In just 12 months, Media Molecule has gone from indie upstart to Sony's saviour, wowing GDC attendees with a new user-generated content game. Michael French speaks to key team members about the journey from Rag-Doll Kung Fu to being the next LittleBig thing…
The hugely positive respsonse from the audience at GDC to the unveiling of LittleBigPlanet last month seems to have taken Media Molecule a little by surprise. The team had always intended for the game to do well, but being the star of the show in Sony’s keynote has thrown a spotlight on their move from champions on the fringe of indie development scene to a hotly-tipped place at the cutting-edge of PlayStation 3. Not that they’re especially keen to big themselves up in a similar way.
After GDC the team humbly refused interviews (save for this one) aware that they’ve helped Sony make a big statement about the potential of online game – but they have to live up to the claim.
Some commentators have gone so far as to say you have ‘saved’ the PS3. How did it feel to make such an impression?
Alex Evans, co-founder and technical director: At GDC Mark and I were a bit punch drunk from the madness of it all. But it’s been amazing.
Kareem Ettouney, art director: We were really proud of the reaction – it’s good to know that what we’ve done has connected with people.
Dave Smith, technical director: When we’re sat here in the studio we all love the product but we don’t quite know whether this is an illusion or if it is actually awful. So when it gets out there and people react positively it validates what we’re doing. And also our parents and friends can see it – because it’s the first game we’ve been this involved in to a serious degree for many of us. Random people on the internet are great, but when your parents see it… My mum loves [LittleBigPlanet], but she hates games. She thinks they are all about shooting people in the head.
AE: I am actually really surprised with how many different people it’s connected with. I’m surprised that so many of the more hardcore have taken to it. It’s just gone down well with a big mix of people. But it’s been so positive that it makes us all want to make it even more.
KE: Yes, so the real challenge now is to deliver.
AE: Yeah, the bottom line now is that we have this mountain to climb – which I know we can do – and finish the game and prove ourselves.
So how did the team get to this point? Just a year ago, there was only a handful of them, fresh from the critical reception and Steam release of puppet-based fighter Rag Doll Kung Fu, which started as a side project while the founders were working at Lionhead. Buoyed by its success, they left to start their own company. But to go from indie young guns to jewel in Sony’s new crown is quite a leap.
AE: That’s the external perception. For me it’s been quite steady. It’s great to have this reaction – but from the beginning Sony was telling us the game was important for them. And now, today, we’re actually trying to not smoke our own dope and remember that we still need to finish the game. Mark and I set up the company to do what we called ‘the most ambitious game ever’, so we always wanted it to be massive – we set out to do this really hard thing, and we’re still working on it.
DS: At the start we were looking at different options and there were a lot of these companies making smaller titles – but that was an obvious road to go down, so we decided to push ourselves and decided to really go for it.
AE: That’s actually why we designed the Develop cover the way we did because the team is the thing that has grown over time. The ambition hasn’t, but we’ve gone from five or six people upwards to where we are now, which is 19, and we’re still growing. And that’s the key thing: to now build the best, most balanced team. It’s a lot like trying to play fantasy football in putting together the perfect team. Really, that’s the biggest change for us – and I’ve learnt a lot about that side of what we do in the past year.
KE: It’s good to have those ambitions – because they use the full capacity of the team. We have a really talented group of people here and it’d be such a shame to not use them.
AE: After the keynote I realised that the reception really proved what the team is – our gang of people has a quality I haven’t come across since the early days of Lionhead. There are incredibly talented teams about the world, but in my experience a band of 20-odd people is almost perfect. Risky, in some ways, but awesome in others. And each of them makes a difference.
Any coincidence that LittleBigPlanet is structured similarly and invites players to contribute?
DS: I guess there are strange parallels in that regard, I hadn’t really looked at it that way.
AE: Perhaps. Everyone here knows how to play and use the game. We have been developing user-created content tools and there is a parallel version so that as we develop the player experience we have an in-house version. But everyone in this company can make levels – and that’s a big thing from a development point of view. We don’t have a separate tools department – everyone who makes a feature has to build the tools for it as well and then has to use them. Because the times when we’ve messed up is when someone has made a bit of a tool but then forgotten why it’s there, so we try and make sure everyone on the team is involved in different areas so that you actually have to eat your own medicine.
KE: Yes, the game is an empowering experience and the development of it mirrors that.
AE: As the concept lead as well as our art director, Kareem also leads the concept work, and has been able to do that in the game editor – so on one level it was concept work and on another it was a real level that you could play and made it in the tools itself. It’s very easy to do just bosh stuff out.
KE: We are really going through the user-experience the player has and the closer we get the more our tools and the game will become one.
While a unique proposition, where LittleBigPlanet may not be alone is how the game delivers a high-definition experience that’s stylised rather than realistic. A spate of games from around the world (Capcom’s Okami and Viewtiful Joe plus Rare’s Viva Pinata and Real Time Worlds’ Crackdown – to name but a few) have dodged the bullet that has ‘HD means muscled man with a gun’ engraved on it. And LittleBigPlanet seems to epitomise that mood.
AE: The vocabulary of video games is widening – and it’s not just got to do with technology. People are up for it more and there are more formats out there to pick your battles on. A lot of games have big metallic suits with big shoulder pads because skinning is such a messy problem, especially on shoulders – and so you have a number of games coming out now that look incredible but are cleverly choosing not to do things like that, because they look rubbish.
KE: Realistic is such a big word – people go for realistic rendering, but then get too shy with their imagination, so they end up really safe and don’t push the visual design. You can have a realistic look, but with an unrealistic way of thinking – what we’ve done is try to have a beautiful next-gen renderer using all new techniques and technology, but with an imaginative way of thinking, inspired by puppet theatre or man-made creations for instance.
DS: There is a key thing in the game because everything must look like the material it is made of and behave that way too. You really want to feel like you’re a big kid playing around and making stuff: that informs a lot of the visuals, and the sound, too.
How much of the stylised approach has to do with the game’s visual identity and how much has to do with creating a signature for the studio’s first game?
KE: The style has been interesting to develop for us – on one hand it’s very distinctive, but also very free-form to allow the user-generated aspect. People need to be able to rearrange and create their own styles and combinations, mixing different styles. We’re hoping to have a big library of variation and allow users to be completely free. And because everything we build can be rearranged by the player it’s meant we need to be quite consistent and modular as well.
AE: Someone described us as a scratch book - that collision of different ideas. What’s great is that you can see bits of Kareem in it and bits of Rex [Crowl, the studio’s graphic designer who designed this month’s cover] in it and you can see bits of Mark in it. So that kind of copy and paste thing is great for users because it then means they can do their own thing. But the way it is rendered and the choices we have made makes it unique as well. I don’t think it was conscious to brand it so strongly but some of things have emerged from having comparatively few, but strong, artists on it.
Chris Lee director: That is a virtue of having a small team – you can see how every individual has touched the game. It’s not like a game made by 200 people game – you can genuinely see we’ve given people a lot of free reign.
In much the same way that this small team has produced a game that advocates people at home contributing and remixing game content, a similar, personal and personable connection in the game’s bond to PS3. The team decided early on to make it a platform exclusive, and although there is a bit of a chicken/egg debate over whether that exclusivity came before or because of the Sony deal (“It certainly helped convince them,” quips Lee), the powerful machine seems to be a perfect home for such a talented team.
Yet last year when Develop first met the team, they claimed that the machine was much easier to make games for than others would admit. The words make them cringe now (“I hope people don’t think we’re that cocky,” says Evans, “We don’t have magic fairy dust. There are very talented people in the industry as well.”), but they still believe it – and its self-evident in the fact they have a solid game a year ahead of its final release.
DS: To be clear on why that is – we’ve come to the PS3 because we’ve come without baggage. If you arrive with legacy code it just doesn’t work.
AE: Don’t get me wrong, choosing PS3 only at the start was a big step for us. But I think now lots of other studios are starting to get a good feel of PS3. We were just lucky early on by making what turned out to be the right decisions. We had soft body physics and things like that running early on because we got lots of other smaller things sorted out or decided before hand – and even with all that in place there’s still loads more headroom. The PS3 has this insane quantity of power, which seems to take a cloth simulator, and then lots more you want to throw at it. It’s just a really enjoyable machine to code for. Occasionally, you still get annoyed – but that’s because it’s still programming. Game programming is still as painful as it’s ever been.
CL: It’s too easy for teams to postpone the hard decisions – but the team here made a choice from the very beginning to tackle the big stuff first. And it’s paid off.
Is it ‘a big step’ to focus just on PS3 because it’s seen to be riskier if you are positioned as a single-format independent developer?
AE: We just decided to exploit a platform for all it was worth. It’s like you have a certain number of points to spend – and we did well by focusing on one platform and spending lots of time early on that one platform.
CL: Even prior to speaking to Sony it was a conscious decision. The game itself sits with their strategy – but going with them meant the team could be focused. It all aligned really well. And that gives us a lot of confidence that we were with the right partner.
AE: At first we didn’t realise how right the decision to start just on PS3 would be. What really surprised me and is constantly surprising me is how right it feels – the game suits PS3 technically, and in turn Sony has supported us.
Further support from Sony can be found in how LittleBigPlanet is the star game in the format holder’s new Game 3.0 theory. How did the two, young independent studio and format holder, come to reach this some conclusion? And how do you use what the Web 2.0 movement shown in the likes of YouTube and Flickr for a game?
DS: In some ways we were in the right place at the right time – but there was just a general feeling in the air about user-generated content even a year ago, and meeting Sony was a good marriage of minds. We were all on the same wavelength.
AE: We knew we wanted to make a game about creativity and making things, but when we showed it to Sony even back then it was clear that Phil [Harrison] was thinking about user-generated content as well. A year ago we might not have been calling it Game 3.0, but the initial pitch was that it was first and foremost a good game whose USP is user-created content. We were definitely aware of the Web 2.0 sites, but there’s a difference to what we’re doing and sites like that. Mark takes inspiration from old game creation kits, and I like to take inspiration from toys – but those sites were in our thoughts, even things like Blogger.
KE: But the challenge is to create something that empowers people and isn’t too strict. Our idea is to make sure people go through the experience and not realise they are making something, that there is no pressure. It’s not like turning on Photoshop and being overwhelmed by lots of buttons.
AE: We’re talking a lot about implementation – even titles like Populous or Sim City, they have creativity in them. And like those games we want something that is creative, but fun, yet also console-ish and doesn’t scare people off. It’s not like we’ve said to take Blogger and make a game – it’s more like Little Computer People. So our inspirations aren’t just Web 2.0.
KE: It’s very appealing to people to be creative. People like to do up their homes, for instance, and pick curtains – but they’ll never draw a blueprint. So we had to work out how you can give people fun, but also the beauty of composition and creating something to be proud of.
The GDC keynote underlines your good developer-publisher relationship with Sony. What’s been the secret to that relationship that other studios might be able to learn from?
CL: It’s been complete honesty and openness. From the beginning you can take that ‘us versus them’ mentality but it is dead, boring and old school. We have consciously expressed to Sony that we are in this together – and they’ve really responded well to that approach. In return, they’ve given us more than we expected. It just shows that if you’re prepared to put the effort in you’ll be amazed what your publisher will give you back.
AE: We’ve also made sure that we’re up front with our producers. We were quite energetic from the off, perhaps overwhelming – but they gave us lots of feedback, some good, some bad. Some we listened too, some we didn’t. But in everyone being honest we’ve had the flexibility to be that way.
CL: Also, if you always communicate that you are aware of risks, or you aren’t sure about something or that there might be an unknown you’re about to try out they will be much keen to just let you do it especially if they know you are thinking everything through.
KE: The truth is we treat our producers like they are part of the team, not visitors.
There’s a similar dynamic amongst the team, as well, something that’s a virtue of having a smaller gang, and something that comes about by an enforced internal policy to really hammer out ideas – conversations which often, says Evans, descend into ‘screwdriver fights’. One of the bigger ones occurred over the 2D vs 3D debate. LittleBigPlanet’s action occurs from a fixed, two-dimensional plane on 3D action – a compromise borne out of disagreements over what may or may not, in Evans’ words, “flummox the user”.
AE: What we’ve learnt from those screwdriver fights, is the vocabulary – we all come from slightly different backgrounds and we all have different ways of using language. While to other people it’s ‘How To Run A Company 101’, it’s really important – you might use a word casually but one person will totally lose it. And then you’ll talk for half an hour. In the end all the screwdriver fights have been solved amicably – but some of them have been pretty heated.
KE: Terminology is not the only thing. Creative people like to approach things in a certain order. Sometimes you are talking about something, but people have priorities and like to do things their way. It’s not really disagreeing, it’s been just rearranging the order of how you do things and adapting to one another.
AE: A key thing has been being able to critique your work and others work and being able to constructively pull something apart and be able to take it. I have a tendency to swear and just say ‘This is shit!’ – but I’ve learnt to stop myself and relate exactly why it’s shit. So a lot of screwdriver fights ended up really healthy – but they started because we were horrible, on purpose. When something is shit, I say that – and people here are just as allowed to say the same back to me. It’s been hard to deal with at times but it’s benefited on the end. Dave is evil – we are both technical directors, but I live in hear of what Dave might say to me or think when looking at my code.
[Dave pulls innocent face and mouths ‘Really?’]
AE: Yes, really. But what that means is there’s a sense people can contribute. It means that when we hire we’re looking for people who can hold their own. Dave and I will have a battle, but reach a good compromise – if you don’t fight back in a situation like that you get steamrollered and end up being unhappy.
That contribution element is obviously a core part of the team’s game, but with LittleBigPlanet still a year until its final release (a demo is promised before Christmas, however), the team’s next challenge is to build and finish the game and team – and create a game that’s also a service – and one that’s a step away from the perpetual beta period that plagues the user-made worlds hosted via PC by Google and co.
AE: We’re still growing the team – that’s probably the most important thing at the moment. The most defining thing is finding someone who can take criticism. We have this great team already – we’ve got the core, and we want to flesh it out and bring all the elements together. There is so much there already that just needs solidifying. Some people have looked at our game and said ‘ship it, it’s done!’ and in a lot of areas the game is incredibly advanced, yes. But what we want to do is make sure everything works and looks beautiful and feels wonderful. I like console games for being consumer products – in a way that they are done. Siobhan [Reddy, the team’s internal producer, who hails from Criterion] taught us a lot about pop culture and how that when you buy a game from a shop you put it in your machine and then you’re sucked in, totally. That’s what we want to do.
Won’t that be difficult when you’re creating a game that is a tool as much as it is a game? Don’t online services always tend to be a work in progress?
DS: That’s true of any community-driven project. It’ll be good when we can hand the game over and get lots of people playing it, and then react to what they’re doing – that’s really when it starts.
KE: The core just needs to be solid, so it can grow in any direction depending on the consumers’ reaction. It needs a life of its own – but it can’t start weak. So what we want is to have a good beginning and create a starting point from that nucleus.
As the company’s called Media Molcule, his words couldn’t be more apt. So for now, it’s heads down for the team as it enters a period of polishing and refining the inspirational game it has created – and knowing full well that even then it’s only the beginning of the story. “As the community grows we want to support it, grow it and then keep going,” says Evans. “When we ship the game that will be the beginning of it – but when we ship it I insist it will be beautiful.”