The New Game in Town

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

Thestudents—some from Travis’s department, others majoring infashion design, interior design, product design, illustration, andphotography—are buzzing, and they haven’t even starteddrinking their allotment of Red Bull. “At judging tomorrow, youare welcome to show us sketches, flowcharts, whatever, but what we arelooking for is a complete and playable game,” Travis says.“It’s demented, I know, but so are most of you—soit’ll be good for you.”

The challenge this year is tocreate a “platformer,” the kind of game in which the playercontrols a little figure as it jumps and runs through a series ofpuzzlelike environments. (Donkey Kong, Mario Brothers, and Sonic theHedgehog are all platformers.) The students will compete using a designenvironment 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 otherplatformer. The Mario equivalent is a character called Sackboy, analmost featureless, knitted rag doll that can be customized by addingfeatures—a Jackie Onassis wig, for example, or aviator glasses.But once you start playing the game, you realize that Sackboy can changeand rearrange every aspect of his environment. He can climb up a set ofstairs to reach a prize, or simply fly up and replace the stairs with anelevator.

As is the case with any platformer, a game player cancomplete the pre-designed levels that come with the game; but the realfun of LBP is in using Sackboy to build new levels from scratch, uploadthem to Sony’s central servers, and share them with the entire LBPgaming community. In effect, LBP is a new kind of game entirely.It’s a meta-game, and it’s the first to erase thedistinction between game player and game designer. In LBP, game playis game design.

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

Sackboy is an avatar, the virtual proxy for the flesh-and-blood designer who directs his actions.

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-blooddesigner who directs his actions. With a neon lasso, Sackboy can pull awide variety of objects, building materials, backdrops, and simplemachines into his virtual world.

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

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

The range ofmaterials creates a seemingly endless variety. Sponge squishes whenSackboy jumps on it. Stone or metal can squish Sackboy if it falls onhim during game play. Wood comes in 30 varieties, including dark- andlight-colored wood, mahogany, engraved wood, Indian-carved wood, andMexican-motif wood. Materials can be joined together with bolts, string,rods, springs, elastic, winches, and pistons to create more complexobjects. 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 withnumerous moving parts, then customized it with hand-drawn, scanned-intextures.

“Ordinarily, it would take me a whole dayto create, say, a rotating sphere in Autocad and Form Z,” saysVasilis Kyriacou, a Game Jam participant who’s majoring in designand technology. “In LittleBigPlanet, I just point andclick—there’s the sphere—and then I attach it to th
ewall with a bolt. Done. Easy. A minute, tops.” The game’semphasis on construction makes all kinds of things possible. Instead ofdrawing animation storyboards by hand or in Illustrator, a gamer canbuild a monster out of a few pieces of cardboard and then attach thepieces together with pistons and joints. Two pieces of virtualpolystyrene hinged at one end and powered with a piston become a giantsnapping maw.

The game’s environment can be tweaked furtherthrough the pop-it menu’s “sticker” function. Stickerscan be applied to any object, and the game holds heaps of clip art andtextile-derived patterns. “I was adamant that these fabrics beworld fabrics,” says Ettouney, the game’s creative director.“I wanted exotic Indian stuff, I wanted Mexican stuff, I wantedAmerican stuff, I wanted Japanese stuff, I wanted stuff from the pastand the future—cutting-edge modern stuff.” The scale of thecollection allows for a decorative impulse to take over after the basicengineering of a world is complete. So the piston-powered maw can becomethe head of a Chinese dragon.

Designers can also import their ownartwork and textures using a digital camera. One Parsons team loves thisfunction so much they forsake the extensive texture and clip-artlibraries in favor of making their own, and subsequently split theirteam into a studio side and a programming side. The studio side spendsthe night making the actual art, with real, honest- to-goodness artsupplies, while the programming side snaps pictures of their work and“stickers” them around the realm it has made out of virtualcardboard and polystyrene. “It’s a lot more fun than Iexpected,” says Zach Gage, one half of the programming team. Hispartner, Kunal Patel, loses track of time. “I was totally in thezone,” he says later.

As I watch the students in action,Travis’s prediction about design’s future looks eerilyprescient. The design process is faster and more collaborative when itoccurs in what might be called “gamespace”—a type ofvirtual environment that is collaborative by its very nature. Teammembers tag in and out of game-building duties like WWF wrestlers in acage match, handing off a controller (and the task at hand) with barelya word of explanation. Everyone watches the same world develop, and notime is wasted catching one another up on the status of the project.Gamespace, like real space, provides immediate feedback to everyonesimultaneously.

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

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

Ettouney’s colleague Kenny Young, thegame’s sound designer, explains that the key to LBP’ssimplicity is restricting the pop-it menu to a palette of familiarmaterials. “You’ve got wood, you’ve got metal,you’ve got cardboard, and they’re all tied into thegame’s physics system so that they come across like theirreal-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 arewired to pistons and switches that trigger sound objects whenthey’re tripped: bing, bang, boom. The point, Ettouneyexplains, is that the game can be a bridge to creativity beyondtraditional video game environments. The piano is a designed object inits own right, not a game. “It’s not a platformer,it’s a piano,” he says.

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

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

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