Project Spark is one of the most intriguing games of 2014. For some, it will be a canvas to design their own adventures and express their creativity. For others it's a smorgasbord of user-created content to pick up and play, spanning multiple genres, franchise homages and gameplay styles. Whether on Xbox One or PC, it has the potential to be all things to all gamers: a veritable toybox and design studio. Perhaps the last game you'll ever need.
That is, if it doesn't lock too many of its toys away.
After a few minutes of playing the beta, however, your first impressions of Project Spark is that it's effectively Fable. Or more specifically Fable: Choose Your Own Adventure. Fable Infinity? To show off the power of the editor without overwhelming us from the start, Team Dakota cleverly introduce us to the proceedings by way of the Crossroads mode: small bite-sized fantasy quests set on a colourful landmass. You'll start in a small town, head out on a grand adventure, encounter various trials and tribulations before facing off against a boss at the end. Combat is simple and straightforward, the premise is instantly familiar.
The twist being that YOU get to choose the details. Want to wander through deep canyons or winding rivers? At dawn or dusk? Fancy encountering dangerous bandits or rabid squirrels? Every so often, Project Spark pauses the action and gives you the choice, at which point the entire world shifts and transforms before your eyes to your personal specifications.
Better yet, a quick tap of the start menu lets you access editing mode, at which point Project Spark lets you stop browsing the showroom and start creating.
Create Mode is naturally the place to start. You're presented with a featureless plane, which you can contort and deform at will using a simple sculpting tool. Textures and biomes can then be painted onto your scenery as grass, dust or even entire biomes pop into life in real-time. Props, too, are only a couple of D-Pad taps away, including all manner of natural foliage, squirrels, buildings and people. Changing the time of day, angle of the sun, rounding off hills and even turning terrain into perfectly flat cuboids feels natural on a controller, if probably more accessible on a keyboard or mouse.
Window dressing is important. Your game needs to look the business, after all. But games are interactive, so sooner or later you'll need to start coding. Or in this case 'Kode-ing.'
Selecting an object (any prop from a valiant hero to an oversized tree or fish) allows you to tinker with its 'Brain,' setting up various conditions and behaviours for the object to follow. You're given two simple options: "When" and "Do."
"When" refers to a trigger condition, for example moving the thumbstick, pressing a face button, detecting a collision or proximity to a particular prop. Radial wheels make browsing the deceptively vast list of potential conditions a cinch, after which you'll choose what you want your prop to "Do" when the trigger occurs. If it's your player character, you'll want to set "When" to thumbstick and "Do" to movement. Before wondering about whether to start setting up projectiles, jumping or combat. What will other creatures, monsters and NPCs DO WHEN you approach them? Or attack them? You'll quickly start creating lines of Kode, only in big friendly blocks rather than intimidating script.
Simple stuff, yet devastatingly deep as a rabbit hole of interlocking "when" and "do" criteria opens up before your eyes. There's scope to create some very complex behaviours, or in my case, a massive ravaging evil tree that shoots fireballs followed by a squad of enormous squirrels (who sometimes cast healing spells on it). I'm not entirely sure what to do with this setup yet, mind. The world is clearly not ready for my inept genius.
It's fairly obvious that the UI needs a total overhaul before launch, due to an abundance of spidery minuscule text, horrible fonts and multiple layers of transparent menus, but what are betas for?
I was worried that Project Spark is only suited for creating simple third-person action games, but a cursory browse of the player-created content shows that early adopters are already breaking the mold. From Tetris and 100 Balls clones to twinstick shooters, Portal-esque puzzles (with working portals, naturally) and first-person prototypes, it's clear that the editor can support more varied gaming experiences. Many are bare-bones and basic, though, so considering that Dakota have continually boasted about the versatility of their creation -- even claiming to have developed a working space sim -- we'd like to see more official builds on the store soon. This is a great place to start.
Despite Project Spark's clear potential, however, I do have one major concern at this early stage. The free to play model sounds like a great idea, offering a reasonable amount of standard content with themed premium packs available for either real money tokens or in-game currency, which can be earned by playing, creating and completing challenges. On paper. In theory.
In practice, though, it could be a serious problem.
Consider LittleBigPlanet. Sure, DLC is available, but £40 retail gets you all the tools, all the toys, everything you need to create content and edit the work of others. It's an enormous box of Meccano. All the Meccano. Every piece, every nut and bolt, all at your disposal. But Project Spark feels like a starter kit for a franchise-themed LEGO range. If you want to build what's on the box, that's fine, and you can slot the blocks together in different ways to vaguely resemble something else. Yet sooner or later you'll need to shell out for more specific figures or models.
Horrible analogies aside (the starter kit is free, of course), the fact is that your imagination will often slam straight into hard financial reality. Perhaps you'll realise that you want a Yeti boss or fancy creating a castle, only you can't, because you don't own the content pack. You then have to put your project on hold unless you're willing to pay or start grinding up in-game currency. Imagination has to wait. Worse still, you might want to edit or remix a friend's creation... except that your brainstorm has to be postponed indefinitely until you stock up on tokens.
I'm all about paying developers for their hard work, especially when it comes to F2P games. It's absolutely fair for Microsoft and Dakota to charge for content. But the economy and progression will have to be perfectly balanced to ensure that we never feel like our toys and tools are being withheld or locked away. Whether they manage to pull that off remains to be seen.
Other questions remain. Just how powerful is the editor in the long run, how flexible is it for seasoned have-a-go developers hungry for depth? Will the resultant games actually be fun to play after the novelty wears off? Are the mechanics actually strong and interesting enough in their own right? How will they moderate all the swearing and violence once Conker arrives?
Or will Project Spark become the new standard for UGC and inspire a new generation of developers, while giving us plenty of fun distractions to enjoy?
We'll find out later this year... or you can jump on the beta right now and form your own conclusions. Be sure to show us what you've come up with!