The existence of LittleBigPlanet 2 has been one of the gaming world’s worst-kept secrets for a while now. But few people knew what form LBP 2 would take -- would it be an evolution or a revolution? As I learned last week at a Sony event in London, it’s a little of both. Media Molecule is essentially doubling down on the bet they made two years ago, that a dedicated fanbase with the right set of tools can make LittleBigPlanet more exciting than an office full of developers could ever manage on their own. I talked to Media Molecule co-founder Alex Evans to discuss the direction of the series. In the process, I found out that Evans loves kids with business cards, hates his own game-design skills, and absolutely adores E3.
G4: I want to talk about the new features of LittleBigPlanet 2, but first, can you talk about what’s not going to change? What’s the “soul” of LittleBigPlanet?
Alex Evans: LittleBigPlanet, for me, is a chance to let people enjoy creating. Enjoy showing off. The act of playing and the act of creating is just a joyous thing -- and as a side effect you look cool because you published this great level, and everyone benefits. We called it “creative gaming” at the beginning. It wasn’t just about making a cold tool, making chisels and paintbrushes. And visually, because I’m a visual guy, it was handmade. That’s the one-word description. It has to be a handmade visual world.
Sackboy was actually our surprise superstar. He’s the disarming character that draws many people into LittleBigPlanet, even if it’s just subconsciously. They’re a little bit put on edge -- “I don’t understand this crazy, weird game. It’s kind of…uploading games? I don’t get it. Oh, hang on, Sackboy!” I engage with him, I’m emotionally attached to him, and 10 minutes in, I’m happily playing, and I haven’t even noticed what happened.
None of that has changed, and Sackboy is the hero through the new story. He is the emotional linchpin that remains.
G4: How has your vision of the game been transformed since LBP was released? How have the users surprised you?
Evans: Oh, God. During the first game, we did a constant course correct. “Is this a game, or is this a tool? A game or a tool?” And when we released, we knew the story was good. It was reviewed well, and people enjoyed the story part. That was lovely. But the creative side was what really worried me. The private beta trial that we did, the best level was a couple of shapes that came down and some fireworks. That was it. And I was thinking, “Yes! This is user-generated content. It’s gonna be good.”
I had no idea that it was going to explode. Even on day 1 of the public beta trial -- it was just before the U.S. elections -- and [there was a game] like, “Vote in the elections! Choose your candidate,” and you could blow up Obama or McCain. There was really funny, broad, inventive, viral gameplay. All these different ideas and innovation.
In the same sense as YouTube, there’s tons of stuff that’s mediocre, tons of stuff that’s interesting, tons of stuff that’s personal and only makes sense to a few people. And then every now and then you get these golden nuggets where it’s like, “Oh, I never thought of that simple idea. How is that the first time that’s happened?” LittleBigPlanet really shone in that direction. That’s what astounds me. Still, to this day, our “player concurrency count,” if you like, is as high if not higher than when we launched the game. The reason for that is the serendipity of finding [content] -- you play a few levels, and then you find one that remixed or twisted an idea, or you find one that makes you laugh out loud. I love that.
You see this pyramid of people. At the pinnacle of it, you’ve got 50 people who do stuff that I didn’t know you could do -- they’ve broken the game for us in so many ways. The 50-layer bug is my favorite one that they’ve exploited. It’s being used artistically to create new backgrounds. Which wasn’t supposed to be possible, but they’ve done it. Then below the 50 people, you’ve got 500 who make good levels. Then you have the 5,000 who have made levels that are totally worth playing. And it goes down and down.
LBP 2 is about pushing the amazing stuff to a broader audience. The people at the pinnacle can go to new heights. But I love the fact that a 7-year-old can plop down a Sackbot, act emotion into it, call his or her voice into it, and tell a story. To say the abstract and techy “Sackbot” doesn’t convey the simple pleasure you get telling a little story with the tool.
G4: Yeah, “Sackbot” sounds so mechanical, but it actually has the potential to offer the most emotional investment in the game.
G4: What lessons did you learn in LBP in terms of the community -- connecting the top creators in that “pyramid” with other players?
Evans: The microchips are key. We approached the circuit boards and microchips from the point of view of a lot more power. We were power-hungry supercreators. We wanted the ability to create mental machines. When we started wrapping them up into chips, it was like, “Wow, I’ve taken this incredibly complicated idea, a complete program that does all this AI stuff, and now I can just give it to anyone.” I plug it into my Sackbot’s brain, and it has this complex behavior. Suddenly you have a mechanism, in microchips, which allows the top-tier “electrical engineers” to package and distribute their expertise. To push it down the pyramid.
But the big one for me -- the trick we missed and the lesson we learned in LBP -- we totally missed that it was a walled garden. If you’d spent a weekend making something cool -- perhaps you’ve made a complete history of World War II as told through LittleBigPlanet. How do you upload that? How do you advertise it? We missed that.
So for LBP 2, its web API features -- things that sound terrifyingly techy -- just boil down to “show off.” Allow people to show off and be aggregators. I’d love the idea of a blog that posts every day with links to levels, which was not feasible before and now is trivial. You can click on those links, see a website, be enticed, and then with one button click, you know that the next time you go home, that level will be queued up for you.
The QR codes [2-D barcodes] for print are a fun feature that we didn’t emphasize in the presentation. If you make a QR code of a link, “lbp.me/john” or whatever your link is -- the game is constantly looking out with the PlayStation Eye for QR codes. And if you hold a QR code of a level up, it will take you to that level. Hold up the QR code of a creator, it will take you to that creator’s stuff. So the awesome thing is, you can imagine print magazines or ads for DLC. Or even blogs on your phone -- you’re going through, and it’s like, “Oh, this guy really likes this level. Here’s the QR code. I’ll just hold it up to the PlayStation Eye.” Bang, I’m in the level.
I love the idea of kids with business cards. They give you a little business card and on the back there’s a QR code, like, “Check out my levels.”
G4: We’re going to see those all over GDC next year.
Evans: I hope so. I’ll have them!
G4: The “stream” of your friends’ activity looks like a Facebook news feed. Is there a particular website that serves as a model for the social features?
Evans: The [LittleBigPlanet 2] news feed is inspired by tons of things on the web. The idea of “following” -- asymmetrical friendships -- as much as the Facebook symmetrical ones. As mechanisms for focusing the social web, that’s where it comes from. Yes, you can pick out particular great examples that have succeeded, but the key word is “social.” The key is pertaining to you via your network of friends.
We sort of had that in LittleBigPlanet. We had the “heart a creator” idea. We found that the journalists of LBP and our community managers -- who were hired from the community; they ran a fansite -- they told us, “The way we find good levels is, we go and look at particular people, and we look at what they’ve hearted.” We were like, that fits so neatly into the news feed concept that we’ll just expand on that. And that’s what the stream is.
G4: The microchip concept feels more technical than anything in LBP. How did you arrive at that metaphor?
Evans: It’s funny because we were building everything physically. What we try to do is take abstract ideas like an AND gate and make it completely physical. The fact that you’re wiring it up and the sound effects are all like, “clunk, whirr, zzz,” makes it feel real. So we arrived at the microchip, ironically, from a very physical standpoint. It’s like, OK, we have this idea of wires and switches and stuff. Let’s expand upon it. The microchips weren’t in there originally. People were just gluing this stuff to the back wall of the level, wiring it up. And then someone said, “I’d love to be able to package that. I’d love to be able to do [the wiring] and say, ‘Don’t worry about that. It’s done now.’” That was the idea of the microchips.
You can have microchips within microchips within microchips. The idea snowballed. You build a small set of axioms -- a small set of ideas -- and on them great things are built. We didn’t realize the power of it until we’d done it accidentally almost.
G4: You’re essentially translating object-oriented programming into the LBP world.
Evans: Yeah, it’s a great learning tool. I used LBP in my friend’s high-school physics class. He’s a teacher, and we were using it to measure gravity and talk about air resistance. And now you can teach basic undergraduate electrical engineering in LBP, no problem. It’s a terrifying thought, but quite cool.
G4: You must worry, though, about making the tools too complex. How do you strike the right balance?
Evans: Again, it comes back to that physicality. I’ll use a cinematography example. If you use the cut-scene camera [in LBP 2], the first button you get is “angle.” Change the camera angle. You don’t have to know anything about cinema to get that. But if you want to go deeper into the onion skin, you get to depth of field, rack focus, dollying, all these different features. They’re there for you. You can discover them at your own pace.
And secondly, editing. I would err -- because luckily, I’m not the game designer -- on an abstract design. I’m so used to using something like Final Cut or C++ or some pro tool. That’s my world. Originally, Popit, the creative tools had a move tool, a rotate tool, and a scale tool, which is precisely how pro graphics programs work. We were so set in our professional ways. But it wasn’t fun. And then the sticker tool went into the game. The sticker thing was just slapping [the X button], and we were suddenly back to our game roots.
We were like, “Why is stickering so much more appealing than making anything else in the game?” That was where [we got] the idea that everything in the game should be about sampling and smearing and scaling. It’s not about tools.
What we’re doing internally is that typically we err on the professional side -- too many modes and buttons. And then we strip it back. Very often, that stripping back becomes physical. So coming back to the Final Cut thing -- I would make some abstract interface for editing timelines, and Chris, the guy who implemented it was like, “No, it’s very simple. You’ll take a camera, and you’ll wire it to the next camera you want physically. So if you want a sequence of cameras, you’ll just wire them together in a daisy chain.”
Suddenly you’re using all the metaphors that are already built into Popit. You understand the concept of wiring, so now, we’re just representing time as a daisy chain of wires. Although it sounds abstract, it has this internal consistency.
G4: You’re designing all of the levels in LBP 2 with the PS3 game’s level editor, not on a PC editor. How important is it to be “eating your own dog food” like that?
Evans: God, it’s terrifying and vital. Unless you do that, you will never iterate. We have cut so much stuff out of LittleBigPlanet because we didn’t use it. There were whole swaths of features that we, on paper, knew would be epically awesome. We put them out to the team, didn’t use it, it had to go. That’s why it’s important.
"Every time we’ve not eaten our own dog food, we’ve stepped in it later."
Otherwise you have no objective judgment whether something is good or bad. I can’t stress that enough. Every time we’ve not eaten our own dog food, we’ve stepped in it later.
G4: Are you limited by the choice to keep backward compatibility with LBP levels?
G4: Was there any debate on that decision?
Evans: There was no debate, actually, and it was the right thing to do because people have made such an investment of time and money. I love the fact that we’re doing what no other sequel has done in terms of the value you get. On launch, you get 2 million levels built with the content of a game you don’t even have to own. Plus a new story, plus the new [content]. So the value proposition is awesome. And we were like, “There’s no reason not to do [backward compatibility].”
And then I realized that there is: It’s a technical nightmare. Just investing in the testing to make sure that we don’t break the 2 million levels is really hard. I’m so glad we did it, and I hate myself. [Laughs.] So, yes, from a design standpoint, it was the right thing. From a technical standpoint, we’ve had to rework so much stuff and remaster so much. It’s been a great challenge. Maybe I’d say “never again,” but it was still the right thing to do.
G4: Can you talk about the creative process at Media Molecule? To an outsider, it seems like you spend a lot of time creating cool stuff for internal use, with no purpose aside from inspiring each other.
Evans: That’s an element of it. The hippie vibe is there. But what we do is -- Siobhan [Reddy], the producer, is very rigorous. She worked on Burnout through Burnout 4 for Criterion. She brought a very structured process. We deliver milestones, but we set them monthly, and we set them as they happen. So we don’t have a long-term plan, but we do force ourselves to deliver. That’s the flip side to what you’re saying. Yes, we jam together -- that’s what we call it. We do a lot of jamming, a lot of iteration, a lot of brutal cutting and soul-searching -- eating our own dog food and going, “That’s just not working.”
The flip side of it is we have to keep delivering, keep shipping. The hard thing is that whether it’s writing or delivering a website -- shipping something is much rarer than starting something. So what we have to do is take the jamming, hippie mentality and overlay constant delivery, constant delivery. That’s our process. We were showing stuff today that’s not quite done yet and was delivered yesterday for the build. The reason we haven’t shown all the character enhancements is that we will deliver them for E3. I remember one journalist saying to me, “Alex, there weren’t bombs the last time you showed the game. Why are you holding all this stuff back?” And it’s like, I’m not holding it back -- I only wrote it last week!
That is our process. But you have to have that milestone. I love E3. I love this announcement. Because it gave everyone this concrete line: Everyone is going to see your shit, so you have to get it in, to your quality, to your personal pride. [Media Molecule] is only 35 people, and not all of them are even developers. Every single person has a significant impact on the game. If they weren’t proud of what they were doing, they’d get scared and they start pulling stuff. And that’s great -- that’s how things get cut.
G4: It’s rare to hear a developer talk about how much they love E3.
Evans: It’s great! It’s hard, it kills me, but it’s great.