Interview: James Spafford of Media Molecule

At the recent Playstation Access event in Glasgow I managed to corner Media Molecule Community Manager, and all round nice chap, James Spafford. I convinced James to sit down with me and share his thoughts on the Playstation Move control in LittleBigPlanet 2, the LBP community in general, the PS VITA and what’s next for the Media Molecule team.

Being a community manager for a brand, in any medium, is a pretty straightforward job most of the time. You’re promoting the company message to your user base and keeping up with any thoughts and concerns they have in return. But when the community is so integral to the experience, as in the case of LittleBigPlanet, that manager’s job is a much greater role, it is essential. Enter Mr Spafford, who describes his job as “mostly keeping in touch with the community and playing LBP”. He likes to play it down.

At the Playstation Access event we’re currently sitting in, it’s all about giving back to the community. There are rows of TVs for attendees to play both the latest and as yet unreleased titles, there’s a spectacular manmade jungle behind us hosting Uncharted 3 sessions, and the free pizzas and refreshments are keeping all these gamers fueled as they hop from game to game. It’s taken a lot of organisation from the Playstation Access team to pull these events off.

“These events are super important. When you’re out here and meeting the people playing the games, finding out what they like to play, it’s great. It’s really easy not to do this, it’s easy to just hide away in your little tower and make the games and I think it’s really important to have that human contact with your fans,” James tells me as his colleague to our right takes a pair of players through the basics of LBP2.

He added: “There was a kid here earlier, his mum did most of the talking, but you could see he was drawn to LBP. His mum said about how he’s unlocked all the trophies and plays it all the time, it’s his favourite game. That was cool to hear that directly.

“There was another guy who had a level with over 100,000 plays and was saying how astounded he was that people wanted to play this level he had created himself, so yeah it was really good hearing this from our community.”

James is here to show off the latest DLC for LBP2, the Playstation Move pack. The £6.29 pack adds “14 levels, with a brand new storyline involving a rogue cake going astray. And the new Brain Crane, which is a hat that sackboy wears on his head and using the move controller you can grab stuff and move it around the environment to progress through the levels. And if you’re a fan of the slap you can perform a real-time slap on others with the Move.”

“Alongside the story mode there’s lots and lots of mini games for the Move and also a suite of create tools, which is like a two-pronged attack: on one side they let you make levels for people with the Move controller, and on the other they allow you to use the Move controller to create with,” James explained.

The Move Pack gives the LBP community yet another layer of interactivity on top of an already rich cake. James admits the community continues to surprise the staff at Media Molecule with what they can come up with, his own favourite being the dramatic Eastern-tinged ‘Arabesk’ level: “That level is just incredible in terms of its cut scenes and its art. It opens with a beautiful, dramatic introduction. It’s just amazing to see.”

“We’re seeing a lot of cool new levels using the Playstation Move now. I’m hoping that soon someone will create something that will come along and blow our minds. Something that no one’s ever created before.”

“The possibilities really are endless and everyone’s brain works in a different way, there’s always someone combining objects in a different way that nobody before had thought of and that’s the start point of something beautiful. It really is amazing.”

The next big release in the LBP universe will be the Playstation VITA version of LittleBigPlanet. With such a variety of control methods on the handheld at players’ disposal, the opportunity for even more surprising creations is vast. “The touch gaming that VITA adds, gives a new element,” James said. “The chances of someone creating something that no one has seen before are now higher. When we developed LBP1 and its sequel, it was designed for the Dual Shock controller. That controller setup has been around for so long. And now we have these new control methods added to that tried and tested functionality.”

James added: “We’re working with the Tarsier [Studios] guys [developers of the VITA version] and they’ve made a lot of content for LBP2, they’ve made all these costumes we have and they also did Ragdoll Kung Fu, which was a great game. So we have really close ties with them and I’m really happy they will be working on LBP for VITA.”

With Tarsier Studios working on the latest addition to the LBP universe, what’s next for the Media Molecule team? James was understandably coy: “Most of us [in the studio] have started to move away now from LBP and we’re starting to R&D our next games. We’re playing around with ideas at the moment.

“I can’t really say what exactly is next, but we’ll probably stay within the realms of UGC (user generated content), we really like making things that other people can create within, building and sharing worlds with others. I’d be surprised if we strayed away from that too much in our future titles, but who knows!”

Since its launch in 2008 LBP has revolutionised how we create, share and play. I put it to James that other developers should perhaps take a leaf out of the MM book: “I think that UGC is really cool and people definitely have engaged with it, not every game needs it however,” James said.

“I think that there are some things that you can learn from LBP that you can apply to just about any game. Maybe it’s just my opinion, but anything you’re doing in a game becomes a user generated piece of content, because that experience is something that you may then go and talk about to your friends or say online ‘hey this cool thing happened’. The more people can share these kind of experiences the better really.”

With that we turned our attention back to the giant HDTV in front of us and played some more LBP2. It was perhaps the perfect game for an event of this kind, the ultimate community game being played by both creator and fan. And he didn’t even get annoyed when I kept pulling his character back, the LBP community is in good hands.

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