Project Spark: The Imagination Station

At what point does complexity turn into a positive?  We're always clamouring for more depth to our games, but simultaneously praise simplicity and accessibility  when  it  manages  to  smooth  out that uneven learning curve. That’s the overriding complaint of Project Spark, the create a game game from Team Dakota and Microsoft for Xbox, tablet and PC. And much like LittleBigPlanet before it, Project Spark ’s standout feature is its unlimited creative scope, an endless sea of imagination and potential which certainly sounds like something LBP narrator Stephen Fry might spout. But first, let’s talk business.


Though it is free to download and use the tools available, if you’re at all interested in the creation aspect you’re going to want to pick up the Starter Pack that adds a host of creation options, a month of Spark Premium, a playable character and the Void Storm campaign content. DLC will be released at a steady rate, too, some free but much of it unlocked through purchases, either via real world or in game currency. Scoff  if you will at its free-to-play model, but it’s one that can work wonders for such a creatively fulfilling game like this. Premium Membership will be a must for the truly hardcore Sparkers, though, since it’ll unlock the option to purchase DLC packs with in-game Credits and provide additional level upload slots alongside boosts to XP and Credit gains. It’s unnecessarily convoluted, but a model worthy of praise since it’ll maintain Project Spark’s survival for those who don’t have the time, inclination or desire to use the game for anything other that playing the clever creations of the community. And that, ultimately, is where it will thrive.


The Void Storm content you'll get access to as part of the Starter Pack, however, sets a horrible precedent. Acting as a loose story mode of sorts, it’ll introduce a number of core concepts of Project Spark but not really to a competent degree. It explains the ideas of ‘Kode’ or the intricate tiles you’ll use to issue commands and controls for your game and presents scenarios you’ll be able to build yourself using the very basic tools. Yet even ignoring its to actually teach you anything, this mode is still poorly presented. Flimsy combat and controls, juddering frame rates and a lack of variety makes this section… well, embarrassing. With this being seen as the entry point, it really shouldn't struggle as it does to highlight any of the game’s potential whether in its promise of creativity or core mechanical and technical design. It just feels rough.

Of course the real core of Project Spark is in its Create mode, and there is a separate tutorial for this too. Sadly it does little more than explain the controls of the feature, and not really the intricacies of that hidden complexity. Truth be told anyone will be able to hop in and create a stage with relative ease here; the controls, though initially clunky, are sufficient and there are options available to have much of the process automated if you prefer.

But these levels will be little more than slivers of the potential that Project Spark embodies, and disappointingly for many that will all it ever ends up being.
PROJECT SPARK COULD COLLAPSE WITHOUT A MORE ROBUST CURATION SYSTEM TO HIGHLIGHT THE CREATIONS THAT NEED PLAYING
See, Project Spark’s entire creation system or, at least, the parts that let you create your own games rather than levels are pinned on understanding the Kode system. Here you’ll alter an object’s ‘brain’, or the AI, mechanical or visual elements that control how your game plays. It’s how you alter control schemes, cameras or even the way your character moves, but it’s not nearly simple enough. Even locking a camera in place is obtuse and requires a great deal of learning about variables and axises and all that jargon that comes with real game design. Though LittleBigPlanet and its sequel matched Project Spark’s initial barrier to entry, here it’s just a little too much like studying. The tape-and-string nature of LittleBigPlanet meant there was at least a visual logic to its creation aspect that you could easily follow even the complicated stuff of LBP2.  Project Spark  on the other hand, with no in built tutorials beyond the initial one and a sorely lacking reference or example function, will take a lot more work if you truly want to make the most of it.


Of course with this greater sense of complexity comes an even greater sense of reward; spend time outside of the game watching YouTube tutorials, reading wikis and engrossing yourself in the community already available then you’ll spend endless amounts of hours in Project Spark. But very few will be willing to put in all that hard graft and it can’t be considered anything but meaning a lot of Project Spark ’s value relies on those that are. Yet it doesn't cost anything to download and play the games people have created, and that’s important to remember; it’s a perfect piece of software to leave installed on your Xbox One to return to periodically.

Project Spark is one of those rare situations where you’re only rewarded if and absolutely, only, completely if you’re willing to put the effort in. The creation community is already the lynchpin around which the game’s longevity rests, but its incredibly steep learning curve means that only a tiny fragment of players are going to find much value in this side of the software.

Project Spark could collapse without a more robust and manageable curation system to highlight the creations that need playing, too, and it truly doesn’t share that immediately compelling cutesy appeal of Sony’s LittleBigPlanet. Where the original advocate of play, create and share really succeeded was in the quality of its three equal parts not one more insignificant nor any less accessible than the other. There are far more doubts surrounding Project Spark  in this regard: a barely existent ‘Play’, an adequate but improvable ‘Share’ and a complex but completely incomprehensible ‘Create’. Time will tell on this one.

The ignition to remix
The saving grace of Project Spark’s complicated create mode is that any level be it created by Team Dakota or a user  can be ‘remixed’. Or, in other words, you can load it up within the game’s edit functions, poke around in the level itself and even alter it as your own. There are systems in place to prevent complete plagiarism, so there’s not really any reason to change another user’s level but it is great for figuring out how they’ve achieved a particularly impressive feat. The fact that reverse engineering greatness is the best way to learn says a lot about Project Spark, perhaps, but it’s a great feature all the same.

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