A little over two years ago, Sony hung PlayStation 3 on a charming character made by British bright sparks Media Molecule, Sackboy. He was the star of LittleBigPlanet, a game that embodied the bold creative strides Sony wanted to make with PS3. And the gamble paid off, as Media Molecule's carnival of creation became Eurogamer's Game of the Year 2008.
Today, Media Molecule releases its sequel, LittleBigPlanet 2. The reviews are in (another immense 9/10 from Eurogamer), the servers are open and the ball is rolling. So what now? Eurogamer sat down with Media Molecule co-founder and technical director David Smith to find out.
Eurogamer: It's launch week! What's the mood like at Media Molecule?
David Smith: It's very odd because there's all these different milestones – they actually never told us when to celebrate. We have this system whereby if there's any excuse to celebrate then we do so! We have this stack of champagne that gets stocked up and then replenished all the time. The official launch party is a few weeks away.
But still, the server team are busy watching the number of users climb up exponentially and running around trying to make sure everything works. But it's going pretty well; they're pretty calm.
Eurogamer: Inevitably, new games have bugs. How are you tackling yours?
David Smith: We tried to get as many out the way with the beta – that's what it was for. But there's a huge difference between the number of people in the beta and the number of people playing the final retail version. There's a few bugs that have already cropped up from the point of the server. There's some issue to do with having really large friends lists or lists of favourited levels. It's something we missed when doing the load testing. But I think there's an easy fix that's just gone through for that.
There's going to be a few issues we'll need to address in a patch that goes out. But nothing terrifyingly bad has happened yet. At some point something horrible is going to go wrong and there will be people pulling their hair out, but that hasn't quite happened yet. But it will.
Eurogamer: How soon can a patch come out?
David Smith: That's a good question. The more patches we try to send out, it makes lots of work. I think it's on the time scale of a few weeks. But if something really critical came up then we could be more reactive. But there's no reason to try and push things that hard at the moment.
Eurogamer: Reviews are in for LittleBigPlanet 2 - are you happy?
David Smith: It's a really difficult game to score, so I really feel sorry for anyone who has to write a truly impartial review. I've really been quite surprised; I've been glad with the reviews we've got.
With a sequel, everyone expects a higher quality. People are less forgiving. In some ways the first game relied heavily on innovation and there were a few rough edges we got away with. If we hadn't spent as much time trying to polish up some of the rougher edges than we wouldn't have done so well – we would have been really criticised about that. But it seems most reviews have noticed the time we've taken to try and improve these areas. And that's nice.
I feel like everyone knows how to even talk about and review the game now, whereas the first time round, people thinking it was a game and you can make levels - a level editor? It's hard to get your head around all the ramifications of how that affects how you play it. Do you play all the levels in there and quickly check online? Do you make levels yourself? How do you even use this thing?
And it varies between the reviewers. Some are utterly turned off by all the Create functionality; they have no desire to create. And for them they naturally give it a lower score, and who could blame them? And there are some that are really into the Create side or really into playing all this nice content and give it a much higher score. I'm quite happy that there are a variety of people that engage with the game in different ways.
Eurogamer: Is there any criticism you don't agree with?
David Smith: There were one or two fairly negative reviews, which I found confusing, just because it appears the people writing the review hadn't played the game. Some suggested the sequel hadn't improved on certain areas when we spent a huge amount of time improving them. There were perhaps a few lazy reviews, but that's always going to happen.
And there were a few reviews that were overly positive; they just adore the idea so much that they just give it amazing reviews. You have to take everything with a pinch of salt. We did pretty well.
Eurogamer: Where do you stand in the Mario-jump debate?
David Smith: The simple answer is that it's just very different to Mario. It's very awkward even comparing it to Mario. Some people really want that jump that's faster or more controlled, but it doesn't as easily fit the freeform physical environment of LittleBigPlanet.
We've tried lots of different control methods with different levels of arcadiness, different levels of physicality, and we went for one we felt works best. But it was definitely a shock for some of our players that are really used to Mario, switching from that to LittleBigPlanet. It's something that we feel just works better with LittleBigPlanet. We've taken on board some of the criticism and tried to tighten up a few points, but there's only so far we'd want to change it before it stopped being the sort of game we wanted to make.
Also, one interesting little feature we added, and I'm not sure it's been picked up, is a gravity tweak that allows you to alter the gravity of a level. Sneakily, we've made it so that if you make the gravity a lot stronger, Sackboy is able to still jump to the same height – he becomes a lot stronger to compensate. In effect you can have a much faster, crisper jump. It's still quite physical, there's still inertia there, but we've made it so that if you increase the gravity it becomes a bit faster and more twitchy, which I think some players prefer.
We have a certain style that we prefer, but ultimately it would be a bit arrogant if we tried to enforce that too much. So we've tried to empower the community to resolve that debate to some degree. The community will find exploits to do things the way they want, so we may as well try and support them doing it.
Eurogamer: Did everything turn out as you'd hoped with LittleBigPlanet 2?
David Smith: That's an incredibly hard question to answer! Um, yes, I think we really did what we set out to do, because the high-level ambition was in many ways to address all the different areas of 'Play, Create, Share' and I think we actually have done that, which was a fairly lofty ambition.
You play some of the games our community has made and they stand up fairly well as standalone experiences. In some senses, it's going to be in a year's time when we can truly see whether that created all the possibilities we wanted.
LBP1 does have this huge life-cycle and the concurrent play-count is just continually increasing. You expect these things to spike and then boil down to almost nothing, but it's been quite the reverse. LBP2 offers so many more creative possibilities that I hope in a year or two's time you will still see really fresh new things being made with it that keep surprising you.
Eurogamer: Are there any regrets?
David Smith: There's always more things we can add. There's a list as long as my arm of things that would have been fun to add, but I think we chose the right set of tools to give away. There are things personally that I would have found interesting to add, but it probably appeals to the much more hardcore demographic. The thing that's appealing is those really geeky electronics boffins making really cool things that other people can use.
Eurogamer: In LittleBigPlanet 1 you ran across problems early on when the community copied games like Mario and copyright law prevented them being shared. There's greater creative potential in LBP2 – are you anticipating more problems?
David Smith: The problems we had in the first game were very overstated. I was always really impressed at how many IP holders came to us and said it's really cool that people are making homages to our games in LittleBigPlanet. There were very few instances where things were pulled for IP reasons.
Some of the negative reaction at the start of LittleBigPlanet 1 was just because there were a lot of moderation mistakes. It was a very odd thing for the moderators to know what to deal with. Sometimes the moderators would make a call as to whether the content might be copyright infringing, which was the wrong model.
We spent a lot of time both with the technology for the moderation but also working out the legal issues and finding the right model. The issues were fairly infrequent in LBP1, so in LBP2 we will build on that much more solid system.
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New levels and costumes, no strings attached.
Eurogamer: How can LittleBigPlanet 2 grow after launch?
David Smith: There's going to be a variety of things. There's always a demand for costumes, so that's an obvious thing to do. At Media Molecule we're definitely committed to release more functionality and more levels, because the new levels inspire the community, and new technology adds more possibilities. How long we continue to do that for is a really hard question.
There's no limits to potentially what we could add. Currently we're very much focused on adding in really powerful Move controller support. And that is a combination of functionality and levels and assets and things. But that is still early, so it's not something we can talk too much about.
Eurogamer: That sounds like a big project.
David Smith: Err, yeah.
Eurogamer: When will we see the fruits of it?
David Smith: I'm not sure we're quite ready to talk time scales yet.
Eurogamer: Roughly, then – is it months off?
David Smith: Probably, yeah. We have a lot of the team focused on that. We've just been reconfiguring the office. We've got loads of manpower on this Move stuff.
Eurogamer: From here, will we see you try and squash LittleBigPlanet 2 onto a handheld – perhaps a new handheld that no one knows anything about yet cough wink?
PR: Nice try, Bert.
David Smith: Ha ha.
Eurogamer: Is chart success important for LittleBigPlanet 2?
David Smith: It's definitely a nice pat on the back, but that's not really the reason we make games.
Eurogamer: Can the LittleBigPlanet series continue – can it run on to LittleBigPlanet 3, 4, 5, 6 and so on?
David Smith: I see no reason why it couldn't. We have a pretty strong character and a very interesting physical craft-based world. There's any number of stories that would be interesting to tell there. I'd love Sackboy to still be around in another 20 or 30 years.