This year's E3 event in Los Angeles was all about the thrill of the new, but one of Sony's most significant announcements concerned a fan-favourite franchise which showcases the talents of one of the company's most beloved creations. LittleBigPlanet is relatively young when compared to Sony's other big-name platform exclusives like Gran Turismo, God of War and Killzone, but the power of the brand – and of its irresistibly adorable hero, SackBoy – was illustrated by the incredible fan reaction to Sony’s on-stage announcement of LittleBigPlanet 3.
As far as sequels go, this is a major step for the series. It's the first title in the series developed for the PlayStation 4 – although it's coming to the PS3, too – and sees franchise creator Media Molecule stepping aside to allow fellow UK studio Sumo Digital to take the wheel. Sumo Digital isn't completely wet behind the ears, mind; as well as being one of the most well-known British code shops, it handled the LittleBigPlanet 2 cross-controller DLC, which allowed users to play the PS3 game with their PS Vita handheld.
Even so, design director Damian Hosen admits that the scope of the project – and the expectation that naturally comes with it – can sometimes be intimidating. "Taking the reins of such an outstanding series is pretty terrifying," he tells Red Bull exclusively. "But, at the same time, we’ve come into it with a lot of passion. Many people on the team have worked on LittleBigPlanet before, either professionally or in their spare time, as leading lights of the LittleBigPlanet Community. I know that Media Molecule is really proud to have created something that has opened the doors for a group of creators to enter the industry and play a key role in shaping Craftworld’s future."
Sackboy's new adventure has been in development for three years, so Sumo has had ample time to get to grips with the PlayStation 4 hardware. "The main challenge with this game has been deciding what aspects of LittleBigPlanet to change, and which aspects should stay the same," Hosen says. "There’s a strong philosophy behind each LittleBigPlanet and we wanted to adhere to that whilst at the same time bringing something new to the table. Where to draw that line was challenging, but bringing in new playable characters, increasing the number of layers, adding more Create tools – that’s all been really successful. Having the opportunity to bring the game to PS4 has been brilliant, the increased texture resolution and things like the built-in Share features really open up the opportunities for a game like LittleBigPlanet."
Despite handing over control of the sequel to Sumo, Media Molecule is still intimately involved with LittleBigPlanet 3. "We spoke to Media Molecule a lot in the early phases of the project, and they regularly check in and review progress," reveals Hosen. "They are always really helpful and enlighten us in understanding how such a unique game series was made. They’re a super-clever, talented and original creative force in our industry. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next."
However, Hosen is keen to stress that LittleBigPlanet 3 is very much a Sumo Digital game, despite the contributions made by Media Molecule. "The design concept was all developed at Sumo," he proudly explains. "A key early word for us was 'Adventure'. This was a key concept. What would Adventure mean in LittleBigPlanet terms? A bigger story? Different characters? These were all areas we investigated and over time these different mechanics coalesced into the game you see now."
Sumo has introduced three new playable heroes in LittleBigPlanet 3, and each one will have a significant impact on the way players approach the game. "It took a long time to develop the characters." Hosen explains. "Our first line up was a Troll, a Ghost and Swoop – then called Galapagos. We prototyped each character extensively. We wanted each to have a different feel, and to tie in with the DNA of LittleBigPlanet."
The bird-like Swoop was the first character to spring from the fertile imagination of the Sumo team, and his aerial prowess has a significant impact on the gameplay, opening up all kind of possibilities. "If you press and hold the X button he can fly," Hosen reveals. "If you press and hold R1 he will swoop at speed. He can also grab objects by pressing R1, like Sackboy. Of course, the combination of flying and grabbing makes for all sorts of fun gameplay situations – most notably picking up your friends and dropping them in bubbling pools of lava. Or maybe that’s just me."
Shape-shifting Toggle was next to leap from the drawing board to digital reality, and was borne out of the desire to break some rules and try something fresh. "We wanted to find a new way to interact with the LittleBigPlanet world – something that was physical and fun," Hosen says. "We liked the idea of a character that could be heavy or light, and Toggle grew out of that conceit. Toggle can be big, heavy and strong or small, light and swift. Simply press L1 to change between these modes." This skill makes Toggle perfect for tripping weight-sensitive switches or making quick dashes across hazardous environments. "It’s a lot of fun. I can’t wait to see what the LittleBigPlanet Community do with Toggle."
Last but by no means least, there's Oddsock. "We wanted someone really fast and agile, so that the LittleBigPlanet Community could make really taxing platforming experiences," explains Hosen. "Oddsock can run really fast, jump great distances, leap from walls and slide down vertical surfaces. Each of these new characters can wear Costumes, like Sackboy – so you can really customise them and make them your own."
Speaking of Sackboy, will the famous protagonist of the series get left behind with all these new characters taking centre stage? Fear not. "We didn’t want Sackboy to feel left out – not with all these new characters coming onto the scene," Hosen reassures us. "So we did two things: firstly we worked on his athleticism. We’ve made him easier to control, more agile. We also added the ability to climb. Why? Because we wanted to give him another way of scaling tall, vertical levels. LittleBigPlanet 2 added bounce pads, and we’ve built on that and added climbing." The upshot of having three new characters – aside from variety – is that you'll be able to play cooperatively with three other people, each assuming an entirely different persona, and solve various puzzles using your unique skills.
New characters are only one way in which Sumo is expanding the world of LittleBigPlanet. The game will also contain a robust adventure mode – set on the legendary planet of Bunkum – which is designed to tempt you back time and time again. "LittleBigPlanet 3 is different to previous games in that it’s not just a series of levels you complete one after the other," says Hosen. "It’s more of an adventure, with areas you will revisit, quests to complete and lots of secrets to discover. Size-wise, it’s as big as or maybe bigger than previous LittleBigPlanet games, but of course this is just the beginning."
Bring your own
As has been the case with the series from day one, user-generated content is vital to maintaining the longevity of this sequel, and Hosen explains that the best player-created stages will be given a starring role in the game. "You can load up over 500 'Team Picks' Levels – these are the best community levels released in LittleBigPlanet history. Beyond that you can go into the Community Area and access over 8.5 million levels – a number that is growing every day. With the release of LittleBigPlanet 3, I’m sure we’ll see a surge of new levels being released with all the new Create tools we’ve added."
It's tempting to question the value of user-generated content in this case – how can Sumo possibly be sure that stages fashioned by players will stand up to those made by the professionals? Hosen counters by revealing that many of the people working on LittleBigPlanet 3 have a background in the LittleBigPlanet community, and have produced user-generated content in the previous titles. That’s right: they’ve been hired because of their homebrew levels. Because of this, he is sure that the quality will be high, but also that the team knows how to push the series forward in this regard. "The core design team for LittleBigPlanet 3 came from the LittleBigPlanet Community, so we were never going to forget them – they have very strong opinions," he explains.
He also adds that all of the old levels produced in previous instalments will work in LittleBigPlanet 3, and will look better than ever. "It was vital that all the old levels ran on PlayStation 4, and we’ve put a lot of work into making that happen. Beyond that, all the old levels will run at a higher resolution, with improved textures and visual effects." In fact, user creation is so vital in LittleBigPlanet 3 that you could create the entire game from scratch using the tools provided, should you want to. "What’s unique about LittleBigPlanet is that the main story mode is crafted with the Create Mode that all players get with the game," Hosen says. "So everything we’ve made – you could make too. This has meant the addition of a huge number of new tools, which we’ll be outlining in more detail nearer launch."
Sumo Digital clearly has a lot riding on LittleBigPlanet 3. The studio is a veteran of the industry, having worked with the likes of Sega, Microsoft, Codemasters, Konami and Disney Interactive. Even so, this title represents quite a big step for the UK team; it is taking an established series and being allowed to shape it in any way it sees fit. Hosen has no doubts that the final product will live up to expectations, and feels that LittleBigPlanet 3 will have plenty to offer for both veterans and newcomers alike.
"This is a fresh, new LittleBigPlanet with something for everyone," he insists. "New characters, new mechanics, new power ups, new levels. Fans of the series aren’t going to be disappointed. And for new players this is the perfect time to visit Craftworld." Here’s hoping he’s right.
LittleBigPlanet 3 releases November 2014.
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