Spot On: Design students shape Little Big Planet

Shadow of the Colossus-inspired custom level wins 24-hour game development marathon hosted by Parsons New School for Design and Technology; video of top finalists inside.


GameSpot may get a commission from retail offers.

NEW YORK--Burning the midnight oil with pizza and caffeinated drinks is common for college students, but doing so to create a functional playground for a walking happy-go-lucky ball of yarn is definitely new.

Developer Media Molecule's charming creation Little Big Planet was the focus of last weekend's 24-hour Game Jam at Parsons the New School for Design. The reputed design school in the heart of New York City teamed up with Little Big Planet publisher Sony to host a competition with more than 150 students from different disciplines divided into 19 teams. The students had a single day with Little Big Planet to build the most creative level possible using Little Big Planet's in-game tools.

"The results of students in teams working for 24 hours straight were absolutely amazing," said Sven Travis, chair of the communication, design and technology department, at the awards ceremony on Monday afternoon. "I don't think there was anyone who wasn't astonished by the results."

Originally there were supposed to be five awards doled out, but judges felt the need to acknowledge an additional two teams whose efforts stood out. There was a $1,000 grand prize for best in show, and additional prizes were given for the most personal, most innovative, most fun, and most beautiful levels. After judges spent five hours deliberating on those categories, awards for best use of tools and most persistent team were added to the ceremony.

Team Good Sportsmanship took the grand prize with its Sackmonster level, which was inspired by the hit PlayStation 2 game Shadow of the Colossus. Like that game, Good Sportsmanship's level consisted of a single massive moving monster. Sackboy had to find his way up the monster, go through its digestive track while dodging stomach acid, and eventually get on top of its head. The level featured an anatomical tour of the beast, complete with rib cage, beating heart, and even a dangling uvula. Once the player made it up to the brain, there was a hand-drawn animation of what the beast was thinking: eating Sackboy. Once the player got past the teeth and used the tongue to lob himself on top of the monster's snout, the level was over.

"We wanted to have something that wasn't just physics-based puzzles," said Zach Gage, who came up with the monster level idea with his teammate Kunal Patel. "We wanted to really take advantage and really do something you wouldn't be able to do in other [games]. We really wanted to make it our own thing. We had a big array of talent, and we wanted to really redo the textures, redo models, redo the machinery element and redo everything so that when you play it, almost everything that's in there is something that we built."

To accomplish that, Patel said the team developed the level in assembly-line fashion, with each member uniquely contributing to different aspects of the project. "Everything came together as planned, which is most exciting for us," said Patel. Unfortunately, the rest of his team members, Meejin Hong, Caiti McDaid-Kelly, and Subalekha Udayasankar, were unable to attend the awards due to class. "Everything that we wanted to get done got accomplished, which was great."

Each team member contributed to a different aspect of the project. Subalekha Udayasankar, an engineer who is currently studying game design, helped with the game mechanics of the level. As an artist with a background in making digital textures, Caiti McDaid-Kelly created the unique texture of the hair for the monster. Meejin Hong, a design and technology major, created the sequence of images that would be animated via a spinning wheel inside the monster's brain.

Even the Little Big Planet developers at Media Molecule were impressed. "It's the finest example of what this event was for," said Kenny Young, the game's audio director. "That level itself looks awesome. [One of] the reasons we picked that level in particular is that they had this idea right at the start--'Let's make a Shadow Colossus level'--and they pulled that off. That's what's really nice about this whole event. People having ideas, learning to use the tools, trying it out, and making it happen."

Young was also amazed at how the team manipulated the sounds to get the heartbeat. Although he knew that it was possible, he says that a lot of it isn't very obvious until someone has the idea and carries it out.

"What was really cool is that heartbeat sound. That's not a heartbeat sound effect," he said. "That's a drum sound and they sequenced it to give it that rhythm. They basically made a new sound effect. That's really exciting for me to see."

Game Jam has been an annual tradition at Parsons since Katie Salen started it four years ago. As an assistant professor in the design and technology program, she wanted to help students and also liked how the Indie Game Jam worked at the Game Developers Conference.

"We really loved the idea that game designers gather together in an intense period of time developing around a particular platform," said Salen, who has helped with Game Jams that involved the Atari 2600, mobile games, and The Sims. "Four years ago there were very few game design programs, so we wanted to become a place where students who were studying game design at other universities could actually come together and talk to other design students."

Sony approached Parsons about this year's event, and within a month they had 150 students signed up. Media Molecule's art director and cofounder Kareem Ettouney and Young were also on board to provide assistance and advice to potential game developers.

"I didn't know what to expect. I was just blown away," said Young, who feels that this event has been reassuring and a validation of Little Big Planet's core concept. "[There are] so many people creating in one space in such a concentrated period of time."

"It's really exciting," said Ettouney, who was impressed by how quickly the students picked up the tools in the game. "This is why we did the project, and Parsons is an example of very creative people. To have that opportunity to come and share that experience with them, it's overwhelming. Even if you make the most user-friendly and creative tool, it still takes a bit of time to get your head around it. And for the guys to do what they've done in such a limited time is humbling, overwhelming."

The reactions to the game from the students were extremely positive. Students were able to get some hands-on time before Game Jam so that they could put together a team and come up with a concept. Sources of inspiration were substantially varied, from Parsons' campus to a washing machine. The latter level was produced by the P3 team--also known as Pretty Pretty Princesses--who chose something that bothered them in their day-to-day lives: laundry.

Even though they were not too familiar with the controls and spent the initial few hours getting a handle on things, the P3 members managed to produce an impressive level called "SackWash." They were given the most personal award, because everyone had put a bit of themselves into the project, literally and figuratively speaking. P3 had taken pictures of themselves and put them on T-shirts that would cycle through the wash.

"The 24 hours is definitely not enough time for this," said P3's Rabia Malik, who used to be a reporter and is now pursuing a masters in design and technology. "I feel like we're starting out very small. We're hoping that in 24 hours we can at least convey our concept. That's what we're hoping."

Students were also excited to be able to participate in the annual Game Jam event.

"Opportunities like this don't arise too often," noted Iskander Ahmed, an avid gamer who had already heard a bit about Little Big Planet prior to Game Jam. "I was just amazed. This game is really a platform on which you can see the future of gaming happen. [Here's] a game that you can fully customize personally and individually...the possibilities are endless. From nothing you can create something huge."

"It was really cool, like a walking hacky sack," said Frank Donato, referring to Little Big Planet's lovable Sackboy mascot. "All the user-generated content is really interesting. It's really amazing that you can play your friend's game. You can play your nephew's game that he created. You could play somebody else's game that they created just for you, and it changes constantly, so that says a lot."

During the first half of the Game Jam session, most teams were running smoothly. However, there was a team, Team Smiley, that was having technical difficulties the first half of the competition.

Concept art for Team Smiley's original surrealist design, which had to be changed due to hardware issues.
Concept art for Team Smiley's original surrealist design, which had to be changed due to hardware issues.

"I haven't given up," Luciana Lombardi said, after spending more than eight hours trying to get her team's level started despite frequent crashes from their PlayStation 3. "Whatever we produce, they can enjoy it or they can hate it. They have to understand the kind of circumstances we were put under here."

By the following morning, Lombardi and the rest of the team, who had temporarily changed their name from Team Smiley to Team Crash, had a completed level and were using the final three hours to put on the finishing touches. To stay motivated throughout the jam, the team played some inspirational music late at night and danced to MC Hammer's "Too Legit to Quit."

Like some of the other groups, team Smiley's members did not know each other and had only met shortly before the Game Jam.

"You got to learn about people's personalities through the game," said Jessica Klein, Team Smiley's leader. "As you're creating, you suddenly learn that this person has a passion for animals and animation and anime, and then you learn that somebody is an architect's son and has a plethora of skills. Every single person in our group had a special talent. We had an illustrator, we had a Photoshopper, someone who was good at Flash, someone who was really good at physics. And so with everybody together we really worked cohesively."

"What's cool is that this game can appeal to all those different types," said Jessica Floeh, who worked on Team Smiley's concept art. "It's about working together. I feel really close to this group of people I didn't really know a week ago."

"The game itself became more personal because of our interaction with each other through the game," said Klein, who is not a nocturnal person but wore bright clothing to keep herself awake and in the right mood to be able to keep her team members going. For their efforts and their patience, Team Smiley was awarded the most persistent award, with an honorable mention for having the best dance moves at 1 a.m.

"I have seen some ideas today that are, like, 'Wow in one day. What are you going to do if you spend like a few months on that?'" Ettouney said of the contestants' proficiency with his game. "They're still new to the tools; they don't know what everything does. One of the things about this project is that we've been so lucky that every time we talk to anybody, everybody gets it. And the reason people get it is because this project was done for the right reasons. This project was not done because it was a good sort of brand to do during this day and age. This project was genuinely done and because of that, it's really reached people. There's nothing more exciting than seeing people enjoying and seeing what we've done."

All the levels that were created during Little Big Planet's Game Jam will be uploaded to the PlayStation Network under the header "City of Parsons." Before that section goes live, students will have the opportunity to tweak and polish their Game Jam levels so that players will be able to experience the level that they intended to make.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email

Join the conversation
There are 33 comments about this story