I tell him that I’d requested the interview because I wanted to know his thoughts on how player input will govern game design over the long term. LittleBigPlanet had, after all, seemingly struck a nerve when it was released in 2008.
At its core, LBP was a platformer in the vein of Super Mario, where the objective was to jump the main character – a cloth doll named Sack Boy – from one ledge to another. It’s clear to me now that it was a reflection of its creators and their eccentric styles and work space; the game was set in Craft World, a Lilluputian universe of textiles, stitches and sewn-on buttons. Sack Boy could be endlessly customize with stickers, hats and outfits of the player’s own choosing. The game positively oozed charm, sold millions of copies, won numerous accolades and spawned sequels and spin-offs.
To me, it also telegraphed the future of games. While LittleBigPlanet came packaged with the pre-created adventure expected of every platformer, its real appeal lay in the built-in design tools that players could use to make their own levels. Previous games had done this to varying levels of success, but LBP’s very DNA made it the perfect vehicle for the idea.
With every stitch of Craft World literally laid bare in the pre-made levels, players could easily see how everything was constructed and then replicate it – and improve on it – with the same tools the original designers used. And unlike many other games, the editing was simple and spoke the same “language” as the actual gameplay. Creation wasn’t an entirely different experience.
Players flocked to the concept and a community quickly emerged. By 2012, more than seven million levels had been created and shared online, meaning that anyone who bought LittleBigPlanet could probably play it forever if they wanted to.
The game and franchise’s success has since spurred other publishers to jump on the so-called user-generated content movement, both for business reasons – anything that keeps players from trading in their games – and creative purposes. After all, are there any self-respecting artists who don’t love seeing other creations inspired by their work?
The trend is set to grow as level-editing tools inevitably become simpler and as console makers push more online social interactivity through their next-generation machines. It’s not crazy to suggest that most games will feature some sort of user-generated shared components in the near future. And with that, the quality of player-created content will only continue to improve, right?
Smith believes so, but he also thinks professionals will continue to have a leg up on amateurs. The Media Molecule-created levels in LBP, for example, are of the best quality, meant to set the bar high on what can be done with game-creation tools. While some individual players may have attained a professional-like level with their creations, the pros are similarly moving upward in what they can do.
“Even if in an hour you could make something as high quality as a Call of Duty game, well then the professionals will be making something that’s even better. Technology is exponentially increasing, but culture is linearly increasing. That’s the bottleneck,” he says. “What you can’t cheat is that it takes time to make something that is unique and good.”
That limitation, however, could soon be overcome as user-created game content arrives at its next inevitable milestone: collaboration. While it might be difficult for one person to quickly and cheaply create the equivalent of, say, an Uncharted game, it might be considerably easier for a whole swath of amateur creators – each bringing their own particular skills and expertise to the virtual table – to do so.
Today’s triple-A blockbuster titles, which take hundreds of skilled professionals and millions of dollars to create, could ultimately be crowd-sourced and then created relatively quickly and cheaply by a score of connected gamers.
“There seems to be no technical reason for why we can’t remove those barriers. Then it’s down to whether people have the time,” Smith says. “If you can find the right way of getting that number of people to work together, there’s no limit. It’s going to happen.”