Back when Media Molecule was at work on the first LittleBigPlanet, its offices were a congregation of dark, sweaty rooms above a shop in the suburbs of Guildford. It was a dingy, poorly ventilated place befitting a software startup, but the 27-strong team still decorated, covering the walls with gaudy art and stringing fairy lights across the lobby, spelling out ‘hello’ in crazy joined-up writing.
Six years and a sequel later, Media Molecule is now owned by Sony and boasts a team of 47, split across two projects. Its new workspace is located in a plushly impersonal office block in the centre of town. If the team’s old digs resembled a ramshackle tree house, the new ones look like, well, a development studio. There’s decent lighting and functioning air conditioning, and there are meeting rooms decked out with whiteboards and teleconferencing equipment.
Move in close, though, and the handicraft – and perhaps hand-to-mouth – spirit of the early days survives. Origami models clutter every window ledge, while retro lampshades hang from the ceiling and friendly looking mismatched armchairs lurk in conspiratorial gatherings. There’s a little door off the main floor marked ‘Super Secret Cupboard’, and there’s a whole room reserved for weekly life-drawing classes, its walls covered with beautiful charcoal sketches. Even a bundle of old network cables looks artful here, its multicoloured tangles echoing the snarls and curves of the huge Jon Burgerman print in the hallway beyond. The tree house isn’t gone, it’s just evolved. So has the team that built it.
Founded by Mark Healey, Alex Evans, David Smith and Kareem Ettouney, all of whom met while working at Lionhead Studios, Media Molecule was formed in 2006. The group came together to help Healey with his weekend project, a fighting game called Rag Doll Kung Fu. The work proved to be fun, and indie development was becoming increasingly appealing. Unlike so many startups, in other words, the team had a company before it had a game.
The game wasn’t very far behind, however. After a few months of coding, and the addition of a studio director in the form of Criterion’s Siobhan Reddy, Media Molecule had a prototype that would eventually form the basis of LittleBigPlanet. Armed with a laptop, Healey and Evans went back to Lionhead to ask their old boss for his opinion. “Peter Molyneux was the first person outside the company to play LittleBigPlanet,” laughs technical director Evans. “We let him see it, and he told us it was too ambitious.”
It was too ambitious, of course: both a platformer and a tool for making platform games, all wrapped up in a patchwork art style that skilfully kept itself on just the right side of terminal tweeness. Ambition was part of the plan, in fact. “There are these different options, I guess,” says Evans. “Some people start with a safe small project and then grow, and that’s a valid route. We were aiming high. We always knew we wanted to do this massive gigantic triple-A tentpole PS3 title. What we didn’t know was that we’d succeed.”
It’s hard to imagine a more high-profile debut than LittleBigPlanet’s, announced on stage at GDC 2007 by then-SCEE executive vice president Phil Harrison. “It was terrifying,” laughs Reddy. “What we showed on the stage was pretty much everything we had. Every byte we had ever written.”
“It was also exciting, though,” chips in technical director Smith. “We still didn’t know what the game was going to be when it became public. In terms of the Play, Create, Share details, we didn’t know what Create meant, or what Share meant. The fact that we ended up with something where you could make these large levels from scratch? We initially thought that maybe the creativity was playing a level and just messing it up. That was fun enough.”