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Q&A: Media Molecule devs talk LittleBigPlanet
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We corner three members of the Media Molecule team and pick their brains on user content, the changing nature of game development, and everything LittleBigPlanet.

At its European media event last week, Sony announced that its highly anticipated PlayStation 3-exclusive game LittleBigPlanet had been pushed back a month to October 2008. We trapped three members of the Media Molecule team--studio cofounder Alex Evans, audio designer Kenny Young, and the game's producer, Siobhan Reddy--to pick their brains on everything LittleBigPlanet.

GameSpot AU: How is it that a team of just 25 [at Media Molecule] has managed to do so much with so few people?

Alex Evans: Well the thing is, they're all super-talented. On some level we've picked our battles--that's the honest answer. We couldn't have made a Final Fantasy or a GTAIV, both incredible games, but we picked our battles and then picked our people, and that's what we tried to do.

Kenny Young: Another thing is that a small team facilitates quick decision making and allows for good communication. It can be brutal too because you can't hide. You can see everyone and you're on first-name terms with everyone. I know that sounds silly, but I've worked on teams of a hundred people where you just don't know what's going on at the other side of the office. But when it's a bunch of people based in a room you just can't hide anywhere.

Siobhan Reddy: It's like the game. The game has co-op versus competitive, and that's where we are as a team [laughs]. We're really ultra-cooperative and collaborative, but everyone is really very good at what they do, and you can't have that without there being a bit of "Oh, wow, that's excellent, that means I have to raise my game and be more excellent." The bar just keeps getting raised. There's no time to rest.

AE: That's one of the things about the game; it makes you pick it up. The cool thing is, there's going to be a dark side to our game too, and it's exactly the same as our company. If you read our blog, it's the same vibe as the company. We do this Friday feature where one person has to show off what they've done that week--there's pressure, it's serious pressure, but it's good natured.

GS AU: User-generated content plays a huge role in LittleBigPlanet. Would the title have been possible without user-generated content's rise in popularity?

AE: Yes. When you say user-generated content I trace it back to God games and loads of other things like shoot-'em-up construction kits.

SR: I think of building blocks, Lego, and sand castles.

AE: We scaled that right back in the pitch to Sony. When we pitched to Sony we were like, "OK, it's going to be this core gameplay and it's going to have this tactical element." I think that's the really important message we fail to get across to people now. There is this great fun game to play, and you don't have to make stuff. That's what we pitched to Sony and then we were like, "Oh, yeah, and it's creative, cough." The cool thing was that Phil Harrison--who we were pitching to at the time--at the end of it was like, "That was cool, but I wish you'd talk more about the user-generated content side," and we were like, "OK..." and then realised. The meeting was literally booked for 45 minutes, and it ended up taking three hours in the end. We've always been passionate about users and making it fun.

GS AU: Without sounding like the creative industry's death knell, how long will developers play a major role in making games if user-generated content is getting so big?

AE: Forever.

GS AU: Is it changing then to a scenario where developers are just creating the tools and the building blocks to let the users make their own games?

AE: Yeah, there's always room for editorial decisions. The thing with user-generated content is that it changes the game. There's always space for professionals, and I don't mean trained, I mean people who have chosen to commit an insane amount of time to something.

SR: In that same argument we would say that people who write blogs will take over newspapers, and amateur photographers will take over professional photographers. There will always be a role for game developers.

AE: Modders are matching the quality of professionals, and Flickr photos are often professional quality, and blogs are often the same. It doesn't remove the need for other channels. I'm really hoping the quality of the stuff made in LittleBigPlanet will be beyond the quality of what we ship with the game. We're not going to be out of a job, but there will be loads of people with the same talents we have, and maybe more of it.

GS AU: What are your plans to update the user-generated content tools once the game ships? How will you evolve them over time?

AE: That's definitely a direction we see it going. We have the ability to patch as much code as we like, but I think what's interesting is more the way people abuse stuff. I don't know if you've ever seen Line Rider on YouTube, but people totally abuse the tool without the tool needing to change. The more I see someone abusing something in a really cool direction, we just go and help them out. The funny thing is people are making levels now in LittleBigPlanet that I hadn't expected to be made, and to me that's the sign of a good tool. You watch professionals use Photoshop and everyone has a different way of using it, or if you're using a sound editing package, everyone will have a different way of using it. People are already using LittleBigPlanet in different ways, so we just have to make sure that we can patch in stuff, and I don't think it'll be new features per se. There's a niche here; we should just support that. The community can help itself as well, because you can make unlockables in the game. You can construct items that we never thought of and start trading them and collaborating. We've given quite basic building blocks, but someone might be known as the car dude. You'll have levels that aren't really levels; it's just a garage full of 30 or 40 awesome cars, and if you're his friend you can go and unlock it and use them yourself. That's exciting.

GS AU: You mentioned abuse, and it's an issue we've seen handled a few different ways, in many cases managed by the game's community. What are you doing as a team to manage a potential influx of inappropriate content into the gameworld?

AE: I'm a bit relentlessly positive about that stuff. At baseline we have griefing, we have moderation systems in place, and we have ways to report content, and that's the stick side--but we also have the carrot side. I'm actually more interested in stuff like the rating-up system, like if you look at the way comments work on so many Web sites, they solved a lot of the griefing problems by just screening stuff people said was rubbish. It just vanishes. It's like the positive version of moderation, the positive stuff bubbles to the top. We give people more opportunities to say, "Hey, that was awesome!" and push people in that direction. When I was saying abuse before I meant it in the positive sense of things I hadn't thought of.

SR: More like manipulate, or take advantage of.

AE: It is a total fuzzy area. You see people exploiting a physics bug, and it's really hard to know where you go with that. If it's not destructive to people, then we want to help the community. You see communities online, and some of them work, and some don't. It's all about not being too draconian and at the same time helping the good guys out to be good guys. It's not just constant ban hammer, ban hammer, ban hammer. That has to be there, we have to deal with them, and that's part of the Internet. There's a form of community-based moderation, and ultimately there are super moderators that are internal to us, but we certainly could do little features that help the community moderate itself.

GS AU: Kenny, Alex, and Siobhan, thanks for your time.



By Dan Chiappini