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.
LittleBigPlanet, which was the first title Fairbairn worked on after he entered the industry, came along at a very early stage for user-generated content (UGC) in games development, but also a relatively early time for social networks. MySpace had become popular in the US a year earlier, but Facebook and Twitter were yet to really gather pace. Fairbairn said that Media Molecule was "inspired" by the possibilities of these nascent social media networks, along with sites such as Flickr, YouTube, deviantART, Livejournal and knitting community Ravelry, as they were online communities "where people were expressing themselves in a way that was unique to that site".
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.
"The community became aware of the design possibilities faster than we did, because they were playing the game all the time," Fairbairn told attendees at this year's Develop conference in Brighton. "They made stuff that was just completely off our radar. People would make music levels, and gallery levels, and they would try and make side-scrolling shooters. [Media Molecule co-founder] Mark Healey said before we shipped that if someone made an FPS (first-person shooter) that would mean we had won, but we never really expected that. People managed to create some amazing things and it just blew us away. We realised that looking after this amazing community was a full-time job, and we needed to create a team."
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.
Media Molecule had created a "craft Earth" launch-pad in which each new available level would be tagged by a button. To show off the most notable creations, the team developed a 'Cool Levels' page, which highlighted the hot new levels available to play. Fairbairn said that Cool Levels had to use a search algorithm to reflect what was trending, but also "change every two weeks and allow cool stuff to surface". However, he admitted that the system proved to be a "hodge-podge" approach that failed to properly do the job. The issue was that the first page of Cool Levels became the 'go to' place to access UGC, meaning most other levels got lost in the ether. For example, levels held on page two of Cool Levels had a 90% drop-off in visits, and so if you did not make it to the first page there was limited chance that your creation would reach a mass audience.
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".
So, when Media Molecule approached LittleBigPlanet 2 it was essentially to fix these problematic elements in the level creation community, while also take the game to "share 2.0". Fairbairn said that the team wanted to ensure the level creators could share their levels without having to rely on the elite club of the Cool Levels board, a need made all the more pressing as creators would go on to develop 4.7 million levels around the world. Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about LittleBigPlanet 2 was that Healey's statement about a UGC FPS appears to have come true. "Someone has apparently made an FPS, so I guess we won," said Fairbairn. "We don't even know how they did it. The things that people are making now just don't even resemble platformers."
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.
Media Molecule also added the option of reviews, which Fairbairn said "appealed to the curator part of the community, in that some people wanted to find things and then tell others about why it was good". Working similarly to online retailer Amazon, the system enabled curators to discuss the levels in great detail and also achieve the status of top reviewer. "The cool thing about curators is that if you give them the opportunity to show off their collections, they will," he said. "If you spend a lot of time compiling your collection you are pretty proud of it."
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?
"It's about inspiring the community, and then you have to be quick enough and agile enough to respond to make them feel that you are building a community together," he said. "It's about actually meeting members of the community, setting challenges and events for them, becoming like them. Don't make the mistake of thinking that the community just turns up, but also don't think that you can control the tone in any way. It's a partnership. Community does not just sustain itself. It's up to people who care about the game to chivvy it along and support it. As long as the right people do the right things, it will work."
> 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.