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Little Big Planet Vita

Three Views, One Vision: LBP's Future

A phone call isn't the beginning of this story. But for Mattias Nygren, it's where everything started.

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"It's a little over two years ago now," the Tarsier Executive Producer remembers, "getting a call." He flicks his hand to the side of his face in the mock phone gesture, but doesn't try and mimic the voice of whoever had dialled his number that day.

"'Media Molecule is starting to look at other things'", he quotes. "'And they've been hinting that maybe you would be the guys to take over as you have a good understanding of the franchise. Soooo...'" Nygren draws out the last word for effect. "'Would you like to take over one of the biggest franchises for a device that doesn't exist yet?'"

"Okay...." he deadpans his response. Sitting beside him, his colleague, Narrative Designer Dave Mervik chuckles.

Today is all about new starts. About legacy. And maintaining quality.

Brand extension can be a soulless phrase. And neither are passion and creativity typical by-products of the pursuit to stretch a licence in the hope that previous success and association translate into sales.

Yet there have been exceptions in the game space. And as we see today, one of them is Little Big Planet.

Little Big Planet Vita
Sackboy enjoying his new home at Tarsier.

As of this morning, Little Big Planet Vita, the subject of that initial phone call between Mattias and Sony, debuted in the UK multi-format charts top ten, securing a spot at six. Not bad for a company who started out just creating costumes for the very first game in the series.

LBP Vita is the first title of the franchise not to originate from creator Media Molecule - yet reviews have been consistently glowing, even positively in favour of Tarsier's creation in comparison to previous entries.

It's a result yet unknown to the team as we talk to them a week earlier, their minds still on those first early reviews popping up online, but busy promotion schedule giving them little chance to spare half an hour to sit down and read through the verdicts. Though whether they would is a point of debate during our interview. ("I didn't even want to look at them," Dave laughs. "I thought if this doesn't go well, and we've still got to talk to people about how happy we are...")

We talk extensively to the two about the responsibility of carrying the brand as Media Molecule concentrates elsewhere for the immediate future (such as the newly announced Vita title Tearaway). But they're not the only developers we talk to on the same subject that day.

In the luxury lower floor of a London hotel, a trio of teams take up residence for the day to discuss the future of Little Big Planet, and more importantly, their role in it as the franchise expands.

Little Big Planet Vita
LBP and karting: pulling two worlds together, according to developer United Front Games.

Tarsier on handheld duties with Little Big Planet Vita, United Front Games with Little Big Planet Karting (due November), and in a way watching - and steering - the franchise's evolution is XDev, Sony's Liverpudlian outfit, who are demoing the Cross-Controller DLC at the event (due before year's end).

It's three different takes on Little Big Planet, but all are umbrellaed under one vision. Given the disparity between the separate projects, not to mention time and geographical differences (United Front's based in Vancouver, Tarsier Sweden) you'd think it'd be each to their own. Not so, says XDev Senior Producer Tom O'Connor, though he concedes scheduling everybody is not easy.

"It is a lot harder because the game's grown that much as a franchise," he explains, sitting in front of a Cross-Controller demo similar to the one debuted at Sony's Gamescom conference this year. "But we all work really closely. We all have these big get-togethers. We all sit down and talk about what we're doing, we all review each other's games."

He goes on to illustrate how they've tried to keep the same feel across all the titles.

"What we like to do is - similar functionality for example, rather than make them similar, make them the same. So there's a level of consistency."

But it sounds like a constant juggling act, one that Tarsier are happy to commend XDev's skill at. "[They] constantly look at all the different studios...they've been very good in illustrating ideas and what's happening: 'You should look at this or, see what they've done, any feedback on that...'" champions Nygren.

And despite no longer leading the charge, Media Molecule still has an obvious interest in the franchise, says United Front Games Producer Jen Timms ("Sackboy's their baby"), and back and forth discussion was very much part of the process.

Little Big Planet Vita
LBP Karting's tracks can be packed with detail - the benefit of taking the level editor into 3D.

"We gave them regular builds from day one." Timms clutches a plush Sackboy as we talk, part reminder, part metaphor that protecting the character and the franchise from mediocrity is a crucial point in accepting the job of bringing both into the world of 3D and the karting fraternity. "They gave us feedback to keep the right flavour. It really was a fine-tuned balance back and forth to make sure we bring to the table what we're good at."

It's United Front Games that have the toughest job of all three. While the others are implementing new ideas into the pre-existing 2D framework (touchscreen control, Vita connectivity), the Canadian studio is breaking Little Big Planet into the third dimension while simultaneously locking Sackboy into a four-wheeled kart.

A demo of Little Big Planet Karting is available to play while we wait for our interview slots, with a short trio of levels on offer. The first two are familiar territory for any genre fan. First is a standard race around a beach, using collectable weapons, power-slides and shortcuts to work your way up the pack. Second is an arena-based battle with points scored deciding the winner.

The third level keeps the kart-like control, but everything else is wholly different. A top-down view overlooks a rectangular map containing a labyrinth of city streets as you steer a mechanised Godzilla-type monster on a fire-breathing rampage. The goal is to destroy trucks to keep a countdown clock topped up. With customisable physics on offer, the behemoth doesn't honestly even handle like a kart anymore.

It, and the variety of videos showcased at the day's opening presentation assures that despite these shifts, Karting offers as much of the flexible creativity that the other titles in the franchise do. During her segment Timms is happy to point out examples of the engine's range - we see a helicopter game, a 3D platformer, a puzzler, even an early build of a first-person shooter.

It's a great sell of Little Big Planet's possibilities. But it swings the train of thought in an entirely different direction: how do you expect to keep people interested in staying on the track?

Timms doesn't see an issue, and instead sees the potential in the crossover of kart fans and Little Big Planet fans. "Its opening the doors for that, allowing more people to discover this world."

"We're the Karting experts," she continues (the studio behind the original PS3 version of ModNation Racers). "We come back to our races and battles and some of our non-traditional karting like checkpoint races or point-to-point...they are what you see most of in story mode.

"But we interplay that with mini-games and side-challenges and different examples of using those things, using karts and doing other arcade challenges...we do keeping coming back to our bread and butter, racing and battle, because that's what [Little Big Planet Karting] is about after all."

Little Big Planet Vita
A darker tone to LBP Vita is one of the benefits of letting Tarsier loose on the franchise, says XDev.

If there's a threat of the titles cannibalising each other due to that potential creative overlap, none of the teams are seeing it. XDev's O'Connor instead believes it lets creators put their own stamp on the franchise while maintaining that cohesive look and freedom so everything remains Little Big Planet.

"I'm quite proud of what the teams have achieved...what we don't want to do is have games that look like they've been made by different developers. We want them to feel like LBP games. And I think they actually do." Though Tom does go on to illustrate how Tarsier's darker art style bled into the Vita version to make it distinct, and how the 3D aspect and karting of United Front's work makes that project feel unique.

In fact, the biggest threat may be the Vita's version's very own App Store, letting community design bite-sized arcade games that can be downloaded for free. The question whether they realise they've shot themselves, and any future Vita game sales, in the foot with the inclusion is greeted with outright laughter.

"Ask us that question in half a year!" jokes Mattias.

The community of Little Big Planet is focus for a lot of the talk by the developers. All of it positive. United Front sees them as able to fill in gaps the studios missed ("If they don't see what they wanted, we've given them tools that are powerful enough to make what they were imagining anyway"), while XDev believes community will lead the way in realising the Cross-Controller potential ("It's like a massive consumer test, in a really fun way. This is what we think - but what did they think? What do they want to do with it? I think seeing what the community will want to do, will make us do a full loop."). Tarsier rate them as the franchise experts after Media Molecule.

Ranging from students on summer vacation ("you're sitting in an office during your summer, making all these crazy mini-games and you've got to go back to school"), to maths teachers ("making the most awesome logical contraptions") and nano-scientists ("no, really"), Mattias and Dave label them as "ninjas" in the design process.

It's a realisation that didn't hit Nygren until late on. "I personally wasn't into the whole community," he reminisces when asked about his favourite moment during the development process. "We started a small company, so we knew we had to bring in all the people we could get. So we're hired a lot of the creators from the community - and to see them, to see how important the community was, and how important they were to each other. When they met, gave their real name, and then their handle..." he pauses for a second to remember the moment as exclamations ran wild as creators stood revealed.

"I hadn't realised how important it was, how many people were in there and how much they knew about each other without ever having met...." he smiles in memory. "We started feeling left out with these guys," Mervik concludes jokingly.

Little Big Planet Vita
The future of Sackboy, and whatever form he takes, looks rosy.

Community support's part of the roadmap past launch for all three teams, and perhaps a cross-pollination of the new pillars of Little Big Planet. "The world's our oyster with the franchise," Timms concludes.

But they all remain non-committal on concrete details. United Front won't be drawn on a handheld version of its racer ("oh yea, it's a logical connection there"), while O'Connor stays tight-lipped: "watch this space basically, there's going to be a lot of exciting stuff coming."

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"Exciting" being a word not normally associated with brand extensions. But Little Big Planet continues to buck the trend. Whether he's racing, leaping or travelling between home console and handheld, Sackboy's continuing to captivate both developers and players. And from what we see, Media Molecule can rest easy: it looks like their baby's in safe hands.

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