Sackboy: A Big Adventure is reinventing LittleBigPlanet for a new generation of players. As a series, LittleBigPlanet is perhaps best known for personifying the 'Play, Create, Share' ethos Sony spent so much time cultivating in the PS3 era. The series epitomised Sony's belief that user-created content, shared out and played over the PlayStation Network, can help games stay relevant long after their release. That's a concept LittleBigPlanet creator Media Molecule has continued to explore in its subsequent work, and one that Sumo Digital, the series' stewards since LittleBigPlanet 3, is looking to reinterpret as Sackboy prepares to make their debut on PS5.
"At the start of this project, we talked about where we wanted to go next with Sackboy. We basically said that we were going to make the best 3D platformer that we could, and if we are focused we can realise that goal," explains Ned Waterhouse, creative director at Sumo Digital, and that meant some big changes needed to be made. "We felt there was a real opportunity for this character, who is so endearing and so loved by PlayStation fans, to strike out on his own in an experience that was very much focused on 'Play'."
Play comes to the forefront
The fundamental challenge for Sumo Digital has been in striking a balance between creating a game that emphasises the best play experience possible, while ensuring that Sackboy: A Big Adventure still has LittleBigPlanet in its DNA. That's been a considerable challenge for the studio, with its upcoming PS5 games aiming to strike the same tone that players have become so enamoured with over the years.
"We've got this wonderful and unique handcrafted aesthetic. We've got Sackboy as the star of the show, and we have retained a lot of the signature gameplay elements and sounds. We've also pulled through the sort of slight irreverence and off-kilter British sense of humour," says Waterhouse, who served as a senior designer on 2014's LittleBigPlanet 3. But when it comes to focusing on the Play aspect, the studio knew there was one area above all else that it had to get right: the way Sackboy handles.
"Great platformers live and die in their character controls. It was the first thing that we tackled. We knew we wanted a character that is really responsive and really fluid, so we committed to getting this game running at 60fps right off the bat," says Waterhouse, noting that frame rate has been more of a focus than targeting high resolutions as a result. "I'll be entirely honest with this," Waterhouse continues, laughing, "I do not know what our final resolution is on PS5. 60 was our priority; it's all about having the most responsive character we could. We do use dynamic resolution scalings to ensure that 60 [frames per second] is consistent and smooth, but what I can tell you is that this game does look amazing on a 4K TV."
Famously, LittleBigPlanet has always had a very floaty jump. That just wasn't going to cut it for Sackboy: A Big Adventure. Sumo Digital has completely overhauled the way that Sackboy handles and the type of moves they have at their disposal. Sackboy can run, roll, slap enemies (and co-op partners, should you feel so inclined), grab objects in the world and chuck them around, and employ both a precision and flutter jump. Better still, all of these moves can be chained together to give you even more control over the character and their interaction with the 3D world.
Aside from the six worlds, hundreds of levels, and the time trial challenges, there are also dedicated co-op levels in the game to put you and your friends to the test. "You can only play these if you have two or more players," says Ned Waterhouse. "Basically, we take the mechanics that you've encountered in the main story, and we put a co-op twist on them. These levels offer a really nice dynamic because it forces people to work together. Everyone tries really hard and, inevitably, it all falls down with chaotic consequences."
"We're expanding the move set to give players loads of different ways of traversing the world, but we also wanted it to be expressive. You can chain every move into every other move, and then you can create different combos which will allow you to navigate the world in different ways and kind of define your own play style," says Waterhouse, although he is keen to note that you can utilise as little or as many of these new moves as your want to. "You can get through the majority of levels with a small number of inputs, but then there's this broader depth to this character too."
Sackboy: A Big Adventure is certainly filling the 'family-friendly' space in the PS5 launch games lineup, although Waterhouse stresses that Sumo Digital has designed its platformer to challenge players who are looking for one too. "This was something we were really mindful of from the start. We set out to create a game that has broad appeal – we want players of different abilities to be able to play together. But it's tough, because as welcoming, charming, and as beautiful as a lot of platformers are, there is a subset of fans of the genre who are really looking for some challenging gameplay."
"If you want to get through the game just by jumping, rolling, and occasionally picking something up, you can do it. However, if you want to unlock all the content, set the high scores, and find the rarest costume pieces, then you are going to have to master this character," says Waterhouse, who notes that there are some optional challenges in the game that have evaded even him. "We have a set of levels called the Knitted Knight Trials, which are these really quickfire arcade-y speed run challenges where you've got a single life to get to the finish line in the shortest possible time across this hazard-strewn obstacle course."
"To set the gold ranks in these trials, you have to get really good with the character. Now, the ultimate Knitted Knight Trial is 10 minutes long with a single life. And, you know, I refer to that level as my Everest, because – much to the disappointment of our game design team – I am still to finish that level," Waterhouse continues. 'I guess what I'm trying to illustrate there is that we've thought about everyone. We've tried to cater for everyone. We have a game that's really welcoming, with a move set that's really easy to pick up and play. But those real fans of the platforming genre – there's something there for them as well. And there's some really challenging content if you want to be tested."
The nature of Create has changed
Sackboy: A Big Adventure does not feature a Create Mode. Sumo Digital has not made this decision lightly, and so the challenge has been to create enough content that players feel like they are getting good value from the product, which comes with an AAA price tag. There are five main game worlds, with a sixth that can be unlocked should you overcome the main villain, Vex – who has enslaved the Sack folk of Loom, and is trying to get them to build a machine called the Topsy Turver which can turn Craftworld "upside down and inside out".
"Sackboy is on an epic quest to criss-cross Craftworld to prevent Vex from building the Topsy Turner and to save all of his friends," says Waterhouse. "We've got a Himalayan Adventure, we've got an Amazon Expedition, an Undersea Odyssey, we take you to Outer Space, and then finally we delve into the depths of Craftworld itself,' he continues, noting that these worlds are made up of hundreds of stages and that the team "set out with this game to make every single level unique."
If navigating through each of these worlds and the hundreds of levels therein sounds a little daunting, you'll be happy to know that Sackboy: A Big Adventure makes full use of a brand new feature of the PS5 UI – Activities and Game Help. Sumo Digital has had to channel the spirit of the series' Create mode to build this functionality into the game after it had already locked down much of A Big Adventure's design.
"We learned about the feature set at a point when our design was quite concrete. So it was more a case of us interpreting the feature set, and then working out how best we could serve the players with this new functionality," says Waterhouse, speaking to Activities and Game Help, another new feature that will let PS Plus members activate challenge-specific walkthroughs from the game itself. "I think the Activity system and Game Help, in particular, are going to be really great for completionist players and those looking to Platinum the game."
While the opportunity to create and customise might be less broad than in the LittleBigPlanet games, you will still have the opportunity to inject some of your personality into the action. "We do have character customisation," says Ned Waterhouse. "You can really make this Sackboy your own with all the costuming – you can mix and match all of the costume pieces together. There's loads of options there."
"We have the concept of mastering levels. To master a level you need to complete it, you need to set a Gold score, you need to find every collectible, and you need to not lose any lives. The Activity system gives you a really nice, concise checklist of objectives. And if you want to quickly get a hint that tells you where to find a secret or how to set a score, then it's at your fingertips with Game Help – it's there without taking you out of the game," says Waterhouse, adding, "I think the older I get, and the less time I have to play games – as somebody who is a little time poor – I really like this system. So yeah, more concisely, no, it didn't change our design, but it's definitely a value-add for our players."
Of course, incorporating new elements of the PS5 OS and crafting hundreds of unique levels and challenges aren't the only things Sumo has had to create, it's also had to fundamentally rethink the way it approaches content to account for the DualSense controller, as Waterhouse explains.
"The PS5 is a more powerful console, and it does have a whole bunch of new gadgets and features to play with, and that's been really exciting for us. The DualSense has been a fantastic challenge, and it has been a challenge for us – it's not a throwaway term. There's no point of reference for it. it's this unique piece of hardware, and, in many ways, LBP presents a really good opportunity to showcase it. We have this incredibly tactile world. Sackboy is sort of synonymous with these high-definition materials, and it's a world that's made up of lots of different types of material."
"So what we wanted to get through with the DualSense – and I feel we've achieved it – is this sense of tactility; that extra connection to your Sackboy; and, with that, that sense of increased immersion," says Waterhouse, giving us but a small amount of insight into the ways that the PS5 controller will reflect the substance of the world back through your fingertips with its unique haptic rumble support. "You end up having lots of arguments in the studio about: 'What does it feel like to slide across a plank of wood? Is that what landing on a tea tray feels like? Come on, pop this balloon and tell me if that's the same as popping a real balloon?' As game designers, it does present a unique challenge, but it's been one that's been great fun to design for. And I think that, you know, the haptics in particular really enhance your connection to your Sackboy, and thus the game."
An experience you're supposed to Share with others
With no user-generated content in the game, where does that leave Share? Well, in Sackboy: A Big Adventure, Sumo Digital has created an experience that is better when shared with friends. We've made multiplayer and co-op a fundamental pillar of this game," Waterhouse tells me. "We wanted to make a great platformer, but that platformer should be even better when you play it with your mates."
Sackboy: A Big Adventure has full support for four-player local and online co-op, as well as support for couch-and-couch – which would let two people in one location play with two in another. The game also supports drop-in/drop-out multiplayer, and a system where your progress is preserved when you play online with others and return to your own single player game. It's a frictionless experience that's designed to make co-op as seamless as possible.
Waterhouse gave us but a small insight into the types of moves available to Sackboy earlier in this conversation and that's key when it comes to multiplayer, as the moveset is expanded greatly. You'll be able to interlink moves with your friends and interact with them directly, sometimes with chaotic results.
"We've also created a set of mechanics that encourage collaboration without requiring it. We developed all of these player-to-player interactions so that you had loads more options when there are other people in the world. So you can slap each other. You can come pick each other up and chuck each other. You can grapple each other. You can bounce off of each other's heads, you can roll-run, and so on."
"I should say, there's perfectly legitimate reasons why you'd want to do all those things in the game. But equally, this is a Sackboy game, and we felt it should have a sense of mischief and a little bit of slapstick about it. So if you want, you can sneak up behind your little brother and slap him off a platform, and everyone should be allowed to do that and suffer the consequences," he says, laughing. "It can get really slapstick and chaotic. I hope it'll cause a few arguments at Christmas."