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In-Depth: Behind The Scenes Of Media Molecule's  LittleBigPlanet

In-Depth: Behind The Scenes Of Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet Exclusive

January 30, 2009 | By Chris Remo

The latest issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a creator-written postmortem on the making of Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet, the heavily user-driven PlayStation 3-exclusive platformer.

These extracts reveal how the Guildford, England-based start-up behind the game faced the obstacles of succeeding as a new development house, while capitalizing on a small staff size and "game jam" mentality.

Media Molecule executive producer Siobhan Reddy crafted the postmortem of the Sony-published game, which was introduced in Game Developer as follows:

"LittleBigPlanet's codename was The Next Big Thing, and the support the game received from Sony and from the press shows it. The game makes bold strides into the arena of user-generated content on consoles, and this postmortem simultaneously chronicles both the game's and the company's creation."

Small Team With Area Experts

From the beginning, Media Molecule was determined to retain a small team. While the studio had to expand a bit more than it expected, it largely achieved its goal, to the intended effect:

"Going through this process cemented what we wanted to do: build a small studio of talented and creative people whose focus is to create a genre-defining console game that would be both commercially and critically successful.

"LittleBigPlanet was designed as a game that could be made within our means. Being able to strike out in a new genre (or an old neglected genre, depending on your point of view) meant we could focus on making the game we wanted to make, and not waste effort by slavishly copying the standard feature set that might be expected of a more typical mass selling game.

"We decided early on that we wouldn't grow the company larger than 20 people -- however, we inflated to 31 once we realized the ambition of the project. We also decided that we would assign a large area of responsibility to each person. For example, one person would be focused on the game engine while another person would focus on physics, or production, or character animation.

"Paradoxically, we also wanted everyone on the team to be able to have input on every other aspect of the game. In this way, the different areas of the game would feel more integrated as level designers, artists, and programmers sometimes switched jobs for a few hours a day. The communication overhead needed to support this practice wouldn't have worked with a large team."

Game Jam Design Style

One key principle of Media Molecule's development process, facilitated in part by its small team size, is its "game jam design style," which allowed for a huge number of potential ideas discussed, as well as copious prototyping. The studio has enviably retained the practice even as its team has grown:

"During the early days, the process went something like this: Conversations would take place that would then lead to some design work being done. Sometimes the design wouldn't stick, but other times it would, unlocking a whole new host of possibilities.

"Our natural process, maybe because of the high number of musicians on the team, was for people to riff off each other. We referred to these discussions as "jamming." We didn't start with a design document, but we did lock down areas to try out. The flow that had been discussed was eventually visualized by Healey, and this became the framework for the greenlight and actually the whole game.

"Once the framework was set, everyone was free to go wild within his or her area. We gave people freedom to design and prototype in their own way. We tended not to spend a lot of time in design meetings because people were (and are) always itching to get out of them and actually try stuff.

"We met regularly to make sure everyone was still going in the same direction or to stir up excitement by sharing at a new direction we wanted to try out. We experimented with, and eventually shelved, many ideas during this early period.

"Once we had gotten to the stage (post greenlight) where the concept crystallized, Healey consolidated all the various ideas into a design document to share with the team. This document wasn't kept up to date daily, but a full consolidation was done at key points to make sure everyone was behind it.

"In the periods between consolidations, targeted designs would be written up outside of the main document. During the final phase, we moved toward one-on-one discussions and emails, which sometimes led to a lack of cohesion or accountability, though it's perhaps because of the small size of the initial team that we got away with it anyhow.

"Ultimately, most of the knotty design decisions at the start of the project were resolved by rapidly trying out our ideas via code or pre-visualization. We went down a fair number of design dead-ends, but even the failures gave us useful information. This tactic wouldn't have been very efficient if we had a large standing army of artists and level designers waiting for the design to be finished.

"Now that we're a larger team, we have retained this approach. It's a little hard at times, but with the fundamental idea of a framework being set by the directors, the owners of specific areas of the game are trusted to create great things (and encouraged to try out hard, exciting, or unusual ideas). We regularly review how our projects are coming together. The fact that design documents often come together after you have tried something is a very positive notion in our company culture."

Building a Studio and Making a Game at the Same Time

Like many young game development houses, Media Moleculed struggled with constructing its company in parallel to constructing its game:

"Our focus was often split between building the game and establishing the studio.

"We recently conducted some team surveys and learned that there were a lot of things that worked well enough when we were a very small team, but broke down as we became bigger and busier. These issues ranged from the trivial to the serious: employees not knowing who to get direction from, starting meetings on time, making visible the reasons people failed to come to work, office space not being used efficiently, inconsistency in work-life balance-the list could go on!

"There is an expectation from the team, and a good one, that every area of the company be the best it can be. We underestimated the amount of support we needed to ship LittleBigPlanet and run the company to its best simultaneously.

Additional Info

The full postmortem, including a great deal more insight into LittleBigPlanet's development, with "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" reasoning, is now available in the January 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine.

The issue also includes the 2008 Game Developer Front Line Awards, highlighting the best tools available to game developers in the past year. Plus, Nicholas Olsen offers a primer on Apple's iPhone SDK.

As usual, there is Matthew Wasteland's humor column, as well as development columns from Power of Two's Noel Llopis, Bungie's Steve Theodore, LucasArts' Jesse Harlin, and Maxis' Soren Johnson.

Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of January 2009's edition as a single issue.

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