LittleBigPlanet And The Rise Of The Creator

LittleBigPlanet 2 hits stores in Australia tomorrow, with a brand new set of creator tools that may just transform video gaming as we know it. We caught up with Siobhan Reddy, the Aussie Studio Director of Media Molecule about the rise of LittleBigPlanet 2 and the rise of the creator.

In the opening level of the LittleBigPlanet 2, the ‘tutorial’ level, you move from left to right. The soothing tones of Stephen Fry resonate, and pictures drop gently into view – from the most unexpected places – glued to the environment like Polaroids on a family fridge. These are the people that made this game – LittleBigPlanet – and there aren’t that many of them.

Over 400 people worked on Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. That’s four hundred. Over 200 worked on Grand Theft Auto IV, and roughly 300 worked on Metal Gear Solid 4. Today, at Media Molecule, exists a grand total of 37 staff members. That includes HR. That includes accounting. That includes the five designers they hired from the community and that includes Siobhan Reddy, the Australian Studio Director of Media Molecule, who we had the pleasure of interviewing yesterday.

Our first question? How the hell did a team so small, so niche, manage to create one of the strongest new IPs this generation?

“It’s really, really full on actually,” begins Siobhan. “Our production team – I’m amazed by how many threads these people have to juggle day to day. Not only do they have the game to contend with, there’s the DLC threads, the backwards compatibility stuff, there’s community stuff. There’s all this stuff and you have to constantly be responsive and listen to the experiences people are having externally, but keep your eyes on the end goal.”

The words ‘Little’ and ‘Big’ are so appropriate, and in LittleBigPlanet they never juxtapose. In a sense Media Molecule’s creation was borne from a small idea – give people the tools to create their own experiences – but in execution the potential is enormous.

“I heard someone describe it the other day as a “’bottomless toy box’,” says Siobhan, “and I thought that was an awesome description – I know that the other guys at Media Molecule would love it as well.”

But for all its ambition LittleBigPlanet is, again, deceptively simple and, according to Siobhan, a response to a creative impulse that is often restricted.

“I think it’s awesome, it’s so brilliant – it’s like the re-rise of the creator,” claims Siobhan, who argues that LittleBigPlanet seizes upon the spirit of the bedroom coder, a spirit that dissipated as console platforms shut the doors on those who wanted to create.

“Our Creative Director Mark Healy, he comes from that era.” says Siobhan. “The Commodore 64 and the ease with which you could make games on that machine was really what got him into the games industry – with LittleBigPlanet, he’s giving that back to people.

“I think that hunger, from the Commodore 64 days, never went away,” she continues. “With consoles it seems like everyone just became really excited to see what they could do with the technology, so there wasn’t really a lot of emphasis on user generated content. But when we started working on LittleBigPlanet 2 it was the obvious place to go – to make something that allowed people to make their own creations.”

Today’s so-called ‘golden-age’ of Indie development, with the rise of mobile gaming and digital downloads on console is often compared to the bedroom coding days of the Commodore 64, but there are still barriers to entry – barriers that LittleBigPlanet 2 shatters with its accessible, and now massively expanded toolset. But, barriers aside, amateur creators in LittleBigPlanet have no need to stress about the commercial and logistical realities of working in the video games industry.

“Within the games industry we can be really conservative about genres and ideas,” claims Siobhan, “and there are a lot of hoops people in the industry have to be jump through when making games. But within LittleBigPlanet you can be free – there aren’t any hoops to jump through.”

According to Siobhan, the team at Media Molecule completely expect and hope to be outdone by the LittleBigPlanet community. Media Molecule’s collective imagination is broad in scope, but that spirit is still tempered by deadlines and quality control – the community, however, are not limited in that regard.

“We have a limited amount of time to make the game,” begins Siobhan, “and there is a certain quality threshold and bug count that we have to get rid of, so we have to stop innovating with our levels fairly early in order to actually complete the game! Finishing a level to the point where there are no bugs, you can’t break it, it’s great for 1-4 players, the frame rate’s solid, and it works online – that takes a long time. So we end up having to lock down how we’re using things fairly early – especially compared to people in the community, for example. So we’re a bit more constrained with our time.

“What normally happen is we make something and we think, ‘oh, what a brilliant idea’, but like any great idea, it comes from combining a couple of other ideas. We can do this with A and this with B – but because everything is fairly modular, someone comes along and goes what happens when I put A with C? It’s kind of like cooking in that way.”

Apparently with an infinite amount of time and an endless supply of simians and keyboards, a monkey could write Hamlet, but with thousands upon thousands of creators armed with untapped talent and set of flexible tools, the potential for LittleBigPlanet 2 is seemingly limitless.

“We are constantly inspired by our community,” claims Siobhan. “They’re doing things that make us think, oh… we should be doing that!”

The big challenge Media Molecule has set its community is the creation of an entire new genre, an entire new way of playing video games. But is this truly possible? And who’ll be the first to pull it off?

“It’ll probably be a nine-year-old in the middle of Woop Woop! You can’t really describe the LittleBigPlanet audience! It’s whoever can hold a pencil!”

She might be right – Angry Birds was recently toppled from its throne atop the iOS App Store by Bubble Ball, a game created by a 14 year old in the UK. Who’s to say the next big thing in gaming won’t manifest itself through a channel like LittleBigPlanet? It’s entirely possible.

If Media Molecule as a development team are the Polaroid pics glued to the massive fridge that is LittleBigPlanet – then our creations are the clumsy finger paintings of toddlers barely out of pre-school. But the sophistication of our own creations, and the creations of thousands of other talented LittleBigPlanet users, is accelerating rapidly – and the end result of this gargantuan creative hivemind could very well be the invention of a brand new genre. At the very least you can count on users pushing the boundaries of the LittleBigPlanet’s ‘bottomless toybox’. In fact, Media Molecule are counting on it – you might even get hired!

“We were doing our hiring plan before I left,” claims Siobhan, “and we have a few spots in there called ‘undefined creator types’ – which means that as the game develops and everyone starts using the new tools, there’ll be types of creators that we can’t even define yet! And we don’t know when we’re going to think, ‘we need ourselves one of them…’”

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