What Went Wrong with Project Spark

Project Spark's servers will be shut down this week. Here's why this gaming experiment didn't work...

Project Spark arguably had the most powerful and in-depth creation tools of any sandbox game on the market, letting players build large 3D worlds from scratch as well as add AI behavior and create full quests for their characters. Some of the very best Project Spark creations felt like beta versions of The Legend of Zelda or FableProject Spark could also be used to make platformers, racers, real-time strategy games, and even movies. Microsoft Studios seemed to fulfill its promise: the possibilities truly were endless when it came to Project Spark.

Yet, Project Spark never achieved the same level of acclaim of similar titles such as LittleBigPlanet and Super Mario Maker. In May, Microsoft officially pulled the plug on Project Spark, although the publisher had stopped developing add-ons for the game months before. You can’t even download Project Spark to your Xbox One or PC anymore, and even if you already have it on your hard drive, it will be unplayable as of August 12 when the servers shut down.

But that’s a real shame, because it means the end of one of the most innovative, albeit flawed, titles in gaming. Here’s what went wrong with Project Spark:

A Promising Debut at the Worst Possible Time

From the beginning, Project Spark was a victim of poor timing and even worse business decisions. The project began as an evolution of ideas developed by Microsoft using Kodu Game Lab, a programming tool long available for Windows and the Xbox 360 that, while well-received, isn’t exactly well-known.

That’s not necessarily the kiss of death in gaming, of course. The real stab to the heart was the way Project Spark was introduced to the world. Microsoft unveiled Project Spark during its otherwise abysmal E3 2013 presentation. You might remember that as the conference that almost sank the Xbox One before it was even released. 

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While Project Spark’s powerful creation tools impressed attendees, the internet was too enraged by the requirement that the newly unveiled Xbox One would require a constant internet connection to use and would restrict used game sales for the title to get much attention. Project Spark‘s bright and family-friendly reveal wasn’t enough to put a smile on the faces of the Xbox’s most hardcore fans.

The timetable for Project Spark‘s promotion and release definitely wasn’t helped by its competitors, such as toys-to-life games Skylanders and Disney Infinity, which launched the August after Project Spark was first unveiled. These kid-friendly titles also featured game creators, and in the case of Disney Infinity, much more popular characters. Microsoft was also the first company to bring the popular sandbox game Minecraft to consoles in 2012 for the Xbox 360. Minecraft was then announced for the Xbox One at the same E3 as Project Spark, which made Microsoft’s experiment in world-building seem a bit redundant on the Xbox lineup. From the very beginning, Project Spark seemed destined to be overshadowed.

Even after Microsoft reversed its controversial Xbox One design decisions, things didn’t get much better for Project Spark. An open beta in early 2014 went under the radar of most gamers, and when Project Spark was finally released that fall, positive reviews didn’t help bolster the game’s popularity.

The Spark of Poor Business Decisions

Microsoft touted the fact that Project Spark allowed “hundreds of thousands” of users to create new projects, but it’s hard to believe that many gamers really contributed meaningful levels to Project Spark, due in part to the game’s original business model.

When Project Spark officially launched in October 2014, the initial download was completely free, but it was also very limited. You could play through the (mediocre) story mode with one character or play through hybrid creation/mission mode Crossroads (again with only one character), but only some creation tools were available for free.

If you wanted access to everything that Project Spark had to offer, you had to plunk down quite a bit of cash. One year after launch, nearly 50 paid DLC packs were available. As this was a more niche title, Project Spark failed to gain the audience willing to pay for the complete suite of creation tools. Imagine if Super Mario Maker cost upwards of $100 for all of its modes and tools. 

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To make matters worse, Project Spark isn’t as user-friendly as it might have seemed at first—not if you were interested in complex game design. A lot of player-made Project Spark creations just aren’t great. There’s no doubt you can do a lot with the tools, but that does take time. Much of Project Spark‘s library is full of levels that are little more than fairly decent character models with no or little AI programming thrown into barren levels.

Many of the better games developed by the community felt like lost gems of the N64 era, and while those games might be fun for a few minutes, they weren’t enough to hold the attention of many gamers for long, or persuade budding designers to put the necessary time into creating some truly great projects.

Conker to the Rescue?

Perhaps recognizing that Project Spark was in trouble, Microsoft tried to create more buzz for the game in early 2015 by announcing that the game would be the exclusive home of the long-awaited sequel to the 2001 Rare classic Conker’s Bad Fur Day, which seemed fitting since the new adventure fit the aesthetic of many player-made creations.

The first episode of Conker’s Big Reunion, a planned episodic adventure set 10 years after the original game, was released on April 23, 2015. While seeing the beloved drunken squirrel back in a video game for the first time in 14 years was a welcome sight for many older gamers waiting for Microsoft to do something (anything!) with its older Rare properties, this ultimately felt like more of a “Hail Mary” than a boon for Project Spark or Conker.

The digital add-on didn’t do a great job of revitalizing the aging game creator, though. For one thing, it alienated a portion of the audience the game had first been marketed to: kids. Project Spark was originally pitched as an all-ages title, so the debauchery and gore of Conker was never a good fit, not to mention that younger gamers who weren’t born with N64 controllers in their hands had no clue who this rude orange squirrel was. Conker just wasn’t the incentive to get kids playing the game again. And worst of all, Conker’s Big Reunion just wasn’t very good. Developing the game with the Project Spark tools in mind seemed to actually hold back its humor and ideas, rather than show off how flexible Project Spark could be.

In September 2015, Microsoft announced that future episodes of Conker’s Big Reunion had been canceled. On the upside, all previously released Project Spark DLC officially became free, but rather than seeing a flood of players and creations, this was more of a final nail in the coffin.

Seven months later, with no new content released, Microsoft announced that it was pulling the plug on Project Spark for good.

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The Twilight of Project Spark

Though the end of Project Spark is upon us this week, there’s still fun to be had with it before Friday—if you’ve previously downloaded the game, that is.There are of course the homages to classic series like Mario, Sonic, Pokemon, and Halo, though the playability of these titles varies greatly. One recent top-rated submission even mimics a WWE game, with mixed results.

User SpaceCodex has spent the past few weeks posting levels featuring battles based on the recent Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Fantastic Four movies. They’re a little rough around the edges, but the characters and events are still very recognizable. With the lack of Marvel games in recent years, these levels are not bad substitutes.

In some ways Project Spark, which was used to create the video for Linkin Park’s 2014 single “Guilty All the Same,” is a better movie maker than game creation tool. This is perhaps most evident in DANNYBOY3600’s series of four “Horror Movie Ride” games.True to their titles, there’s not much gameplay in these creations. They’re very much just slow, haunted house-style rides through vaguely psychedelic takes on films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Carrie, and House of 1,000 Corpses. With added sound clips from the films, they’re actually quite interesting art projects, even if they’re not all that scary.

Searching through Project Spark‘s library is a bit surreal at this point, like walking through a player-created graveyard of ideas. You can see the title’s entire history of successess and many failures just by scrolling through the many levels. It’s easy to see where Project Spark‘s ultimately complex game creator went wrong, why it lost its dedicated fanbase, and why it couldn’t quite turn things around.

Project Spark may be dead, but there’s always hope that the ideas it popularized could show up in future titles. After all, if Microsoft was willing to use an obscure concept like Kodu Game Lab for Project Spark, there’s no reason why it couldn’t resurrect Project Spark in another form down the line. But let’s just hope that Microsoft learns from its mistakes Project Spark to make a game that will actually keep gamers playing…and creating.

Chris Freiberg is a freelance contributor. 

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