codec chatter

Codec Chatter: Media Molecule's Siobhan Reddy

by Matt Bertz on Dec 03, 2009 at 06:10 AM

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.

It’s 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.

One of our favorite parts of LittleBigPlanet is its awesome soundtrack. Media Molecule did a great job landing unheralded bands like Battles, and the songs worked quite well with each level’s visual themes. Who are the big music fans in the office?

We are a very music loving team – and one of my first interview questions is, “what instrument do you play?” 

What has the office been listening to lately?

There is always an eclectic mix of music going on at any time – small survey of the staff right this moment is Joakimc, Veruca Salt, White Denim, The Silversun Pickups, Florence and the Machine, Radio 4, Naglfar, Radiohead, Salty Dog, U2, Michael Jackson, Prodigy, Britney Spears, Secrets of the Moon, The Killers, Bad Religion, Vector Lovers, Radio 1, Ladytron, Junkie XL, Alec Empire, Charlie Winston, Pearl Jam, Add N to (X), Eric Whitacre, Stars of the Lid, Grizzly Bear, Matchbox 20, Noisia, Nick Cave, and Warren Ellis. 

How has it been working with SCE Cambridge on LittleBigPlanet PSP, which recently launched?

The credit for the PSP version must go to the Sony Cambridge team. We were obviously a bit nervous when this idea was proposed but are very happy with the result. We did have some light involvement in the early stages of the game and throughout but they developed the game and did an excellent job translating the experience onto PSP. Everyone at Mm is playing it and the comments are all good. The reviews are good, it’s at number one – there is not much more you can ask for out of a partnership. Thank you Cambridge!

Danny Leaver recently stated Media Molecule’s dedication to expanded content is the primary reason the team has no current plans for a LittleBigPlanet sequel. What’s the secret to keeping the community interested in downloading all the expansion content in the face of so many major game releases?

There is a small DLC team here at Media Molecule. They have really done an amazing job this year – we have shipped an incredible amount of content and definitely more than what was on the Blu-ray. We also work with very good outsourcing teams; Tarsier, Fireproof, Super Massive Games & Leading Light. These folks are creatively managed by Mm and they all work hard to make sure that everything that is added really adds richness and new experiences to the LBP world.

Interestingly, the numbers of people playing the game have remained consistent all year. This is unique and could be down to the fact that the new content we provide allows people to create new types of levels and artworks, which then provides people with new content to play or look at, which then inspires people to create new things. It’s like the circle of life. It keeps the game fresh and alive and is really the magic of DLC. The player’s experience no longer ends with a packaged disc and it is so important for us to keep our fans engaged and interested.

Our community is incredible; they keep me playing the game. Every time I check in I find something that I haven’t seen before that either makes my jaw drop with amazement or I just have a great gameplay experience. Additionally, working with partners like Marvel, Disney, etc. on DLC allows our fans to connect with other properties they love. My personal favorites are the sticker packs that we have done this year with Jon Burgerman and Vera Bee. It allows for personal collaboration and exposing talented artists and is something that we would love to do more of.

How is the community doing from a creative perspective? Have you seen a steady growth in level quality since the game released?

Great! People have really got into it. There are loads of cool things going on at any one time. We have just released online create which will allow people to collaborate together online – it's going to be very interesting to see what happens and see if creators jam together to create the ultimate mash up. That would be AWESOME!