The New Game in Town


At the stroke of noon on a beautiful
autumn Saturday, Sven Travis, the founder and chair of the
Communications Design and Technology department at Parsons The New
School for Design, stands up in the middle of a sea of pizza boxes,
computer cable, and cases of Coke to address 150 scruffy design
students. Travis was kicking off the school’s fourth annual Game
Jam, a real-life reality show that grants a $1,000 cash prize to the
student team that can design the best video game in 24 hours.

The
students—some from Travis’s department, others majoring in
fashion design, interior design, product design, illustration, and
photography—are buzzing, and they haven’t even started
drinking their allotment of Red Bull. “At judging tomorrow, you
are welcome to show us sketches, flowcharts, whatever, but what we are
looking for is a complete and playable game,” Travis says.
“It’s demented, I know, but so are most of you—so
it’ll be good for you.”

The challenge this year is to
create a “platformer,” the kind of game in which the player
controls a little figure as it jumps and runs through a series of
puzzlelike environments. (Donkey Kong, Mario Brothers, and Sonic the
Hedgehog are all platformers.) The students will compete using a design
environment they’ve never actually laid their eyes on:
LittleBigPlanet.

LittleBigPlanet runs on Sony’s newest console,
the PlayStation 3, and at first glance, it looks just like any other
platformer. The Mario equivalent is a character called Sackboy, an
almost featureless, knitted rag doll that can be customized by adding
features—a Jackie Onassis wig, for example, or aviator glasses.
But once you start playing the game, you realize that Sackboy can change
and rearrange every aspect of his environment. He can climb up a set of
stairs to reach a prize, or simply fly up and replace the stairs with an
elevator.

As is the case with any platformer, a game player can
complete the pre-designed levels that come with the game; but the real
fun of LBP is in using Sackboy to build new levels from scratch, upload
them to Sony’s central servers, and share them with the entire LBP
gaming community. In effect, LBP is a new kind of game entirely.
It’s a meta-game, and it’s the first to erase the
distinction between game player and game designer. In LBP, game play
is game design.

For LBP’s debut at Parsons, Sony has
anted up in anticipation of a Christmas release: The company has flown
in executives from Los Angeles as well as designers from London,
including Kareem Ettouney, creative director at Media Molecule, the
studio responsible for the game’s design. The students and
professors at Parsons, however, are excited for a different reason. Some
of them think the game could represent the beginning of a whole new
operating system for creativity, one that doesn’t occur within the
confines of Creative Suite or depend on the click of a mouse. “In
the future,” says Travis, “all design work—including
print layout, print design—will be done on game consoles.”
LBP, he says, is the first glimpse of what that might mean for
designers.

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In this grid of images, the game starts with a blank slate and a menu.
Sackboy is an avatar, the virtual proxy for the flesh-and-blood
designer who directs his actions. With a neon lasso, Sackboy can pull a
wide variety of objects, building materials, backdrops, and simple
machines into his virtual world.

Roughly an hour after the competition begins, all 19 Game
Jam teams, each consisting of four or more students, are at work, and
their screens quickly start to look like virtual construction sets. The
contestants use their game controllers to push their Sackboys around the
screen and build their respective virtual worlds. The game allows for
four player-designers to work simultaneously.

In effect, each Sackboy
is a cursor; when a button is pushed on the controller, the
“pop-it” menu appears. The pop-it menu is full of goodies
that can be imported into the onscreen world: valuable objects, scenic
props, and backdrops of all kinds. A tree, for example, once selected
from the menu, can be scaled and placed anywhere. But the most useful
pop-it objects are the bulk building supplies: stone, metal, wood,
polystyrene, cardboard, and sponge, all of which can be used to build
walls, tunnels, or stairs—even simple machines. A few wiggles of
the game controller cuts the material into the desired shape and
“pops it” into the game’s environment.

The range of
materials creates a seemingly endless variety. Sponge squishes when
Sackboy jumps on it. Stone or metal can squish Sackboy if it falls on
him during game play. Wood comes in 30 varieties, including dark- and
light-colored wood, mahogany, engraved wood, Indian-carved wood, and
Mexican-motif wood. Materials can be joined together with bolts, string,
rods, springs, elastic, winches, and pistons to create more complex
objects. A wooden board bolted between two pistons, for example,
becomes an elevator.

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The winning team built an enormously complicated machine monster with
numerous moving parts, then customized it with hand-drawn, scanned-in
textures.

“Ordinarily, it would take me a whole day
to create, say, a rotating sphere in Autocad and Form Z,” says
Vasilis Kyriacou, a Game Jam participant who’s majoring in design
and technology. “In LittleBigPlanet, I just point and
click—there’s the sphere—and then I attach it to the
wall with a bolt. Done. Easy. A minute, tops.” The game’s
emphasis on construction makes all kinds of things possible. Instead of
drawing animation storyboards by hand or in Illustrator, a gamer can
build a monster out of a few pieces of cardboard and then attach the
pieces together with pistons and joints. Two pieces of virtual
polystyrene hinged at one end and powered with a piston become a giant
snapping maw.

The game’s environment can be tweaked further
through the pop-it menu’s “sticker” function. Stickers
can be applied to any object, and the game holds heaps of clip art and
textile-derived patterns. “I was adamant that these fabrics be
world fabrics,” says Ettouney, the game’s creative director.
“I wanted exotic Indian stuff, I wanted Mexican stuff, I wanted
American stuff, I wanted Japanese stuff, I wanted stuff from the past
and the future—cutting-edge modern stuff.” The scale of the
collection allows for a decorative impulse to take over after the basic
engineering of a world is complete. So the piston-powered maw can become
the head of a Chinese dragon.

Designers can also import their own
artwork and textures using a digital camera. One Parsons team loves this
function so much they forsake the extensive texture and clip-art
libraries in favor of making their own, and subsequently split their
team into a studio side and a programming side. The studio side spends
the night making the actual art, with real, honest- to-goodness art
supplies, while the programming side snaps pictures of their work and
“stickers” them around the realm it has made out of virtual
cardboard and polystyrene. “It’s a lot more fun than I
expected,” says Zach Gage, one half of the programming team. His
partner, Kunal Patel, loses track of time. “I was totally in the
zone,” he says later.

As I watch the students in action,
Travis’s prediction about design’s future looks eerily
prescient. The design process is faster and more collaborative when it
occurs in what might be called “gamespace”—a type of
virtual environment that is collaborative by its very nature. Team
members tag in and out of game-building duties like WWF wrestlers in a
cage match, handing off a controller (and the task at hand) with barely
a word of explanation. Everyone watches the same world develop, and no
time is wasted catching one another up on the status of the project.
Gamespace, like real space, provides immediate feedback to everyone
simultaneously.

On Sunday, every team manages to turn in a completed
game, and at Monday’s awards ceremony, Travis notes that no one
dropped out—a first in Game Jam history. The novel way of
designing the game clearly has had an impact: Each team had only 24
hours to program, but because each team had a PlayStation wired up with
four game controllers, the entrants had, in effect, four days (four
designers all working at the same time) in which to develop their
levels. Plus, the game itself is fun and easy.

“How can
creativity be easy?” asks Ettouney, marveling at levels the
students made, literally overnight, before answering his own question:
“Every one of us, when we were kids, were invited to some
masquerade thingy and made rubbish costumes out of toilet-paper tubes.
That’s why we made it like we did. We wanted to appeal to the
craft culture.”

Ettouney’s colleague Kenny Young, the
game’s sound designer, explains that the key to LBP’s
simplicity is restricting the pop-it menu to a palette of familiar
materials. “You’ve got wood, you’ve got metal,
you’ve got cardboard, and they’re all tied into the
game’s physics system so that they come across like their
real-world counterparts in the way they behave.”

“Kenny
made a piano,” says Ettouney, nodding at his
colleague.

Young’s “piano” is a virtual machine,
made inside the LittleBigPlanet gamespace. The piano’s keys are
wired to pistons and switches that trigger sound objects when
they’re tripped: bing, bang, boom. The point, Ettouney
explains, is that the game can be a bridge to creativity beyond
traditional video game environments. The piano is a designed object in
its own right, not a game. “It’s not a platformer,
it’s a piano,” he says.

By the end of the contest, the
students in the Game Jam recognize the potential, each in a slightly
different way. The game design students love it, calling it “the
first integrated development environment for games.” The students
with architecture backgrounds talk about its urban-planning potential;
those interested in new-media art see it as a step toward a rapid
robotics prototyper, a good way to mock up interactive machine-art
designs.

“Design has come full circle, back to
mechanicals,” Travis notes. In the past, a magazine layout was
physically laid out on a table with paper and glue, and text was cut to
fit with an X-Acto knife. In LittleBigPlanet, the same is true, except
it’s virtual space. It’s a quantum leap from the desktop
metaphor that has ruled PC software since the Mac’s introduction.
Here, the desktop has been replaced with the workbench. Designing in
gamespace feels like designing in a physical space—without the
sawdust.

Although for now, LBP is just a new kind of game, Ettouney
loves the idea that it could be much more than that. “When you
create a pencil,” he says, “you can’t really decide
what the pencil is supposed to draw.”

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