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Sparking a generation of game designers

Sparking a generation of game designers

Mon 04 Nov 2013 4:26pm GMT / 11:26am EST / 8:26am PST
EducationGames

Project Spark's Soren Hannibal says the industry is at risk of losing out on software engineers if it can't make learning to code easier

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and Microsoft's Soren Hannibal is trying to make that very first stride a little less intimidating. The technical director of Team Dakota is working on Project Spark, a game creation tool that spans the Microsoft platform family and uses an approachable, visual programming "language" designed to get people creating and sharing new games without ever having to touch a line of code. Speaking with GamesIndustry International in advance of his GDC Next talk this Wednesday, Hannibal acknowledged that while many of the barriers to would-be game developers have come down in recent years, the very first barrier can still appear awfully high.

"Starting to program these days, there are so many more options, but also so much more information you need before you can start," Hannibal said. "When I started programming on the Commodore 64, it came with a book, and that was how you could learn to program. These days you have to find the right packages, download and figure out how compilers work. There are so many different things you need now to even write your first line of code. This way you find out if it's something you're interested in without having to spend months learning things by yourself."

Having an easy introduction to programming concepts and logic at an early age could accomplish a lot more than just adding a few extra game developers to the industry in the years to come.

"Starting to create video games is the perfect introduction into software engineering, right? It gives you instant feedback. You're still learning a lot of the same concepts..."

Soren Hannibal

"I feel like if we don't do that, we're going to lose a whole generation of people that would get into software engineering as a whole," Hannibal said. "Starting to create video games is the perfect introduction into software engineering, right? It gives you instant feedback. You're still learning a lot of the same concepts and the same way of thinking that you would when you get further. It's going to not be as alienating to people."

The idea of a game that lets players make other games is nothing new. Hannibal said one of his biggest inspirations for Project Spark was Sensible Software's Shoot-'Em-Up Construction Kit for Commodore 64. More recently, there have been some high-profile efforts like Little Big Planet, Trials Evolution, and Battleblock Theater.

"I think one key factor is that [those] all are titles that deliver a game first and editing tools second," Hannibal said. "They all ship with a lot of pre-made levels within the genre they focus on, and they prioritize playing before creating, and as a consequence, a very low percentage of users really create. I think we are different because for us, creation is the core of our experience. We try to make creating fun and not intimidating, and we make it possible to engage yourself at the depth you desire, so it's not a 'one-size-fits-all' design."

1

Kodu Game Lab made AI programming easy to understand.

When Hannibal says Project Spark is a set of editing tools first and a game second, it can be taken quite literally. The project has its roots in the Kodu Game Lab, a Microsoft game creation tool released on Xbox Live Indie Games in 2009. The $5 program let players create simple 3D games where they could use simple "if-then" statements to wire up AI behaviors with the help of cute pictures. But Hannibal said where Kodu was a small project bootstrapped by a handful of people, Project Spark is taking the idea and putting a proper team and the full weight of Microsoft behind it.

One of the benefits of that institutional support is that it comes with institutional learnings from previous efforts, like Kodu, Trials, or Battleblock Theater. And those learnings will be particularly helpful when it comes to dealing with the headaches (and crude behaviors) that seem inherent to user-generated content.

"The good news is that from those experiences, we know that for each griefer out there, there are a lot of users that care about the community," Hannibal said. "Of course, the more flexible your tools are, the more ways there are to make something inappropriate. Therefore, while the percentage of offensive content is probably not that high, we expect a wide variety in the ways people try to be offensive."

"Without having a great game, you're never going to have something that is going to be monetized anyway."

Soren Hannibal

To address the issue, the developers will have two distinctions for games: Curated or non-curated. A small internal team will mark projects as curated to denote the most popular or interesting levels that don't contain anything inappropriate. Additionally, if enough users flag a project as inappropriate, it will be hidden until the moderation team can review it and weigh in with a final verdict.

That community aspect won't just be limited to keeping everyone else in line. Hannibal said the team is also doing what it can to encourage collaboration.

"We do a lot rewarding you for creating, and recognizing when you're specializing in something, whether it's becoming an artist, or a level designer, or a programmer," Hannibal said. "We focus a lot on rewarding you for working with other people and if other people use your work."

One thing that isn't clear about Project Spark yet is its business model. Hannibal declined to discuss it, saying simply that the details had not been worked out yet, and that the team is focused more on making a great experience first.

"Without having a great game, you're never going to have something that is going to be monetized anyway," Hannibal explained.

The business model isn't the only uncertainty surrounding Project Spark. After all, a creation tool that doesn't offer its designers any surprises probably wouldn't be that creative to start with. As an example of the sort of surprises the developers have already seen, one user testing the game made a mock-up of the solar system with planets moving around the sun. Another user then took that idea and expanded on it by simulating the gravitational pull on objects floating through the solar system.

2

Project Spark will encourage users to collaborate on projects.

That sort of functionality was never intended, but Hannibal said such surprises have become the norm so far. Sometimes the testers actually seem to have a leg up on the developers, because they're engaging with the toolset with fewer notions about how things are supposed to work, or what options were designed with which functions in mind.

"Some of the things that have been the most fascinating to me have been watching how people have been inspired by each other, and how they've worked around limitations we had in the engine and just surprised us," Hannibal said.

While it's great to see the game accomplishing its goal of fostering creativity like that, having so many people using its functions in ways the developers never intended could make the process of updating Project Spark a very difficult endeavor. After all, if they botch a patch, they aren't just breaking their own game; they could be breaking everyone else's as well.

"It is scary," Hannibal admitted. "It is very scary to deal with compatibility. It's kind of the equivalent of writing Visual Studio, but making sure that if you make a new language, that everything else will work with it. It's ridiculously scary to deal with."

Of course, it's perfectly normal to fear the unknown, and for better or worse, Project Spark's future fits squarely in that category.

"We don't know necessarily what it's going to look like in the future," Hannibal said. "We can't wait to go out and see what the world will be inspired to do. When we see their ideas, we will take them and expand on our tools to further what we can do. We focus on adding features to give you as many options as possible and trying to remove every boundary we can."

14 Comments

Project Sparks toolkit is actually looking to be a lot more powerful than you would expect. It's really an interesting and ambitious project they have going here. While some areas such as how multiplayer will be implemented havent been announced, Im quite impressed by what they are doing so far.

Posted:8 months ago

#1

Jeffrey Kesselman
Professor - Game Development

30 52 1.7
As I tell my intro to computing technology students: "The only thing any one will pay you to do is something they cannot or don't want to do themselves. If its too easy or too much fun, its not a career, its a hobby."

Articles like this play into the myth that somehow creativity in of itself is valuable which is utter nonsense. Creativity is a common good, everyone has it. What matters is the skills to turn that creativity into a real finished artifact.

To quote Mr. Raph Koster, former COO of Playdom and Chief Designer on Star wars Galaxies:
"In general, idea people with no chops are mostly useless."

(For more on this myth and the complete Raph Koster quote, see http://unseenu.quora.com/No-you-cannot-get-a-job-as-a-Game-Designer)

There is nothing new in this project. Its Yet Another Game Engine. Game Engines always substitute some degree of programming work with some degree of pre-canned programming. The more the pre-canned programming is used, and the less game specific code is written, the more the game comes out like every other game on that engine and the less interesting it is.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Jeffrey Kesselman on 4th November 2013 7:46pm

Posted:8 months ago

#2
Popular Comment
Articles like this play into the myth that somehow creativity in of itself is valuable which is utter nonsense
Creativity is valuable, its the spark that allows one to create. Its where ideas, and worlds are born. The more people who get to understand and use tools to express their creativity the better.

How sad you think something has to be hard or not easily accessible for it to be valuable. Toolsets are common in many industries and better UI and better user friendliest helps in many, many ways, it doesnt lessen the final product. Its not like engineers now suddenly suck or their jobs are less simply because they get to use CAD.

as for this
The only thing any one will pay you to do is something they cannot or don't want to do themselves. If its too easy or too much fun, its not a career, its a hobby."
Once again I dont believe this for one second. People have been able to write , use typewriters, and so forth forever, yet people still pay for and buy books. Imagine that. Why? because some people are blessed with incredible skill AND creativity.

Edited 6 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 4th November 2013 9:42pm

Posted:8 months ago

#3

Yvonne Neuland
Studying Game Development

33 58 1.8
You cannot learn how to calculate physics before you learn how to add. I think that tools like this are an extremely good idea, exactly what is needed to introduce complex subjects in approachable ways to children, before they can be convinced that the subject is to difficult to bother trying to learn.

The fact of the matter is, programming isn't hard. Learning to understand the jargon and deciphering the deliberately cryptic explanations that are used to "teach" programming, is hard.

Refusing to develop more effective methods of teaching programming does not make the people who have a hard time learning to program stupid. It makes the person who is refusing to develop the more effective teaching methods inept at teaching.

Posted:8 months ago

#4

Christopher Pickford
Producer

52 58 1.1
Jeffrey - while your sentiment for some of the more hardcore/technical jobs is correct, that doesn't mean to say that this kind of software doesn't have it's place. In the past companies I've worked at have hired people on the basis of their Counter Strike maps, or Neverwinter Nights modules, or even LittleBigPlanet levels. All of these people had one thing in common:

> They had an idea
> They used the tools they understood to execute it
> They finished it to the best of their ability

Everyone starts somewhere, and if I got someone applying for a level design degree with a portfolio of decent Project Spark and LittleBigPlanet levels, versus someone with a CV of computer science degrees? The people with finished levels usually float to the top, because they've already shown an aptitude to work with game mechanics to create interesting scenarios.

Application is everything, and a passion for the subject matter along with some raw talent and sheer determination can go a long way. While this probably isn't going to spawn the next John Carmack or Bill Gates, it might kick start the next Cliff Bleszinski or Brenda Brathwaite. If this is a gateway to more people taking an interest in our craft we should give it a chance.

Posted:8 months ago

#5

Renaud Charpentier
Lead Designer

64 138 2.2
There are plenty of games with level editor where you can grind your design skills. This can help to have a broader scope of possibilities.
Still, as soon as you want to do something original, even a mod to an existing game, you will need code, at least scripting. There is no way you can control the complexity of a game system through nodal graphs or drag and drop blocks: you will very quickly be too limited. Want a set of RPG stats and rules: you will need code. Want a UI that can display variable data: you will need code. Want any form of AI: you will need code. Want to do anything specific visually: you will need code.
A video games is a software, you can't dodge programming to produce new software.

Posted:8 months ago

#6

Jed Ashforth
Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group

102 155 1.5
My son and I love building game levels and designing characters together in games like LBP, Trials and ModNation. This is genuinely the first thing on XB1 that's really caught my interest, it looks like a great creative tool and I was very impressed with what I saw at Gamescom. Awesome to have this in the launch offering.

@ James Perhaps you have too narrow a view of the market for these types of user-friendly mod tools. My son is only six; there's no chance of teaching him coding yet I'm afraid - he can't type, and he only has the attention span of a typical 6 year old! But if tools like these can unleash his creativity this way when he's six and enable him to give form to his ideas, that's a fantastic way for him to 'learn the skills to turn that creativity into a real finished artifact' in my book.

Posted:8 months ago

#7

Sandy Lobban
Founder and Creative Director

310 195 0.6
Being a programmer myself for the last 9 years, I can tell you the learning curve can be tough, but if you want to tell a machine to interpret an idea and perform an abstract, unique task, the people who can best communicate with the machines will do it best.

On big projects, the interdependencies that evolve betweem different areas of the code base are massive. Graphics programmers, audio programmers, game play programmers and physics programmers know this, and they end up being fairly unique to each project. Naturally, and nearer the end of a project you will look for performance gains via optimsations and bug fixes. Again programmers are best placed to do this as they understand the machine.

Middleware is great to a point and it can help with evolving ideas and take care of some tasks, but dont be fooled, there is no easy way out of the matrix.

In my opinion, the single best thing any developer can do is learn to understand code and revisit some maths in their free time. Itll unlock so much potential if you have ideas already.

You might also save yourself some money on license fees.:)

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Sandy Lobban on 5th November 2013 11:18am

Posted:8 months ago

#8

Dave Wolfe
Game Developer

64 30 0.5
Creativity is valuable, its the spark that allows one to create. Its where ideas, and worlds are born. The more people who get to understand and use tools to express their creativity the better.

How sad you think something has to be hard or not easily accessible for it to be valuable. Toolsets are common in many industries and better UI and better user friendliest helps in many, many ways, it doesnt lessen the final product. Its not like engineers now suddenly suck or their jobs are less simply because they get to use CAD.
Creativity is valuable, but only if you can do something with it. I don't know how many times I've been contacted by people who want to basically sit on a couch and tell me how to implement their vision, as if they're doing me a favor by giving me all these great ideas. Ideas alone are worthless until you do something with it.

And yes, something does need to be in some way inaccessible for it to be valuable. That's why doctors, lawyers, and software engineers get paid more than janitors, gardeners, and cashiers.

Nobody said a better UI or a more user friendly workflow makes a job suddenly suck; Programming IDE's get better all the time, 3d software gets better, but you still need to have the skill to use it, and that's where the value comes from. I used do Flash animation and a studio we sometimes outsourced work to would literally grab anyone off the street to animate when they were short on staff. It's very easy to animate in Flash, but their work still sucked because they didn't have the skill.
Once again I dont believe this for one second. People have been able to write , use typewriters, and so forth forever, yet people still pay for and buy books. Imagine that. Why? because some people are blessed with incredible skill AND creativity.
Yes, skills AND creativity. In other words, creativity alone is worthless, just like Jeffery said. Your ideas are worthless unless you can DO something with them.

Posted:8 months ago

#9
Yes, skills AND creativity. In other words, creativity alone is worthless, just like Jeffery said. Your ideas are worthless unless you can DO something with them.
worthless? no, creativity is what allows the skills to be worthwhile. Just because you can write a bunch of words or use a typewriter does not mean your book is worth reading. its your creativity that makes it special, makes it worthwhile.

Its ridiculous that people think creativity is worthless, when in reality its creativity that makes art, its the foundation of art, its where it all starts from.

Ideas are like seeds, are seeds worthless?

All programs such as this does is allow for more accessibility for creativity to flourish and be realized. as you , yourself said
Creativity is valuable, but only if you can do something with it
and that is what these accessible game engines allow for.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 6th November 2013 1:53am

Posted:8 months ago

#10

Dave Wolfe
Game Developer

64 30 0.5
worthless? no, creativity is what allows the skills to be worthwhile. Just because you can write a bunch of words or use a typewriter does not mean your book is worth reading. its your creativity that makes it special, makes it worthwhile.
Perhaps "worthless" was a bit strong, but nobody hires somebody to come up with ideas for them unless that person is also capable of helping to turn that idea into something. I also didn't say that your ability to use a particular tool was worth something by itself either, but I would argue that you have a better chance at getting a job based on skill alone rather than creativity alone. There's always someone in need of someone else who can help them implement their ideas, but I don't see a lot of job postings for someone to just sit around and come up with ideas :)
All programs such as this does is allow for more accessibility for creativity to flourish and be realized. as you , yourself said
Creativity is valuable, but only if you can do something with it
and that is what these accessible game engines allow for.
I'm not saying that these engines aren't valuable, but I do expect them to be pretty limited. I think it'll be a great stepping stone to learning how to write "real" code. My comments were about the concept that ideas alone have value, and I don't think they do; everybody has ideas, you need more than that.

Posted:8 months ago

#11
My comments were about the concept that ideas alone have value, and I don't think they do; everybody has ideas, you need more than that.
tell that the the patent office, I think they may disagree ... sorry I couldnt resist...
I'm not saying that these engines aren't valuable, but I do expect them to be pretty limited
you may be surprised.

Time to embrace the future of game design my friends...or be the old guy... ......" In my day you had to write 4 pages of archaic code to get a pixel to cross a screen, now days, kids animate entire 3 d characters by jumping around in front of their TV.. BAH"

Edited 6 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 6th November 2013 4:28am

Posted:8 months ago

#12

Dave Wolfe
Game Developer

64 30 0.5
Actually, you can't patent just an idea, you have to have pretty detailed plans on how the idea would be implemented. At least that's how it worked before software patents, then suddenly all you had to do was add "on the internet" and bingo, you get a patent.

Posted:8 months ago

#13
Actually, you can't patent just an idea, you have to have pretty detailed plans on how the idea would be implemented
Its still all just based on an idea. You have an IDEA and then you have detailed IDEAS of how it will be implemented. So my point remains, Ideas in and off themselves can be very lucrative and important.

Posted:8 months ago

#14

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