LittleBigPlanet, Media Molecule’s PlayStation 3 debut, was originally going to be a free-to-play game during development, at the suggestion of Sony, the game’s publisher.
The revelation was made during a Gamasutra-attended group interview keynote with three of the four company founders at the Develop 2011 conference in Brighton, chaired by ex-President of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios, Phil Harrison.
In an in-depth overview of the company’s story so far, three of the Alex Evans (Technical Director), Kareem Ettouney (Art Director) and Mark Healey (Creative Director) charted the triumphs and setbacks of developing one of Sony’s key success stories in recent years since the studio’s founding in January 2006.
“Our first meeting with Phil was meant to be a 30 minute pitch for our idea for a game called Craftworld that soon turned into a 3 hour brainstorming session,” explained Evans.
“Phil said all sorts of buzzwords that hadn’t really hit yet. He said it should be driven by DLC and that it should be free-to-play, have a social core and premium, paid-for content. From that initial meeting Sony agreed to fund us for six months. But that time was primarily spent making videos to try to explain what this game was going to be, not to Sony, but to ourselves!”
Evans and the other founders are all ex-Bullfrog/Lionhead employees, where they worked prior to setting up Media Molecule under the tutelage of Peter Molyneux.
“In 2005 we were all working in the same room at Lionhead doing R&D to work out what the next studio project was going to be,” revealed Evans. “We worked up a demo for a game called The Room, using clay tubes and portals. We even demoed the game at GDC that year. Valve was interested in hiring us at that time. I often wonder whether, had Valve hired us to work for them, whether they would have still hired the Narbacular Drop team [the team who made the original Portal demo].”
Soon after GDC, Evans and the other founders left Lionhead with Molyneux’s blessing to begin work on the Sony title.
“I was doing visuals for Warp Records with Pete Hawley, who is one of these people who is an expert at pairing people up to create interesting things. When he went to Sony he met Phil [Harrison] and soon and joined up the two of us.
“Alex was and is one of my best friends and we had great fun touring so I knew we could do awesome together,” wrote Hawley, in an e-mail that Harrison read out to the assembled crowd. “The mantra inside the company was to be first or best. There was no point in being second or third."
"As a platform holder you want to promote innovation or excellence. I was tired of seeing cars, guns and monkey tennis pitches. I wanted the antidote to fire, death, penalty; something that would be both first and best, I became obsessed with this idea. After working up a prototype we pitched it, Harrison loved it and I quit on the same day.”
“I loved the game because it was completely unbounded joy,” said Harrison of the early Craftworld demo the team, called Brainfluff at the time, pitched to him. “Playing this demo and realizing that this was procedurally generated. This was the beginning of LittleBigPlanet. What especially impressed me was the way that they guys effectively rewrote PowerPoint to make a live demo play within their presentation. That imagination impressed me very much.”
“There’s no better way to say: ‘I’m a good game developer’ than to pitch a playable build,” added Evans.
Sony agreed to fund the development for six months, asking for an expanded playable build at the end of this prototyping period. “When you take a risk with a brand new team and a brand new game you want to have a very defined deliverable,” explained Harrison. “We gave them six months to create a proof of concept.”
“Our presentation at the end of the six months was nothing short of a disaster,” said Evans. “That day we presented this unfocused, unplayable demo. The focus was all over the place.” Even so, Sony agreed to extend the prototype development period by three months, leading up to a ‘green light’ presentation in August 2006.
“We wanted to make the entire green light build to be four player and to be playable on a PS3 dev kit,” said Evans. “But the night before the presentation we found that if you plugged a fourth controller in it didn’t work: slowing to a crawl. We spent the entire night before the presentation debugging to make it work.”
“When you tell the story five years after the fact you only remember the triumphs, but there were many setbacks,” said Ettouney. “One blind alley we kept going down was the idea of basing levels around fairy stories. Originally there was going to be Little Red Riding Hood level, and so on. We really spent a lot of effort going down blind alleys.”
The game was revealed at GDC 2007. “There were two reasons for revealing at this event,” explained Harrison. “Firstly, I wanted to demonstrate the future of games, which was service-based projects: always on, no end to them. And secondly, to communicate the idea about the user being the creative manager of content. LittleBigPlanet and Home were perfect examples of that.”
“One of our staff Googled the term “LittleBigPlanet” the day before the presentation and there were zero hits,” said Healey. “The next day, following the presentation, there were over 8 million.”
The LittleBigPlanet universe continues to grow and develop. “There have been over 1.5 million new users since the PSN outage,” revealed Evans. “It’s growing. It’s not a stagnant community. We have 4.7 million levels published, and half a billion plays of those levels.”
Harrison concluded by asking the founders what, if anything, they might do differently if they were launching a studio today. “It’s a very different world today,” said Evans. “But I would still go for a triple A game. I like that big risk. I was specifically hungry for massive success or massive failure, and that would still be true for me. While it’s a very different landscape today to 2007, I firmly believe there’s still room for ‘massive’ entertainment. “