Popular lore always holds that a good many great ideas began on cocktail napkins -- and it seems that's true for LittleBigPlanet as well.
Media Molecule co-founder and programmer Alex Evans was at recent UK event GameCity to present the event's vision statement, which enjoys the support of BAFTA as well.
Evans admitted to a feeling approaching the surreal with the recent release of LittleBigPlanet to worldwide acclaim, as he presented a history of the title -- starting from the formation of the company to the first pitch to Phil Harrison, and continuing through the development of the game to the present release.
"This is probably the first recorded evidence of what would eventually become LittleBigPlanet," said Evans, showing a slide of a sketch on a cocktail napkin. Drawn in 2006, it was an engine design concept -- from the beginning, Media Molecule wanted to translate the idea of the joy of creation into a video game.
The diversity of Media Molecule's original team, consisting of Mark Healey, Kareem Ettouney, David Smith and Evans led to the first demonstration of the technologies that would combine into the team's first release.
In Evans's words, "Dave communicates through prototypes. He needs to get his brain fluff distilled into technical demonstrations. By the way, that is what we called our company before adopting the name, Media Molecule. I'm glad we ended up making that change."
Evans showed some videos of the very first demo pitch to Sony -- primitive compared to the final game, but featuring recognizable highlights. Small touches of animation -- the way the character's head bobbles, for example -- and the realtime physics system belie Little Big Planet's humble beginnings. The combination of simple physics and platforming are completely consistent with the shipped product.
This prototype was very much in keeping with David Smith's take on creativity. He wanted Media Molecule to keep things simple and physical, feeling that a basic relationship between the player to the building materials of the objects would lend itself to more flexibility.
The simple video served as a presentation platform for the rest of Evans's talk, as he moved onto discussing how one assembles a team of disparate parts into a cohesive whole -- a family of sorts.
The Family Tree
The four founders of Media Molecule strongly believed that great games do not require huge teams to be competitive. Most of them had their start at Lionhead Studios, working on Black and White, and the core of the game was developed by a team of under 30 individuals. In Evans' opinion, the quality of the outcome can be traced directly to the quality of the individuals comprising the team -- so finding good people is key.
By Evans's account, about one-third of the team had never worked in game development before, while two-thirds of the team were very experienced. Three of the staff employed in level creation had never worked in games prior to joining Media Molecule.
He described the team's relationship with Sony as very comfortable and amicable. Roughly every month, the team had to submit a build to the publisher, on stringent deadlines he called "The Molecule Process." Its stated goal is to allow for 30 different people to invest their creative heart and soul into a game.
The way it works is that tasks are split into separate disciplines: Character, Online, Player Experience, Art and Graphics, Game Play and Design, and Production
Any team member could claim ownership of one or more molecules -- for example, the Character molecule was mostly claimed by a traditional animator and a programmer. Although their disciplines and training are very different, they were able to take ownership of the creation of Sackboy.
Not that the process was completely smooth -- Evans said "there were big fights in the company because everyone was so very invested in the project." But in the end, it did accomplish its intended result: everyone on the team cared deeply about the final product.
One example of an inter-team argument was the decision to go 2D or 3D. Once again, Evans credits Dave Smith with the final choice: "He found that it was always better to make videos rather than argue."
The final deciding factor in favor of the final game's limited 3D style was one such video Smith developed to show 3D shapes rendered in a 2D environment with clever camera movement. "Content is important," Evans said. "These first renders taught our team that communication of process was absolutely essential."
This led to an adoption of that same process for the rest of the development cycle. The various teams would carry around portable camcorders and record little video sketches that were meant to communicate specific principles.
This had an unintended side effect. Out of context, Sony interpreted Dave's video as an intention to show "what the game would look like, rather than a proof of concept" -- a misinterpretation that Media Molecule quickly addressed.
The Future Of Creation Tools
Even within Media Molecule's own team, there was initially an uncertainty about what, exactly, they were developing on the spectrum between "game" and "creation tool." Rigorous group focus testing helped, said Evans, and the team was brutal about cutting out time and effort from elements that weren't patently obvious to their testers.
"I can't tell you how many times I was almost killed by the artists because I would continuously cut back on features," Evans said -- for example, he elected to go from nearly infinite background layers (only constrained by the PS3's memory) to just three.
On LittleBigPlanet's key defining factor, Evans opined that perhaps user-generated content on games began on the initials entry point for arcade cabinet high scores. Now, though, he projects that user-generated content elements will become an expected feature for games and not a bonus, much in the same way that multiplayer components have evolved into a requirement.
"Since release, the game has taken on a life of its own," said Evans. "It is powerfully humbling in hindsight to see some of the content that our users are already creating."
He said that Media Molecule "does plan on working on a sequel, but how do you work on a sequel with a game that's designed for infinite replayability?"
He answered his own question by proposing different definitions of "sequel." LittleBigPlanet launched with user created content as a crucial element of its business model-- now, the challenge is to figure out how to keep people returning to the title, and paying for it as the game matures and develops.
He mentioned the debate about whether to keep or delete the content that was created in the beta launch. Even though Media Molecule only released about 5 percent of the collectible content in the beta, they found the level of creativity staggering.
In the end, they put the vote to the beta community. Fully 89 percent voted to keep the content -- a very direct indicator that people were passionate about their creations. And that perhaps the level of personal investment in user created content was a strong indicator on how games should be priced an how they should be charged in the future.