September 2015. One week before its release, a representative from Nintendo visits our office to show off Super Mario Maker, one of the bravest video games Nintendo released in recent memory.
He leads with three words.
“In Mario Maker you do three things: create, share and play.”
A sudden jolt in the memory.
What is it about those words? Where have I heard them before...
Create, share, play.
Oh, now I remember.
2008. Seven years ago. Almost to the day. The order was different but the words were the same. Back then it was Play, Create then Share.
Play. Create. Share.
The game was different. The platform was different and the publisher was different. It wasn’t Mario Maker and it wasn’t Mario. It was LittleBigPlanet and it was Sackboy.
Back then it felt like it came from another world.
Seven years. In some ways it feels like yesterday. In other ways it feels like a distant universe. There was no such thing as Minecraft in 2008.
Things were different back then. We knew what was coming, but then again we really didn’t. We knew that people wanted to play, that was a given. With websites like Facebook and Twitter we were beginning to understand that people wanted to share. But did people want to create? Would people want to play a game like Mario Maker and create? At that point we really didn’t know. No-one did.
We had no idea that we were heading towards a future in which it was impossible to distinguish between those three words regardless of their order: play, create, share.
Siobhan Reddy is the Studio Director at Media Molecule. The studio that was built, in the beginning, to make LittleBigPlanet.
Siobhan is Australian. She grew up in Sydney obsessed with Doc Marten boots and the local music scene but fell in love with the act of creating things. She made fanzines with scissors and sticky tape and that impulse eventually took her towards London and video games. It would eventually take her to Guildford and perhaps the most English video game ever made: LittleBigPlanet.
LittleBigPlanet has its roots in two very English things. The first is the Commodore 64, a home computer that spread like wildfire in the UK. Australians recognise the C64 because it was successful here in much the same as it was in the UK. It was a means to play video games, but also the act of creation. Any child who owned A C64 played video games, but a high percentage would have also tried to create their own video games.
“LBP’s development came from the C64 experience that Mark the game director had,” explains Siobhan. “As a kid he had the C64 and he put his whole career down to the fact that he had one and started making games for it.”
Wouldn’t it be cool, Mark thought, for people to create a video game that provided the same experience he had with the C64?
But LittleBigPlanet’s aesthetic took inspiration from another English icon: a show called Hartbeat with Tony Hart. The Australian equivalent? Probably Mr Maker: a television show that inspired children to create their own art, a show that respected children and provided a call to action. Siobhan, Mark and the team wanted to provide that same sense of empowerment.
It was shows like Hartbeat that convinced Media Molecule that people would want to create in a video game. That a creative impulse lay dormant in children and adults.
But no-one knew for sure. Not Siobhan. Not Sony, who had placed a lot of hope (and capital) in LittleBigPlanet’s success.
“I think Sony were a bit nervous about us.”
In hindsight it seems insane that Sony had any reservations about a game like LittleBigPlanet. A game with roots in user created content, a game with the potential to go viral practically any second of any given day. We live in a post-Minecraft world. We take for granted the internet’s ability to engorge accessible tool sets and create universes we couldn’t even imagine. We take for granted its ability to do it almost instantaneously.
But Sony did have reservations about LittleBigPlanet. The general feedback: “Do you think people will actually make anything?”
Before its debut presentation at a Game Developer’s Conference, some members of the Media Molecule team were tasked with giving a presentation; an unveiling of LittleBigPlanet. Sony, being a little nervous about the whole situation, suggested that some general media training wouldn’t go amiss.
“We were all dreading it,” remembers Siobhan, “but it turned out to be amazing.”
As part of the training, Media Molecule showed their teacher the product they would be presenting. They showed him LittleBigPlanet. In Siobhan’s words, he went “completely off his head.”
In hushed tones he asked, “what do you think is gonna happen?”
“We were like, ‘we dunno!’” Laughs Siobhan.
Their teacher then said the words that would come to define how Media Molecule would approach presentations for LittleBigPlanet until its release.
“He said, ‘you guys should just embrace that, you should just run with the fact that you have no idea what’s going to happen. Everybody around you is going to hate that fact, but it’s really cool.’
That day, Siobhan believes, was an important one. That was the day when Media Molecule understood something. As a studio it had to recognise it had no fucking idea what was going to happen when they released LittleBigPlanet to the public.
The response to LittleBigPlanet was immediate. Media loved it, developers loved it.But the general public? That remained to be seen.
That’s essentially why, close to launch, LittleBigPlanet had an open beta.
LittleBigPlanet’s open beta was released in a time when open betas weren’t really a thing. For Media Molecule it was a last gasp attempt to place their brave new world in a public setting. At that point, admits Siobhan, there was very little the team would have been able to change -- just server stuff, really. That was besides the point. More than anything this was a test -- a referendum if you like -- for LittleBigPlanet as an idea.
No-one had ever really done a public beta for an idea before.
The beta launch. The Media Molecule team all huddled around one single screen, squashed into one tiny meeting room. Pulling the switch. Checking their watches. When would the first level be uploaded? It’ll take them half an hour to go through the first level, to go through the tutorial. 45 minutes all up. Then people will start making stuff, right?
Slowly, one-by-one the levels began to appear. People were making stuff.
“We were like, ‘thank fuck for that!’” laughs Siobhan.
“It was pure relief. People were making things and not just naughty things. It just sort of went gangbusters from there.”
Again, that kernel of doubt that existed in everyone involved with LittleBigPlanet -- from Media Molecule all the way through to Sony -- seems insane in hindsight. The world we live in today marches to the beat of the social media drum: user-created content, forums, twitter, hashtags, Minecraft, livestreams, Let’s Plays. It’s a world that reflects many of those early ideas that LittleBigPlanet championed back in 2008.
“We were really in the right place at the right time,” says Siobhan. “When I look back then at what we were and what we wanted to do -- we were so perfectly timed for all of that.
“The world has changed so much and we were riding that wave. We were just a little bit ahead of it. But not that much! We were at that zeitgeist moment.”
LittleBigPlanet, by almost every definition of the term, was a resounding success. It was critically acclaimed -- arguably the best reviewed game of its time -- and sold over 5 million units. Great numbers for a PlayStation 3 exclusive released in 2008. A PS Vita release, a Karting game and two sequels later, LittleBigPlanet became something of a mascot for Sony.
But you wonder.
May 17 2009, just over six months later, Minecraft releases in its original form. Six years later it’s the gaming phenomenon of a generation, reaching over 100 million players. It’s an educational tool. It’s more than a video game, it’s a cultural icon. LittleBigPlanet was successful, but never in those terms.
Two very different versions of a similar idea.
It’s not something Siobhan dwells on.
“I think that we’ve made enough games to know that ideas are out there,” says Siobhan. “We did our version of our idea and we are very proud of it. Mojang did their version of their idea and they really hit something that resonated with a lot of people. They’re different takes on a similar idea, but each gives the other one strength.
“$3 billion would be nice, but our story is a parallel story, a story that’s reintroduced creativity into the act of gaming.
“And the story’s not finished yet.”