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Book Excerpt: Inside Game Design: Media Molecule

In this exclusive book excerpt, LittleBigPlanet developers Media Molecule discuss the formation of the company, the development advantages of a small team, and the fascinating evolution of game concepts from Rag Doll Kung Fu to LittleBigPlanet.

iain simons, Blogger

December 14, 2007

14 Min Read

[Below, Gamasutra presents a second excerpt from Iain Simons' recent book, Inside Game Design, courtesy of publishers Laurence King. Filled with interviews and graphics that illustrate exactly how top minds approach the design question, the book offers a look at everything from little-known indies to massive success stories, as with the interview we reproduce a portion of below: LittleBigPlanet developers Media Molecule.]

Media Molecule's Rag Doll Kung Fu feels like a working model of everything an "alternative" game should be. It's built around a core, high-concept gameplay idea, which wouldn't be entertained by a mainstream publisher. Its art style is esoteric but beautiful, paying careful reference to the world it draws on with a lovingly produced in-game Super-8 kung fu movie. It even features explicit drug use as a gameplay mechanic.

But it's important not to overlook that the whole enterprise is rendered with a care and precision that is rarely seen. It's not an exaggeration to say that you can palpably feel the love that went into the title when playing it. The small team that created Rag Doll obviously cares deeply about the experience the player has, and has made no compromise in making sure that it delivers its singular vision. It is intoxicating to be swept up in the joy the team felt in making it whilst playing it.

Perhaps more than any release in the last few years, Rag Doll Kung Fu really exposes the humanity in game design. The creators are there in the game, dressed up in kung fu gear, fighting each other in Guildford Park, especially for you. You get the rare feeling that you're playing something as it was intended to be.

I spoke with Mark Healey (Creative and Technical Art Director); Alex Evans (Technical Director); Kareem Ettouney (Art Director) and Cathy Campos (PR). The interview takes place in the company's demo room, just as soon as the tea has been made. All three Media Molecule leads participate enthusiastically despite nursing hangovers from the previous night's Christmas party. As we start, Mark and Alex lead, and Kareem is intently drawing in his notebook.

Mark Healey: Whenever we talk about anything around the studio, Kareem is always there sketching away.

Kareem Ettouney: It really helps. This industry is full of very intelligent, imaginative people, and unless you capture these ideas down really fast you end up having a really clever conversation, but that's all you have.

You were still at Lionhead [during the Rag Doll Kung Fu period], right? You have full-time day jobs?

MH: We were doing Rag Doll in the evenings and weekends after our day jobs. This was when Dave joined us on coding.

AE: Within Lionhead we were working on a project that was announced at the same GDC where Rag Doll was. We came back to this scenario where Lionhead were crunching on Black and White 2 and Fable, and we were getting on with Rag Doll at the same time. It was the worst possible combination of things, but it really cemented the relationship between all of us, which grew into Media Molecule.

Two programmers and two artists -- that dynamic and that communication really worked. It was a bit like living in a tent with your girlfriend. If you can survive that, you can survive anything, even moving in together. I worked on a lot of big projects, but you don't get the same team dynamic that you do on small things like this.

Mark Healey's experimental fighting/party game, Rag Doll Kung Fu

When most people describe crunch periods, they tend to be long, dark nights of the soul. This doesn't sound like that.

AE: Because it was literally four of us, it just had to work.

KE: Every one of us working on it had an angle that we were sharing because we were so close. Quite often in big projects these differing skills are all tucked away in different groups and they don't get cross-disciplinary input from each other. I think that's where the great work happens -- from the collaboration.

AE: I think there are a few studios trying to do that. There's one studio working on a large next-gen title that organizes its teams up into very small groups, and each one is very cross-discipline. So you'd have a concept artist and an animator and a programmer (or whatever is appropriate for that group) -- it preserves that intimacy.

KE: Any concept when it's first thought up just can't cover all of the possibilities, so that back and forth, that swapping of ideas, is a really important part of the process. The different skills need to be able to inspire and spark off each other.

Mark has an art idea, I might see some way in which I can add to that, it goes back to Mark, Alex sees it's going to have an impact on the frame rate and makes a suggestion, somebody makes that work, the level designer sees that and thinks he can use this new art to make a new bit of fun. You need that fast swapping of ideas.


Do you think that's really contingent on having not just a small team, but a team with a really good, close relationship?

AE: It's certainly hard to do on a large team. I think that's why you get so many breakaway studios. I think there's another point to make here, which is that it really is a lot of work. People might have seen our presentations and Mark might come across as quite chaotic, but he's actually the most methodical artist I've ever worked with. He gave himself a task week of renaming all of the art files. It's almost obsessive-compulsive.

MH: That just comes from the experience of working with lots of assets though -- knowing how to save time later on.

KE: It's almost a cliché to project that kind of crazy, chaotic image, and it always looks really cool -- but that's not what gets games made. The real genius is a very fine balance between keeping rules and breaking rules, otherwise you end up reinventing the wheel every day. It's important to make your history work for you. We try to use a lot of known techniques and build on them. Ironically, having those structures allows us to be more free in the areas where we want to be more experimental.

MH: When we finished Rag Doll, Lionhead was coming to the end of a natural stage after Fable, and we talked about the opportunities to build on what we'd done. Alex was really excited about branching out, and it was me who was very tempted to stay at Lionhead. I had a job, I got paid well, I knew what I was doing. So the choice was, do I stay in this great job and get paid well doing something I love, or do I start something up with this lot and get loads of stress?

KE: Clearly, you should do the second option.

MH: We talked through lots of ideas together, and finally Alex managed to convince me.

AE: It was very rapid. It was bizarre. We left Lionhead just before the Christmas party in December 2005. Then we were able to get a meeting with a publisher, Sony, which we hadn't really courted.

MH: We had the opportunity to meet Phil Harrison [head of development for Sony Worldwide Studios] -- fantastic.

AE: We thought this was a one-off opportunity we couldn't pass up. We had a few ideas, so we put together a pretty vague pitch, if we're honest. We pitched it in December 2005, and we had our funding in place by the end of January 2006. We incorporated in February. It was just insanely fast. We spent January painting the offices. Everything happened literally in the space of a month. Suddenly you're buying desks and PCs and starting a studio.

People ask us whether we went to lots of different publishers, and the honest answer is "no". We went to Sony, showed them this vague thing, and they just said "Awesome. Go." And even better than that, all the things we really wanted to do that we thought we'd tone down a little for the pitch because we thought they might be a little too weird, these were things he really picked up on, asking why we didn't do more of it. Traditionally, you don't pitch the weird stuff; you pitch the core idea as simply as you can -- so it was great that he picked up on that.

KE: I think one of the most crucial points to stress here is the chemistry of this team, the dynamics of the business. This studio couldn't exist without this huge investment in the relationship between the people in it. This is one of the big problems with the industry today -- you can only get that through time.

MH: It's analogous to a band really.

Media Molecule's current much-awaited project, LittleBigPlanet for PlayStation 3. 

AE: It can come quickly though -- our producer came over from Criterion, where she was working on Burnout, so she was used to working on a game a year, great games. We asked her to come over and help us on the structure side and she came along and instantly worked really well with all of us. We were used to working on these huge five-year projects where you basically kick back for the first three years and let it all sink in and experiment -- which is great if you have the time -- and she was used to this structured sequel process, so we are really getting the best of both worlds.

MH: There's definitely still some chaos. We've managed to preserve that.

KE: This is a great way of working, though. At Lionhead I was part of a central department that contributed to a lot of titles. You find that everything is separate for four years, and then in the last few months you start sticking things together. What we're trying to do isn't the opposite of that -- you can't think of everything up front; games are too complicated for that. There are things that you can learn only through the process of doing them. For example, in areas of designing a character, there are known schools of thought on how to do that. But when it comes to designing an experience, you have to try things out and experiment. Where we can use knowledge that exists, we do.


In terms of that pitch, and in view of what you've just expressed about games being such a complex hybrid set of skills, how do you begin to describe what it is that you want to make?

MH: We had a playable prototype that captured the essence of what we were trying to do.

AE: The interesting thing is that there almost was no 'before'. It wasn't playable in a polished way. Basically, Kareem would sit down and sketch while there was a conversation going on, and capture ideas.

Before you had the prototype, how did you know what you were going to make?

MH: I remember the first moment when we talked about this game, actually. We went to the cinema to see Howl's Moving Castle, and I was chatting with Dave and saying how it would be cool to have character controls -- a bit like Rag Doll, but on a console -- and we had a notion of how it would control.

AE: It was a combination of some very quick conversations, a few sketches and a quick playable demo where you could hold a PS2 pad, plug it into a PC and try it out. I wrote a program with Dave that allowed you to run through concept art, so you got the feeling of being in control of the game, you could feel the kind of inertia and sense the kind of art style.

KE: The great thing about this industry is that it makes people become more hybrid. Alex isn't just a coder; he's a great artist. Mark isn't just an artist; he's a coder -- that kind of hybrid practitioner working on something really helps to create a great hybrid product.

AE: One of the other things about the pitch process was that we were pitching ourselves partly, because we didn't have much to show at such short notice.

Mark's been in the industry for 15 years, I've been in it for ten, Kareem has enormous experience and brings in all these other skills. So the first half of the pitch was the story of Rag Doll, where we built up to showing the demo. An important thing to note is that we always use our own tools to show our work -- we never use PowerPoint. So you can literally have concept art side by side with data side by side with the actual character running around.

MH: I think that was one of the big things that impressed them; that we showed something actual we could make while pitching.

AE: One of the things Sony really liked about Rag Doll is that users were able to express themselves so easily. That was something they really wanted to preserve and develop. The other big question was, "how do we translate the mouse-driven physics of something like Rag Doll onto a controller?"

Conveniently, that was one of the things we were able to answer first, from Dave's prototype. If someone just asked that question and we showed them a piece of paper explaining it, it wouldn't really make sense. They asked the question, and seconds later we were able to hand them the controller to pass around and they were able to feel it. Obviously, it's a million miles away from anything you'd ever ship, but it allowed them to understand what we were aiming for.

Then when they asked what the visual style of the game is, the character was able to walk through the concept painting that Kareem had just done for us. Then, when the discussion was about feature-sets, in our case it's about online features, and although we couldn't plug the demo into the Internet, we could visually show what we were planning.

That's something we've always tried to do since -- make: a demo to that level -- which I haven't seen many other people do. We tend to commit early to prototypes rather than go into documents. The prototype is actually about proving the really simple and most important questions. Then we start trying to structure it.

MH: The interesting point for me is that how you present something is hugely important. We could have gone in with a Word document or something, but people don't want to have to imagine that much. Making something that's really slick and fun is really important. It's not enough to just have a great idea in your head and tell people "trust me! It's going to be cool!"

[Further Media Molecule-related info, including images from throughout the development of LittleBigPlanet, as well as other interviews and insight from Keita Takahashi, Michel Ancel, David Braben, and other creators, is available in Simons' book Inside Game Design.]

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About the Author(s)

iain simons


Iain Simons is a writer and creative consultant based in the UK. He writes about videogames, people and the culture they create together in exchange for English pounds. His work blog can be found at www.acko.co.uk.

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