If you have owned a PlayStation console since 2006, you have probably either heard of the developer Media Molecule or played one of its games. The studio that was founded in 2006 has become a prominent part of the Sony Interactive Entertainment portfolio, and is known for its incredibly creative titles, starting with Little Big Planet and culminating today with Dreams. To get an insight into how this amazing studio operates, I recently sat down with Studio Director Siobhan Reddy to chat about the past and present of Media Molecule, and how the years have changed this developer to become the community-centred creative colossus it is today.
Back in 2006 when Media Molecule (MM) was first founded, the developer was much smaller in size and Reddy joined the team as an executive producer. "Being that small we spent a lot of time talking and playing the game together, having debates and arguments and discussions and really trying to hone down the constraints of the project," said Reddy. At the time, MM was working on its first title, the iconic Little Big Planet, and while we all recognise the game as it is today, its conceptual idea was very different.
"The very, very, very first genesis of LBP was of making something that would allow people to jam musically in a game," mentioned Reddy. "That was combined with a physics demo that Dave [David Smith, Technical Director] had made, of a little character traversing a landscape where it's very tactile and physical. The character is pulling over blocks and hanging onto stars and it was a sort of yellow character in a pink dress - you know all the sort of Media Molecule DNA is in there. And those two things together became the sort of starting point of it."
In those early days, Media Molecule looked very different to the way it is today, but the core values have always been there. "I think I can definitely draw a line from then to now, we're older, we're bigger, our projects have become more ambitious. But in terms of those early days, we set a goal to make genre defining console games," said Reddy before continuing, "That is still who we are. We absolutely love making UGC [User Generated Content] titles, and it's very hard to think of not making one."
Following the success of LBP, Media Molecule started work on its sequel, a game that had a lot to live up to. "When you release anything, I assume any game, as soon as you've done the first one, I assume people will have hopes and dreams for what happens in the future," mentioned Reddy. But, before they could get stuck into Little Big Planet 2, the developer was acquired by Sony in 2010 and brought into the SIE portfolio.
Sony enters the scene
The acquisition saw Sony help set up MM with a new studio, the very building the team still operates from in Guildford, Surrey today in 2021, but it also helped the developer expand its operations significantly. "We got a real boost in investment, we got a real boost in them being able to grow the studio, we got a boost in being able to try out some new things," stated Reddy
The security that came with the acquisition allowed Media Molecule to branch out, but before that, Little Big Planet 2 was still on the cards. Today, we know it as MM's final time working solely on the series, but it seems like the writing was always on the wall for this IP/developer relationship. I asked Reddy about when they knew it was time to move on from Sackboy and Co., she replied, "It certainly wasn't at the beginning of LBP2."
Reddy continued saying, "I think we felt very much like we were part of this community of developers that are now working on it. Sumo has done a really great job, but it is weird though. We love Sackboy and we love LBP and it will always feel connected to us, it's a sort of shared connection between a bunch of people."
The uncovering of Tearaway
After moving on from LBP2, Media Molecule set its sights on building something completely new for the recent handheld console, the PlayStation Vita. The game in question ended up being Tearaway - a title Reddy described as "a real love-letter to the Vita" - but it started as a completely different project, an ambitious "Pokémon Go but, without Pokémon'' style of game that was called Uncoverery.
"There was a whole other game called Uncoverery," said Reddy. "Which was the beginning of Tearaway, kind of like Pokémon Go but, without Pokémon. It was a really ambitious game, and the reason we didn't make that one, was that it was too ambitious."
Uncoverery ended up meeting an unfortunate fate, but Tearaway was its delightful successor. When Tearaway was still in the early stages, Reddy told me about a conversation she had with Rex Crowle [Lead Designer on Tearaway], about how he wanted it to "feel like you're putting your fingers through the Vita, into the screen." The game used the Vita's rear touch pad to achieve such a feat, and it became one of Media Molecule's most memorable titles because of its ingenuity. "It's just one of those titles that I'm just so happy we got to make," Reddy stated.
Dreaming bigger than ever before
Looking towards the present, Media Molecule is now known for Dreams, a creative gaming system that is almost a game that creates games. It has taken inspiration from all of the other works of Media Molecule and combined it into the ultimate UGC title, designed with community and creativity at the forefront. "The three titles that we've done are the training wheels for what we're doing now," said Reddy. "I think the future of Dreams is sort of taking all of the things that we've learned from the other titles and sort of building upon this sort of base layer creation tool that we have."
Building a community as genuine as what surrounds Dreams is not coincidental however, it takes a lot of work and Media Molecule has built a team to ensure the best community as possible is cultivated. "Our whole live team on Dreams is focussed on building that community space," mentioned Reddy. "It's not something that just comes with it, it's something that is very intentional, and there's a lot of effort and time put into listening to the community, talking with them, really trying to make sure we're striking that right balance of getting out fixes quick enough of things that have been raised. For us, it's always been important that the community and Media Molecule feel part of the same thing, they are an extension of us. We're all in Dreams together, it's sort of one big hippie-lovin'."
The pinnacle of this wholesome community arrives annually around mid-February, when the community-centred awards ceremony The Impys takes place. For Media Molecule, this show is the biggest event on the Dreams calendar year, and the staff at the developer all look forward to watching the show unfold just as much as the community does. "I got dressed up for the show and watched it with the team," Reddy said gleefully. "The whole thing is sort of a big emotional rollercoaster and it's wonderful to see and celebrate people."
"I think the thing you see looking at the Impys this year - in comparison to last year - is that last year was celebrating year one, it was very much the early access years, this is celebrating year two where people have just made creations that stand on their own. I think that's what I love looking at the progression of Dreams is seeing that people are making games that just stand on their own, that's really exciting."
SIE, the pandemic, and the future
Sharing creativity is - and likely will always be - a core value for the wonderful team at Media Molecule. But, that also seems to be the case with the SIE developers as well. We mentioned earlier how being part of SIE allowed Media Molecule to become the developer it is today, but joining SIE was never just about financial security. "Being a part of PlayStation Studios you join a really great cohort of developers," as Reddy put it. Since becoming part of the portfolio, Media Molecule has been able to get in touch with the various other SIE studios to "be able to brainstorm different ideas or share ideas." But, it's more than that as the family of SIE work together to solve the biggest issues affecting their game development pipelines - for example a global pandemic.
"Actually, one of the coolest things that's come out of the lockdown is that all of the studio heads of the various studios have been in way more contact," said Reddy. "We've all needed to share, like; how are you all coping with this? What are you doing about that? Have you found a good tool to do this?" Not only has Media Molecule coped with the pandemic, but it has thrived, as Reddy alluded to, "the funny thing is, I think we work really well from home. We're a bit more organised and meetings are a bit more structured, and I think that it actually suits a large portion of the studio."
Only time will tell how the future will affect game development as a whole, but as it stands right now, Media Molecule seems to have a good thing going. Dreams is still very much in its infancy, and no doubt will be supported for many years to come, but what's next? For a developer swimming in creativity like Media Molecule, the sky's the limit. One thing we can be certain about however, is there will always be a delightfully cultivated community that drives the studio's success. Play, Create, Share is the Media Molecule motto, and as Reddy shared with me, "I just love seeing people share their creativity with us, it's a real honour."
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