As the name always suggested, LittleBigPlanet was pretty comfortable with its own contradictions. It used complex technology to render a world of needle and thread, tweed and cardboard. It had huge ambitions, but tried its hardest to keep things simple. Most tellingly of all, it was one of the friendliest games ever constructed, and yet it was capable of making some of its players feel very, very stupid.
Even its success has been complicated. It's the unveiling of LittleBigPlanet 2, and Sony is using PowerPoint, that other much loved user-generated content device, to fill us in on the short history of its quirkiest franchise. Plenty of awards get name-checked, plenty of world-beating statistics zip past in cheery flurries of greens and pinks. Among the figures, two really stand out, however: LittleBigPlanet's users have uploaded 2.3 million levels since late 2008, and the game has gone on to sell over three million copies in that same period.
Both of those facts are things Media Molecule can be pretty proud about, but when you put them together there's something troubling to ponder, too. Even if you spread those 2.3 million levels as evenly as possible amongst the three million players, they prove that there are an awful lot of people who bought LittleBigPlanet and didn't bother with the last two entries on its "Play, Create, Share" manifesto.
That's something the developer has noticed, by the looks of it, and it's done its best to fix things this time around. Before you've even opened your new Popit menu or decked your latest Sackboy out in a troublingly fulsome moustache, Media Molecule wants you to know that simply navigating content is going to be easier in the sequel.
Taking a cue - and a queue, actually - from social networks, every player will now have their own activity stream, a Twitter-esque timeline that is constantly being updated with exactly what they, their PSN friends, and any other LBP player whose work they've hearted, have been doing in the game. That should make it much easier to find the content everyone else is talking about, and even the terminally unpopular will get a look in, as the developers themselves will be updating your streams with the best stuff they've found.
Playlists are also part of the new design, allowing you to surf through levels via online clips (we're shown something that looks like it might be a Firefox plug-in, which lets you to send a level featured in a YouTube video straight to your queue), various undisclosed "mobile apps", and the improved LBP website.
The site's had quite a scrub-up, as it happens, with the addition of LBP.ME, which gives each player their own web-page detailing their activities. It will also allow everybody to search the game's database for levels they might want to play later on. You'll even be able to add levels to your playlist using QR codes, which is what it turns out those weird little pixelated Rorschach Tests that seem to live exclusively on the side of Pepsi cans are called.
But what about the game beyond the improved sharing tools? Well, it appears to be a mixture of the familiar and the daring. Squint at LittleBigPlanet 2 and it looks a lot like the first game. There are new background themes, but the same patchwork art style; there are improved lighting and textures, but the same delight in the handmade and jerry-rigged; and the interface still revolves around your little cardboard spaceship from which you can access the same thickly-knitted globe and scuffed baseball of a moon.
Any levels you might have made in the original will be available and ready to go the minute you put the new disk in, and, although they'll be sharper and shinier, LittleBigPlanet still looks like a game that your nan might have made for you over a few weekends.
But as anyone who's titted about with a Wobble Bolt too many will tell you, even the slightest tweaks in a game like this can have huge repercussions. At the most basic level, take the new in-game items. Just as Metal Gear Solid's Paintinator drastically changed the scope of the kind of things you could make in the first instalment, gadgets like the grapple hook radically alter the feel of any level you drop them into in the sequel.
Fired with a shoulder button and capable of sending out a delightful luminous rubber cord, the grapple's a visceral extension of the original game's "grab" manoeuvre, and it sends you bounding through the environments in a way that's far faster, looser, and more unpredictably hilarious. It turns you into a superhero or a superspy, and, seeing that you can use it to grab onto any nearby Sackboys, it turns you into a supergriefer too, as you tug them off precipices, or fling them into electrical spikes.
Spring pads are equally simple, equally transformative. Naturally, they make long jumps easier, but they also open a doorway to a world in which LittleBigPlanet is a pinball simulator, as you bounce and rebound around little wooden mazes, ricocheting off walls and ceilings, enemies and friends.
There are plenty more items like that on the way, apparently, but they're only the first wave of the kind of changes LitteBigPlanet 2 will be bringing with it. The things that Media Molecule is really interested in at this point are more far-reaching amendments: things that affect the NPCs and cinematics people can build, and something brilliant and new that currently goes by the misleadingly dull name of "direct control".
The NPC and cinematics bits are somewhat linked. Media Molecule acknowledges that, while many people liked making entirely mechanical characters to guide players through levels, all of those nuts, bolts, springs and brains could get a bit confusing. Those items will still be available, but you'll now also be able to select something called a Sackbot too.
Sackbots are fully-formed automaton Sackboys you can place within levels: just kit them out in costumes, resize them as you wish, and then dump them in by the dozen. A quick trip through the Tweak menu will allow you to assign AI behaviours, programming them to follow, flee, or patrol set areas. Combine that with old ideas like the ability to electrify any object in the game, and you can make them deadly foes as well as loyal helpers.
While you can make do with that simple handful of preset behaviours, you can also go deeper. This a trend that permeates LittleBigPlanet 2 in almost all of its aspects: quick and easy stuff for the casuals, more complex options for those who want to spend their time fiddling around with things. So, if you want something a bit more involved than the AI routines lurking in the Tweak menu, you can go back to a world of switches and wires to create much more ingenious Sackbot logic.
Even here, the developer has been rethinking things, however. Instead of slapping hundreds of switches and bolts onto the tiny surface area of an NPC, you can now simply stick on a new item called a microchip. Clicking on the microchip expands it into a circuit board, which is really a window onto a piece of virtual real estate that you can then fill with all your wires and bolts and sound effect speakers, programming in all the reactions you want without cluttering up the object itself.
Microchips aren't limited to Sackbots, of course, and besides sticking them to any in-game object you can share them freely with other players, meaning that, if you've stumbled on a great multi-form boss battle behaviour, you can give it to everyone you know.
Beyond patrolling, following, and fleeing, Sackbots have another option now tucked away on the Popit menu, too: acting. This one ties into LittleBigPlanet 2's improved cinematics suite. While the new game's bundled levels will have full voice-acting, players putting their own stuff together also benefit from more dynamic camera angles, multi-camera inter-cutting (this is done by wiring separate cameras together and fiddling around in the Popit a bit to tell them when to shift from one perspective to the next) and also by capturing performances from NPCs.
Putting Sackbots into act mode allows you to assume control of them and record their actions to create cut-scenes. It makes for far more elaborate scenarios within your levels, and ties into the specialisation aspect that made the original LittleBigPlanet such a rich experience for some players.
There are now almost as many options for people who just want to craft cut-scenes as there are for people who want to build assault courses or make props. If you and your friends want to turn LittleBigPlanet into a cottage industry, everyone's going to have decent jobs this time around.
The final new addition the team is unveiling at the moment is probably also the biggest. According to the developers, it's the item that provides the key distinction between the first and second instalments in the series - the former being a tool for making platform games, while the latter is a platform for making almost any kind of game at all.
Direct control works a bit like the microchip. It takes the form of a little seat that you can stick on any object for Sackboy to then climb into, and it brings up another circuit board window - but this one allows you to reprogram the PlayStation 3's controller.
Think about that for a minute. More specifically, think about what that means for something like a car. In the world of the first LittleBigPlanet, cars had to rely on motors and pull switches. To make them functional, you had to wire things together to make sense with the game's universe, and then to get to drive them you had to move Sackboy around, yanking switches this way and that to get the desired effect.
Not any more. Now you just build the object that you want to work as your car, and then you stick on the Direct Control chair. Once Sackboy's sat down, depending on how you've reprogrammed your DualShock, you can steer it via tilt, via triggers, via thumbsticks, or even via face buttons.
See it in action, and it's clear how much this changes things. Cars are no longer wobbly to use, slow to respond, and prone to rocket-powered unpredictability. And why stop at cars? Direct control allows you to create vehicles you can use for sections that play out as racers certainly, but it also opens the door to scrolling shooters, and even RTS games (these will be aided by the fact you can now use a new neon material to create stick-on HUDs).
Combined with a much more flexible camera - LBP 2's version can come in close to lock itself behind specific objects, opening up the world of top-down racers, and it can even tilt during levels so you're scrolling vertically one moment, horizontal the next, taking you from R-Type to Space Invaders in a matter of seconds - direct control really expands the sort of things you can do with the game.
Expanding upon a game that is already as deep as LittleBigPlanet is a daring approach to take for a sequel, but it's hard not to applaud it. And while every new addition threatens to take a fiddly experience and make it even fiddlier, it's also worth remembering that Media Molecule's now done this once before, and has had two years to study what its players like and what they don't.
So for everything from the crucial question of content discovery to the not-so-little matter of how Sackboy should move - short answer, the floaty jump should no longer be a problem, as you can tweak all aspects of his movements, from his stickiness to his inertia, in the Popit menu - you should expect a sequel that comes with plenty of new ideas, but has also had a lot of thought put into how it presents them to you. For the casuals, there will be dozens of things that they can get working in a few minutes; for the rest of us, there should be more than enough stuff to tinker with for hours on end.
LittleBigPlanet 2 is due out exclusively for PlayStation 3 this Christmas.