It’s 11 a.m. and you’re still in your pajamas — plaid shorts, a faded David Bowie T-shirt and worn moccasin slippers. Brows furrowed, deep in thought, you tap your fingers on the desktop, creating concentric circles in your now-cold coffee. Your eyes drift back and forth between a stack of notebooks (filled with your handwriting) and the Microsoft Word document on your laptop (all but empty). “‘Project Spark’ — where players create, and creators play.” It’s all you’ve managed to type so far. Your word-starved cursor blinks eagerly. How do you even begin to tell the story of “Project Spark”? The new video game for Xbox One and PC is a traditional game in some ways, but it’s also a digital bucket of Legos that players of all skill levels can use to make virtually anything.
We’re talking creativity unfettered, here. During its beta, “Project Spark” users built a little bit of everything — first-person shooters, medieval quests, movies, music videos, heroes, villains, flying cows, flaming sand beasts — even a 30-foot guy in his underwear dancing “Gangnam Style” in a village square. Everything.
With “Project Spark” making its official world debut in stores this week, its creators and early devotees hope the game will spread far beyond its million beta users and help break the glass between players and their adventures (not unlike how YouTube helped transform a world of video watchers into an army of camera-wielding, homespun videographers).
Your gaze rises to the wall above your computer. There hangs a small postcard of Ira Glass, one of your storytelling heroes. You imagine him giving you an unsympathetic look, pushing his glasses up and gently chiding you in his trademark public radio cadence: “You know, great stories happen to those who can tell them.”
“But imaginary Ira, how do I tell this one? And how do I make it great?”
Before postcard Ira can answer, you’re interrupted by the ding of a new email. It’s your boss, Ben, suggesting that you travel to a video game convention in Boston to get a better idea of what “Project Spark” is all about.
Once in Boston, you have a little time before Penny Arcade Expo East (PAX) begins, and you spend it walking the Freedom Trail, a path through the city’s wealth of historically significant sites. When you turn up to the convention wearing a revolutionary tri-cornered hat, you don’t get a second look from any of the some 70,000 attendees. It takes a lot more than a Paul Revere lid to turn heads at this glorious gathering of geekery.
You ride the crowded wave into the building, where you pause to take it all in. “Wow,” you say aloud, interior monologue temporarily suspended on account of stimulus overload.
Without even having to turn your head you can see a shirtless saxophone player in suspenders and sunglasses belt George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” while riding down an escalator while the Ghostbusters, all in jumpsuits, shift their proton packs on the ride up. You see Storm Troopers and wizards with hand-whittled staffs, hedgehogs and trolls, princesses, Batman (Batmen, actually) — and that’s just the lobby.
You navigate the convention floor until you finally spot the relatively modest “Project Spark” booth. As you approach, you see that a man in his early twenties is mid-demonstration, showing a couple of dozen men, women and children a game he made called “A Cotton Tale.”
“It’s the story of a rabbit who leaves the desert to explore,” says Andreas Papoutsas. “It took me five days to make it in ‘Project Spark.’”
He then shows the crowd a vast cross-section of other “Project Spark” creations. It’s like the video game version of flipping channels with satellite television. There are marble mazes, Tetris-like puzzle games, a digital Daft Punk concert, a “Pac-Man”-inspired arcade game, painstakingly crafted dungeons and monsters, a buddy cop movie, and even someone who tried to recreate “Halo”.
“Actually, I don’t even know how they did this, and I’m really good,” Papoutsas says thoughtfully as he explores the “Halo” tribute. “You really can do anything you imagine, and this is just the beginning — this is the beta. People will go wild and create really amazing stuff.”
Later, over salsa and chips at a nearby Mexican restaurant, Papoutsas will tell you about “Project Omega,” a 70-page manuscript he started working on a couple of years ago. “It was a notebook of the perfect game — a game I wanted to make,” he says. “In it, you start as a player, but your world as you know it doesn’t exist. You have to create it. Will it be outer space? Or the Wild West?”
Last summer he was watching the live stream of the Electronic Entertainment Expo, and saw a video announcing a new game called “Project Spark” that would allow players to create their own worlds. The new game, which a tiny group at Microsoft called Team Dakota had spent years developing, was uncannily similar to the game Papoutsas dreamed of creating.
He immediately started emailing Team Dakota, offering his support and feedback on early versions of the game, and has been one of its chief volunteer spokesmen ever since. He created a “Project Spark” wiki and helped create project-spark.org, a sort of community forum for players. The website — a broad mix of discussions, tutorials, wish lists for “Project Spark” developers, troubleshooting and bug tracking, skills matchmaking and game collaboration — now tops 10 million page views a month.
Papoutsas lives just outside of Athens, Greece, and recently completed a master’s degree in international shipping. However, gaming (in general) and “Project Spark” (specifically) have become his prevailing passion. He dreams of someday making a living in the gaming industry.
“Making games is what I am really good at,” Papoutsas says.
“Project Spark” stands out among video games in a number of ways, but chief among those is how deeply it involves the players in its development. Every single member of Team Dakota, from the head of the studio to its art directors and developers, will emphasize that the single most important aspect of “Project Spark” is its community.
“One of ‘Project Spark’s’ biggest strengths is its players and their word-of-mouth. Many of them also become advocates,” says Mike Lescault, the game’s community manager. “It’s a game designed for them. When you really love something, when you’re really passionate, you want to feel like you’re involved and helping. We’ve set up a structure to allow for that.”
Tall, broad and bald, Lescault looks more like a bouncer at a club than a man on the front lines of an all-ages video game (and indeed, in his life he’s been both). Lescault’s job is to find ways to interact meaningfully, online and in person, with the most vocal of “Project Spark’s” 1 million registered users. It covers virtually every demographic: 8-year-old kids, teenage girls, artists, landscapers, bakers, stay-at-home parents, cancer researchers, mathematicians, veterans, retired college professors.
“We put the power in the users’ hands,” says Lescault, who got into the industry as a college senior when he answered a Boston Globe newspaper ad for a game tester. “We’re not going to tell you what to do. You make the rules. We want to give people the power to make their own games, and the chance to see that learning programming can be fun and easy.”
The game’s year-plus beta would suggest people enjoy making their own rules. Users create an average of 700 new levels a day, some of which feature constructions that have momentarily stumped even the game’s own developers — a Pegasus made of arctic rocks, an entirely new type of palm tree made of bushes, even the entire cast of “The Avengers.”
“We knew as soon as we launched ‘Project Spark’ that our users would inevitably be better than us at our own game,” Lescault says. “And we should let them.”
With that, he grabs an armful of stuffed animals — some kind of rust-colored woodland creature — and passes them out to people as they file out of Papoutsas’s demo.
“It’s a rabid squirrel,” Lescault explains, one of “Project Spark’s” featured creatures. He hands you one. You take a long look at the adorable but shifty-looking critter and tuck it in your bag.
“Hey, there’s someone over here I’d like you to meet,” Lescault says. “Agent Nine.”
Agent Nine (an affectionate misread of her username, NieNie) is one of the game’s most talented artists, Lescault says. And wait until you hear her story.
Lescault leads you toward a bank of Xbox One consoles where Agent Nine, a woman in her early twenties, is showing another woman how to add mountains, valleys, trees and rivers to a blank world. Agent Nine’s real name is Danielle Scott.
“I don’t really make games,” says Scott, a soft-spoken Brit who recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history. She doesn’t have a programming background, and actually spends a great deal of her time in “Project Spark” making vividly colorful levels, animals, art, animations — even shadow puppets.
Her creations are so beautiful and so well-regarded, Lescault says, that Team Dakota asked her to make a credits sequence for the game and supplied her with an Xbox One to do so.
“The best thing about ‘Spark’ for me is how easy it is to put down ideas. It’s great for encouraging creativity,” Scott says. “I always watch E3, and when I saw the “Project Spark” intro video, I said, ‘That’s the game I’ve been waiting for.’”
Scott found something else through “Project Spark” — love. In fact, that very weekend in Boston, Scott was meeting Corey Jones (known in “Spark” circles by his username Arisilde Damal) face-to-face for the first time. The two started talking online last fall, first as fellow “Project Spark” enthusiasts, a relationship that very slowly evolved into friendship, and then more than friendship.
“She wasn’t having any of it — not for a long time. It took her a while to warm up to the idea,” Jones says. “We actually kept it on a pretty even keel, like, ‘Oh, I’ll see you in Boston and we’ll see how it goes.’”
It was going well. (So well, in fact, that Scott wouldn’t use her return ticket to England. After PAX she went to visit Jones in his hometown of St. Louis, and a couple of weeks later, the two would be married.)
“It’s ridiculous how alike we are, down to so many details,” says Jones, who by day is an industrial mechanic at a wastewater treatment plant. He has a “Project Spark” Twitch stream called “Prop Shop” where he shows people how to create custom items in the game. Once, in the very early days of their online courtship, he made Scott a heart-shaped rock during one of his live streams. True romance, “Project Spark” style.
Five months later, they’re living a quiet life in St. Louis. While he’s at work during the day, she spends time on her art, and then they spend evenings and weekends together, hanging out, watching Netflix and playing games.
“It seems like we both had exactly the same life halfway around the globe from each other, but now we’re doing it together,” Jones says.
“It just works,” Scott says.
It’s late afternoon now, and things at PAX are winding down. Hungry geeks with bags full of swag — foam swords, velvety maroon wizard hoods and packets of instant oatmeal concealing a special set of Cards Against Humanity — are already flooding out of the convention center and into neighborhood eateries, many sitting down to the table still in full cosplay.
“You should join us for dinner,” Lescault says. “The whole team is going across the street to the Mexican restaurant. We can tell you the great story about how ‘Project Spark’ got started.”
“It all started with a standing ovation,” Lescault says as a waiter places a massive margarita in front of you. “It’s just like one of those great origin stories. Sax and Henry can tell you the whole thing.”
At the outset, Michael “Saxs” Persson (Team Dakota studio manager) and Henry Sterchi (Team Dakota creative director) could not appear more different. Persson — head shaved, designer T-shirt-clad and tattooed — grew up in Denmark. Sterchi — pale, bespectacled and rarely seen without his New York Mets hat — grew up on Long Island. Their paths illustrate that there’s more than one way to capture the castle.
Sterchi grew up loving three main things: video games, writing and sports. In his early teen years he started writing to game creators to ask for release dates and at 14 started writing a fanzine. His precociousness and his fanzine led him into opportunity after opportunity in the game industry, eventually leading him to Nintendo, and in 2010, to Xbox. Persson grew up in a tiny town where he was fascinated by coding from a young age and by high school was attending “copy parties.” Persson would attend these “pretty seedy” parties with a handful of Xeroxed copies of code — a computer program he’d written down on paper — which he’d exchange with other programmers. Like Sterchi, this led him on a path through the burgeoning gaming industry (his first jobs in Denmark paid him in Burger King, cigarettes and cases of Coke) and in 2009, to Xbox.
After they both landed at Microsoft, Persson and Sterchi did a stint in an incubation group, exploring market trends, social gaming, the cloud and cross-screen entertainment. Then, they worked together in Xbox Live Arcade, helping smaller, independent games “with tremendous creativity and heart” find their way to the console (and, later, the phone and tablet). It was a way of bringing some old-school soul to the digital world, of reviving some of the magic of the arcade with its leaderboards and stacks of quarters.
“Henry and I were both very interested in that world, but in the back of my head, both being game creators before, we were always looking for that next big thing,” Persson said. “We had some time to look, to decide what exactly we wanted to build. And what we wanted to do was ‘Project Spark.’”
Once they decided exactly what they wanted to build, they started talking to developers, but couldn’t find one willing to take on such a challenge.
“And we didn’t really have it all flapped down yet,” Sterchi said.
“We were heading north, and we see stormy weather, and we didn’t really know if there was a rainbow or any gold, but we thought we should go,” Persson added. “It was like, ‘You wanna go?’ We wanted to go. I don’t blame any developer for saying no.”
“No,” agreed Sterchi. “It could have been a tornado or a ceiling fan ahead.”
The two started to assemble a little team to develop the idea. When they got the feeling that gaming executives were ready to hear something ambitious, they decided to put it on the table.
“I generally don’t bust out Henry at any of our meetings with executives because …”
“There’s a fine line between me and court jester,” Sterchi said.
“Exactly right,” Persson said. “So Henry stood up and gave this stump speech along the lines of, ‘I need you to believe, and here’s what I need you to believe in.’”
“Can you give me the speech right now?” you ask Sterchi. He smiles.
The meeting was running behind before Persson even started, and he had about 132 PowerPoint slides to get through. They’d planned the last 15 minutes to pitch their “Imagine World” game idea, but by the time it was Sterchi’s turn to do so, Persson whispered, “Henry, you have three minutes.” Sterchi took a deep breath, and started talking.
“This idea is founded on breaking down the barriers between who can play games, and who can actually change and make them. It’s about making this platform accessible to everyone. We understand people are getting very, very savvy. Social media has changed the world and it still is. When I was a kid the extent of the discussion was, ‘Genesis! No Super Nintendo!’ Now people are involved. They’re making educated critiques. There’s actual academia around making games. Look, we feel the world is ready to have this platform handed to them.”
As Sterchi took a breath in his retelling, and Persson picked up the story. “Another cool point we made is that every art form goes from elite to the masses, and people go from consumers and creators. Photography, music, video — it doesn’t matter, if it’s important enough for people to consume, at some point they demand to be part of it. YouTube is a perfect example of that. It’s not just giving people a platform. If there wasn’t at the same time a cell phone that could make easy videos, and access to video equipment and editing, it would all be a moot point. Look at the convergence between technology, and access to that technology, coupled with the fact that 95 percent of kids over the age of 3 are playing games.”
Sterchi led the meeting through a journey of “what if,” a journey that brought more than half of the executives to their feet.
“It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a standing ovation in a meeting like that,” Sterchi says.
The two took the applause as an enthusiastic go-ahead and assembled a small team of veterans and newcomers to begin work on their revolutionary game-making game.
“All we had is our idea,” Persson said. “Then we just made it.”
You find yourself smiling as you walk back to your hotel. “I’m glad I came to Boston,” you think. “This was good stuff.”
The next morning you board a plane back to Seattle. Emergency exit row — score! You’ve just clicked your seatbelt when see the pilot emerge from the cockpit. He flashes you and your fellow passengers a big smile.
“Do you guys like roller coasters?” he booms jovially. “Because it's gonna be one getting out of here in this wind."
“I love roller coasters,” you say, and ask the pilot to please indicate the appropriate time to put your hands up in the air, click here.
The pilot laughs heartily at your joke. “Sure thing. Will do.”
Only he wasn’t really kidding about the roller coaster ride. The plane shudders and pitches, and for an uncomfortably long time you seem to be hanging perilously over Boston Harbor like an ill-fated and overtaxed crate of tea. But the pilot must have been a carnival worker before aviation school, because the winged roller coaster finally reaches a smooth, cruising altitude.
As you enjoy your complimentary beverage, you think about Persson and Sterchi’s passion for breaking down the walls between player and game — their drive to make “Project Spark” a platform for people to create their own adventures. Their story bears a strong resemblance to that of Edward Packard, author of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, one of your favorites when you were a kid.
Packard, a lawyer for the music industry, got the idea for the books while telling his children bedtime stories. He felt that books should be more interactive. “I could sense this was an unusual approach (for readers to) not just identify with the main character but be the main character,” he said in a recent interview on NPR’s Marketplace, 35 years after sparking a literary phenomenon.
Packard’s idea wasn’t an immediate success — it took him more than a decade to sell a publisher on the highly unorthodox approach to storytelling and to get the first Choose Your Own Adventure book published. Similarly, “Project Spark’s” lead designer Bradley Rebh tells you it’s challenging to fully explain the concept of “Project Spark” in an elevator pitch or a tweet, given all that’s possible in the game.
“We’re this little team, we’re actually not as big as what our ambitions are, and despite what anyone else has said we’ve just banded together to make this happen. I’m amazed every day that we’ve built what we‘ve built, not because we’re not talented, and not because it’s impossible,” Rebh says. “It’s just — you could have asked any team anywhere to do this, and it’s not the sort of project where they’d say, ‘Yep. We can nail that. We can go build this game in which you can make every single game you’ve ever played and also make it easy for everybody to do that.’”
“Right?” Rebh says. “It’s ridiculous. There were moments I thought about what we were trying to accomplish and just shook my head. But I let that pass. If you think about it too hard it can be crippling. People can make and play and be anything. It’s infinite in what it can do. The biggest challenge this team continues to face is saying no to the right things when we don’t want to say no to anything. We want everything in the game, but we’ve certainly made some very tough decisions along the way.”
In order to focus in a game with a universe of possibilities, Team Dakota had to put a number of wish list items on the back burner, features like deeper character customization, realistic and dynamic water, and a brush that can paint cities and enemies (the bigger the brush, the bigger the buildings or boss).
You ask Rebh what he wants the game to be when it grows up.
“We have huge aspirations, but in the end, it’s simple. We want ‘Project Spark’ to have an impact on people, and we want people to make things that have an impact on the world,” he said.
Rebh dreams of a day when “Project Spark” players become celebrities for their homemade creations.
“What if some kid in Nebraska makes a game, and gets picked up by a major publisher to really make the thing. Or a girl makes a game or a video and it ends up on the ‘Ellen Show,’” he says. “Anybody can make a home movie and have it go viral, and I hope game-makers can be recognized for their creativity in the same way.”
All this talk of “Project Spark” makes you want to spend more time actually playing the game. You download it on your PC, create a username, and within moments have designed a forested, mountainous world with vast blue rivers and lakes. You choose a hero named Karlsnor, a goblin that was booted from his tribe (likely due to his lifelong struggles with anger management).
The secret behind “Project Spark’s” adaptability, its blank canvas capabilities, is that players can enter and change code. Tinkering can be as simple as adding one item of code to make a rock jump to, as one user explains, adding the quadratic formula to change the parabolic arch to an arrow shot. “Project Spark’s” coding foundation is built with Kodu, a program originally developed by Microsoft Research to make it easy and fun for kids to explore programming languages.
“We wanted to create a platform where kids could see the elegance and creativity of programming languages, to tinker with logic and see what happens, to lower the bar all the way to the ground,” said Eric Anderson, one of the creators of Kodu who is now Team Dakota’s lead game play engineer.
It all goes back to wanting to introduce kids to the fun side of programming, which will ultimately let them form opinions about how software is made, which in the digital age, can mean good things for everyone. So “Project Spark” is like Kodu jumping in a sports car for a serious road trip?
“More like a Ferrari mixed with a tank,” Anderson says. “’Project Spark’ has so many different ways to be creative. You don’t have to learn how to code to play, but it really does unlock everything. When you tinker with the code, the ceiling just goes away.”
“Project Spark” is what gamers call “freemium,” meaning you can experience much of the game without paying anything. To access even more content — more theme packs, props and the like — you can either subscribe to Spark Premium for a series of bonuses, buy the individual items you want, or log enough hours and experience in the game to earn tokens to buy the extras you want.
Each aspect of “Project Spark” (whether it’s designing a world, creating a character, giving a rock or a tree a brain, or playing someone else’s game) earns you experience points (XP), which raise your Spark level and give you access to even more content.
Recently, “Project Spark” players have been celebrating a bumper crop of new content, including werewolves, nomadic warriors and a special pack called “Primitives” that provides straight edges and basic shapes (squares, triangles, spheres) that hard-core creators have been dying for. With the full release of “Project Spark,” the game has also added a new sci-fi theme pack (Galaxies), Champion’s Quest (a “Legend of Zelda”-style quest designed by Team Dakota for users to play) and multiplayer functionality (which allows up to four people at once to collaborate on creating a level).
You take a moment away from your goblin, who is fighting off bandits in search of a magic potion, to check your email. Your pal Lescault has invited you to drop by the “Project Spark” booth at PAX (this time in Seattle) to meet a few more devoted players.
Once again surrounded by the geek overload that is PAX (Seattle edition), you stand near a family of elves who are eating sandwiches while you wait for Lescault. He shows you to the “Project Spark” booth, where you meet Jeremiah Thomas (username: Rust Plague).
Thomas, a lean man with a red ponytail, wears a “Project Spark” T-shirt and a camouflage fishing hat with a Team Dakota pin in front. He is showing one of his games, “Godzilla,” to a gaggle of enthusiastic guys who are smiling, nodding and asking questions. In the game, you are Godzilla and you get to stomp cities, level buildings with your tail, and fight other monsters. Thomas, a disabled veteran, works on his “Project Spark” creations every day. It’s a passion he shares with his partner, Cheryl Glaser.
“I want to do this for a living, but I can’t afford an education. But I’ve got more dedication and heart than anyone,” Thomas says. He hopes that learning to code with “Project Spark” and putting his games out there will eventually land him a job in the gaming industry. He shows you some of his homemade creations, from “Transformers” to “Thomas the Train.”
“That’s why ‘Spark’ is so awesome. You can combine intellectual properties without being sued. So yes, I can make ‘Thomas the Train’ Transformers or Papa Smurf with a machine gun,” Thom says.
Next to him is Erik Harding (Erikinthebakery), a former pastry chef known for delivering chocolate chip cookies to Team Dakota. “They work hard,” he says, shrugging.
“I love ‘Spark’ because being a stay-at-home-dad, it’s a way of being able to talk to adults,” Harding says. “We can count the number of trolls in this community on one hand. And we can usually talk them out of their evil ways. I also love playing ‘Spark’ with my 5-year-old and asking him what we should do next.”
You meet Mike Considine (ParadoxMoose), a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins University, and James Schleiger (KMKHunter), who has been gaming …
“Forever,” Schleiger says. “At age 5, my mom would play “Dragon Warrior” on the NES with me every day. It was before I could read, so I would play, and she would read to me what was happening. It was like an interactive story book. Now, I get to make my own.”
Schleiger says he hasn’t found anything he could not make in “Project Spark,” including a first-person shooter, an arena brawler, even a casino. He’s particularly stoked for the game’s new multiplayer function, so he can collaborate with Glaser, who likes “the dollhouse aspect” of designing worlds.
“Me? I like doing the brains. Writing behaviors. What does what, and how,” Schleiger says.
Like he and his mom once did, he now plays video games with his 5-year-old.
“Instead of just reading it to him, I get to ask him what we should do next,” Schleiger says. “Now we get to decide how the game ends instead of having to live with someone else’s choices.”
As you bid farewell to Lescault, you ask him how it’s going, introducing the next million folks to “Project Spark.”
“It’s new. It’s innovative. If we could describe it easily, we haven’t worked hard enough on it,” he says, grinning. “It’s not ‘Halo.’ It’s not ‘Forza.’ It’s the keys to the kingdom.”Download Project Spark Now!