Q& A: Exploring the triumphant level design of Sackboy: A Big Adventure
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How do you take an established franchise into new territory without sacrificing what made it great? That was the question facing Sumo Digital as it attempted to turn LittleBigPlanet (LBP) into a bona fide 3D platformer with Sackboy: A Big Adventure

One of the stars of the PlayStation 5’s launch lineup, Sackboy swapped the staple DIY 2.5 platforming of LittleBigPlanet for an exuberant jaunt through a diverse slalom of ambitious 3D levels, including some breathtaking beat-matching musical numbers that steal the show.

Although unmistakably part of the LittleBigPlanet universe — the world of Sackboy is brimming with the series’ signature create-and-craft flair — Sumo Digital’s spin-off is an altogether different beast. Sackboy’s move set, for instance, was expanded with new abilities to help players traverse that extra dimension in style, letting them roll, slap, and nosedive through Craftworld with a real sense of momentum. Power-ups from previous entries also make an appearance, but this time pack more utility in the 3D space. 

By stripping the franchise back and focusing on platforming alone, Sumo proved that less genuinely can be more. Now, hot on the heels of Sackboy’s four BAFTA Games Awards nomination, we caught up with Sumo design director Ned Waterhouse to learn more about the UK studio’s winning approach to level design.

Gamasutra: Rewinding right back to the beginning, how did the project come about? Was it something you pitched or did Sony approach you? What was the remit at that stage? 

Ned Waterhouse: Sumo has always had a great working relationship with Sony XDev, which even pre-dates our work on LittleBigPlanet. When we shipped LBP3 in 2014 we maintained that relationship keeping in contact, discussing the possibilities for where we could take the franchise next. We spent a bunch of time exploring different concepts and pitching different ideas. Eventually we aligned on the ambition to create an exceptional 3D co-op platformer.

Gamasutra: 3D platforming is a genre with an incredibly rich history, so I’m keen to hear where you looked for inspiration during those formative months? 

Waterhouse: Our biggest inspiration wasn’t actually a 3D platformer at all — it was LBP. We started fresh with Sackboy, building the game from the ground up in an entirely different engine. Although this game was a dedicated platformer and we weren’t focused on UGC we still had to be really mindful of retaining all of the other key elements that make the franchise so special. That included the handcrafted aesthetic, signature gameplay mechanics, the eclectic soundtrack and the rich character customization. Whilst we wanted to keep all of these essential ingredients we also wanted to enhance and build upon them for a new generation of players.

Gamasutra: What was it like making the leap from LittleBigPlanet 3 to Sackboy — specifically in terms of transitioning from 2.5D to 3D platforming? Did you bring any design lessons over from that project, or was it a case of re-learning the ropes?

Waterhouse: The key principals of how to create a great level remain the same whether you’re in 2D or 3D. Ideally, you want to introduce a fun mechanic, progress it and twist it in surprising ways.

Our ambition was for this game was to have a huge amount of variety — for every level to be unique. And the transition to 3D gave us lots of flexibility to create varied gameplay. We have levels which are very explorative – where you need to investigate each nook and cranny to uncover their secrets. There are epic chase sequences where huge bosses hunt down Sackboy as he races towards the screen, we’ve got top-down precision platforming and even a level where you scale an enormous space rocket. We were able to create all of this variety due to the flexibility afforded by the transition to 3D.

Gamasutra: Alright, let’s really dig into your creative process. What were the core design tenets you leaned on throughout development — those overarching philosophies that unified the entire experience?

Waterhouse: There were a few. Starting with Sackboy himself, we wanted him to be an absolute joy to control. That meant he needed to be super-responsive, fluid and characterful. However, we wanted this game to appeal to a broad audience, so the controls needed to be really easy to pick up and play but, to have depth and nuance so that players are still discovering new ways of controlling the character well into the adventure.

The second tenet, which I touched on in my previous answer was, variety. We wanted a game where no two levels were the same, that constantly surprises players with what comes next. That meant a great mix of fun, satisfying mechanics, loads of different level types, a diverse range of level layouts and a wealth of distinct themes.

Finally, we wanted this to be an experience which was best shared with friends. We wanted to create an awesome single player platformer that was even better when you played it with your mates. So, we developed mechanics and systems which both encouraged and rewarded collaboration. We created dedicated co-op content which required players to put their lives in each other’s hands and we developed a suite of fun, physical player-to-player interactions which sprinkled a light-hearted layer of mischief over the multiplayer experience.

Gamasutra: How did you establish that design rule book, and did it morph at all during development?

Waterhouse: It’s difficult to say really. I guess it was established from our collective development experience and an understanding of the platform game genre.

But it’s definitely something which we adapted over the course of the project. An example of that was our experience developing Sackboy himself. The first version of the character was built to be super-responsive and fluid. And he was a joy to control when playing single player in grey box environments. But we soon found that playing in four-player, with fully-arted levels, VFX kicking off everywhere and the camera working to frame everyone it became almost impossible to keep track of your character. So, we had to revaluate our guiding principles for the character and strike a balance between responsiveness and readability.

Gamasutra: Each level is a carefully curated melting pot of obstacles, enemies, collectables, and unique power-ups. What’s the key to balancing all of those different flavors to create a Michelin star platforming slalom? 

Waterhouse: Ensuring that your pipeline allows you to be creative and explore what makes a mechanic fun is really important – particularly in the early stages. We would pick a key mechanic, for example a Grapple Hook, to theme a level around. Then we’d use that mechanic to create as many different gameplay examples as possible. We’d select the best examples to form the basis for a level and work them into a grey box, giving particular consideration to:

  • Progression – ensuring the mechanic is introduced, progressed and twisted. This means combining it with different supporting mechanics and subverting the player’s expectations of how it can be used.
  • Layout – ensuring the layout is compelling and where appropriate leverages verticality and changes in direction.
  • Secrets – ensuring that the player is rewarded for thinking outside the box or demonstrating mastery of the character controls.

At the end of this process, we’d have a grey box level which design and art would then work side-by-side to iterate and polish.

Gamasutra: Specifically focusing on those power-ups for a second — how did you choose which to implement? Was it a case of building the levels around the power-ups, or vice versa, and how did you know when you were on to a winner? 

Waterhouse: We built the levels around the power-ups. As I mentioned above, our process was to create a proof-of-concept prototype and give it to the level designers to explore the gameplay possibilities. A good power up should empower the player in fun and satisfying ways and give them new options for navigating and interacting with the world. We knew we were on to a winner if we were able to review the gameplay created by level design and see lots of varied and surprising examples of traversal, combat and puzzle solving.

Gamasutra: Sackboy has a few bread-and-butter abilities players can use to traverse levels. Why did you choose that specific skill set, and were there any abilities that got left on the cutting room floor?

Waterhouse: Accessibility was really important to us. Our approach was to create a character with a small number of complementary base abilities so that the game was really easy for anyone to pick up and play. However, we wanted the controls to have depth so that advanced players could develop a mastery of the character. So, we said that those abilities should all chain into one another and their behaviors should change based on that context. For example, chaining a roll into a jump will leap a greater distance than running and jumping. Using this approach, we were able to give players a low barrier to entry whilst ensuring there was nuance so they could really hone their skills as they became more familiar with the controls.

There was plenty of stuff which hit the cutting room floor. We had a kind of ninja kick which we dropped because it felt completely out of character. We had a two player move where one Sackboy could spin around and launch another one at a horde of enemies and a second co-op move where you could slap a rolling player and they’d ricochet around like a pinball. These player-to-player moves were fun but required too much precision coordination to make them practical.

Gamasutra: Having played a fair bit of the game, I think you really nailed the difficulty curve. How did you strike a balance between ensuring the game remained accessible (especially for younger players), while also offering a substantial challenge for more skilled fans?

Waterhouse: It’s kind of you to say so. It was a challenging and somewhat subjective balance to strike. As I say, we wanted the game to be accessible, to appeal to a broad audience and for players of different abilities to be able to enjoy the game together. We said that players should be able to complete the critical path of the game using just the core character abilities run, jump, slap, roll, grab etc. But that if players wanted to find all of the secrets, discover, unlock and complete all of the side content then they would need to spend time learning the advanced controls and really mastering the character.

Gamasutra: Hindsight is 20/20, so looking back at the entire production, what was the biggest design lesson you learned as a development team? A golden rule you’d offer to other devs looking to create their own 3D platformer?

Waterhouse: I’m not sure it’s so much of a lesson as a piece of advice: really think carefully about how you’re going to balance your single and multiplayer experiences. Creating a game which supports one to four players is like threading a needle and there is no guarantee that what works with one player is going to work for four or vice versa.

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