LittleBigGalaxy? Alex Evans On What's Next For Media Molecule

LittleBigPlanet co-creator Alex Evans has a multitude of fascinating opinions on development, game criticism, and where his company is going next, all showcased in this in-depth Gamasutra interview.

Gamasutra recently had a chance to catch up with Alex Evans, co-founder of UK studio Media Molecule, at the recent DICE Summit 2009 in Las Vegas, shortly after he had accepted a multitude of awards for his company's debut PS3-exclusive title, LittleBigPlanet, at the AIAS Awards show.

The title was one of the highlights of 2008, both commercially and artistically, and its complex user-generated facets, carefully integrated physics and well-thought out art direction make it one of the chief titles that currently helps set Sony's PlayStation 3 apart from its competition.

In this in-depth interview, Lionhead Studios veteran Evans candidly discusses the hard-edged philosophies that enabled his team to create a successful and cute game like LBP, as well as his thoughts on his game's position with the PlayStation 3, and future prospects for the series and the company.

Where do you plan to go from here?

Alex Evans: I have no idea actually when we're going to make an announcement, but the whole team is full-on [working on] LBP, because there's so much stuff that we didn't get in the game and that we've learned from watching 3.5 months of user-made levels.

Quite recently actually, we were bouncing ideas around... and then at a certain point, we're like, "We're gonna just take a character, we're just gonna try this direction." And I can't say what it is, but it's really fucking cool.

It's a quite interesting thing because it was like a magnet. Everyone sort of [joined in] on that thing, then I suddenly saw these people kind of going, "Oh my god, far from being tired of LBP, I suddenly see this untapped potential."

And in ways that hopefully will still be fresh so when it comes back, people won't be like, "Yeah, they just exploited that thing, and it's really fucking obvious that they would do that." I think LBP is in their future, and hopefully in surprising ways.

[NOTE: Separately of Media Molecule's in-house work, a PSP version of LittleBigPlanet was confirmed shortly after AIAS, to be developed in association with Sony Cambridge.]

I was just wondering if you would ever enter the PC arena.

AE: I think our approach is going to be via online [if we do]. We have a PC build of [LittleBigPlanet] that we have produced internally, and it looks like a piece of shit. I don't, for example, see that going out there in the immediate future.

On the other hand, PC is an awesome platform. People spend a bunch of time on PCs. They have mobile PCs now, they have iPhones. And the web is just an assumption now. It's like, it exists and is a platform itself, and we have to go there.

Wasn't Rag Doll Kung-Fu [which Evans worked on with Media Molecule co-founder Mark Healey] one of the first Steam titles?

AE: Yeah, it was the first third-party title. It was such an opportunity. Regardless of the quality of the game, it was there first. People would be like, "Half-Life 2, CounterStrike, CounterStrike Source, and all that stuff." And then like, "Oh, what else is there? Oh, this weird game I've never heard of. I'll just go there."

It benefited from that, and we benefited from the experience of learning from Valve what it was like to distribute online. We were helping out with the SDK -- super easy to integrate. I've heard that Steam has evolved massively since then, but I thought it was pretty cool back then.

Before the interview, we talked about Resistance 2. It's nice that you've actually played another company's game because, in fact, most people are so busy developing games that they stop playing games. It seems like you could really lose perspective quite quickly on what is even going on in the consumer level.

AE: Yeah, absolutely. For example, I'm sort of more on the visual side, so I just consume games in a kind of a very deconstructing "what's the engine doing here?" [way]. It's kind of interesting, because different people on the team play games for such different reasons.

Some of the art direction styles coming out, like Prince of Persia's really nice take on toon shading and that sort of over-the-top thing. So, those are the kind of things that I'm consuming for.

And then you've got Dave [Smith], who sits there playing Yoshi's Island on an SNES emulator, and then he goes to the new games, Mario Galaxy and this and that; you can see him kind of absorbing.

I went into the game room -- we have a game room at work -- and he was playing through [Castle Crashers]. And he... did an all-nighter. I love the fact that he was just sitting there really enjoying the build-up and what they've done with it. It's actually pretty cool.

When you are developing, you have to be able to take some kind of flack. You have to be able to like really receive. I remember this epiphany I had during development -- I used to call things "shit", and that was my word for it. I wasn't very constructive.

I'd look at something and I would just say, "That's shit." And then Kareem [Ettouney], who's our art director, a lovely, lovely guy... I said that to him, he did some work, and he left. He walked out and slammed the door.

And I said, "What do I mean by 'shit'? How do I break this down?" The epiphany was that it means it's 95 percent cool. If it was really bad, then I probably would say why itwas really bad. And if it was really awesome, I'd say it was really awesome.

The "shit" is actually that little kind of uncanny valley, the trough before you get to perfection, the sort of, "God, that could be so good." It's the frustration, rather than it's awful. Like, "That's so close to being awesome, and I hate the fact that it isn't awesome."

That's the sort of emotion that I had to find the [words] to express. When you come across a mechanic that doesn't work, you're emailing and you're annoyed, because it should work and you believe it could work, and then it doesn't.

Yeah, because you see the promise in it, and you're like, "But you totally dropped the ball! You did it all wrong." And it's not all wrong.

AE: Yeah, exactly, exactly.You're not saying this is F-minus, you're saying this is like B-minus, and why isn't it fucking A-plus? That was a really simplistic thing, but...

Well, like you were just talking earlier about having to find ways to make the criticism -- even internally -- appropriate, I went to film school, and whenever we criticized something, we had to say something we liked first.

AE: We call that feedback sandwich.

Exactly. Sometimes it can sound completely disingenuous, but sometimes it actually can work.

AE: I found that when I was trying to learn to do feedback sandwiches, trying to find the good thing and see past your current hate is actually a good discipline.

Because you're like, "Actually, I'm going to have to find what it is that I actually like about this in order to criticize it." That was cool... but there's no critical language for games.

It's kind of like we're in this really horrible no man's land between... There's no critical language, which means criticism is a score that's low or high, it's very fanboy. It's not even the fault necessarily of the journalists; it's just the whole setup is very kind of simplistic.

On the other extreme, you've got the developers failing in the sense that they're so scared to promise anything. They're so scared to actually say something interesting -- you know, the PR backlash and the fanboy backlash.

You're in this bizarre situation where no one is saying anything interesting. The developers are spinning like hell, and the journalists are sort of only really able to write puff pieces or rants.

I think people really need to just try to be true to what they actually think, and if they say something that is controversial and upsetting, be like, "Well, that's what I meant."

AE: Exactly. I want the developers to kick back in that way. I was trying to think of ways, and I haven't worked this out yet, of explaining the game development process to an interested fan. I'm not talking about your casual person who just picks up a game and plays it. I'm talking about the person who goes and seeks out the website for the developer.

They're not necessarily technical, they don't know anything about game development, but I think that if they could understand the processes, then at that point, I can come out and say, "We're working on X," and it won't be perceived as a promise. I can say, "I'm working on X, and it's at this stage of the kind of mental process. You know, we're just sketching right now."

People understand that. You can have the idea of a pilot, and people can understand certain concepts at a very simplistic level. They know that this is a bit of a working out process. Or, you know, you go and watch the behind the scenes, and there's a certain format that you see and a certain process that makes sense.

It is quite amazing that you actually wound up getting funding to do a game, given the sort of process you took. If people didn't know that you were capable of anything, it would just be like, "Here are a bunch of guys kind of screaming ideas at me, and I can kind of get this anywhere."

AE: It was a risk that Phil [Harrison] took. Someone asked me a question just after the talk that I thought was really pertinent, and I didn't really express it. He said, "Sir, how did you geta deal? How did you structure a deal that is so open-ended? Was there a dollar amount on it and stuff?"

Actually, there wasn't a ceiling in the sense that we weren't worrying about budget. We had a really traditionalist structured setup. It's like milestones every six weeks; we set our goals for how long it was gonna take.

The weird thing is that we had this super hand-wavey approach creatively, and then this like super traditional structure which we were working with, a delivery structure to Sony.

That was actually really awesome because it kept me reined in a little bit. It's like "Oh, I've got to master, and I've actually got to do something. I'm not going to fake it, I'm actually going to try to do something good, but I do have to deliver. I have to deliver this month. I have to have that discipline."

You were developing the engine simultaneously with the game. That's often looked at as a quite difficult approach to making something, but perhaps it's not as difficult when what you're making is kind of also tools. So, when you're making tools to support a game that's based on tools...

AE: It was a really interesting chicken and egg situation. I was talking to Danny [Leaver], he was one of our level designers, and he was like, "People ask, 'Did you use the in-game tools to create the game?', and how do I answer that?" I say, "Yes, we did." Because what happened was the tools evolved, like I was saying in my [DICE] talk, phenomenally.

They changed without recognition several times. And so, to him, the tool that you get in LBP existed for around a month before we shipped, or maybe two months. So he didn't use that tool to build the game; he used like all the previous fuck-ups.

So, I was like, "Well,you didn't use Pop-It in its current form, but you did use it in a previous form, in fact." Because what we were doing is, we were developing out not just the engine, but we were like, "How do we create?"

The example I've given before is, previously, there was complete free range on depth. We now have three layers with thin layers between them. That was actually added later.

Weactually had to go back and revisit every level and go through and rethink it in terms of those three layers. So, changes like that were really interesting in evolving the toolset and the level design at the same time. Yeah, we were feeling it out.

Pretty much everybody is licensing engines now. How do you feel about that sort of scenario?

AE: To some degree, we're all building on something. You know, I have the PS3 SDK underneath me, and all this stuff. It's basically what level of abstraction you're willing to kind of give up knowledge of how it works.

I think you can license an engine and be really successful and do a fantastic job of it provided that you're willing to stop at their documentation and not have to worry about how the engine works. And to some people, that's a huge bonus, like, "I don't want to have to worry about how their shader component works." But for me, I do.

I don't know BioShock's process, for example, but I know that that team probably knows the Unreal Engine well enough to have written it. It probably was fine that they licensed it, but they had to go through a process of learning that engine all the way down.

Tearing it down.

AE: Tearing it down, yeah. At a certain point, you're like, "Well, you know what? We could have just built something ourselves." There's a fear of that; there shouldn't be.

I think that one of the major benefits that people talk about is the ability to instantly prototype gameplay and stuff. So, if you're going for that like single-player experience, then perhaps it's even more valuable.

AE: Actually, I learned that from [a Maxis talk on prototyping]. They showed all these prototypes they'd done on SimCity years ago.They have this actual structured process for prototyping -- it's four years ago, so I'm a bit hazy on their details -- they actually have this formal thing where if you want to put a feature in one of their games, you had to do a prototype.

You had one week to do it. You had certain constraints. Then you have to prove it out. And if you could get a one-week prototype to really get people really behind the idea, then you got a two-week window to kind of flesh it [out]. Their approach to prototyping was really inspirational to me back then.

I think that might have been related to Spore - I heard they were prototyping hundreds of concepts and ideas, and I can't imagine that even 25 percent of them made it in.

AE: Yeah. I'm going to use [Fallout 3 executive producer] Todd [Howard]'s line of, "We can do anything, but we can't do everything." My other favorite quote in that direction is "ideas are like assholes; everyone has one" sort of thing. The problem is picking which one you go for. We struggled with that, to be honest, internally.

You're right, about one in five ideas probably makes it into the game. And of those one in five, they've probably gone through three iterations, like you've decided on that one, then you've binned it twice. You've actually ended up making eight things, and one of them succeeds. It's a difficult sell.

Sometimes it just comes out the first time. That's epic. That's cool. That happens, too, and I like when that happens.

On the tech side, it seems to me like UK-based companies are sometimes more willing to write their own technology. In the U.S., there was a very [engine building]-based culture for a little while. 

AE: I think we're less good at engaging with universities. This is slightly tangential, but it's kind of related. The English game industry, I think, is kind of aging relatively rapidly. It's really interesting.

It's kind of evolved because new people are obviously coming in and new blood is coming in, but it's definitely a different model of evolution than in the States.

It feels like much more structured game programs exist over there. They exist in the UK in fledgling form, but the industry isn't helping universities.

I'm not actually critical of the universities at all. I don't think their courses are always relevant, and I don't necessarily think that it's their fault that they're not relevant yet.

I think the UK games industry needs to kind of embrace academia a bit more. And then, in terms of the tech-building thing, I think that one thing that European gaming studios are good at is there's a bit of breadth.

Like, you look at tech licensing studios, and a lot of them have come from the States, and a lot of them have come from the shooter genre. You can trace the lineage back through Quake. The Source engine is related to [the genre]. Even Epic and [Unreal Engine].

I haven't yet worked out why. Maybe it's the structure of it. You can build any game, you don't have to build a shooter with Unreal, but it has that lineage of a shooter. Whereas the UK industry has always been a bit more like, "Oh, let's do some racing games, let's do some of this." So we've been all over the shop. And with the possible exception of RenderWare, we haven't had the focus to make a really licensable technology. Maybe that's what it is.

Perhaps it came from such an active game modding community in the States, so people are already using these tools, so you can get feedback from that, and it doesn't take too much to build it into something that's more usable. Whereas, the UK is much more like a solo guy demo-scene [culture].

AE: Yeah. It's very refreshing, because it means you get two kinds of game that come out at the end of a pipe. We couldn't do a Metal Gear Solid where we're reinventing the wheel all the time. That would be insane. Nor a Gears. At the same time, if you want to do that solo guy, you can be like, "Well, there's some win here if I go with an engine that looks like a different take on bump mapping."

I had this real fixation, almost like a cheeky design, to tick off all the HD points, and almost apply it in the most childish way I possibly could. Like, "I'm gonna do normal mapping, bump mapping, specular mapping, depth of field, post processing, and all this stuff, and I'm going to do it really fucking as well as I can within my limits, and then I'm going to apply it in ways that are going to stand out not by the quality of what I'm doing, so much as the way I apply it." For me, that works really well.

Do you have an example there?

AE: Yeah, a lot of people said to us after the launch of the game, "Oh yeah, it has a real tactile feel. How did you achieve that?" I was like, "I've no idea, really. I can't point to a line of code, like that's the line of code that makes it tactile."

I have a feeling that if you applied a traditional engine to craft materials, you'd probably find that we've had an easier time with it than... But no one is applying those traditional techs to that scenario. So people see it as fresher than it really is. They're like, "Wow, you must have some secret sauce there." And I'm like, "Well, to be honest, no, I have talented artists... but it's no different than any other engine."

All of that stuff relates to something I was going to ask you. The development of the game sounded rather chaotic and not exactly very organized. I'm just wondering how can that keep going forward. Is that how the next product goes?

AE: We're learning from it. The difference is that we're not going from a blank slate now. I can't say how it will work out, but we'll do some things differently and we'll do some things the same.

The thing I want to do the same is that we had this regular clock ticking of actually producing stuff. It was very chaotic, but we had this notion -- very relatively like sprint or Agile, [but] we didn't know that's what we were doing -- but in a sense, it was like,"ship a lot."

You know, we were shipping a lot of stuff. We were showing to the press literally builds that were freshly baked the day before. We were showing new features as they went into the game. We want to keep that.

So, that chaos is like moderated by the idea that you're constantly showing, and therefore, you have to keep the quality at a certain level. You can't just go, "This will be fine in a couple months. I'm just going to fuck about and it'll be fine." You have to be like, "I have to show this to somebody next week, so I really need to put my money where my mouth is." We won't change that.

What's interesting right now is that we have all these different threads going on -- which is a new thing, different areas that are being developed. I'm really interested in taking the outputs of those threads and almost reshuffling them into products.

So, it's like rather than just doing one thing and building towards Blu-ray, you don't necessarily need to decide, "I'm building towards a Blu-ray." You instead decide, "I know what we've built, I know what I want to build, so let's just go ahead and do it."

And as we're building it, we then start seeing opportunities to go, "Right, let's pull this idea out and actually give it away to the community for free right now because that would really help." And we don't necessarily need to make a call on whether or not that happens that way, or whether or not it carries on and ends up in some future LBP2 or whatever. I really love the idea that we have these threads and we can make a late-breaking call on where they come out.

So, user-generated content is kind of going to be your M.O. going forward, you think?

AE: Definitely. We started the company and we called it "creative gaming" rather than [that]... As I said in the talk, there's a very broad church. We can actually pick a different bit of the spectrum.

So, it doesn't have to be LBP-style creativity. It could be musical, or it could be God knows what. I think there's definitely a fixation at Media Molecule around the idea of engaging players creatively.

There's the whole idea of expanding the market with that. Do you feel that being on PlayStation 3 is enough of a place to expand, because obviously the market is limited because it's a single console?

AE: I have absolutely no regrets in going single-platform. A lot of people say, "You've missed out on X million install base if you'd gone here or here or Wii or whatever." To be honest, yes.

However, it's the fact that Sony put us up on a pedestal that we were bigger fish in their kind of messy pond at the time. It meant that we wouldn't have succeeded as well without that nurturing.

So, going forward, the install base becomes an element of what you think about. What's cool is the install base is growing. The core gamers are sold already, they have their PS3. And so, it is Sony's challenge.

They've had all these, you know, SingStars and the EyeToy games. They've had their casual gaming audience on the PS2, and they have to translate that over to PS3 now. As they do that, I'll be very happy with that, because that's how I see PS3 growing. That's why I'm kind of comfortable with it for now... As soon as they drop their price, ho ho ho.


AE: I shouldn't say that, but it's true. I mean, you know...

It is.

AE: I can't wait.

So you think that it was a good thing that you were pumped up by Sony? I was sort of speculating that LittleBigPlanet was being made into a system seller, where in my mind, rather than a system seller, it's one of those things that keeps you coming back. It seemed more like a solid userbase retainer than it is a system mover.

AE: I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. There's a really simple appetizing line, which we cando now, which is LittleBigPlanet, the game with half a million levels. That has an obvious sell. And in that sense, that's all about retention, you can keep coming back.

But as they migrate their casual audience from PS2 onto PS3, LBP needs to be out there getting the first round of PS3 converts. I know where you're coming from, but I don't think they're actually mutually exclusive.

I mean, the hype was a double edged-sword, certainly; we were under a lot of pressure, but we used it to our advantage as much as we could, and that's cool.

And then you got a million AIAS awards.

AE: Yeah, that was bizarre, embarrassing. I would've voted for Fallout 3 on a bunch of those, so it was great.

And GTA4 as well. I look at those games, and they're just incredible. I think we deserve all the recognition -- I'm not all modest. I think LBP is the most proud I've ever been of anything I've ever done, so it's so amazing, and so amazing for the team, but what a year for games.

A guy called Moo -- who joined us and used to be at Insomniac --- I remember in his interview, he said, "All I want to do is work on game of the year. That's my mission." So, I should have dedicated the game of the year to Moo because in a way, that simplicity was really cool. I'm really proud that we've been able to tick that box for him.

Yeah, that's a very straightforward goal and also a pretty good thing to say in an interview if it implies that your game is game of the year, and I want to work on it.

AE: Well, yeah, Moo was like, "I want to make a game of the year." Like straight back at him, "Well, you know, brilliant. Opportunity for you to make it game of the the year." That's what I was trying to sell him. In fact, I was selling the whole small company to him to such an extent that he and a friend of his, also from Insomniac, were like, "You know what? You've sold it to me so well, maybe I should [start a] startup."

I was like, "Actually, don't do that, a startup's not that great. Just join us for a bit." It's funny, recruiting is the single hardest thing that there is, that you have to do as a developer, I discovered.

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