October 13, 2008 8:00 AM | Simon Carless
[In a new editorial, Gamasutra publisher Simon Carless uses his LittleBigPlanet Beta experiences to examine why he thinks one of this holiday's most-awaited PlayStation 3 games represents "the future of user-generated content on consoles".]
I have seen the future of user-generated content on consoles, and it is the Beta version of Media Molecule's much-awaited LittleBigPlanet -- which the nice folks at Sony were kind enough to give us advance access to, ahead of its imminent PlayStation 3 debut.
Now, I'm sure some might accuse me of hyperbole in the face of relatively little evidence. And it's true that I can't tell what's going to happen to the community based around the game, when the full weight (and, hopefully, ingenuity) of the PS3 masses are brought to bear on it.
But the game has managed to do what console titles have thus far shuddered to provide - an open, easy to use creation system that lets the community make the magic, while the creators stand back and marvel.
Why is this such a big deal, and what makes LittleBigPlanet's air of creativity so different?
Here's the key things that LBP does correctly with regard to user-generated content. Previous console games just haven't managed many of these -- often through no fault of their own:
Robust Online Sharing
This is an absolutely key differentiator. Playing levels in LBP is as easy as going to the main menu, selecting an option, and rotating around a globe filled with the latest community-contributed levels. A simple selection from there, and you've downloaded the level and you're playing it, within just a few seconds.
Compare this with the hoops you have to jump through for pre-online console games (ugh, memory card sharing) or even recent Wii titles such as Blast Works (go to a website, queue your levels, go to your Wii and download them -- extremely fiddly.)
Joypad-Based Level Construction
There's another reason why very few decent user-generated levels/games have been created on consoles thus far, with the possible exception of Enterbrain's Maker series. It's the input device. Compared to using mice and menus, having to create objects and manipulate levels via the Dual Shock might be rough.
But I believe -- at least, judging by some of the comments from MM's Alex Evans at recent conferences -- that a large reason for the game's delay was because of constant testing and refinement of the creation tools.
As a result, it's hardly perfectly straightforward to design levels in LittleBigPlanet -- it can still be daunting. But it's definitely the smoothest and most entertaining interface created thus far, with your character the creative center of the levels as they are created.
Graphical, Text-Based Design Freedom
Historically, many console games that you can modify have been loath to give the player full control over all of the bells and whistles.
Why? Well, it's in case those darn users say rude things or express views that might be tied to the game's makers, publishers, or hardware manufacturers.
And let's be honest, this may still be a problem with LBP -- we've already had video of the penis level, even if it's not playable in the game, so when's that illogical tabloid smackdown due?
But -- and I think a lot of this was the Phil Harrison-led Sony at work -- the real-time community flagging ability (and the willingness to tell the more terrified lawyers not to sweat it) has meant freedom, freedom, freedom.
You can tell stories with a combination of visuals and text -- as with the charming but basic 'Heist', an early community level highlight. Or you can riff on pop culture cults, as in the charming Ninja Warrior (Sasuke) level that recently got added, complete with the Hanging Wall. Oh, and there's that 'Little Big Computer' level, showing you can create amazingly complex mechanical devices.
You can even scan in images using the PlayStation Eye, which led to the cheeky 'red ring of death' Xbox 360-pastiching level, something which Sony could have hardly made on their own. But that's the strength of allowing your fanbase to tell your stuff for you, perhaps?
Web 2.0-Style Tagging
I suspect this is the least-discussed of the innovations in LittleBigPlanet. In a lot of ways, it's not an innovation if you've remotely been connected to the web for the past few years.
Everyone's used to creators tagging their blog posts or Flickr users tagging their snaps. But LBP makes players rate a level after they've played it. And that's a piece of genius.
In particular, what it allows is filtering by a particular keyword that interests you, with a new universe of custom levels to play after you've filtered.
So whether you're looking for stupidly short, ridiculously fast, or actually plain bad/frustrating user levels, guess what? You can find them, and it's forever dynamically updated with sprinklings of the latest goodness. This is the best Web 2.0/games mashup in quite some time.
Multiplayer, Co-Operative Level Exploration
So you may get a little frisson of excitement when you're playing Halo 3 and a bunch of unconventional maps are chosen, outside of your control. The similar effect of being taken on a 'magical mystery tour' by whoever is controlling your LBP co-op session is delightful.
Of course, with most of the user-created levels being made for one, as opposed to multiple players, it can be aimless and hit and miss at times. (I believe there's a tag to help people find the best co-op levels, however).
Even so, exploring new levels in the game by having other people show them to you in real-time is a really interesting and different discovery method -- like 'Hey guys, look what I found?' cool.
Leaderboards, Leaderboards, Leaderboards
Everyone's used to online high score tables nowadays. But, somewhat as in Rock Band 2's impermanent challenges, the concept of having massive amounts of leaderboards, each for a very granular, small part of the game is a great one.
Why? Because then anyone can be a star on one tiny part of the whole game, getting their score up into the Top 1000 or even Top 100.
Now, I'm not sure that everyone will take to LittleBigPlanet. The single-player, Media Molecule-created game is pretty darn neat on its own. But you do probably need to be a fan of short, self-contained, bite-sized experiences to love the user-generated content it is spawning.
Yet hey, isn't that the way that your spare time, my spare time, everyone's spare time is going nowadays? And what's better than an endlessly refreshing series of levels, forever?