The lights are on
To celebrate the launch of LittleBigPlanet PSP, we sat down to talk with Media Molecule executive producer Siobhan Reddy about the studio's unique nature, preserving creativity in a deadline driven environment, and the art of keeping LittleBigPlanet relevant one year after its release.
The Media Molecule team has a very interesting origin story. Can you retell it for our readers?Once upon a time in a park in Surrey, England, Mark Healey made a little movie with his friends. This movie became the game Rag Doll Kung Fu and was the catalyst for Media Molecule and then eventually LittleBigPlanet. Working at Lionhead Studios during the day, Mark worked on RDKF after hours and finished it with the help of Kareem, Dave, Alex, and an assortment of other Guildford-based folks. When it released via Steam and did well, the guys were given a boost of confidence to try out something a bit bigger. At this same time along with Chris Lee they had a meeting with Phil Harrison of Sony where they pitched themselves as game makers looking for an opportunity. The seeds of LBP were talked about and some very early ideas shown, but there was not a fully formed game idea yet. Phil got the concept, a one hour meeting turned into two, and the project was given funding for a Greenlight period. A Greenlight period is time to work up an idea into a fully formed game concept, which can be funded if it deemed good enough. I was working at Criterion at the time and had been there for a long time working on the Burnout games. I felt it was a good time for me to try something new so I jumped at the chance and joined them in March. Once we passed the Greenlight period we then had to start building the team and put effort into establishing Media Molecule as a studio. Probably one of the most important moments was when Phil Harrison unveiled LBP at GDC in March 2008 – this was an incredible moment as the development community really loved it and also it committed us to doing our best to get close to the expectations. The foundations for how we would work were set during this early stage. These mainly revolve around us finding very like-minded people who we felt could produce great work with not much management, but are crucially able to collaborate or “jam” with others. Fast forward 3 years and 37 people later, we are still above the famous Guildford Bathroom Shop but we shipped the game a year ago and there are now over a million community levels for the PS3. I’m sure you noticed that New Super Mario Bros. Wii features four-player multiplayer. How flattering is it to have the most iconic series in gaming history borrow a core concept from your game?Well, it would be a massive compliment if we in any way influenced that decision! I am really looking forward to it as I am big fan of playing games with other people. LBP has really imprinted this on me. Playing games with other people means that you constantly have unique experiences. This is a fundamental element of play, in games and in real life, a comparison would be if you think about the differences going on an adventure or a day out by yourself or with your friends. Both can be amazing, but connecting with other people changes the whole dynamic by adding the random human element. I like that.
Media Molecule is often heralded as a creatively driven studio. How does the team go about dreaming up new ideas?Well, to be honest the key is in the question. We are a creatively driven studio above all other things. We encourage people to be themselves and to geek out on their craft. Lucky for us they are all awesome at what they do, and when they are keen to ship things it all works out! It’s hard work to have a lot of creative people working together, and this does result in the occasional screwdriver fight, but it’s worth it the occasional chaos. The end result will be us all behind a screen coo-ing and getting overexcited about something someone has created. There is a lot of passion at the Molecule. The thing is, the games industry IS a creative industry and the fact that more studios are not creatively led is why we see the same genres being constantly remade. There are all types of experiences that are yet untapped. I would love to see a change in how studios approach making games. Do we really need as many first-person shooters as come out each year? Surely those brains can be applied to something else that could be commercially successful. I get that the industry is in a tough spot and not all creative risks work out but I believe 100 percent that some do and they end up inspiring others to happen. It’s important for people to take them. How does the studio juggle preserving the creative element in the face of never-ending deadlines?Well…it’s part of the ethos of the studio and with the mix of people it would be impossible to be any other way. We set it as a goal right at the start of the company and have worked hard to preserve it and will continue to do so. Between the directors and I we represent pretty much every spectrum of management or making games and so we keep each other honest – either way, we need to knuckle down or we need to encourage people to experiment. Fundamentally it’s a business and we actually do need to ship games so that we can pay salaries and bonuses and keep our lovely little company going and our people happy! Mark, Alex, Dave and Kareem are brilliant at directing the team creatively and we try to maintain a balance between that and delivering. One of the ways that we are different is that we don’t have one person sitting at the top making all of the decisions. The directors set a framework and then the molecules within are given the responsibility to deliver their area. Obviously there are reviews and it’s not a total democracy but one of the reasons for being a small company is that we like to believe that individuals are capable of being responsible for an area, for example for LBP we had one character artist who was responsible for all things Sackboy (model, animation, costumes, expressions etc). We want people to be able to take something from conception through to the final thing and have the maximum creative contribution. As well as hopefully providing creative fulfillment, sharing the responsibility makes people accountable. If they aren’t progressing their area then no one is. That sounds overdramatic but when your team is small it’s the truth. Owning something from beginning to end is a rare treat these days and it’s something that we intend to continue. We work hard to have production methods that are tailored to the individuals on team and also underpin the process with tracking and milestones so that we keep our eye on both quality and time. The major thing that helps may just be the fact we ALL understand that making games is an experiment. Each day people come into the studio and try to make the creative vision one step closer to being a reality. Sometimes it works and other times is doesn’t, but it is all part of the process. We don’t give people a hard time if things don’t work out but applaud their guts for trying something. I don’t want to give you the impression that we spend all day naval gazing and dreaming up ideas. The Media Molecule team work bloody hard, we have fun but if someone wants to do something they have to manifest it. And it would not be right if I didn’t mention the fabulous production team. They rarely get a mention but most teams have one style of working, we have many.
In previous conversations, you’ve expressed a great deal of
admiration for the way Pixar studios runs its operations. What is it
about Pixar that Media Molecule finds so inspiring?I love
them because they manage to consistently deliver brilliant content to
people and they started just like any other studio – a bunch of geeks
with a particular passion. Pixar is a studio that has never lost sight
of that, regardless of how many hits they produce or how popular they
become. They remain focused on creativity and compelling story lines
and characters before anything else. I can relate to that and so it’s
inspiring that they continue to focus on delivering the highest
quality, and being commercially successful but do not shy away from
remaining true to their personality. Personality is the difference
between good things and special things. Pixar are an inspiration for
all creative companies that you CAN do it all. Are there other influences outside of the game industry from which Media Molecule draws inspiration? Loads!
Media Molecule has a mixed bag of people. Everyone here is curious
about the world and brings these curiosities into the studio be it
listening or playing music, appreciating or creating art, movies, food,
traveling, games, reading, crafty stuff, going to the pub. I love the
games industry for its mad combination of people – there is never a
dull moment and you know we like people to feel comfortable being
themselves which can make for some very memorable moments.
hard to define all the influences, but if you think back to your
favorite content (paintings, books, movies etc) from 50-plus years ago
then I bet these people had the same struggles we do today achieving
the balance between the commercial and creative – I get inspired by
people that didn’t purely manufacture their work to be popular but they
instead were not scared of their personalities and either used the
commercial path to practice what they loved (Michelangelo and the human
form) or people who took a risk not knowing and then it ended up being
distinctive and withstanding the test of time.
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