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Alex Evans - Part One

Media Molecule's co-founder on the hype around LittleBigPlanet, and how transparency has helped its relationship with Sony

One of the biggest releases for the PlayStation 3 this year is LittleBigPlanet, a title that's become almost as much of a buzzword in its own right as the user-generated content that it's championing.

Ahead of delivering a keynote speech with Mark Healey at this year's GDC Paris, co-founder of LBP's studio, Media Molecule, talks to about how the buzz around the game all started, and why transparency has helped build trust with publisher Sony. What will you be talking about at GDC Paris?
Alex Evans

Well, our relationship with the GDC family of conferences really started with the whole announcement of LittleBigPlanet (LBP) at GDC a couple of years ago in San Francisco.

So when Jamil Moledina asked if we'd like to do a talk, we leaped at the chance, especially because both Mark and I feel that there's this interesting timeline of user-generated content running throughout videogames, and the way we've chosen to do it with LBP is really fresh and new, but at the same time we're drawing on influences which you can trace back through different genres, like god games - we both had a background at Lionhead, and Bullfrog before that.

That's really what we wanted to talk about, that although LBP takes it to new levels -certainly our plan for it was to try and do something that was fun to create, rather than a modding experience - and although it's enabled by next-gen, you can trace it back to things like the Shoot-'em-up Construction Kit, and so on.

That's what we're really interested in, and it's been an influence on us. Is it nice to be firmly in the phase of evangelism about LBP in the run-up to release later in the year?
Alex Evans

Massively - in fact your question raises two points really. Firstly, we're in that phase of development now where there's a number on the wall, which is the number of bugs left, and that's a really exciting part of game development because you know you're improving the quality and the polish, turning the product into a really beautiful thing that people will enjoy using.

And in terms of the evangelism, it's interesting because normally there's a long phase at the beginning when everything is under wraps - but what Media Molecule decided to do effectively was have a much more open and transparent process with the publisher.

So we actually decided at the beginning of the company that we would evangelise and be very open about the processes we were going through with our prospective publisher - even before the company began we wanted it to be one of the defining features of the development process.

And that's what led to the initial announcement of LBP back at GDC - that was much earlier in the development process than normal, but actually it was really useful for us, because we'd been going through a process of discussion with them. We actually used to walk around the company with handheld video cameras, and send videos of literally of everything that was going on.

The reaction at GDC was such that we've been able to build on that initial reveal, and talk about more and more features, and one of the nice things for me is that at that early stage we weren't shown very much about the other features - but now when I talk about the game there are so many more elements that I can bring out and discuss. Do you think that's a much closer relationship than a developer might normally have with a publisher, first parties included? Do you think your transparency helped to infect the people at Sony with more enthusiasm?
Alex Evans

I can't say for how they work with other studios, but it's worked both ways, and we've had huge support. Sometimes you have to tell them things that aren't so good, like perhaps we tried a feature and it just didn't work. But it's built up a level of trust, and I think that's helped them to be excited about the title both internally, and it equips them better to evangelise about it - because obviously a company like Sony is very large, so the more we can reveal to them, the more they can help us across the different bits of Sony.

That's something that really helped the idea of LBP - we didn't know how to pitch it, we didn't have an elevator pitch when we first started, and until you get your head around it and try it, it's quite different. But what's been great is that transparency has helped to get across what could have been quite a difficult concept.

And it's the same with Media Molecule's relationship with the rest of the games industry - we were worried that LBP wouldn't come across, but we've been amazed that people do get the idea of what we call 'creative gaming' - user-generated content and the concept of Game 3.0 could be quite complicated and messy, but because it's coming out through a game that's helped to drive excitement. With everybody talking about LBP, does that put pressure on you?
Alex Evans

Oh, it's huge pressure, but there are two sides to that - on good days it drives you forward, but on bad days you just feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. I think, with a small team here, that everybody feels that pressure very directly - we obviously read the coverage of the game online, and so on.

But in terms of how hard it is to explain, we've always found it hard, and we still do, when we try and describe it in words, the abstract - and what we've found works is when you actually put something into somebody's hands, or they see an image or a video.

That's why we've used a lot of physical analogies - it's not "physics for physics' sake" - because it allows you to explain quite abstract concepts in ways that people can relate to the real world.

So when we're hearing the hype, the thing that excites me is being able to translate that into actual things that you see in the game - then show that back to somebody, and they can see that it's not just words, but that it's something that's enjoyable to play.

In other words, the game has to speak for itself. And when people offer congratulations, or say that Media Molecule is great or whatever, I try and remind myself that when the game has shipped, that's the best time to judge it.

I think it will be great - I'm so excited to see it come out, but I'm more excited to see what people will build with it, that's going to be the ultimate test. On the company's website there are 18 people listed on the team - is that up-to-date?
Alex Evans

[laughs] The only bit of the website we've updated recently is the blog. We're up to about 30 people now and obviously there are people within Sony that help us too. That's still a pretty small team for a key next-gen title isn't it? Most companies would flinch at less that 100.
Alex Evans

Well, all of us that began Media Molecule knew that we weren't experienced managers of large teams, and certainly the times that I've most enjoyed developing games it's been in teams of around that magical 30 mark.

One of the things that we really believe is that if you pick your battles - and that's a big "if" that I'll cover in a moment - then you can pick your team size to fit your game.

We couldn't make a gigantic content-heavy game, a Metal Gear Solid 4 or Grand Theft Auto IV, with 30 people in a realistic amount of time, but what you can do is pick other kinds of games that can be equally important, and triple-A, and polished.

We really consciously decided that we were going to pick 30 people, and if you like, that was choosing our strength from the beginning. We chose a single platform, we chose a publisher strategy, we chose 30 people. Once you've got that on the table, those are your ingredients, and you can think about what you can make with them to make the absolute most impact on the industry and make the best game we can. Did you have an inkling in the earlier days that the anticipation surrounding the game would make it one of the year's biggest releases?
Alex Evans

That's a good question, because a lot of people initially thought it was a PSN title, which has lots of connotations in the industry - and incorrectly so. For me, something like PlayStation Network is a brilliant delivery channel, and doesn't determine the size or scope of the game.

So it was an interesting process - right at the beginning we knew we wanted to make a completely ambitious triple-A title, but it was just that...ambition. We had no expectation that it would become so strongly associated as a lead title on a platform.

The reveal at GDC generated the level of excitement that helped us get to where we are now. It was always our ambition to make a big game, but we didn't know if we'd succeed. The transition has been in the perception of the game, rather than in what we set out to do. Expect the worst, but hope for the best?
Alex Evans

Exactly, and so far we've been amazed - there has been a lot of pressure, but obviously it's a good pressure to have.

Alex Evans is co-founder of Media Molecule. Part two of this interview will follow next week. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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