Before I start on this I will say this very clearly so there is no misunderstanding – Project Spark is a frozen in time game that will never get any better, cannot possibly compete in terms of graphic quality or memory capacity with games made at later dates, and will certainly look very dated with next generation consoles. It also had many flaws and could have been improved in a myriad of ways. However I will defend it to the death when people who have never played it trot out the same misconceptions about the game, so here is my defence.
- Everything was locked behind a paywall.
- The graphics were bad
- You couldn’t make anything yourself
- The games you could play were rubbish
- You were limited in the sort of thing you could make
The pay wall problem
I played Project Spark during the Beta (March 2014-October 2014) that’s eight months of gameplay and I spent exactly zero. ZERO. Everything I needed could be got by grinding for credits WITHIN the game. Nobody was forcing you to buy the extra assets with real money, and the game was completely accessible without them. And don’t forget the game was completely free to download in the first place. In 2015 some packs were released for free, and one year after launch the store was closed down and everything became free. All the assets that were locked behind a pay wall were freely available to everyone until the server closure in Aug 2016.
When you buy a AAA game and you discover the best guns and the best maps are behind a paywall you have the right to get angry because you paid a lot of money for the game already. That was not the case with Project Spark. The game was free – and if you bought all the DLC the cost was comparable to a triple A game plus a season pass. So, not unreasonable. When they went free they compensated players who had bought subscriptions and packs. After the servers were shut off I found a lot of Microsoft credit in my account. So Project Spark turned out to be a really inexpensive game for me. The paywall was not an issue.
Was the microtransaction model a good idea? Absolutely not. Did it put people off even trying the game? Yes, I think so. Did the general consensus become that Project Spark was full of microtransactions and therefore a waste of time? I’m afraid it did. The reality that you could work towards getting the assets with in-game credits gained by playing and creating was never part of the conversation, and the fact that the game was always free to download never seemed to be a factor. Early damning reviews pointing out the pay wall was enough to kill the game for many people. Every time I mention Project Spark on a forum this is the first thing that is thrown out. It was shit because everything had to be bought. Wrong, but pervasive thinking.
The graphics were bad
When you create a game that allows people to make their own levels there is a limit in memory capacity for that creation, because along with the level itself there is also the game of Project Spark running. The graphics in Project Spark were not terrible. Fortnite has a similar graphic style for a similar reason – you have to keep it simple in order to allow 100 people to play the same level simultaneously. I do not see anyone pointing at Fortnite and complaining about the graphic quality. The main style was very similar to that of Fable 2 which was created in 2008, so you could be disappointed that a game launched 6 years later had similar graphics, but they were not blocky or pixelated. I actually do not mind the Project Spark aesthetic. It does not however translate well into certain game types, and is especially problematic if you are looking to create some realism. I do not think it was possible at that time to give us more realism within the confines of the 10MB limit of a game level. Games were made that looked nothing like Project Spark – especially arcade, so it was possible to change it up a bit.
You couldn’t make anything
Project Spark would not allow you to import music, graphics or models. Everything you had to work with was made by Team Dakota. You could use the Kinect to record sound, but this was problematic as the camera was not designed to be a microphone recorder, and it was really only designed to pick up speech commands. Trying to record music made for a tinny sound that would often drop in and out. The music making tools in Project Spark were pretty much non-existent. You had to rely on the pieces of music provided, which you could manipulate slightly, but even that had bug issues. So, yes music in Project Spark was terrible. It is the one big area that team Dakota did not address in their game and it is a fail. But let’s look at the other areas: the Kinect allowed you to create animations for your models – and this was pretty successful. Some koding skill could create stop frame animation for those without Kinect, or those who wanted to create something unique (look at the creations of NieNieChu for great examples of this). If you were using a PC you could import your own graphics (with a little approved hack). But this is the big one…you can make anything in Project Spark from the assets they gave you. I am not saying this lightly. You could create any object and any character by carefully overlaying props on top of one another. People created very convincing costumes, character models, vehicles, animals…you name it it was made. The limited asset gallery was only really limited by your imagination. For those with no imagination the asset gallery may have looked poor, but really it wasn’t and I think I proved that with my DLC challenge competitions. We had pirate ships and Japanese houses, horses and steam trains, cars and cowboys, and they all looked great – and none of these themes were available in the asset gallery.
Community games were rubbish
Any game creation tool is going to have a mixed bag of creators and levels. The vast majority of stuff created were worthless, unplayable, dumps. However you could also say that for Minecraft, Little Big Planet, Roblox and any other console based creation game. Was there anything decent to play? Of course. I have highlighted some of my favourites in previous articles. To say that everything was rubbish is really quite insulting for those creators that put their heart and soul into it. There were some great platformers, horror games, racing games, puzzles…in fact every genre had something good. Were they AAA game good? No, of course not. These are levels made by individuals over a few weeks, not full games made by a professional team over a few years. Sadly, the best games that people were working on for a long time were only just starting to be released, because don’t forget Project Spark only lasted 2 years with live servers from launch. We will never know if the best Project Spark game was yet to be launched onto the servers.
You were limited to the sort of thing you could make
I recently talked on a forum of mainly Little Big Planet players who believed with absolutely certainty that Project Spark logic was very limited and that LBP was far superior. Without any understanding of kode and its capabilities they had dismissed Project Spark as inferior, because they had heard that it was too difficult to do anything. They are very wrong. I have yet to come across a game mechanic that wasn’t created or couldn’t be recreated in Project Spark in some form. Kode is very powerful, and uses a programming language that is much simpler to understand than conventional languages, mainly because of its use of picture tiles. Just because it is simple does not make it under powered. Every genre of game could be made and was made. You could make complicated AI that governed enemy interaction, you could make complex puzzles and quests, you could make randomised actions to create computer opponents for games. People made board games, card games, Tetris, Space Invaders, Pac man. I have spent a lot of time dissecting AAA games for their game mechanics and recreating them in Project Spark. I can do that. Ask me to do the same in Little Big Planet and I would look at you very blankly. That is not to say there is not someone in LBP doing just that – but it is a very different skill. Different, not better.
Yes, it takes some time to learn how kode works. Team Dakota did a poor job in teaching. The community filled the gap, and experience of koding and lots of practice reaped rewards. I am a little gutted that I have a skill in a coding language that is not used other than in a dead game, but at least I have it, and it does give me more of a grounding in programming and syntax than a LBP player would glean from their more mechanical system.
I admit I fell in love with a game. For the first time I was creating my own games that more than just my family were playing. I was able to do teaching again, something I had stopped doing and really loved. I got involved with a passionate, if a little argumentative community online for the first time. My life has changed because of Project Spark. My life is better because of Project Spark. I will move on. A game will come around that will be superior in every way ( I am hoping that will be Dreams for PS4). But Project Spark is my first love, and that is special.