Monday, October 27, 2008

What Can We Learn From Little Big Planet?

Sackboy is the undisputed hero of 2008

So how awesome is "Little Big Planet", really? It's fair to say that Sony's burlap-fabric-laced world is easily one of the most ambitious console games this generation. It boldly attempts a seemingly impossible mission - to inspire players to be game creators and slowly cultivate their design ambitions. Despite the launch of LBP being anything but smooth, the potential for the design platform is unprecedented in the console video gaming industry.

But can we expect much from the growth of the LBP community now that the critical darling of GDC 2007 is finally available at retail? The rather obvious answer is, yes. Each week we'll see uploaded creative content, and a metamorphosis of community as they accept their new role as judges, sifting through the sea of material to find the best stuff the community has to offer.

Despite my own reservations of ever being a successful video game creative, I can definitely admire the little things that "Little Big Planet" does so right - namely, it's charming presentation and deep tool set. In fact, it's the tool set specifically that makes the designers at Media Molecule so incredibly genius. They conquered the one thing that so many previous D.I.Y games like "Fighter Maker" and "RPG Maker" struggled with - easy access tools lumped together in simple and understandable categories. If it's mechanical, the player knows to examine the tool box portion of the "popit". If it's a scenery piece, then they look in the goodie bag. This marvelous design choice makes the tools so light and easy to use, yet the near endless tutorials in the game emphasize the importance of choosing the right part for the job.

But prior game creation tools on console made another fatal error in that they were too technical, and focused on very niche genres like fighting or RPG's. Well, to be fair, maybe fighters were more mainstream, but that doesn't make them easier to design. In fact, the average fighting game takes months of proper balancing and animation work. On the other hand, RPGs need strong narratives, character development, and battle systems. Set pieces need to be carefully orchestrated to guide the player through a world of possibilities.

The D.I.Y. model of games is not new. The PC has seen way too many mods come and go, but this genre has stumbled by failing to understand the importance of simplicity. Little Big Planet rewrites the D.I.Y. rules for a very different console audience. This is an audience that doesn't memorize dozens of hotkey combinations or menus. It's an audience that just wants to dive into simple tools and make charming and visually impressive content. Simply put, Little Big Planet is the right product at the right time, and in the coming months we'll bear witness a dearth of content, a growing community of designers, and the real start of D.I.Y. games on console.

Fast forward ten or twenty years, and we'll see the fruits of Little Big Planet's labor, a game designer who claims he got his start designing levels in Media Molecule's incredibly deep burlap world.

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