Tuesday, August 12, 2008
LittleBigPlanet to Embarrass Xbox Live
Sackboy is about to show Xbox Live where it's at.
Is Microsoft's Xbox Live service better than the PlayStation Network? At one stage in this generation such a question would get little debate: Xbox Live for the win – at least from a user’s perspective. We’d still tend to give a nod in Live’s direction. With all of Microsoft’s extensive PC networking experience behind it, consumers have rallied behind the marketplace (despite its questionable pricing plans: microtransactions our collective arses!) and fallen in love with the social mechanics and achievements.
Sony has been playing catch-up all along. But catching up they have been, with each firmware update the PlayStation Network has become a more robust online alternative, to the point where there is a hint of the cross-media bar in the upcoming Xbox Live re-skin. Now Sony just need some killer software.
For a while there it looked like Home was going to be Sony’s big PSN hope, but a run of delays has seen interest in the product wane. But a new beast has risen to take its place: having just spent a few days goings hands-on with LittleBigPlanet and chatting with Nick Robinson, its Senior Product Manager, we think it could be LittleBigPlanet that really rocks Xbox Live’s boat in this key skirmish of the console war.
For the uninitiated, LittleBigPlanet is one of the bravest software concepts of all time. A side-scrolling platformer on the surface, its beating heart lies in user-creation, with gamers empowered to construct their own levels and freely distribute them across the Net to all other community members. As Nick informed us, the driving mantra during the game’s creation was ‘no cheating.’ Each of the 50 levels constructed in the main experience is developed with exactly the same tool kit provided to users in the creation mode.
In fact, Nick stated that originally they weren’t going to provide any maps at all, just the editing software. But instead the 50 levels were designed and included for the specific purpose of illuminating what can be achieved with the tool kit: they’re instruments of inspiration first, entertainment second. And while Nick informed us that there is already 12 months of planned DLC for the game, it will come in the form of new editing tools – a mini music studio was spoken about but not confirmed – coupled with levels that show off what it can do.
The possibilities in LittleBigPlanet are next to endless. As part of our time with the game, the assembled journalists were each given two hours to construct a map, with everything from skate-boarding simulations to hardcore platformers and cut-scene driven puzzlers spilling out of the nation’s finest critics.
Nick is aware that this leaves the door open to just about anything – he believes that they’ll probably get every Mario bros level ever developed day one – and they have strict moderation features to counter spam and indecency. But the truth of it is they are genuinely clueless as to what is going to happen. They really don’t know: they’re going to press the big green button step back and watch what happens. It’s the great unknown, but ultimately Media Molecule, and Sony, are charging headfirst into the unknown with barely contained excitement.
It’s a mentality that parallels the ground-breaking work being done by Will Wright on Spore, and it’s already working. In fact, Nick informed us that other Sony studios – including Guerrilla Games – are chomping at the bit to make their own themed-levels for their games – Sack-Helghast anyone? The game is filled with brilliant features that are sure to facilitate exponential community growth. Like the ability to create props and images that you can hide in your level as Easter eggs which, if discovered, will be delivered as prizes to the gamer for use in their worlds. Or to chain-link multiple levels together, so when you finish one it downloads the next, allowing guilds and clans to develop whole games of their own styling. Not to mention full website support covering things like stat-tracking of your average map rating, and fastest times in race maps. Not to mention that the game supports Trophies.
It’s going to go off. And it’s all facilitated by the freedom Sony gives to developers in the way they use the PSN. Such freedom does not exist on Xbox live.
We broached the subject of Xbox 360 with Nick and whether LittleBigPlanet could function as desired on the format: the answer was a disappointed shake of the head. Echoing the thoughts we heard from Epic Games Mark Rein last year regarding the issues they faced with wanting mods available for the Xbox 360 version of Unreal Tournament III (which subsequently resulted in a delay), and the frustration shown more recently by the developers of N+, Microsoft’s Draconian – and frequently hypocritical (seems to be ok in Halo 3 and Forza 2) – restrictions on user-generated content is proving to the be Live’s Achilles’ Heel.
Just today the developer of the highest rated XBLA game ever, Braid, sugested he would never work on the system again due to Microsoft's restrictions.
Getting a straight answer out of Microsoft as to what precisely is their problem has been a long trek down a dead-end. On the surface they’re saying it’s a bi-product of Xbox live being a ‘closed system’, and then there’s been a bit of the old ‘we can’t guarantee the quality, or that the content will be kosher’. But there are more than enough hints to suggest that Microsoft is simply worried that it will devalue the premium content on the Marketplace: as in they will lose money. Or more precisely, will not get as much money. Certainly Bizarre Creations, who were told they couldn’t give Geometry Wars away for free, would agree with this theory. Even Mark Rein has moaned about the need of “convincing Microsoft to let us give some things away for free."
As it stands, LittleBigPlanet is set to embarrass Xbox live and really challenge Microsoft’s views on user-generated content. The game has a tremendous amount of hype and having played it for hours now, that hype is certainly warranted. It’ll be a trendsetter for sure, and a host of LittleBigPlanet clones will surely appear down the track, all of which will seemingly need to head to the PS3. And LittleBigPlanet is just the first wave in an onslaught of user-driven experiences, including such big hitters as Guitar Hero: World Tour and Spore.
Indeed, if LittleBigPlanet fulfils its potential, appealing to mainstream and gamer alike, then it could very well force Microsoft’s hand by humiliating the revered Xbox Live system. Worse still for Microsoft is this all important question: what other unannounced games have already pledged themselves to the PS3 in order to jump on the user-content bandwagon?