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Sony wanted LittleBigPlanet free-to-play

The history of PS3's most charming IP.

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Image credit: Eurogamer

Phil Harrison, then president of Sony Worldwide Studios, wanted LittleBigPlanet to be free-to-play, downloadable and to adopt a brand new business model.

That was at the end of 2005/early 2006 - nearly a year before PlayStation 3 was first released.

"In that initial 45 minute that turned into three hour pitch, which was at the end of 2005, beginning of 2006, Phil said all sorts of buzz words which we still haven't hit," revealed Alex Evans, co-founder of LBP developer Media Molecule, speaking on stage at the Develop Conference with Harrison and MM colleagues Mark Healy and Kareem Ettouney.

"[He] said it should be free to play, it should have a new business model, it should be downloadable, it should do DLC, it should do user-generated content. Phil was basically raising the bar on what we were pitching."

Harrison gave Media Molecule - then known tentatively as Brainfluff - six months' money to go and make a prototype. Lots of videos were made during that period as Media Molecule tried to "explain to ourselves and then to Phil what it was we were making".

What MM was making was then called Craftworld. "That was our internal codename for it for quite a long time," revealed Harrison. "And then LittleBigWorld was the project name and that was being branded, and we couldn't get the trademark for LittleBigWorld as there was another company in the States called BigWorld. And so it became LittleBigPlanet two weeks before GDC 2007."

It was going to be called LittleBigBang at one point. "But then we found out that meant gang bang," said Alex Evans. "Well, just in America," added Mark Healy.

Media Molecule's date with Sony destiny was 25th May 2006. But things didn't go very well.

"That day was terrible, because we presented this very unfocused, not very playable [demo].

Alex Evans, co-founder, Media Molecule

"That day was terrible," recalled Evans, "because we presented this very unfocused, not very playable - the Create was terrible, it was purely physical. You had a shotgun and a jetpack."

"This is when we had the gun that sprayed out sponge," interjected Healy.

Evans continued: "Yeah, so the only way of making stuff was to spray out this foam that solidified, and the only way of making something cool was to play multiplayer and get someone with a jetpack to pick you up and you squirt it from up on high.

"We spent 20 minutes trying to build a really rubbish looking robot that was really terrible. And it was just all over the place; the gameplay wasn't very good, it wasn't a good level, the art style was 'is it fairy tale levels or is it ....'"

Sony wasn't very impressed. Media Molecule had a wake-up call.

"We went over the road to ... this little French shop," said Evans. "We were basically trying to find focus, looking at this really messy presentation we'd given and [decide] which are the bits we need to keep and which are the bits we need to axe. How do we trim this down because we now only have three months to make something really good."

Pre-production was extended until a green-light meeting on 17th August 2006 (still months before PlayStation 3 had launched anywhere). Phil Harrison described this date as "the make or break meeting". Mark Healy said going there felt like being on Dragon's Den - "that kind of scenario".

"From a Sony perspective," Harrison shared, "there was all of the producers and executive producers and team management from Liverpool, London; myself; there would have been European director of marketing and three or four marketing product managers. There was probably 15 people from the publisher, from Sony's side, and there was I think four or five of Media Molecule."

Healy summarised: "Some stern faces waiting to be impressed, basically. That's what it felt like to me."

Media Molecule's idea for the meeting was to present a green-light demo that would be playable in the final version of LittleBigPlanet. It turned out to be an extended version of demo shown at GDC in March 2007, when LittleBigPlanet was announced. But there was a hiccup with the presentation a night before.

"We'd only ever tested three player and a big part of LBP was co-op play, and we were going to do four-player: two stooges and two Sony execs. We put the fourth pad in and discovered there was a bug in the SDK. It slowed down to a crawl if you put the fourth pad in. And our whole presentation was built around it being a four-player game. It was a complete disaster," said Evans, who spent the night before the meeting fixing it.

"You need to test, and we learnt that lesson 24 hours before the green-light."

The presentation was in stark contrast to the meeting three-months prior. Sony, this time, was impressed. Very impressed.

"I must admit I floated out of that meeting room thinking that this was just the most fantastic opportunity that was in front of us."

Phil Harrison, former president Worldwide Studios, Sony

"The green-light meeting in August: I would summarise it by saying in my career I've probably seen close to 1000 game pitches. This is the best meeting I have ever had," declared Harrison. "It was the best presentation of a vision executed perfectly, which was fun, which was playable, and showed the potential of where this could go.

"I must admit I floated out of that meeting room thinking that this was just the most fantastic opportunity that was in front of us."

The game went into full development and became a talisman for Sony and PlayStation 3 - so much so that Harrison made the unusual decision to unveil the game at GDC 2007, a developer-focused industry show, rather than on more familiar ground at E3. To this day, Media Molecule never understood why.

"Two reasons," Harrison explained. "One: I wanted GDC 2007 - let's be honest, PlayStation 3 needed a bit of momentum, a bit of a pick up, a bit of a boost. And I wanted to demonstrate the future that was going to be services-based products - things that were going to be live that had no end to them that were going to be online all the time, always on." The second reason was to demonstrate the power of user-generated content.

"LittleBigPlanet was a perfect example of that," said Harrison. "[PlayStation] Home [also revealed there] was a perfect example of that and I think SingStar was a good example of that as well.

"I wanted GDC to really be a powerful message about not just the future of PlayStation but the future of the industry and where we were going as a sector."

The result was an inspiring conference by Harrison and the Sony team. Pete Horley, Sony's director of external development at the time - the man arguably responsible for LBP and Media Molecule's existence - had the foresight Google search LittleBigPlanet before the conference and after.

"Pete Smith did something really thoughtful," Healy recounted. "He did a Google search for LittleBigPlanet the day before GDC ... and got precisely zero search results back. The day after GDC he did it again and there was more than 8 million [results]."

Evans remembered the conference going "amazingly well" and went back to the hotel with the rest of the Media Molecule team "and ate lots and lots of popcorn and champagne". "That was a very good day," he said.

So good it got a sequel, LittleBigPlanet 2.

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