Soft-spoken Media Molecule co-founder Alex Evans is showing off LittleBigPlanet to a roomful of press, and we're stood behind him blowing raspberries and wailing. Obviously. He doesn't seem to mind. Five minutes in, he asked if anyone wanted to play along, and inexplicably we were the only people to put our hands up (both of them, while hopping up and down). So now we're cycling the Sackboy emotes with the d-pad and using the DualShock 3 tilt function to angle our puppet avatar's head so he's watching his dad.
But before we continue, LittleBigPlanet has a problem at shows like E3: nobody goes away and explains it properly, even though devs like Evans always frontload the key pitch. It's a quasi-2D platform game with physics, and you can play it with a mixture of local and online friends, but all the levels in the game were built with the game, which doubles up as a creation and sharing package. We're at E3 to check out the Create and Share bits today, with an emphasis on PlayStation Network features.
So we're dancing around the pod screen, which serves as an interactive home and level hub, while Evans explains how things work. We jump Sackboy - a little game character stitched out of sackcloth, obviously - onto a PS3 pad that sits in the middle of the pod, and stare up at the little big planet visible outside the window beyond. It's an access point for content - levels on the Blu-ray and downloadables - and as we stare the game receives levels from the online cloud. They're beta tester efforts with their own names, details and stats (how many times they've been favourited, completed, etc) and at 20-30KB they take no time to download.
We jump into one, and we're shown how they're connected to the LBP online hive by stats tracked in the top-left. "We track your best friend and any of your friends who have done better than you, we show the score that they've achieved on the level," says Evans. "You have to understand that this isn't just for the levels we've published, this is the levels anyone's published. You can create a level with a score and a world ranking and the game will try and prompt you and encourage you to replay that level. We try and treat user-generated content as we would treat our own."
As we play, Evans explains that voice-over-IP - "headset voice-chat" in human - recently went into the game, and Sackboy (or Sackgirl, of course) will now lip-synch to your blathering or laughter. As you play, you can also snap screenshots. These, along with any levels you make, can be uploaded to the LBP nexus, and the devs have assembled RSS feeds of levels, photos and other content accessible through a unifying "Me" page, which helpfully won't load when Evans tries to boot it up on our E3 test machine. "Whoever set up this room did a cracking job."
So instead we dive back into the game in Create mode. Levels are assembled (or simply modified from existing designs if you'd rather not start with a blank canvas) using the square-button Pop-It tool, which brings up columns of items to customise your Sackboy and the world with. A bit of stick-waggling draws platforms across the screen, and a few more buttons hooks up cogs, wheels, hooks suspended in the air and glued to the walls, and so on. Sackboy can be floated around the screen and then popped into the game world at the touch of a button for playtesting.
"When you play through the pre-made levels, you collect items to customise your character and build your own levels," says Evans, explaining where it all comes from, "so rather than just collecting points and stars you collect the items." (Although you do still collect things that go towards your score - this is a platform game after all). You can also write story text, build your own characters, and even fairly complex machinery. The level designers have managed to create basic counting machines - so, a computer - and pirate ships.
Rules do govern your actions: "Everything in the game runs on physics, so that leads to very simple gameplay mechanics," Evans points out, before stopping. "What's going on? Oh, I can't grab onto metal. I can't remember the rules of my own game." You can cling onto a lot of things with R1, though, swinging around like Tarzan or a buccaneering knight, as you've probably observed in the beautiful new E3 gameplay trailer. There are drop-in mini-games like races, too.
You can also use the screenshots you took as objects, and we're shown the PlayStation Eye support. Scrolling through Pop-It you can break out a Polaroid-shaped window that shows a video feed from the camera (27 gormless journalists, in this case) and you can paste this onto the walls, floor or wherever you like, at any angle, as a bit of decoration. Evans uses it to customise the pod hub, which is capable (or perhaps "prone") to the same tweaks and disfiguration.
From the fact we're playing with cameras and making faces, you'd be right to guess LBP is nearly done - Evans has repeatedly restated the October date, and Sony said it again on-screen at its E3 conference on Tuesday after it had Evans come on-stage to dance and skip Sackboy through a custom level using switches and conveyors to show off graphs with hardware and software sales. They're already looking beyond release. "We'll be adding downloadable levels to the game," obviously, "and also just adding things to the game. Trying to keep the community fed and happy." Evans' colleague David Smith recently told us they might add water or other elements depending on fan feedback.
In the meantime, there's the PR campaign to orchestrate, and the other part of the E3 reveal is the Construction Site level, which we get to go away and play again after the presentation. While most of the levels we've seen so far are obstacle courses, this one has enemies - car-like boxes with spring-loaded spike weapons, and a boss who needs to be despatched through clever use of the environment.
Construction Site also introduces lives and checkpoint rules, giving the single-player a bit more structure (although you can co-opt variations on these mechanics into your creations too, of course). Die too often and you start again, and the checkpoints are a helpful assist for groups: "If someone runs ahead they can effectively pull the party along," says Evans, demonstrating by jumping into a fire and then respawning next to me a few paces ahead in an area he hadn't reached yet. "This also helps people at different skill levels make progress in the game."
And the game's aware that you won't always be impressed by the other players' antics online, so we're shown something of the moderation tool. As with screenshots, you pull up a viewfinder that you can resize and drag around the screen, selecting the thing you're offended by. You can then submit this, and it tells the devs the PSN account of the person pictured and gives them an idea, visually, of what the problem is so they can either take action or not. Other things, like user-generated level text, will also be moderated.
You suspect it won't be heavy hands though, because LBP wants to nurture not stifle. As Oli said in his giddy impressions earlier this year, Pop-It is fluid and intuitive, letting you quickly assemble and iterate your ideas and experiments. But it's not just solid and versatile, it's humorous and charming - the emote function casts a spell over the hacks crowded into Sony's demo room (and this is at 6pm on a day that, for many who attended Nintendo's conference, began at 7am or earlier), who chatter and giggle, and there's compelling pace and energy to the graphics, sound and controls.
Thanks to us, it's not always a graceful and coherent presentation, but the game's bewitching all the same: a daffy smile on the face of PlayStation. Finally giving the pad back and heading off into the smog, we couldn't stop smiling for an hour afterwards. It's the most exciting thing I've played at E3, if I'm honest, and I feel a little bit happier every time I think back to it.
LittleBigPlanet is due out exclusively for PS3 in October.