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LittleBigAmbition - Part One

Media Molecule's Alex Evans on LBP as the new industry buzzword, and how the game plays to the strengths of the PS3

As the October release date draws ever closer for LittleBigPlanet, more and more scrutiny is falling on the creative bunch behind the potentially revolutionary title.

Here, Media Molecule co-founder Alex Evans talks to about dealing with that pressure, how the title plays to the strengths of the PlayStation 3, and how the game's showing at the E3 Sony press conference nearly ended in disaster... The game's had a lot of exposure, particularly at E3 this year - it was neat in that during the press conference as you didn't really talk about LittleBigPlanet, you just 'played' through the presentation. How was it to be involved in that way?
Alex Evans

It was fantastic, because with them - and this relates to how Phil Harrison put us up at GDC two years ago, and that was a risk he took that paid off - we're really happy they decided to put us up at E3 and use it in an original way.

They actually emailed us before Paris GDC to ask us if we wanted to do it that way and I was already working on one for Paris GDC - so all credit to them for actually coming up with the idea, and it's little things like that which remind you as a developer that the publisher's got you in its head.

It was awesome, but the funny thing was - if you go back and watch the shaky-cam footage on YouTube, there's this bit where we were meant to reveal this big number, like USD 50 billion of PlayStation revenue or something, and there was this big brick wall in front of it that was meant to be blown away... but because the game had been sitting there for two hours, or whatever, the explosives had rolled down a hill and detonated in a later section of the level.

So when I got to that bit, not only had the USD 50 billion been blown away - so that was a bit of an anti-climax, although nobody noticed apart from me - I was absolutely white with fear, because I knew a bunch of bombs had just rolled down to the next bit of the demo, which was all of the game titles popping up.

So I had no idea, as I went down the hill, if Resistance would pop up with a chunk out of it. Luckily, if you look at it, there's just all this blast damage all over that section, and charred stuff lying around. That was a dark moment. Apparently the whole team was watching on the live feed and screaming "Alex! You've f*cked the level!" But it wasn't me, the bombs just blew up while I was on-stage... That's a pretty nice demonstration that it's a living, breathing environment. Not even you guys can predict what's going to happen...
Alex Evans

Well, no, and that's one of the things. You get the game, and play it, and something I've been chatting to other coders about is that because we don't know what the levels are going to be in advance, you have to throw away half the goody bag of what you learn as a developer.

So in an FPS you have teams of people to go and mark cover points, and so on - but with this we didn't know what the levels were going to be, so we just decided to essentially ditch all of the traditional AI, because we didn't know what was going to happen.

In a way that almost dictated the style - it ended up this freeform thing, because we just don't know what people are going to make, so it's open-ended. Do you think there's a danger that, while lots of people have heard of LBP and know it's a big deal, not many people really know what you do in the game?
Alex Evans

It's hard, it's really hard - we didn't have an elevator pitch. The closest we got was this play-create-share thing, and I think what's interesting is that if people are really flummoxed... I was talking about this with my mum, and what I've found is that people in the games industry find it much harder to understand than people who are out of the industry - and I think that's because games are seen as a particular thing.

If you're in the games industry, people know what a game is. It's an FPS, it's a racing game, it's a platform game. So my way into the game is just to say that it's a platform game, and that's fine. You miss a load of cool stuff there, but you'll work it out. It's a platform game, where you can make your own games.

If I'm talking to someone who doesn't have all these preconceptions of what a game is, it's actually a lot easier to explain - it's something that you play and enjoy, and you make things with it. That's what it is. They don't know what a game is anyway, they wouldn't know what an FPS was, so they have fewer preconceptions - like kids: "Oh, it's fun, oh it's got a cute character." They see things a bit differently, they're less worried about this elevator pitch.

I heard a story at E3 about Miyamoto talking about Wii Music - somebody said that it didn't seem like a game to them, and Miyamoto replied that it was that which made it interesting to him. So he gets it, and that's the thing - LBP is easier to understand if you worry less about what sort of a game it is, and just think of it as a fun thing that you can do on your PlayStation. We've spoken to a number of key Sony people in the past couple of months - Kaz Hirai, Shuhei Yoshida, Scott Steinberg - and LBP is a word that is cropping up an awful lot - it's a new buzzword. Is that scary?
Alex Evans

It's a double-edged sword. There's another question I get asked, which I don't know how to answer, which is "At what point does LBP change from being a little GBP 2 PSN download to being this monster?"

And it's really hard to answer that without sounding incredibly, hugely arrogant, because when we started Media Molecule, we didn't quit our jobs at Lionhead - which we loved - lightly. I remember talking to Peter [Molyneux] who I'd known for years, and telling him that I was thinking of starting a games studio, and he said: "That's fantastic, go for broke."

So we started Media Molecule to go for broke - and it wasn't that we knew we'd be a success, that was the part that changed. It wasn't that it was never a PSN game, it was more that Sony got behind it and understood it. That's what changed, and that's awesome. We always wanted to do a triple-A title, or whatever you call it, but lots of triple-A titles sink because they're not good enough, not hyped enough, or not supported enough.

We think we've been lucky - we'll prove it when it comes out, but certainly Sony thinks it's good, and it's cool that they refer to it a lot, because it's given us a chance to go for broke. It's definitely a Blu-ray title?
Alex Evans

Yes. And it weighs in at about 40GB?
Alex Evans

Erm, yes - I believe a Blu-ray single layer is 20GB and a dual layer is 40GB, but we're filling up the Blu-ray. One of the things on there is we're having a lot of tutorial content - basically there are two paths through the game, the player's route and the creator's route.

We were struggling with that a bit - some people want to just get in there and create, and they don't want to have to complete a full game in order to get the tools they need. On the other hand some people want a traditional game, they want to be able to play a platform game, and we still want them to create too - so we did this two-route thing where you've got the fast route to create, and then the player's route to create, which you enjoy massively but at the end you've got all this stuff for creating and you happen to have learned all these things.

So one of the things we're filling the Blu-ray up with is tutorials, and a lot of video stuff showing exactly how it's done, it's narrated by Stephen Fry and so on. It's really useful that thanks to Blu-ray we haven't needed to worry about file size, it's never crossed my mind. We'll check in another gigabyte file... it's a bit slow on our network but beyond that...

But the game itself and the levels you produce are relatively compact. Scott Steinberg told us that there was a lot of physics that took up space - does that impact?
Alex Evans

Not in terms of file size, but the biggest use of space is actually in making your levels look good without you having any artistic input. One of the biggest bridges we've had to cross is that the game's audience isn't the hardcore creator who's got a library of textures on their hard drive.

It's meant to be - and is, I hope - a much broader audience of people that just want to see something they like the look of and use it. So we have a huge library of thousands of different objects, and they're not just textures - we worry about the bump-mapping and the specular... all the HD, next-gen stuff happens and it's sitting there on the Blu-ray for you to use without having to worry about it. And that's really how we're using the space up.

It's cool to be able to do. We had these things called procedural materials, and while we're developing the game we're going back and forth, and now it's got to the stage where you can just pick the 'African Wall Painting with Bison and People' pattern, and just smear it out with a single swipe off the stick. The art department are saying "We spent a week on that bloody mesh, and now it's available to you with a click and slide..."

So you're pulling in megabytes of assets that we've made for you, and then you're just using them in any way you want. So clearly you couldn't make LBP for the Xbox 360?
Alex Evans

No. Somebody asked "Could you have made it on the Megadrive?" and there's one answer that's yes, and one answer that's no. With LBP as it is, we couldn't have made it on the Xbox 360 and the reason for that is actually because we designed it around the PS3's strengths.

In other words, if you're a game designer, from day one you know your platform, and you just cane it on that platform. You're not worrying about cross-platform, you're not worrying about anyone else's hardware design.

The 360 is an incredibly capable machine, and you could make a user-generated content game on it, no question - just as you could make one on the PS2 or the Megadrive, or any platform. But because we picked our platform, you go and you use every available bit of space, every little processor cycle.

For example, the Cell - which is unique to PlayStation - we really enjoyed using it because rather than coming at it from the "Oh my god, we've got to port to a 360 engine for this" or "We've got to do an engine that's on both," we were instead: "Fine, it's idiosyncratic, it's weird, it's not anywhere else - let's go use it."

And that's been the reason I think that it really plays to the PS3's strengths. I don't want people to say "You could do this game on the 360" - well, you could do any game on any platform, it's just that you have to design around it. Just the design decisions on the PS3 are huge, and I'm sure you realize that having a hard drive on every unit makes a difference.

That's another thing - if we didn't have a hard drive on every unit, we'd have to scale back the ambition of what you could save and do. So yes, you could make this game on the 360, but it'd be a different game.

I love certain things on the PS3, and the hard drive is one of them. And it's not just that it exists, it's that it's on every single SKU.

Alex Evans is co-founder of Media Molecule. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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