LittleBigPlanet is the video game equivalent of what the internet has been building towards for the last 10 years. The tools that would allow anyone, regardless of technical ability, to produce meaningful user generated content that would ultimately be the heart of the game. Sure, user generated content is nothing new both on the web (I remember geocities homepages, I also like to pretend that I know what usenet newsgroups are, but that was before my time) and in video games (See: Doom WADs or the entire freaking game of Counter Strike).
However, these forms of user generated content required some degree of technical ability. If you could write some simple HTML and put it on geocities, you were basically a first rate programmer to your friends and family. What distinguishes LittleBigPlanet from Doom WADs and Half-Life mods is that the creation process has been simplified, much like YouTube and Twitter and everything else has simplified getting your ideas out there, so that (in theory) nothing stands between the sweet level you’ve designed in your head and millions of people actually playing your level.
Media Molecule (the game’s developers) included about 60 prebuilt levels with the game. They’re all fantastic, fun, physics based platforming levels that make the game worth it even if there was no user created content. These levels cover a wide range of ideas and game styles and objectives in the hope that users would learn what it is that makes a good platforming level before they go create their own masterpieces. Media Molecule even goes so far as to call the trophy for completing the main game “Just Beginning”. Where the users take control is where the real game begins, and also, where all the problems begin.
Do you know why YOU, as an avid gamer, aren’t a game designer? It’s the same reason why you aren’t anything you wanted to be as a kid. Its hard and takes a lot of work. Even when all the tools you need to create are handed to you, designing something that is fun is still hard and still requires a lot of work. Most people aren’t into toiling in obscurity to produce something genuinely great that will bring them nothing more than knowing a few people played their level.
The level I made took about 50 hours. That’s 50 hours of slogging through menus and tweaking thousands of numbers and pieces of level by tiny increments to create a level that takes maybe 8 minutes to get through, and will be played by no one other than your close friends and your girlfriend who you used as a beta tester. Plus, people who have great ideas and the skill and dedication to enact those ideas probably aren’t using them on creating amateur video game levels.
So that leaves all of us who don’t have great ideas or skill or dedication to create the levels for LittleBigPlanet. And what we’ve made, overwhelmingly, reflects that. Levels that are even a little bit close to getting the basic design philosophies set forth in the 60 prebuilt platforming levels (or you know, every other platform game ever made) are incredibly rare.
Instead, you find 4 level types:
- A level promising free trophies
- A level promising free costumes for your sackboy
- A level that attempts to recreate a current popular game or, alternatively, Mario 1
- Hold R1 to Win (these are like rollercoasters minus the fun. You grab something by holding R1 and that something flies around a preset course until the end)
The reason for these levels isn’t entirely the users fault, however. Media Molecule’s single biggest mistake with the game was to create trophies that awarded people playing and “hearting” your levels. The biggest offenders are:
- Crowd Pleaser – A level you published was played by 50 or more people
- Feel the Love – A level you published was hearted by 10 or more people
- Celebrity – You were hearted by 5 or more people as a player
So, like good capitalists, we want the maximum amount of profit for the least amount of work. This lead to the H4H (heart for heart) community of users who will heart anything you create as long as you heart something they created. This ultimately makes trying to search for a good level impossible since the highest rated, most hearted, and most played levels are all one of the four above level types, H4H nonsense, or a combination.
I find myself having more fun in levels that were accidentally published, or published just to get the trophy for publishing a level (you can usually tell because these levels don’t have a name or display picture) because I like to think that I’m walking through someones untamed thoughts as they float freely before coming together to form something coherent. Which is really the entire idea behind LittleBigPlanet.
People can see my ideas, and I can see theirs. Instead, we ended up with 2 million levels that are the equivalent of internet ads (Free Trophies! H4H!) or genuinely have less interactivity than Pong (in Pong, you can move UP, DOWN, or STAND STILL, in LittleBigPlanet’s R1 levels, you can HOLD R1 or NOT HOLD R1. Spoiler: Not holding R1 makes you lose).
If Media Molecule could find a way to reward genuinely great level design for LittleBigPlanet 2 (start by removing trophies for getting hearts and plays) then they will make great bounds in addressing the problems of LBP1. If not, we’ll get the exact same online community producing the exact same levels we have now.