GDC 07: Making Media Molecule

LittleBigPlanet developers talk about striking out on their own and going from zero to prototype in under a week.

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SAN FRANCISCO--Two years ago at the Game Developers Conference, Lionhead Studios artist Mark Healey showed off to a stunned and enthralled audience Rag Doll Kung Fu, a fighting game made in his spare time with no scripted animation. The game was picked up by Valve for release on its Steam downloadable distribution channel, and the success inspired Healey to strike out on his own, forming the new studio Media Molecule with the help of friends who'd worked on Rag Doll Kung Fu.

A logo to look out for.
A logo to look out for.

At this year's GDC, Healey's work once again took center stage, this time as Sony's keynote address featured a live demonstration of Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet. One attendee of Media Molecule's GDC session this afternoon told Healey it was the best demo he'd seen in 10 years. Another said he had tears in his eyes when it was over.

But while the game--along with the PlayStation Home concept--was the talk of the show today, there were still a handful of vacant seats at the afternoon presentation on the studio's first year in existence. Healey and fellow Rag Doll developer Alex Evans discussed how the studio hooked up with Sony as a publisher, the difficulties of starting up a new company, and what their goal was in the first place.

LittleBigPlanet in prototype form...
LittleBigPlanet in prototype form...

"The idea was to make the most ambitious game we possibly could," Healey said, "and most importantly, get somebody else to pay for it."

However, when they formed Media Molecule, Healey and Evans didn't have a specific game in mind. Instead, they had a short list of characteristics they wanted their work to have. Healey talked about the tedium involved with working on any sort of creative project and the occasional payoff of making something that comes together better than expected.

"What we're aiming to do with the game we're making is somehow give that to people and take away the tedium," Healey said.

That approach could be seen clearly during the Sony keynote address, where Healey and Evans walked the audience through some of LittleBigPlanet's level-creation features, which are integrated into the standard gameplay and not hidden away in their own separate modes.

Healey mentioned two other key aspects he wanted in Media Molecule's first project. First was the ability to "act" with the characters (having creative control over their movements as in Rag Doll Kung Fu), and the other was that he wanted it to be a console game.

...and LittleBigPlanet in its current state.
...and LittleBigPlanet in its current state.

That was what they had settled on when they received the opportunity to pitch a game to Sony. However, the proposed pitch session was a mere week away. Pressed to come up with something concrete quick, the team threw together a prototype for a game called Craftworld. Healey and Evans shared some footage of the prototype, and the seeds of what would become LittleBigPlanet were readily apparent.

Like its descendent, Craftworld was a side-scrolling game with 2D physics-based gameplay. However, Craftworld featured 2D graphics as well, and a placeholder protagonist named Mr. Yellowhead, who fittingly enough, had a yellow head. The player controlled Mr. Yellowhead's arms with the right analog stick on a standard PlayStation 2 controller and his legs with the left stick. In making his way through the level, Mr. Yellowhead negotiated a number of obstacles by grabbing onto objects and pushing or rolling them around.

The prototype had a flair all its own, but Evans said the team had actually left out some of the weirder aspects of the game to avoid scaring off the publisher, only to find that Sony loved what they had and requested more of the "mad stuff."

The pair described their relationship with Sony as a complete partnership instead of the adversarial relationship developers and publishers can sometimes have. Evans said that Sony has given them straightforward feedback at every step of the way, and that they have the option to disregard some of it when they felt it wouldn't make for a better game.

For Media Molecule's part, the pair said they insist on being completely honest about how far along they are on making their milestones, what direction they're taking with the game, and so on.

"That way, if it goes wrong, we can blame them," Healey joked.

LittleBigPlanet is set for release early in 2008, with a demo arriving on the PlayStation Network later this year. For more, check out GameSpot's first look at the title.

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