These examples highlight a major discrepancy between the gaming desires and priorities of PC and console level-modders. Not to rehash old gaming clichés - i.e. that the PC crowd is made up of goatee-stroking "serious" players, while console-land is home to Ritalin-fueled teens hurling abuse at each other over Modern Warfare 2 killstreaks - but the evidence speaks for itself. Console-based level-design is still seen as the younger, less mature brother of PC modding. It makes sense that the "rules" on how to craft a popular level are different for each.
Mark Healy, designer of LittleBigPlanet, has some thoughts. "I'm not sure there is a formula," he says. "It's probably a bit like asking 'What makes a good song?' ... The tempo, the progression, is it memorable? What's the context and purpose? Is it just simply annoying?" Like Johnston, he also has a three-item checklist. "Number one: Don't think too much about the end result when you start, just experiment with small ideas, little sections. Number two: Jam with someone - get feedback and input. Number three: Iterate and evolve it until the point it is having the desired effect on people ... or give up, throw it in the rubbish bin, and start again."
It could be a while before console level-design becomes as 'sophisticated' as its PC counterpart. For Johnston, desktop design is still very much where it's at. "I love that consoles are getting in on the action, albeit in watered-down affairs," he muses, adding a caveat: "I'm hoping it'll encourage people to hop onto a PC and attempt some 'real' modding where they can get their hands really dirty!" Healy, unsurprisingly, has a more complimentary viewpoint on console modding, stating that he is "constantly amazed at the creativity people show. My personal favorite levels are the ones that don't really feel like LittleBigPlanet, but more like a new game entirely."
In the end, if there are any specific "rules" for how to design successful user-created levels, they're subject to the same changes in technology and taste that the rest of the industry is. Sticking to the principles outlined above is a start, however, and it seems that more and more people are going to have the chance to grapple with them. Content-creation democracy will continue to grow, perhaps even launching more amateur designers into the same league as the big boys. "We recently employed a guy who had no other games experience than creating some maps in LBP which we happened to find while browsing one day," Healy explains. "He was a real builder - bricks, cement and driving dangerously in a white van. He had harbored dreams of becoming a game designer - and he's turned out to be really amazing. I love it when that kind of thing happens."
C J Davies is a screenwriter and journalist based in London. He can be found online over at www.cjdavies.com.