One of the most anticipated titles of 2008 was Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet - a key strut in the PlayStation 3's release schedule in the build-up to Christmas. But now the game has been out there for a while, what is the team up to?
GamesIndustry.biz caught up with co-founder Alex Evans at this year's Nordic Game Conference to find out some of the plans on the horizon.
Q: A number of key industry figures have said to me that they considered LittleBigPlanet to be possibly the most important title released in 2008 - not based on sales, but because of what it represented for user-generated content. What are your thoughts on that?
Alex Evans: Well, that's amazing. I remember when we first revealed it at a GDC, we got Peter Molyneux in as an old friend to play it, to see what he thought, and his reaction was: "It's too ambitious," which was an enormous compliment, coming from him...
To hear things like that, that it's important, it's really good. Post-release it was really interesting because we'd never run a community before, and the industry is changing really fast. The way you do post-release, the way you do add-ons and the way you maintain your community... the MMO guys have got it down, I think - we could learn from them.
I was actually talking to the Sony guys a lot after release, saying that I'd love to look at the way we treat LBP as an MMO. It's not an MMO at all, and so people were a bit confused, asking me if it was going to become an MMO... I said that almost every game has to be supported with that kind of service mentality, so lots of stuff that I'm working on personally at the moment is geared to that mentality.
The way we've structured the team - because everybody at Media Molecule is still doing LBP - we very consciously decided to stick to a focus. Within that we've divided it up, and we've got all these different features cooking, and we decide very late how they get released and what channel they're released through.
What I love about the way LBP was received by the industry - but also the players - is that you can jump into it at different levels. You can just play it, and enjoy that side of it, or you can look at it as a platform for expressing yourself.
We haven't succeeded everywhere, but we've definitely tried to do a lot.
Q: Looking back it was a very tough time to release a game - and the release itself was also troubled with the soundtrack issue, maybe the Woolworth's distribution issue too. What would you have changed, of those things you could have controlled, for that release?
Alex Evans: The music thing was interesting, a double-edged sword, because in the end it actually got us some coverage we might not otherwise have received. Also interesting, the reaction was positively received - it was only a minority of people who complained, and ironically Middle Eastern Gamer around that time gave us 10 out of 10 for soundtrack, which I'll always be very amused by...
But the thing is, Sony reacted very responsibly, so I probably wouldn't do that differently - other than not license something wrong in the first place.
Q: Although, what are the chances...?
Alex Evans: Plus it came at a time when there was a glut of games, which was really amazing for gamers - if they could afford it - but in terms of us eking out space in the market LBP is definitely an evergreen title.
I think it came out at the right time, because I didn't want it to come out any later. We stayed in the charts a lot longer than a lot of games would, and that's a really good thing.
As part of the original deal with Sony, it's in the contract that we want to have an ongoing support model for the game, so the release was like the big bang, with retail behind it and everything else, but our whole mindset from the beginning was that's how you see the audience - you have to keep plugging away. By that argument, the sooner you get it out, the better.
If I did it differently, I'd probably take out all of the other amazing game developers in the world, so there was less in the pipe...
Q: It's less an issue for Media Molecule, and more of an issue for the industry as a whole, but ultimately there's so much potential revenue swilling about at Christmas that everybody wants a piece of it.
Alex Evans: Yes, and with the high barrier to entry as well - USD 40, or 60, or whatever it is - you have to fall at those times. I think that's one of the things that's interesting about digital distribution - yes it changes the distribution and marketing model, but I think it also lowers the costs, and that actually ends up spreading when people are willing to drop the cash.
I'm not talking about hardcore gamers, but those in the middle ground. I have a feeling that it's not quite the same in the music business - people buy CDs all year round. But I'm really interested to see that as prices come down, and you can get stuff online, if you'll see more forgiving release schedules when stuff can come out and break even.
Q: Are you talking about prices coming down for LBP, or generally?
Alex Evans: Generally.
Q: From a consumer's point of view, if digital distribution cuts out retail costs there's an expectation that some savings are passed on to the consumer - although publishers seem to go pretty quiet on that point when asked.
Alex Evans: Well, that's the thing - and this isn't me fobbing you off - but Sony sets the price point on the online side of things, so I don't know what that's going to be. But I do know that I really want us to see different online routes into LBP.
That's no great news, but what I think is cool is that LBP can afford to experiment a bit more - for example, we're getting on for 2 million levels that have been published now. If you look at online distribution for LBP, when the sequel comes along, what do we do with all that content? I think we can give consumers lots of stuff that you couldn't in a traditional game. We can give them backwards compatibility with those levels, and then when you decide on how you're going to sell that to them... all I'm saying is that we've got loads of options open to us, and we can pick really late. We can make them in a year's time, or whenever we want to ship - and that's really useful for a developer, you can make a fine grain decision about what the price point is, or how you dice it.
Sony might have a standard price for a triple-A game on PSN, for example, but we've got extra options that they don't have. We could do a version with every level available on subscription, or something like that. I don't know what we'll do, but it's really exciting that we can make those choices, and make them late in the day.
Q: You're suggesting there that we'll see LBP 2 at some point?
Alex Evans: Well, I'd love there to be a sequel, put it that way. But that's not an announcement - although I will say that the entire team is working on LBP.
Q: When you look at LBP today, it's a much bigger prospect than now than it was when first released. Now, that's the nature of user-gen content, but doesn't that make it better value now?
Alex Evans: Well, that part is free. You get it regardless.
Q: Although, to get the ideal impression of what LBP is about, surely it's better to come to the game a couple of months after launch - rather than when it's first released?
Alex Evans: It's an interesting question. A couple of things spring to mind - we laboured a long time recently over the free demo we'll be releasing shortly, and one of the reasons we didn't release it beforehand was the question of how do you capture its essence, as you say?
So I think we've done a good job on the demo, but the 'virgin snow' effect, like the first comments in forums - we had this big argument between various people within Media Molecule and Sony: Would the hardcore people who bought it on day one want an empty planet with no content, or would they want the stuff that had been made in the past month by the beta-testers?
One side argued that they'd want to be the first ones to make stuff, but the other camp argued that they'd have a better experience on day one if they could benefit from the beta content, with a few thousand levels.
So we did an online poll, including people who weren't on the beta, and the result was that 90 per cent of the people wanted to keep the beta content, compared to 10 per cent who wanted us to ditch it.
We thought it was going to be more 50-50, but we realised that the LBP beta trial drove that experience. It didn't take two months, it took one trial of 100,000 people, and you already had that seeded data. We're actually going to start off another beta trial on a rolling basis, a little bit smaller than the original one - but again, it's that MMO mentality. You'll get rewards in the main game for being in the beta trial, and we'll push features out to them first and gauge feedback. It's constantly feeding value into the people going the official route, so it helps both parties.
But the beta trial was what solved the issue.
Q: You've already got 2 million levels that people have created, so maybe that's the answer to this question - but would you like to see even more accessible tools for people in the game?
Alex Evans: Yeah, I would have liked to have made it better. We originally started with a shotgun and a hair dryer, and it mutated a lot... One of the things we're focusing on next is looking at stuff that insane - generally French and Japanese - people have built, and then making that more accessible, just making some of the ideas that are possible, easier.
The second side of it is that at the moment you can exchange objects via PSN messages. One of the original ideas that was axed from the original game was that you could publish objects from the game online, not just levels, and you'd be credited with the use of those objects.
I think something like that will really boost it - if you're just a beginner user, you can go and browse not just for levels, but for cars, let's say. Take that, sticker it up, and you're done - and that will change the barriers to entry.
So both of those things - changing the tools themselves, and changing how you share - are coming.
Q: It's enabling people to make the first step?
Alex Evans: Yes, because there's that point where you think: "I can never make something like that." And then you realise that some people can.
Before we shipped, people were quoting articles about what percentage of YouTube users actually upload videos to the site - but if you look at the sales figures for LBP versus the number of videos that have been published, it's way out of kilter.
That's awesome, and I don't know the science as to how we did it, but I think it's partly that gamers are just way more dedicated. As a market, even the non-hardcore ones, they seem to care more. Forget the achievement- and trophy-whoring - if you've made a level, you really care about it and want to shout about it.
Q: Do you think people bought the game specifically to build?
Alex Evans: Yes, to show off. It's like ultimate showing off, basically.
Alex Evans is co-founder at Media Molecule. Interview by Phil Elliott.