Monday, November 10, 2008
LittleBigPlanet confounds the taxonomy
In the New Taxonomy of Gamers series, I argued that two basic motivations drive players. One is the desire to experience a game world, and the other is the desire to master it. (Read more about Skill Players vs. Tourists.) The idea was less than perfect, but nothing I've played since then has convinced me that those classifications are fundamentally wrong.
That includes LittleBigPlanet, whose cutesy aesthetic and ostensibly old-school platforming belie its status as a game aimed squarely at both types of skill player. For completionists, each level is stuffed with hidden collectables that you can use to customize your character's appearance and "Pod" (essentially his apartment). For perfectionists, there's the map editor, which we'll talk about shortly. For tourists, well, the neat things you can see and do are betrayed by piss-poor play control and an inane storyline. It's just not that fun to run through LittleBigPlanet in single-player mode.
Which isn't the point, of course. This game is concerned with a different axis of player entirely, one that's been around on the PC for decades, but is relatively new to the console scene: content producers versus content consumers. That level editor is no joke -- I'm sure I don't need to tell you. Ever since the beta test, LBP users have been running wild, and they've turned out some pretty impressive creations. One of the first user-created maps I tried out, basically at random, was an escape from Alcatraz that nailed the look and feel of the place. There are some real gems out there.
There's also some garbage, which is neither a surprise nor a strike against the game. Rather, it just goes to show how small the percentage is going to be of players who create something of worth to the LBP community. First of all, the number of people who will even publish a level has got to be miniscule compared to the number of people who will play one, while the number of people who will create genuinely good stuff is that much lower again. (I'm basing this on well-known "Web 2.0" formulas.) Still, in absolute terms, the amount of solid levels being built by LBP users seems impressive.
What I wonder is why the game's biggest draw is aimed at such a small proportion of its players. Building a good level has got to take a combination of inborn skill and serious dedication. The question is, was Media Molecule gambling by assuming that a relatively small number of users would become the engine that will power their game? Certainly it seems like the game is a commercial success, so even if they gambled it sounds like it was a good bet. I just wonder that vast majority of people who can't or won't put in the effort to make levels will stick around to see what others end up doing.
Granted, I'm not this game's target audience. Things like customizing my character have always baffled and annoyed me. The way I see it, I spent sixty bucks on your game -- the least you could do is a design a character for me. The whole idea of user-created content is strange to me. It's not my job to make the game for you, it's your job to make the game for me!
I don't want to go on a rant here [background fades to black], but this whole trend toward user choice in games is misguided in some ways. I was just reading a post about Fallout 3, in which the author wondered why doing things like jumping up on tables in the middle of crowded taverns never seemed to bother anyone in the game world, and I thought, well, why would the game give you the option to do that if there weren't going to be consequences? If everything is possible, why do anything? Am I a character who would jump on tables? It's fine if a designer wants to give me that option, but then it's his job to think through the consequences.
Say what you will about Far Cry 2, at least that game was consistent. Everybody started shooting at you, no matter what you were doing. And the other thing they did right is not to give you a choice to do good missions or bad ones. Personally, when someone tells me to go blow up a crate of medicine, my first thought is, no, I don't want to blow up that crate of medicine. You'd have to be a real dick to go and do a thing like that. But that's exactly it: In Far Cry 2, you are playing the role of a real dick! And while the game gives you a ton of latitude in exactly how you can go about being a dick, one choice it doesn't give you is not to act like a dick. If you could go through Far Cry 2 being Mr. Good Samaritan, it would be a worse game for it. Games are at their best when giving you the illusion of choice, while playing you like a fiddle.
What was I talking about? Oh yeah, stay out of my booze.