The Technologist

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words Adam Fisher

Does a virtual rag-doll called Sackboy show that all design could be produced on games consoles?

The most fascinating toy to appear under Christmas trees last year was Little Big Planet, a game that runs on Sony's PlayStation 3. Sony knows that it's got something special. It's made the central character in Little Big Planet - a virtual rag-doll named "Sackboy" - the official PlayStation 3 mascot. Essentially, they've bet the brand on the game's success.

I've played the game, and I think that Sony is, if anything, too modest in its expectations. I think it may have inadvertently come up with the key to making the general-purpose design software of tomorrow. And, it turns out, I'm not alone. Sven Travis, the founder and chairman of New York City's Parson School of Design's Technology and Design department, agrees with my assessment. Travis goes so far to predict that "in the future, all design will take place on game consoles like the PlayStation 3".

To understand the basis of Travis' and my enthusiasms, it is important to understand something about the play of the game. In Little Big Planet, you control an avatar - that's Sackboy - as he runs and jumps through a hostile world, avoiding hazards and monsters, solving puzzles and collecting prizes along the way. The game is ostensibly a "platformer", a genre that hasn't changed much since the first one, Donkey Kong. The conceptual breakthrough is the powerful "create mode".

Create mode gives Sackboy a god-like power and all the tools necessary to fashion a new game-world from scratch. Sackboy has a magic lasso, and with a flick of a game-designer's joystick, he can open a menu screen, cut a shape out of any material, assemble it into virtually anything and drag it into the game. For example, perhaps you've decided that your game needs a scary monster. With Sackboy, you would cut a big head out of a piece of virtual cardboard, apply a scaly texture and two googly eyes, then animate the head, putting a virtual piston in its mouth. Voila, you've built a dragon, its toothy jaws snapping away. There is no end to the number of useful character parts and snazzy-looking paints that Sackboy has in his magic bag of goodies.

The design mode in Little Big Planet is no gimmick. It's actually the same level-editing software that the professional game designers at Media Molecule, the London-based game design shop that developed the game, used to make the 50 levels that ship with the title.

Yet despite its power, it's also ridiculously easy to use. Every year, Travis tests his students with a gruelling 24-hour programming marathon. This year the challenge was to design a game using Little Big Planet, a programming environment no one had used before the contest started. "All 19 teams made it to the finish line with completed games," says an astonished Travis. "That's just never happened before."

The trick to making virtual tools both powerful and easy, it turns out, lies in choosing the right metaphor. Typically, a game designer might turn to 3D drafting software like Form Z or AutoCad to create the proverbial scary monster. Such software, like almost every other programme that runs on a personal computer, uses a pencil and paper metaphor: a blank document is analogous to a blank sheet of paper, and the cursor is a computerised pencil. On a computer that seems natural - the legacy of an operating system that features a desktop, documents and files.

In contrast, the design software called Little Big Planet runs on a computer we call a "PlayStation" - and as a consequence its underlying metaphor doesn't refer to the world of work, but to the world of play. Instead of a blinking cursor, there's Sackboy walking around with his magic lasso. In place of the metaphor of the desktop, we have something like the "kitchen table" of a childhood crafting session.

With powerful game-making tools in the hands of children, the profession of game design is poised for a shake-up. "It reminds me of when the Mac invaded the graphic design field," says Travis. "At first there was a lot of fear and resistance, and a lot of really bad design, but it also has been a great attractor." Desktop publishing changed design both for ill, and for good. But ultimately, despite a wave of hideous-looking graphic design, the field was revivified by those drawn into the profession by the newly-democratised toolset. It's been the same story with music, and it's happening now with video.

The big question, however, is whether the office metaphor has met its match. Could the keyboard be replaced by the game controller? The cursor by the magic lasso? Is the little avatar running around the screen the first step into the all-encompassing virtual reality predicted by the soothsayers of science fiction? That's a heavy burden to place on the shoulders of little Sackboy. But Travis, for one, thinks that Little Big Planet points the way ahead. After all, he asks, "what do we really know about an ideal graphic working environment?"

Adam Fisher is a technology writer based in San Francisco
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