Media Molecule's Alex Evans
Setting the borders for LittleBigPlanet.
Who would have thought, with all the marketing millions and pretensions of cool behind Sony's PlayStation 3, that its most iconic characters in 2008 could end up being a nicotine-loving geriatric in skin-tight latex and a doll made out of burlap cloth? The geriatric, at least, was something we expected. The sack doll? Not so much.
LittleBigPlanet isn't even out yet, and already people are talking about it as a defining franchise for the PS3. It's a lot of pressure on one little studio - Media Molecule, the latest in a long series of splinter factions and off-shoots in the Guildford area, and inheritors of a tradition of game development that goes right the way back to Britsoft legends Bullfrog.
We caught up with studio co-founder Alex Evans for a chat about how the game looks, and where it's going. First off, though, we wanted to know a little more about a key theme in his recent speech at the Develop conference - the idea that making the game fun and the toolset enjoyable wasn't always about adding new things, but that many of the improvements actually came from taking things away.
Yeah, and I don't think it's something that we necessarily sell to players. That message was really me talking to other developers. For us, it was really a learning curve - because it's not only a hard sell to players, it's a hard sell to us!
I constantly forget my own advice, which is that sometimes less really is more. I was talking to someone about this back at the office, and it's not about just cutting - if you just blindly cut, you end up with something where all you can make is rehashes of the same thing over and over again. You'd see a thousand levels that were the same.
It's about finding the sweet spot where you've cut enough that you're not faffing about, you're not distracting yourself with the fluff - you're getting down to the core of it. I think Apple, and generally consumer electronics, are really good at this. You know when they've got it right - you don't want to go and listen to your records, and have to worry about the equaliser and blah blah blah. You just want to play records, press play and it goes.
I think there's a total sweet spot there. The really skilful thing is getting different audiences who have slightly different sweet spots. What we've tried to do with LittleBigPlanet is to set different constraints based on who you are. If you're a player, we give you a different set of objects than if you go through the Create path.
So, hopefully, we don't need to sell the constraints message to players, except implicitly. We make their lives easier. The way I'd sell it to a player would be, we make your life easier - we make it easy to make good-looking s***. Some people come to me and they say, "I'm not creative - I haven't got a creative bone in my body". If they booted up 3D Studio Max, or Valve's Hammer, or one of those editors... You can do incredible things with those editors, but a lot of people just freeze. It's like Photoshop or Word, or a blank page in a typewriter - "F***, where do I begin!"
At the other end of the spectrum, we're trying to find a sweet spot. For example, we have this "Mash X" thing in the office - where we just ask, what happens if you mash the X button? We constantly ask ourselves that question. If you just boot the game and hammer X, where do you end up? If you go into the create mode and hammer X, what happens? Um, actually... You'll just jump up and down. But you see what I mean. It's making that process not be completely rubbish, and enjoyable.
The more I thought about it, the more it relates to things like fighting games. I've never made a fighting game, but I'm firmly in the button basher crowd. I'll pick up Street Fighter II or Tekken or something, and I'll just mash - and I'll love it. They've hit the sweet spot in those games, because for a button-masher, it feels awesome. Lovely, I'm doing special moves, don't know why, but - awesome!
Then, for someone whose sweet spot is way up from that, who's hardcore and learns all the moves, can come in and just cane it - wipe the floor with me. That game has successfully catered to two different sets of people. If we can do that with user-generated content, then we're done - that's the goal.
Exactly - both can be catered for. I actually think that keeping the resolution down, keeping it under ten minutes, is a good thing. We were talking about Jaws and the Blair Witch Project, and I'm convinced that the budget of the Blair Witch Project influenced what they were able to show - i.e. nothing. It still worked as a movie. If they'd had someone turn up and say, here's 20 million quid for a bit of CGI, it probably would have been a bit more rubbish.
You're right, it's a hard sell if you present it as "you can do less" - but that's not how people look at it, really. They say, okay, this is what I'm working with, it's not a blank piece of paper - wicked, let's build on that.