Last week, players uploaded 53,000 new LittleBigPlanet levels to the Media Molecule servers. And those 53,000 creations went into a library of 2.3 million levels created by the LBP community over the game’s lifetime. As Media Molecule co-founders Alex Evans and Mark Healey rattled off those gaudy figures at a recent London press event, their underlying message was clear: They’d be crazy to mess with this mojo.
So LittleBigPlanet 2, which Evans and Healey revealed at the event (in pre-alpha form), is not a major departure from its predecessor - no "reboots" here. Rather than revamp the first game, Media Molecule is building on the LBP foundation, making the Little a bit bigger. Sackboy’s still here, as are the stickers and the Popit level-creation interface. LBP 2 will even maintain backward compatibility with all those LBP levels -- in fact, they’ll look just a tad crisper and shinier with LBP 2’s refined graphics engine.
The fact that LBP 2 preserves the past, though, doesn’t mean that the developers have gotten complacent. Far from it. The sequel incorporates a huge amount of input from fans. One of the strongest bits of feedback that Media Molecule has gotten from the community is that it’s too hard to, well, commune. The "share" part of LBP’s "Play. Create. Share." motto has always been the weak link. The dark side of the "2.3 million levels" figure is that it’s way too hard to find quality content amid all that noise. So the LBP 2 devs are cherry-picking the best ideas from social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Their goal is to give players any number of ways to tell each other what’s worth playing.
The heart of the new Share tools is lbp.me, a web hub that will allow users to explore LBP content with or without the PS3. Every player gets their own page on lbp.me where they’ll be able to promote levels they’ve created, share levels they’ve played, and check in on their friends’ activity with a "stream" that resembles a Facebook news feed. And lbp.me is integrated with PlayStation Network IDs, so if you find an intriguing new level on the web, you click once to add it to a favorites list that’s mirrored on your PS3. Media Molecule envisions legions of fans queuing up new levels all day at work and then running home to play.
Evans said that the LBP developers had broadened their outlook beyond the "walled garden" of their current PS3-only sharing tools. "We want to help creators share inside and outside of LittleBigPlanet," he said. They’re even adding support for QR codes -- those funny-looking 2-D barcodes. Any link on lbp.me can be turned into a QR code and printed. Hold the QR code printout up to a PlayStation Eye, and LBP 2 will bring up the corresponding level.
That’s a nifty gimmick, but the real leap forward here is more basic: LBP’s thorough, belated embracement of the web. The fact that every LBP level -- old and new -- will have a short, easily emailed/tweeted URL is a huge leap from the proprietary, often frustrating interface of the original game. The developers don’t need players to be attached to their PS3 all the time. They want LBP to grow in every direction. Their philosophy seems to be: The bigger the crowd, the better the crowdsourcing.
Fair warning, if you never fell in love with the "Create" side of LittleBigPlanet, LBP 2 isn’t going to change that. Media Molecule could have tried to simplify or rework the Popit level-creation tools, but instead they’ve left the system largely intact, adding features for the natural-born tinkerers instead of attempting to win new converts. Healey and his team are confident in the framework they’ve created -- or, more to the point, confident in the work that LBP users have created. They figure they’re doing something right.
To demo the new creation features, Healey dropped into the Popit editing mode and plunked a blockheaded little dude onto the screen. This wooden, vaguely robot-ish fellow was Sackbot, who creators can bring to life with a sophisticated new artificial-intelligence system. Healey clicked a few buttons to implant various directives in Sackbot’s brain: First the bot followed Sackboy around, then he ran away from Sackboy, and finally, he diligently patrolled an area, waiting to pounce when Sackboy arrived. (You’ll also be able to record a more detailed series of movements for the Sackbot to act out. That feature, in conjunction with LBP 2’s cinematographic cutscene tools, could make for some interesting machinima.)
Next, Healey tapped a few more buttons on the Popit, and a faux circuit board popped out of the Sackbot’s brain. In LBP 2, creators can create a complex AI by slapping different behaviors on a Sackbot circuit board and connecting them with wires, switches, and various logic gates. Maybe a Sackbot tries to run away from you at first, but when you get too close, he flips out and goes into attack mode. That’s a dead-simple example. Considering that someone built an entire calculator from scratch in the original LittleBigPlanet mere weeks after it became available to the public, we can expect that LBP auteurs will design some sophisticated little brains.
Better yet, they’ll be able to share those brains. Because once you’re finished designing a circuit board, LBP 2 condenses all that wiring and logic into one compact unit called a "microchip." That little chip can be duplicated and sent out on the LBP network like any other user-generated object. Level creators have always been able to share the things that they’ve made; now they’ll be able to share behaviors as well. Healey predicted that we’d see the rise of LBP-style "electrical engineers" who specialize in devising complex logic for other creators to use in their own games.
That’s right, their own "games" -- it’s not just about levels anymore. In LBP 2, designers will be able to package together multiple stages into an entire quest. And that quest won’t necessarily be a platformer. "We’re taking it beyond a platform game," Healey said. "LBP 2 is a platform for games."
Strong words, but Healey backed them up by unveiling one of the most powerful new features in the sequel: direct-control vehicles. Until now, no matter how fantastical your level, players were bound to play as Sackboy. If you wanted to drive a car, you had to do it through Sackboy -- making him grab onto a lever, for instance, and wiggling him back and forth. In LBP 2, Sackboy isn’t the be-all end-all. If a level creator wants to put the player at the wheel of a spaceship or racehorse or bicycle built for two, that can happen.
Healey opened up a fresh level and worked some more Popit wizardry. He dropped a simple four-wheel cart onto the screen and then slapped a little D-pad-shaped widget on its side. The widget opened up to reveal another Sackbot-type circuit board, but this time the board was shaped like a PS3 controller. Healey could "wire" the controller’s various buttons -- and the Sixaxis sensor -- to different functions on the cart, and within 30 seconds, he had a car that moved in whatever direction he was tilting the controller. And of course, just like Sackbot, the direct-control boards can be condensed into a microchip and shared with the world.
This simple innovation could open up LittleBigPlanet more than any other feature has. When Sackboy hops into a direct-control vehicle, he essentially fades into the background, and whatever you’re driving at that moment becomes the focus. Healey hastened to note that if you don’t like the "floaty" feel of Sackboy, you can adjust the controls of a direct-control vehicle to "make it as un-floaty as you like." (Never has anyone spoken the word "floaty" with such venom.)
That was Create and Share - then it was time to Play. We got hands-on time with one demo level in which we controlled a mechanical bird, a slithering furry caterpillar, and a metallic dragonfly with a laser turret. The feel of the game transformed from a platformer to a top-down racer, a side-scrolling shooter, and a Space Invaders knockoff. Healey thinks this pre-built experience is just scratching the surface: "I’m willing to stake any amount of money that someone will take these tools and not only create some wonderful games -- I’m sure someone will create a whole new genre."
Hyperbole? Maybe, maybe not. The LBP developers are so enthusiastic and passionate about their work that they’re permitted the occasional over-the-top moment. For instance, Healey remarked a couple times that the stuff he was going to show us would "melt our minds." It didn’t -- not yet, at least. What Media Molecule has done is pack LittleBigPlanet 2 with a huge amount of potential. The mind-melting moments will come when we see what thousands of game creators can do with LBP 2’s new tools.