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In-Depth: Spending 24 Hours On A LittleBigPlanet

Gamasutra was at the recently held LittleBigPlanet game jam at NY's Parsons School of Design, discovering what level design delights one of Sony's flagship holiday titles can

Matthew Hawkins, Blogger

September 25, 2008

9 Min Read

[Gamasutra was at the recently held LittleBigPlanet game jam at NY's Parsons School of Design, discovering what one of Sony's flagship holiday titles can do in the care of some inventive students.] Once again, New York City's famed Parsons School of Design played host to another game creation competition. Their 24-hour game jams have become a staple in recent years, with this latest one, which went down this past weekend, being their fourth. The first game jam saw student groups racing against the clock to produce a working, playable game that could theoretically run on the Atari 2600 platform, via Game Maker. The second was geared towards cell phones, with Flash being the primary toolkit, while the the third was focused on The Sims. As in the past, it was a game publisher, not the school itself, that got the ball rolling. This time around, Sony offered the ball. With the release of LittleBigPlanet, arguably its highest profile PlayStation 3 product this upcoming holiday season, the company was curious to see how its level editing toolset -- which was designed with novice game creators in mind -- would fare. Thus, a student contest was conceived, allowing the game to be played and designed in the presence of somewhat knowledgable students who were still squarely in their target demographic, and Parsons was approached to provide the court.

Though the competition was conceived and executed in only three weeks time, it was Parsons' biggest game jam yet. Organizers on both sides expected a turn out of about 50 students, but received 150 sign-ups, who were then divided into 19 teams. More or less every facet of the Parsons student body was represented; it was an eclectic mix of undergraduates, some of them first year, and graduate students, hailing from the design and technology, illustration, photography, fashion, and communication disciplines. After groups were assigned, about a week or so before the event, ten students were selected by Parsons to be "coaches." Those selected were versed in the software beforehand, and were tasked with serving as knowledge bases during the actual competition. Both Parsons and Sony admitted that they had no idea what to expect. Even the two members of LittleBigPlanet developer Media Molecule, Kareem Ettouney and Kenny Young, who were on-hand to oversee the competition and assist in the judging, doubted that anything substantial could be produced in such a tight time frame. Despite the software's relative ease of use, it was still a complex beast, even to the most seasoned of programmers. When the clock struck noon on Saturday, September 20th, every team attacked their projects. Colleen Macklin, the chair for Parsons' Design & Technology department, and who oversaw every game jam the school had held thus far, was once again present. She noted that everyone immediately went into brainstorming mode. Furious scribbling then followed on all of the dry erase boards across the design and technology's facilities, as well as on paper prototypes. As is often the case, some immediately dove into the PS3 dev kits (running near final LittleBigPlanet code), while others were still sketching around the 10 p.m. mark. By 10 a.m. the next morning, the judges found bleary eyes all around. By the competition's end, 55 pizzas and gallons of Red Bull had been consumed to keep the creative juices and spirit of competition alive for the entire 24 hours.

Judging began at 12 p.m. on Sunday, September 21st and went on for five hours. The judges were particularly impressed that every team managed to produce something playable. Usually, one or two teams throw in the towel. All of the judges, especially the Media Molecule attendees, remarked that they had no idea that what they played could be completed in 24 hours. Ultimately, with so many games deserving recognition, additional awards were created, more so than originally planned. Monday, September 22nd was the day of the ceremony, in which the winners were formally announced at Parsons' Sheila C. Johnson Design Center. The Honorable Mention award went to Team Smiley, for dealing with an extremely buggy PlayStation 3. During the first twelve hours, the team's system crashed repeatedly, yet they kept restarting the machine and continuing their work. Some judges even admitted that they would have walked away. Around midnight, however, Team Smiley's machine began to finally cooperate. Though the group only had half the amount of time to work on programming, their level was just as competitive as the other entrants. The Most Innovative prize had two winning teams attached to it -- Team Makeshift and Team Awesome. Unfortunately, only Team Awesome's entry was playable afterwards. Its gameplay consisted of the player's "Sackboy" being jettisoned in the air, with the object being to make precise landings amid a mostly dark environment occasionally illuminated with lightning effects.

Most Personal, which was one of the new additions, went to Team P3 (Pretty, Pretty Princesses), whose game took place in a gigantic washing machine. The level starts with the player dragging and depositing a large coin to start the machine, which the player must then traverse inside. The team was comprised entirely of women, all of whom had no prior game creation experience. The Best Tools prize went to Team Sleepwalkers, and The Most Beautiful nod went to Team Rocket. Regarding Team Rocket, the standout story here centered on one of its members, Samuel Strick, who found himself the lone team member awake during the early hours of development for his team's game. With not much else to do, he lent a hand to Team Bloody Clowns, which was having difficulty with its own project, and became their "code monkey" for some four hours. Strick explained afterwards that he simply doesn't need sleep. Speaking of the Bloody Clowns, their entry earned itself the title of Most Fun. Apparently, all was quiet throughout the Parsons facilities around 5 a.m., with the exception of the Clowns' corner of the floor, where hearty laughter kept pouring out. According to one of its team members, Kevin Restee, the entire team struggled to realize assorted concepts the entire day and night, but to no avail. Everything they crafted didn't work, and a wall was collectively hit. Half the team was lost in the process.

So, as a means to blow off some steam, Restee quickly developed a racetrack around the 5 a.m. mark that was based on a driving engine that the team had stumbled upon earlier. In a nutshell, players must hold onto a rocket-powered car as sped around the track, which actually extends vertically as well as horizontally. The key to reaching the finish line is proper weight distribution, as well as simply hanging on for dear life. The first real iteration of the level was only finished by 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning, but, by the time the contest was technically over, a little over four hours later, it had racked over 289 plays, the most for any game by far. Every team up until this point received a prize of $500 to be divided amongst themselves. The final $1,000 grand prize for Best In Jam, which was a combination of best gameplay, innovation, and presentation went to Team Good Sportsmanship.

When presenting the award, Sven Travis, a professor for Parsons, mentioned Team Good Sportsmanship's admirable workflow early on, in which responsibilities were clearly defined. Some members focused on creating original artwork, while another group was responsible for scanning said artwork -- as well as other real life objects -- into the game via the PlayStation Eye (the PS3's digital camera). A third division headed up programming. Two team members, Kunal Patel and Zach Gage, went up to receive their prize (unfortunately, because all the participants were students, not everyone could make it to the ceremony due to conflicting class schedules). Afterwards, they demonstrated the level for the audience - game weblog Joystiq has a video of the winning stage being shown at Parsons. Imagine an encounter in Shadow of the Colossus, with one lone Sackboy up against a gigantic beast. But instead of just climbing around the body to get to the top, you also have to go inside the beast. As Patel played, Gage described the action and pointed out additional elements. First the player has to climb up to the lower part of the body, then enter via the giant's rear and traverse through the lower intestines, where the player must immediately avoid lethal stomach acids. Once inside the stomach, the player must push a foreign object, in this case a random tire, into the pit to create indigestion bubbles, which the player then hang onto to get to the next part of the level, the rib cage. The ribs themselves are levers that catapult the player even further up until the Sackboy is once again on the outside, walking across the giant's feathered body -- the textures were apparently real feathers, photographed in. Eventually, the player travels back inside the giant through its ear, arriving right under its brain, where the player can see the monster's thought process conveyed by a funny hand-drawn animatic of a Sackboy being trampled to death.

Then it’s out of the mouth, across rows of jagged teeth to the tongue. The entire level featured some tricky looking jumps, but this part especially hearkens to the hardcore platforming found in the golden age of 8 and 16-bit gaming. Once at the tongue, the player is supposed to do a flip to end up at the top of the monster's mouth, but Gage kept missing. While watching on, Patel lamented, "This is embarrassing! The two worst runthroughs, and it’s for this presentation!!!" It was clear at this point that these two have a real potential to be an amazing game-creating team if they stick with it. Patel also said that by far the hardest part about assembling the level was getting the monster to walk, which it does the entire time. More than one game jam participant afterward mentioned how tricky it was to get everything working due to the engine's dependency on physics; if one detail wasn't executed just right, the entire game fell apart. In the end, however, everyone was able to get their projects running. Both Macklin and Travis observed that if they received just 15% of the content actually created in the end, every organizer would have been ecstatic. But the tools, along with the students, proved themselves beyond expectations. This was sufficiently true that Parsons recently decided to hold an entire game creation workshop utilizing LittleBigPlanet, starting next semester during this school year. With a wide grin on his face similar to that of one his creations, Media Molecule's Ettouney noted, "It's a dream come true... today is only the beginning. Our team is committed to keeping an eye out on how the public reacts to LittleBigPlanet, and we intend on keeping up with their pace, which, as proven, has already exceeded our wildest expectations." The student creations will be available for download to the general public once the game launches, since there should be a Parsons planet dedicated to the school containing all of the above-mentioned levels, not just the ones mentioned.

About the Author(s)

Matthew Hawkins


Not too long after graduating the School of Visual Arts with a degree in cartooning, Matthew Hawkins found himself in the world of video games when he was hired by Ubi Soft. As Ubi Soft New York's head game designer, Matt worked on several games for major gaming consoles and the Internet. When Ubi Soft closed its New York studio, Matt began developing games independently leading to the creation of PixelJump in 2002. Since then, Matt has been especially involved in titles based upon films and television properties, either as a designer or a consultant. Also in 2002, Matt became involved with video game journalism, starting with Nickelodeon Magazine, as both a writer and an interviewer. Matt's writings has appeared everywhere, from GMR to insert credit, from the critically acclaimed 1-UP MegaZine, to the Internet Archive, and is still a regular contributor to Nick Mag to this day. In 2004, Matt began teaching game design as both instructor and thesis advisor at his alma mater, the School of Visual Arts, and is a part of his concerted efforts to help foster a stronger game development community in the New York City Area. Matt is also an active member of the New York chapter of the IGDA.

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