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Homebrewing For All

What does the growth of user-created content mean for gaming?

Sony's great new mod-friendly game LittleBigPlanet is the most notable of a new breed of videogame about to sweep through the market. And we don't just mean games populated with girly looking sack creatures.

It has no discernible story, no bosses and, bucking the current trend, no cutscenes. In it, you will race through levels built from scratch by you. Or by your mates. Or by people you never met from the other side of the globe. It's your call. Quite exciting, no?

Designer genes
It will be the first game on PS3 in which you will spend as much, if not more time designing the experience you will play through. Sony hopes that it will capture some of the social networking buzz we've seen with sites like MySpace and Facebook, with gamers swapping ideas and levels and building an intricate online community around the game. It's social gaming, the logical next step from simply beating other players online.

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Of course PC gamers have been doing something similar for years, but modding has rarely formed the crux of a game in the way LittleBigPlanet's level-building will. Up to now, it has generally taken place in the twilight of a game's lifespan, when a single-player campaign has been exhausted and the title needs a little jump-start to its life-support system through some sweet DLC.

With LittleBigPlanet, we will see the onus placed on those playing the game to come up with their own content. But is the community up for it? Will they be bothered to put down their rifles for five minutes and think of something original?

Does this mean traditional, story-led games are dying out? And what of the game designer - the person with the crazy ideas, the genius concepts - are they being forced to relinquish their fearsome power to gamers? To people like you and me?

The great debate
The videogames industry seems to be debating its future now more than ever. The new consoles aren't so new any more, and talk is turning to how games will evolve now that the next-gen evolution has bedded in. With the explosion of Nintendo's Wii together with PlayStation titles like EyeToy and SingStar, gaming is no longer the preserve of the hardcore, and thoughts are centred on how to balance the needs of that core audience with attracting as many new gamers as possible - the so-called casual market.

Some industry figureheads reckon that traditional narrative-led game formats are on the way out in the future, and that gamers need an in-built sense of community - the feeling of being plugged in - and to have a say in what they play.

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Former Sony head-honcho Phil Harrison, the massive brainbox who oversaw development of the EyeToy and SingStar games, thinks that the era of single-player gaming has had it.

Now the president of Atari, Harrison considers that his company's Alone In The Dark, a staunchly single-player experience, will be one of the last games of its type for some time.

Don't fence us in
Harrison sees the future as lying with games that involve the player more, and pack some kind of social interactivity over and above puzzle solving, racing, fighting rabid zombies and blowing each other's heads off at long range. In short, 'fenced-in gaming' is going to be in the minority, according to Big Phil. He has got previous in the user-created content stakes as well.

Back in the days when he was head of Sony Worldwide studios, Harrison placed the concept at the centre of PS3's strategy going forward. He suggested we think of it not in terms "of maps, but in terms of behaviours, environments, physics, rules - all the tools that you could want, but in a very consumer-friendly way." Back then he was raving on about the game Second Life (see separate panel): "That's a very powerful metaphor for where we're going."

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