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Can Project Spark’s game-maker recreate the magic of Minecraft?

Why struggle through someone else’s difficult platform game when you can make your own?

Project Spark

If you're in the market for something that will make you lose all respect for video game designers, Project Spark may be just what you're looking for.

More of a tool than a game, the upcoming Microsoft exclusive provides players with all the necessary materials and knowledge to create their own games. Like LittleBigPlanet or Minecraft before it, Project Spark will also encourage the sharing of those creations online. From there, the possibilities – as they say – will be limitless.

I was jazzed by Project Spark at its unveiling at last summer's Electronic Entertainment Expo. Microsoft showcased the Xbox and PC effort as its answer to Sony's best-selling LBP franchise, except it promised to take the idea a step further through simple-to-use 3D tools that could also respond to voice and gesture commands through Kinect or the SmartGlass tablet and smartphone application.

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After attending a briefing on the game last week and playing around with a beta version of it this past weekend, it certainly looks to me that Project Spark – which doesn't yet have a release date – is making significant strides to achieving that goal.

It only takes a 10-minute tutorial to learn how to create a rudimentary game, starting with its hero. After selecting from a menu of available characters, Project Spark introduces players to the concept of a "brain." Just about every character or item has one – or can have one – in that it's programmed to behave and react in certain ways depending on what's happening to it or around it.

Programmed instructions come in the form of contextual tabs that rely on one another to activate. The tutorial's first task, for example, is to enable movement in the hero. This is done by adding tabs that say "when" the player pushes the "left stick" the "character" then "moves" accordingly. If those things don't occur in the right order, something inevitably gets mucked up and nothing happens.

Similarly, you program the "character" to "attack" only "when" the "X button" is "pushed." The same goes for his ranged attack, which you map to the "Y button." A couple of quick tabs later to program the camera to follow the hero and you have a fully moving and attacking character. And to think it used to take game programmers months to do this.

From there, it's on to the bad guy. The tutorial tells you to pick out a goblin from your inventory, then program his brain to attack the hero when he's nearby. Simple enough.

Things really shine when it comes to creating environments. Rather than program tabs, here you use only simple menus and the controller to basically "paint" a world for your characters to inhabit. First, you add in a mountain by squeezing the right trigger, then you fine tune it by pressing the left trigger, which erodes your creation. As in Photoshop, you can change the "brush" size and intensity and tinker away to your heart's content.

When you're done, you pick from a host of textures and then effectively spray paint nature onto your mountain. The game is smart enough to differentiate tops from sides, so your hill is rocky where it should be and grassy elsewhere. You can also set the brush to automatically spray trees of varying shapes and sizes, water formations, rocks and pretty much anything else.

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The best part is hitting the "test" button, which takes you down from an overhead view to your character's ground-level perspective. You can then run around in all the nature you just painted. It's an amazing feeling to experience a fully realized virtual world that didn't exist just a few minutes earlier. It's also hard not to get a bit of a god complex while doing so: "Hmmm, I don't like the way that tree is positioned… I'm going to rotate it a few degrees." Again, this is something that used to take professional game developers ages to create.

Character and environment creation are thus easy enough – it's making the games around them that is more complex. The tutorial sets out a simplistic objective: you place a flag and, once your hero touches it, the game ends. A message saying so appears, along with how long it took you to complete the mission, and the screen fades to black.

All of this is done with the programmable tabs and, truth be told, it's not exactly straightforward. Simply getting text on screen, positioning it in the centre of said screen, then controlling how long the fade out goes for requires a lot of tabs and numerical entries. I have to admit to getting impatient through this part of the tutorial.

I'm concerned that if such minor tasks take this much work, creating more intricate games may end up being too complex or demanding for all but the most dedicated of creators. I shuddered at the thought while playing a Tetris clone created by Project Spark developers Team Dakota – I could only imagine how many tabs were beneath the figurative hood.

Fortunately, as with most of the programming functions in Project Spark, much of this stuff can be saved as a template so that it can reapplied in the future without having to go through all of it again. You could, for example, create one character complete with behaviours and then just copy it ad nauseum to every other creation. Even still, I'm hoping the developers are working on further simplifying this part of the game.

I didn't try out any of the Kinect functions in the beta, but at the briefing last week a developer showed off one particular fun implementation. He stood up and recorded himself doing a silly dance while saying "Hey!" then applied it to one of his character's brains. Sure enough, the character broke into that behaviour when approached by the hero. The mind reels at the possibilities of having your very own motion-capture tool – and yes, there will be a way to report offensive gestures and audio to moderators.

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So far, it looks like Team Dakota has the character and world creation parts of Project Spark down pat. How it ultimately does – and whether it succeeds in its mission of taking user-created games forward – will depend largely on whether players find its game-making mechanics simple enough. That part still looks to be a work in progress.

And of course, I'm only kidding about losing respect for game developers. As the Tetris clone example proves, skilled and knowledgeable game makers will always be many steps ahead of the rest of us no matter how simple they make our tools. At least for the time being.

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