I've been to a lot of video game studios, but Media Molecule's offices may just be the most fascinating one yet. I'm visiting the British company on the auspicious mission of finding out what the future of games is, but the present – if my experience so far is any indication – is quite odd.
For one thing, there's the fact that no one seems to know who or what Media Molecule is, or at least where it is. My contact at Sony had given me the wrong address, so I spent the better part of an hour wandering around Guildford – a small town an hour southwest of London – trying to find the studio.
I figured the company, whose LittleBigPlanet series is one of PlayStation's most successful franchises, would be hailed as something of a local hero. Yet average Guildfordians, police officers and even rival employees at the Electronic Arts office in town have never heard of it.
Finally, one helpful EA developer remembers that he once picked up a Media Molecule business card somewhere, and it has a phone number. With address ascertained, I head over, only to discover that the unassuming office building bears no distinguishing features. A basic tenant directory in the lobby is the only proof I have that I'm in the right place. Honestly, I've visited five-person indie operations with more fanfare.
A shocking fuchsia carpet greets me as I enter, at long last, running the length of Media Molecule's studio. The space itself isn't too different from others of its ilk in nature, in that there are people sitting at computers punching away on whatever game they're working on. What stands out, however, are the mountains of colourful, folded-up papers strewn around on every visible surface.
The staff is busily working away on Tearaway , a Vita game scheduled for release in October (UPDATE: After we published, Media Molecule delayed its launch until Nov. 22) that will let players print out their in-game creations. That explains the clutter – it's all test material.
The size of the studio is also striking. There are only about 40 workstations, one for each employee, meaning it's a small operation – purposely so, I'm told. That makes sense, since much of Media Molecule's work on LittleBigPlanet has, so far, been outsourced to its players. That's actually what I'm here to talk about.
I'm seated in one of the funkiest meeting rooms I've ever been in. There's no formal board-room table, just a plain brown coffee table surrounded by colourfully mismatched seventies-style couches. Big bay windows overlook the town of Guildford, although on this grey day the view is unremarkable. It feels more like an opium den than a place to talk about video games, but given the oddness of the games created here, maybe that's the point.
In walks David Smith, studio co-founder, technical director and lead designer. He explains that in such a small operation, everyone wears multiple hats, hence his multiple titles.
His long hair is pulled back into a pony tail and he's dressed in a black T-shirt, running shoes and jeans, a sort of Steve Jobs-like uniform. I ask him why he got into video games and he gives a very Jobs-ian response.
"I love art and I love maths. Those are my two things," he says (I note the very British pluralization of "math"). "I get to scratch both those itches: the geeky technology where new things are always happening, but also the new experiences that we can make about people and what makes us laugh."
He's an unusual interviewee in that he takes time to think about the questions being asked, whereas most people generally can't wait for their turn to talk. As Smith ponders his answers, I imagine that his predilections for both math(s) and art mean he's a fan of progressive rock and metal; Rush, Dream Theater, Tool and so on. I don't ask, but in my mind I like him already.
I tell him that I'd requested the interview because I wanted to know his thoughts on how player input will govern game design over the long term. LittleBigPlanet had, after all, seemingly struck a nerve when it was released in 2008.
At its core, LBP was a platformer in the vein of Super Mario, where the objective was to jump the main character – a cloth doll named Sack Boy – from one ledge to another. It's clear to me now that it was a reflection of its creators and their eccentric styles and work space; the game was set in Craft World, a Lilluputian universe of textiles, stitches and sewn-on buttons. Sack Boy could be endlessly customize with stickers, hats and outfits of the player's own choosing. The game positively oozed charm, sold millions of copies, won numerous accolades and spawned sequels and spin-offs.
To me, it also telegraphed the future of games. While LittleBigPlanet came packaged with the pre-created adventure expected of every platformer, its real appeal lay in the built-in design tools that players could use to make their own levels. Previous games had done this to varying levels of success, but LBP's very DNA made it the perfect vehicle for the idea.
With every stitch of Craft World literally laid bare in the pre-made levels, players could easily see how everything was constructed and then replicate it – and improve on it – with the same tools the original designers used. And unlike many other games, the editing was simple and spoke the same "language" as the actual gameplay. Creation wasn't an entirely different experience.
Players flocked to the concept and a community quickly emerged. By 2012, more than seven million levels had been created and shared online, meaning that anyone who bought LittleBigPlanet could probably play it forever if they wanted to.
The game and franchise's success has since spurred other publishers to jump on the so-called user-generated content movement, both for business reasons – anything that keeps players from trading in their games – and creative purposes. After all, are there any self-respecting artists who don't love seeing other creations inspired by their work?
The trend is set to grow as level-editing tools inevitably become simpler and as console makers push more online social interactivity through their next-generation machines. It's not crazy to suggest that most games will feature some sort of user-generated shared components in the near future. And with that, the quality of player-created content will only continue to improve, right?
Smith believes so, but he also thinks professionals will continue to have a leg up on amateurs. The Media Molecule-created levels in LBP, for example, are of the best quality, meant to set the bar high on what can be done with game-creation tools. While some individual players may have attained a professional-like level with their creations, the pros are similarly moving upward in what they can do.
"Even if in an hour you could make something as high quality as a Call of Duty game, well then the professionals will be making something that's even better. Technology is exponentially increasing, but culture is linearly increasing. That's the bottleneck," he says. "What you can't cheat is that it takes time to make something that is unique and good."
That limitation, however, could soon be overcome as user-created game content arrives at its next inevitable milestone: collaboration. While it might be difficult for one person to quickly and cheaply create the equivalent of, say, an Uncharted game, it might be considerably easier for a whole swath of amateur creators – each bringing their own particular skills and expertise to the virtual table – to do so.
Today's triple-A blockbuster titles, which take hundreds of skilled professionals and millions of dollars to create, could ultimately be crowd-sourced and then created relatively quickly and cheaply by a score of connected gamers.
"There seems to be no technical reason for why we can't remove those barriers. Then it's down to whether people have the time," Smith says. "If you can find the right way of getting that number of people to work together, there's no limit. It's going to happen."
For Media Molecule, meanwhile, the near-term future is a little less collaborative, but no less exploratory. Tearaway 's big obvious mission as a game is to act as a showcase for Sony's Vita portable system, using its various inputs – touch screen, rear touch pad, motion sensors and so on – in new and innovative ways. Philosophically, however, Smith hopes the game will achieve something that few others have been able to do.
"So many games, you have this kind of sadness where after it ends, you kind of realize there was nothing to it. It was just bits floating around inside a computer," he says. "But I can suspend disbelief a little longer if there's some sort of physical reminder of it. If the character I was playing as could somehow get outside of the game, that could be kind of cute."
The game will allow players to print out their creations as sorts of trophies, to be put on a desk or bookshelf to remind them of the fun they had while playing. If it works, it'll be one of the few games to take something out of the virtual world and bring it into the real one.
Media Molecule is also working on a top-secret project that Smith isn't allowed to talk about – I'm guessing it's another LittleBigPlanet game, this time for the upcoming PlayStation 4. Back at the console's reveal in February, studio employees showed off a technology demo using the seemingly forgotten PlayStation Move motion controller, which they used in conjunction with the new machine's horsepower to create a virtual sculpture.
I imagined that such an experience could be pretty fantastic if combined with the sort of three-dimensional printers that are quickly becoming mainstream.
Smith's eyes light up with agreement when I suggest it: "Yeaaahh!" is all he says.