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Can LittleBigPlanet Save Sony’s PS3?

To inject life into the flagging PlayStation 3, Sony is banking on a charmingly weird new game called LittleBigPlanet, from a scrappy UK startup called Media Molecule. LBP — and its hero, Sackboy — brings social networking and under-generated content to console gaming. Meet the visionary geeks behind it.

Can LittleBigPlanet Save Sony’s PS3?
Media Molecule, the creators of LittleBigPlanet.

On July 17, 2007, Phil Harrison, Sony’s then head of Worldwide Studios, took the stage for what would be his last press conference on behalf of the company at the annual E3 videogame convention in Los Angeles. Tall and Kojak bald, in a fitted pin-striped suit, the cerebral Brit looked alien cool — but he had plenty of reason to sweat. While the videogame industry is sailing towards its best year ever — $22 billion in sales up from $17 billion last year — Sony remains in third place behind Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and the leading Nintendo Wii, with only 4.9 million units of lifetime sales — less than half of the Wii’s 10.9 million.

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Once the ruler of the industry, Sony needed to give gamers a compelling reason to buy the PS3 again — just as Microsoft had lured buyers with its exclusive Halo franchise and Nintendo had hit non-endemic demographic gold with games like Wii Tennis. Harrison’s big unveil wasn’t a magic wand or the next bloodbath shooter, though: It was LittleBigPlanet, a charming and innocently playful title from a developer called Media Molecule, a scrappy collective of UK geeks who had never before released a major game.

It stole the show. After the demo, critics called LittleBigPlanet “the epitome of imagination” (IGN), “Super Mario Bros. meets an orgasm” (Kotaku), and “one of the most dazzling demos… in the last 10 years” (BBC). In the year since, the buzz about LBP, which finally hits shelves tomorrow exclusively for PS3, has only increased, making the game a kind of underdog hero of the industry.

Inside a windowless room at this year’s E3, Alex Evans, the scruffy red-headed 30-year-old co-founder of Media Molecule, gives me a guided tour of the LBP realm. As he flicks his controller with his thumbs, an irresistibly cute burlap ragdoll nicknamed Sackboy bounces though a crazy-quilt world of cushiony cubes, wooden blocks, and green toy soldiers. Though on first glance it seems like a traditional jump-and-duck side-scrolling game (think Mario or Sonic), LittleBigPlanet packs a huge twist: Not only can you play through the world Media Molecule provides, but you can create and share original worlds of your own.

The concept is deceptively simple. To create or enhance a world, you simply scroll through a selection of thousands of objects on a pop-up panel over Sackboy’s head, then click and drag weird piles of, say, glass blocks or metal spikes across your own DIY playroom. Likewise, you can accessorize Sackboy himself. Sony plans to have a steady flow of new ways you customize the game by introducing new objects over time via its online network. It gets plain surreal when players upload their own snapshots with an EyeToy camera and design them into the game. (What would Dali think of a game in which you can jump over your own nose?). Everything you incorporate into the world springs to life with realistic physics: Drag your photo onto a curtain, and it grafts right into the waving folds.

Evans giddily shows off his latest favorite example uploaded by an early beta tester: Sackboy rides on a homemade cart by a series of square multicolored cubes piled up against the wall. Each cube has a built-in audio trigger, so that when Sackboy passes by, it plays a distinct musical note. In a stroke of homebrewed genius, this gamer stacked the cubes so that, as the cart whizzes by, they play a melody. “It’s amazing what people can come up with when you give them the tools,” Evans says.

Which is precisely why Sony is so excited about the game. LBP is the linchpin in Sony’s strategy to bring the Web 2.0 trends of user-generated content and social networking into gaming. While computer games such as the Sims have been moving into that kind of interactive entertainment over the past decade, it’s just now heading into the console space. Microsoft has made strides by, for example, allowing players to modify content in the hit shooter Halo 3, but never has user-generated content been the whole point of a console game. “I could see that trend coming as consoles became connected to the Internet,” recalls Harrison, now president of Atari. “If you could empower the user with tools that allow them to create content easily — linked to a very fun and engaging game — I would hope that combination would be pretty explosive.”

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“It speaks to Sony’s (and Microsoft’s) wider aims of broadening console engagement beyond single-player games,” says Paul Jackson, principal analyst for Forrester Research, “The thinking is that getting users to create their own emergent game play both lessens developer costs (once the platform has been created) and increases ‘stickiness.'” Jack Tretton, the president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment of America, says the “mad geniuses” at Media Molecule are “redefining the gaming experience.”

That’s a remarkable bit of corporate bluster (and pressure), considering that Media Molecule is little more than a 30-person startup in a 1,000 square foot loft above a bathroom showroom in Guildford, outside London. Evans and his co-founders Mark Healey, Dave Smith, and Kareem Ettoune met while developing games for Lionhead Studios, creator of acclaimed role-playing games such as Fable and Black-and-White. When Lionhead shut down at 9 p.m. each night, the future Molecules stayed on for extended coding sessions to build a game of their own. The result, Rag Doll Kung Fu, which they released independently online in the summer of 2005, delivered wildly inventive and goofy fighting action that pitted Rambo-like string puppets against each other and knowingly winked at videogame clichés. Aside from the cool-factor, Rag Doll Kung Fu raised eyebrows with serious gamers because of its sophisticated physics engine, which lets you control your fighter’s movements by clicking and moving the arms and feet independently, vastly increasing the character’s range of motion. PC Gamer magazine anointed the cult fave “one of the most intriguing games we’ve ever seen.”

None of Rag Doll‘s critical attention translated into much sales, but the guys were encouraged enough to strike out on their own and launch Molecule. Their big break came sooner than expected. In November 2005, a friend called to say he had scored them a pitch meeting with Harrison at Sony in one week. There was just one problem: They had nothing to show yet. Diehard musicians, they knew they wanted to create something improvisational — “We wanted to give that feeling when you jack in playing guitar and you’re just jamming with your friends,” Evans recalls — so they scrambled together a demo called YellowHead, which featured a rag doll jumping across an onscreen drum machine. Harrison passed on that one, but he saw immediately the potential in what they described as creative gaming. “It was corporate love at first site,” he says now.

Sony’s hopes for LittleBigPlanet are high; the company is betting that it will be accessible enough for casual players and innovative enough to capture the fascination of hard-core gamers. “We are positive that LittleBigPlanet will cross many age groups,” says Scott Rohde, vice president of product development for Sony Computer Entertainment of America. “It delivers on its promise for creative gaming.” The company thinks its quirky experiment can achieves sales similar to the recent Wii Fit exercise game for Nintendo, which sold 1.1 million units in its first two months alone. Meanwhile, Media Molecule is brewing up future plans, such as branding Sackboy as a character who will inhabit other games or products.

Evans and his pals have done their part; what remains to be seen is whether gamers will do their part and not only buy LittleBigPlanet but build and share enough ingenious worlds to make it more than an empty platform. After all, if one of the lessons of Web 2.0 is that user-generated content is cheap, another is that cheap doesn’t always mean better.

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