Minecraft and Little Big Planet took in-game creation to a new level, by effectively making the creation of a game into the gaming experience itself. Project Spark has a premise that is similar, but offers far more than basic level creation tools or landscape gardening. It is possibly the most powerful, most extraordinary "game" we've seen.
To try to explain Project Spark in a short preview is like trying to explain quantum mechanics to a two-year-old. That's not to say that it is complicated to pick up and get going in the game itself, it's not, it's just that there is so much to it we don't really even know where to start.
During the Xbox Media Briefing, when the game was announced, we have to admit that it didn't appeal to us. "Make games for others to enjoy?" we thought. "Pah, that's what Microsoft Studios should be doing." However, as soon as we were taken through the software in a half-hour briefing by the executive producer, we fell head over heals in love with the entire concept.
At its core, Project Spark is a creation tool that will allow gamers with an inventive streak create new games for others to play. The basic genre for those would be 3D platform/action-adventure, although we we're shown that even shooting games, 3D and 2D are possible. Versions of Space Invaders, Limbo and even Angry Birds were demonstrated, while Japanese and American role-playing games are eminently possible. We could easily see somebody coming up with a sprawling, multi-world Fable-like game in the future.
However, just the act of creating seems to be reward in itself and, like in Minecraft, you are encouraged to explore and fiddle with the engine through many pick-ups and unlockable elements.
You can start building your world/game in an open sandbox mode, choose an existing model to start from, or download one of potentially millions of user created games to adapt and re-sculpt for your own benefit.
The controls to change the surroundings, enemies, etc are incredibly simple to get to grips with. You can use Kinect with voice commands, or an Xbox SmartGlass-enabled tablet device, and all the painting and 3D modelling options are as easy to use as Plasticine. Grab an object from the enormous library on offer and drop it on to the landscape you've created. Choose the time of day, weather, season or any of multiple options to give your playing area a different feel.
However, the core creation tool in Project Spark revolves around brains. Brains are set or custom-built behaviours for objects within your creation. Attach a brain to a rock, for example, and it will behave the way the behaviour pattern suggests. For example, tell the rock to start following the player when they approach and it will. Tell it to fly up in the air and explode, it will.
Everything is assigned a brain and it is these amazing sets of rules that determines how everything reacts to each other. And setting them is a doddle.
Of course, building a massive, sprawling RPG will take many hours, and that will determine Project Spark's future. Will there be enough people willing to invest their own spare time to build the biggest, best games they can, ready for you to download and play? Of course there will.
Like we say, there is so much to Project Spark that this is merely scratching the surface. For example, while creating you can unlock new items, brains and graphical flourishes by simply placing the right objects and causing the right effects - the game within a game creation tool. And even the Microsoft Studios employees who have been working on the title for its entire life are constantly surprised at the end results.
It will be available for Xbox One and Windows 8. It will be free to download, with some elements available as paid-for DLC. You can sign up for the beta testing program now at joinprojectspark.com.