By Chris Vandergaag, reporting for Canoe Technology --

An informal survey of people I know revealed that, while many have heard of LittleBigPlanet 2 (January 18; Playstation 3; Sony Computer Entertainment; rated everyone) and know it’s a video game with cute graphics, and that some were aware that it’s widely considered a great sequel, few understood it’s also a set of tools for creating your own video games.

And fair enough—marketing by Sony has focused more prominently on LittleBigPlanet 2 the game with cute graphics, than on LittleBigPlanet 2 the set of creation tools. In fact, a new TV spot for the game only hints such tools are there, and this struck me as strange. Though spokesman Kevin Butler does explicitly assure us the overall experience is “better than bacon-wrapped cupcakes.”

“People who want the level editor already know about it,” reasons veteran LittleBigPlanet creator Truefiremac, with a smile. “Those who don't, will gracefully discover it when they play the game.”

But how gracefully? I can guess what you’re thinking: Whoa. I’m going to create video games?

You may well! LittleBigPlanet 2 is, in a way, the Lego or Erector set of video gaming, or perhaps more aptly, the Youtube—built not only to entertain folks of all ages, but also to empower the small, patient and determined percentage who use such platforms for actual creative output.

Publisher Sony began their “Play, Create, Share” initiative in 2008 with the original LittleBigPlanet, a quirky, whimsical platform game for the Playstation 3 with patchwork design sensibilities, which starred a lovable beanbag “Sackboy.” It was created by small British game studio Media Molecule and included a level editor, the term used for a set of tools in game software for creating one’s own games. More importantly, though, LBP also provided a convenient framework for publishing, rating and discussing homemade ‘Community Levels’ with other players.

In short—LittleBigPlanet did for game design what blogging platforms Wordpress and Blogger have done for web writing: made everything easier and more accessible (and thus, more popular) while providing a built-in community, to boot. Sony has since released customizable kart-racing game ModNation Racers by Vancouver developer United Front Games under the “Play, Create, Share” flag.

It’s worth mentioning that, even if you don’t envision yourself delving into content creation, LittleBigPlanet 2 is still a highly playable game. However, I was pleased to find that the creation palette has seen considerable upgrades.

“If LBP1 is a penknife, then LBP2 is a telescopic Swiss Army Knife,” says Media Molecule Creative Director and co-founder Mark Healey, who answered questions via email.

If you were previously part of the LBP creator collective (which has now produced 3.6 million homebrew levels, all of which can be accessed from LBP2), you’ll particularly appreciate how Media Molecule has expanded your options.

“You can make any kind of game. A game within a game,” says community creator deadtro1, whose levels have been traversed by other players more than fifty-thousand times.

Healey adds, “The level of polish seems to be rising on an exponential curve. Even seasoned games programmers find it very useful for making quick prototypes of whacky ideas.”

Creators now have the tools to build not only platform games, but also shooters, puzzlers, driving games, fighting games, roleplaying games, and even short films—no knowledge of actual programming required.

Also brand-new is a ‘Sackbot’ generator, which lets you easily insert other Sackpeople (friends or enemies, your choice) and assign them specific lifelike behaviors, immediately and markedly adding personality to your levels.

“They’d come and dance beside you, if you wanted,” says TrueFiremac.

Newcomers should ease in smoothly, too. Thanks to numerous interface refinements, participating in the community is no tougher than finding your way around Facebook. And creation itself requires only dragging, dropping and clicking shapes and objects, to make platforms and pits, cars and cupcakes—virtually anything can be constructed, and used to impede Sackboy’s progress.

For players, searching and sorting community levels is now quicker and easier. “Media Molecule Recommends” and “Most popular” menus, and a great big “Dive in!” button will appeal to those who want to experience the best wares the community has cooked up (and possibly find some inspiration. Nudge poke) and extend their stay on LittleBigPlanet once they’ve beaten the game’s 50 or so included Story Levels.

Level editors themselves aren’t new—Lode Runner, the 1983 Brøderbund Software classic, famously included editing tools and encouraged players to make their own platforming levels. Chiefly for that reason, it has maintained a cult following all these years. Level editors, with varying degrees of user-viciousness, have appeared in games on virtually every gaming platform since.

LittleBigPlanet’s editor was considered a leap forward, for being especially user-friendly—requiring no technical knowledge, only imagination and patience—and rewarding efforts with terrific-looking results. And for being… playful.

“Our strategy has always been to entice and encourage peoples creative side out with tempting playfulness,” says Healey.

“You can have fun just making tall buildings from blocks and knocking them down, or making silly pictures with stickers, very much like a child playing in a sandpit. And once you get hooked in, you’ll find that there is actually a huge amount of depth and possibility with the tools.” _

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