Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The LittleBigPlanet Beta


Like every week, there was a lot going on last week. In my week though the biggest thing to happen was that I got a beta code for LittleBigPlanet (LBP), and I was ecstatic (I still am, actually). It was so difficult to get a code though that I felt like I had to punch a 12 year-old in the face to get one, but I got it fair and square. I'm sure that their distribution of these codes made perfect sense in theory, but it was terrible. They gave codes to various online video game magazines and LBP fan sites with the number of codes given in proportion to the site's overall popularity and/or importance. So it ended up being a mad rush for those sites (most contests were first come first serve) that crashed GamePro and the LBP news blog entirely, among others - a true life denial of service scenario. Ideally, they should've just distributed the codes themselves and/or given them to those who pre-ordered, but fortunately the LBP news blog later just gave them out to whoever tried to get them in their giveaway.

In case you don't know, you get to control Sackboy in the game. That's this guy:

Save the Sackgirl, Save the World

He doesn't generally look that scary though, he's actually super cute. I wish I had screenshots and videos to show you, but It's just been hard for me to get anything that would do the game justice and between showing you crappy videos and not showing you anything at all, I prefer the latter. I'll leave the videos to Mm, but G4 did a great special as well. It's a platformer at its core and the basis of the game is that it kind of exists in our dreams and imaginations. Games have evolved so much into these full cinematic experiences that have deep stories (or attempt to have them), high budget graphics, and very advanced control schemes. What I love about LBP is that it aims for simplicity, a high sense of art direction, and just having fun. It reminds me of games from back in the day when the story didn't matter, it was all about the experience of the gameplay (not that I hate storylines, simplicity is just appealing). All you need to know is that you are a burlap sack person, which is really a blank canvas for you to customize into whatever you want: a bunny (my Sackboy right now), a pirate, an astronaut, a Victorian lord, etc. It's all about giving the user the ability to customize nearly everything with extreme ease and trying to put you in this fantastical world that's often all about just being happy. And this is just the beta, it's not even the full game yet. It's not really very stressful, either.

The beta only includes 3 levels (which kind of double as tutorials), what appears to be a full-featured level creator, and the ability to play the levels others have submitted online (you can submit yours as well, of course, which will be available at launch) on your own or co-operatively (on your PS3 or with others online). It looks like it only outputs in 720p (it's under 1 GB, so that's not too shabby, actually), but it looks in-freaking-credible. On my Samsung Series 7, I can be extremely discerning of video/sound quality and I was completely blown away. I sometimes sit closer just so that I can fully appreciate the level of detail they put into the graphics. The graphics may not be as big budget as Metal Gear Solid 4, but they impress me just as much and I find them more inspired than Devil May Cry 4, which arguably does technically have a better graphical engine. I don't see any artifacts or jaggies or anything like that. It's visually flawless, especially the ridiculous lighting engine. When you see a golf ball, it looks like a a golf ball, and when you put a sticker on it it looks as if it was printed on the ball like a logo - that's how fine tuned it is.

Ok, moving on to more important things: the controls. It's extremely simple: left stick to move around, x to jump, and R1 to grab. Yeah, that's it. Cool, huh? Now they have sensitivity adjustments, but that's essentially it. I keep citing how I played Dead Space at PAX and was really turned off by how many freaking buttons it required, so I love this. There are other fun things though: holding the back shoulder buttons give you control of your Sack person's arms, moving your controller around lets you control their head or torso, and the D-pad buttons let you control their emotions (happy, sad, scared, or angry). Oh, and square brings up your popit menu to use stickers (which can be stuck on anything, even you, and have no limit to their use) and customize your character and kill yourself (to go to the last checkpoint). It's used extensively in the level editor, too. The few levels that were available were definitely fun to play, but not very difficult since they're the very first levels in the real game. The art style was a joy to take in though and I loved the incentives of finding stickers and costume items and bonus levels - it's what keeps the game engaging since it doesn't seem to have an over arching cohesive storyline, though I believe that there are mini-stories throughout the game. Nerds love to collect stuff, but I think people do in general, as well. There was also a cute mini game where I had to jump over a king's tie as it spun around to collect points.

The level editor is nothing short of incredible. People are going to love this thing. I have to admit that it can be a bit daunting after you see the levels that other people have created since they're often quite clever, but they have some great, simple tutorials to get you familiar with the tools, and the fact that you can hover around makes it so much easier to create levels. It feels pretty much as intuitive as they could've made an editor with so many options. I feel like you can create anything you can imagine whether it be spaceship or a dinosaur or a horse or the theme to FFX (totally badass) or a conveyor belt or whatever you want. It really is a lot more expansive than I had ever imagined, and it gives you a lot of options to not only make it functionally extensive but as visually appealing as you want. I definitely underestimated it. You can even control the sounds that things make as they're destroyed, it's just really fun. The tutorials can sometimes be slow, but I actually really love their voiceover guy so it's not so bad. I still can't wrap my head around how perfect the physics engine is: it adds real physics to everything you create, and it's just as you would expect these things to function in this fantasy world. I would've loved a mode where you create levels based on challenges to get better acquainted with the editor, like a level editor mini-game I guess, but it's not anything sorely missed.

There are a few problems with the game, but they're pretty minor. I've experienced serious lag, but this is still a beta and I haven't played online co-operatively a whole lot for a few days so it may have gotten better. I sometimes end up jerking around my analog stick a lot in user-created levels because of slick surfaces, but I think that just means I suck at those levels. ;) I do see some collision detection issues and other weird issues in the tutorials, but they haven't been very often. I'm more worried about how finding levels is going to work after release: there are already so many levels and many where it's peoples first levels that really suck. There's nothing wrong with your first level sucking, but why put it online if it's not a polished product? Why not keep working on it? I wish there was a better way of navigating all the levels other than just the search box and tags, or flipping through pages of worlds, but it's not a problem that easily fixable. I've played some levels though where I was just blown away and it really did inspire me to want to create my own levels to try and match their brilliance. By the way, you can give away prizes in your levels that you create, like stickers or level editor parts, so the ability to play a bunch of levels and then use their created parts to add to your level editing toolkit gives the level editor even more possibilities. It's like the concept of code re-use in programming - you literally don't have to re-invent the wheel.

In conclusion, this is going to be a must-have game for the PS3. I don't see how you can go wrong with this game, I feel like it appeals to casual and hardcore gamers and that it has unlimited playability alone or with friends. It's one of the best, most polished games I've ever played, and this is only the beta. It follows a very important mantra in this industry: easy to get into, hard to master. Every truly great game is great because it's easy to learn but hard to be the best at, and with the level editor that truly means something for LBP. I recommend pre-ordering it if you have a PS3 - there are a couple of exclusive costumes out the first week (astronaut and an LBP shirt) that you can only get the first week, by the way.

The Ongoing Saga of Music Industry Stupidity

There were threats early last week that the Copyright Royalty Board would raise the royalty rates on digital music to nearly double (9 cents to 15 cents) for the artists, which would likely come out of the pockets of the proprietors of these digital music services since studios are so stingy, so iTunes threatened to shut down. I don't know if it was an empty threat or not, but it would definitely operate at a loss for Apple given their already razor thin profit margins. The Board did not end up increasing the rate, though they did set a rate for ringtones (at 24 cents). I wanted to bring this up because I'm kind of surprised that the government has this kind of power. Even though I think they ended up ruling for the best, it flies in the face of a free market, in my opinion. Even more disturbing is the prospect that music studios will do whatever it takes to bring up their short term profits, even if it means long term losses in grounds like digital distribution and Internet radio.

Speaking of the latter, Pandora also spoke out early last week begging fans of the service to write in to their Congressmen so that they wouldn't pass the ridiculous bill that would raise royalty rates for Internet radio to a stupid rate that no existing Internet radio service can possibly afford to pay now or in the forseeable future if they expect to stay in future. Terrestrial radio do not pay royalty fees right now since their playing the music already promotes it to an equal effect, but that's also been discussed in the past. Fortunately, Congress decided to extend the period of time for royalty negotiations with SoundExchange for Internet broadcasters to February 2009, but this doesn't guarantee anything.

It makes me so mad that this is an industry that is clearly in trouble and just pissing all over itself in trying to fix its problems by creating more of them. Pandora and Last.fm and others are better than terrestrial radio since they're often easier to listen to at work, they're more likely to get you listening to other artists that you'll actually like, and they make it painfully convenient to buy music. What the Hell do these music studios want?! The RIAA already has a black eye from their case against Jammie Thomas. I don't know how a group of executives get together in a board room and decide that they way to save their asses is to shut down the companies that have been breathing new life into their sales. I predict very bad things for music sales if there end up being royalty hikes, so continue to support Pandora and cross your fingers - they seem to be the front runners of this battle.

The G1 is Getting Closer

There's a lot of mixed opinions about the G1 among people in the know. For me, I'm not convinced that it'll be an amazing device, but I'm excited that Android can't be vaporware at this point and can only get bigger and better, even if the device it starts out on isn't likely to be a blockbuster. Motorola is already interested in Android. By the way: the naysayers harping on the lack of Exchange support seem to be forgetting the iPhone's release last summer - things didn't turn out too shabby for Apple. Gizmodo has a very positive spin on the situation in case you've fallen victim to a lot of the bad press. That article is mostly an exploration of what the success of this truly open mobile platform can mean (I know, you can't do tethering and a few other things, but these are minor details compared to the restrictions of other mobile platforms, including the iPhone's). It's going to pump more innovation in the smartphone market, and that's really important. Apple shouldn't get too comfortable - no one should. They should all be constantly innovating, and I hope that the G1, as lacking as it may be in certain areas, will help provide a boost. Just remember that it's not an iPhone replacement, it's something else altogether. If you really want a touch screen comparison though, Tech Radar compares the G1 to the iPhone and the Nokia Tube, but it's a bit long.

Back to the iPhone real quick: Apple has decided to drop its Non-disclosure Agreement (NDA) for released applications, but this doesn't seem to be as exciting to me as it does to everyone else. I am pleased by it and it's a step in the right direction, but the fact that when you're developing an iPhone application that your lips have to stay sealed just doesn't make sense to me. Now that the SDK is out in the open, why seal any lips about it? Why not encourage further collaboration even among unreleased applications? At least this will allow the publication of books. I'll close this section with good news for Apple: Mac market share has grown to 8.2%, which has shrunk Microsoft's share to 90.3%. Bravo, Apple: you've really squeezed a lot out of this run of MacBooks and iMacs and MacBook Pros.

Quick Notes

I'm really tired, so it's time to wrap things up with a quick list of the other items I flagged but just don't have time to discuss in depth.

CNet has an article about net neutrality claiming that the solution to the ISPs' proclaimed problem of infrastructure costs of Internet connectivity is to charge consumers for tiers rather than having content providers foot the bill. I've said this before and I'll say it again: the ISPs are hoarding their money and could've easily upgraded their networks had they invested properly all these years. Tiering the Internet is dumb and people around the world who have to deal with it are not happy with it (anecdotal evidence, I have nothing to cite on that).

YouTube bumped its video upload limit to 1 GB, which is much better than 100 MB, especially with many point-and-shoot cameras' level of craptacular compression.

Did you know that Gmail has an activity monitor at the bottom? Check it out, it's super nifty.

PC World has a fun roundup of the 10 most mysterious cyber crimes.

Computer World has an even better roundup of famous tech myths. My perpetual favorite is Al Gore inventing the Internets.

And to wrap things up back to the start of this post: get some creative inspiration from these bus stop ads.

Whew, that was a long one! It'll probably be shorter next time. Have a great week, everyone!

No comments: