So, David Cameron wants us all to get into the Big Society. Excited? No, me neither. It's hard not to view this as just another political buzzword, urging communities to link arms in blissful harmony to solve all of Britain's many problems. But maybe the Prime Minister should take a leaf out of the LittleBigPlanet rulebook. The acclaimed series, created by the Sony-owned Media Molecule, not only offered a truly distinctive flavour of platform gaming when it was released in 2007, but it also fostered a fan community resulting in millions of user-generated levels of all shapes, sizes and descriptions. Since LittleBigPlanet 2 came along this January, the community has grown and developed, making use of more social features and fan hubs. But just like our dear Mr Cameron is finding out at the moment, creating a harmonious big society is fraught with difficulties, as James Fairbairn, the server technology lead at Media Molecule, explains.
The first LittleBigPlanet enabled players to become Sackboy, a little knitted character attempting to navigate his way through a galaxy of tiny yet perilous planets, with a little help from narrator Stephen Fry. The game's presentation was striking, mixing a homemade feel with cutting-edge animation, lighting and shadows - but possibly the biggest draw for players was the chance to create, share and discover levels dreamt up by the community itself. Before long, players were crafting levels beyond even Media Molecule's wildest expectations.
While thinking about how to put in place a hub to manage this burgeoning community, Media Molecule was approached by web designers James 'Spaff' Spafford and Tom Kiss, who had produced the LittleBigPlanetoid fan site as a rather imaginative job application. Impressed by their work, Media Molecule promptly employed Spaff and Kiss in 2009 to become the Media Molecule Community Management team. Fairbairn said that LittleBigPlanetoid demonstrated how much value there was in engaging with the creators, sharers, players and curators. However, there was still a problem in that the ever-growing offering of UGC levels had to somehow be made navigable for the average player.
There were other problems too, notably in the system for rating the levels. Media Molecule made it compulsory for players to rate levels out of five stars after they had played them, but most people just ignored this. As a result, the default score was given, meaning the rating of every level was massively influenced by the first ten scores it got. The system was essentially random or, as Fairbairn puts it, "feedback loop-o-rama". The developer also decided to reward creators if their level was 'hearted' by other players, denoting their extra appreciation for it. This meant that there was an in-built incentive "for people to trawl for hearts". They would use the comments system to beg other people to play and heart their levels, which rendered it "useless". Add all this up and you got a feedback system where it was "hard to differentiate between real and false".
The new level discovery system works by using multiple lists covering many different categories, enabling a broader presentation of the types of levels, powered by search algorithms. Instead of there being one main list with 4.7m levels vying to get on it, there are now millions of lists for users to browse. This is designed to encourage a more active discovery approach from players, but also allows levels to more easily reach their audience, even if they are older creations. The game's ratings system was also simplified, making it optional and just a matter of awarding a 'happy' or 'sad' face. Fairbairn said that the changes displeased people who previously used a variety of techniques to get their levels continually to the top of Cool Levels, but they were necessary to make the game a more democratic experience.
Other new ideas include social network LBP.me, which showcases the newest level creations and what is trending at the moment, while also offering a range of 'one-click searches' to find fun levels. Users can see what levels their friends are playing and also leave "scent trails" showing where they have been and what they have enjoyed. This is all part of creating a 'nesting' system of recommendation, ensuring players can discover a wide range of great levels but also share their discoveries with others in the community. However, Fairbairn warned that creating a successful big society is a long and involved process that requires dedication, commitment and innovation. Are you listening, Prime Minister?
> Click here to read our review of LittleBigPlanet 2
LittleBigPlanet 2 is available now exclusively on PlayStation 3. LittleBigPlanet will be released on PlayStation Vita in 2012.