SAN DIEGO — At the Game Developers Conference in March, Sony's PlayStation team stole the show with debuts of two big projects for the PS3: a side-scroller called "LittleBigPlanet," designed for gamers to create and share levels, and a virtual landscape and social-networking service called "Home." Last week, the company finally let reporters play early versions of them. Were they as fun as they first appeared?
In my hands, "LittleBigPlanet" lived up to some of the promise of its GDC debut (see "Multiplayer: Is 'EverQuest' Sexier Than 'Street Fighter'?"). At PlayStation Gamers Day in San Diego, in front of a high-definition TV running the GDC level of the game, I took control of a little big-headed character dressed as Evel Knievel. I ran him through a brick-bottom obstacle course littered with oranges, towers of burlap blocks and all sorts of dangling threads and chains from which to swing.
"LBP" is meant to be played in groups. Three other people darted through the course with me, including Brian Crecente from gaming blog Kotaku. He'll probably be getting a letter from my lawyer any day for "reporting" that he was "repeatedly b---h-slapping" me in the game when he should know full well that I slapped him back plenty of times. Said slaps were triggered with flicks of the PS3 controller's right analog stick, from a down-left to an up-right position. Looking out to the viewers, the little character would put his hand to his opposite hip and then swat it back. I sent Crecente's scarf-wearing elf flying a couple of times. I'm sure of it. A Sony producer who was too classy to do any slapping explained that the finished game will be full of context-sensitive actions and emotions: slaps, hugs, smiles and dejected moping.
The game enchants because of its physics. Players can make their characters grab objects and other players' characters with a tap of a button. Through with slapping and getting slapped, I grabbed another player's character by the hand and helped him up. I found a chain with a rocket pack attached and put it on. Then I grabbed Crecente's guy by the hand and rocketed up to the sky. For a moment, he assumed I was helping him reach a high ledge. Then he figured out I was just rocketing him to the top of the board so I could drop him. Then I realized that I had reached the length of my chain and we both went plummeting to the ground. At the demo's end, three of us jumped our little guys onto a skateboard while the Sony producer pushed us all down a slope. We picked up speed and made a jump. The game was light, airy and as fun as advertised.
We were not allowed to see the other "LittleBigPlanet" levels or mess around with the game's vaunted character- and level-creation tools. Since those are the elements that are supposed to make "LBP" more than just a multiplayer "Mario" game, it's really too early to say whether the game is going to be all that the thousands who cheered it at GDC hope it will be.
"LittleBigPlanet" was the product I was most eager to test-run at Sony's event. "Home" was the second. "Home" also debuted at GDC, though word leaked early via that shady Crecente's Kotaku blog. It was described by everyone but people from Sony as a "Second Life"-style world (see "Sony Unveils Big PS3 Secret: Gamers Get To Go 'Home' "). It gives every PS3 owner an avatar and opens up networked lobbies and apartments in which gamers can congregate. I've flown through "Second Life," which is a grand-scale experience. Not everyone likes it, but few could deny that it feels open and big. "SL" users can create objects, architecture and even new bodies using the online world's software. The simple ability to fly allows world residents to explore that creativity in three vast virtual dimensions.
It's with that frame of reference that I experienced "Home," and I was struck by how small it felt. Small isn't necessarily a bad thing — it can suggest intimate, convenient, straightforward and cozy.
I started my session of "Home" in a virtual private apartment. I controlled a realistic-looking guy, my avatar. A couple of pictures hung on the apartment wall. A chair and a candlestick were on the floor. A Sony press person showed me how to change the photos on the wall, accessing saved shots on the PS3 hard drive. I walked out into a lobby where a couple of other users' avatars milled about. I approached them and selected an option to dance. Then I cued up a virtual PSP and teleported to a movie theater. My character was in a big multiplex lobby. One screening room was set to show the "Spider-Man 3" trailer. I walked my guy into it, and, surprisingly, he disappeared. The view switched to the inside of the screening room. No avatars — not mine, not anyone else's — were in there. On the virtual big screen, the trailer played.
I produced the virtual PSP again and warped out to an arcade. I sauntered my guy over to a bowling area. Other people had their characters standing in the other lanes. I approached an open one and chose the option to bowl. The view switched to a centered view of the lane I chose. My character disappeared again. I could only see the ball. With a couple of button taps, I bowled two in the gutter. I zapped back out and went to the apartment, which is on the second floor of this virtual space, atop a winding staircase. I figured out how to pick things up. I lifted the candlestick and tossed it down the steps. I logged out.
The "Home" demo was limited. It didn't allow access to the trophy room that is supposed to house items that attest to a player's achievements in his or her PS3 games. It didn't have any truly grand spaces. And, most importantly, it didn't have that many people. If it had those things, perhaps it would have felt bigger. For now, it's as tiny as a test tube. It's an experiment whose progress will be interesting to watch.
A limited version of "LittleBigPlanet" is set for release in the fall with a full release following just after Christmas, according to Sony reps. "Home," which will be free to all PS3 users, is planned for a fall release.