Playfire Q&A: Media Molecule & XDev

Just before Christmas we kicked off the Playfire Q&A with Media Molecule and Sony XDev. After a load of great questions from the community, the guys at MM and XDev have come back to us with some truly excellent and insightful answers, which give a first-hand look at the insider workings of some of PlayStation's greatest games studios.

A big congratulations to Darklordkjell, too - you're the winner of our Q&A prize! We'll be in touch about your prize.

One of Tearaway’s greatest strengths is how it appeals to both adults and children, and there is a level of fun and sophistication for all ages. Is there a specific design ethic in place to achieve this? codykonior

I think this comes down to the use of a traditionally “childlike” material (paper!) - one that many kids will know well and experiment with in kindergarten or school, so its got a recognizable, approachable style. But, more unusually, this material has been passed into the hands of very skilled artists who might not usually mess around with that material. Those artists bring all their skills and influences with them, which usually aren’t the things you’d see in a kindergarten!

On the surface you might see the bright colours and the happy scenes, but looking a bit deeper there are all kinds of influences, from classical art and Stanley Kubrick to strange local folklore and sea shanties.

With PlayStation 4, its technological capabilities and the features of the new DualShock controller, as well as its unique connection with the PS Vita, are you excited for the new level of creativity going into the next generation and do you feel like technology is important in the development of a game? Parabolee77

Yes definitely! The combination of more power, more input methods, and easier ways to share really makes the PS4 a great home for creativity. We showed a little glimpse of how its inspiring us back at the PS4 announcement last year, and we looking forward to sharing more in the future! And yes, hardware is definitely important, the Vita really inspired us with all its new inputs, they were all things we could experiment with, but within a solid framework of a 3D platformer that would be controlled with the more traditional sticks and buttons.

Games can often forget the mechanics that make them unique in favour of big spectacle and impressive technology. As a team that has achieved such success with the unique creative focus on gameplay, do you feel there is a niche in the market for this kind of approach? RhiwiauRambo

Hopefully its not a niche, as I think all players want to have interesting choices in a game and express themselves in the way they play somehow. I think there are more games that allow for this now than a few years ago, whether thats Minecraft, Spelunky or a huge triple-A game like Assassin's Creed 4. So yes, I reckon there’s a market for them!

With the distinct, recognisable styles of Tearaway and LittleBigPlanet, what games and gaming characters would you say are your strongest influences? Darklordkjell

There’s a lot of influences from the distant past of videogames. Mark Healey (Media Molecule co-founder and Creative Director) is very influenced from the Commodore64 era. I’m personally more influenced by its offspring, the Commodore Amiga; both were from a time when you could use the machine to make your own games (luckily that’s becoming possible again now!).

The two games that influenced me most in that era were very different: The Secret of Monkey Island was an impossibly polished package of visuals, music, story. comedy, puzzles - all combined to create a piece of classic entertainment. And the other game was Exile (a bit more obscure!) which used physics to generate all kinds of emergent gameplay in a tale of a little spaceman, trying to survive and explore an alien planet. It really blew my mind just how long I could spend throwing grenades and lumps of rock around, in low gravity with physics.

I’ve just asked around the studio, and several cited different versions of Zelda, as well as Mario64, Metal Gear Solid 1, Day Of The Tentacle, Deus Ex and er.. Magical Hat no Buttobi Turbo! Daibouken (Magical Hat Flying Turbo Adventure)

"In terms of pure Audio Design, I think Limbo was perfect." says Tearaway's audio director, Ed. "The level of detail and atmosphere they achieved in the soundscape is incredible. But way back when, Westwood's Bladerunner game blew me away with its deep beautiful world and cleverly designed story choices. And of course Vangelis."

What design challenges do you come across when trying to implement tools for user generated content? 152af45afc28ed21cc9da947e08c1

A lot of the challenge comes from the time it takes to experiment, iterate and then completely rebuild when a feature is user-tested and the user can’t work out how to use it! Nathan, one of Tearaway's main programmers, really wanted to bring true crafting and customisation to Tearaway (which, at the time, wasn’t a main element in the design of the game) and worked tirelessly to see this through to completion and we really had to trust him that it was going to work. On the day we released Tearaway the internet filled up with paper collage versions of almost every pop-culture character you can think of, and players were loving the feature, and the way they could share the photos of their creation online. So it definitely paid off!

Is there the possibility of a continuation of Tearaway’s craft style but with a more diverse set of materials to play with? ZiggySlayer

Hmm, I think that would be very hard to achieve, as the paper and its various properties really drove not only how it looked, but how it moved, and felt and could be interacted with. Earlier in the project we experimented with some other materials, but it felt like it was diluting what made the game special. A huge part of design is deleting rather than creating, and for Tearaway to really work we decided we needed to focus on paper, and make that as perfect as possible. 

If Media Molecule and/or XDev could make a wild card game in any genre – what kind of game would you guys love to make at some point in the future? JAZU

Sometimes we do joke about what an Media Molecule FPS would be like, probably less neck-stabs and more free-hugs!

Was it mandatory for designers to all become paper craft experts when designing Tearaway? Is the office buried in practice paper models? ;) Zcrubby1

Heh! We did start out with the traditional game-making route: of doing concept art while also building white-boxed levels, and unsurprisingly, trying to convert an environment of white-boxes into something that looked (and felt) like paper just didn’t work at all!  So we started building things in real paper, learning about the way it reacts, and can be transformed (we even had a pop-up book designer come in and show us lots of the techniques they use to make books). 

This was not only inspiring to the world-art team (Jon, Richard and Naomi) but also to the design team (Christophe, John, Swann, Phil and Dan) because it was possible to see how these things folding and unfolding could become an environment to explore. Media Molecule’s graphic designer Tom was a secret papercrafter and he soon added to this with everything from papercraft dioramas to actually building working versions of the game menus and UI, to get the look and feel just right.

And once we took the decision to allow players to unlock the papercraft plans to remake the game out of real paper, well, the office exploded with papercraft! We collaborated with a papercraft designer to make sure we would have plans that were easy to follow, and the team would test out making them in lunchbreaks, so soon everyone in the studio was crafting pigs and squirrels.

Tearaway expertly balances the story-driven platforming with the player creativity. How did you find this balance after such a long developing LittleBigPlanet, which mainly focused on the user generated content?

We are very organic with our creative process - there is a big idea to start with, then everyone on the team feeds that idea with their own game-jams and gradually over time we build a narrative out of those experiments. It’s very tricky trying to make sure the story can provide influences and a context to inspire additional ideas, but not be so heavy that it restricts free-thought and experimentation. I think the important thing is to have strong philosophical idea of what the game is “about”, which is really the story behind the game (something that doesn’t need words or cutscenes to exist) and allow that to soak into everything. And then be free to edit the plot and events in the game constantly to react to the content. In fact Kenny (Media Molecule's Head of Audio) and myself completely rewrote every word of the main story the day before we recorded the narrators, as we did a full playthrough of the game with Siobhan (Studio Director) and we felt it wasn’t supporting the content of the game as well as it could!

With many other notable and in some cases iconic studios located nearby in Guildford – Lionhead, Hello Games etc – do you think it acts as a hub of games development in the UK, and what does this mean to the studio to be in such a central place of games productivity? Lorondos

There’s definitely a lot of friendship between the studios, bumping into friends stumbling home after the long-nights before release day or moments of celebration in the pubs when a game has been released by another studio. Each of the studios is very different, but I think some kind of magical essence exists in the games that come out of this little town. It’s probably a really-high-quality-bar! You definitely feel a bit of pressure to make sure your game turns out well, so that you don’t get the piss taken out on you in the pub from other studios post-release!

A huge thanks again to the guys at Media Molecule and XDev for being so generous with their time, and a special thanks to Sarah Wellock, Lead Community Manager at Xdev and James Spafford, Community Manager at Media Molecule for coordinating the Q&A! :)

Until next time,
Joncol, Ben (radMonkey) and the Playfire Team