There were loads of surprises at Microsoft's E3 press conference, but one of the most interesting ones was a tool that can turn gamers into game developers, called Project Spark.
We spent some time with a game designer working on the project last night, who showed us how the game creator worked on a huge touchscreen, using the 'SmartGlass' companion app for Xbox.
When we first laid eyes on the project, we weren't so sure about it – Project Spark would have to be very easy to use, in order to encourage people to use it. Fortunately, we were pleasantly surprised. Even without going into the more in-depth settings, players can erode or raise terrain, add characters and props, and fully adjust the look of the game to completely change the art style.
To get started, you pick a base environment – it could be snowy mountains at midday, or a forest at night. Then you terraform the environment simply by tapping a couple of buttons and swiping your finger over the touchscreen. If you erode the landscape, it'll naturally create rivers, and you can adjust how high the water rises.
After you're done terraforming, you can add whatever you like to the map, within reason. You can add grass, vines, and branches all in one go by selecting the option and dragging your hand over the screen - flat ground will automatically get covered in grass, and an overhang will have vines falling from it. You might choose to add trees, and the size and shape of them will differ depending on where you plant them.
You can change the behaviour of almost anything in the game to bring it alive; a tree can have as much personality as a goblin. Adjusting behaviours is simple. Tap on big icons that say 'when' and 'do' and a circle of extra options will pop up on the screen. Picking options for both of those will change the outcome - for example, you could change a rock's settings to "When the main character is near, move towards". That'll get the rock to follow your main character around the map, and it takes all of about three taps to get there. It's a very basic coding principle that programmers use every day - "if X, then Y" - but made much easier because you don't need any specialist knowledge.
You can set up multiple behaviours and prioritise them, too - you could get your pet rock to stop following you to attack goblins when they come near, and then return to following you afterward.
Of course, you are restricted by the models and props that the developers of Project Spark have given you, but you'll be surprised by how different two games made using the exact same tools can be. It reminded us of the level creator in LittleBigPlanet, and that's not a bad thing at all.
We're looking forward to spending more time with Project Spark – and to seeing how nice it is to use when you're using a controller or keyboard and mouse, rather than a touchscreen.