Media Molecule does not really work like other developers. The studio behind beautiful handicraft adventures LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway makes games about creativity – about colored paper, cardboard, pencils and stickers; its heroes are loveable cloth dolls and paper critters, its worlds are as bright as finger paintings. Organizing such a hugely innovative team requires a very specific set of skills. Which is where Siobhan Reddy comes in.
Growing up in Sydney, Australia, in the early 1990s, Reddy immersed herself in the city's music scene, spending her teen years making punk zines and short films. Then, in her early twenties, spotting the emerging creative potential of video games, she moved to the U.K., working first for Perfect Games, developers of the Disc World adventures, then for Criterion as it set out on its Burnout odyssey.
She joined Media Molecule just after it was founded by Lionhead luminaries Mark Healey, Alex Evans, David Smith and Kareem Ettouney. As studio head, she has guided the growing team through all its award-winning titles, and now faces the biggest challenge of the studio's life: Dreams. This incredibly ambitious project is a vast creative package, promising to let us build our own games, animations, sculptures and experiences, and it is the culmination of Media Molecule's whole philosophy – to turn players into creators.
We visited the team's office in Guildford, a historical hotbed of games production, to ask Reddy about her influences, approach to development, and the ideas and aims behind their most fascinating adventure yet.
It seems like you grew up really immersed in the DIY punk ethic, which feels quite relevant to the ethos at Media Molecule …
Yeah, I did work experience at a recording studio, and then at a label called Phantom Records which had its own record store – it was one of my favorite shops, right in the center of Sydney, so I was really excited to work there. I was just sort of immersed in that culture – it was a very accessible thing. I wrote to bands and asked them for interviews, they always replied. I was, like, 14, and it made me think, "Oh, I could maybe put on gigs." I endlessly talked about doing that. And then I started to get into making short films, and that diverted all of my attention. Weirdly, that was how I ended up on the path to games; with the fanzines, all I used were photocopiers – my dad's newsagent bill was just so massive! But making films got me into using tech, using film software, to tell stories, which kind of introduced me to the internet. I got into the film school, but I'd just taken this job as a PA to a guy running a web company, and I sort of decided to work. I was like, "I should go experience the world and then make some films." And I was really excited by what this web company was doing; they had partnered up with all these galleries in America, like the Museum of Contemporary Art, and they were just trying to find ways to share culture with the world, and I was like, 'Wow, this looks really cool.' This kind of eventually led to games.
You went to the U.K. to work at Perfect Games. How was that?
It was great. I was hired by Luci Black, who now works here. They were making Discworld Noir at the time, and yeah, that was my introduction to game development. I was basically like, 'Wow, how do you actually break all this down?' It was so awesome to just wander around the studio and have a room full of amazing animators over there, and a room full of amazing artists, and then go to the sound area and the room where the coders were. I felt like it was just this amazing combination of people and crafts, and each area had such a different flavor. It was a little bit like walking through a dance studio – you know, you have ballet up there and then breakbeat and jazz down there, there's all this different music happening.
Then you moved to Criterion. What did that teach you?
I started there when they were just finishing TrickStyle, and I kind of helped at the tail end. Then we made AirBlade, then we ended up working on Burnout. I learned so much. The culture at Criterion was really built around getting projects out. I remember there being this really clear moment of wanting to make a critically and commercially successful game that sold a million units. That was a goal for us. That was one of the most brilliant, educational experiences in my career – with Burnout 3, we combined the full studio's efforts around one game. Electronic Arts had some great people come in to help us be more... bolshy with the design. If you look at Burnout 1 and 2 and then Burnout 3, there's a stark visual difference – 3 was the point where it was like, let's just amp it up. If it's gonna be about this risk-reward system, then let's embrace that, and embrace the humor, the fun and the arcadey-ness of it. We turned all the effects up to 200 precent and got rid of everything that didn't just completely focus on the one core experience. And we went through all these layers of subtraction, and just ended up with Burnout 3, which is one of the projects I'm most proud of, because it was just so fun. Everyone working on that went through an experience together of, like, "Wow, right, okay, that's how you do it. That's how you turn ingredients of a game into something cohesive and something that holds together."
It's interesting that EA came in and were creatively helpful. The stereotype is the exact opposite. Bullfrog being a classic example.
Yeah, that's true. At that time, EA had Glenn Entis and Habib Zargarpour working there, and they had hired in film people to come and look at games. It was that era, where games were sort of looking outward to the film and visual effects industries. They had people come in and give us advice; they were basically looking at Burnout from a Hollywood effects perspective – like, "How do you actually make this experience thrilling? What are the tricks that films use in order to get this across?" And some of them are really simple, like putting the lamp posts closer together so you get that sense of speed, of things rushing past you. I think that also one of the big lessons at Criterion was how important sound is – you need the sound effects of passing objects, too. Sometimes you play games or see films and you can really tell the difference when the effort has gone in across the board, including sound.
So how did Media Molecule begin?
I've known Alex, Mark and Kareem for a long time. My partner Barry had worked with Mark and Alex back in the Bullfrog days. After Burnout 4, I was ready to do something new. I'd been at Criterion for seven years. It was time for a change. I was thinking of doing a complete industry shift into theater or some other form of creative production work. I went back to Australia for Christmas and then I got this email from Alex and Mark sort of explaining the plans for Media Molecule and asking if I wanted to join. I had admired their work from afar, I'd obviously seen Mark's journey through Rag Doll Kung Fu, and I knew all about Alex and his past in the demo scene. I just thought he was a total genius. Kareem is obviously an amazing artist, I loved his paintings. They just had infinite talent. I felt really lucky. I was like, "Holy moley, yeah, sure!"
Obviously a massively important strand of Media Molecule's games has been the idea of user creativity. Was that there right from the beginning?
Yeah, right from the start; from the very first meeting they had with Phil Harrison. The idea was all about music jamming. This was the start of 2006, and there was a buzz around things like Flickr and MySpace, I think Etsy had just arrived, and there was Ravelry, the big knitting community – and obviously people were making a lot of Flash games around this time also. You were starting to see people going online to be creators rather than consumers, which had actually been the most interesting thing when I had first played with the internet in the mid-1990s – things like Geocities. Within the studio, Mark, our creative director, his whole path into development started when he was making games on the Commodore 64, so user creativity was a really real thing to him – the same with Alex. So it seemed a very natural thing – to partner up with PlayStation and get that out to people. It was kind of the point.
LittleBigPlanet was so different in terms of feel and aesthetic to almost everything else out there. It must have been tough finding the right employees for that.
We hired slowly, and carefully. Until we did the GDC thing, we hadn't been able to show everybody what we were doing. Afterwards, we just made sure everyone we hired had that same point of reference, or that we all got on. During the first year it was, like, nine of us, and then it grew, to maybe 14 in the next year. By the time we shipped LBP1, we were 26. It's hard to define ... we wanted to have a culture where people could jam together. Alex and Mark took a lot from the Bullfrog philosophy of ground-up working – finding interesting threads and building upon them, letting it grow and see where it goes, and then maybe combining that with another thread. From that, interesting stuff happens. I was trying to combine that with the Criterion philosophy of shipping products, figuring out the point where we would go, "Okay, that's good enough. Let's manifest that, or move onto something else." It was really open and collaborative. We had a little office above a bathroom showroom – it just this great group of people, but we had brilliant support from Sony. It's interesting, when I look at that first year, how much we were able to bring together very quickly over the first nine to 12 months. Everyone was kind of ready.
Wasn't there quite a tricky disparity between fostering a very open creative, ground-up culture, and also having a hard, "we must ship" sensibility?
Yeah. In order for it to work we have to underpin the creativity with structure – there needs to be momentum and progress. In the 10 years we've been around, we've shipped LBP1, 2, Tearaway Vita, Unfolded, and the Move pack, so that's, like, five products, plus all the DLC. All of that comes from that process of allowing things to grow a bit and then making sure we then move through the phases. If you don't keep moving, you can work on something forever, reimagining it over and over and over again. You've got to be moving through the phases toward getting the game in a box. I think that's probably my most overused phrase: "Let's get that in a box."
How do you impose that structure?
It's different for each project. If I take Tearaway as an example, it actually started with us just wanting to play with the Vita. We love Sony's technology, so being able to make something for a handheld was really exciting. We began with, "Well, it has all these features. How do we use them?" One of the thing we became really interested in was the GPS capabilities – this was way before Pokemon Go. We actually got quite far with a completely different concept which we called Uncovery. The heart of Tearaway was in there, but it was centered a lot more around the idea of traveling around the world. But actually, we realized that you've got to get to a point where you understand enough about a concept to know how you'd actually ship it. After we'd got through various different prototypes, we realized it wasn't what we wanted to birth, if you like. When we actually put our production hats on, we thought "What is the process here?"
So we went back to the drawing board. We could see the shape of it, but we realized it needed some pruning – and the pruning was actually to remove the GPS feature completely. In the middle of that was this very simple story of Atoi and the paper world – this was an achievable, shippable product. The process has to go broad so that we can see what it is, but then we tend to do a massive edit job and figure out what's the most important aspect. I think a lot of games go through exactly the same process: you go broad, you figure out what the realities of shipping that thing are, you prune, you edit down to what's really important, and then you build within that constraint. We did a similar thing with LBP – it didn't start off as a 2.5D world. It had a few more layers, but we edited down. The production process is about forcing that edit process to happen. The road to shipping is a long one. It sort of starts right when you begin, but we have to give the project enough room to understand what the vision of it is and what it will take to manifest that vision, to edit it down, and then to ship it.
The environment here is very creative, you have craft tables, yoga and life-drawing classes. The last time I was here you had the audio department give an impromptu gig in the cafeteria. Is this an important part of how you work?
I've always sort of thought that games teams are very like bands. People come here every day to do a really serious job, which is to ship a project. We can exist like this as long as we keep shipping products for PlayStation. That's the remit. That's the deal. So for us it's, well, if people come in every day to give us these ideas and put their ideas into the work, and we're making these projects, which are all about allowing communities to express creativity, then we have to find ways for people to be able to do that from the point where they enter the door. We try not to make it forced, but we actually do like making stuff as individuals. That is true. Everybody who works here likes making stuff, whether that's baking, or gardening, or knitting, or painting, or drawing, or making films, or making music, or whatever – this is a studio of people who love making. That is probably first and foremost; that's really important to what we make. We make tools for people to make stuff with. And so we kind of all have to understand what that means. We have to think about what the creative process is for us, so that this then manifests in the projects that we make.
Aesthetically, LittleBigPlanet owes a debt to things like The Muppets and BBC children's television programs of the 1970s – like Bagpuss, Trumpton, etc. There is such a quaintness to your work. Is that hard to maintain?
I think there's a tension. When people visit us, they're like, "Oh, it's so whimsical. Oh, it just looks like fun!" And that's true, there is a great vibe here, and we try to keep a good feeling, but it's really hard work making games, it's really hard work for people to come in, day after day, and just constantly give 10 out of 10 ideas. But yes, when we look at places like the Henson Company, they're a big inspiration, and Pixar is obviously a really important influence also. I look at how those places just respect the people who are there each day providing the ideas, working through the thousands and thousands of problems you come up with on creative projects.
What was the spark that led you to Dreams? Did you start out with a very specific idea, or did it evolve?
It basically came out of finishing up on LBP but not being done with user-generated content, not being done with creative tools, and wanting to experiment more within that area – to find out how we could bring more people to it. That was the beginning: How would we make something where the whole team here felt like they could express themselves and see themselves? With Dreams, you really can see everyone's mark on the screen – you really really can. We do, like, creative weekly little jams as a team within Dreams, which are really interesting. Everybody's style comes through so strongly.
We wanted to create a jamming culture in the studio; when musicians jam together, there are all these happy little creative accidents that come out of the flow. That's kind of what we wanted to get into, we wanted to allow games to be made in a flow state. The first discussions about LBP were all about music jamming and that process. Mark and Kareem and Alex are all musicians, and so they really bring that to every discussion we have about the creative process. It's always about getting into that zone, and that is a really special place to be. That's kind of what we've been wanting to achieve with Dreams. The big vision for us has been about bringing more people to that experience.
Were you surprised how many people created and shared LBP levels? You got to a million uploads really quickly.
Oh, totally. Every game you make is a gamble. You don't ever know what's gonna happen. We had this amazing moment just before we went to GDC in 2007 where Sony sent us on a media training course. We went to this amazing dude in London, and he basically had us explain the game over and over again – he was trying to catch us out, telling us, "This is what journalists will take from that." It was brilliant because when we were talking to him about what LBP was and showing him our stuff, he was like, "You guys just need to embrace that this is an experiment." He was one of the first people to really articulate that for us in a way that was okay. We believed that people would make stuff in the game – we hoped they would – but it was really good to feel like we could say to them, "It is an experiment, and we don't know what will happen, and we're excited to see." At that point, there was nothing to compare LBP with.
So did you start to feel more confident after that?
When we had the response that we had at GDC, that was amazing. And that was a point where I was like, "Okay, people who make games are really interested in this, so that's good." Then when we started our first beta trial, which was very late on in the process. I remember being in the little meeting room with Alex, and we turned on the PlayStation, and we were just, like, watching. We knew it would probably take people about half an hour or 40 minutes to get through the English country garden levels and the first tutorial to make something. And we just sat there and waited and waited and waited... and then suddenly, like, a badge appeared, and then another badge appeared, another badge appeared, and we were like, "Okay, maybe it's gonna be okay." So yeah, we can't wait for that phase on Dreams. We're obviously having a great time with it, but we want to get it out to people for them to just sort of see what happens.
Do the odds feel different this time? LittleBigPlanet was highly creative but it was structured. Dreams seems much more about personal expression, and the horizon is much larger. It's almost like the Photoshop of games. Is there a tipping point for users, of, "Wow this is a fun toy," to, "Oh my goodness, this is quite an intimidating creative tool?" Have you got to be careful?
Yeah. I mean, the initial goal of Dreams was to bring more people to the idea of making content on PlayStation; we wanted to build a creative community that is not just about games but also about making little movies or music. Part of the R&D process has been going through iteration until we feel we have arrived at the structure needed to set people off on that journey.
It's quite a big goal – to encourage diverse creative communities on a games console. It's very rare that there's true collaboration, especially artistic collaboration. Is that your big experiment with Dreams?
Making a game, any game, is a real challenge of creative collaboration, and that's kind of the jam, isn't it? I always think of games teams like bands, because there is tension, and there is collaboration. We are a team of people trying to make this thing together, and so our first experience of how to collaborate comes from the internals of the project. So yeah. I mean, people will have experiences within Dreams that are solo experiences, and people will have ones where we're hoping that they will collaborate with others.
And it seems that people will be able to download and re-use or edit the experiences made by other players? A sort of asynchronous collaboration.
We live in a remixing culture and there are different ways of collaborating now. I think of the Dark Souls series as being this really brilliant way of allowing people to passively help each other. And there's a lot of interesting things to build upon there. I loved the stats on Warcraft that were in Jane McGonigal's book – about how much people actually helped each other. You can look at games from the outside and go, "Oh, it's all about competitiveness," but actually within that competition there are teams – there is collaboration and helping, and somebody keeping track, and somebody corralling people together, and somebody cheerleading. So it's not an alien concept to gamers. So yeah, collaboration is definitely one of the things that we'd love to see.
How has it been working with Sony? Obviously, Sony's a platform holder, so for them it's really important to have interesting experimental games, and they have to support that kind of thing. Are they very hands on?
We are a very proud studio, it's such great company to be in. From the beginning, they have held our hand. Sony people aren't here every day, but we have Shuhei [Yoshida] visiting next week. We were just presenting with Sony in LA a couple of weeks ago. When you're a Worldwide Studios team, the deal is you have to make things that really help show off what PlayStation is all about. We work really hard to make sure we do that. All through the relationship, they've been really supportive of what we're doing. Shuhei has been a really incredible supporter of Dreams, and saw the potential of it right at the beginning – he's been a great advocate there. He really, really wants us to get it out to the community, and we're working very hard to do that.
Has the VR element been really interesting to people in the studio?
It's amazing. Seeing people create in Dreams in VR is amazing, and being able to wander through those worlds is amazing. It's a total no-brainer for us to do that and to support it, because it's just awesome. Every visitor that comes to our house wants to try VR. People who have no other interest in games are like, "Let me see it," and then they are just always blown away.
Let's say Dreams has been out a few months. What are you hoping to see?
I'm really excited for the team to see what people are making. That is always the most interesting thing. When we made LBP, we would just sit around and play people's levels, and look at what they did, and read the comments, and read the bugs that came in, and see how people had manipulated those bugs to do interesting things with them – they almost gamed us to a certain degree. We'll get some of this a bit earlier with Dreams – we'll be getting some creators on board at different stages. So it may not be exactly the same sort of surprise as we had with LBP where it was basically shipped before we knew.
When we have Dreams jams here, the most interesting thing is seeing what people in the studio do when they're not actually making our game. You just see all these mad things, and it kind of really reflects what's going on for them that day, that week, that moment. And that's really interesting, because it's like, well, the point of this is to make it possible for more people to be able to express themselves and make stuff.
It would be cool to see families making content together. The other thing is people discovering disciplines that they never knew that they could do. At the moment, I'm really enjoying making little film things where I'm combining music and animation and learning a bit of logic. I'm finding that I'm able to express myself in a way that I haven't for a really long time. When I get up on a weekend I'm like, "Oh, I think I might actually play Dreams. I think I might make that thing in Dreams. I might do that weekly challenge." I'm hoping that it really brings people who maybe haven't created something in a while to create something. I also want to see how people combine things and remix. We didn't have remixing in LBP. I just want to see what the world is like today. Like, we haven't released a [user-generated content] thing for ages, so, like, what is going on? I think in these times it's really important for people to be able to create things and express themselves. I'm hoping it's a really interesting amazing expressive creative community.
One massive difference between the time when LBP came out and Dreams coming out is YouTube, of course.
Oh yeah. Oh my God, totally.
It's likely there will be a lot of YouTubers playing the game, making things and sharing them with communities?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, right from the very beginning that is something that Alex and Dave and Kareem and Mark and I have been really excited about. These days, especially on PlayStation, you can share so easily – it's all geared to share. We love that share button so much! It means creativity is part of the package. So seeing what people do with that is awesome, and new, and exciting, and scary, and all of the above. It's about people just expressing themselves and finding a tool that allows them to kind of get what's going on inside, outside.
That's a very punk DIY ethos.
You know, everybody here has that in common. If you were to ask anybody here what they do as a hobby, the answer will be, "I make this thing or that thing." I think that's what you feel when you come in here – that sort of commonality. We all have a pretty good sense of humor and we all like making stuff. That binds us together as a studio.