Franchise Festival #41: LittleBigPlanet

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be creating our own path through Craftworld with LittleBigPlanet. I only made use of a few sources for this one. The most noteworthy are:

Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

Background

Artist Mark Healey was working at Peter Molyneux’s Lionhead Studios in 2005 when he decided to strike out on his own with an independently created fighting game. Along with coworkers Kareem Ettouney, David Smith and Alex Evans, Healey developed physics-based fighter Rag Doll Kung Fu in only a few months; it would become the first third-party software published on Valve’s Steam digital distribution service. The four creators then departed Lionhead and formed British game development studio Media Molecule in January 2006.

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LittleBigPlanet (2008)

Rag Doll Kung Fu involved players battling one another by independently controlling puppets’ arms and legs. The rather clumsy PC control scheme, oriented around use of a mouse, was no barrier to enjoyment. As had been definitively shown with Valve’s own Half Life 2 (2004), complex (if occasionally inscrutable) physics engines offer their own inherent joy.

LittleBigPlanet‘s opening sequence is surprisingly rendered as live action clips with animated overlays symbolizing dreamers’ ideas. Credit: World of Longplays

This was the foundation for Media Molecule’s first major intellectual property. Bolstered by the success of their niche fighting game, Healey’s team began work on a new project called Craftworld. By the time they were pitching it to gaming juggernaut Sony, Craftworld had grown into a 2D puzzle platformer in which the player controlled an avatar’s legs with the PlayStation 3 controller’s left joystick and the avatar’s arms with the right joystick. The team had briefly flirted with 3D game design, but found that depth only detracted from the fundamental mechanics.

An irreverant tone is present from the word “go”. Credit: World of Longplays

More importantly, 3D presented a higher barrier to entry for the game’s most significant feature: user content creation. As indicated in a flyer used to advertise Craftworld to potential publishers, unearthed by Media Molecule in 2009, user content creation was a key piece of the project from its earliest stages. Navigating platforming challenges using a character with multiple points of control had formed the backbone of their prospective IP, but delivering a level development kit to the masses was the meat on Craftworld‘s bones. Surprisingly, this had not been the central feature of Media Molecule’s pitch to Sony; what had been intended to be a 45 minute meeting focusing on the physics-based platforming gameplay turned into a three hour in-depth exploration, however, as Sony staff quickly discerned the attraction of a robust, consumer-oriented level editor. They greenlit the project and encouraged Media Molecule to emphasize its more eccentric ideas.

Create Mode tends towards the surreal. Credit: IGIPNP

Craftworld slowly transformed into LittleBigPlanet over the following months. The main character, formerly a crude figure aptly named Mr. Yellowhead, evolved into Sackboy; this charming protagonist is an expressive humanoid who can be customized with new textures collected throughout the game’s single player campaign. Level and character designs moved from 2D to fully textured 3D polygons, even though the player can still only navigate X and Y axes. The player character’s ability to move and manipulate the environment using a combination of independent leg and arm movements remained intact.

Moving items is part of LittleBigPlanet‘s core identity, but the accompanying physics system almost tanked the game. Then the developers embraced chaos. Credit: World of Longplays

One of the biggest problems impeding development actually proved to be one of the game’s core features. Unlike most side-scrolling of the 1980s or 1990s, LittleBigPlanet would be inextricably linked with its complex physics engine. The problem for the development team was ensuring that this accomplished its purpose – offering players unique ways to solve environmental puzzles based on an innate familiarity with real-world physics – without making navigation overly finicky; LittleBigPlanet technical director David Smith addressed this very conundrum in a Game Developers Conference talk in 2009. In the end, the team opted to retain relatively realistic physics while building in a failsafe that allows players to restore their progress at nearby checkpoints with the click of a button. Making the underlying physics simpler would have resulted in a more polished product, but would impede the consistency of the game world and reduce the opportunity for creativity in the game’s level designer module.

Players start with a blank canvas in Create Mode and fly their avatar around adding doodads and bric-a-brac. Credit: IGIPNP

This module, called Create Mode, would begin as an interesting diversion but evolve into the franchise’s core feature over the following six years. By the time of LittleBigPlanet‘s PlayStation 3 release in 2008, the basic building blocks were in place. Media Molecule included the ability to generate levels from scratch or edit pre-existing levels. Characters and objects can be animated by combining them with triggers and other objects; due to the physics engine, extraordinarily complex mechanisms can be created by patient players. Over time, downloadable content would flesh out the available textures and components still further. Lest an inexperienced player be overcome by the sheer breadth of this toolkit, tutorials and pre-built content packages are available to guide them.

The ‘found object’ style is present throughout the game world. It gives the impression of playing through a tiny diorama. Credit: World of Longplays

With regard to presentation, LittleBigPlanet is superlative. The game’s central single-player premise is simple but effective, as Sackboy explores eight 2.5D worlds to complete tasks for eight Creator Curators – characters who fulfill the role of level designers. Working his or her way through the campaign, called Play, teaches the player about the opportunities available in the Create Mode. Players can travel between the foreground, middle and background in some areas. Multiplayer permits up to two players to tackle the campaign or downloaded stages together. Various level aesthetics are on display, including styles inspired by Africa, Europe, India, Mexico, and New York City; all are rendered as a combination of found objects, presenting a hand-crafted appearance. The story and tutorials are narrated by Stephen Fry.

Even the level selection scene foregrounds its artificiality! Credit: World of Longplays

LittleBigPlanet‘s initial reception did not live up to the expectations of Sony and Media Molecule. A last-minute update to the game, in which an audio sample featuring Quranic recitation was removed, delayed the game and is believed to have negatively impacted sales. Still, it picked up steam as the months passed and players began to generate their own content using Create Mode. PlayStation 3’s integration of online connectivity made sharing content quite user-friendly, inspiring a community not dissimilar to that which had grown up around sharing Doom (1993) mods a decade earlier. By the end of the year, the game had reached 1.3 million players. The next natural step was the development of a sequel.

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LittleBigPlanet – PSP (2009)

LittleBigPlanet‘s PlayStation Portable incarnation was developed by Sony Computer Entertainment’s Cambridge studio and released less than one year after its predecessor. In consultation with Media Molecule, SCE Cambridge hewed very close to the model established by the PlayStation 3 original. Still, in spite of its identical name, LittleBigPlanet PSP was a sequel rather than a port.

The over-the-top art design is happily maintained through the home-to-portable transition. Credit: ZebraGamer

The plot is deliriously thin. Following his first adventure, Sackboy is taking a vacation and eventually settles on Brazil’s Carnival as his destination. Before he can go there, however, he must round up Creator Curators from around the world. This opens up new regional aesthetics to explore and use in Create Mode. These settings include China, Germany/Switzerland, Australia, Iran, and Brazil. Players are primarily seeking to find each stage’s exit, but also scour each environment for small spheres containing new textures to customize their avatar.

Layers may have been reduced, but Media Molecule makes the most of ’em. Credit: ZebraGamer

Multiplayer is absent, but that is among LittleBigPlanet PSP‘s only concessions to the portable format. The other key limitation is the reduction of explorable 2.5D planes from three to two. This is likely the result of less powerful hardware, as rendering three separate playable layers could prove quite taxing on the PSP’s processor.

Even a little Donkey Kong crept its way into LittleBigPlanet. Credit: ZebraGamer

Unfortunately, hardware limitations provoked criticism of the game at launch. Players were thrilled to have a seemingly endless variety of SCE and user-created content on the go, but less happy about the game’s instability. Prior to a major patch, LittleBigPlanet PSP would occasionally cause devices to overuse their memory and shut down.

The Create Mode tutorials are lushly animated. Credit: Ayee

After that issue was resolved, critics found little to complain about in Sony’s newest offering. LittleBigPlanet had made the leap from big to little, as it were, without compromising almost anything that had appealed to PlayStation 3 owners. Even Stephen Fry had returned! Ambitious players could still play, create, and share their own unique levels through Sony’s worldwide network. Servers would be shut down in 2016, but that inevitable outcome only occurred after a full seven years of joy had been shared.

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LittleBigPlanet 2 (2011)

Rumors of a home console sequel to LittleBigPlanet began circulating in early 2010 by musicians who had been contracted to contribute recordings to the game’s soundtrack. An ambitious score would prove to be one of LittleBigPlanet 2’s most successful improvements to its already-strong foundation. Presentation had consistently been the franchise’s strong suit, as it papered over some frustratingly loose controls, but Media Molecule would now have the opportunity to fully exploit the development techniques that they and others had perfected throughout the PlayStation 3’s four years on the market.

Vehicle sections are expanded. Sometimes these vehicles include big goofy camels. Credit: StephenPlays

The game’s underlying premise and engine are unchanged. A single-player campaign takes Sackboy through a variety of engaging new areas. These retain the three layers of depth from the character’s first outing, but are now enhanced with more realistic lighting and particle effects. Media Molecule had already established a strong artistic identity for the series with its inaugural entry, depicting a beautiful world pulled together from everyday household objects, but had found a way to improve it still further.

Lighting is appreciably enhanced from the original game, even as the engine overall remains unchanged. Credit: StephenPlays

The greatest leap forward was in the game’s Create Mode. LittleBigPlanet had been founded on the notion that users would be the primary drivers of innovative level design, and Media Molecule sought to offer new opportunities for creativity with their flagship property’s sequel. No longer were players tethered strictly to platforming level design tools. Racing, role-playing and rhythm elements were added. Sound effects could be recorded and in-game dialogue boxes could be written. Entire games could be designed within the LittleBigPlanet level editor, as players who downloaded adventures would be whisked along to subsequent stages if a creator wished. A web API was simultaneously released by Media Molecule, providing users the ability to browse new levels while out and about, remotely download them to their PlayStation 3 consoles, and then play them upon returning home.

The PlayStation Move is integrated with a core LittleBigPlanet entry at launch for the first time. Support had been patched into the game’s debut after the release of Sackboy’s Prehistoric Moves, which you can read about below in the Spinoffs section. Credit: StephenPlays

Backwards compatibility was a key selling point of LittleBigPlanet 2. This had become standard in hardware design over the previous decade, as PlayStation 2 owners could still play PlayStation discs on their new hardware and Nintendo fans could carry over their Game Boy Advance library to a shiny new DS, but remained largely elusive in the world of software. Even on the ever-customizable PC, mods to existing games were rarely compatible with subsequent chapters of the relevant IP. Media Molecule sought to upend this status quo by ensuring that every level created in their first PlayStation 3 game could be played in the sequel. Thanks to a reliance on the same game engine, they were successful in this goal; the vast LittleBigPlanet user base would remain unified.

More fun characters and crossover costumes are included than in any earlier game. Who hasn’t wanted to play LittleBigPlanet as one of those Toy Story aliens at some point? Credit: StephenPlays

With LittleBigPlanet 2, Media Molecule had realized the potential of the world it opened up in 2008. By 2013, eight million levels had been created and shared across the series’ three entries. All were compatible within LittleBigPlanet 2’s interface, ensuring that players would never lack for new content. As of 2018, the servers remain active and players’ creations remain accessible to anyone with a copy of the game and an internet connection.

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LittleBigPlanet PS Vita (2012)

In 2010, Sony fully acquired the IP rights to LittleBigPlanet. Media Molecule had owned the franchise since its creation, but was ready to move on once development wrapped on LittleBigPlanet 2. They had taken the series as far as they could, and were happy to hand it off to enthusiastic new owners.

How great is this promo image? Kudos Sony. Credit: MobyGames

Sony delegated development responsibilities for LittleBigPlanet 2’s portable follow-up to Tarsier Studios. This small Swedish company, founded in 2004, had grown in stature as a reliable level designer for LittleBigPlanet and LittleBigPlanet 2, developing DLC packs for both of those games. It was also responsible for the 2009 home console adaptation of Rag Doll Kung Fu, demonstrating an aptitude for working with physics-oriented Media Molecule properties. Tarsier Studios would be a natural fit for the next LittleBigPlanet adventure.

Standard platforming action is intact. Credit: MobyGames

The small team’s first attempt at developing one of Sony’s premiere IPs would be hugely successful. The PlayStation Vita had struggled commercially since its Western release in early 2012, seeking a good fit for its status as a device that straddled the line between a home and portable console. The hardware was strong, but most early games developed for it had been perceived as watered-down iterations of home console games. LittleBigPlanet PS Vita would arguably be the first essential game for Sony’s beleaguered handheld device.

2D racing sequences are back, reminding players that they don’t need to rely on typical platforming when they invest in a LittleBigPlanet game. Credit: MobyGames

Tarsier Studios succeeded by fully exploiting both the series’ strong roots and the unique hardware features of its new home. In contrast to its PSP predecessor, no significant compromises were made when transporting LittleBigPlanet from the PlayStation 3 to the Vita. Multiplayer has been carried over, though it naturally requires a network connection rather than offering couch co-op. Lighting and screen resolution are reduced, but diminished visual fidelity is mitigated by the console’s small screen.

It might look like Sackboy’s lassoin’ a big ol’ snake, but that’s just Create Mode. Credit: MobyGames

The single-player mode is as charming as ever, offering five hours of levels made up of realistically-textured household objects. All are designed using the same tools available to players in the game’s Create Mode. As with LittleBigPlanet 2, the Create Mode can be used to create and share levels, whole adventures, and even experimental minigames. Said minigames are more present than ever due to integration of the PS Vita’s touchscreen and back-panel touch controls. These allow the player to interact with on-screen characters and objects in a tactile fashion, but also permit the creation of increasingly ambitious levels. Commentators criticized the slow response time of the touch-based mechanics, though this was in keeping with the series’ characteristically loose controls. In general, the new input mechanisms were praised for the new creative avenues that they opened.

Minigames are a key selling point for the first time. Credit: MobyGames

Tarsier Studios had happily done justice to one of Sony’s most popular first-party franchises. It would go on to help develop the console edition of the Vita’s next platforming success, Tearaway, in 2015 and release the highly atmospheric Little Nightmares in 2017. LittleBigPlanet had made the second transition of its short existence, confirming that the series could survive transitions in developer and hardware platform without compromising its distinctive identity.

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LittleBigPlanet 3 (2014)

Sony would reach out to popular studio Sumo Digital to be the primary developer on LittleBigPlanet 3. Sumo Digital had recently scored a significant critical coup with Sonic & SEGA All Stars Racing (2010). The inexplicably excellent kart racer had been published by SEGA across a range of platforms, assuring Sony of Sumo Digital’s acumen at making use of established IPs. Media Molecule would also provide guidance during the project’s earliest stages of development, stressing that the single-player campaign should be structured around showing players what they could make in the Create Mode.

From left to right: Swoop, Big Toggle, and Oddsock. Credit: AwesomeHotRodBoy

LittleBigPlanet 3 introduces the most significant evolution to the series’ mechanics so far: three additional playable characters. Swoop has the ability to fly, Oddsock can bounce off of walls, and Toggle alternates at the player’s command between a large and small size; Big Toggle can depress oversized switches, while Little Toggle can fit into tiny spaces. These characters are used to provide a more varied single-player experience, but also open up new possibilities for level creation. For less adventurous players and creators, Sackboy remains available to control and customize. A fifth playable character, Sackworm, was cut early in development.

Standby Sackboy is as charming as ever. Credit: AwesomeHotRodBoy

Power-ups take on an outsized role in the new game as well. These enhancements had featured in previous titles, but new tools like Boost Boots and Blink Balls give the player new navigational skills. As with the expanded set of characters, these power-ups offer creators more room for experimentation in their own level designs.

Some power-ups allow firing projectiles. Credit: AwesomeHotRodBoy

Shockingly, LittleBigPlanet 3 allows the player to import levels created in LittleBigPlanet and LittleBigPlanet 2. In addition to this, a wider variety of tools than ever are available to ambitious level designers. The sharing infrastructure differs little from what had already been established, but creators would quickly find ways to exploit the breadth of new level customization. Perhaps the most eye-opening new feature is the expansion of 2D layers from three to sixteen!

Stage depth has never been greater. It’s like 2.99D. Credit: AwesomeHotRodBoy

Sumo Digital’s take on Sony’s beloved franchise was released simultaneously on the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 platforms. The latter naturally offers better screen resolution, but little else differs between the two versions. The game was unfortunately beset by major technical issues upon its publication, though, dragging down the perception of what had formerly been a nigh-unimpeachable series. Patches would resolve LittleBigPlanet 3’s instability, but the damage to the series’ reputation seems to have been long-lasting: no entries would be released since 2014 (as of writing in 2018) and most critics agreed that the franchise had peaked with LittleBigPlanet 2.

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Spinoffs

The PlayStation 3 went through some interesting evolutions over the course of its long time on the market. The most conspicuous of these changes was the introduction of a peripheral device called the PlayStation Move in 2010. This hardware add-on allowed players to make use of motion controls in imitation of Nintendo’s extraordinarily popular Wii console. Since LittleBigPlanet had been promoted heavily as one of the PlayStation 3’s most recognizable exclusive properties, it stands to reason that Sony would use the IP to sell a new device.

Ancient Victorian Sackboy sure looks mad. Credit: TheMediaCows

From such inauspicious commercial origins, LittleBigPlanet: Sackboy’s Prehistoric Moves was born. The 2010 platformer features standard sidescrolling levels explored via motion controls. Multiple players can each control a Sackboy character interacting with a cartoonish prehistoric setting.

The cursor in the center of the screen here is controlled by a player manipulating a PlayStation Move via motion control. Credit: TheMediaCows

Sadly, the game lacks much of the franchise’s distinctive charm. The visual design is characteristically excellent, but no level creator or bonus costumes are included. A relatively exciting use of Sony’s new input mechanism would be widely decried as a glorified tech demo. The studio that developed Sackboy’s Prehistoric Moves, Supermassive Games, would at least go on to collect accolades for its 2015 game Until Dawn.

LittleBigPlanet Karting gives off the impression of a standard LittleBigPlanet game when starting it up. This is no cheap cash-in. Credit: SpottinGames

LittleBigPlanet‘s second and (so far) final spinoff would be more successful. Rumors surrounding LittleBigPlanet Karting began circulating at the start of 2012, and the game would be released in most of world by the year’s end. Developed by United Front Gaming, which had attracted praise for ModNation Racers in 2010, LittleBigPlanet Karting would hew to the basic outline of virtually all kart racers: players race against one another or AI opponents while using weapons to impede the progress of competitors.

Gameplay remains relatively standard kart-racing fare. Credit: SpottinGames

Its chief distinction is the inclusion of level creation tools inspired by the core LittleBigPlanet series. These features were already a part of United Front Gaming’s ModNation Racers, which had also co-opted LittleBigPlanet‘s “Play. Create. Share” slogan. With a significantly larger budget, the creation tools were expanded and augmented with a user-friendly interface in LittleBigPlanet Karting. Unlike other kart racers, every environmental object can be turned into a weapon within the game’s extensive customization menu.

Terrain can even be deformed to create highly vertical racetracks. Credit: SpottinGames

LittleBigPlanet Karting was a limited critical success. It fell short of its competitors in terms of driving mechanics in much the same way that the core series lacked the tight platforming of more traditional sidescrollers, but its creation tools conferred a distinct identity on the game. Servers were sadly shut down in 2018.

Conclusion

LittleBigPlanet played a major role in the revival of the 2D platformer genre during the late 2000s. This style of game had been perceived of as passe since the mid-1990s, and a revival was welcomed by many game enthusiasts of a certain age. Media Molecule had managed to reinvigorate the format without being overly beholden to its predecessors.

More importantly, LittleBigPlanet put a genuinely new spin on console level design tools. These had been a staple of PC modding communities for two decades, but few home console games offered users the opportunity to develop and share their own creations. Sequels expanded the palette still further, enhancing the complexity and flexibility available to ambitious creators.

With only four years separating us from its latest entry, it is impossible to speculate definitively on the end of Sony’s flagship platformer. Media Molecule would move on to create one engaging new IP – Tearaway (2013), a crafts-based 3D platformer – and is currently previewing an extremely innovative user-created PlayStation 4 content generator called Dreams. Other studios have simultaneously taken up the mantle of giving console players the ability to develop and distribute their creations, with venerable studio Nintendo releasing the distinctly LittleBigPlanet-esque Super Mario Maker in 2015. If the LittleBigPlanet franchise has indeed reached the end of its road, fans can at least remain confident that its legacy is secure.


What’s your take on LittleBigPlanet? Which entry is your favorite? Do you have any creations you’re especially proud of? Let’s discuss below!

Next week we’ll be diving into the deep end with Final Fantasy. The core series article will appear on 12/21/2018 and the spinoffs article will appear one week later on 12/28/2018, closing out the first year of this article series. Hope you enjoy them!