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Interview: Media Molecule's Alex Evans, on LittleBigPlanet 2

We know enough about Media Molecule's follow-up to 2008's highly customizable platformer LittleBigPlanet to know that it's remarkably ambitious. Still, for each feature the studio announces, dozens of questions surface about how they'll actually be implemented in LittleBigPlanet 2. For answers to these burning queries, we turned to Media Molecule co-founder Alex Evans. Click past the jump to learn more about the sequel's bold new creation tools, community features, PlayStation Move functionality, and the unconventional ways the small development studio has expanded.

Gallery: LittleBigPlanet 2 (E3 2010) | 9 Photos

When the subject of a sequel to the original LittleBigPlanet first came up, you guys were kind of cold on the subject, so what was ...

Misquote! Actually, that was a genuine misquote. What the original conversation was, I believe it was with Eurogamer, who said to one of our guys, "so, if you did a sequel, it would really split the community up," and we answered, "yeah, we wouldn't want to do that, we wouldn't want to split the community up." I can see how they read that like there wouldn't be any sequel, but the ironic thing was, he was already working on the sequel at that point.

And you've gotten past that by making everything backwards compatible?

Totally. We're absolutely true to the idea that we don't want to split the community, and that was the core of it. Like, not just the user-generated content, but also the DLC, so that's the thing that changed. The other side of it in deciding to do a sequel instead of DLC actually boils down to being able to do 10 or 20 new features at once that all play off one another, like sum is greater than the parts. Like, if you release DLC, then you get levels that show off one new feature or two new features in isolation.

With a Blu-ray, we can not only bring new people into the franchise, we can say, "okay, here's Sackbots and Direct Control, plus this and plus this, and plus the grapple hook, and meld them in interesting ways, and so on.

So when did you actually decide to start working on LittleBigPlanet 2?

It's actually kinda morphed into it. Full team, only about nine months now, six to nine months -- but it's always been on the books. Basically the way we work and the way we'll work after LittleBigPlanet 2 comes out is to use the community to prioritize our work. So, immediately after LittleBigPlanet, we were contractually agreed with Sony that we would go on supporting it. We always said in the press, "Oh yeah, Blu-ray's just the beginning," and we really felt that way. It's kind of like the MMO model of games as a service -- not that we're an MMO, but you can't just leave your community behind when you've just shipped the game.

So, what we did was we spent a year making features, and some of them made it into the sequel, and some of them made it into the DLC, and we actually didn't know ahead of time which way it was going to be. So if we really perceived a need for something in the community, and we had a piece of DLC we could tie it together with, like the Paintenator with Metal Gear Solid, we really wanted to get the paint gun in the game, but that could have been in the sequel. We didn't really pre-judge it, so that's kind of how we decided.

And you finally decided nine months ago what features would make it into the sequel?

Yeah, exactly. I mean, I call the nine month time out because that's when the majority of Media Molecule started pushing towards and designing a sequel, because, you know, it's a big project. But we already had a lot of the code down, and we had the Direct Control Seat, and we were just doing things like iterating on Sackbots, and building the story, building the narrative side of the game.

You guys have been promoting the number two million for the user-created levels in the original LittleBigPlanet, were you surprised by the community engagement with the first title?

Absolutely! There's been another number that we haven't been quoting too much, I think it's 50k a week? It could be 50k a day that are being uploaded. You'll have to quote me at 50k a something.

So, 50k a second?

Yeah, there we go.

Were you overwhelmed by that number?

Yeah, but in a great way. It's like, LittleBigPlanet was really hard to describe, I was really amazed by the press getting behind us the way they did, so with LBP 2, we were like, okay, we're going to make this really hard to describe again, because we trust the community more. We were overwhelmed, and I was astounded by some of the exploits they built, like the guy who did color lasers, and the guy who did 50 layers. It's actually inspiring to us. Like I said before, we've hired four people from the community into our small studio of like, 35, 36 people.

You talked a bit during yesterday's demo about Johnny, can you go into detail about that?

It's an interesting story. What's amazing about him is that he had these levels that had this narrative twist to them. It's really hard to tell stories in LBP 1, we don't give you a lot of features, while in LBP 2 we give you Sackbots, we give you voiceovers. We saw his levels, and the community was actually emailing us, saying, "check this guy out," over and over again. So we sent him a PSN message saying "come down to the studio," and we didn't know who he was or anything about him.

It turned out that he left school at 16-years-old, and he worked for his dad at his own construction company, and just was a gamer, really. He had never done a job interview in his life, so when he was finally convinced by the community that we weren't just spamming him with fake PSN messages, he turned up. He's a really sweet guy, quite young, never had a job interview before, so he showed up in a borrowed suit, sweating, like holding his PS3 in his arm. He came up in this beat up construction van, like a Ford Transit van, and turned up, just sweating and sweating.

He had all these unpublished levels, and told us "I haven't published these yet, because they're not perfect," and we were all crowded around the monitor, just asking "how did you do that? How did you do that?" He was showing us ways of using our tools which, we guess we knew it was possible on some level, but on another level, the way he was using it was really inspiring. He's what we now jokingly call an "insta-hire," it was just like, done.

He's been an amazing shaper of the tools we're working on, he just immediately gets down to it. He doesn't use a PC, he just uses a PS3 all day, just building levels, but with these ropey builds we kept giving him, like "okay, Johnny, what did you think about that?" It's been great.

(Ed. Note: If you want to see the quality of levels that get you hired by Media Molecule, you can play Johnny's LittleBigPlanet levels by searching for the PSN name "Johnee.")

One of the main ways you had with interacting with the community was the News Feed built into LittleBigPlanet, but it wasn't updated that frequently.

Yeah, it failed. It failed miserably. Basically, there were technical and process reasons -- esoteric shit, basically -- do deal with the way we run the service with Sony. What we're doing now is our community managers, Tom and Spaff, will be responsible for updates in the game from now on. Which is awesome, because they're updated in the dev team.

We also have a new review system in the game, which we're hoping will create super users, super reviewers. So anyone can now review a level, so people can write really quite long reviews, and people can comment on your reviews, and players will earn kudos for writing good reviews. Media Molecule is initially the first and only super reviewer, and that ultimately gets posted into everyone's screen. But eventually we could create community members who are trusted to pick out great levels and things like that.

Is that something you're patching into LittleBigPlanet 1?

Reviews will be LittleBigPlanet 2, but interestingly, the technology that we're building will run both services, so they'll actually be the same service. People publishing in LBP 1 will also be published in LBP 2, it's not like a one-off dump of all the levels from the first game into LBP 2. And will work for LittleBigPlanet 1 as well, so levels you publish will show up online, so you can use the web interfacing features to publicize your LBP levels as well.

In the first few months after LittleBigPlanet's release, there was a problem with moderation of a lot of user-created levels based on licensed material. Media Molecule seems to have eased up on this, but with LBP 2 opening up to so many other genres, you're probably going to see more mock-ups of people recreating their favorite games. What's your position on licensed content in user's levels?

I mean, I wouldn't advise it, or endorse it per se, but moderation is a very behavioral thing. We first approached it like, "if you do bad content, then you were moderated," and that's the baseline. But sometimes moderation turns into a very detailed judgment call. For example, in LittleBigPlanet, you can sticker levels while you're playing them. Quite often, moderators will see a brief report about licensed or offensive material in a level that's actually fine, but the behavior of the people playing it wasn't fine.

So, it took us a while to learn that. We were in uncharted territory, but we did get it harmonized. Another thing was worldwide, there are different laws in different communities. We were very keen in that we wanted a unified community, not a Japanese LBP, and an American LBP and a European LBP. So, that took some time to harmonize.

Also, a few companies I can't mention approached us and said, "we want to whitelist ourselves. Please, unless we get really, really offended and come and tell you, we want you to whitelist our levels and never pull them." Like, gaming IP holders. And that was an awesome reaction, to have that level of understanding and support, that the game industry understands that a good level in LittleBigPlanet is a good thing for your IP.

I can't condone it because I'm not the owner of that IP, but ultimately, we made the tools available to the IP holders. If they don't like their IP being infringed, we'll immediately remove it. But some enlightened people have realized that a good LBP level can add some value to their brand, and that's great.

How many of the new tools in LittleBigPlanet 2 were inspired by innovations created by the community?

Actually, very many of them were. The way I put it was, Thomas Ford was famous for saying, "if I asked them what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse. But I gave them a car." What Mark Healy and Dave, the other designer, have been very good at, they tend to look at the community, who says "I want X, or I want a sports game, or I want this specific feature, what's a good example -- I want to do magnetism, or water, or a cannon, and you'll have a flood of good ideas like that.

What Mark and Dave do is find the one feature we can do that covers all of these things. Like the Creatinator, which you can put on Sackboy, and you can map anything to come out of that. With Direct Control, you can map it to any button. Suddenly, you've covered off all of the requests around all the player power-ups the community wanted. They prioritize for us, so we've gone through a process of distillation, figuring out how to cover 100 requests with one little feature.

Media Molecule has been acquired by Sony since LittleBigPlanet came out. How do you feel about that acquisition, and are you basically just the LittleBigPlanet studio now, or do you have the option to do more stuff like Rag Doll Kung-Fu?

Basically, Sony have been very supportive from the beginning, and for me it's business as usual so far. Actually, it means I get to code more, and not worry about people's payroll and mortgages, so it's been great. When we discussed with them, they told us "look, we like the way you make games, and that's more than just LittleBigPlanet, so whatever you want to build in the future."

We've built a level of trust with Sony that we think would take a lot of time to build with anyone else, so what they've acquired is the way we make games instead of just LittleBigPlanet. Cambridge studio doing LittleBigPlanet on the PSP is a great example of that, it's something that lives on. I'd love to do something bigger than LBP, but maybe we'll do LittleBigPlanet 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or maybe we'll do something else. I have to ship this one before I tell you! Yeah, so, Sony is happy for us to do whatever we want as far as we can tell. As long as it's not Oranges from Space or something stupid like that.

At Tokyo Game Show last year, you showed up LittleBigPlanet running with PlayStation Move functionality, but you've been pretty quiet about it since then. Could you go into any detail about that?

Yeah, I can actually ... I can tell you everything.

Yeah, please do!

Our philosophy is anything we do, we have to give to the community so they can use it in their own levels. For us, I think the Direct Control Seat is the obvious answer to how to use Move. So, right now, players can use the Direct Control Seat to decide how the Sixaxis affects your level, and we'd like to do the same thing for the Move. We have something like that internally, but it's not fully built. We're working with another studio to help us prototype out what Move could be, and those levels will be on the disc at launch, to show players what they'll be able to build.

Then what we'll do after launch is release a patch is we'll add the creative tools, so what we'll do is put these Move levels on the disc at launch, which, most people play LittleBigPlanet, and not everyone wants to create. But give us a little bit more time, we'll put the create tools in, and then the community can run with Move. And I'm really looking forward to that point, because then it's not our problem to create Move levels anymore. We can build some to inspire people, like with the Sixaxis.

The community can choose the mapping, like, I really look forward to, are they going to build cursor-based games, are they going to build gesture-based games? They have the choice eventually, and that's our high bar with Move. We didn't want to set a low bar with it, and tack it on the side. We wanted it to be a fully fledged citizen like the Sixaxis.

You touched on something I'm curious about -- what's the breakdown between people who just play LittleBigPlanet, and those who invest some time into the creation tools?

That's an interesting question. We're surprised really, by how many people create and upload levels, and the stats for YouTube were like, fractions of a percent uploads videos. I think pretty much everyone who has PSN account, as far as we can tell, has uploaded a level. Most people have created and published, which I think is really inspiring. Most of them have only had one or two plays, but ...

How many of those levels were "Get all the Trophies Here!" or "Heart for Heart?"

Yeah, I know there are some memes we have to squash down, but most of them are really simple. I love the tutorial levels. There are few memes I really like, more positive ones like, "Here's how you do this," and "Here's how you make this costume." So there's quite a lot like that that's not gameplay. In the new game, we have a categorization system where you can publish non-games, and I hope that, like maybe 5 to 10 percent of people who publish levels of people have levels that are played by hundreds of people. As a percentage, that's a huge amount, and obviously more than just their mates playing.

What do you mean by "non-games?"

Yeah, stuff like tutorial levels, or "collect my costume that's awesome." That's not actually a game, it's more like a physical website. Also with the linking feature in LBP 2 you can put links between levels within levels. So, I'm looking forward to people publishing levels which are just links to all the cool shit they've found.

Are you at all worried that the LittleBigPlanet community will ever evolve to a point that they'll somehow come up with a way to build new LittleBigPlanets, and put you out of business?

No, because we'll just hire them.

And the other thing is, we make the tools, so there'll always be room for us to improve the tools and provide inspiration, and give them new assets. They will always inspire us, and we'll inspire them, and so it'll always be symbiotic.

Well, they've done things you haven't expected with the tools before. What if they use your tools to create their own tools?

Actually, one of our QA guys, unfortunately I can't remember who it was, managed to build the Pop-It menu into his level using the Direct Control Seat. He recreated Pop-It in a way that made it so you could use it in the middle of Play mode, because at the moment, Play mode is a completely separate thing. You can't use the Pop-It tools, and he was unhappy with that. So he built a bridge-building level using that virtual Pop-It.

What Mark Healy was saying, was that what he wants for LittleBigPlanet 2 is a hybrid genre game, in which, if you can do it in 2.5D, you should be able to do it in our game.

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