Just a few days after launch, LittleBigPlanet PSVita has an aggregate score among the most favorably-received titles on Sony's new portable thus far -- at a time when the Vita, off to a slow start, needs a star. And its developer, little-known Tarsier Studios, achieved a success against formidable odds.
It had to inherit Media Molecule's acclaimed brainchild from that studio as it moved on to new projects. And it had to design the beloved franchise sequel alongside the Vita hardware at a time when Sony was still sorting out what, exactly, that hardware would be. At the time the studio was tapped for the LBP project, it had only sixteen people.
Tarsier's only significant release had been the PlayStation Network title Rag Doll Kung Fu: Fists of Plastic, a console version of the small but popular Steam game Rag Doll Kung Fu, which was made by some Lionhead employees. One of those, coincidentally, was Alex Evans, who'd go on to co-found Media Molecule.
Tarsier CEO Mattias Nygren says Evans liked the work Tarsier had done to flesh out Rag Doll Kung Fu, and the small studio began doing costumes for sackboys right after the first LittleBigPlanet game proved such a sensation on PlayStation 3 and needed continuing content. When Media Molecule needed a hand to continue creating art, they tapped Nygren's team. Almost every LittleBigPlanet 2 costume was Tarsier's work.
After that, one night the team got a late night call from their producer -- either a very good sign, or a very bad one. "He said Media Molecule would be looking at some new ventures after spending quite some time with LittleBigPlanet, and they had recommended us to take over the creative rein for the platform, and would we like to do the next one," Nygren recalls.
"It was quite overwhelming! the responsibility, the magnitude of the project," he adds.
Suddenly Tarsier was charged with designing a franchise sequel for a platform that didn't exist yet, a daunting prospect. "It felt good, but really scary as well, because LittleBigPlanet is not a game that has some great flaw that you can say, 'oh, I'm going to fix that, and then everybody is going to like it'... It's a game everybody loves, so it was going to be challenging."
Tarsier's first smart move was to seek out some help, hiring up more experienced staff suitable to a project of that scale. Importantly, Nygren says with the help of Media Molecule and Sony, they also looked to the LittleBigPlanet content creation community.
When a game thrives on user-generated content, your most active players understand your game much better than the most seasoned developer. Community hires would be able to recommend experienced and innovative content creators and level designers they themselves admired.
"It says a lot about the game that there's a lot of different kinds of people," says Nygren. Two math teachers from the U.S. for whom the game had just been a pretty intense hobby were able to make it a job. "They had the really complex logic, and super-optimized levels. We had people from Germany, France, Holland, Spain and the UK. It was a big change, and we grew a lot as a company as well."
Eventually Tarsier opened up a second office in Sweden to support the game, even as the scale and shape of the final result was still somewhat up in the air. What would the Vita be able to do, and what would it look like technically?
Fortunately the team had some help there, too -- LittleBigPlanet PSVita is co-developed with UK-based Double 11, which handled many of the technical aspects and actual design implementation in association with the hardware. "They've done an incredible job of bringing us all the tech from the PS3 games onto the handheld device," Nygren says.
The teams that worked on LittleBigPlanet PSVita, along with other studios close to Sony, had a hand in shaping the Vita itself, Nygren says. "From the beginning, they asked us what we would like to see... it wasn't set in stone. During that time we could look at what we would expect from a new handheld platform, looking at other platforms, smartphones, what do people like? And what did we think would translate well into LittleBigPlanet?"
There was just one mandate: Don't break the universe of LittleBigPlanet just because of hardare innovation. "It was about finding good ways of using the new functionality," he says. The platform-adventure story mode plays quite traditionally and is actually somewhat conservative about Vita features, but the arcade-oriented minigame section, and those elements of the game that shift more creation tools into the player's hands, use more of them.
"We never felt we had to shoehorn things," Nygren says.
As to the overall design, Nygren says integrating the community with the design team was crucial to developing a sort of internal quality assurance. Many features come from player request, not some demand to showcase the Vita: One new tool that allows for different ways of saving progress was asked for by the community, and it now allows for more bite-sized gameplay sessions that happen to be suitable for a portable platform.
As for Media Molecule, they were available but not a shepherd, according to Nygren. "What they said was, 'show us everything you've got -- we'd love to see it and give you feedback on it, but don't wait for directions, because we're doing other stuff... and we will answer every itty bitty question, and then we won't be able to do anything else." That Tarsier and Double 11 could work independently on the game was essential to the freedom to work on new things that Media Molecule had desired.
Sony very much needed a first-party hit for its Vita, the kind of game people would look to as a reason to buy the system. "The Vita has had a slow start, and I think that's obviously been a fear, but what we're also hearing today is that some people ay this might be what the Vita audience is waiting for," Nygren says. "I think we all hope it to be true, that people will now actually give the Vita a chance."