Birth pangs of a Sackboy

LittleBigPlanet has both a staggeringly robust level-creation system and all the right online infrastructure in place to facilitate an endless supply of user-generated content. I have incredibly high hopes for this game, and I could barely contain my excitement when I got an e-mail from Sony approving my application for the game’s Japanese beta test. But now that the beta is finished, I have considerably less optimism for the game than I did just last week.

Looking at what said users had generated, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by both the lack of well-designed levels and the popularity of poorly-designed ones. A large portion of the most popular levels were LittleBigPlanet’s equivalent of hastily-assembled licensed products selling on brand name alone. While it was interesting for a couple seconds to see Metal Gear Solid or Shadow of the Colossus reimagined as platformers, the stages themselves weren’t very fun. They felt superficial, intriguing only because of the source material, and not making good use of the actual game mechanics of LittleBigPlanet itself.

This gap between the possibilities of level creation and the realities of the interface for playing those levels creates an enormous challenge for designers to overcome. For example, while the construction system has incredible free-form potential, the player’s avatar is always Sackboy, whose set of movements is quite limited. The restrictions of his abilities should help direct designers as they play with the enormous canvas the game provides; no matter how imaginative, creations in LittleBigPlanet are pointless if Sackboy isn’t able to inhabit them comfortably.

[[image:cg_sackboy.jpg:Don’t forget about me!:center:0]]
With a couple rare exceptions, few levels seemed to acknowledge this reality. Even playing through the better levels often felt slightly off. When both the design and the play control were good, they usually still didn’t go well together, like how it might feel to play through a Sonic game controlling Mario. More than anything, this sense that something was always wrong, that there was no connection between Sackboy’s control scheme and the worlds he inhabited, reminded me of the countless awful NES and SNES platformers I played when I was too young to realize that Bubsy or Aero the Acro-Bat might not actually be worth my time.

I’ll freely admit that I’m probably judging the game too harshly and too hastily. It’s no more fair to blame LittleBigPlanet for issues with user content during its beta test than it would be to declare the entire Internet a failure for being home to so much disturbing Harry Potter fanfiction. This problem is just Sturgeon’s Law in full effect. At the same time, hearing the almost universally positive impressions of the user content in the beta made me wonder if I was even playing the same game as everyone else. For a game with such potential, I feel like expectations are far too low. I want more out of this than Bubsy the Bobcat in HD, and I can’t justify paying anything near the price of a PS3 game to play more of what I’ve experienced so far.

I hope this game is a tremendous success, both financially and in terms of developing a thriving and creative online community. I’m fairly certain that it will work out well on both of these fronts, eventually. However, I’m also fairly sure at this point that I don’t want to be there during LittleBigPlanet’s formative stages. So, for the time being, I’m going to sit on the sidelines and wait patiently while other gamers, more patient and more creative gamers than me, can work out the kinks. Good luck to all of you.

11 thoughts on “Birth pangs of a Sackboy

  1. While I’ll agree most of the levels weren’t very good, I do think there was some genuinely good stuff there. Did you play the levels everyone hearted?

  2. My sole objection to LittleBigPlanet was because I’d seen how hard it was to get great content when I worked with DROD, and that had an enthusiastic, small, ferociously smart community, and I simply didn’t see how you could scale that and not have the signal lost in the noise.

    I sorely hope it works, because player-created stuff really extends the life of a game and I’d love to see how to do it in the mainstream.

  3. Starcraft taught me years ago that the gaming masses will generally lean towards the most repetitive and creatively bankrupt user-generated content.

    I never really considered that LittleBigPlanet might turn out the same way, but the moment you brought it up, my mind immediately turned to my years of playing UMS maps on Starcraft.

  4. Oh, I forgot to mention that this problem compounds itself by all of the users patting themselves on the back for making something popular and ripping each other off wholesale.

  5. Enough of MMPU’s user-created levels were mediocre enough to leave me completely cynical toward the idea of user-generated content. When I first heard of LBP, the first thought that came to mind was, “Good luck with that”.

  6. Well, I’d definitely give it a while. Remember, most people in the beta had little more than a week to learn the whole system and produce something – given that, I think some of the levels I saw were pretty amazing. Also, the short time frame means a lot of users only had time to try out a few user levels, and of course they’re going to go for ones where the name/theme catches their eye first.

    I do think Vega’s right, though, in that there’s going to be a need for guides to “diamonds in the rough” compiled by people with actual good design sense willing to sort the wheat from the chaff of user-generated levels.

    I also must sheepishly admit that my first big level idea for when the full game comes out is a “licensed” theme, but I do intend to keep the mechanics and strengths of LBP in mind, and use only aspect of the original theme that seem to lend themselves to this world. Hopefully it’ll turn out reasonably well.

  7. I was in the beta too and, honestly, I can’t see where you’re coming from. Sure, there were a lot of creatively bankrupt levels based on classic games, but unless your eyes and X button are drawn to them it’s easy enough to just ignore those and play other highly rated levels. You can see what the level is named long before you actually play it.

    That said, some of those copycat levels were pretty good. The Shadow of the Colossus one where you actually play through the stage is among the best I played. Other good ones were the one where you stand on a car and it plays “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, one where you operate multi-switch construction vehicles, one where you go through Ninja training, and (my personal favorite) the color-coded switch filled obstacle course where flipping more switches reward with more loot.

    I made a golf level that begins with a giant golfer that hits flaming golf balls down the course which you have to outrun. It ended with a Golf Cart race to the end which culminated in smashing into a miniature version of the evil golfer and breaking him into pieces. Pretty neat!

    Those looking for a “good level” guide won’t need anything printed out. You can highlight your friends and see any levels they’ve hearted to find out what’s worth your time.

    Personally, I loved the beta and I seriously can’t wait for the final version. Friend me (SuperWes) now or when you get the game and I’ll play your level!


  8. I thought being a Playstation 3 owner and having low expectations went hand in hand? (thank you, I’ll be here all week)

  9. It’s funny that we had basically the same message (design levels for this game, instead of trying to force it to fit into another game you like), but had completely opposite opinions.

    Anyway, I have faith when people have access to the 60+ developer levels, instead of the meager 5 opening levels of the beta, things will go much better. Plus, like Kirin said, when people have more than a week to play it, there will be some good stuff.

  10. I’m with AbominableK. MMPU left me wondering what kind of lifespan this game may have. Even something as simple as Super Mario Bros.’ 1-1 has produced questionable results in LBP.

    –LBD “Nytetrayn”

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