Core Design. Core Issues
Well-Rounded Core Mechanics? Close, but not quite.
- Once again, the versatile user generated potential of LBP makes assessing the core mechanics well-roundedness more difficult than normal. Depending on the created level, opportunities to use the GRAB mechanic can be completely removed from the equation. Likewise, the necessity of the MOVE and JUMP mechanics also depends on the level. So when the potential gameplay can utilize little to no use of the core mechanics, it may be difficult to figure out how the mechanics interrelate without overlapping in function to support the primary function of LBP.
- The core of LBP is platforming with a a dash of exploration, pretending, and the simple play that harkens back to the way little kids used to play with Legos and other block toys. In LBP's story mode, moving through the levels involves a lot of straight forward platforming. In other words, the JUMP mechanic is rarely combined with the other core mechanics (besides MOVE of course) and the level/challenge is rarely transformed by JUMPing. For these reasons, I found JUMPing to be less interesting/engaging than the GRAB mechanic.
- Super Mario Brothers contains a well-rounded set of core mechanics. Mario's JUMP can destroy most enemies, surmount platforms and other objects, and destroy bricks. To increase the game speed, difficulty, and Mario's JUMPing range, players can use the RUN mechanic. Finally, there's the DUCK mechanic that allows Big Mario to slide underneath small areas and dodge enemies and other hazards. The RUN enhances JUMP and DUCK prevents Mario from using the MOVE or RUN mechanics. In this way, each mechanic is connected to each other, yet each feeds back into the JUMP mechanic. This is important because JUMP is the primary mechanic of Super Mario Brothers in addition to being the most interesting mechanic in the game due to its dynamics, and interplay.
- The most dynamic part of LBP is the physics based world. Rocks can tumble down hills and create land slides. Sackboy can slide down ice like ramps at high speeds. Gears can be stopped by throwing a wrench or two into the mix. Basically, all the working mechanics of LBP react much in the same way as they would in real life. Like in real life, interaction in such cases comes from manipulating objects in the environment. This is why the JUMP mechanic isn't as interesting as GRAB. With the GRAB mechanic, players can take hold of the game world and push, pull, and swing things in and out of place to cause a wide variety of effects. In other words, JUMP is for platforming, but GRAB is for construction and demolition two concepts that is common in child's play. To round out LBP's core mechanics, something may need to be added to expand these concepts. More on that later.
Quantified Game World? The measure may be too fine to tell.
- In LBP the game world isn't constructed out of an obvious unit like the brick from Super Mario Brothers. Most of the objects and structures in the game can be enlarged or shrunk by a very fine degree. For this reason, the mechanics and the objects in LBP don't necessarily "click." The difference between a successful jump and a successful fall can stem from the smallest almost indiscernible change in the size of the platforms.
- The game world in LBP is composed of materials that can be sized smoothly to just about any size. Of course, the player can quantify their own creations. But for the most part, LBP has analog/smooth quantification.
Stable Forms? Not exactly.
- All the physical objects in LBP are constructed out of parts and/or materials. Simply by looking at a material, the player knows what it is and how Sackboy can interact with it. Furthermore, fire, electricity, gas, explosives, and bombs, all have a specific look to them that helps inform players of their danger.
- Unfortunately, all the non-dangerous material can be "painted over" with stickers, decorations, or with additional layers of material. Visually, the player is free to make a whole range or materials that look the same. From one level to the next, there's no guarantee that the world will act like how it looks. Objects and structures that look the same between levels may have subtle or invisible differences. When you can't necessarily trust your eyes in a video game, the learning to play ratio increases filling the learning portion with more trial and error/guess work.
- In LBP players can use and/or tweak a wide range of colors, patterns, and lighting effects in their levels. Unfortunately, the visual clarity of the game world and Sackboy can be drastically reduced if the player doesn't carefully balance the visuals. Some levels are too dark. And other levels obscure Sackboy behind structures so players can't see what they're doing. Mario is a character designed with brightly colored clothing so that he stands out from the background, level, and enemies. Like so many other facets of LBP, it's completely up to the player to build levels while maintaining the essentials like visual clarity.
- For a 2D game, the designers for LBP had some interesting issues to address with the game camera. In Super Mario Brothers, it is absolutely essential that the camera scrolls across the level in a way that allows players to see all the upcoming enemies, obstacles, and other dangers clearly with enough time to make accurate and informed decisions.
- Things aren't as easy for LBP. Where Super Mario Brothers was designed around a flat plain traveling left to right, LBP levels are free to travel in all directions. Often times the camera scrolls too slowly or is zoom in too much to display upcoming enemies and hazards with enough time for me to react safely. With the physics based, emergent, smooth quantified core design, the simple camera design can't accommodate most situations.
- The camera work is stressed even more in multiplayer. By zooming out, the camera tries to keep all the players on the screen. But the zoom has a limit. Once a player exceeds the limit, a count down starts. Upon reaching zero, the player dies. Part of the problem with this feature is that the camera doesn't stick with the majority of the players. If one player accidentally falls away from the pack, the camera may decide to focus on them forcing the rest of the players dangerously beyond the limit.
An Emergent Sound Design Issue
- A typical game is filled with sound effects to help communicate states and actions that exist in the game world. A simple thud or a soft landing sound can greatly aid the player's timing. Like wise, enemy sounds can tell us what type of enemies lurk nearby or warn players when they're about to make an attack.
- While the sound design works for the simple LBP levels, the more complex a level becomes, the more sounds the player must keep track of and design. Again, the responsibility falls on the part of the creators. If the player doesn't implement sound and sound triggers designed to help the player make informed decisions about the levels/hazards/creatures they create, then the sound design for the level will lack.
Glitches and Other Issues
- There are graphical rendering issues specifically with the fire, smoke, and soot effects. The fire can sweep up the whole screen. The smoke can reflect a high amount of light making the trail look like the tail of a comet. And the soot can cause the underlying texture to tear and jump up through the darkened soot effect sporadically.
- Super stretchy arms glitch. Sometimes when using the GRAB mechanic, Sackboy will appear grab onto objects away off the side of the screen. Because the arms are drawn procedurally according to how Sackboy's body is positioned to the grabbed objects, the arms during this glitch will stretch across the screen and dangle madly.
- Things randomly become unglued. Every now and then something glued will randomly become unguled and fall off. If you catch a self unglued object late, depending on the object this glitch cause major damage to your level. So far I've only encountered this problem in the editor.
- The emergent gameplay also extends in a negative direction. Though Sackboy appears to be made out of soft fabric, I'm finding more and more ways to be squished and killed with the slightest amount of pressure from objects in the environment. Apparently, even automatically changing lanes in mid air to squeeze into a small space can result in Sackboy squishing himself. I've been killed by simply touching objects that are touching other dangerous objects. These inconsistencies are very troubling.
- Thawed time. Sometimes after freezing time in the editor, objects continue to move and fall as if they have individually unfrozen.
- LittleBigPlanet does a great job of aggressively presenting tutorials for everything from basic play mechanics to individual tools in the editor. Most of these tutorials are not only interactive and detailed, but the writing is very comical and charming. Unfortunately, there seems to be no tutorials for some of LBP's more complicated facets. Just off the top of my head I would have really appreciated tutorials on...
- How to use the grid in the editor.
- How to set the camera in the editor.
- How to search for specific stages and navigate the online levels.
- How to sign a guest out without resetting the game.
- How to avoid making shapes that are too complicated.
- How the "player" "create" and "share" points work.
- How to keep a level "persistent" online.
- How to save and tweak someone else's level.
Despite all the issues I've brought up about LittleBigPlanet, the game works very well and is very enjoyable. Designing quality levels requires a working knowledge of game design on many different levels. For this reason, LBP is a powerful tool for teaching game design. The potential for levels goes far beyond making levels that look or play like games we've all played before. LBP levels have the potential of creating gameplay that's unlike anything we've encountered.
With that said, the next part of this Review & Repair series will cover some of my favorite moments from the story mode and a list of repairs.