Profile: Media Molecule

A radical approach to user-creativity andinnovative working methods have madegame developer Media Molecule a major player. Iain Simons investigates the philosophy of the team behind Little Big Planet and Sackboy

It was the first keynote speech of the 2007 International Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Phil Harrison, who was then head of worldwide studios for Sony Playstation, introduced the buzz-phrase ‘Game 3.0’ to a room heaving with thousands of sceptical developers. It was going to be about user-creativity, he claimed. Rather than simply selling content to players, Game 3.0 was concerned with allowing them to play, create and share – transferring the sociality of Web 2.0 to videogames.

Many in the audience sighed. User-generated content was nothing new. Harrison then introduced Alex Evans and Mark Healey, co-founders of a Guildford start-up called Media Molecule, on to the stage to demonstrate their new project.

Healey and Evans showed fabric dolls gambolling around a beautifully rendered world, apparently constructed entirely of cardboard, sponge and childhood handicraft materials. It was an eccentric platform game that enabled players to make their own levels and share them with each other over the Internet – not so much a game, more a richly creative tool. The audience in the room, and subsequently on the Internet, fell in love. Twenty minutes later, Sackboy was famous and Little Big Planet was the most anticipated game in the world.

Two years later, Little Big Planet has been shipped to universal acclaim, Media Molecule has just scooped its first Bafta (for best artistic achievement) and Sackboy has proved a branding department’s dream. So, given the scale of its success, it’s surprising that Media Molecule isn’t even bigger. This flagship title was made by 30 people in a studio above a bathroom showroom in Guildford.

The studio was founded following the success of Healey’s Rag Doll Kung Fu, which was released to cult acclaim in 2005. Working in his spare time with colleagues while still at Peter Molyneux’s Lionhead Studios, he fashioned a psychedelic fighting game which wore its indie credentials on its sleeve. Media Molecule was formed to take that attitude further, making games that drew influences from music, art and architecture rather than just other games. It’s no accident that the word ‘games’ isn’t in the title of the company.

The internal structure of the studio has been designed to enable a tangible sense of collaboration among its employees. The 30-strong team works in groups of ‘molecules’, each populated by individuals with differing specialisms and focused on a specific aspect of the game. Evans explains, ‘It’s kind of a reaction to the English school system, where you have an arts side and you have a science side and never the twain shall meet. Rather than do that, we divide our teams up by features that a consumer might enjoy.’ In practice, this means that character animation – which traditionally would have been handled by the art department, with live physics being created by separate programmers – is now combined into a single molecule called ‘character’. Evans has found that this immediately creates a sense of reward and ownership in the studio’s working culture. ‘Rather than say “I programmed the animation system”, our people can say “I made Sackboy”, which is a much more powerful idea,’ he adds. The molecules tend to be around three- or four-strong and bring about a rich overlapping of specialisms. This gives a real fluidity to the development process, enabling a rapid building cycle – and discard process – of new features.

The future for Media Molecule, enabled by the ongoing process of downloadable updates, is utterly fluid. The game becomes an evolving project, a living organism which can respond to the needs of its players and be open about the resources the studio has. Engaging them in the development is something Evans sees as essential. ‘I would love to get to the place where Little Big Planet is evolving and growing within the community,’ he says. ‘Being able to share our limitations and let the community choose the battles which best serve them. That’s good for the longevity of Little Big Planet and Media Molecule’.

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