British game developer Media Molecule have proven to be one of the most valuable companies in contemporary video games, channeling that ever-growing trend and ever-growing demand for more creation-based gaming into award-winners like the LittleBigPlanet (LBP) series and the more recent Tearaway Unfolded. Progressive, mind-blowing (and often adorable, if not slightly creepy) design and engaging gameplay have met time and time again throughout their content, and the communities surrounding these games have mirrored that creativity with their own creations. It then makes sense that the gaming world are anxious to see what MM do with their next Playstation 4 exclusive title, Dreams.
So far, the demos for Dreams have indicated a slightly psychedelic, surreal atmosphere with one of the most interesting looking character creation modes I have ever seen. Knowing MM’s track record, it’s looking like Dreams will be unlike anything the gaming world has seen before, so of course I was interested when offered an interview with two key players from Media Molecule – Siobhan Reddy and Alex Moyet.
I didn’t even have to talk much; I could tell Siobhan and Alex were both keen on exploring the game even further through discussion, often bouncing off points made by one another in the transcript below and giving me a clear picture on Media Molecule’s approach to gaming, how they began, what they are aiming for with Dreams, and the very unique community they have created.
Chris: I wanted to talk about a point you raised yesterday about the, I guess, ‘generation of expression’ in gaming. Expressing your emotions and people who may not be able to express themselves in one medium but then find expression in games like Little Big Planet and the upcoming Dreams. I wanted to talk about how much all that – Minecraft to Little Big Planet – boom in creation-based gaming affected your approach to Dreams and how the game is being considered.
Siobhan: When we started Media Molecule, which is 10 years ago now. What we were interested in doing was sticking in the genre of “creative gaming”. Did you ever play Commodore 64?
Siobhan: So that was basically one of the first way people could make games. And it was very much part of the system; it was like you played it, you created it, and you did it all in one thing. That was a real touchstone for the creation of Media Molecule. Our creative Director Mark [Healey] puts down the whole reason he makes games to the fact that he was given a Commodore 64 when he was a kid. He basically loved that the Commodore 64 started with the word “ready”, like “off you go”. And I think when it came around to us making our first project, that was a really important thing, the other was Lego, and then there was a program in England called “Take Heart”.
Take Heart was basically this guy, Tony Heart, who would take famous paintings and almost deconstruct them for kids to recreate. So he’d take, for example, a Monet and figure out how you could just create shapes, and he would figure out a way to help a child to be able to create their version of it. And then he would have this gallery where at the end of the program he would put up his favourite [submissions]. This big thing was always being in the gallery, a couple of the Molecule team had been in that gallery before.
I think these things we do as children are really important, so I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the creative gaming or people who are into any form of digital creation…they probably came from similar places, where it’s like as a child or as a young person they were introduced to the idea of expressing themselves, and found joy in that…and joy is a good thing. When we’re spending a lot of time making something, it’s really nice to make something that becomes a tool for self expression.
When LBP came out, the amount of e-mails that we got was just incredible. Our inbox was dinging all the time, and not just from one type of person, but from all different types of people. They would talk to us about the experiences that they were having. We would get all this fan art from people drawing Sackboys and letters from parents of children who were troubled in some way who found a real outlet with LBP. Even though LBP won loads of awards, those were the things that meant the most to us. It meant that we had done something that had touched somebody. When you put so much into a game, it’s more about the personal…it’s like a personal tax when you are creating anything, and that gets paid back by people loving it.
I think that for us, all of those things are guiding principles to what we are doing with Dreams. A game like Minecraft has been this phenomena which has blown it out of the water in terms of bringing children to digital creation. With Dreams, when we got to the end of LittleBigPlanet 2 we were like “right, it’s time to side step where we were with LBP and build something completely new…and something that is very much for this generation. LBP was built in 2006…do you remember MySpace?
Chris: I do.
Siobhan: Like that feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it? That was one of the touchstones for LBP.
So Dreams has a lot of the same principles for LBP but for the 2016 generation where there’s Twitch, and Pinterest, and Tumblr…and people have grown up playing LBP and Minecraft. They may be way more technically savvy than ever, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that they will want to express themselves. So what we really wanted to do is find a way to really embrace that; they can make games, movies, vignettes, pictures…it’s a bit like taking your Lego, your art kit, maybe throwing in a guitar, and all your toys, and just playing.
Alex: It’s demystifying it all at the same time and just taking away the barriers. I think so many people think of digital creation and think it’s complex and they have to do training, and coding. So much of this journey is taking those tools and making them really easy, really fun. It doesn’t feel like this big barrier like “I have to create, I have to start from scratch”…there are actually a lot of options; a lot of entry points for people. And creation can be anything from starting from scratch or it can be “I’ve taken this hat and added a flower, or changed it’s colour”, and that’s being creative at the same time. So there are a lot of entry points for creation so it’s not just this big scary thing.
Alex Evans actually had this great example. He was playing Lego with his daughter and he asked her “what are you going to make?” and she said “I don’t know. Let’s see.” And that’s kind of what kids do. They start with tools and they just kind of keep on going, and that in itself is the creation and that’s fine when they don’t have to plan it, and have a brief and objective before they start. I think as adults we need to kind of remember that.
Siobhan: Yeah definitely! Like that idea of just, ‘at that moment play’, rather then ‘at that moment create’. That’s what Lego was always amazing for, you didn’t need to know what it was going to be. You didn’t need to be like “I’m building the Deathstar and it’s going to be amazing”, it was more like “we’ve just got all this Lego, let’s make something together”.
Within Dreams, the idea of the tools is..they need to be as simple to understand as a child playing with their model airplane. All the way down, from the animation to the sculpting to the collaging, there’s one system that runs through all of that. At Media Molecule, we’ll do our content, our curated journey which will kick start the community and introduce people to the tools. The best thing that that’s going to do is teach people to create by stealth.
When we did LBP we had all those aspects very separated, there was like “play, create, share”, and they didn’t meet up all the time.
I went to see my nephews in South Africa just after we released LBP2 and they were showing me what they made in the first one. They didn’t have a PSN account so they just played it in a completely different way. I was like “show me what you’ve been doing”, and they just went into a level and started attaching rockets to various different things and blowing each other up. They were doing all this stuff, and it was like ‘at the moment play’, they weren’t trying to create a level, they weren’t trying to play anybody else’s level, they were just using it as a playground. That was really eye-opening.
Alex: We talk a lot about jamming as well. In the same way that two musicians or however many can come together, create some music, never record it or plan it, and just have that great moment and walk away again. It’s like that, you don’t have to plan our gameplay, it can just be of the moment.
Siobhan: Yeah I think that comes back to expression and style. So from the start with this project it has been really important to us that we, particularly our art team, are able to show off our different styles. The team all have their own personal styles and what’s really incredible with what we have now is that the expression is just coming through. You can really tell when you’re looking at the screen that it’s made by a different person to the next creation you look at. So when it comes to ‘jamming’ together then, you get these really interesting mash-ups. A bit more like the idea of a band. I’ve always likened games teams to bands, because often the only thing you have in common is one angle of creative chemistry, you may have nothing else in common. For us, we have many things in common, within Molecule there’s this idea of creating tools, and it being a very artistic company that loves to build from the ground up. But the jamming process has never been that easy or fun to watch in games, so you lose a lot of that aspect of what it is like to perform or jam, or really collaborate with people when you are physically next to each other. That’s one of the things that’s really fascinating about where Dreams is at right now, seeing that actually start to happen – the collaboration and mash-ups start to happen. Many of the current levels are combinations of different people working together, the spaces are combination of two or more quite different designers coming together to make something that’s a really interesting exploration.
Chris: The thing I find most revolutionary about what you guys do. And to bring it back to a comparison with music as well..whenever I talk to musicians we talk about styles always changing, because you have different people always growing up listening to different styles and trends, and so they grow up with those influences. So I guess with you guys, with LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway and Dreams, the most interesting thing to me is the people that have grown up with these games. And where they are going to be in like 10 years or 20 years. They will likely be incredible artists because they grew up with these processes that are so engaging and accessible. Has that ever been in consideration with your approach to these games, like what impact this is going to have on the future?
Siobhan: We got a real sense of that from LBP1. We ended up hiring a third of our company from that community!
Alex: So many amazing people showed what they could do and we just wanted to work with them.
Siobhan: So the mech level of Dreams in the demo was by a builder, John, who had a building company. He got LBP and started to build within that universe, and he became a really beloved creator. And the community actually petitioned us to interview him, we just got all of these e-mails so we just started a chat with him. I’ll never forget John coming to the studio, because he arrived and he was really nervous and what he didn’t realise was that we were equally as excited to meet him. He knew the tools and was doing things we had never even imagined, he took them to a completely different place. He is now one of our strongest designers, his style really comes through within Dreams.
Basically everyone who has come in from the community has brought something different from traditional game development backgrounds, and so I’m certain within Dreams that we’ll have the same experience. It’ll be like “how do we stop hiring people!”.
I think games have gone through this wonderful evolution…our technology changes to such a radical degree every so often that we all have to re-learn what we’re doing. I love how in the past 10 years it has become…the idea of games is like cross-platform, it’s like on the web, it’s all this sort of digital art interacting and mushing together. When I think of what young people have at their finger tips it’s like “wow, how do they know how to do it all, it’s amazing!”
Chris:Yeah, as a child all I had was that Simpsons Movie Maker!
Alex: Yes, I had that. That was amazing. But yeah I wish I could just be a child with Dreams now, and see where I could end up.
Siobhan: I think that one of the things people love about the indie game movement is that there are now very personal stories. It came at a point where the industry really needed a bit of shake up, and now people are able to tell very personal stories. That’s the thing I’m very fascinated to see, what happens there.
Chris: Where do you see this going especially now that PSVR is being introduced.
Siobhan: It’s just mind blowing. The limits for people is their imaginations, like PSVR is just phenomenal, it’s just wonderful and we are very, very excited about getting Dreams onto Playstation VR.
To find out more about Media Molecule’s Dreams click HERE