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How Project Spark's developers plan to get players over the content creation hump

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

The developers behind the game creation title Project Spark for Xbox One, Xbox 360 and Windows say they're working to help players over the initial hump of game and content creation, one of the main obstacles facing user-generated content-focused titles like theirs.

At GDC Next, Soren Hannibal, technical director at Project Spark developer Team Dakota, outlined some of the ways his team is helping players "get over the first step" when faced with a broad suite of creative tools at their disposal.

"Before you [make] your absolute first creation or place your first character in the world or change your first value, that's a huge obstacle to get over for most people," he said. "Once you try it, you realize how complex making a game can be, but it doesn't have to be that complex when you just start out."

The first option for easing players into it is Project Spark's story mode, which will let players choose various options as they're presented with a narrative. "It doesn't seem like you're creating," Hannibal said, "but when you're done, you have a full level you can play. It's as non-intimidating as we can possibly of."

Project Spark will also offer "wizards," game-creation walkthroughs that ask players what kind of worlds they want to build — canyons, mountains, forests and deserts — whether they want to make a first-person or third-person game, and what kind of creatures they want to inhabit that world.

Hannibal pointed to level "remixing" as one of the important ways players can learn how to create and refine content in Project Spark. As a budding young programmer, Hannibal said he started learning to code by copying programs from magazines, tweaking them and remixing them.

"Remixing, it's something we don't think that many games, if any, have really focused on before," he said. "Every time you make a level and share it with the world, [others] can download it and edit it. You can see how everything was built, if you make a better version, feel free to upload it again to the community."

He also discussed the option of having community and developer-created "starter kits." As an example, he talked about an Angry Birds starter kit, with "a world that has the characters, enemies, launching mechanics, scoring [and] the standard obstacles you have in the game." Players could then change the props around, tweak the level's properties and have a new Angry Birds level of their own.

Thanks to short iteration time in Project Spark, he said, players will be able to test their creations quickly as they create, edit and improve their games. He presented the example of a blackjack game created by a member of the team that was "functional, but not particularly engaging or pretty." An artist on the team downloaded it and made it prettier, but the blackjack game became popular internally when a designer remixed and added a goblin to the game that offered the player bad advice, lending it some charm.

Hannibal said Team Dakota has no idea how creators will ultimately use Project Spark, but that the game's testing team is "creating the most impressive levels" and "giving them a design portfolio that I think will pay off.

"We've already hired one tester full-time," he said.

Project Spark is expected to go into an open beta in "a couple weeks," with invites gradually rolling out. Releasing the game in beta, he said, is almost a badge of pride for the team. "If we were finished, we wouldn't be thinking about what the community wants [out of our game]," he said.

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