Sony puts its Future in the Hands of Sackboy

via Times Online

Sony PlayStation, the video games console, hopes to reverse its flagging popularity with a little-known British creation: a rag doll called Sackboy.

He is the hero of Little Big Planet, which Sony has described as the biggest game in PlayStation’s history.

It was scheduled for release this Friday, but this was pushed back after it was discovered some background music included lines from the Koran, offending some Muslims.

In Little Big Planet, players first customise the careworn toy, then control it to run and jump through a colourful world straight out of a child’s imagination but designed to appeal to gamers of all ages.

Sony PlayStation believes the simple concept created by the British games designer Media Molecule, a small up-and-coming developer based above a bathroom shop in Guildford, Surrey, has hit on the next big idea in gaming. This is because the product has an added twist – players can design their own level in rich detail, and share it with friends over the internet.

Sony executives have made the game their biggest release before Christmas and have elevated Sackboy to become the company’s first poster boy – a figurehead they hope will become as familiar as the likes of Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog.

A PlayStation official said: “We’ve never really had an icon before. That was a deliberate policy of the early days because we did not want to be pigeonholed. It’s psychologically telling that this, arguably our first mascot, is fully customisable. You can make him anything you want him to be.”

PlayStation needs the game to be a big hit, as the console has been comprehensively outsold by rivals.

Far from the complex and sometimes dark virtual worlds created by other popular games such as World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto, Little Big Planet is a throwback to childish “platform” games of old. Players simply move left and right across the screen, jump to avoid obstacles and collect objects. But the game has added a social networking element – allowing players to design their own levels in more detail than has ever been possible and share them with others, ensuring it constantly evolves.

Little Big Planet became unexpectedly controversial when Muslim players complained that it included a track by Mali-born singer Toumani Diabate which includes two lines from the Koran. Last week Sony apologised, saying it would remove the song. The game was recalled from warehouses around the world, which is thought to have cost the company millions.

Critics described PlayStation’s strategy of making Little Big Planet its major release as brave but risky. Though early reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, there remains debate as to whether it can gather a following among hard-core gamers, who have become used to shooting numerous foes or battling demons.

“The game has an unusual look, which is very appealing,” said Oli Welsh, of eurogamer.net, the games review website. “But still, it’s not the same proposition as the macho or fantastical stuff you see on the shelves these days. These are cute little guys running around wearing homemade objects made out of household items.”

Media Molecule was set up two years ago and has a team of just 27 workers, a tiny staff compared with most major developers.

Little Big Planet will be up against stiff competition in the Christmas market. Next month Nintendo intends to release Wii Music, where players use controls to play instruments. XBox will soon release more traditional games titles such as Fable II, a medieval fantasy-adventure, and Gears of War II, where players shoot aliens.

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