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Kung Fu Fighting

Media Molecule discusses the journey from PC experiments to next-gen consoles.

At last month's Game City event in Nottingham, Media Molecule - the development studio formed by Rag Doll Kung Fu programmer Mark Healey - gave a talk discussing the game's evolution.

Almost a year after the studio was formed, and with a recently announced top-secret PlayStation 3 title in development, took the opportunity to catch up with Mark and co-founder Alex Evans. Read on to find out their views on the differences between working on a self-produced project for fun, and the commercial realities of working on a next-gen console game. How do you go from making a project like Rag Doll Kung Fu with a tiny team to an exclusive title for PlayStation 3?

Mark Healey: The first part is fine. You prototype and pitch and it's the perfect sized team to do something like that. And then Sony says, 'We like it, here's some money.' And then you panic.

Alex Evans: Part of our pitch to Sony wasn't that we've just made Rag Doll and we're off the street. It was that, yes, we've just made Rag Doll Kung Fu, but we've got a team of five people on board already who all have a number of titles shipped.

So, we've got a particular vibe and a particular size, but it's not quite the story of a bunch of students making it big. I think that's the confusion we're probably helping to put across.

I hope it doesn't makes us sound cocky or anything, but for me, the game that we're making now and the way we're doing it has a lot in common with how we made Black & White at Lionhead.

Mark Healey: And another answer to that questions is, well, we're learning and finding out how to do it right now. It's been nearly a year since we started up, and that time as been a big learning experience, because we were used to working at Lionhead and Bullfrog before that.

If things went a bit wrong there was always someone you could blame - 'the managers are rubbish' or something like that. But now, there's no one to blame; it's all on us. It's actually quite a struggle, but we're learning and it's really a fun experience too.

Alex Evans: For me, the PlayStation 3 was the leveller. You always see in the games industry that loads of start-ups appear every console wave, and it's a good time to start because no one else has used PS3 yet either.

We can focus on one platform - originally we didn't know which platform we'd go for - but Sony has been great and we've gone with them. We've decided we can focus on that platform and exploit it. And every other developer is in the same boat with the PS3. We're learning, and everyone else to a certain extent is learning as well.

Rag Doll Kung Fu was a personal project that you were happy to make up as you went along. With the Sony project surely there are deadlines to meet, milestones to meet - do you lose a certain level of creativity and freedom working for a publisher like that?

Mark Healey: There's a balance. If it wasn't for our producer then it would probably go downhill quite quickly. We've got a producer who is forcing us to think ahead, and there's this constant battle that says you can't design a game on paper before you start programming it. But there's a certain amount of stuff that you can plan on a sheet of A4.

It's good in a way, but it's a necessary evil because we don't have the money to fund it ourselves. The interesting thing about milestones is that you get to define them yourself and tell your publisher what the milestones are going to be. Obviously, they have to add up to a finished game, so you have to spread them out.

Alex Evans: It is a balance. Rag Doll was free-form, but Mark really drives himself and he did have plans. There's a lot of Rag Doll that may come across as Mark being a complete hippy, but actually there were a lot of set goals. We might have suggested something and he was pretty sure he didn't want that in the game. So there's a lot of Rag Doll that was more structured than how it comes across.

You have around ten people at Media Molecule and you've said you want to increase that number to around 30 over the course of the PS3 project. But aren't we being told that for a next-generation game you need a hundred people and five million pounds to develop it?

Mark Healey: Obviously it depends on the type of game you're looking at making. We wouldn't go off and try and make something like Final Fantasy, something with huge amounts of assets. We're going to have a lot of content, we've chosen a game that suits our style but at the same time won't be seen as a budget game.

Alex Evans: We pick our battles. And that's one of the reason we've gone for a single platform project and one of the reasons that the 'indie developer' perception plays in our favour. We can do a high production value game because we've chosen what to do ourselves.

So is the assumption that you need millions of pounds and a massive team to developer triple-A titles for next-gen a misconception?

Mark Healey: It depends entirely on the game. But having said that, a friend of mine, Scawen Roberts, has made a game called Live for Speed, and in terms or racing simulations it pisses all over the big commercial games, and that's done by three people. They've got a huge fanbase, and they're making really good money out of it, and it's doing really well.

Alex Evans: The battle we've got with Media Molecule is that we want to reach the same market as the huge teams, and we think we can do that. I don't want to diss the big teams, because we've worked in those types of teams and there's a place for them. I don't think Fable could have been done with less people. It's more just that we decided we'd pick a game type and we'd pick a single platform to make sure we could keep the team size down.

Rag Doll was released over Steam, and it was the first third-party title to do so. Now you're working with Sony, what's your take on the PlayStation 3's download structure - is the digital download of content something you'd like to see continue to grow going forward?

Alex Evans: Well, we can't speak for Sony, but we'd love it to grow. It's not just a Sony thing. I think what Xbox Live has done, and other online platforms, is very cool and something we want to grow, and is almost a done deal - it's definitely going to grow. I like the way the Wii has its Channel-based interface, too.

Mark Healey: iTunes has certainly done all right out of that download model and there's no reason why we can't have a game equivalent.

Alex Evans: Xbox Live is cool for matching games and matching players, and the Marketplace ties in, and I'm sure Sony will do its own take on it. It's not going to be a direct pissing match, it'll be interesting to have a choice.

One of the unique things about Rag Doll Kung Fu is its control method. As a developer, is the control of a game one of the most important aspects for you?

Mark Healey: Not necessarily. I haven't got a mission in life to create mad control mechanisms, but what turns me on is novelty and new ideas. You could easily come up with a game that has a very familiar control system, but the environment you're in is very wacky - novelty is the big thing for me.

Alex Evans: Our gameplay coder, who does a lot of the control method on our current game, is really big on feel. Mario 64 always get mentioned as an early pioneering game that felt good.

I always like Nintendo games because they always feel good and it doesn't matter what sort of game it is - whether it's a fighting game or a racing game - if it feels good. That's what I took from Rag Doll. Rather than being insane for the sake of it, in Rag Doll you can make your own moves and use your own style.

Do you think that control will be the defining element in your PS3 title?

Mark Healey: No comment. I could almost say no...

Mark Healey and Alex Evans are co-founders of Media Molecule. Interview by Matt Martin.

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Ellie Gibson


Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.