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Alex Evans - Part Two

Media Molecule co-founder on the influence of Phil Harrison, user-generated content, and how to coax creativity out of people

Following part one of the interview with Media Molecule co-founder Alex Evans in the build-up to GDC Paris, here he talks about the influence of Phil Harrison on the game's development, the importance of user-generated content, and how LittleBigPlanet can coax creativity out of people. One of the early champions of LittleBigPlanet (LBP) was Phil Harrison, who isn't a bad ally to have - what sort of influence and impact did he have on you when you were trying to get the message out?
Alex Evans

He, as part of Sony, his influence at the very early stages was completely key and pivotal, and I can't stress that enough. It sounds like boot-licking, but I can give you a few concrete examples of how he helped to shape the game.

Obviously that then transitioned into Sony, and especially the team at Liverpool, and Michael Denny - I don't want to downplay their roles as well. But certainly with Phil, at the very beginning, the amazing thing was that he got it.

When we were trying to describe the game in words, we were really struggling, because we had nothing to show at that moment - we'd talk about this game we wanted to do with user-generated content, with connected platforming, all this creativity. We didn't expect a publisher to really get it, let alone champion it.

But the interesting thing with Phil was that when we pitched to him, we actually played down what became the Game 3.0 things that he talked about. We pitched much more of a platform game, the physics and so on, and he was very instrumental in telling us to think about what it would mean to have user-generated content - to think about what that means for the community.

So he pushed us, correctly, towards what we most wanted to do, but he had this great clarity and perspective. I think that was his influence on the game early on, and I think it was hugely useful to have that degree of focus in the right place, and the right time. Shuhei Yoshida mentioned Phil's evangelistic strength - if you give him something as tactile as LBP, he's a great person to go and champion it further?
Alex Evans

Absolutely, and as I understand it, it was largely his decision to put it up there - to such an extent, at least - at that initial GDC. It was a crucial role. I don't know Shuhei as well, but I met him after that demo in San Francisco, and what I loved about him was that he had a similar degree of perspective, but took it more from a game developer point of view. I think that evangelist side of Phil was pivotal in the early days and that's what really got us out there - and now we have the opportunity to deliver on what we've been talking about, which is quite cool. Do you think anything has changed with Phil's departure, from your perspective?
Alex Evans

So far not that much, but I think our perspective into Sony is a very narrow one. We're obviously solely focused on shipping this game, and Sony as a whole is behind it. I think the interesting thing is that even though Phil has left, the idea of Worldwide Studios carries through, and I think from my external perspective, a lot of the good initiatives that I saw beginning over the last few years will carry on.

Michael [Denny] has been a huge part of LBP and his team at Sony Liverpool have been effectively the people to whom we've been the most transparent - they're who we'd send the videos to, and so on.

So I think what's really interesting, and obviously I don't know the internal structure of how Sony is set up, but I think there will be continuation in the good patterns that were set up, and I hope they will carry on. Certainly they've supported us previously, and they've carried on, so from my perspective it's been largely positive. With user-gen content, it's a move away from the top-down developer-led narrative that's traditionally dominated. In the wider media perspective we're seeing a move away from things like set-in-stone TV schedules with solutions such as Sky Plus, and it's trickling into games as well - a lot of people would say that LBP is moving that transition on a step or two within the games industry?
Alex Evans

Absolutely - but I think in the same way with media and blogging, that doesn't remove the need for edited, traditional media, it stands alongside it. And when you have the language of blogging, you can retrospectively go back and look to see user-generated of that form far pre-dating blogging.

To unpack that a little bit in terms of games, I think LBP really progresses the power of putting tools into people's hands - but it's such a broad feel. Even the character customisation in LBP, some people will consider user-generated, and it is legitimate user-created content. At Media Molecule we call it creative gaming.

But interestingly you can then look at that, see it in the light of LBP, which is sort of driving that area forward, then look back retrospectively and see elements of user-created content throughout gaming historically, ranging from modding, to character tools, to sandbox games - but I think there's a huge field of different ways of approaching user-generated content.

Some of those ways are in-game, and are the sort of sandbox games. Others are the fact that these days, with the internet, game creators are far more easily able to respond to their fan bases - they're able to release titles but take influence from mash-up games, which take characters from different franchises. Or you see game companies absolutely designing their games to respond to the needs and desires of the community - it's always been going on, but now it's much more obvious and prevalent.

There's that feeling that there are some titles that make it really obvious, that give it that front line seat, but then you can see there are seats all over the place. We've had a lot of game designers tell us they're interested to see what LBP does, so that they can learn from it - and that's really the biggest compliment ever. But it doesn't worry me because there are so many options for what user-created content can be, that LBP is ambitious, but very specific in the range of what could be.

LBP for me is like a garden, so there's an opportunity for people to see it, re-evaluate games design, re-evaluate how they see other games. But at the same time we're putting a whole load of developer content into the game, and I think it sits alongside the user-created content really well - so it's not an all-or-nothing proposition. I think there could be traditional gameplay experiences woven into user-created ones in really interesting ways. Where the interaction is, that will be different for each title, but with LBP it's very broad - we've purposely tried to put as many ties as possible between the developer and user content, and the more people can do that, the more inspirational games will become. Do you hope that LBP will give even those people who don't consider themselves create the right tools to create something?
Alex Evans

Yes, definitely. We've worked really hard to make sure that it's a fun experience, so it's almost like you don't know you're being creative. With some creative programs, like a movie editor or Photoshop, or whatever, you're confronted with a blank screen and a grey box - and it's the 'blank piece of paper' syndrome.

We really wanted to mutate that into a game experience, something that's fun, so that even if you don't consider yourself creative - but you've just spent three or four hours playing on your console, and what you decided to do in your head was play, but the end result of that is you've made, or remixed, or created something that you can feel proud of...that feeling is the bonus, the pay-off, that's what's really unique about LBP.

And if that leads somebody to create - I absolutely think that LBP might be the right canvass for some people, where it all spills out. And that would be awesome, because then we, as the greater game-playing community, then get the benefit of that person's work - and I really look forward to it. October was mentioned recently as the planned release date - is that still the plan?
Alex Evans

Yeah, our development dates haven't changed for a while now, so I think that's final. The precise date is as much to do with the marketing - obviously it's going to be a worldwide release, which adds extra constraints. Have you had those conversations about how the game will be marketed?
Alex Evans

Absolutely - there are all sorts in discussion, and obviously that's the place where although there's a 30-person development team [at Media Molecule], but there are many people within Sony working to make it a massive launch, and I really hope that when LBP comes out, everyone will know about it.

We're deep into conversations about how to make that happen, and I think it will be an event. Is it something you'll support on an ongoing basis?
Alex Evans

Actually it was something that Phil Harrison said that resonated with me - with a game like LBP, the first release however it's delivered, is the beginning not the end, and certainly we want to support the community.

With a game like LBP there are so many opportunities to support the community, and Media Molecule is completely up for building that - because that's where so much of our best content will come from. We're going to be there to support them, and we have the opportunity to support them as well, which is pretty exciting.

Alex Evans is the co-founder of Media Molecule. Part one of this interview is available now. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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