even wider range of actions at launch than the current prototypes. Currently the projected retail price will be somewhere between $499 and $599.

Plug and Play? Console gaming in your pocket.

iPhone and Android apps have really redefined the hold that the big gaming studios have on the video games market with smaller studios and independent developers releasing multi-million euro titles (http://www.businessinsider.com/most-profitable-games-app-annie-2013-2?op=1).

The Gamestick is a nifty little idea from Playjam and could start to redefine the console game market by providing an easily accessible console platform for indy developers. It’s the size of a large USB stick and plugs directly into the HDMI port on the back of your TV. One charge is enough to play 40 hours of games and with 8GB on board and 32GB expansions a decent number of games can be stored.

Sporting an ARM A9 dualcore processor with a Mali 400 GPU common in low end tablets, the Gamestick will be a great platform for the sort of high-end tablet games that are grossing well on iOS and Android platforms.

Whilst games won’t have the sort of rich complexity and photorealistic graphics of AAA console games, they will probably be low cost or Freemium which will be a refreshing change from the forty pound titles common on XBox and Playstation. Gamestick is definitely a product to watch with interest.

XBox One – A Competing Set Top Box

This week saw the launch of XBox One, Microsoft’s long awaited gaming console announcement and it appears to have left a lot of confused pundits in it’s wake.

The confusion can basically be summed up as “Hang on a moment, didn’t we come here to see a gaming console announcement, what’s all this stuff about TV?”

A few years ago my product team at chello Broadband was lucky enough to get our hands on a copy of the original pre-launch XBox live from Microsoft to see how it performed on the network. This meant that my product managers were the envy of the company as they spent most of a week playing games.

However, by the end of the week two things had happened; first everyone had had an enormous amount of fun and second we were pretty much convinced that this was a highly disruptive technology to our business.

At the crux of it was the fact that the XBox had a hard drive and was capable of playing live streamed video across a broadband network. Essentially this could be a competing set-top box in the living room using our network to provide over-the-top services. Microsoft positioned the XBox very firmly as a gaming console but it didn’t take too much imagination to see what it might become as soon as they had decent market penetration.

In one sense I was wrong though, the re positioning of XBox as an entertainment console wasn’t as imminent as I’d feared. It’s taken Microsoft about 10 years to get there, and maybe that’s as it should be, after all, it could be possible to argue that it’s taken that long for us all to get comfortable with the idea of streaming media. Ten years ago the media industry wasn’t mature enough in it’s attitude to digital distribution either. There really is a market now, and a large one.

So we shouldn’t be surprised at Microsoft’s positioning of the XBox. They’re not after providing you with a gaming console, their vision is bigger, they want games and a big chunk of the home entertainment market and they’ll fight the digital service providers for it!