Monday, 27 April 2015

G2G Project Spark Interview

Since its release last year, Project Spark has seen millions of user created content. We've seen some great content come to the game in the form of DLC and now we see a familiar face come to the title in Conker. Conker and his friends will be joining Spark on April 23rd, for user created escapades.
We were lucky enough to get to talk to Henry Sterchi and Team Dakota about game development and design, the success of Project Spark and, of course, Conker.

Matt: So, first things first, could you introduce yourselves to the community

Henry: Hi. I’m Henry Sterchi, the Creative Director for Team Dakota and Project Spark. Thanks for giving us this opportunity to talk with the G2G community.

Brad: My name is Bradley Rebh. I’m the Design Director on Project Spark. 

Matt: Henry, you've worked on some of my favourite games in the past, from Goldeneye 007 through to Killer Instinct and Project Spark. How did you get started in the industry?

Henry: Thanks, that’s great to hear. I still play some of those classics to this day 
How I started - Wow, that’s a super long story. Long ago I fell in love with video games and knew it was what I always wanted to do, so I began making a very small and local fanzine (fan magazine). I sent it around to several companies, met several industry people this way, and long story short I ended up getting an interview to work at Nintendo of America as a Product Analyst (which essentially meant review games, give feedback, balance, test, etc.). After landing the role at NOA, I eventually went on to be a Producer on several titles and it’s been a lot of great games shipped after that.

Brad: I studied Art and Animation at Bowling Green State University and interned at a company, Image Space Incorporated out of Ann Arbor, painting race cars and setting up track cameras. After I graduated, I landed a job as a UI artist at Cavedog Interactive. I worked with a team designing online matchmaking experiences and metagames for a few realtime strategy games called Total Annihilation and Total

Annihilation: Kingdoms. We didn’t have game designers in our group so I ended up doing some of that work. It took a while but the bug eventually bit and I transitioned from art to design full time and never looked back.

Matt: Was Development always the part of the industry you always wanted to belong to? Do you have any tips for anyone looking to get into game development?

Henry: It really was my dream. I loved writing, sports, and video games so it’s been amazing to eventually be able to use and even combine all three of those. Way back then things were very different and for me it was luck and seizing an opportunity with my knowledge and passion. Today, I would recommend diving in and just start trying to make your own games, even if it’s a board game or a game on paper there’s a lot you can do and learn. Of course, there’s Project Spark and lots of other tools now, quite easily available and I’d recommend using those and using the learning resources there.
When starting, think about the core elements, (pillars to build from) and create something intuitive, fun, and something people can get better at or master. It doesn’t even have to be a full game, it could be a mechanic or a prototype of an idea. Essentially learn from diving in. When you have something you can play that you make, the experience is very valuable.
On top of that, take advantage of any tech studies you can, especially while in school. There’s a lot of opportunities today so be aggressive and get into or on-board these programs. One last thing that I think is important is to play games and try to understand how they were made and why things were done in the ways they were. This will help you get some early understanding around building systems, but it is also helpful to understand the roles team members play or the disciplines involved. Knowing what YOUR dream role is will help get you over the challenges and stay dedicated along the way.

Matt: Okay, so Project Spark has been pretty successful on Xbox One. People enjoy creating and sharing content on a daily basis, did you think the game would be this popular when development started?

Henry: I think it was tough to know how many people would really create things. During Beta we started to see some real amazing stuff, but only after full release did we see the really encouraging things when thousands and thousands of levels were being made, the quality of the games made continually and rapidly increasing, and creators seeing tens of thousands of downloads on their games. That’s the success that really excites me.

Matt: It was also released on disc, did this help the title grow quicker by selling the starter pack in retail chains? Or was it still more popular on Xbox live?

Henry: It really helped us expand past the digital audience and into gifting or sales we probably wouldn’t have received. Some people still like physical media, some may not know it exists and seeing it in store helps, etc. Distributing on both retail and digital was always our plan, but the bulk of our users come from the digital side, which is no surprise consider how much better Project Spark is when you’re online/connected.

Matt: Do you feel the free to play model gave the title a boost? Does the free-to-play model have a future within the gaming community?

Henry: I think it helps people that wouldn’t have tried it otherwise give it a go. Project Spark is a unique and fairly hard to describe game so we wanted to lower that initial barrier as much as possible. We did also truly want to allow anyone to make their own game and this seemed the best way to provide that.
We’ve seen millions of downloads and had lots of stories around how someone gave it a shot not knowing what to expect and are now hooked, so it seems to help. We just added the Spark Treasure Trove which brings even more ways to earn things for free, so hopefully people enjoy Project Spark on their own terms and give it a try.

Matt: Is there anything in particular about Project Spark that you could say, I'm really proud of what we did there?

Henry: Seeing young kids create things or create with their parents and have this experience, moment, or bond that transcends “games” would be the thing I’m proud of. There’s a video on YouTube of a five-year-old child telling his Dad how to use Kode and being so proud. I’ll always remember that video when I think of Project Spark.

Matt: Quite a few games are getting pushed back on various consoles. How long does it take to develop a game from drawing board to a shiny new product? Was there any unique challenges with Project Spark in particular?

Henry: It really depends on the scope. AAA games nowadays tend to take 24 months or more, unless you’re building a sequel. Even then those can tend to go 18-24 months. Indie and smaller titles of course can take much less time, but since there’s less people it’s by no means an indication of being easier.

Matt: Sometimes you can see a direct influence on a game from previous titles. Were there any games that influenced Project Spark?

Henry: Our goal was to put the power in the hands of the player. That’s all the way from I like this game but this boss is too hard so I’m going to change that, to just playing what people made, to building a great game from the ground up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that Project Spark before, but way back in the day things like Pinball Construction Set and the original RPG Maker could be said to be some of the inspiration. YouTube was really another as it turned everyone into a film or media maker which is similar to allowing everyone to be a game maker.

Matt: There have been thousands of levels created and re-created by users on Spark, all over the world. Is there any levels you have seen that really stood out of crowd?

Brad: There are way too many great things to name here. We have such a fantastically innovative community of creators who are pushing the envelope of what we thought was possible with the toolset. To name a few of the recent creations: There’s a level called Infinity by Project Sparker – it’s kind of a music video but he has this kaleidoscope effect that blew me away because I just couldn’t figure out how he did it. I still have it on my to do list to remix that sucker to find out! Off Road Racing by IanIrod is an incredible racing game with a track editor, full campaign mode and great AI. I can’t wait to try out MrXBob’s Great and Mighty Poo recreation for the Conker launch!

Matt: How do you start designing a game like Project Spark? Where the aim of the game is entirely up to the gamer creating the level in their own living room?

Brad: Early in Spark’s development, we spent a lot of time talking about what it meant to create, where inspiration comes from and how to help people get over “blank page syndrome” where starting from nothing can be so hard. Of course we make games ourselves so we understand first-hand how difficult those problems can be to overcome. We ended up coming up with a lot of ways to help players get started. World Wizard and Crossroads let players get the beginnings of full games started just by answering a few questions. Another thing we did was to build default brains (brains allow an object to have life, behaviors and interactivity) into all the basic objects and characters that players place into their worlds. Just by placing a goblin in your game, it knows to attack the player and other good guys which is a great starting point for most games people want to make. If players don’t want the exact behaviors built in by default, they can load a different brain from our brain gallery, modify what’s there or create their own from scratch!
Matt: The artwork for spark is beautiful. When developing a game, is it always clear how the game should look and feel? Was it made tougher or easier working with a title like Conker?

Brad: Our art team has done an incredible job delivering a recognizable, beautiful and versatile visual style. We wanted to make it really easy for people to make games that look great but offer the flexibility to make it their own. We’ve always had aspirations to bring popular and relevant IP to Spark and we’re really excited that Conker is the first to launch. It was essential to us that we translated Conker into our art style so that it would play well visually with all of the other content. Rare has been very supportive during this process and it’s been a lot of fun to bring Conker to life in Spark.

Matt: The Conker DLC is coming out soon, could you imagine any games that you would like to see brought in to the world of Spark in the future?

Brad: We would love to bring more properties to Spark. We see Spark as a platform that could support about anything. I don’t want to jinx anything so I’m not going to give you any specifics though.

Matt: Conker in itself is looking great, is there any pressure in taking characters such as Conker and getting them 'right' in the eyes of the community and keeping it true to the original product?

Brad: Absolutely! We’re not just developers here. We’re fans ourselves so we’ve got our own critical eye on the ball too. On Conker’s Big Reunion, which is the spiritual Conker experience, we made it a point to include Rare each step of the way to make sure we got everything right. We even wanted to make sure Chris Seavor was involved and back to voice all of the original characters. The support from Rare and Chris set us at ease that we were on the right track. We’re excited to hear what the rest of the world thinks.

Matt: We've seen some great content come as DLC also, the 'Necromancer's Rise' pack was my personal favourite. Is there any subjects or motifs you'd like to bring in to the world of Spark in future updates?

Brad: We’ve been supporting 2 major themes for a little while now. We’re nearing a point with our fantasy offerings where we’re feeling good about the amount that’s there. That’s not to say that we’ve exhausted fantasy. Far from it, there’s so much we haven’t explored in that genre – elves, dwarves, dragons, bards, orcs and so much more! For SciFi, we’ve really just gotten started, so expect a lot more packs coming on that front. We’re exploring our options right now and considering what to do next. We plan pretty far in advance so the stuff we’re planning is more than a few months away but it’s exciting stuff that is really going to open up creation.

Matt: There has been talk in many countries, even here in the United Kingdom, of using games as a way to teach children in schools. Do you think a game like Project Spark could have something to teach children within a classroom setting? Could you imagine it being used that way?

Brad: Definitely. In Spark’s infancy, we were a part of a “games that are good for you” initiative here at Microsoft. We had an advisor from the educational sector that was helping us to ensure we had a strong STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) backbone. The Kodu programming language that Spark uses was developed by Microsoft Research specifically to teach kids to program. Kodu is used across the world in classrooms today. We’re working with Microsoft Stores to offer summer camps that teach programming through Project Spark. We’re also working with a number of grade schools, middle schools and high schools across the country that are incorporating project Spark into their teachings. We’ve even launched Project Spark in the university setting thanks to the University of Alberta. But despite all that’s going on, Spark is just getting rolling on this front.

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