A close look at Little Big Planet's Media Molecule

Develop 2011: Developer's cofounders open up on the creation of Little Big Planet, their sources of inspiration, and the challenges they faced.

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Who Was There: Three of Media Molecule's cofounders--art director Kareem Ettouney, technical director Alex Evans, and creative director Mark Healey--were in conversation with Phil Harrison, once of Sony Worldwide Studios and now with London Venture Partners.

The Media Molecule cofounders.
The Media Molecule cofounders.

What They Talked About: The Develop session was a wide-ranging one, dealing with the birth of both Little Big Planet and Media Molecule and how they nearly found themselves working for Valve.

Alex Evans explained how his career had started at Peter Molyneux's Bullfrog studios making tea and how he moved on to being an "ignorant excitable young programmer" on his way to Seattle to meet Microsoft, once the studio had become Lionhead. He described Molyneux as "an amazing mentor"--a feeling echoed by Mark Healey, who also worked there at the time. They are "very indebted to Lionhead and Bullfrog's history," Evans later said.

At the same time they were working at Lionhead, Evans and Healey were working on Rag Doll Kung Fu, which first drew the interest of Nintendo, who was contemplating it as a potential DS product. It also drew the attention of Valve, and fortuitous timing combined with Valve's desire for a "low risk, low cost" third-party game to test on Steam. It was a game that Healey admitted had been "developed at my kitchen table in my pants," but it became the first-ever non-Valve game to sit on Steam. They also revealed that they had had discussions with the team that went on to create Portal around similarities between some of their projects and how they came quite close to joining Valve themselves, in much the same way the team that created Portal did shortly afterwards.

They then moved on to discussing the birth of Little Big Planet, showing off a video of the very earliest tech demo for the project that became LBP. They then moved swiftly on to discussing the relationship between Media Molecule and Sony, specifically how Sony initially saw the game and later championed it. Evans revealed that Phil Harrison initially wanted LBP to evolve into a free-to-play downloadable title and "all manner of other buzzwords we haven't hit yet."

After discussing the rapid evolution of Little Big Planet from its birth right through to LBP2--mentioning that nearly 1 billion LBP levels have now been played through by the community--they moved on to discussing the future. Healey likened the process of moving on from Little Big Planet to a child leaving home, but made it clear that moving on from being a "single-threaded company" was necessary to stop things from "getting stale."

While none of the speakers gave any hints to suggest exactly what was coming next from Media Molecule, Evans and Healey did make it clear they had no interest in playing it safe. Risk taking is very important, they said--and the bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff.

Quote: By joining Valve, Evans said, they could have unwittingly "screwed the world out of Portal."

Takeaway: Media Molecule was born from a small collection of dedicated people who felt they had the expertise to make a game themselves. The studio has grown very slowly and has tried to keep the focus on getting rapid results and keeping things fresh.

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