LittleBigPlanet is a game designed to offer users complete freedom -- so how does it maintain such a cohesive visual style? Media Molecule co-founders Kareem Ettouney and Mark Healey were at the Develop Conference in Brighton to discuss the subtleties of the game's iconic, handmade look.
Beyond a simple platformer, LBP was intended to be a "creative tool," said Ettouney. To determine its visual direction, the Media Molecule team began with a brainstorming session to identify universally recognizable concepts.
"When we thought about collective memories," explained Healey, "we started to see that home-made, DIY creations were a major part of play from most people’s childhood. Everyone’s used a cardboard box as a castle, or a car, or a space ship."
"And when we started to use the style, it became more than just an art decision," he continued. "It became part of the entire philosophy, affecting every part of the development. In creation, for example, we could avoid scary language like ‘pivot points’. Instead, we had ‘nuts and bolts.'"
Next, said Ettouney, the team "started to think of LBP as a ‘craft box’ full of different tools, fabrics and widgets," a concept that allowed the developers to combine a variety of different art styles from throughout history to be used as content.
"We’d look at everything, from ancient woodblock prints to current high-tech architecture, and we were very happy with that, it allowed us to mix world visuals and thematically celebrate the whole planet by doing so," he said.
Of course, the development wasn’t without its stumbling blocks. Healey revealed that they had created an early proof-of-concept for the title’s 2D physics in a 3D world, and that Sony was too enamored with the simplistic "sponge world" that was created for the demo.
"We’d try to tell Sony about all the amazing world cultures we had planned and they’d just say ‘no, we want sponge world,'" Healey said. "We learned not to make our prototypes so finished-looking from that point on!"
However, their concept of offering a cohesively chaotic, "handmade" set of visuals was essentially unproven by the time the game was in player’s hands -- would they serve as a good springboard to the game’s fledgling community?
Ettouney said the team was incredibly pleased with what they've seen. "We regularly gather round as a team and look at the new levels that people are making, and what we see is absolutely incredible."
Healey agreed: "If you give the community the right tools, they can create things you could never have expected. The amazing thing is that as varied as the things users have created are, you can still recognize them as LittleBigPlanet."
The developers put that down to more than just their art direction decisions, but the technical effects the programmers had included in the aid of the art direction.
"To tie everything together, we had to do particular things technically, starting with post-processing to give everything a camcorder-like effect, but also post-processing such as field-of-vision and motion blur to support our handmade, miniature look," said Ettouney.
Added Healey, "The programmers didn’t didn’t put in any technical features for the sake of themselves. They were put them in to support the vision."
Another symbol of LittleBigPlanet that ties the title’s style together and aids recognition is the iconic Sackboy -- but according to Ettouney, he was the most difficult part. "We wanted a character that would be observably iconic, but at the same time was a blank canvas; something that could be whatever the player wanted them to be, from a cowboy to a fish."
Developed through an iterative evolution -- specifically concentrating on creating a unique and recognizable silhouette -- they felt they had realized their ambitions with a character whose handmade aesthetic matched his ability to be dressed in a variety of different costumes.
But there was one more lesson to be learned from the community where costumes were concerned. With a long update schedule of DLC costumes planned for Sackboy, they quickly saw that the community was already producing near-perfect facsimiles of licensed characters -- some that the team had even planned for DLC.
"There’s an interesting lesson to learn there," said Healey. "If anyone is planning to make a user-created content driven game, and at the same time you want to offer downloadable content, you have to be really aware of what the users can do on their own from the original content."
That’s not to say the team felt that any of the community’s contributions to the title were devaluing LittleBigPlanet.
"Although we’re quite a small team at thirty people, I’d like to argue we’re one of the biggest teams in the world," said Healey. "We’ve got an entire community out there contributing and making the game what it is."