GDC: Little Big Developers: The Formation Of Media Molecule
Addressing a surprisingly light crowd, considering the impact their LittleBigPlanet had made just hours before at Sony’s keynote, Mark Healey and Alex Evans (pictured left to right) of Media Molecule told the audience the secrets to the success of their company formed after the launch Rag Doll Kung Fu, and how they went from a “bunch of mates, to a bunch of mates in a slightly larger room.”
When Media Molecule was founded in January of 2006, explained the duo, there were a number of daunting messages "ringing in [their] ears" -- that making a game company in this climate like "diving into the abyss," that they had "no idea how hard it is," that it's impossible to have a start-up, that "small teams can't make games anymore."
The founders went on to say, seemingly only half joking, that the company’s sole mission at the start was to do the most ambitious game it could produce, asking ‘how hard can we make it for ourselves.’ “If we were jumping into the abyss,” said Evans, “we were going to do it with rockets on our back.”
Essentially, Healey explained, the company wanted to do the “most ambitious, fun, off its head game, and get somebody else to pay for it.” The pair explained that because it was what the team was used to, guiding principles would include jamming, creative collaboration, and took inspiration from the modding community.
“You can’t fail to notice the YouTube and Myspace stuff taking over the internet,” said Healey, jokingly describing the user-controlled revolution as an ‘age of aquarius.’
At this point, the two took a look back at the making of their first game, Rag Doll Kung Fu. Describing it as simply a "fun project that me and a few friends made," and admitting that it "wasn't perfect," Healey said what did work and what was carried forward as another guiding principle of Media Molecule was the fact that it was possible to be expressive with your characters.
Though the company knew it wanted to move into the console space, by luck they learned that Sony was interested in meeting with them, but that they would only have a week. "Nothing like time pressure to focus the mind," quipped Evans.
Immediately the company set out to make a simple 2D PC prototype intended to give Sony an example of what they had in mind. The demo, which the pair showed at the session, was a super-flat representation of what they had shown with LittleBigPlanet earlier in the day, with a simple character interacting with a flat shaded physical world, demonstrating an impressive amount of expressiveness even rendered in basic wireframe.
Though the two had grander and more ambitious concepts for the game, they decided to play it safer for the meeting and toned it down, taking out the 'age of aquarius,' and were surprised when Sony saw the demo and said, "We love it, but can we have more of the age of aquarius stuff?"
A huge part of Sony being as interested as it was, said Healey, was simply the fact that they actually had something to play. "That's our story," added Evans, "the power of prototyping. Loads of people have talked about it, but that's the lesson we've learned."
At this point, Evans revealed Media Molecule’s “four step mega plan” for creating a successful independent studio. Step one was to have a great production staff. Evans said he freely took ideas from “loads of different companies,” but admitted the studio worried how it might produce a game working as high level staff – “without someone like Peter [Molyneux] telling us what to do.”
Next in the mega plan was to be “totally open and honest with the publisher.” Working with SCEE, Healey and Evans said that they made the decision early on to treat the relationship like a partnership. “We’re 10 people, they’re 10 trillion,” so during early visits, Media Molecule told Sony “absolutely everything.”
“We didn’t want to have a them-and-us attitude,” said Healey, adding, “that way if it goes wrong we can blame them.”
Concepting was the third step, though the two were quick to emphasize "visual, visual, visual," showing off a number of iterative concept art from the start of the project.
Concepting was also a large part in resolving what the company had termed their "screwdriver fights," settling, for instance, an early battle about how a 2D physics engine could function in a 3D world.
Healey took a day to mock up a quick, simple video demo in Maya showing a character working his way through a malleable and interactive world with smooth camera transitions, "a day of messing around [that] silenced me for the last year," said Evans.
Evans said that another large part of the studio's success at getting from nothing to a major reveal was simply the decision to stay single platform. Starting with an early PS3 dev kit, the company decided not to work up a 3D PC prototype, instead focusing on the most difficult part of the PS3, the Cell processor, and embracing it.
"We went multiprocessor from the beginning, went multicore, and not having legacy code to hamper that code was such a blessing," said Evans.
But the past year hasn't been such a steady stream of good news and luck, confessed the two, who moved on to cover things that have gone wrong.
A major source of inter-office strife was simply the need to jump between hats. Working at Lionhead, said Healey, he was basically 'an artist,' and simply had to sit in a room, build cool things, and stay totally focused, whereas now, dealing with personal arguments, sorting out fire alarms, was one of the biggest challenges.
Communication, too, was another of the team's weak-points, said Evans. To illustrate, he said that when the team was smaller, he and co-programmer Dave Smith would tell each other to 'just hack it in' when something needed to be done.
The problem was that, to Alex and Dave, 'just hack it in' meant do it quickly, but simply and beautifully, but as new coders came into the team and were told to hack things in, they would literally write quick and messy code that would constantly fall apart.
Healey, too, said that the company would go through quite painful arguments, ridiculous in that after two days of "arguing about some silly little thing," they would realize they were talking about the same thing anyway, but with different words. Here, too, the two stressed that visual concepts and communication were key.
Finally, asked what it felt like to have the past year of their work out in the open with the earlier demo, Evans, who later told Gamasutra that it was honestly the first time since the morning's keynote that he'd taken it all in and assessed how he felt, after a quick mental check said he might be suffering from "post-natal depression," but added that he realizes there's still a mountain to climb: "actually making the game."