It's rare when a game developer opens up its toolbox so early in a console generation. Microsoft Studios made a lot promises during its press conference that were forgotten in the hullaballoo of Sony's dressing down, but the one that stayed true was Project Spark's pure blissful creation. With the tools provided on the disc, you can create almost anything - within minutes, a beautiful 3D game world can emerge. Sure, Project Spark isn't technically a "game" but if previous open platforms like Minecraft or the Neverwinter Nights Aurora toolset are any indication, you will have access to thousands of experiences created with it.
Microsoft's Claude Jerome - who incidentally is a lot more natural in person than his stiff performance on stage at the presser - was happy to walk me through the paces. You can start building a world in Project Spark using templates like temperate forest or icy glacier, or you can start blank and paint in specific terrain with a 3D "brush" point you manipulate with the thumbsticks. You can raise or lower terrain with the brush, as well as change the water table below the surface. With a large sized brush, the whole map can be painted in moments, quickly placing suitable flora like large trees or water plants the closer you get to shore. Jerome showed me how you can place each individual tree, but assured me Spark's engine will take care of it by default.
After watching Jerome for a few moments, I saw a fully rendered, aesthetically pleasing landscape emerge. Going into "Play" mode, stripping away the creation UI and placing you in a first or third person view, the result was astonishing in the 1080p graphics of the Xbox One.
But then it was time to add stuff to the world. There's a huge library of objects you can place from the rocks of the demo to taverns, barrels, birds or NPCs like goblins. Every object has default AI behavior - called its "brain" - but that can be altered and tweaked however you want. For example, the birds have the behavior programmed to fly away when the player's avatar walks near. Jerome showed me how he could enter a goblin's brain, and paste on the bird template. Jumping into play mode, the goblin did in fact fly away when approached, which honestly looked a bit silly. You can add multiple triggers for AI behaviors, and then of course save those templates for easy use.
The whole UI is complex, with millions of permutations available, but Jerome said that usability was a huge focus for the team. All the tweaks I mentioned above are accessible through radial menus or lists with clear icons denoting exactly what you are tweaking. I could see myself certainly paralyzed by the options, but at least it's clear enough to begin experimenting with some idea of what you're doing.
Project Spark has been in testing for a while, so there's already thousands of creations to see. I pestered Jerome for some of the fun things people have created and one of his favorites was a lifelike U.S.S. Enterprise rendered from objects in the game. For more complex AI examples, he said one of the testers was obsessed with Ni No Kuni and created an homage of a level that mirrored that game's dialogue and aesthetic.
It remains to be seen whether Project Spark will start the fires of the imagination when it launches on the Xbox One and Windows 8, but the tools are there. The artists just need to take up the brush.