Up to this point, level design in console games has more often than not felt like a half-evolved, useless appendage -- if even that. While PC gamers have for decades been able to craft complex, fully-realized experiences on top of their games, console gamers have been stuck puttering around with simplistic level creation tools that seem added as an afterthought. From the ultra-simple course editor in NES' Excitebike to the Skatepark Editor in the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series, console level editors have been characterized by strictly limited set pieces, restrictive construction grids and the inability to easily share creations with the world.
It's hard to blame crappy level creators solely on console developers: Consoles have only recently enjoyed the processing power, built-in hard drives and Internet connections that have allowed PC gamers to easily create, test, store, and share their own levels. With a game like LittleBigPlanet, we seem poised to enter a new era in which millions of console gamers can finally discover the power of their creativity.
See Sackboy run. See Sackboy jump!
The actual gameplay of LittleBigPlanet at first seems laughably simple. Your tiny, highly customizable Sackboy avatar can run, jump, and grab on to certain surfaces. That's it. There's no butt stomp, no double jump, no guns or swords or spin dashes or "grinding," or any of the other control gimmicks that have complicated the simple core of the platformer over the years. Your goals in each level are similarly pared down: Simply get to the end of the level without being crushed or running into the occasional threats of fire, electricity and poison gas (coin-like "Scoring Orbs" and "Race" challenges add to the variety here, but not much). The game doesn't even allow full 3-D movement, restricting players to a set of three parallel planes that scroll in only two dimensions. In the age of Ratchet and Clank Future and Super Mario Galaxy, this simplicity seems downright anachronistic, if not anarchistic.
But if the gameplay mechanics impose a cage of strict rules, the level creation tools seem designed as a challenge for players to break them wide open. Like LEGOs, the simple building blocks here can be combined into nearly anything you can imagine. Unlike plastic LEGOs, though, these blocks are made of all sorts of materials -- sponge, stone, rubber, wood, glass, cardboard, Styrofoam and so on. What's more, they all show a real-world heft when reacting to the machinations of your Sackboy, or to the influence of attachable items like rockets, motors, springs, strings, rods and elastic bands, as well as all manner of interactive switches that bring them to life in fun and surprising ways.
This is where Kyle will Fry his review titles.
Of course, the materials are only as good as the players' ability to craft them into what they want. In this regard, all console editors start with the huge disadvantage of the handheld controller, an ill-equipped replacement for the easy item manipulation of the mouse and keyboard. Luckily, the developers at Media Molecule have shown a real knack for building intuitive, yet powerful, options onto the relatively limited surface of the DualShock 3. Building is simply a matter of choosing a material and shape, sliding it into place with one stick, rotating and sizing it with another, and stamping it down with a single button press. Different shapes can be glued together or used as chisels to make an endless array of complex shapes, and can be further decorated with graffiti-style stickers. Connectors like winches and pistons easily snap between objects with a satisfying click, where they can be "tweaked" with a menu full of simple sliders -- no coding ability required. Although it sometimes takes some gentle cajoling to get a piece to do exactly what you want, the DualShock is a surprisingly good analog for a mouse-and-keyboard setup here.
While the tools lower the barriers to entry for budding level designers, that same lowered barrier could easily have let loose a barrage of low-quality, poorly thought-out content. In practice, though, the opposite seems to be the case, with the player-created levels currently on display in the limited public beta showing an amazing range of content and a surprising level of general polish.
Ever wanted to ride a Koopa Troopa?
It's not surprising to see that a lot of levels ape popular games -- Super Mario Bros., Grand Theft Auto, Shadow of the Colossus -- and bits of pop culture -- Batman, Ninja Warrior -- with varying degrees of seriousness and authenticity. What's more surprising is that aspiring level designers have already created some amazingly detailed and original worlds out of whole cloth. Sure, there's a fair share of gimmicky levels that seem overrun with flashy rocket-propelled vehicles or pedestrian platforming challenges. But there are also plenty of exciting creations involving everything from tricky spinning-pinwheel jumps to tight jetpack mazes. Some levels, like the grin-inducing "Dino-land," show an impressive level of artistic cohesion, and a few, like a rope-skipping level created by Media Molecule, create totally new gameplay experiences from the level-design building blocks.
A simple, intuitive tagging system helps users separate the good from the bad -- just cruising through the creations labeled as "Brilliant" by a critical mass of people is a good way to waste an entire evening. The game makes it easy for other creators to copy from levels they like, taking the best parts and repurposing them for their own creations. This is already leading to a lot of copycat content (there are an amazing amount of dinosaurs and waterwheels in LittleBigPlanet), but in the long run it could lead to progress as the community builds on its successes and learns from the failures.
There are a few problems with LittleBigPlanet as it stand now. Online play was near-unworkable in my beta testing -- my cooperative play partner and I kept falling out of sync with each other, leading to some comically unplayable situations. I ran into a few random, unexplained Sackboy deaths that seemed to come out of nowhere, and a few additional cases in which my little guy got permanently stuck in between two pieces of scenery. None of these problems are unfixable, though, and none of them do much to obscure the truly revolutionary nature of LittleBigPlanet. Here we have an ur-platformer -- a pared-down, largely empty palette ready to accept the imaginings of a public that's hopefully hungry to create. If it works, the flood of constantly refreshed content could create a game that never goes stale. If it doesn't, well, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
This preview is based on a limited public beta version of the game.