Monday, November 10, 2008

LittleBigPlanet confounds the taxonomy

Above: The cuddliest lil' fellas to mince down the pike since Bubsy the Bobcat

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.


Julian said...

I think LBP is the ultimate tourist's game, actually. The controls are a little floaty, but it's not gamebreaking by any means. The main game is cute and has great atmosphere. The story doesn't need to be solid when the scenery has this much personality. Every level is packed with humor and just generally copious amounts of cute shit. All the little side games add a good amount of variety so you're always looking at and playing something new.

But the user-created content is tourist's heaven. It means there's ALWAYS something new to experience, and even some of the levels that aren't worth playing in terms of intrinsic merit are so hilariously bad they're worth taking a look at. And it's all in easily digestible bite-sized chunks, so you don't even need to be able to finish the levels to move on and get chance to see something new.

Mitch Krpata said...

Good points, but I guess what I'm looking for is that through-line that gives me a reason to play these beyond idle curiosity (that's why I liked the Alcatraz level -- it imposed a small, but totally logical narrative). It's neat to see what comes from people's imaginations, but to me that's not enough reason to care.

I also find the twee aesthetics to be a bit grating, but that's obviously a personal gripe and not a reflection on the quality of the game.

With that said, there's plenty of LBP left for me to play! I'm done with it yet.

Mitch Krpata said...

Uh, I'm *not* done with it yet.

Scott Juster said...

Hi Mitch. I too have been struggling with LBP.

I'm somewhat like you in that I couldn't really care less about dressing up Sackboy. I do, however, crave the kind of platforming gameplay that the game provides. The controls could be better, but at least they are consistent. Even though they're a bit loose and floaty, it seems to me that they are loose and floaty in all situations, which at least lets me learn the system.

As far as who the game is targeted to, I'll offer an anecdote. My girlfriend really wants to play the game, but she has no history with platformers, zero. This leads to lots of dead Sackboys.

She does have a lot of history with stage design (from her theater background theater) as well as Sims experience, which makes her excited about the creator level. Basically, I think we'll fall into a pattern of her designing levels and me playing them. This may mean that even if a small number of folks go through the level creation, they will serve the larger community just fine.

I'm definitely going to stick with the game for a while, especially for the co-op. I haven't been able to play many online games without people running up to me and hitting me for no reason. Sigh...

Ed Borden said...

I lol'ed @ your booze, Mitch, crack me up

Ben Abraham said...

Twice in the space of a week! Thanks for the link love Mitch. You made a great point expanding my argument to include Far Cry 2's choice of missions. =D

FitS said...

Hey have one quick question did you just play through by yourself? I know I enjoyed the game far more in four player mode with friends(in the same room not internet) than going solo. It actually made the floaty controls more bearable.

Mitch Krpata said...

Scott, I've yet to get used to them. Even when I'm trying my best to enjoy user levels, I still have an expectation that this should be controlling like Mega Man or Super Mario Bros. Sackboy has a habit of sliding off of things all the time, and it just infuriates me.

Ed, did you get into my booze before writing that comment?

Ben, glad to oblige.

Karl, I have been playing by myself, sadly. Tonight is all about multiplayer online, but locally I only have one controller. I can see how it would be more fun with others, but as I've argued before, anything is more fun when you do it with your friends.

Julian said...

I definitely agree that you have an annoying tendency to slide off the corner of platforms, especially in comparison with some other platformers that give you an "I'm swinging my arms so I don't fall off" animation and extra protection against sliding off. If I'm understanding it properly, that's an unfortunate side-effect of basing everything on physics models and rounding your platform edges.

When you say you don't enjoy the aesthetic, I think that might be a lot of why you're not enjoying the tourist-directed aspects of the game. I LOVE the cobbled-together-in-my-garage look, so just looking at the scenes are a treat to me. Exponentially moreso now that I finally got around to running through all the build tutorials. They kept all the inner workings of things visible in the story mode, so you can see the way they pieced things together and how they work, which makes me feel like the guy in the audience at the magic show who understands all the tricks. I still enjoy it because I love the magic for understanding the tricks more than seeing the illusions themselves.

Or is it possible you're more interested in touring the story, while the visuals and sheer ingenuity are sufficient to capture my imagination? Maybe you want a plot, while I'm satisfied experiencing the world itself?

On the multiplayer front, it's easier to tour with friends, but it's kind of a hassle to work out your completionist urges. One person dying messes up your shot at acing the level, and the tendency in multiplayer is to blaze through the level. Nobody wants to hang up the whole group trying to get that one elusive prize bubble, or spend tens of minutes scouring all the corners for hidden areas. Maybe your tourist urges will be better served in multiplayer, but I'm definitely happy to have the opportunity to do it both ways and feed both the tourist and the completionist in me.

Mitch Krpata said...

Julian, thanks for the great comments. I hope people are still checking in on this thread.

I think it really might be as simple as the lack of a decent plot to grab onto. Even something as simple as "rescue the princess" usually suffices for a game like this. This game's story isn't even up to that standard, though. It's just an excuse to show off different stuff you can do with the toolset. And, again, that's great for what it is! I just have to acknowledge that, for myself, it's not what I want out of a game.

(Which is why you can look forward to a review packed with that sort of tempered praise, incidentally.)

Julian said...

Hey, don't go thanking me, that's backwards. Thank YOU for the great blog and great conversation. ^_^ I DO have a bad habit of continuing to talk about things long past the point where it's fashionable, so feel free to cut me off I try to keep this going too long...

I'm kind of obsessed with LBP right now, it has captured my imagination in a way that doesn't normally happen with we. But I'm sure you're not the only one that needs that thread of story to tie things together, and I think it's a Very Good Thing to have varying voices and varying opinions from varying expectations and tastes in reviews. I look forward to reading your review, shaking my head and clicking my tongue, and then leaving nasty comments. ^_~

I'll be honest and say that for as paltry as this story is, it's still one step ahead of Mario's "save the princess" trope for me, which is probably the most lukewarm compliment I can give. That's like saying a burger is better than a Big Mac, it just doesn't carry any weight because they are the worst hamburgers on Earth. LBP's insane worldwide wild goose chase at least tries to do something a little different, even if it's uninteresting and uninspired in the final accounting.

I understand where you're coming from though. There are games that everybody says are amazing that just don't click for me. Sometimes it's just not what I'm looking for, sometimes it's completely unexplainable because it's something that fits me as a gamer and sounds on paper like something I'd like.

Mitch Krpata said...

I have to say that the level editor is quite an achievement. I got really sucked into building my first level, and despite the fact that it's ugly as hell and no fun to play, the darn thing works, and that's pretty impressive for my first try. It's fair to say that LBP exists sort of outside of the usual boundaries for a video game.

Even so, I keep having the same experience, whether in the developer-created levels or the user-created ones. I spend a couple minutes marveling at the ingenuity, a minute or so, being frustrated at the play control, and then about five seconds quitting out to the main menu in disgust.

Julian said...

I agree about the level builder. It references real-world concepts while abstracting them enough to be accessible, and the set of tools you're given is expansive enough you can accomplish pretty much any design you want, but restricted enough that it takes some ingenuity to pull most things off. It's like it was designed explicitly to showcase your creativity. There's also a puzzle-like aspect to getting certain things to work with the toolset that makes it genuinely FUN to make things with.

That's unfortunate about fighting the controls. It's odd to me that the controls are the low point in a game like this where you're basically buying a set of game mechanics and level building tools. Well, aside from the story, but the story is intentionally throwaway and that works just fine for the game IMO.

My wife's experience with the game's controls is probably similar to yours. I think if she didn't have me there goading her on, she wouldn't have gotten very far into it, although she is having a lot of fun with it now. We both got the hang of the slidey platforms pretty quickly, but the part that really frustrates her is switching planes. She keeps getting hung up on things, and it'll switch her when she doesn't want to switch. It's pretty consistent in the way it behaves, so I can usually figure out what's going on and get her to do something different, but it's definitely a problem for a game that's being marketed to a broad spectrum of the market.