Long read: What might the ultimate character creator look like?

Baldur's Gate 3, Street Fighter and Lost Ark developers discuss.

If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

The rise of Sackboy, the mascot PlayStation has been searching for

Sony's little bag of stuff steps out of the shadow of LittleBigPlanet - but at what cost?

When 2012 is all said and done Sony will have released three games starring Sackboy, the nondescript hessian bag of fluff and ice cream who made his name in Media Molecule's ground-breaking create-your-own platformer LittleBigPlanet.

One of these, LittleBigPlanet Vita, has already launched and wowed critics. LittleBigPlanet Karting is out today and PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale releases later this year.

Sackboy's star has risen almost unnoticed, but given LBP's continued success perhaps it comes as no surprise. An impressive 8.5 million LBP games have been sold thus far (not taking into account LBP Vita). That's across the three games in the series: LBP, LBP PSP and LBP2. Sony is proud of its 91 per cent Metacritic average across those three games, but it is delighted by the community's seemingly never-ending appetite for user-generated content: over seven million levels have been created on PS3 - or 35,000 per week.

Other publishers have taken notice. You know all those costumes for Sackboy that dress him up as other franchise's characters? Cloud Strife and all the rest? Well, there have been over 30 video game licenses in LBP, with over 60 million downloads of DLC. There are over 300 DLC costumes on the PS Store. The message is clear: LBP is a big success and a lot of that has to do with Sackboy's increasing appeal.

Sackboy as Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid 4.

This year Sackboy levelled up. He went from being the blank canvass we customise to a recognisable face in his own right. With the PlayStation 3 nearly seven years old and cheaper than ever, Sony is desperate to attract a more family friendly audience to the console. Who better to front that campaign than Sackboy and his beaming smile?

"This year more than any other year previously, Sackboy has escalated in terms of being a PlayStation icon," Tom O'Connor, senior producer at Sony XDEV (the Liverpool-based division responsible for external development and the management of the LBP franchise) tells me a Sony preview event in London for the LBP family. We're sitting next to LBP2 and a Vita. Tom's showing off the new update that means you can use a Vita to control the PS3 game. In the room next door is LBP Karting and a bank of Vitas with the new game running on them.

"He's fast becoming an iconic mascot for Sony. That's what we're really happy about. Sackboy's almost bigger than the brand," he continues. "People know who Sackboy is but they might not have played the game. They've seen him in stores as plush dolls and merchandise. At these events I've seen so many different types of Sackboys. I've seen seven foot ones walking around. I've seen ones made out of fibreglass. I've seen big plush ones. I've seen cardboard cut-outs. He's just everywhere."

I made this

Sony has for years struggled to create a video game character as iconic as Mario. Many have tried and failed to capture the imagination in the same way Nintendo's Italian plumber has. PaRappa? Nope. Crash Bandicoot? Nope. Jak and/or Daxter? Nope. Spyro? Nope. Gex? Ratchet and/or Clank? Nope. Polygon Man? Anyone else in PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale? Nope.

Is Sackboy Sony's white knight? "Have you played the new Mario?" they ask. "What do you think of the new Mario?" they wonder. We're not quite there yet with Sackboy. No-one's saying, "You should check out the new Sackboy." But a year from now? Two years? Perhaps.

I wonder if it was all part of the plan. LBP, of course, was conceived by Media Molecule as a platform for user-generated content. It was only after Sony picked up the eye-catching game that Sackboy was added. Even then, back in the mid-2000s, did Sony plot Sackboy as its Mario killer?

I've seen seven foot ones walking around. I've seen ones made out of fibreglass. I've seen big plush ones. I've seen cardboard cut-outs. He's just everywhere

Tom O'Connor, senior producer at Sony XDEV

This article contained embedded media which can no longer be displayed.

"It wasn't part of a grand design," Tom insists. "That is always the comparison that's made, especially now with Karting.

"In the very beginning, we started working on LBP before Sackboy even existed as a character. He wasn't the first thing that came along. It was the tools and the creative gaming. Sackboy evolved over time because we needed a key avatar. He was an avatar back then. It was more about a blank canvass on which to express your own personal style. That's one of the reasons Sackboy doesn't have a voice. That's one of the reasons he hasn't got this over-the-top personality. He's a blank canvass to express yourself. People do that with customisation. You can animate him.

"But over time he has definitely become more of a character. People definitely see him as a character as opposed to this blank canvass. It wasn't something we initially set out to do, but if that means we can keep on creating games that feature Sackboy and people enjoy them, that's the most important thing."

Sack it to him

Sackboy's never been much of a fighter. He's never been much of a competitor, either. Sure, he's mischievous, and in four-player co-op on LBP I've done my fair share of slapping other players for a laugh, but Sackboy doesn't do violence, really. He's more about family-friendly floaty jumping.

That hasn't stopped him appearing in SuperBot Entertainment's PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, though. This Smash Bros.-style brawler sees four characters from PlayStation's back catalogue beat each other senseless until one remains. Sackboy is mixing it up with Kratos from God of War (anger issues), Big Daddy from BioShock (a penchant for drilling people to bits) and Nathan Drake from Uncharted (PlayStation's loveable mass murdering rogue). How did innocent little Sackboy, who wouldn't hurt a fly, get mixed up in such a naughty crowd?

This article contained embedded media which can no longer be displayed.

In the game Sackboy uses the Popit Menu fans of LBP will know well to create items, such as a fan that pushes enemies around, an electric pad to stun enemies, a ball, a teleporter for quick escapes and hot coals. Up close, he focuses on slaps, has some interesting wrestling moves, including a German suplex, and darts around the stage with help from a jet pack.

"One of the ones we were a little bit sensitive about in the beginning was putting him in a fighting game," O'Connor admits. "But what those guys have done is awesome. They've been sensitive with it. It just feels fun as opposed to violence. Sackboy is like a family favourite. This year we won family BAFTA. We don't want to ruin that credibility.

"We worked very closely with that team to make sure it wasn't just Sackboy lashing out in a really violent way. All the moves in there, they all feel like LBP. They feel like the types of moves you've seen him do before."

LittleBigPlanet Karting, from Modnation Racers developer United Front Games, is another example of brand Sackboy branching out. Yes, the name of the game has LBP in it, but in truth the star here is Sackboy. The Mario Kart-style racer does not feature characters lifted from the PlayStation universe. This is not PlayStation All-Stars Karting. Everybody is Sackboy.

"It's almost like it's becoming its own genre," O'Connor says. "We talk about LBP being play, create, share, or it's creative gaming, but it's almost like karting fits in the LBP genre as opposed to the other way around. It's really interesting."

The elephant in the room is LBP Karting. The Nintendo faithful have been quick to denounce the game as creatively bankrupt. They accuse Sony of cynically ripping off one of Nintendo's most beloved franchises, Mario Kart, and to Tom's credit, he's willing to enter into the debate.

"At the face of it, I can understand why some people are questioning Karting," he says, "because on the face of it it is a really fun competitive karting game and it does feature Sackboy, and to some people they might think, oh, it's like they're copying off Mario Kart. But it's not. We wanted to bring something different to LBP, and that was competition. Competition doesn't exist in the other LBP games. It's more about cooperation and collaboration and creativity.

"Early on, when we talked about doing a fun karting game, LBP felt like the right match because of Sackboy, because you can customise him. We were clear early on it couldn't just be a Sackboy karting game. It had to be a LBP karting game. And what that meant was something quite different, and that is that even though it's a finely-tuned competitive game on the top layer, it's built using tools that will then release. Nothing is built in that game using our special tools. It's all built using the same tools. When people get hands on with it and start to realise it's much more than a me-too karting game, they'll realise the potential.

"It offers something different. It appeals slightly younger, because karting games do. It appeals to families. It's something you can play with your mum, dad and kids. You can go online. It's got eight players. It does offer something different. And it does feature our key iconic mascot."

This article contained embedded media which can no longer be displayed.

Karting has definite traditional elements that all fans know and love. It would be completely remiss of you to throw that aside and start from scratch. That doesn't make any sense whatsoever

United Front Games producer Jen Timms

I ask the same question of United Front Games producer Jen Timms. She's also happy to enter into the debate, and points to the customisation and creation side of LBP Karting as its unique selling point. It's a point well made. In a presentation earlier in the day, I'm shown what looks like a first-person shooter created by someone who played the beta. You can't do that in Mario Kart.

"Comparisons like that mean we've hit the nail on the head in terms of karting," she tells me. "Karting has definite traditional elements that all fans know and love. It would be completely remiss of you to throw that aside and start from scratch. That doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

"So things like weapons and pick-ups and that feeling you can be nearly winning then someone pips you at the post last minute, those aspects were things we already knew as developers of a prior karting game and as people who grew up kart racing. That's just what we know. It made sense to stick with those things and only improve on them by adding customisation and being able to make any kind of gameplay you want, and be able to turn this into a full 3D world around a track."

Mr Heavy Rotation

I'm a bit worried that Sony may - and in many ways this would be perfectly understandable - create too many Sackboy and LBP games too quickly, that somehow the image of quality Sony has done so well to create around its mascot may be diminished as a result.

"We'll always be very careful," Tom says, reassuringly. "We're not going to start putting him all over the place. And it has to be quality titles as well. We're very protective of him still. We only want him in quality games."

Saying Sackboy will only appear in quality games is one thing. Making it happen is another thing entirely. The secret, of course, is to draft in developers of a certain calibre. For the LittleBigPlanet Karting project Sony picked United Front Games, who at the time were best known for the well-received Modnation Racers franchise (only recently did it earn plaudits for its good work on Sleeping Dogs).

For LittleBigPlanet Vita things were a little different. Two years ago series creator Media Molecule told Sony it wanted to step away from the franchise, which presented the company a problem. It knew it wanted a LBP game on the Vita, its in development handheld then codenamed the Next Generation Portable. Who then, to approach to take on the job and ensure that quality so important? Sony's answer was Swedish developer Tarsier, which had been recommended by Media Molecule after its good work on the creation of LBP DLC costumes.

It will always be Sony and Media Molecule's baby. We will only entrust any LBP game with developers that we're working really closely with. We'd never just shove it out to somebody

This article contained embedded media which can no longer be displayed.

"Media Molecule said to me at one point, they can do it better than we can," Tom recalls. "Mark Healey, when he started looking at LBP PS Vita said, they've done a better job than we could, which to me is the biggest compliment ever."

"One night a couple of years ago Tom said we need to have a phone conference this evening," Tarsier's Mattias Nygren tells me. "He called with the game director Pete Smith and they said Media Molecule was moving away from the franchise, and they had talked about who could take over the next version. They had recommended us because they felt we had a good understanding of the franchise.

"So, would we, then a very small company, want to take on one of the biggest franchises at Sony in Europe on a device that didn't exist? Okay. We can do that."

Tarsier teamed up with UK developer Double11, which focused on porting the LBP PS3 engine to Vita. The developer also worked closely with Media Molecule, which remains very interested in the evolution of its baby as part of an advisory position on development of the games in the series.

Now, with the game out and doing well, I wonder if Tarsier has done enough to assume the mantle of being the premier LBP developer. Have we witnessed the passing of the LBP torch from MM to Tarsier?

"It will always be Sony and Media Molecule's baby," Tom insist. "We will only entrust any LBP game with developers that we're working really closely with. We'd never just shove it out to somebody.

"Tarsier embraced the challenge. They were a really small team of mainly artists who completely embraced the challenge. We ramped the studio up and they've delivered this game which is getting amazing review scores. For a non-Media Molecule game on a new device, a device that wasn't even out when we started building the game, that gives me loads of confidence that if we did do more games with Tarsier in the future, then they'd be awesome as well."

Sackboys dressed up as the cast of Pirates of the Caribbean, yet another LBP costume cross-promotion.

It's clear that Sony will do its utmost to keep that LBP review Metascore as high as possible while expanding the brand beyond the core games in a post-Media Molecule world. Based on the review scores of LBP Vita, it's succeeding. And yet, with the release of three LBP games in a year, will Sackboy suffer from over-exposure?

"Every single game Sackboy stars in, it has to have the LBP ethos, and that is to be able to do more beyond the game," Tom says. "We always want the tools and the toolbox. I don't think we'd ever want to just do a game that was just Sackboy doing something but then it ended at the end of the game. It has to be something that goes beyond that and allows you to create and share and do all the things people are used to in LBP."

A little birdie tells me what we all suspect, that there will be a LittleBigPlanet 3. "I'm sure people will want a sequel," Tom says with a smile, before reverting to type. "I'm not going to confirm whether one's in development or not, if that's what you're asking for. Each year, pretty much, or close to it, there's been a new LBP game. We had the first game 2008, PSP 2009, then tail end 2010, 11 we had LBP2. Now we've got two new games this year. And the great thing is LBP2, we're still supporting it. We're still doing DLC packs. Every month we've got new costumes coming out. You can use those costumes across all your games. It doesn't slow it down. It just keeps on coming.

"We receive thousands of letters. People send us fan art. It's this massive growing fan base. To not bring new games would be in my opinion wrong. You want to keep on supporting those games and keep on giving the fans what they want."