Project Spark review: DIY gaming
CHANCES are you’ve played more than a few games in your time where you’ve thought: ‘I could do better than this’ or ‘This bit’s boring, why didn’t they do that?’
PROJECT SPARK (XOne, Windows 8.1); rating: 7.5/10; age: 12+
Now’s your opportunity to put up or shut up. Project Spark latches on to the Minecraft world-building phenomenon and massively expands the possibilities.
Perhaps you fancy creating a 3D action-adventure or a first-person shooter or a 2D platformer or an intricate puzzler? Yes, you can with Spark if you’re prepared to dig deep and learn.
We’ve been here before, of course, with several games incorporating a level editor while Sony’s Little Big Planet series set an important benchmark for creative tools pitched at non-designers.
The configuration tools can be confusing
Despite the impressive ingenuity displayed by enthusiasts, the likes of Minecraft and LBP remain limited as game-creation tools. Project Spark is limited mostly by Microsoft’s lust for money, which locks lots of desirable objects (characters, terrain, etc) behind a microtransactions paywall but in full view of your efforts to craft a game from scratch.
On the other hand, you could consider it remarkably generous that Microsoft makes the base version of Project Spark a free download. You can tinker away for hours absorbing the basics of its powerful tools before needing to spend a cent. If you lack inspiration, you can download other users’ creations and play or remix them.
Yet this free-to-play model quickly butts up against ugly commerce and you realise you’re better off springing for the Starter Edition, a €40 pack with one playable game and several themed expansions. That at least gives you a headstart before you realise your worlds wouldn’t be complete without some more nice objects that will cost you real cash money.
Microsoft will be keen to point out that you can grind your way to earning the credits instead of opening your wallet. Everything you build and everything you play earns XP that can be turned into credits – but at a frustratingly slow rate.
Project Spark has been in free beta for several months now and the community has produced tens of thousands of levels – predictably, most are bland, unfinished reheats. But quite a few gems exist amid the dross. If you download some of higher-rated levels, you can learn a lot about what it takes to forge something memorable.
That goes to the heart of Spark’s other problem – its lack of accessibility and poor tutorials. It takes a while to understand the mechanics of constructing landscapes and objects. Cleverly, you can use Kinect to design animations for your characters by recording your own body movement.
But far more confusing is the assignment of behaviours (how characters react, what happens when you press a button, etc). There’s scant help in-game to assist you and you end up resorting to watching the community’s YouTube videos to compensate.
Microsoft itself admits Project Spark remains a work in progress – a little bit unfinished, if you like – but promises ongoing updates to enhance its power and, presumably, its user-friendliness.
Determined young coders will nonetheless find its visual interface more approachable than a common game-programming language such as Unity. But beware the dreaded microtransactions, which taunt the user with their prominence and tilt the balance too far towards spending instead of creating.