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Media Molecule
by David Woodward

Sony is pinning high hopes on a small British developer to rekindle its fortunes in console gaming. The Media Molecule founders enthuse about linking up with the entertainment giant, their pioneering LittleBigPlanet creation and the freedom of working in a company of equals

The lady at B&Q said she hoped all that pink paint wasn't "for your bedroom", which seems an odd thing to say to a 38-year-old man, even if he does sport the long hair of a teenager. But pink, explains Mark Healey, the grungy co-founder of computer games developer Media Molecule, is the "corporate colour". Pink defines the company. It's certainly the loudest thing in the room. Walk across the office floor and all you hear, besides the sound of your own footsteps, is the muted hum of tapping programmers, hunched over keyboards. To Media Molecule, this is the sound of creativity. To Sony, it's the sound of the cavalry.

It's an odd position for such a huge corporation to be in, but Sony's immediate future in console gaming rests largely on the output of this tiny office of coders, cramped into a rapidly ageing space above a bathroom shop in Guildford, Surrey. Despite all appearances to the contrary, this is the frontline of the global console war. Sony, which makes the PlayStation, is desperate for a hit game to boost flagging sales of its latest console, the PlayStation 3.

Central to Sony's plan to catch its rivals, Nintendo and Microsoft, is Media Molecule's debut game, LittleBigPlanet—and, more crucially, the main character, the cute, customisable Sackboy. Sony hopes Sackboy will become as famous as Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog, or even Nintendo's Super Mario. Media Molecule co-founder Alex Evans is aware of the advantages of such a close tie-up with the publisher. "In the same way as you think 'Sonic and Sega', I don't mind if you think 'Sackboy and PlayStation'. PlayStation is one of the world's most recognised brands and Media Molecule is not."

Well not yet, anyway. But the young developer is giving it a decent shot. Even before the game's release last October, LittleBigPlanet was the most talked about title that Sony had ever launched. The huge weight of expectation even turned an early PR disaster into a boost, when two lines of the Qur'an were discovered in the soundtrack. Sony immediately withdrew it from the market—a costly exercise—but even then copies of the offending game turned up on eBay for almost three times the list price.

Perhaps the biggest measure of the game's impact has been the reaction in Japan, typically a market that western developers have found almost impossible to penetrate. Sony Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida called LittleBigPlanet the "biggest PlayStation 3 game" of the whole year. When it debuted at a Japanese game show, recalls Evans, Sony's Japanese representative for the game was reduced to tears when it won first prize. "Of the 10 games chosen we were the only western game. He couldn't remember a western game ever being chosen," he says. Even in the UK, where computer games exist in their own cultural bubble, somewhat detached from the mainstream, Sackboy has made a big splash, scoring sensationalist headlines in the national press.

Evans has high hopes for Media Molecule's partnership with Sony. Such a strong association, he says, "immediately translates to a 100 per cent attach rate, meaning that everyone with a PlayStation 3 also has LittleBigPlanet". That's somewhere in the region of 100 million copies—a big number for such a small developer. Neither Evans nor Healey can imagine what a million copies look like, let alone a hundred million. "Mark always used to keep me sane by saying 'it's just a game'," says Evans. "And it is a very throwaway medium. Games are very 'pop'. Next year there'll be a new LittleBigPlanet."

But we're jumping ahead. The story of how a small, inexperienced team of UK developers managed to gatecrash its way into the affections of one of the world's largest entertainment companies began, as Evans puts it, when he dragged the original founders, David Smith, Kareem Ettouney and Healey, "kicking and screaming" from Lionhead, Guildford's other, and hitherto better-known, game development company. He's not joking about the dragging part, either. Healey had gone on holiday to "to work out whether he wanted to quit his job at Lionhead", recalls Evans. "When he got back I had already packed his desk up for him."

Evans was banking on recreating the magic discovered when the team had worked on an extracurricular game project at Lionhead, founded by Peter Molyneux. The game was called Rag Doll Kung Fu and had started life as a self-tutorial for Healey, who wanted to learn how to program in C++, "the language of choice". Once the game made it on to the internet, it was picked up by Valve, a Seattle firm owned by former Microsoft multi-millionaire employee Gabe Newell. The process of "shipping" the game for Valve—a "business crash course"—made the four wonder why they couldn't give up their day jobs with Lionhead and start up for real.

Evans was on a plane to Seattle with Molyneux to a pitch at Microsoft when he broke the news. "So I had to sit next to him for 11 hours after I'd told him. He was cool—pretty unflappable." Molyneux, who refers to his former charges as "fantastically creative people", must have looked beyond Evans's CV to hire him in the first place. "At my interview with Peter, he asked me what games I liked playing. I said, 'I don't really play games'." It's a comment that might sound like a butcher admitting to vegetarianism, but Evans insists the bigger thrill is in creating something. To Evans, creating is playing.

There are two ways to look at the current state of game development in the UK. Verdict Research has calculated that consumers spent more on games last year (£4.6bn) than they did on music and video—a sign, perhaps, that video games are finally breaking into the mainstream. But Britain's share of a growing market is falling. The UK sector suffered its own financial crisis not long after the dotcom bubble burst in 2001—up to 90 per cent of the country's independent developers eventually went out of business. Last May, the UK developers' trade body, Tiga, launched a campaign to lobby the government for tax breaks to help bring down the total cost of production. Many in the industry believe Britain is losing ground to rival developer nations, such as Canada and France, because governments in those countries offer salary subsidies to employees.

Media Molecule has eased cost anxiety by limiting its size to just 30 employees. In an industry where a payroll of anything up to 100 is the norm, that's a significant trimming of resources. Evans says a streamlined workforce enables flexibility, but cost is clearly the main consideration. Although Molyneux says the company will find it difficult to keep the numbers down —"the extra burden of supporting the community, the website, the patches, downloadable content", he says, adds up to "extreme" pressure to grow. Evans insists that every decision Media Molecule makes relates to its size.

A key issue, says Evans, was avoiding "the cycle of debt", common after a first launch fails to break even, putting the developer under pressure to ship a second game to balance the books. But how do you develop a chart-topping game with such a small team? The answer is to mimic the YouTube effect—let the user take on the bulk of the work. LittleBigPlanet is the first console game to feature "user-generated content", or what Sony grandly calls "Game 3.0". User-generated content has featured in computer games before, but never on a console and not on this scale. "This was going to be a game about creativity: platform game plus creativity," says Evans.

It proved an intriguing formula. LittleBigPlanet's USP is an accessible set of graphics tools that allows anyone to build their own levels within the game: perfect for players who, like Evans, prefer creating to playing. These new levels are then shared over the internet with other gamers, who rate them. "With user-generated content you effectively have two audiences to feed," says Evans, "those who play the levels and those who create. That's why the publication step is so vital because you are connecting the five per cent who create to the 95 per cent who play. Every time you boot up there are more levels to play." There were around 100,000 at the last count.

Relying on the perceived talents of a community that had yet to be created was a gamble for Sony. Healey says he was unsure whether the manufacturer would even understand the concept. Evans had spoken "briefly" to Nintendo, but when the chance arose to speak to then Sony Worldwide Studios boss Phil Harrison, the team worked round the clock on a demo. "Right from that meeting, Sony fitted," says Evans. "We didn't get around to speaking to Microsoft."

Finding the right publisher was even more important when you consider Media Molecule's unusual "sole-platform" strategy. Start-ups with little capital usually release their games on to as many platforms as possible, giving them the greatest chance of recouping the initial outlay. For LittleBigPlanet, that would have meant appearing on Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft's Xbox as well as the PlayStation. But, according to Evans, Media Molecule's plan was always to go with a single platform. "This wasn't a technical decision," he says. It was about being a "bigger fish" in a smaller pond.

Media Molecule's entrepreneurial DNA runs deep. Its creativity is nurtured by a clause in its employees' contracts that allows any extracurricular intellectual property to remain the property of the creator. "With a lot of creative companies, they own everything that you do, in or out of work hours," says Healey. But using that approach, Media Molecule might never have been born because Lionhead would have owned the rights to Healey's spin-off project, Rag Doll Kung Fu. "That wouldn't have been my game any more. It seems wrong to me," says Healey.

Media Molecule is a company of equals. "We wanted a group of creative people collaborating, as opposed to us telling them what to do," says Healey. So the founders have abandoned command and control in favour of flexibility, and attempted to harness the wisdom of their customers: a so-called enterprise 2.0 company making a Web 2.0 product. The company's "molecules", as Evans puts it, are free to follow their own path as long as the end result moves the business forward. While Sackboy was largely the work of one of the team's more unsung heroes, Francis Pang, there were originally, says Evans, "four or five competing Sackboys created by different people". Sony will just be glad its newest recruit didn't turn out pink.

 

Vital facts
Company: Media Molecule
Sector: Computer games
Employees: 34
Founders: Mark Healey, Alex Evans,
David Smith, Kareem Ettouney
First game: LittleBigPlanet
Sales: 171,000 (at the time of going to press)
PS3 (UK) chart position: 3
In their own words: "Media Molecule stands for creativity, intensity, passion and having fun in games development but not at the expense of commercial success and pushing next generation technology to its utmost boundaries."
Source: Information supplied by ELSPA/GfK Chart-Track