LittleBigPlanet: Everything changes, everything stays the same - Games Weekly

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

LittleBigPlanet: Everything changes, everything stays the same

 Born of the simple mantra to play, create and share, LittleBigPlanet gives players the power to make and share their own levels starring Sackboy and now a new cast of characters
It’s about us trying to pull your creativity out of you,”  Sumo Digital design director Damian Hosen insists to us, and while that could probably have been said of any of the games produced by Media Molecule on PS3, it feels as if LittleBigPlanet 3 is working even harder to make it a reality. And Sumo does need to work rather hard. The DNA of LittleBigPlanet lives and breathes Media Molecule, but with the creative minds of Guildford working on other projects and a new generation of PlayStation crying out for Sackboy, someone had to fill its intimidating boots. Sumo stepped up to the plate.

“Media Molecule are a really special team, a really talented team,” agrees Hosen. “We met them quite a few times in the early stages of the project and tried to get a sense of how they designed LBP, why it’s the shape that it is, because they’re very good at starting from a unique position when they’re starting a new game. They always end up making something that no one else could make.”

But when you’re the developer who has to remake the game only Media Molecule could make, where do you even begin? “I remember chatting to Kareem [Ettouney, art director of MM] and I remember him saying to me that we have to sit down and decide which things of LBP need to stay the same and which things need to change,” Hosen reveals to us. “He said that’s exactly the process that they would have gone through. You can’t just stand still and make the same game again. We had to go through that and we had to look at where we thought we could dig deeper into the DNA of the franchise.”

How Sumo has gone about this is attempting to bring the core principles of LittleBigPlanet closer together than ever before. “When you think about it, LBP has always been about play, create and share, but play, create and share have always been very separate,” Hosen tells us. “A lot of players will probably go straight into the main menu, hit play, play the story mode and that’s it. Other people might go to create, make stuff and that’s it.” The result is a play mode that involves creating on the fly and a create mode that includes challenges so you are given increasingly complex tasks that will help you gradually unlock your creativity.

“We really thought that there’s a great opportunity to cross the streams here a little bit,” Hosen continues. “I mean, why not have a play experience that’s based on create? Why not have a creative experience that’s playful? We just tried to copy over concepts, overlap them more and see where that lead us. That lead us in some interesting directions.”
“  LittleBigPlanet 3 massively expands possibilities for User Generated Content enabling you to bring your own world to life in the game ”
This has been one of Sumo’s biggest contributions to LBP3. Much as Media olecule had its stamp all over the series, Sumo felt it had to do the same and bring a little of its own creative spirit to the latest game. The other big change according to Hosen was bringing in some new characters who could open up avenues to new gameplay. “[LBP is] done in a really charming and idiosyncratic way and we really wanted to experiment with that and exploit that in different ways. The playable characters really came out of a desire to do that. One of the characters changes their weight and shape, one can pick things up and go into the sky. These are all things that give players the chance to explore and experiment in craft world in a completely new way. In essence, we just always wanted to make a team really, a team of characters that were fun to use and I think we managed to achieve that.”

It says something about the community that Media Molecule has managed to foster that there really hasn't been much of a backlash to Sumo Digital taking over the series or against Sackboy getting some new friends. If anything, Swoop the bird, Oddsock the dog and Toggle the size-changing whatever have been embraced by fans. “I’m really, really proud of Toggle, because it’s a really unique character,” says Hosen. “I can’t think of another character in games that has his abilities and gameplay style. We’ve got some really strong levels. One of the things that we really set out to achieve in LBP3 was great variety through the story mode so that every level is different. We don’t really have two levels that are alike in terms of their gameplay hook. There are 30-plus completely unique levels and that’s a testament to the talent of the level design team and the power of the create tools.”

One of the key reasons why Sumo has been able to maintain the spirit of Media Molecule is that it has packed its design team with people who know LittleBigPlanet better than anyone else: former players. “If you look at our team of level designers who come from the community, these guys have been dedicated in honing their creative skills over a number of years to get to the stage where they’re strong enough to get a professional job in the games industry,” Hosen reveals to us. It’s a policy that Media Molecule also followed, bringing in some of the most creative LBP fans and adding them to the roster. It’s also a story that helped to inspire the plot for LittleBigPlanet 3’s villain too.

“Newton was an example of a character who has creative talent and no application and so you get this kind of comical, slapstick, buffoonish character with Peter Sellerish disastrous results with everything that he does, which gives you a lot of comedy. But the central point to it is that you do have to work hard with your creativity to actually really achieve.” There’s always been a broad theme of supporting a creative spirit in these games, but never one that was quite so direct. As
you are set the task of saving Bunkum from Newton’s crazed schemes, there’s now a much more direct appeal to add a little focus to your creations, in much the same way as Sumo’s Popit Puzzles bring a little direction to the creation mode.

“I’m one of those people that has a lot of ideas and I don’t always fully achieve those ideas” admits Hosen. “I can often move from one thing to the next and maybe don’t finish what I started. Newton was a bit of a commentary on that I suppose. I think people have a creative element. I firmly believe that.”

It certainly became clear as we spoke to Hosen that the LittleBigPlanet community is right not to be too concerned about the future of the series. Much as it has inspired its players, this is a series that has brought out new creative spirit in the industry too. Since its earliest days, LBP has been trying to disseminate its ideals, and Hosen for one has taken them on board.
Texture resolutions have been enhanced by 4x which means the materials in LBP 3 feel more tactile than ever in full 1080p HD
“I remember working at Sony when LBP 1 was being made and Phil Harrison always used to say that the disc was just the beginning,’ he tells us. “I think with LBP 3 as well as LBP 1 and 2, that’s so true. From our point of view we’re just in a really novel position to see what starts coming out of the community. We’ve got cool things coming out of the beta already and that’s just going to gather pace from launch onwards and we’ll have literally millions of levels with new playable characters and all these new tools coming together. I can’t wait to see that.”

And that’s always been the true story of LittleBigPlanet. As well as any of these games has reviewed at launch, they’ve only ever been as good as the community made them. The original level design of the first game brought some great tricks and ideas to light, the second game’s more open structure and tools lead to some amazing experiences, almost hacking the game. What could be in store from the new characters and 16 planes for adding amazing new depth to experiences?

“I’m sure the community will take that a lot further than we've done,” admits Hosen. “We've scratched the surface to a degree… We're just hoping that people who were maybe a bit scared of create before, we’re trying to give them a bit of a ladder to create mode. Hopefully we'll achieve that because the people that do dig into create and start making things are really satisfied with that experience. We want to get as many people doing that as possible really.”

 And perhaps the most important legacy of these games is that it brings not just a creative spirit, but a positive one to the gaming world. Much like its creative comrades Minecraft and Project Spark, LittleBigPlanet is a game that any developer can be proud to have worked on according to Hosen. “I've got three kids and I’d be mindful of the kind of games they play. A game like this is just a perfect experience for them. It’s not just that it’s playful, charming, cute, funny, irreverent and all those things. It’s not passive. It’s not just about being entertained.”

LITTLEBIGPLANET HAS continued to grow incrementally and the added capacity and processing power of the PS4 means that everything that’s been done before will continue into this new title. “All the tools in LittleBigPlanet 1 and 2 are here, some of them have been enhanced and we’ve added another 75 or 80 of our own,” Hosen tells us. “We’ve also brought a lot of the Vita tools over, too. So if you’re looking at enhanced tools, new tools and Vita tools, you’re talking around 100 plus new tools in this game.” What’s more, level creation is no longer limited by an in-game thermometer, but rather the capacity of your console instead. You could now make something incredibly complex and detailed.

MUCH LIKE MEDIA Molecule before it, Sumo Digital hasn't just come up with cool new ideas for LittleBigPlanet 3 and dropped them into the game for it to enjoy the benefit alone. Every new addition has to be fed through the principle that it has to be available to the community too. “Everything that we wanted to make, every level type, every power-up type, every gameplay style, the starting point is what tool can we make that lets us do that, because that then means that the community has access to all the same things that we have access to,” says Sumo Digital design director Damian Hosen. “That’s been a really, really, really important part of what we’ve done.”

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