Siobhan Reddy, studio Director at Media Molecule (maker of the BAFTA-winning LittleBigPlanetgame franchise), discusses creativity, diversity + how they relate to Media Molecules latest ambitious endeavour: Dreams. The BAFTA Games Lecture aims to deliver valuable insights into the creative minds of some of the world’s most compelling + esteemed games professionals, providing a platform for speakers to share their experiences as well as their personal vision for the future of the industry.
1. The multi-pronged attack
Reddy acknowledges that many games devs have come from "one voice" studios in which all the directors have a unifed approach to a project. Part of Media Molecule's core ethos is that difference is strength (which is also why Reddy is an advocate for diversity in the games industry).
A diverse group of people are going to be able to bring a wider range of perspectives, backgrounds, emotions + experiences to the table. That's naturally going to result in art that is more considerate, more varied, more interesting, and more powerful.
2. A new gaming landscape
The size + focus of the industry has evolved into something vast + amorphous.
Noting that there are more options for independent developers + greater variety in publishing platforms, Reddy says that the games industry is now expanding in all directions rather than forging ahead linearly from A to B. Making a good game is now almost commonplace; Reddy says it's just not enough anymore.
3. Dropped into the deep end
Reddy soothes some fears for people unsure if they actually know what they're doing (imposter syndrome, anyone?). After landing her first job at a development studio, she figured out what it really means to learn on the fly.
I remember that moment of literally writing words down I didn’t understand; it was a massive learning curve.
4. A new frontier for gamemaking
Just like how everyone who picks up a guitar won’t become a rockstar + maybe doesn’t aspire to be one, we hope to promote the idea of making games as being a hobby as well, not the commitment of a career.
Can people enjoy making games purely for the creative outlet it provides, or is the promise of financial remuneration inherently part of that enjoyment? Siobhan Reddy hopes that Media Molecule's Dreams can enrich players' lives in a meaningful way like any other creative art form.
This is such an honour, it’s a pleasure to be here.
I am pretty sure I was born playing make believe. Whether it was playing with dolls, lego, paints or in the pool, I always remember creating my own worlds and adventures. The most wonderful part of being a child is only needing your imagination for play. Whether it was watering the garden and imagining the natural disasters happening below to the imps and faeries, or the world clean-up operation that was vacuuming, or being chief scientist when checking the chlorine levels of the pool. I was always a bit lost in my imagination and it’s fair to say not an efficient chore do-er. But make believe, to me, was what READY (on the Commodore 64) was to my co-director Alex Evans when he did this lecture in 2010.
I have a bunch of subjects I talk about often with regard to Games Development. And there is this one concept in particular that perseveres: Glitter & Doom, for me, describes the true experience of development. Crests and valleys, highs and lows. This is partially because we work in a creative space, and partially because none of us have a crystal ball that looks into the future and tells us accurately what the next five years of the industry will have in store.
We know we’ll all go through the cycles of R&D, active development, shipping and post-launch, but trends, business models, advances in technology all affect us in unpredictable ways. This is the risk of continuing to play make-believe and trying to make a living at it.
But there is another unpredictable piece of making games. One that is very human.
If I am honest, it has been people that have kept me making games long enough for me to find the joy of making them. It’s the sense of community we achieve when creating something together, the joy of playing together, and the thrill of seeing people enjoy what we have made.
There is also no-one in the world that will do things exactly like someone else. Each person is an important piece of that final project.
Having the right people on the right project can make a huge difference in so many diverse intangible ways. If a person is missing, the project changes, if you have the right person in a role, they can go far beyond your expectations.
Especially at a studio the size of Media Molecule - people will always leave their imprint.
Media Molecule is based in Guildford. Our own local community is an incredible cluster of development, including Fireproof, Criterion Games, Hello Games, Supermassive, Rocketdesk- a co-working space for indie developers, and offshoots of publishers like EA, Ubisoft and Epic. Before this came Criterion Software, Lionhead and Bullfrog. Media Molecule wouldn’t exist without the people who came from them. Guildford, as a games hub, likely wouldn’t either.
In the 20 years that I have been working in games there has been such a growth in people - make-believers – both amateur and professional because of the accessibility of tools like Unity and Unreal – the ability to learn from generosity of communities with Wikipedia and YouTube – the opportunities for independent developers and wealth of publishing platforms that now exist… The size, and focus of the industry has evolved into something vast and amorphous.
And with that landscape comes new challenges. Making a good game often isn’t enough. There are so many factors to success. But the core of that, for me is people.
At Media Molecule, I have found a group of people who are passionate about a particular challenge - demystifying the digital arts so that anyone can express themselves in that medium.
I am part of that anyone and my own journey into this industry is a story about the power of people.
My childhood included playing games, quite a lot of them really, but they weren’t my central passion. I had been hooked into other things, and I was especially into art, films and the idea of directing them from the moment I saw Picnic at Hanging Rock as a little girl.
But when it came to games I was on the outside, and I didn’t think of who made them or how they were made. My way over that chasm was Resident Evil on the PS1. I am a big horror fan, and I was transported when playing that game. It actually made me feel scared. It was then that I became interested in games as a medium
At the time I was living here in the UK and I wanted a job that was in line with the jobs I had done previously in Sydney where I had worked at my favourite record store (doing the data entry for a massive collectibles catalogue) and at a very hip & cool web design company. Of course, I was a little fish in a very big pond. Games, at the time, was the more left field choice: I phoned Aardvark Swift (they are to this day still a games recruitment agency) and they organised me some entry level interviews.
The very first time I walked around a games development studio I knew it was going to be for me.
The energy of the space thrilled me. Everyone was a creator.
I was hired by Luci Black, and whilst my time working at Perfect World was short, Luci & I have worked together for most of our careers.
All games-makers eventually get asked the question: So, how do you make a game? Well, I remember that moment of literally writing words down I didn’t understand, it was a massive learning curve. I knew absolutely nothing about how games were made BUT
I learnt a bunch of valuable lessons working there…especially – how to make an acceptable cup of tea for a Scottish person.
And when it was time to move on, I interviewed at a few places, and chose Criterion.
Back then, Criterion was a company on the cusp of greatness with the rendering technology, Renderware, being the jewel in the crown of Criterion Software.
Walking around studios, you can get such a feel for what the vibes are like. No two studios are exactly the same. The Criterion Studio didn’t have the same slightly frenetic energy I had just experienced, but I immediately liked Fiona Sperry, the Head of Studio, she was really impressive, the studio looked professional, and most importantly I liked their ambition to become a Console Games Studio. Everything and everyone has to start somewhere, and I was very lucky to join at this point of that phase.
Some history: Criterion had been set up as a technology company funded by Canon, which resulted in them making an amazing piece of middleware called Renderware.
Renderware itself was incredibly important and a big contributor to the industry. It helped close to 200 games ship. Games you may have heard of like GTA3.
There had always been games to show off the technology, but when Fiona Sperry took the helm the focus moved to console games in particular. Under Fiona’s stewardship Criterion Games was born and the group evolved into being a commercially and critically successful studio, and a hugely important step in the careers of many people, including myself.
My first job at Criterion, was to help finish the localisation on TrickStyle. This is the process of making sure that all language translation process is organised, implemented and tested. This is a rite of passage for Producers. What is interesting about starting there is that the job is entirely focused on the end product – it provided me with a picture of what the “end state” of making a game actually looked like. I still to this day get a thrill when I see our game localised into Japanese. It reminds me that what we are making will exist beyond our bubble, and be seen by people all over the world.
The first game I worked on from start to finish was AirBlade. I was 21 when we shipped this on PlayStation 2.
Shipping my first game was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. I have to admit that the drama of shipping that first game was shocking.
There was pressure to get it right, the fear of failure, combined with the excitement and enjoyment of honestly loving what I was working on. I still didn’t know the answer to that question “How do you make a game?”, but I was well on my way to understanding it didn’t happen without the right people.
VIDEO 1- A; young fresh off the boat Siobhan
I have a very strong memory of us burning that final disc, gathering together, playing the game, finding a showstopper bug, burning it again, then playing through, drinking lots of champagne, and smoking cigars in the fancy boardroom. Then I left, went home, crawled into bed, and slept like the dead. I can still smell the faint whiff of cigars, there is so much joy in that memory. These feelings created by the thing we had all poured our blood, sweat and tears into coming together into…finally being done. Finally finding life outside our grasp. Knowing that never would have happened without every one of us and everything we went through.
I’m not sure I should admit to this…Has anyone else done the early morning traipse to their local GAME and rearranged all the games so that yours is front and centre? No…no..me neither. Of course not. Maybe we don’t always mention those things – but they’re the flip side of the coin to the hardship.
I’ve come to embrace that drama of shipping, regardless of how easy or difficult the development is. I have also looked back at projects and remembered them as easy, then watched my own post-mortem and realised it is never easy. The hard parts can somehow become distant memories...secondary remembrances when we achieve our desired result.
And as it turned out…AirBlade didn’t propel Criterion into the big time; that was this other little game being built in parallel called Burnout.
Burnout became Criterion’s breakaway success, and for good reason. It was really simple, and fun. An idea inspired by the best of arcade racing, it started to build a loyal fanbase from its first release in 2001. I started to work on the Burnout Series at the start of Burnout 3. The project had just been signed by EA, and it was a really big opportunity for the studio. The development of Burnout 3 turned into an entirely new experience, with more highs and lows than anything I’d previously worked on.
That pressure and fear that I mentioned during AirBlade was tenfold on Burnout.
Of course, the highs were moments like going to E3, especially after the extra work that creating a build for journalists and trade demos entails when you already have enough to do on the actual game, and it all leading to a 10/10 review score and massive success.
And the lows…a gruelling work schedule and my growing role as an enforcer of those hours, working in production. There were tough code reviews at ridiculous o clock in the morning. Burnout 3 and Burnout 4 were not easy projects to work on. I could, but I won’t make a pun here.
In my personal life, I sometimes share stories with my old coworkers over drinks, and nearly 20 years later laugh about the moments that made us cry.
In my professional life, I hold close the lessons I learned in that period. I was at Criterion from age 20 to 27, and that time cemented the foundation of my approach to production. It taught me:
We are making entertainment. We aren’t curing cancer. We need to understand the human cost of making games and make the doom manageable.
The craft of making is a game is as human as it is technical. People add uniqueness to a project.
HR is important. Not the “managing people out” HR, but the kind that brings a sense of humanity to the team. The kind that lets them speak truth to power when it’s needed.
Making things is awesome but sharing them is even better.
I have only really worked on teams between 20 and 120 people so in most cases that’s included an individual working on a pretty large area of responsibility.
Making games, for me, is an artisanal production, rather than a factory line, and the fingerprints of those game creators are very clearly marked in the creations. My role, as a studio director, is split between process and people. The analogy I like, is to imagine us a bit like a theatre troupe.
If I may:
Imagine we are making a play, and we have all taken Macbeth home. Everyone knows their part, and have been head down practising lines in their own clothes, imagining how the other actors will respond, when the lighting will provide impact.
The first rehearsal rolls around and we come together. The Director (or 5 of them) tells the cast and crew that it’s going to MacBeth only set in LittleBigPlanet. And then we realise we have all had a slightly different idea of how this would play out in our own minds.
At the second rehearsal everyone is a bit more in theme, so it’s sounding more indicative of the final product but some people are still wearing our own clothes and others are in what they think could work. So, it’s messy… People all look and sound a bit ridiculous but feel more directed towards a single vision…and now the lighting lady has gone wild, it’s the first time anyone has heard the music and well… and it just feels like so many disparate bits. To top it off, we find out we have to swap theatres as there are structural issues, you know some small refactoring.
By the time we get to a dress rehearsal (in the game world this is our alpha), the core of the performance is there but some people get annoyed that the costumes aren’t what they hoped, others really like it, there is a huge crisis of confidence in any number of nuanced areas, but the directors see the shape of what they had in their head enough to be able to see the whole through to the finish. They seem to have put their blinders on, which makes some people feel like they are no longer being listened to.
Between then and opening night (let’s call that our beta), there are many moments where the whole thing just might not just quite come together. It takes lots of grinding through, small tweaks, a hem fixed here, a line changed there, a spot light over here etc. Day by day the messiness becomes something that makes everyone get goosebumps.
When our game reaches these milestones, even when it looks good to outside eyes, we can still see every flaw, imperfection, snag, each piece that needs a little more time, a little more iteration, a little more love.
Each review requires us to look through different lenses, the example I just gave is how I think most of the time, of course it’s technology and art on the screen, but what is really happening is a human clash, and that human clash needs to be managed.
The biggest struggle for me, composing this lecture was that the dress rehearsal is the state that Dreams exists in now.
Before I know it, I’ll be remembering it as easier than it was, then reliving a post-mortem to be reminded it wasn’t.
We aren’t going in completely blind. In January we will celebrate our 13th year as a studio. On October 27th, LittleBigPlanet will turn 10. So that brings me, and my history, to Media Molecule.
Media Molecule formed around the idea of making something that let people create together. The name itself because we weren’t entirely convinced that would just be games…maybe movies or music or something else entirely. And since 2006 we have created 3 new IPs : LittleBigPlanet, Tearaway and Dreams. Every one of our games has had community at the heart, and truly, Dreams is the culmination of everything we’ve worked on to date.
I can hardly believe the LBP story when I look back at it. What a whirlwind.
Imagine…2006, Tony Blair was PM, Crash was winning at the Oscars, Kingdom Hearts 2 was released, YouTube was less than a year old, Twitter had just been born and Twitch wouldn’t exist for another half a decade. Instead we were all using MySpace.
We had formed around the idea of creative play, of accessible, digital make believe. It was the DNA of our studio. Each founder of our company had a personal story of why creativity was something they wanted to share with people.
At Media Molecule I am one of five Directors. This is us.
Top from left to right
Mark Healey, Creative Director, been working in the industry for a bajillion years, and got his start into the industry making games on the Commodore 64 as a kid.
Me, studio director, maker of things and herder of cats.
Kareem Ettouney, Art Director, studied theatre design and architecture, he isn’t wedded to the games ways of doing things and pushes us to bring the style and process of fine arts into the medium
Bottom left to right
David Smith, Technical Director focused on Gameplay and Feel, he loves to solve a riddle.
Alex Evans, Technical Director, audio and graphics legend. Cut his teeth as a youngster in the demo scene.
For us at Mm we have never had the “one voice” – we had all come from “one voice” studios and so at our studio we have attempted “5 voices”!
But whilst we have different taste, and wildly differing personalities – We all have a love of our craft, the people in it, of making experiences for people and involving community.
And as we have grown
and become more and more voices over the years, we still have a core identity:
We revel in the creative nature of us all and really want to share that joy.
Media Molecule is a studio that embraces the distinct fingerprints of creators being visible in our projects and on the screen.
And the most shared and important concepts at the studio have been around giving people the tools to make their own games, or put themselves in the game.
We always tried to have a good time while accomplishing this goal, but the fears, and pressures are real. At the start, we had one Molecule who had a child, and soon after, another molecule with one on the way. I was incredibly conscious that here we were just giving this little start-up a go – and now we were also literally going to be how someone provided for a child and family.
We built an excellent relationship with Sony and have always taken that seriously. Phil Harrison signed the project, and put us on a greenlight phase of about 8 months. But it was Xdev (Sony’s group that worked with external development teams) under Michael Denny that provided us with incredible support.
There were nine of us then, and the reason behind us having “flat-ish” structure and remaining small was to maintain a collaborative working style, for everyone to be hands on and to develop a culture where solutions and great ideas could come from anyone. It had to fit our style as directors and accommodate our multiple voices. It’s not an easy ask.
Those first few months set the tone. Creating a game about jamming, understandably, started with jamming. Our approach was ground up, and our framework – a bit of a Lionhead/Bullfrog meets Criterion.
Those studios came from very different schools, and from the start we were a mesh of the two, Lionhead was born from the ashes of Bullfrog and was innovative, wild, PC-focussed & with long dev times, and Criterion was pop culture, arcade, console & a game a year – a studio that was proving itself. Bringing them together was like bringing together Fine Art & Pop Culture.
We hit the ground running. We were all experienced, and eager to do something with what we had learned at our previous companies. We were all very passionate about making something great. The creation of Sackboy, was one of those moments – a jam, maybe even the first one. Mark, Kareem, Dave, Francis all playing sketch tennis, but riffing on each other, you can gradually see Sackboy emerging. When I say tone, it’s moments like these that set it.
As LittleBigPlanet started to take shape, Sackboy became a big hit, everybody loved him. He was cute, he was charming…but he was only a piece of the vision.
Part of extending the life of LittleBigPlanet past launch was dependent on a portion of the audience creating their own levels and venturing beyond the story mode we were creating. They had to want to play, create AND share. Our tagline for LittleBigPlanet.
In 2007, we shared LittleBigPlanet at the Game Developers Conference, and suddenly things got real for us. The presentation hadn’t been a big part of any sort of “strategy” but sharing this with the game developer community was serendipitously the very best place for us to start. After all, we were asking people, anyone, to become game developers…and taking a gamble that they would.
There was a big concern from folks outside the studio about whether or not people would do this. And we weren’t quite sure…but we knew this:
Our own experiences couldn’t be unique, we weren’t the only ones who enjoyed creating. In fact we were working in an industry filled with people who did.
And…the levels that could be built by our team were legitimately built with the tools. It could be done by the community.
Often when we trying to get across one of our more complicated subjects, we make a video of us explaining it, first for ourselves and then for the wider audience.
Play LittleBigPlanet video – history of why we are making LittleBigPlanet video. LittleBigPlanet
The moment of truth came in 2008, when we ran a beta. There is only so much you can learn about a project without putting it into the hands of players. Especially one so driven by social features and community involvement. We invited 75,000 people.
These moments of watching people outside of the studio make and share was incredibly memorable, and I remember sitting in the boardroom waiting for the 30 mins we knew it would take players to play through the first theme, do a tutorial and make something, then we watched as the first level was published and all collectively sighed in relief.
Then the release, the release itself was a life-changing moment for all of us. We celebrated that format qa pass with the traditional champagne, and tired hugs.
Over the course of LittleBigPlanet’s life so far, 11 million levels have been published onto the LittleBigPlanet community.
Our gamble had worked…
LittleBigPlanet spawned podcasts, community tutorials, millions of videos, fan art and more.
This success changed the shape of the studio, we hired our community team and three of our five level designers directly from the community.
Its launch resulted in us evolving into operating a live service, with many ongoing threads and projects within LittleBigPlanet at any one time.
We spent six years making LittleBigPlanet, LittleBigPlanet 2 and the Move Pack.
Then a very significant thing happened in 2010. We were acquired by Sony. We are very proud to be a part of Worldwide Studios. Our sibling studios are inspiring in their stories of reinvention, growth and creative risk taking.
We were lucky at this stage to have Sony’s backing to kick-start 2 projects: Uncovery (which would later become Tearaway), and Dreams.
We leapt into starting two new teams and two new IPs. Yes, that is as crazy as it sounds and another talk in and of itself.
The ambition of Dreams required R and D in each major area of development. This team was starting very small, and we started with sculpting, as we had got very excited by the concepts of 3d input.
A very different project, Uncovery, was our first step into the world of hand-held.
At Media Molecule we enjoy the opportunity new hardware brings. The VITA is an amazing little machine. We got excited by the back-touch, I’ll never forget Rex suggesting that perhaps it could feel like you have stuck your fingers through the back of the vita into the game, and it had GPS technology. We wanted to create something that had the intimacy and tactility of reaching into a world, but set all over the world, our world, the real world. A bit like, Pokemon Go Scope. In pitches the idea that sounded so neat and simple but the ambition too big for the small team, literally 8 people working on it. We had to admit that whilst Uncovery was a great concept, we needed to pivot.
We used a jam to refocus, and dig into what was unique and fun about the PlayStation Vita outputs with the goal of things feeling “holdy worldy”, and the project emerged, reborn as Tearaway.
This next video weaves together the show & tell videos we made during the “jam dailies” and how these ended up in the final game:
Play Tearaway video
I love sharing these videos as they illustrate ground up design in action, and showcase the people behind the curtain.
Why do I want to share this little moment in time? It’s because these jam moments in the studio – Sackboy, Tearaway Vita, Dreams tools jams…all of them have a creative purity. The rough, unfinished edges are charming, and leave something open to interpret.
And while projects need structure (I am a producer after all), there is a good freedom to say: ‘this doesn’t have to end up in the game’ or ‘let’s just see what ideas people have within this specific constraint’. These jams can be fast, using whatever medium works and they can include people from every discipline in the studio. They celebrate the flat structure we try to impose. The idea wins.
When we step outside the normal process of game-making, the schedule, the spreadsheet, the direction… for just a few hours, or a day, we invite our creators to let their personality shine through; to try the thing that makes them excited, to make the thing they wish someone else had been made…or just to do something silly, or take a risk.
Sometimes it’s the wildest of ideas that are what’s needed. When we self-censor, or tone it down before putting it out there, the beauty of the idea can get lost.
Ultimately it’s that concept, speed of creation, allowing for happy accidents, that is core to our current project: Dreams.
We believe that making games should have the same accessibility as using a camera, guitar, or a pencil – something you can start to learn just by picking it up. And just like how everyone who picks up a guitar won’t become a rockstar, and maybe doesn’t aspire to be one: we hope to promote the idea of making games as being a hobby as well, not the commitment of a career.
One of questions we get most about Dreams is– what…is it? Well, probably around this time last year ahead of a marketing meeting, we decided to answer it the same way - by asking the team – What is Dreams and Who is Dreams for?
Play Mm Hello Video
Dreams is our evolution of LittleBigPlanet, combined with everything we learned on Tearaway making a story. But unlike LBP, where everything looks like LBP, Dreams can look like, anything.
At its heart it is a game creation engine that brings all the disciplines into one space so moving between them is a fluid experience. As you learn the basics of assembling/ collaging a level you’re learning the same skills you can carry into making music or VFX. You’re never waiting for something to render, everything plays on screen in real time so you learn as you go and play your creations as you make them.
And like LittleBigPlanet we are making a game with those tools, that’s our way of testing them and keeping them grounded.
This next video is a very small montage of some of the amazing creations that have been made by the team, entirely in Dreams.
And everything is shareable, each small element through to epic games, playlist, or stories.
Just like LittleBigPlanet changed the studio, Dreams has changed Mm as well.
This project lives up to the story behind the name Media Molecule– it’s not a traditional game. It’s games, movies, songs, characters, a playlist maker, an art gallery. It’s a live service too…we’re already running it with small few on our Creator Alpha.
The normal course of taking a game on the road, is something like – make a demo, approve art, go to show, present demo a million times and then go home.
For Dreams it’s been a bit of a different affair, we have been on the road, participating in Train Jam, running jams on stage at PSX, PAX, doing streams throughout development. We show off to each other what we have made and how we have made it. When I think of why jamming is important to Dreams, this video can illustrate some of what I am saying.
Play PEOPLE video.
But to get to here has been a journey. That thing I said earlier about – one person not being on a team can make a difference? Well, it was hard having two IP’s on the go at the same time.
The Tearaway team had a very strong culture, as many of the team were hired specifically for the project, and that team had all worked so hard to birth that new IP. They had a bond.
We celebrated the launch of Tearaway Unfolded, but the time had come to bring everyone back together to work on Dreams.
Now, I’d be lying if I told you now that things were plain sailing. Dreams was live on the operating table, with many open issues, and Tearaway had achieved great critical success but commercial success was elusive. The challenges felt really big, the vibe often quite low. I did a studio survey around this time, and it was the toughest to date, but despite that the there was a real shared passion about us continuing to innovate.
Over the next 12 months, the thing that became clear was how strong we were when we work together, on a single thing, and how much of an impact each of the new Tearaway molecules were making in the world of UGC with their storytelling skills. Our 10th year marked the start of a transformation, which has been led by Dreams.
We have worked together differently. We have jammed more, less perhaps as a full team, but in lots of different ways each day. The end result of this is that people are investing more of themselves and engaged in the development of Dreams much more than other projects we have made.
I am very proud of everyone for where we have got to. The balance between the craft, the jam and then actually having to create something professional has been incredibly hard, and immensely unpredictable, which has meant delays and all the lows and frustration that comes with that.
Now we are getting ready for the beta audience, and so are standing on the precipice with the end in sight. There’s not much else out there that we can compare ourselves to…so faith in our choices and trust in our execution is what we have.
I can admit to you that it’s bloody terrifying.
But each of our projects have come with their own set of challenges, and none of them have felt quite the same in the making. But we formed around creating something new and when that’s what you do, this feeling sort of comes with the territory.
Especially when it means we can do things like:
Play Video: The Molecules
That video shows animators, a programmer, a sound designer/composer and our head of audio performing a gig in Dreams LIVE on stage. We spent the day in West Hollywood, finding them outfits, rehearsing in secret. That is The Glitter.
But there’s something I’ve up to now omitted from this professional narrative in the same way we all often omit our first, seemingly unrelated job from our industry CVs.
One of the most influential experiences to my approach to working and life was that my parents ran a shoe shop. I grew up in the Western Suburbs of Sydney and there wasn’t an awful lot going on there when my dad started a shop selling Doc Marten’s in the 90s. I watched my parents grow their business from a tiny sliver of a shop, with my mum doing nursing night duty, to them being business partners in running the coolest store around, through to them selling it on as a thriving and successful business. It was here that I discovered what a company culture is. There was a very clear set of rules, and expected behaviours: We had to be on time, eat only in our lunch break, never eat at the counter, write neat receipts, always treat people respectfully, take the time with each person to have a conversation, and never make anyone feel unwelcome. We would have punk rockers, sat next to kindergarten kids, next to retirees. It was a real mix.
There is an intimacy with putting shoes on the feet of a family throughout their whole school life, and my parents built something beyond a shoe shop. They built a community. My dad has always been a really huge inspiration to me, especially with his ability to take opportunities, understand what was actually important and put in the effort to make it work. He was open to our ideas too, and soon we had band t-shirts and converse, stuff we thought was cool.
My dad’s attitude to business was all about how he wanted the store to feel, smell, and look when someone first walked in. My parents had given their company a feel...a culture. I have read lots of books about this, but no-one gets it quite as right as my good old mum and dad.
I think about this all the time at Media Molecule. As a company we share a goal of making a game for people, but as a Director my main goal is now ensuring that this is a good place to work. Are our people okay and is our structure working? Does everyone have a voice? Is our studio adapting to and addressing the pressures of development? Who are we as a company?
And at this point, I should know, right? I’ve have walked you through over 20 years of lessons carried from one developer to another, one group of creatives to the next. I have an ambition for how I want our culture to feel, but we are all humans living our own epics and co-existing in this space for a few days a week.
Our lives are not static, culture is not static and the issues we face as a studio are not static. Our studio changes with our projects and with our people. That idea – we are creating entertainment – not curing cancer is very important to remember.
We can improve people’s lives, by continuing to adapt and change our companies to the needs of the people who work in them or may one-day work in them, just like we adapt and change our games to suit the needs of our player communities.
Our industry has been shifting to adapt to addressing players directly, reaching them in more “authentic” ways, making them feel like they are part of the game. we need to remember to do this within our studios as well.
There are several core pillars of community management that we can all take a lesson from.
Engagement –Engagement is a huge metric of success for community building. You have to be proactive and you can’t just rest on your laurels. You have to make connections to people and keep that engagement active, even during the slow times.
In a developer this can mean searching out feedback or developing communication internally. Our team eats lunch upstairs in our office every day – but that’s not an accident. Whilst we travel as a gang, we haven’t ever had the full-studio pub culture at Mm that we would have known at previous companies. We all like hanging out but many people have small children, or live away from Guildford, or just have other things going on in their lives. I have always felt a team that eats together stays together. And, rather than putting on more things in the evenings, we decided to invest in coming together at lunch time. It’s not compulsory, of course, but it’s really wonderful to see people up there chatting away to people they don’t deal with in their normal day to day, or the crossword gang battling out a puzzle, and the food is very good.
Then there is transparency (mostly) – You have to let people know what is happening. It affects them! But you don’t want to demoralize or scare them or give them information they can’t put into context. There is such a thing as being too transparent, and it’s a difficult but important line to walk, especially when you are in a leadership role.
Good community managers also model behaviour by example by setting a code of conduct and being the representation of that. It is up to us to exemplify what we want to see in our communities and companies. Not just in our own behaviour, but what we put on a screen.
And then there is Human interaction – People are humans! They aren’t perfect, they are complicated. We don’t speak to our community like we are soulless robots, we speak to them as people, in hopes they will also treat us like people.
And as it turns out, I am also a human. Sometimes I am fighting with one my co-directors, ignoring an issue for too long, or going about something the wrong way. Sometimes my own humanity is worn completely on my sleeve.
And whilst in the past I might have spent days or weeks worrying about even the smallest error, I sometimes have to remind myself it’s impossible for us to get everything right all the time.
That may sound like a cop out, but it’s actually a good reminder that I also have to ask for help when I need it, I should talk to people when I am overwhelmed and sometimes it is better for me to work from home.
Because then it reminds me that everyone is feeling variations of this, and I should set an example rather than cling to the old idea of carrying everything without complaint and perhaps failing, silently.
We model the behaviours we want to see, and I want a team that isn’t afraid to ask to for help, talk about an issue, or let me know when they are overwhelmed.
Those of us managing studios and games need to ensure the human cost, the “soul tax”, the doom, of the creative process is minimal so that we don’t burn out our best and brightest. We have the difficult job to walk the tightrope between the chaos of experimentation and the structure of shipping. We have to be proactive in moving our projects and companies forward each day.
It might be cliché to say that we have to be the change we want to see, but even I had to go through a journey to understand, for example, my role as woman within the industry. After LittleBigPlanet I was added onto a list of powerful women in the UK and that opened the floodgates to a lot of recognition. And recognition, if I am honest, that I wasn’t very comfortable with.
Until that point, I didn’t really do much other than my job. I am eloquently quoted as saying this award put a rocket up my bum. Thanks, me.
But it did, first as a bit of introspection, and then I was asked to join boards. Lots of boards.
I was onto the GDC Advisory Board back in 2011 and got to understand why that conference is such a positive experience for so many people. The efforts and lengths that Meggan Scavio would go to ensure that everyone was welcome – establishing a clear code of conduct, keeping an open line of communication to attendees and addressing their needs, like childcare. Behind the scenes, she made sure that the 28,000 people who attended GDC all lived in a progressive space for that week, setting an example for how the industry could/should behave. Her management of this conference over some of the most difficult times the industry went through has made her one of my personal role models.
I learnt a lot sitting on the BAFTA games board as well, in particular when I was involved in a Working Group on young people joining the film, tv & games industries. Visibility was important to them, and encouraging very young people was important to me.
But, I realised that the biggest difference I could make each day was by my work at Media Molecule.
I truly realised what we do extends out into a wider community. Our inventions have become a multi-billion dollar industry, and is firmly entrenched in popular culture. We affect the collective cultural consciousness by the way we represent society in our work.
People shouldn't feel that this industry isn't a place designed for them, nor should they see it as a space that would be hard for them to exist in based on any factor of their identity.
A diverse group of people are going to be able to bring a wider range of perspectives, backgrounds, emotions, and experiences to the table, and that's naturally going to result in art that is more considerate, more varied, more interesting, and more powerful.
We’ve generally had a good mix of cultures at Mm, but gender-wise it has taken more time. Our studio is now 38% women but that has meant making a conscious effort. We can affect change if we choose to.
Arriving at 38% has required outreach, not just looking like a great place to work, or being a great place to work and waiting on the CV’s to turn up. Oftentimes they don’t and it means we have to be more experimental with our recruitment. This includes offering work experience to young people that turns into an internship and internships that turn into employment. That means saying yes to school groups, and asking that they be diverse too.
Our studio is also entering its teenage years, we are starting to have a much more diverse age range than we ever have. We also need to look at why people leave the industry, and provide flexibility to allow parents to stay on the team. Distributed teams and offsite working have become part of Mm’s new culture. These also come with challenges but I don’t want to lose talent because it’s created a little bit more work. We need to adapt do so that we can be a good place for everyone.
At Mm we want to inspire a new generation to create games, to be make-believers, but it means we need to make this an industry where people want to work, where they can be taken care of and grow.
I love the people with big ideas, and open hearts who walk into our studios every day carrying their own invisible suitcase of life.
I know culture can be a buzzword, but I am proudest when I hear people mention how Media Molecule feels when they work visit, or how people talk about the studio positively and how passionate people in the studio are about protecting that culture when things are hard.
I love what I do, and you may have gathered that I love the people I get to interact with. I try my hardest to put what I say into practise every day.
I love that I help create make believe for everyone.
I love that as an industry we provide people with adventures, and stories, we get to make up worlds, characters, experiences that literally couldn’t ever exist. We help people form friendships, have fun, and express themselves. We get to play with new technology, and experiments with new and interesting usages of it, that can extend beyond and outside of games.
We are an ideas and imagination industry, and it’s an industry that is growing and one that has amazing opportunities and big challenges ahead. We can only do that if we remember that people are at the heart of this.
I truly hope this industry can be as good to the people who make games as it is to the people who play them.
Sometimes it’s the person who isn’t there that affects a project, and we, all of us, need to ensure that they are.