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Interview with Joe O’Rourke (

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It’s seems particularly fitting that LittleBigPlanet has inspired such a loyal blog following. Even before the game’s release, new fans were speculating about what to expect from Sony’s hot platformer, and even now, they have plenty to keep them checking back in. We talked with Joe O’Rourke, the founder of the long-running, to talk about the game’s community and level editing tools.

The Rumble Pack: You started up long before the game’s release. What was it about the early footage that inspired you to start the blog?

Joe O’Rourke:
I’ve always been an avid gamer, but nothing about the current generation of consoles had really grabbed me until I saw the GDC 2007 demo of LittleBigPlanet. I’d played with level editors from Doom to Source, even done a tiny bit of 3D modeling; so to see a game where objects could be created as real-world materials with great visual fidelity and reasonable physics, while the game is running and not in a separate tool, just blew me away. The art style was very appealing as well, which became more and more of an additional draw as time went on.

RP: Early reports of sales numbers were initially disappointing, even though I think they’d qualify in the “pretty good” range at this point. But in terms of your own site numbers, have you seen a pretty steady influx of new readers? Do you think the LBP name is still relevant to the average PS3 owner.

JO: Based on Sony’s statements leading up to the release, I didn’t see any way they wouldn’t be disappointed by the sales (which, given the platform and lack of gore, were still pretty darn good); it’s worth noting that Media Molecule was profitable immediately due to their low overhead. As far as my site goes, it’s been downhill since before the release, but that doesn’t surprise or disappoint me. LittleBigWorkshop launched, LittleBigPlanet Central resurfaced, Media Molecule hired excellent community managers, the podcasts started – all of these things made sites like mine less necessary, which is fine.

RP: Your site also mentions that you’re a game design hobbyist too. Are you satisfied with the tools included with the game? What are some additional tools you’d like to see in LBP‘s second year?

JO: The tools were definitely made more accessible since the early demos, which has a huge upside and a slight downside; infinite depth granularity has its problems, but I have to agree with those that say four layers for four players might’ve been better. For the future, though, I’d love to see some creation incorporated into gameplay, as had been planned at one point. It’s difficult to do well, but if anyone can tackle that particular design challenge it’d be the folks at Media Molecule. The other thing that excites me for the future is the demo of wand/sphere/thingy LBP integration that was shown at TGS, which looks like an awesome cooperative (particularly parent/child or gamer/nongamer) experience.

RP: What would you want the PSP version to bring to the table? Do you think it will inspire the same strong community as its console older brother?

JO: The ability to create levels while waiting in line, riding the train, et cetera should be a huge boon to the more mobile among us. I’m not sure how the community will shake out, though. There’s an opportunity to use the PSP’s online features to great advantage, having an in-game portal to LittleBigWorkshop and such, or queueing up levels via browser to be pushed down to the PSP, but I’m not sure how much of that sort of thing is being worked on. I guess we just have to wait and see.

RP: How do you feel about the DLC that’s been released so far? Were you initially hoping for more than costumes when you started the blog so many years back?

JO: It’s difficult to complain, when LBP’s seen more DLC than just about anything short of Rock Band and SingStar. Back before release, I think a lot of us expected most of the DLC to be level packs, but in retrospect that’s kind of silly given that it’d be competing with their own user base. I like the costumes and stickers, but for those that don’t there’ve also been the paintinator, creator pack and music pack (hopfully more to come). I think the Metal Gear Solid pack was such a game-changer, so soon after release, that players want that sort of thing on a more frequent basis than is reasonably possible.

RP: What do you think makes the LBP community so enduring/enthusiastic?

JO: Creation is marvelously addictive. The LBP fanbase is like an artists’ commune with thousands of residents: every day you can see wonderful things being created, and make your own visions into something to share. And it’s not all within the game, as I’m sure you’ve seen. From Sackboy fanart to music videos to whatever you’d call my DevFace vandalizations, there’s a real creative energy that drives the whole community.

RP: And lastly, do you have a favorite level or two?

JO: It’s so hard to pick favorites! In the story mode, I’d have to go with “The Darkness.” That’s the one that made me stop playing, go to the computer and email Media Molecule just to say “this is awesome.” From the pre-release Beta, I loved “Johnny Cash in Folsom Prison.” BasketSnake always does wonderful character contraptions, but this is still my favorite. As far as (somewhat) more current stuff, I loved “Inside the Mind of an ‘H4H’er” by wexfordian. So meta, but also great design and visuals. And some of my favorite levels in the current Beta…oh wait, I can’t talk about that, can I? 🙂

Be sure to check out Joe’s for the latest LittleBigPlanet news.

Building Upon a Solid Foundation

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(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.

Our Own Favorite Levels

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When LittleBigPlanet launched in October 2008, users logging onto the community page were greeted with countless “trophy” stages and other spam that paled in comparison to the story mode’s masterpieces. However, while those obnoxious bubble-grabs still litter the “highest rated” list, more amateur level designers have begun to tap into the game’s deep set of tools – these guys are finally fulfilling the promise of the “play, create and share” mantra that Sony continues to push.

We’ve compiled our own personal favorite stages below. We acknowledge that these may not be the “best” that the game has to offer, but they represent an exponential leap in quality over the launch levels and in many cases are absolutely stunning. Be sure to visit our boards and let us know if we missed your own picks.

Justin’s Pick: Lost Tomb of Anubis by Nattura

One of the joys of playing community levels in LBP is that you’ll often find gems where you least expect them. Take the generically named “Lost Tomb” above. How many lost temples/tombs/castles/caves do we really need? It’s thematically right behind fire and ice levels in the platforming cliche handbook. But when you first boot up Nattura’s creation, you’re immediately made a little uneasy by an introductory trek across the desert. Your little Sackboy is just a silhouette running past howling “winds” and crumbling pyramids, with sand dunes weaving up and down. There’s a lonely atmosphere that’s more in step with Ico or Shadow of the Colussus than the bright, cheery worlds Media Molecule gave us, even though it’s in keeping with the story mode’s world culture motif. Once you get into the actual pyramid proper, close inspection reveals that the walls are rather sparsely decorated, but you’ll probably be too lost in the gloomy lighting and somber music selection to care. The level design never provides the same thrills, and it’s definitely on the easy side, but like the best LBP levels, it’s about the experience.

Nick’s Pick: Run Sackboy…Run! by superskag

Perhaps it’s the unbridled yet often intimidating creativity found among the LBP community that has kept so many of its fans from creating their own levels. But for all the tangled webs of wires I see that power super complicated, mood setting stages, there’s levels such as “Run Sackboy…Run!” which, despite the unfortunate title pun, recaptures everything fun and innocent that LBP represents at its best. The level itself is a fast-paced obstacle course, running no longer than two and half minutes at its max yet capturing almost every enjoyable play mechanic found throughout the main game – you’ll swing, jump, fly, slide and yes, run, back and forth across a myriad of different surfaces, watching amusing sticker placements in the clouds as you hover by and never crossing too frustrating of a gap on your journey toward a point-hemorrhaging finish line. The use of the race-timer is perfect – you’ll either attempt to screw over your simultaneously racing friends or stick it to everyone else on the leader boards (I clocked in myself at rank 37,722). Either way, it’s hard to deny the simplistic brilliance of this mini gauntlet – it’s a Sackboy speed-run, and man, can that little guy move.

Kaz’s Pick: Lost in the Pacific 1, 2 and 3 by SJEPAP

A trilogy? Yes, amongst the pantheon of one off race levels and paintball gun arenas there exists LittleBigPlanet creators still trying to produce “normal” content for the game. I have to admit, it had been quite a while since I’d last braved the content of LBP. I wasn’t expecting to find the greatest content since the last time I waded through trophy level after trophy level was so lackluster.

Did I strike gold? No.

That doesn’t mean that these levels don’t have merit. In fact, the only thing holding these levels back is the still frustrating multi-plane platforming of LBP itself. It’s most interesting to see the progression of the creator as each level was made. I’m not sure the time between levels but the consistency of style and steady improvement of lighting and level design is readily apparent. I loved the creative workarounds for water and I liked the throw away motif and story despite itself. (Also of note: the nifty credits and title screens.)

Coming back to LBP has really made me wish there was a stronger integration between LBP and the PS3 itself. I’d love to see developers’ picks and top rated levels advertised on my XMB. It’s be a nice reminder to dust off my copy of LBP and reward these creative people with hearts and stars.

Tom’s Pick: Pet Sackboy by Hymanator

After coming back to LittleBigPlanet for the first time in quite a few months, I was pleasantly surprised to find more user-created levels designed to follow my own style of playing the game. I’m all for challenging platformers, but the controls in LittleBigPlanet never seemed tight enough for me to want to attempt the trickier challenges made by users. To me, LittleBigPlanet is less of a game and more of a showcase for creativity. I prefer a level that is simple to traverse and lets the controls take a backseat to the theme, allowing me to enjoy the tricks the user has employed to make their level special.

In “Pet Sackboy,” your Sackboy starts off in a  really cheap and plastic hamster cage with just a wheel and no decorations, I really wished they had gotten inspired by the top hamster cage selection that’s available these days. Today’s modern hamster has a lot more options than just a simple wheel. After busting out, you are free to explore a house with the occupant away, getting into all kinds of mischief. The music is suitably cheeky, and it’s a lot of fun to climb about and activate the various giant-sized furniture and appliances. Furthermore, there are lots of little details like soda bottles and cereal boxes complete with user-made labels. Each object in the house acts much like you expect it to and is well made within the confines of the game: the microwave zaps your Sackboy to a crisp, the sink rewards you with bubbles for pushing a sponge in, the toaster launches you through the air to the top of the refrigerator, the recliner undergoes a leisurely transformation, and the TV springs to life when you step on the remote control. The level makes good use of space and it’s never difficult to tell where you should go next, a problem I experienced with several of the other user-created levels I’ve tried recently.

Overall, it’s difficult not to smile when imagining a Sackboy scurrying around your house and getting into trouble while you aren’t home. While it won’t blow you away with atmosphere or dazzle you with technical wizardry like some other levels, it’s a cute idea that’s well executed and won’t take much of your time.

And while Tony’s busy with medical school interviews and travel, we didn’t want to exclude him from our Sackboy family. Look for “him” on the article hub.