The Evolution of Game Creation Sony’s new mascot Sackboy is ushering in Gaming 2.0

The Evolution of Game Creation Sony’s new mascot Sackboy is ushering in Gaming 2.0
Pop culture was once a one-way street — the few created content to be consumed by the many. Punk’s DIY attitude may have added a small underpass in the other direction but it wasn’t until the rise of YouTube, blogs, wikis and the whole Web 2.0 movement that user-generated content truly took off. Now gaming has jumped aboard the 2.0 train with Sony’s LittleBigPlanet and EA’s Spore.

"It seemed like a real pie-in-the-sky idea,” says Sony Canada rep Matt Levitan of the initial pitch from LBP’s British developers Media Molecule, who wanted to straddle the game/toy divide by giving players the tools to build their own levels. "We knew the PS3 had a hard drive and was capable of it but it was still a tremendous promise to actually deliver. The [invite-only] beta was the first time I’ve had a chance to see the game in people’s hands and I’m amazed by the creativity, attention to detail and real effort that has gone into some of these levels.”

LittleBigPlanet is, at heart, a simple platformer, a throwback side-scroller where you start at one side and move to the other, jumping, dodging and grabbing along the way. There’s depth, but not much — at best it could be called 2.5D. As befits its basic premise, LBP boasts a homemade aesthetic — the game’s hero is an adorable burlap-covered character known as Sackboy (or Sackgirl) and the bits and bobs that make up its world are filled with textures — on "Create Mode” you can make tweed ramps, felt blocks, plastic alligators and wooden cars or build almost any other object out of cardboard, Styrofoam, metal, rubber or glass. Materials react as they would in the real world and most puzzles are ultimately rooted in gravity. Enemies can be given AI tasks (you can even use the Playstation Eye camera to put your own head on them) while traps can be laid with fire, ice, electricity or poison gas. You can even create tributes to your favourite games, like Shadow of the Colossus. Then your level can be uploaded, rated and shared, with the best rising to the top just as they do in YouTube.

"People have taken their shots at this before,” says Levitan. "There’s RPG Maker and certainly Counter-Strike and stuff where you can do your own level mods but this is the first time where we’ve given you a platform game and the ability to start with a blank canvas and really select everything that goes into the level, from the music to the physical properties of the level. It’s never been done before, certainly not with the ease of pressing a few buttons.”

Well, technically LBP was beat to the punch by Will Wright’s PC game Spore, which got off the ground first by releasing its Creature Creator as a free download last summer. As this was a spiritual sequel to Wright’s best-selling-game-ever The Sims — its original working title was SimEverything — the years of pent-up anticipation exploded in an orgy of evolution. In the first week, one million new species were created by at-home gamers. Within 18 days, users had generated more unique life forms than currently exist on earth, prompting Wright to cheekily boast, "God created all life on earth in seven days, so Spore fans equal 38 per cent of God’s output.” Many of those creatures were inserted into retail version when it launched in September, saving EA tons of dev money, and after the release of the complex game — in which you evolve a single-celled organism into a space-faring race — Spore’s universe just kept expanding thanks to gamers’ other creations.

"I have the utmost respect for [Spore],” says Levitan, "but LittleBigPlanet is more about the actual game where that’s more about the creature creation and evolution. At the end of the day, LittleBigPlanet is the level you create — and other people will ultimately be the judge of that. In some respects, there’s even more creativity given to the player than Spore

One of the reasons that user generated content works is because non-professionals have little training but lots of imagination — they just need tools that can properly exploit that. Think back to the birth of hip-hop — not many ghetto kids could play piano or read notes, but once synthesizers became affordable, they reinvented music, not least because they weren’t limited by knowing the "proper” way to use the synth or write a song. That’s why Grandmaster Flash doesn’t sound like Steely Dan.

"It’s a major step forward allowing gamers to have this level of freedom with creation. There’s no turning back,” says Levitan. "Whether or not that is always the right thing, to tell you the truth, I don't know. I’m sure I can’t create a better Final Fantasy than the folks at Square-Enix. I can’t do that kind of animation, write that story or build that combat system. So it’s probably not always right for me to be able to do that. But at the same time, gamers will always have that in the back of their heads now that LittleBigPlanet has opened the door.”