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Published January 1, 2000

(originally published at Smile Politely, 11/5)

LittleBigPlanet was supposed to change the way we play video games. Unveiled at the 2007 Game Developers Conference, the DIY platformer made a wonderful first impression thanks to its accessible creation tools, a built-in community and the particularly adorable mascot Sackboy. But much like the fellow GDC champ Playstation Home, LittleBigPlanet‘s hype never really translated in big commercial success when it was released last fall. A little more than one year later, LBP remains mostly forgotten by the mainstream crowd. Not a deserving fate for a game that I absolutely believe is a modern classic — and one that I think can be reversed with just a few tweaks and a little luck.

I remain hopeful because by its nature, LBP is constantly evolving. Following the tradition of other genre staples like the Super Mario Bros., the goal here is to simply get to the end of each level by running, jumping and swinging past anything in your path. Much like the burlap-covered hero, nearly everything in LBP has real-world texture. The game had a stitched-together look that hearkened back to the LEGO forts and building blocks of youth. But what really set the game apart is that you could take all of sorts of these ingredients —wood, glass, carpeting, sports equipment, and so much more— and make cohesive levels to be shared online with friends and strangers. And while I’ll often go a month or two without playing the game very much, I’m constantly blown away by the gaming craftsmanship on display.

For instance, there’s a series of levels inspired by Electronic Art’s Dead Space, in which Sackboy has to explore a derelict space station infested with multi-limbed monsters. The first act features a stalled-out elevator, atmospheric lighting and an anti-gravity chamber ripped straight from the source material. When the LBP came out a year ago, such a feat never seemed possible, but now, such results are almost commonplace. Some levels forgo interactivity altogether, such as the “Cause and Effect” series. Here, the creator, “Triple Tremelo,” sets out to impress with technically masterful Rube Goldberg devices. And there are hundreds of other levels of similarly high quality.

Sounds pretty cool, right? So why has it not taken off yet? I think much of the problem is that the game’s tools are not as easy to use as advertised. As shown in the debut trailer (see above), you can create a stack of tennis balls or a skateboard ramp in a matter of seconds, but if you want to create anything more intricate than that, prepare to be frustrated for a very long time. Because there are three different planes to walk on this game (versus old-school Mario’s one) there’s a degree of obfuscation that’s really difficult to reconcile. Gluing things together usually involves a series of pins and switches that just won’t make sense for the first-time players. And most first-timers will also be last-timers if they’re not having much fun.

One idea would be to streamline the tools so that players are only operating on one plane initially. Anybody playing on a modern console understands the 2D side scroller, so why not cater to them initially before moving them onto the more difficult stuff. The engine is versatile enough that you can still make some pretty attractive and functional stuff without including that pesky extra dimension.

I think another potential answer would be to offer more detailed tutorials than what’s offered in the Story mode. For some reason, developer Media Molecule decided it would be best to set a clear division between pre-made levels pressed to the disc and the more creative stuff, which seems like a major mistake in retrospect. The logic here was probably to ensure that the game remained swiftly paced, but I don’t think players would have minded a brief bridge building exercise every so often.

Perhaps Media Molecule could have taken a cue from an even bigger sales-bomb, Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. While Banjo the bear is too dated to resonate with a modern audience, the game’s garage was a worthwhile innovation. For every challenge, players were required to build new vehicles, either from existing blueprints or from scratch. Early in the game, you’d be able to get by with just four wheels and a motor, but later sections required some ingenuity. LBP could employ a similar learning curve. It may be too late for the disc-based content, but there’s always DLC, right?

Maybe not, if the current LBP store is any indication. When the game was first announced, we were promised new levels, some of which would be developed by some of Sony’s other acclaimed developers. What we’re getting right now is costume packs from Judge Dredd. It’s not that we haven’t seen any major additions since launch. The Metal Gear Solid pack included a paintball gun that has significantly changed how LBP is played, and at some point, a water pack —complete with snorkels— should create ripples in the community. But the major DLC releases have been too far apart, with hardly any new levels from the game’s creators. Sony’s missing out on an incredible marketing opportunity too. Your average gamer might not be interested in the cute box art and cheery music, but I think some involvement from the God of War or Killzone 2 guys could potentially sway him or her. There’s a portion of people who would rather just plow through a few obstacle courses instead of sitting down in a virtual sandbox, and this would be an easy way to cater to them.

I don’t know if streamlined tools, better tutorials or these higher profile updates would be the answer, but what I do know is that the game does not need a sequel anytime soon, and it seems that the developers agree. The foundation here is solid, a new PSP version will have people talking about the title again and the recent PS3 price cut means that plenty of new shoppers will be scouring the shelves for older titles soon enough. (I think it’d make a great pack-in game too, but I guess Sony thinks otherwise.) But Sony and Media Molecule need to reassess how they’re selling the game. LittleBigPlanet has sold modestly throughout its first year, but it still has the makings of a blockbuster.

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