Microsoft has officially launched Project Spark, a game world with tools that make it easy for players to create their own games.

Oddly enough, Microsoft is releasing Project Spark as its answer to Minecraft, the pixelated user-generated content game from Mojang. But Microsoft also now owns Minecraft as it purchased Sweden-based developer Mojang for an astounding $2.5 billion a couple of weeks ago.

After a six-month beta test, Spark has more than 1 million creators who have logged more than 4 million hours creating 70,000 game levels that fans can now play. New content comes online every day, so players can find something different every time they log in.

Saxs Persson, the executive producer at Microsoft’s Team Dakota — the studio that made Project Spark — said that the team has worked on the title for more than 2.5 years with the aim of “democratizing gamemaking.”

The team did so by building easy-to-use tools to create, play, and share game environments within a larger virtual space. Players can build their own games or remix a premade one. They can use the tools to sculpt a 3D village in a medieval fantasy.

“We’ve been stunned by the size of our community,” Persson said in a video.

Team Dakota's headquarters.

Above: Team Dakota’s headquarters.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Back in the spring, I visited Team Dakota’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. It was located in an office building away from the main Microsoft campus. Built on the edge of the forest, the studio was isolated and centralized so that the team could really focus on its task.

A few years ago, the developers started with Kodu, a visual programming language used in schools around the world. It is used by everybody from adults to children ages 8 and up. They combined that with something that enabled people the freedom to create their own worlds and tell their own stories.

You don’t need any programming experience to create in Spark because Microsoft has hammered away at Kodu so that it is a tool that anybody can use. It has been modified and gamified so that players are rewarded for learning programming skills without really realizing that they’re doing so.

Spark has things like lesson plans that, if you fulfill them, you get rewards.

You can seamlessly go back and forth from input mechanisms like the mouse and keyboard, touch, and a game controller. If you make a controller-based game, it automatically maps to other platforms so it works with touch or a mouse and keyboard. That means there are “multiple access points,” which make the experience more accessible for both players and creators.

A tutorial teaches you how to create something. You can browse other creations or make your own. A blank world stares back at you. On a touch-screen TV, which is the best design interface, you can “paint” a landscape’s features such as trees or rivers by using your fingers to trace a path across the screen. The ground that you build on is flat and works well for gameplay, so characters can walk across it. If you aren’t happy with it, you can scrub it out.

You can click on an icon to access “props” that you can insert into the world, like boxes. You can create new props by gluing objects together or tearing the props apart. The assets in the library are like building blocks, such as doors and windows. You can see these objects from multiple perspectives. Some of the creations have default behaviors once you put them in the world. A character can jump or walk. A goblin will attack your character if you place it in the world. Birds will fly away if you approach them.

Objects also have customizable physical characteristics. You can change the weight and mass of an object so you can make your own physics-based game with boulders rolling down hills at your enemies. You can even put a “goblin brain” into a bird, and that bird will attack your character as an enemy.

Project Spark is free to play and is available for download now via the Xbox One and Windows 8.1 stores. You can unlock add-on content by using in-game credits earned during play or by purchasing tokens to buy add-ons immediately. Fans can get new content on launch day, such as a sci-fi skin for characters, adventure mode, champion features, creation enhancements, and a multiplayer mode to inspire all new gameplay.

Players who want to purchase a bunch of content can buy the Starter Pack retail disc, which includes $85 worth of downloadable content for $40. Microsoft says that Project Spark isn’t finished yet as it will always evolve as it is shaped by the community of players.

A tutorial maker named Mescad has already made 100 tutorials to help players.

Project Spark

Above: The Sculpt tool in Project Spark enables users to create their own environments and then share them with collaborators.

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