Who would have thought, with all the marketing millions and pretensions of cool behind Sony's PlayStation 3, that its most iconic characters in 2008 could end up being a nicotine-loving geriatric in skin-tight latex and a doll made out of burlap cloth? The geriatric, at least, was something we expected. The sack doll? Not so much.
LittleBigPlanet isn't even out yet, and already people are talking about it as a defining franchise for the PS3. It's a lot of pressure on one little studio - Media Molecule, the latest in a long series of splinter factions and off-shoots in the Guildford area, and inheritors of a tradition of game development that goes right the way back to Britsoft legends Bullfrog.
We caught up with studio co-founder Alex Evans for a chat about how the game looks, and where it's going. First off, though, we wanted to know a little more about a key theme in his recent speech at the Develop conference - the idea that making the game fun and the toolset enjoyable wasn't always about adding new things, but that many of the improvements actually came from taking things away.
Eurogamer: When you spoke at the Develop conference, you talked about constraints - how you've found that placing artificial constraints on what people can do in LittleBigPlanet actually leads to people making better levels and having more fun. That's a pretty hard idea to sell to players, though, isn't it?
Alex Evans: Yeah, and I don't think it's something that we necessarily sell to players. That message was really me talking to other developers. For us, it was really a learning curve - because it's not only a hard sell to players, it's a hard sell to us!
I constantly forget my own advice, which is that sometimes less really is more. I was talking to someone about this back at the office, and it's not about just cutting - if you just blindly cut, you end up with something where all you can make is rehashes of the same thing over and over again. You'd see a thousand levels that were the same.
It's about finding the sweet spot where you've cut enough that you're not faffing about, you're not distracting yourself with the fluff - you're getting down to the core of it. I think Apple, and generally consumer electronics, are really good at this. You know when they've got it right - you don't want to go and listen to your records, and have to worry about the equaliser and blah blah blah. You just want to play records, press play and it goes.
I think there's a total sweet spot there. The really skilful thing is getting different audiences who have slightly different sweet spots. What we've tried to do with LittleBigPlanet is to set different constraints based on who you are. If you're a player, we give you a different set of objects than if you go through the Create path.
So, hopefully, we don't need to sell the constraints message to players, except implicitly. We make their lives easier. The way I'd sell it to a player would be, we make your life easier - we make it easy to make good-looking s***. Some people come to me and they say, "I'm not creative - I haven't got a creative bone in my body". If they booted up 3D Studio Max, or Valve's Hammer, or one of those editors... You can do incredible things with those editors, but a lot of people just freeze. It's like Photoshop or Word, or a blank page in a typewriter - "F***, where do I begin!"
At the other end of the spectrum, we're trying to find a sweet spot. For example, we have this "Mash X" thing in the office - where we just ask, what happens if you mash the X button? We constantly ask ourselves that question. If you just boot the game and hammer X, where do you end up? If you go into the create mode and hammer X, what happens? Um, actually... You'll just jump up and down. But you see what I mean. It's making that process not be completely rubbish, and enjoyable.
The more I thought about it, the more it relates to things like fighting games. I've never made a fighting game, but I'm firmly in the button basher crowd. I'll pick up Street Fighter II or Tekken or something, and I'll just mash - and I'll love it. They've hit the sweet spot in those games, because for a button-masher, it feels awesome. Lovely, I'm doing special moves, don't know why, but - awesome!
Then, for someone whose sweet spot is way up from that, who's hardcore and learns all the moves, can come in and just cane it - wipe the floor with me. That game has successfully catered to two different sets of people. If we can do that with user-generated content, then we're done - that's the goal.
Eurogamer: The comparison with YouTube is all the more relevant, then - it gives you a tiny, constrained, low-quality video window, and while most of it is just talking heads or rubbish video, some people are using that medium to make great short films.
Alex Evans: Exactly - both can be catered for. I actually think that keeping the resolution down, keeping it under ten minutes, is a good thing. We were talking about Jaws and the Blair Witch Project, and I'm convinced that the budget of the Blair Witch Project influenced what they were able to show - i.e. nothing. It still worked as a movie. If they'd had someone turn up and say, here's 20 million quid for a bit of CGI, it probably would have been a bit more rubbish.
You're right, it's a hard sell if you present it as "you can do less" - but that's not how people look at it, really. They say, okay, this is what I'm working with, it's not a blank piece of paper - wicked, let's build on that.
Eurogamer: Two of the examples of things people might want to create which you've given are "The Battle of Helm's Deep recreated with Toilet Rolls" and "A Shrine to my Cat". Do you see a lot of people going in and creating things that aren't game levels, that aren't puzzles - just weird, interactive spaces?
Alex Evans: Mark [Healey] is actually really keen on that, and I think he's right. There are a couple of answers to that question, actually, but "yes" is the short one.
Mark really wanted to support that. He calls them "physical websites". It's just showing off, really - I think the core of it isn't necessarily gameplay. The core of it is "look what I made", or "look at me". Online, that's massive. Facebook, MySpace and all of those things are built on vanity, and so are leaderboards, high-scores, gamerpoints and trophies. All of those mechanisms are basically "look at me, aren't I cool" - for whatever reason.
A website is just that as well. So people will totally do that, and I'm looking forward to it.
The other more subtle, more LittleBigPlanet-specific answer is that we support it by not just allowing you to make levels, but also objects, character designs and stuff. I'm really looking forward to someone making a level that has no gameplay whatsoever - it's a market. You go in, and there's a character who says "hello, welcome to the Bazaar - over here you'll find cars, over here you'll find something else..."
Basically, it's just a level where you go to collect all these items the person's made for you, the costumes, whatever. Maybe he only gives the keys to that level away to his mates, or maybe it's open season. We track these plans - they're called plans, they could be pieces of gameplay, or people might just make fun characters or animals, I've got no clue really - we track who made them, so you'll still get credit. If someone makes an awesome vehicle, and someone else uses it, you can find out who made the original vehicle.
Eurogamer: Is there any kind of rights management on that? Can people define how far their creation goes?
Alex Evans: Yeah, we have a very simple system that we call "copyright" in the game, which isn't copyright in the legal sense. You can basically dictate the distribution rights on any object you create. If you put something in your level as a collectable item, people can collect it. People can control who comes into the level, both by how hard it is and by giving away keys, but you can also choose whether to copyright that object.
If it's copyright, people can use it in their levels - because they've collected it - but they can't give it away themselves. If you don't copyright it, then people can edit it, change it, and further disseminate it by giving it away. It's a really simple way to allow people to share or maintain ownership.
Eurogamer: Out of interest, what's the default setting on things you create? Are they copyrighted by default?
Alex Evans: Um, I can't actually remember. I think it's not copyrighted, I believe.
Eurogamer: How is discovery of levels going to work online? Obviously you'll have user rankings for your levels - but I'm thinking again about the Shrine To My Cat. How do my friends find out about that and go to visit it? My cat is great, but she's unlikely to be high up the level rankings...
Alex Evans: The overview here is that we wanted to take web ideas out of various sites that I love - web ideas - and "console-ify" them. I think that text entry isn't an enormously enjoyable experience on a console.
We wanted to find mechanisms that were really simple, and one of those is tagging - so you can tag levels, and then you can search by a particular tag. You can also find recommendations, so if you enjoy a level, you can ask to find levels that are related to this level.
Those are two mechanisms - there are four in total that I'll tell you about. There are many more, but those are the simplest ones.
Getting more subtle, we track the creators of the levels - so the people are as important as the levels themselves. We have this notion of "hearting", which is basically where you favourite something. You can favourite a person or a level that they've made - and it's really powerful, because we track what you've hearted and we use that to push content towards you that we think you might like, based on other people who also liked it. "People who liked this, also liked this" - that kind of thing.
Because we track people, though, I think you'll find a community building up around it - "he's really famous for making awesome levels", or even better, "he's really famous for his favourites list"! You have a favourites list, which is visible to others, so someone could be well-known for finding the good s***. We reward those people with Achievements and Trophies - we call them sharers.
If you go in and play a level that nobody has ever played before, and then you tag it, you get bumped up the sharers leaderboards. You might then choose to favourite someone, not because of their creations, but because of the stuff that they're finding.
Eurogamer: So those people basically become critics, in a sense.
Alex Evans: Yeah, like aggregators, or critics.
The final element I'll mention, which is my favourite personally, is that there's an in-game tool for taking photos - screenshots. You can frame what you want to take, like framing your face and taking a big close-up. Originally, that was used for making stickers in-game, so you could arrange a family portrait in the game - full of Sack Boys and Girls - and frame it.
What's awesome is that, like Facebook, we know who is logged in under what PSN ID, and we know what level the photo was taken in. Within the LittleBigPlanet universe, we geotag the photo with where you were at the time - and we put Facebook-style clickable links to everyone in the picture! You get a feed of photos, so every level has a photo feed, and every player has a photo feed.
You could be browsing around the community and suddenly see, er, Bob. Okay, he sounds cool, let's click on Bob. Then you see a feed of levels he's played, find one that looks awesome... Who's he playing with? Oh, he's playing with Jamie, who's got this awesome costume on... So, there's a social way of linking and browsing the content, which is totally based on tracking people as much as levels, through these photo feeds.
We're even going to push those feeds out onto the web, so if you've got a blog, you could create a sidebar with a feed of people who are playing your levels, or levels you've recently played.
Eurogamer: Are you pushing that data out just as standard RSS?
Alex Evans: RSS, yeah. It's awesome!
Eurogamer: You've spoken about how LittleBigPlanet's development process leaves you in a good position for the post-launch support of the game. What kind of plans do you have in that regard? Will you be releasing new content and tools as you go along?
Alex Evans: Yes. Again, the short answer to that is yes. I think the big thing there is really that we've got into a real habit of trying stuff out early, testing it and showing it early.
A lot of people say, "when will LittleBigPlanet be done, for god's sake!" - well, this is the quickest game I've ever worked on! To me, this is an in-and-out, job done sort of thing! It's wonderful that people want it so much - but this is all because we showed it when it was less than a year old. If you go around and ask other developers, "on a new platform, with a new IP, would you show it less than a year old?", those people would be, like... "F*** off!"
We've got used to this idea of really baring our souls to everyone, as much as possible. That means we can react to the community - and yeah, we've got loads of plans. We're going to support it massively. For example, content packs, new objects, new game modes... All of this stuff could be done, and what we're basically waiting to see is what the demand is for.
We can do all of that stuff - we will do all of that stuff - but what order we do it in, and how much weight we throw behind any of the different ideas, is totally down to what the community does. That really excites me, because if people are loving the costumes, we'll crank them out. If people are loving the levels and masterclasses... We've got a slightly scarily long list of great ideas for ways to support the community, and it's just a matter of prioritising at this stage. So, well... Yes!
Eurogamer: John Riccitiello from EA was talking about Spore recently, and he said that the potential within Spore for add-on "stuff" is so great that he could see EA eventually having a Spore Division, which just turns out Spore add-ons - that would be their whole economy. That's obviously talking on a huge level, but...
Alex Evans: I think the same for LittleBigPlanet! I would love that for LittleBigPlanet. I mean, people ask me, when did LittleBigPlanet change into being a big AAA game - my answer is always that what changed was the realisation that everyone loved the game, and that was fantastic.
I started Media Molecule with my friends to go balls-out and find out what the biggest thing we could do was. I would love there to be a LittleBigPlanet "universe" of content. All I can say on that is, while I can't speak for Spore, I think he's totally right. Mr Riccitiello is spot-on.
I was talking to the team about this, and in LittleBigPlanet, there's so much stuff we've had to cut from the game just for focus reasons. Those are the constraints we were talking about - it's worth cutting sometimes. But the number of directions, and the breadth you could take from a game like LittleBigPlanet, while keeping it within the LittleBigPlanet universe, is insane.
A lot of people say to me, "when you first revealed LittleBigPlanet, the Sony reveal, that was a big shock". People didn't see it coming. I want to be able to do another reveal where people don't see it coming - it's still LittleBigPlanet, but they're saying, "oh my god, I thought it was this, you're telling me it's this as well?!" That excites me hugely, definitely.
Eurogamer: In terms of the cold economics of it, when you talk about post-launch support... You're talking in terms of paid content packs, right?
Alex Evans: I'm basically saying that all options are open. I can definitely say that there will be content that will be available to people free of charge. I'm just not saying exactly what the content is going to be right now.
I can also say that if there's any way we can reward the community, we'll go there. If the people are clamouring for big chunks of content, it would make total sense for us to do it. We're just exploring all options at this point. Sequels? Yeah, why not! DLC, why not? Paid-for content, why not?
It's at that stage where we'll do whatever really supports the community, and keeps it really vibrant. There are a lot of ways we could pursue that, and a lot of it will be down to being sensitive to what people want. Certainly, in the spirit of breadth, the constraint I'm looking for now is just seeing what people want. We're ready, we're bubbling away - all we're waiting to do is constrain ourselves such that we can do something really awesome in this direction, or that direction, depending on what people are hungry for.
Eurogamer: You're launching in October - and Sony's other big online fascination, Home, is popping up sometime soon as well. Does LittleBigPlanet do anything with Home? Do they work together at all?
Alex Evans: I know that team really well - actually, it was interesting, there was a presentation done within Home, back at GDC I think, and they built a LittleBigPlanet space. Sony built that for us. It was fantastic, the collaboration worked really well. We went back and forth with them, sent them some assets - and they produced this room which was incredible.
The thing about Home is, they're a team that's just down the road from us. There is loads of scope for us to work with them, and I'm looking forward to getting the LittleBigPlanet space in there, working on it and making it cool.
The short answer, though, is that I can't announce anything right now - but I've already seen great LittleBigPlanet content in Home, which was at that conference and which was public, and I think it's a great sign that that was possible with a very small amount of time and a small amount of effort. I think we could do something really cool with it, but at this stage, I can't say what the plan is.
Alex Evans is co-founder and technical director of Media Molecule. LittleBigPlanet is due out on 29th October.