Microsoft is launching a beta version of Project Spark today, its game-maker project for Windows 8.1, Xbox 360, and the new Xbox One console. Project Spark is essentially a tool to allow developers, enthusiasts, and gamers to build a game within a game. Players can build custom worlds, characters, and animations from an Xbox One or a Windows 8.1 PC to play across both platforms. It's similar in concept to Sony's LittleBigPlanet, but Microsoft is making use of its history with Kodu and pushing SmartGlass integration to allow players to interact with their games and collaborate from a tablet while they build and play on an Xbox One.

Project Spark offers gamers a number of ways to create games and edit them. The simplest method lets you pick a world type, character, and mission before being thrown into a dynamically generated world where you can begin playing or continue editing. Any games created by Project Spark can be shared with a community of gamers, or edited to customize them further. You can create a third-person shooter, 2D platformer, or even tower-defense games, and by default the game type is similar to Zelda or Fable-style action games. Everything is customizable, and Microsoft allows each element in a game to have its own brain to control movement and actions.

No Windows RT version yet, if at all

Project Spark can be controlled through the Xbox One controller, SmartGlass, or a traditional keyboard and mouse. Kinect can even be used to capture voice and motion to apply facial animations, body motion, or voice and sounds to custom characters, dialogue, and cinematic cutscenes. The beta version of the app is only launching on Windows 8.1 today, with some hefty specification requirements, and Windows RT users won’t be able to use Project Spark just yet, if at all in the future.

Microsoft's Project Spark has huge potential to open the Xbox One up to the masses and make game-creating a lot easier for amateurs who aren't yet ready to build full indie games using the ID@Xbox program. Sony's LittleBigPlanet has been extremely popular with fans over the years, making the leap to portable consoles like the Vita. While LittleBigPlanet emphasizes creation, it's a game at heart. Microsoft's approach differs slightly by pushing creation and customizability heavily.

While you’ll be able to create games that run on Xbox One from Project Spark, the beta version won’t launch on the Xbox One until early next year. Microsoft is rolling out Project Spark in limited numbers, too. The app will soon be listed on the Windows Store (it's restricted to certain regions right now), but you'll also need a special beta key once it's downloaded to activate and start building games. The beta for Windows 8.1 is preparation for the beta launch on Microsoft's new Xbox One console in January, ahead of a full launch later next year. Project Spark for Windows 8.1 will be made available in the Windows Store today, and you can request access to a beta key over at Microsoft's own Project Spark site.