Media Molecule is undoubtedly one of Sony’s most talented first-party studios, a creative hotbed that has sparked some its most critically acclaimed games in LittleBigPlanet for PS3 and Tearaway for Vita.
Both titles feature a vibrant colour palette, offer a playful nature and present unique experiences tuned to their respective hardware. Its games are also proof that not all console releases need to be shooters to be system sellers, a mantra much like Nintendo’s.
The studio, which just won the Develop Award for New IP for its work on Tearaway, is never content to sit on success either. After twice tackling LittleBigPlanet, it has handed the IP over to Sony XDev and other talented studios, with LBP3 currently being developed by UK outfit Sumo Digital, the studio behind the Sonic & All Stars Racing series. It subsequently moved on to Tearaway for Vita and is currently at work on a new IP for PS4.
Speaking with Develop, Media Molecule studio director Siobhan Reddy describes developing a new IP as a “rambling process”, where ideas are brought together like they are in a game jam, using a clear starting point to revolve around.
She adds this is a completely different creative process to that of a sequel, and for obvious reasons, takes longer. For example, if Media Molecule was to make Tearaway 2 now, she says, the challenges involved would be markedly different from the first entry.
“In the first one we had to figure out things like, what is the world constructed out of?” says Reddy. “We always had the idea of paper, but getting to the purity of the paper we had, everything being constructed and how it moved did take us a little bit of time.”
“So yes, we have the construct of the world, the fantasy of the world. But when you are beginning from scratch, there isn’t a set process that you can go through. You have to keep check on yourselves that you’re not basically just going off on one. But sometimes going off on one is what’s required.
“So that’s why it’s really important to work with people that you trust and that you have that kind of creative relationship with, which means you can jump off together and know that you’ll find the wings.”
It’s a creative process that was used for both Tearaway and LittleBigPlanet before it. Reddy says the concept for the original LBP was the meeting point of a set of ideas each of the co-founders Mark Healey, Alex Evans, David Smith and Kareem Ettouney had for the title. And after working together to merge those ideas, the team was eventually able to craft a seamless experience together.
“David worked on a physics engine and had a gameplay prototype that was a physical platformer, which really ends up being like the play side of what LittleBigPlanet was,” explains Reddy.
“The idea of really wanting to make a tool that people could make games using was really important to everybody. But it was particularly important to Mark, who grew up as a Commodore 64 child. It was his entry point into the games industry, and he’d seen that as something that he would really like to be able to build. And that had inspired Alex and Kareem as well.”
Reddy goes on to describe the process of merging together ideas as like writing a piece of music, with developers bringing their creative thoughts to an informall meeting to talk through how the ideas might work. If they resonate with others, then they become part of a real thing, and can form the basis of the next game.
“It’s an ethereal thing. There is no exact science to it other than starting with some ideas and then trying to find the best way to manifest those so that we can see them, and then we can feel them and then we can play them. It’s not a linear thing, you don’t have the idea and then you see it and it’s great.
“It’s more often you have the idea, you see it, you bring a bunch of ideas together, and then you look at it and you’re like, oh okay, that’s what that looks like, so what we need to do now is tweak this.”
Though the core concept of LittleBigPlanet stayed the same – enabling players to create their own worlds – some of the applications and designs changed before the game was finished.
Examples include how players could create or interact with objects. Originally users had physical tools, such as physical paint brushes and a decoration stick to hang decorationson a wall.
“We loved that, it had a real playfulness to it and it was really great,” says Reddy, before admitting: “What we realised when we implemented it was it wasn’t flowing enough. To build a complex level would have been really difficult.
“So that’s kind of one of those examples where we implemented the idea and then were like, okay, that’s cool, but we’ll move over here.”
The ideas for Tearaway meanwhile began with the studio itching to work on a handheld device, with lead creator Rex Crowle expressing early on the idea of using the back touch of the Vita to effectively ‘poke’ a player’s fingers through.
Despite the simple idea however, it wasn’t clear early on what kind of game this could be used in, or how central such a mechanic would be for a game.
“It probably took us a while to get to the point where we had the game that made the best use of that idea,”
says Reddy. “That was the thing we all really wanted to see. When he said it we were all like, that’s so cool.
“And then we tried out a whole bunch of different ideas of ways of interacting with the Vita, and then finally settled upon Tearaway.”
She adds: “But it took us a while, how do we best make that experience? Are you always using the back touch? Are you only using it sometimes? Are you using other things? Is there a character in there? And by the end we realised, yes, we needed another character in there, you couldn’t be using the back touch all the time, it was brilliant to use all the features, and we can introduce that idea of you as the character.”
Given the seemingly complex nature of the creative process, and the changes on the way, when asked if ideas start off completely differently to the end result, Reddy says that isn’t the case at all.
She explains that you can see the relationship between the start and end points of each project it has made, and the studio has never had anything turn out completely different to the core idea.
“It’s often, when you just say a word, or you’re just saying that you want to make a Commodore 64 for this generation, it’s so easy to say, but to figure out what the logistics of actually making that are means that you end up often having to explore a whole bunch of different things,” she states.
“I don’t think the exploration is that strange. That’s probably what anybody coming up with new IP goes through to a certain extent.”
Despite having a hugely creative senior team, that includes Tearaway creative lead Rex Crowle, Reddy says everyone at the studio, even junior staff, are allowed to join in on the creative journey for new IP and contribute their own ideas to the pot.
Moving forward to new games, Reddy remains tight-lipped on whether the studio will be returning to Tearaway, but teases: “We love Tearaway”.
For now though, Media Molecule is embarking on another new IP for the PS4, for which it gave a brief glimpse of during the console’s announcement last year, and will undoubtedly be applying that “rambling” creative process that has proven so successful in the past.