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Develop: Media Molecule On The Power Of Constraints

At the Develop Conference in the UK, Media Molecule's Alex Evans has been giving a 'semi-post mortem' of LittleBigPlanet for PlayStation 3, even within its completion crunch, suggesting that "arbitrary constraints" are the key to making both great

July 31, 2008

4 Min Read

Author: by Simon Parkin, Staff

At the Develop Conference in the UK, Media Molecule's Alex Evans has been giving a 'semi-post mortem' of LittleBigPlanet for PlayStation 3, even within its completion crunch, suggesting that "arbitrary constraints" are the key to making great games in today's market. Starting out, Evans - who formed Media Molecule along Mark Healey and other Lionhead veterans, quipped: "We’re currently in the middle of LittleBigPlanet crunch, and we seem to be remaking all of the mistakes that Bullfrog and Lionhead made all of those years ago!" Explaining further, the creator and demo-scene veteran started out by noting: "Media Molecule is a very small team because we aren’t very experienced or particularly good managers. As I look back, almost everything that’s gone right on LBP has done so because we put an arbitrary restraint onto the size of our team." Evans suggested that, as game systems and their power and potential has risen and risen - that arbitrary constraints, "those borders with almost no logical reason", are the future for making great games. LittleBigPlanet is one take on user-generated content, and according to the coder, "...this principle of constraint also applies to our implementation of that. We’re trained as game developers to cheat and lie and fake everything." How so? Well, game development is essentially "...cheating, lying and faking things so that people have a good time." And when you put the development tools in the user’s hands, every constraint you can give to the user without them feeling constrained will ensure a better experience for the users. Evans notes: "This is because constraints are useful not because the users are necessarily not talented or experienced, but because they focus." So, in fact, arbitrary constraints help the quality of the content to go up - and constraints are important to getting the highest quality of content not only in games, but in most forms of media. Elaborating, the Media Molecule co-founder notes that back at the start of the video game industry, there were a number of constraints - and each new generation sees polygonal, color-based or connectivity-centered constraints go away. But against this backdrop of these changing constraints, "the teams behind them haven’t really changed... questions of how to manage creativity have remained constant." Evans particularly stressed: "Fun hasn’t changed. I don’t want to belittle the current hardware but all that’s changed are the parameters in which we can create." Clearly, not everything has gone completely right in development of LittleBigPlanet. What issues did the team run into? Evans focused on the fact that a huge amount of effort in game development is expended in what he would describe as "the ‘wrong place’." It could be, for example, the glue between two bits of code. The value for the player is in the AI or graphics, not in the glue that brings them together. Evans elaborated: "When I look back at the games I’ve made I find that if I don’t have a clear set of constraints, building the glue before you know what the two things you’re putting together ca be a huge problem. If you don’t know what’s necessary for the user we waste so much time creating things that we don’t need and have a fuzzy purpose." So it's clear that the amount of freedom given to the user in LittleBigPlanet has at once been a massive win but a massive issue to the people creating the game. The solution? "The best way is to give players a tiny, simple tool that can be used in a complex ways - rather than a set of complex tools which lead to confusion and inelegance." Further to that, Evans noted that the team decided to switch LBP to what is essentially 2D gameplay in a 3D world. He noted: "This seems like a mad decision when understanding what we can do. It seems like a counterintuitive process but, by experience, removing features seems to increase the quality of the game." The Media Molecule concluded of the struggle towards completion on LittleBigPlanet, which will debut on PlayStation 3 later this year: "Sometimes you’ll reach an impasse on the game: there are too many options and they all have their own merits. Often what’s important isn’t so much to make a good design decision so much as just making a decision."

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