Though it’s hard to picture Media Molecule’s all-conquering LittleBigPlanet as anything other than the assuredly solid package that it became, a keynote discussion with studio founders – chaired by Phil Harrison – at the Develop conference in Brighton this morning revealed its inception was far from smooth.
“We did go through a lot of trial and error,” recalled art director Kareem Ettouney. “When you tell the story after five years, you only remember the triumphs. We were looking at fairy tales, but that was more for level design and story inspiration.”
“We ended up presenting this not very focused demo,” added technical director Alex Evans, who revealed his humble beginnings making tea at Bullfrog during the session. “You had a shotgun and a jetpack. The only way to build something was to shoot it out of a shotgun, the only way to get up high was to get a friend with a jetpack. We spent ages to try and make this not very good robot. And then there was the art style, was it fairy tales, was it Sackboys?”
“A big part of the game was Sackboy,” said Ettoruney. “We didn’t want this to be a dry tool: we wanted to ground it in the playable things all the time. Create looks exactly like Play, and Sackboy’s at the centre of that. We were trying to find a way to make create playful, and that ended up making the tools look like power-ups.”
Unsatisfied with what they’d created and a messy presentation, the team regrouped in order to find the game’s focus, something Evans admits remains a point of contention to this day: “As a studio we have a big problem with focus. Coming back to Play Create Share, we still argue about where the focus should lie. Should the game ship with levels, should it be a tool? There were moments where we lost the emphasis.”
Regardless, Media Molecules' hard work paid off and three months later at a greenlight with Harrison (described as being like “Dragons’ Den"), the team impressed: “In my career I’ve seen close to a thousand game pitches,” Harrison offered. “This is the best meeting I’ve ever had and the best display of a vision that’s fun and playable. I floated out of that room.”
The team's ability to turn around an improved demo in such a short time was down to its ability to iterate quickly, a facet Ettouney stressed is essential.
“When you have a bad week and the project’s not going well, things can turn around fast because of the fast iterations,” he said. “If there is one thing to say it’s that experimentation is the only way. We had some good ideas, and we had great support from Sony, but the rest was trial and error. The first iteration really helps the culture. One of the biggest problems in the creative world is the vulnerability of creative people; they’re always moaning. The thing about being creative is you’re always trying to get people to listen to you. If you have a set-up that allows you to build something so you can show it tomorrow, that gets the problems out of the system.”
Explaining the decision to show LittleBigPlanet at GDC 2007, Harrison was candid: “Let’s be honest, PS3 needed a bit of a boost. I wanted to demonstrate a future that was service-based products. Things that were online with no end to them. We called it Game 3.0 – LittleBigPlanet was a perfect example of that, and Home was a perfect example of that. I wanted GDC to be a powerful message about the industry.”
It was an effective boost for Sackboy: a Google search for LittleBigPlanet prior to the event yielded zero results; the day after, more than eight million.
The group went on to discuss Media Molecule’s future, reiterating the studio’s desire to start working on other projects. Creative director Mark Healy hinted that the team might not be ready to abandon their hessian mascot just yet, though.
“If you think of LittleBigPlanet as having a child, Sackboy was that child, and there’s a time when they want to leave home,” he said. “When my son leaves home, I’ll probably think about him more than ever and want to keep tabs on him.”
“The point is, we’re no longer a one-thread company,” added Evans. “That’s really difficult for us but we’re doing it to keep it fresh. If you do one thing long enough it becomes stale, so we’re trying to pile things on. But as anyone who’s worked in a company knows, that’s a dangerous place to go.”
Ettouney concluded: “Once the language is established, that’s the time to evolve.”