Q&A: The Organic Chemistry Of Media Molecule
In September of this year, news came down the wire of a new independent studio creating a new title exclusively for the PS3. The studio, Media Molecule, comprised initially of just four founding members, a number of them formerly Lionhead Studios employees - Alex Evans, Mark Healey, Dave Smith and Kareem Ettouney - had cut their teeth creating indie-darling Rag Doll Kung Fu, the first third party title to be released via Valve's Steam platform.
Most surprising of the announcement was that the team of four had gone from studio foundation to a publishing agreement with Sony - with a working prototype of its forthcoming PS3 title - in just some six months.
To find out how this was possible, we talked with studio founders Alex Evans and Mark Healey, who discussed the studio's foundation and future plans, the troubles (or lack there-of) of tackling the PS3, and the continuing story of Rag Doll Kung Fu.
So, from Rag Doll Kung Fu to Media Molecule – can you give us a little bit of a sense of the history and formation of the studio?
AE: The core team who started Media Molecule were basically the people who had helped Mark finish up Rag Doll Kung Fu, and it definitely gave us that little extra confidence to try something new.
MH: Rag Doll Kung Fu was a small side project, made in my spare time, but it gave us a taste for doing our own thing. With a focused team, and more time, we felt confident we could step things up a gear.
Did you have any intentions of forming something more official during the Rag Doll Kung Fu's development?
AE: No, not at all. Rag Doll was Mark’s side project and it was never ‘planned’ to become a large product – even the fact that Valve picked it up was an unforeseen twist in the story. For me, forming Media Molecule was a combination of things: partly the boost of Rag Doll; partly that some new ideas were bubbling in my head; and partly that I knew that a new wave of consoles was around the corner, and that’s always a good time to try new stuff out, in my opinion.
MH: Like Alex said, Rag Doll was simply a small side project. When Valve wanted to publish it via Steam, I said yes, then had a big panic attack and realized I had to make it a real game. It’s funny how a little innocent creativity causes the strangest of chain reactions.
Did you have any struggles finding capital to start Media Molecule? To what extent did Rag Doll fund the foundation?
AE: Without going into the boring financials, we had a lot of support from different people at the start of Media Molecule – encouragement from our peers, a good dose of naivety, and an early chance to pitch an idea to Sony, even before we had put much of a prototype together. We were very lucky that Sony ‘got it’ so quickly – from there it all snowballed very quickly. Plus, keeping a small team keeps the costs down!
MH: Rag Doll didn’t fund the company – it didn’t make that much money! The founding members survived on personal savings for a little while – long enough for us to convince Sony we were worth working with. Sony have been fantastic at helping us set up.
How large a team does Molecule currently have, and how large are you looking to grow at this stage?
AE: We’re definitely growing! We started as 4 core people, and quickly grew to around 10 people, full time. We want to stay as small as possible and still ship a full AAA title. We reckon that by picking our battles, we can keep it under 25-30. So now we’re looking for those remaining special 15.
MH: I am really intent on keeping us a small focused team – I’ve had enough of working on big, bloated teams, you get too much dead wood in those situations. Everyone at Media Molecule matters.
You seem to have gone far in a very short amount of time from foundation to prototype to exclusive deal – what special magic have you worked, and what advice could you give other upstarts?
AE: I think there’s as much luck as magic. From a technical perspective, I’d say ‘pick your battles and keep it simple’. For example, single platform titles are sometimes seen as risky, but the flipside of that is that they help you keep your development costs way down. As soon as we knew we could work on PS3, we really aggressively designed everything – from engine to game design – to exploit the PS3. And suddenly, lots of questions were answered for us.
MH: We wanted to get something playable as soon as possible, running on PS3, which involved us having the balls to make decisions and get on with it – it’s very easy to have a million conflicting ideas, and never get past a design document. I’m a big fan of prototyping code as soon as possible – it’s the only way to see if something works or not.
Was there something specific that brought you to consoles rather than continuing on PC?
AE: I quite fancied the idea of doing something more immediate, fun, and mass market. There’s lots that can be brought across from PC, and lots to be learnt.
MH: I wanted to at long last get a legitimate ticket to a Sony party. Seriously.
Did you consider any other consoles/publishers, or was Sony your first choice?
AE: When we came up with our current game idea, Sony seemed a good match and was our first choice, though I have to admit that right at the start I think my only plan was to try and stay single platform.
MH: Sony have the best parties.
Did you have any reservations as a smaller studio about making the PS3 the platform of choice?
AE: None at all. We like a challenge! I think we’ve had to be careful not to make technical or design decisions that would force us to bite off more than we can chew, content-production wise. We know how much talent and man-power 80+ person teams have, so we’re not even going to try to compete. Rather, we are just using the more unusual aspects of PS3 as a kind of ‘focusing’ device.
MH: I wasn’t sure that Sony would believe us when we said we could make a next-gen game with a smaller team, but they really got what we wanted to do.
And how has working on the PS3 been? What do you make of the sturm und drang surrounding the console’s costs and difficulty?
AE: We’ve sort of been in a work bubble for 6 months, heads down, so I don’t think we paid much attention to any sturm und drang. It has been tough starting a new studio, on a new platform, and there have been times where I’ve wanted to throw my PC or devkit across the room (the early ones were pretty heavy though, so that’s not going to happen), but I think that’s a natural part of any dev process on any platform. We’re not using any middleware, nor do we have any legacy code, so in a way, we’ve been protected a bit from the occasional delays/bugs/whatever in other peoples’ content.
MH: I don’t know what all the fuss is about. I remember coding my first commercial game in assembler for a Commodore 64, using a tape deck, sitting on the floor, looking at a blurry TV – nothing compares to that.
Are there specific strengths and features of the platform that drew you to it and that you’re utilizing with your prototype?
AE: Yes. Though I think our game could be made to work on other platforms, we dove straight into the Cell and put it to work for us as soon as we could. It’s a mighty beast, if it can be tamed.
Is the new project intended to be a full PS3 product, or part of Sony’s e-distribution campaign?
AE: It’s 100% a full PS3 product, although personally I don’t see those two categories as totally mutually exclusive.
MH: Don’t let the very indie Rag Doll Kung Fu fool you – our next game is going to be a full on triple ‘A’ monster.
How much have your collective past creations influenced your current prototype? Can we expect something ‘physical’ along the lines of Rag Doll?
MH: Rag Doll has definitely inspired certain aspects of our game, but not in an obvious way. It’s actually the collaborative spirit that prevailed around Rag Doll while it was being developed that really inspired the core of our new game...
We know a few of you have got experience in the demo-scene – do you think we're seeing a resurgence in algorithmic/generatively-driven gaming? Does Media Molecule see itself in that light?
AE: I grew up in ‘the scene’ and still nominally belong to a group. Demo creation informs a huge part of the way I code, for good and for bad. The biggest thing that I learned is to keep it simple, lean and fast to make. Regarding algorithmic gaming – depending on what you mean by that – the growth of memory on all ‘next-gen’ platforms has not really kept pace with the growth of storage capacity and GPU throughput, so in a way, developers are forced to investigate more ‘generative’ techniques. And from a design view, we are really keen on weaving things like ‘emergent gameplay’ into our games.
MH: Alex is actually something of a god in the demo-scene, and I was lucky enough to contribute on some of previous efforts. It’s amazing how a good coder can save an artist a lot of work.
How have sales and general reception of Rag Doll been?
MH: I have a confidentiality agreement with Valve, so I can’t reveal figures, but in terms of digital distribution games, it has been very successful, and I received more mail than my computer could cope with from people who loved it. One slight recent downside is that I haven’t had time to devote to the community, because of our new venture. I think a few hardcore fans are a little disheartened with me, which depresses me a bit, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
What’s the status of the game’s stateside retail release?
MH: The status is not brilliant. There have been some issues regarding the age rating, which caused the publisher to pull out. So there are no plans to release it at retail in the US right now, but never say never!
Have you been convinced of digital distribution’s viability? Was the deal for retail release meant to bridge a gap or is it a necessary step?
AE: Absolutely. It’s an exciting time for digital distribution and it’s been amazing to see (for example) how Steam is growing into a real platform. There’s surely a place for retail and boxed product for a long time yet, but it will need to co-exist with things like Sony’s EDI. Ultimately, I am sure digital distribution can be used for a much wider range of things than what’s currently out there – more than just retro games, for example – which is very exciting.
MH: Absolutely, yes. I buy many games for my mobile phone via digital distribution on impulse, and I think consoles will go that way, too. One thing that annoys me though about mobile phone games, though, and it’s something Valve got right with Steam, is that once you’ve paid for your game, you have the right to download it whenever, and wherever you like – with mobile phones you don’t.
Are there any other indie developers that you admire or model yourself after?
AE: For me, my biggest role model is Scawen Roberts and his crew of 3 on Live For Speed. I’ve never seen such single minded dedication to a product and its community. He just keeps on cranking to make it as good as he can, to great effect – and with no external funding, large team (it’s just 3 people), or anything else, he competes (and wins) in the car sim market.
MH: Me too, The Live for Speed team are my heroes. I’ve never met anyone with as much integrity as Scawen and Eric [Bailey].
Finally, what games have you been playing lately, and any particular all-time favorites?
AE: I know a lot of people say it but I’m a complete sucker for ICO and to a lesser extent Shadow of the Colossus. I always fall for games that depart from the usual game aesthetics of big guns and fast cars.
MH: I absolutely loved Loco Roco – that’s the first game I’ve played all the way through for many years! I was also really hooked on a mobile phone game – Nate Adams: Freestyle Motocross. I’m a sucker for very simple games. Favorite game of all time? The one we are making now, of course!