At the recent Eurogamer Expo, developer Media Molecule held a 'Developer Session' about their upcoming title LittleBigPlanet 2. During that session, I'm not afraid to say that my mind was blown several times: seeing the team build a level in real-time, right in front of my eyes, was utterly astounding. Immediately, it seemed clear that I should grab one of the 'Molecules' (as they aptly refer to themselves) and interview them about the upcoming game.
Then I realized that, to me, Media Molecule is so much more than one guy who's making a game. It's about a group of people who love what they're doing, and love their community. With that in mind, I tracked down co-founder Alex Evans, and Community Manager James Spafford, and sat down with them for over half an hour, to talk about games, journalism, and a littleBig bit about LittleBigPlanet 2. Here's Part One -- Enjoy.
Game Rant: If there's one thing I've always found appealing about Media Molecule, it's the way that each member of the team seems to have a distinct voice and personality. However, in the games journalism space, a lot of those voices tend to get lost in the fray; after all, it's much easier to refer to 'Media Molecule, creators of LittleBigPlanet', as opposed to 'Alex Evans, Co-founder of Media Molecule, creators of LittleBigPlanet'. It's a shame that each person's unique, individual voice is often lost; do you think that, some day, we will be able to recognize characters and personalities by name, and be able to learn more about individual developers through documentation of their work processes?
Alex Evans: "That's why we [in office] came up with the 'Friday Feature'. Originally, it was because we have some shy people in the office; I'm a big mouth, he [James Spafford] is a big mouth... *Looks at James* Ok, you're a medium mouth, I'm a big mouth."
James Spafford: "Well, I wouldn't be doing this job if I didn't have..."
AE: "Ok, you've got a big mouth. In fact, you've probably got a massive mouth. Anyway, there are people who are shy, but who do amazing work. And, it's like you're saying, we don't document it, and they don't shout about it. So the 'Friday Feature' is basically a time where everyone has to show off what they've been doing that week, and at the end of the day, it's brilliant, because it means you just play the game. And that part would be worth documenting, because you get to follow each person's idea through to the final product."
GR: That's exactly what I'd like to see. Take, for example, your presentation earlier today. The way it was so integrated into the community/audience, and the way it was being built, I think there is a niche for people who want to see what the game developers are doing. Obviously, a lot of people make games, but only a few are very well-known. I think there is a gap for that 'human story'. You know, sort of like 'Spaff's Diary for Friday 1st'.
JS: "Well, I wouldn't read my diary. *Laughs*"
AE: "I mean, I love reading that stuff as well. I've always dreamed about being in the games industry and making games, and I actually got into [the industry] because of a joke with a friend of mine. We were playing 'Syndicate Wars'... No, not 'Syndicate Wars', the original 'Syndicate' -- which was a good game, and..."
GR: Which platform was that on?
JS: "Amiga, wasn't it?"
AE: "No, it was on PC; this was like 1994..."
GR: Well, remember I was born in '93, so... *laughs*
JS: "Crazy. *laughs*"
AE: "Right! Well, around the time you were born, I was playing a game called 'Syndicate' at my friend's house, and I was doing my GCSEs (exams that British teenagers take at 16 years old) at the time. He said to me "I bet you can't get a job at Bullfrog", Peter Molyneux's first company, and I said "I bet I can!
"So I phoned up Directory inquiries, then and there, and I said "Can I have the number for Bullfrog?" I phoned them, but I hadn't got a plan and they picked up... -- "Hello, Bullfrog!" and I was like "Uh, uh, I'm doing a GCSE project on games, uh, can I come in and do a summer job?!" and they told me "We're expanding at the moment, so come in and have an interview." I was really lucky. So I went in, and every summer since... Well."
JS: "*Laughs* Including this Summer?"
AE: "Hah, well, including this summer, I've been going back to Bullfrog, and then it became Lionhead, and then EA for a bit. Then I graduated from university -- so fast forward five years -- and um, got a job! All through that process, I've loved reading about the people who make games, about Peter...
"In either 'Amiga format' or 'ST format' (British magazines), they ran a feature called 'Make Games The Bullfrog Way', and the cover disc came with code for Bullfrog's sprite routines -- this was some old school stuff. And I love the fact that, now, 'LittleBigPlanet' is doing that for the next generation of people. We hired loads of people from the community, and I love that you don't turn on your PS3 now just to consume, although that's pretty much what I do -- I like playing a DVD or a Blu-ray -- but now, some people who've got the urge to make something can actually do that on their PS3. Sorry, I get excited!"
GR: No, no, not at all! James, how about you? How did you get into the industry, to where you are now?
JS: "Uh, well, mine's kind of mixed with a lot of stuff. When I was maybe 16 or so, I made a fansite for Lucasarts adventure games, and it was rubbish. It was actually for 'Monkey Island', and it was really terrible -- it had really bad Gifs on it and stuff -- but that like evolved into this huge Lucasarts community. That's where I got the taste for community management, and in the meantime, I also got a job as a tester...
"And then I founded a site called 'Idle Thumbs', which is a kind of weird, cult, gaming site with lots of editorials and strange personalities, which has gone through many phases: it's lived and died, and lived and died many times, but the main reason it died was because every single person who worked on it went and got real jobs in the industry."
AE: "It's a victim of its own success."
JS: "Yeah. I mean, I did the classic 'getting a job through QA', but actually, what got me to where I am was my work doing stuff online and..."
AE: "Actually, that is the secret recipe for getting a job in the games industry: make something. So, if you look at, like, the 'Minecraft' sensation that's going around the internet at the moment; the guy who made that -- who I've never met -- is obviously incredibly talented and, yeah, he's worked in games for a long time, I believe, but the point is that he made something and put it out there, and its value just snowballed. A lot of people ask; "How do I get a job in the games industry?" And the answer is: make something. That doesn't mean you have to program something; in James' case, it's 'make a fansite'.
"I get professional CVs from people who have been in the industry for years, and I've no idea what they can make. And they were really bad CVs. A CV will come in, and I'll say "Well, I can see that you worked at this company, this company and that company, and you call yourself a 'Character AI Animator'... But what does that actually mean? What have you actually made?" And then, when you get a CV that's like "Hi, I'm an Estate Agent... but I've made this mod! I run a team of seven modders, and the game's really good, really fun, and it's had a hundred thousand downloads." Then you think "Wow, this guy has raw talent." You know, he's not a professional, it's not professional quality, but that doesn't matter! The point was, this guy made something and put it out there, and in the end, it's a craft like anything else. Take, for example, the 'LittleBigPodcast' guys."
JS: "They've learned so much since they started about two and a half years ago, they're really good. They're started off, like, terrible... well, not terrible! You know, like two kids in an attic."
AE: "Yeah, go and look at 'LittleBigPodcast', the first episode. It's two kids, quite young, in their attic, and it's rubbish. And now they're up to episode 80, and it's..."
JS: "Well, I wouldn't say it was rubbish! *Laughs* But compared to what it is now, definitely."
AE: "Exactly, that's what I mean. You can see the progression, and it's almost archived online. Now, they're a pair of slick, cool, awesome radio hosts, and the content has always been good, but the production values... You can see them learning their craft, and I know that they're going to walk into any of a million different jobs off the basis of that, because they've put so much energy, love and skill in. As someone who can hire people, I'd just say "Well, it's an easy insta-hire", as we call it."
GR: And that's the thing, isn't it? Continuous practice leads to better results. I write for 'Game Rant', but it's not something you can just waltz into. I've been writing for as long as I can remember, and always reading, be it magazines, plays or novels. There is a discrepancy between the two media however, in that, as a writer, I can acquire inspiration from texts that have been around for hundreds of years. If you read, say, Tchaikovsky... Wait, I think he wrote a ballet, rather than a book...
JS: *Laughs* Yeah, I don't think that's right.
GR: But my point still stands; with writing, you have so much to learn from, be it a older classic by Charles Dickens, or a modern 'Harry Potter' novel. With making games however, it's obviously quite different, isn't it?
AE: "Well, there's a shorter history, but I think you can still learn a lot from older games."
JS: "Like how tough they were, and how we've learned. If you take an old game like, say, 'Mega Man', and try to play it... I absolutely can not complete that game! And then you see a modern game, and it's obviously a lot easier than that. You can see how games have grown, and how people have learned about how to develop for the audience."
AE: "I think what's wonderful, and you're right, it's a younger art form and there's less history, but you're in at the ground floor. The next generation of game developers are going to evolve the art form. That's what's so wonderful. We're not stale, we're not crusty, it's not a stagnant art form. In five years, my mind will probably be blown by whatever is coming out, and I'll say "I'm an old man; I don't know how to make that anymore."
GR: I have to admit, I'm not an old man, but my mind was blown by what I saw in LBP 2 this morning. I said to James straight after the presentation how astounded I was. The thing is though, you guys look at all the menus and exclaim how easy it is, but to me, it looks utterly complex and bewildering. I look at everything and I just think "What on earth is going on?!"
AE: "In the end, it's the humor and ease of use [of the tools]. Like, I don't create, myself. I actually just play the levels that other people create. I have a sneaky desire, then, for all the guys to do their crazy stuff, and even I find it mad! You know, I'm a programmer, and I find some of it crazy. It's actually deceptively simple.
"Going back to your question about classics and inspiration, I'm inspired by a lot of games, like 'Ico' -- I think 'Ico' is probably... it's the mood of it. I love the fact that the mood is a very emotional one, and I think everyone will latch onto different things. [James] really latched onto Lucasarts... Tim Schafer has such a unique, awesome voice, and Peter Molyneux with his God-games, at Bullfrog and Lionhead, I think there's lots of people that are really inspirational to me. And hopefully, as you say, they'll become classics over time. 'Populous', to me, is a classic game. 'Ico', too. And, hopefully, 'LittleBigPlanet' will inspire people of the next generation, and that's what's fun; you're standing on the shoulders of giants. You know, we're standing on the shoulders of what came before us."
JS: "What's interesting is that you can see it happening right now, in a really strange way. If you look at our community, there's the three million levels that the community have created. They all inspire one another, and keep pushing themselves forward. If someone builds a thing, or finds a new innovation in how to build a thing, then the community shares it, and they'll find ways to adapt that, expand that, and build another one. You know, it keeps growing and growing and growing. So you see it even within a microcosm, within our game."
That wraps up Part One of 'An Audience with Media Molecule'. Thanks again to both Alex and James for taking the time to chat with us, and for being so interesting and laid-back during our talk. Keep checking back on Game Rant for the forthcoming Parts Two and Three, where we go a little more indepth into James' love for Tim Schafer, my love for Goldeneye, and Alex's love for Biscuits.
LittleBigPlanet 2 is a PlayStation 3 exclusive, and will be available to buy in January 2011. In the meantime, why not check out our impressions of the ongoing beta?