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.
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.
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.”