LittleBigAmbition - Part Two
Media Molecule co-founder on LBP's community plans and the game's cultural flexibility
In part one of the GamesIndustry.biz interview with Media Molecule co-founder Alex Evans, he talked about the pressure of LittleBigPlanet becoming a new industry buzzword, and how the game plays to the strengths of the PlayStation 3 hardware.
Here in part two he talks about the game's cultural flexibility, and outlines some of the title's more social functionality that's particularly aimed at the community.
Q: How do feel PlayStation Network is evolving to meet your needs? Obviously Microsoft has worked hard on getting Xbox Live ahead of the curve in terms of console connectivity, but now Sony's got a comprehensive service of its own.
Alex Evans: I can't comment on Live, because I've never programmed for it. I've used it as a gamer, and both PSN and Xbox Live have their strengths and weaknesses, and Microsoft has a reputation that precedes it.
But I think for us, the thing about PSN is that two years ago it was still a book that was being written, so we felt very able to experiment and I think that's a great strength. The other important thing for PlayStation Network is that it's free, and I think that the LBP community is going to be so vital to the game.
YouTube has a tag line: "Broadcast Yourself" - the majority of people who actually use YouTube are just watching it, and with LBP a lot of people get hooked on creating because it is a really cool part of the game. But I have a feeling that a large majority of people will just play the levels and rate them - rank them - helping you to find the most popular stuff. And those guys need to be as numerous as possible, so the fact that PSN is free to everyone means that we can hopefully get really good sign-up rates, really good online penetration.
I look at LBP as more of a service than a game. So there's a Blu-ray that you buy, but then you're hooking in - you expect email to improve over time, and it does. But games have a stigma about them, don't they? Except for MMOs - you don't mind getting a new client and having new worlds added, and I think that's another thing where PSN - it's not really a technical thing, more of a vibe thing for me - but PSN feels open and it will expand.
I can't comment on Xbox Live at all, but on PSN it felt to us as if we could fit within it and it would grow as well.
Q: Have you had any influence on the way that PSN has developed - has Sony consulted you about it at all?
Alex Evans: There's a whole consultative thing going on within Sony with all their first party studios... second party studios... I never know quite what to call ourselves.
But yes, they consult us a lot, although I can't say if there's direct influence, For example, the cross-media bar - I'm not sure I can say "That was me" - but they certainly listen to the game developers. Actually more than I expected. This is my first company, my first relationship with a publisher where I was on the front line, and I've been really pleasantly surprised. I don't know if it's just Sony, but in my experience they've been very open. They have all sorts of discussions, and I presume they do with other developers as well, about what's going right and wrong. It's cool.
Q: Sitting in the E3 press conference, when you were going through LBP, the game felt very British. Do you think the game has a kind of cultural identity?
Alex Evans: I think that's a good question. We set out for LBP to have an identity in how it looks and feels. When we were designing it Karim - the art director - was losing sleep and hair on the subject of letting people have their own imprint.
So if you're making a level on LBP and you're a Goth, or whatever, you want your imprint on it. But we, as the developers, want the game to be instantly recognisable, so how do you marry those two points together?
So we came up with this art style that he calls "collage" and it has a certain hand-made aesthetic to it, which I think appeals to a lot of people. So I think what you're getting at there is that we really did try and put a strong flavour on it - it's not a blank, neutral slate. It's like a fun little environment for you to build and express yourself in - you can still be the Goth.
I think Jack Tretton could have built a Jack Tretton level, and run us through it.
Q: But because you built the level, it had a British vibe to it?
Alex Evans: Yes, and I think Sackboy has an identifiable style as well. But I think it's interesting, because the biggest compliment we've had so far during development is that when we showed the game at Tokyo Game Show, the feedback - they did little focus tests, asking people what they thought of the game - they thought it was developed by a Japanese developer. That's a huge compliment over there, because Western-developed games don't typically sell as well, so I'm watching the bottom line and hoping we'll sell more copies... [laughs]
But what's nice is that the disarming style obviously translates, and I think it appeals to different people. If they see it as British, that's fine by me, as long as they don't see a stamp that they find intimidating. It definitely has a flavour - it's not your Margherita pizza... it's got a few bits of pepperoni on there as well.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your plans for the community side of the game.
Alex Evans: Well, you can go online obviously, you can find levels and you can search. We tried to take inspiration from millions of websites. My current favourite that I use all the time is Last.fm. But the thing is taking all of those ideas and turning them into a console experience.
[Media Molecule co-founder] Mark Healey is really useful there - I don't know if he's playing the fool, or is just a fool, but we have this tagging system in that's really cool... except he kept saying he didn't understand, he didn't know what tagging was, so he wasn't going to do it because he didn't see the point.
But he was really useful, because basically he took these ideas I knew from the web and tried to turn them into console things. Like if you just mash X, we think you should go somewhere interesting - that doesn't apply to the web, but it does apply to consoles. So we've got the standard webby features, and my favourite one is the photos in the game - you can take screenshots, but as with everything in the game it's physical, so you can frame a shot, take it, then you can stick it.
But then you can upload it as well, and we use it in a variety of places, so every level has a feed of photos. Say you design a GamesIndustry.biz level - anyone who goes in that level and takes a photo, that photo will go on the feed. Anybody searching for that level will see the feed and be able to judge if it's a good level.
But it gets even cooler, because that feed also applies to people, so it's a bit like somebody's subscription channel on YouTube. Creators are just as important as levels, so as a creator we have world rankings of who's the coolest creator, or who's the coolest community-minded commenter or sharer.
So you can be a little bit competitive if you want to be, and you'll have feeds of photos of you - levels that you've been in, photos people have taken of you. Then we take it even further, like Facebook. In any photos we know what kind of Sackboys were in it, who they were logged in as, so we put a box around their face which you can click and go and see that person. So if there's a cool level with a guy wearing an awesome costume, you just D-pad up to him and hit X, and now you can see his levels, his favourites.
My favourite features are how you navigate around in a social way - so rather than just being a type-in text bar, which you can do but is a bit clunky, it's much more that you play a level, it will find more recommended levels like that, then you see a cool guy, click on him... it's that kind of jumping around. That's the most obviously different feature set.
The nicest bit about the online side is that we treat it as a service, so if we can iterate. I love the way that people abuse - in the good sense of the word - features, that the community will find and start building up around, and we want to support that. We'll add features to the community side that are specifically for the community.
Q: And will it be possible for users to monetise their content?
Alex Evans: I didn't answer that question at GDC Paris, and I probably can't answer it now. David Reeves gave an interview which caused a bit of a kerfuffle, but thankfully he followed up on it. His point, which I can confirm, is that LBP can do X, Y or Z - and that's where it was misinterpreted, that we will do X, Y or Z.
There's so much that could be - we could do auctions, or competitions, there are so many ways that people could monetise their content, and I'd love to reward creatives. As a game designer you're constantly thinking about how you can reward people - even when they're playing a game. How do you make a high score table awesome, how do you make it feel great to collect the fiftieth item? Games are all about reward, we're like dogs being given cookies when we play games.
Q: Which is why Xbox Live achievements work so well?
Alex Evans: Exactly, and PSN trophies, and so on. If we can find a way to make money a genuine reward, then I'm all over it, because I think it will make the game better. It's just funny that a small number of people misinterpreted it as a stick rather than a carrot.
So if we can find ways to incentivise people to make fantastic levels, we'll do it.
Q: But it won't be a barrier to entry?
Alex Evans: It can't be, the last thing we want to do is piss anybody off, or reduce the size of the community.
Q: And there's an element that you'll need to wait and see how the community reacts to the game first, before you can put a system in place?
Alex Evans: Yes, so we're investigating all sorts of different routes, not just commercial routes. We're investigating, as with any developer, where we take this next, and we've got these ideas bubbling away, but which one we throw the most weight behind? I don't want to answer yet.
Alex Evans is co-founder of Media Molecule. Interview by Phil Elliott.