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.