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The Media Molecule Identity

In this extensive interview with four of its developers, Gamasutra gets to the heart of what makes Media Molecule tick -- its focus on craft, its carefully maintained studio size, and finds out how Tearaway came into focus.

At this year's Sony press conference at Gamescom, Media Molecule unveiled the game that is one of  PlayStation Vita's best hopes for the future -- Tearaway. It's a charming adventure set in a world of paper that you can interact with in every way the Vita will let you: sticks, buttons, rear touch, front touch, gyro, camera, and microphone.

It's also the studio's first new IP since LittleBigPlanet became a big hit and it was acquired by Sony. Gamasutra got a chance to sit down with lead designers Rex Crowle and David Smith, the company's creative director Mark Healey, and tech director Alex Evans, and discuss what makes the game, and the studio, tick.

You mentioned that this game came out of a game jam you held internally. You said you kind of lost your inspiration.

Alex Evans: Focus, I call it.

Focus -- is that the way to put it? So, can you talk a little bit about that, and also how that got the studio back into focus.

AE: I'll hand it back to Rex in a second, but if you want to go back to the pre-history of the project, it was really a case of we have some talented people, and we want to combine Rex, who's obviously capable of being a creative director, give him the reins of "Okay, we're a first party studio. Here's a PS Vita. What would you do?" And then combine that with experienced designers like Dave as well. They're both experienced, but they come from these different worlds.

So, we're doing this, and it was a Vita game from day one. And then we started building the tech, and the big world, and all this stuff. At some point, the emails started going round. "Should we do it on PS3 as well? Should we do a dual-platform title?"

The red flag for me was, "Should we do it on PS3?" It was a legitimate question. It was like, "Maybe this should be a PS3 game." It was like, "Hang on a second, if it can be done on the PS3 successfully, then it's no longer a Vita game."

So, the game jam was a week of down in tools, and the only remit was, "Rediscover the original concept that was in Rex's head," of Vita back touch, tactile, "How can we use this thing?" Since then, it's been a case of subtractive design, taking all those game jam ideas...

David Smith: I think one of the earlier, strong images that Rex really had for the game was this image of your finger tearing into a paper world, and just how that would look and feel, and what that might mean. That's sort of this thread we had from a very early point.

And really, at the point that Alex is describing, when we were going back to that root, and seeing what was important, we kind of expanded that out and thought, "Well, it's not just..."

AE: A finger, right? It's a whole...

DS: It's you.

Rex Crowle: It's a whole human.

DS: It's a whole human. It's not one finger, it's your fingers, and it's on the back, it's on the front, it's on the buttons, it's shaking the thing, it's shouting at it. Any way that you can interact with this world, and really thinking, "This is a world in your hands."

AE: So, yeah, it reignited around that original idea, and then remixed it. And game jams, we've done two now at Media Molecule. One was unconstrained, and it was actually the less successful game jam, in a sense. It was like everyone just play around for a week. The most successful game jam was the one that took place in the context of Tearaway, so it was like a game jam with constraints. And that was the one that just... I'd never seen so much cool shit appear in two weeks. It was one and a half weeks, wasn't it?

RC: Yeah. But then the really important stuff with the game jam was we have the context of, "It's a paper world."

AE: Right. The constraints were there. That was what was cool.

RC: Yeah, exactly. And the world, the material of paper, was chosen because that would be the most tactile material to build a world out of that you are holding, and feeling like you're not just kind of touching it, but you're really feeling it, and it's responding not only from the outside, but from Iota, the main character walking around and exploring. So, moving away from it just being an art style, and it's a totally realistic treatment of paper.

AE: It's a design commitment.

RC: Yeah, exactly. And it moves like paper, and it reacts like paper. And it can give you a really surprising kind of unfolding universe, or world, that you never really explored before. And then obviously, there's this character outside of the game holding this whole world, and you can have some pretty dramatic effects upon it.

AE: It leapt forward [from] the visual style of the game. Looking at the development of the game, it went from being this kind of, "Okay, it's a low poly look" sort of thing, and then realizing, actually, no, it's surprisingly high-poly, because to really capture the papery-ness of paper, a lot of it is in the movement. A lot of it is the way it bends and the way it flexes. A screenshot doesn't capture it. And so Mark has been coding up the paper-folding stuff. Like most of the assets...

Mark Healey: Not me Mark.

AE: The guys can actually model inside the game -- that is, now... they actually fold up the bits of paper, and create different shapes with it.


So, the tool that you made for the game -- let me get this straight -- is actually designed so that you manipulate paper.

AE: You actually fold. Yeah, yeah. For real. The first amazing one for me was the elephant. The lead artist at the time, Men Lu -- he's still an artist -- he laid out this flat piece of paper, and in the editor, you can place down these fold lines and start, piece by piece. And then you can animate them, and you can set triggers on them. And at that point, the paper was no longer a low poly art style. It was now this completely legitimate, completely honest thing.

And that's fed back into the game, in the sense that every asset, you can now get as a PDF. So as you play through the game, you unlock. You get sent a PDF of every asset, so you can print them out.

I love the idea that someone goes to your desk -- and I'm changing it each time I think of this -- it's like, "Where did you get the four-foot high dolphin papercraft thing?" It's like, “Yeah, that was in the really hard bit. You have to go down that path in the story."

MH: Most of the concept art is being made with paper.

RC: It's true.

MH: The office is filling up with all these paper things. It's not concept-on-paper anymore. The concept is paper, I suppose, and you actually make it and give it to the artist to make.

RC: Exactly.

MH: So there's an integrity in the art style.

All the models in the game? Are the environments are being modeled traditionally?

RC: No, everything is constructed that way.

AE: Everything is paper.

Is there a real version of everything in the game, like a real paper vision in the real world?

RC: Oh, yes.

AE: So, the announced level, we have a diorama. Our web designer... I haven't realized this until today, so I thought he was just a super genius, maybe he is, but he apparently was a closet papercraft nutter, and we didn't know this. He's built a diorama of the whole opening that you see in the trailer that's just been released, and photographed it. And the engine programmers are looking back at it and going, "Hm, yeah, we should tweak it like this." It really looks like a screenshot from the game. Yeah, everything is legit. The engine tech to do all of the folds and stuff is actually relatively hardcore. There's a lot of crazy math...

MH: Paper surface preservation algorithms, or something. [laughs]

AE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. I remember Mark going, he's got Mathematica up, "Alex, I've got the perfect curl equation that maintains the length as it unfolds and stuff." It's really nice.

What's the advantage of doing it that way, and does it change the process of even designing the game?

RC: I think it makes it a very cohesive process. Rather than thinking, "Oh well, we'll do this concept, and then we need to rebuild that concept in Max," and then we think, "Oh, does that look papery enough?" and then you rebuild it again in paper, you just work through it in one process. As we are building this rich world, we want to get on with building it, rather than doing lots of iterations of these characters and these creatures that you're meeting.

MH: It makes it believable as an art style, as well. That's why there's a common theme in the whole project, getting this world into that world via your godlike powers, and camera and things, and also bringing that world out into this one.

AE: Right, So on that point, I love the fact that subversively, we're going to teach all of the Vita gaming community about UV mapping. Because basically, there's this loop where you can print out, say, the elk on paper. You can color it in with your favorite Sharpie pens. And then if you use the camera feature in the game to reskin the elk, you can actually recapture it. You can just take your T-shirt and make a texture, but if you've carefully drawn the papercraft one, hopefully we can make it so that it maps perfectly onto the elk, and you can retexture the whole game. And that actually feeds into the game design, because then you feel more connected. You meet that elk two hours into the story, and it's like, "Yeah, dude, I drew you, so I'm gonna help you out."

MH: The story is about you getting this message from this other dimension delivered to you. So it all feeds into that basic storyline, of making these two worlds meet, I suppose.

AE: Real life and Vita life.

RC: The message that is inside Iota's head, then carrying it as the messenger. This message is totally unique, so that you're kind of taking the character all the way through on this huge adventure in order to find out what this message is at the end. And we'll be able to use all the stuff that's been going on to make sure that every player gets a really amazing surprise at the end of it.

MH: When he says unique, he means every person that plays the game gets a message that tailored to that person. It's going to be...

That's an interesting challenge. If you said the message is unique to every person, that's not hard to believe, but tailored to the person, that's a little bit more...

MH: Well, if they've been playing it for that long, there's a lot of information you can gather.

Where did the other idea -- of the Vita being the world and the interaction between the real world and the Vita world -- arise?

RC: Well, I think it's just building out from that initial thing, of just seeing that visual of yourself inside of the game world. Everyone has played games with front touch stuff, and it's cool. You're kind of sliding your finger around a bit. But I always feel distance from the world. I don't feel like I'm really in there, feeling it. I'm just sort of pawing at this like glass box, trying to get in. Whereas with the back touch, to really make it a lot more of a visceral experience -- that you are really blending these two worlds together. We're doing a lot of work to make sure that everyone's fingers feel like their fingers, customizing the skin colors and sizes.

Yeah, I was wondering about that.

MH: Yeah, you get to calibrate your finger.

RC: So Mark can play with glittery fingernails.

MH: Oh, yeah. [everyone laughs]

AE: Stefan's working on the skin shader right now. We have our top shader guy cranking on skin tones at the moment.


Why is the studio so obsessed with craft?

AE: It was the founding thing, wasn't it? It was like, "That's what we're gonna do." You have to have artificial constraints, in some way, to help you be creative, if that makes any sense. For me, anyway. I'm talking for myself.

MH: Making computer games is a craft. [Addressing Alex] I didn't listen to your conversation last night, "are games art?" or whatever. I'd definitely say making games is a craft.

AE: That came up. You and Gavin [Moore] aligned perfectly. The Puppeteer guy. He was basically channeling you.

MH: Was he?

AE: Yeah.

MH: Good on him. [laughs]

Yeah, that was an interesting conversation. What I liked about what he had to say, coming from Japan, where he's been for the last ten years -- Japan has a very strong tradition of craft, and craft isn't really, I don't think, viewed as a lower thing than art. Whereas people maybe, in the West, don't have the same attitude towards craft, or at least don't think of it in the same way.

MH: I've always had much more respect to craft than the term "art", because it's such a floaty thing.

DS: I don't think we're trying to intentionally make some big statement. We're just making something that we like. I think we're into making stuff, and that comes through in the game, but there's no high-minded principle behind us. It's just, we have all these energies flowing around in the company with what we want to make. And we do that.

AE: I think there are a few things that it means we know we can leverage. Like Rex and I were talking earlier today about how difficult it is to do a Vita game that stands out, because production values in all games -- Vita, PS3, Xbox, PC, and even iOS now -- the budgets are scaling up, the production values are scaling up, and I love the fact that Media Molecule can still have a brand thumbprint identity.

And even though Tearaway is a very different game from LBP -- it's not like hardcore UGC, it's not these things. It's intentionally a story-driven game, it's an adventure game. Still, we manage to, I hope, stand out visually.

Like, you see a screenshot of Tearaway, and you'll be like, "Tearaway". You won't go like, "Hm, that looks pretty realistic, and it's an amazing engine, but I'm not sure whether it's X game or Y game."

So we're kind of exploiting -- I was going to say "abusing" -- but no, exploiting these random arbitrary choices around craft, and they tie into all of our backgrounds. But it's kind of a handy hack.

MH: I think the short answer is, it is the result of the kind of people we have working at Media Molecule, really. Like look at Dave's desk. It's full of, I don't know the technical terms for it...

DS: Amigurumi, the Japanese form of crochet to make toys.

MH: Alex likes knitting, which is an old woman's thing for me, but that's fine. [everyone laughs] And we've got lots of people at work into music and instruments. Just all that. It's all that sort of bleeding into it, I suppose.

AE: And the old computer games. I hate to say it, but I am a coding geek. I loved the '80s micros that you switched on, and it was like 10 and you're off. 10 PRINT "Hello Mom", 20 GOTO 10. That was such a lovely, simplistic process. And I like the idea that even in Tearaway, which isn't heavily UGC, you can still do stuff that feels like you're changing the world.

RC: There's just very simple stuff -- even a three-year-old can cut out a little hat, glue it onto a character they've met and felt: "I've really made that squirrel's day by making him the cool hat that he wanted," and not getting kind of lost in a big process that they have to learn a lot of tools. All of these inputs don't really require any interface, because it just makes sense. It's like, these are the extensions of my fingertips, whether they're tearing into the world or whether you're cutting around.

AE: Right. This is where touch devices are really changing gaming in a very cool way. Like both Mark and I have got young kids, and from a terrifyingly young age, they learned touchscreens, and they know how to use a Vita, an iPhone, or whatever you want. And now, like my one and a half year old is trying to make the TV go. It's like, "Come on!"

As a result, I do think touchscreens are a really, really amazing way of just stripping away interface. Like Peter Molyneux was trying back in Black & White -- his big line in the press is "we're going to do a UI-less PC game." We did all right; there was some UI there. But if he'd had touch back then, Black & White would be an even cooler game. So, I think there's an element of the Vita giving opportunities that you just did not have on the PS3.


You're making an adventure game. You're not making an iOS game that costs 99 cents, so it's go to have some depth and complexity to it, but at the same time you want to keep it simplistic, tactile. Is that a real balance and a challenge?

RC: Yeah, totally.

MH: That's well-observed. It's completely on the ball. [laughs]

RC: The most important thing is to have a really great setting for all these features, so they don't feel like features, they feel cohesive -- so that you have got this world to explore, and you're not like, "Oh, now I have to do the minigame." They all have a purpose, and they all have been folded into the narrative.

We'll keep it focused where we need to keep it focused, so that the player has a challenge that they need to get past, and everyone gets that same experience, and they really feel like they beat it. But then there are areas where they are more free to find some extra characters that other people have maybe not seen, and help them out, and find some creatures, some craft plans, that no one else did, and really dig a little bit deeper into the surface.

MH: It is definitely a challenge, though, to get that balance right, I think. It's always a challenge making a game, anyway. We are hiring, by the way. [Everyone laughs] We want some people to come and help us finish it.

That's an important point. It has to have depth in there. It's not just a frivolous few gimmicks that we'll get bored of after 10 minutes. Hopefully, it will be something that you can get really engrossed in.

AE: One really positive thing, looking at the levels and the motifs that are coming out, is you know you're onto a good thing when you see a feature that we've shown you, like back touch, whatever. But then you see it reused, and evolved, and iterated, and tweaked. So that you know that in the game, as you play through the story, that's got this depth to it, you haven't seen it all on moment one.

Like you see the drum skin, and you're like, "Yeah, yeah, I know about drum skin now." And then like an hour into the game, you'll see it used in some different way. And you're like, "Oh, okay, cool," and you have to reassess. That's what I love when you play those kinds of longer form experiences. It's about shaping your journey so that you have just enough.

DS: And I think as a player, you learn to understand the world, and that really feels rewarded. You learn these tricks about how to manipulate the world, and then a new thing gets added, and you really feel like you're becoming more empowered.

AE: It's like a novelty drip feed that's constantly making you reassess the stuff you already know. "Okay, now I can do A. Now I can do B. And that means I can do A plus B and A times B."

MH: A simple example of that would be the finger mechanic example. Part of what's cool about that, from a really sort of superficial point of view, is that it looks like I'm poking my fingers through the screen. But some sort of subtleties of that might not be obvious from the start.

If the camera is more zoomed in, if you're going to keep your finger the same size, that means your finger is suddenly a lot smaller in the world. You zoom the camera right out, and you put your finger through. Suddenly, your finger is the size of a mountain. There's a lot of wiggle room there for different puzzles and things. I think all of the features we carefully chose, they've got milkability.

AE: Milkability. There you go.

DS: And the key thing is they build on the core mechanic, that you're controlling Iota. You're running and jumping through this environment, and these things are adding onto that. You're not switching away into a different game. These things can add on, and can even be affixed together.

AE: Okay -- here we go. "Additive milkability". [everyone laughs]

DS: Oh. That needs trademarking.

Can you talk about the team?

AE: The team at the moment on Tearaway is 15 or 20 people.

DS: Yeah, 15.

AE: And it's growing. You know, it's coming out next year. That's why we're hiring.

That's not a lot of people.

AE: Yeah. That's how we like to do it at Media Molecule. I think the whole studio is like 40 now. We're still pretty small.

Why?

AE: Why small?

Yeah.

MH: Agility, for example. It means you can afford to take more risks. It's like the difference steering a speedboat and steering a supertanker, basically. That's one big reason.

AE: I enjoy it more. I've always loved teams up to about... On a particular project, beyond 20, it just changes. Not necessarily for worse, it just changes. My personal enjoyment comes below 20. So, in a way, it's a personal preference.

MH: I think I've worked across the whole range, from on my own in a bedroom to working in a team of 200 people. I've experienced the whole range, there. It’s not always the case, I guess, but in my experience, when you get to that large a team, you kind of become such small cogs in a big machine.

They tend to care less about the whole thing that they're making. They might be really focused on making the best tree that they can possibly make, but they tend to not see the bigger picture, or even care about it.

So, we have a smaller team. And we encourage everyone to be really holistic in everything they do. It's a bit more intense, maybe, but I think we get a bit more love put into the game than a lot of games normally get. That's the intention, anyway. And through the experience, the sweet spot was always a team of like 20, 30 people, maybe.

AE: 20... 30 in the end, 20 in the middle.

MH: Once you go beyond that, you start to have managers to manage the managers, and all this kind of stuff, and it just starts to get out of hand.

AE: The voice of dissent in that, which is interesting, is a friend of mine who works at a large publisher that I won't mention. He's an engine programmer, and he said he absolutely adored the fact that there were 200-plus artists using his tech at any given time. So I can totally see the appeal for certain kinds of people of being in a massive studio with this production, and you do these huge...

MH: Certain types of games need it, really.

AE: Yeah, it's the only way to make it.

MH: I don't really want to be in that world.

AE: Too hard.


This is just me, but it seems there would be some sort of disconnect between handcrafted, personal games that are about personal interactions, and 200 people working on them.

AE: Yeah. It's hard to do.

MH: I don't know. Some of the blockbuster games that come out, I'm happy they get made because they are...

AE: Amazing pieces of entertainment.

MH: ... quite phenomenal things to experience, to show off, whatever. They do need armies of people making all these assets. But it's a very particular type of...

AE: It is less personal. But that said, and I mentioned this on the panel, it's surprising how much overlap there is, like how much I personally feel like I can learn from, say, Naughty Dog.

In the sense that, yeah, it's a different process, and they're playing in a production league that I would never dream of at Media Molecule, at least -- but that said, the process is still coders, and artists, and hard design decisions, and people putting their neck on the block.

You talk to the Naughty Dog guys, as I'm sure you have. They are completely passionate, and completely taking risks, and completely doing their stuff. And so, in that sense, it's completely the same -- and yet completely different.

This is something I've learned. I've always talked about small teams, small teams, small teams. That message has been banging around. Lots of teams have said it for years and years and years.

And there's this kind of, not, humility... There's a moment when I was meeting these bigger teams. We became partners with the Sony family, and us meeting like Naughty Dog and Guerilla and these guys, I was like, "Oh, holy crap. You're going through the same shit that we're going through, just on a slightly more epic scale."

But, yeah, it was cool to realize that, yeah, it's the same risk-takers. The designer on Killzone really, really cares about whether or not this level is going to be amazingly balanced or not.

It is hard to do both. Horses for courses, you know.

MH: It seems to be much rarer that you'd get a massive team coming up with some completely new, fresh, off-the-wall kind of idea.

AE: It's less personal.

Well, the economics...

AE: The economics are different, right.

...don't work, right?

MH: Exactly.

AE: Yeah. And this is what the iOS world is learning. It's useful for us, because they're all competing with each other, and realizing that they can't actually compete with each other at 99 cents anymore, so they're going to just have to up the price. They raced to the bottom too fast.

There's space for both. Dave was like, "You can have this, and you can have that." Free-to-play can coexist with pre-pay. Pre-pay can coexist with Kickstarter-funded games, can coexist with published games.

MH: We always used to compare ourselves to a band, actually. Like, you can imagine a small band, like three people, having a jam, can't you? You can't just go to an orchestra and just say "Let's jam." It'd be fucking chaos.

AE: But they're both legitimate music forms.

DS: If you want an orchestra, you need an orchestra.

MH: Yeah, exactly. So it's quite good an analogy, I think.

You mentioned earlier that a lot of stuff came out of the game jam. You also discussed subtracting ideas. I'm curious about that process.

DS: I think that's perhaps the most agonizing part of the process, because it's a very creative act to remove things. In some ways, adding things can be the easy option. Everybody likes new ideas. But knowing which to remove... I think you talk to anyone that makes games, and this is the common basis of anguish and pain.

MH: It's focusing, isn't it? It's another way of saying it: it's focusing.

DS: I think it's being clear on what the game is that you want to make, and making that game. There's a danger of trying to make a few games, and we want to make sure that it's... No.

AE: The process -- I can't speak for the Tearaway process, but certainly on LBP -- there were a couple of features that I loved, and birthed, and felt passionate about, that were subtracted. There's a moment where you have to go through a kind of ego giving up release.

The one I always think of is like, LBP originally was meant to be bent along a spline, so we could have full 3D backgrounds. The one that was always in my head was the oak tree... What was that old Amiga game where you were on a frog, and you were going around a tower?

MH: That was a C64 game. Nebulus.

AE: Nebulus, right. So, I had this vision of LBP -- it should be such that you can build your 2.5D level around an oak tree that's a beautifully modeled 3D tree. So I put in the ribbon, it was called, right at the start of the game. I believed in this feture, and it fucked the code up really badly, and you had all this extra maths for like two different spaces, and one of them was a curved space, which just makes everything twice as hard.

The reason it was subtracted, and the reason why I knew it was the right thing to subtract, is that the designers never, ever, ever used it ever. So it didn't make the game better. For me, that was the classic subtraction. This is adding nothing, from the game end user's point of view. This is just Alex's pet thing.

Taking that away was personally very hard, but there was a very obvious quantitative way of looking at it and going, "This is just not cool, so, let's just take it away." And then I took it, and the code got easier, and the bug count came down.

DS: And there's a strange relief that comes after that. It's like when you go to the dentist. If you know there's a problem, you need to go to the dentist, and then you go, and you feel so good after it.

MH: I think literally the process ends up being that you have an idea for a particular feature, implement it in some form, and then designers or whoever will just try and milk entertainment out of it, really. If they fail, it's lost its right to be there.

AE: And this is where direction comes from. A really good game director will lead a team -- ones who are able to say, "I know this sounds risky, but we're not going down that path. We're going down this path."

It's a moment when someone has to stick their neck out and go, "I'm playing my joker right now. You may not believe me, but this is the way we're going." And there's been a few cases where we've had to do that. Like someone said, "I know this is cool, but we're not going to make this cool thing." And every time we've had to do that, it hurts, and then it's better. Every time. Without exception.

Another example in LBP was layers. The three layers in the game, they're artificial. The engine has no limitation of three layers. It's completely analog, and it goes all the way back. In fact, hardcore players have found hacks to use it, because the engine can completely support it.

But we added this subtractive feature of quantizing stuff of three layers, and not allowing people to go beyond that, and t

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