Siobhan Reddy, Media Molecule studio directorDreams just recently turned one (happy birthday!), but the studio behind it has also reached a significant milestone. Guildford-based Media Molecule celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. Founded in 2006, the developer has proven to be one of the industry’s most innovative and creative, pushing user generated content in ways no one else has. From the original LittleBigPlanet to Dreams, the studio produces endlessly inventive software with a unique tone among Sony’s first party teams.
We sat down with studio director Siobhan Reddy to chart Media Molecule’s history.
Touching on the origin of the team, Sony’s acquisition, and breaking from the ‘Play Create Share’ ethos with Tearaway, read on to learn about the developer’s fascinating journey so far.
Note: The below interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
: Let’s start from when you joined Media Molecule, shortly after it was formed in 2006. What attracted you to the studio at the time?
Siobhan Reddy: At that point I was at [Criterion Games], and we had just finished Burnout Revenge.
At that time, I was looking to do something new, and I was thinking of all sorts of things — running away to the theatre, or just something completely different. I’d done a few years of driving games, and seven years at Criterion at that point.
Then [Mark Healey, Alex Evans, and Kareem Ettouney], who were all very close friends of mine, Chris Lee, who was commercial director at Criterion, and [David Smith] was the only then-director I didn’t know. I just remember at one point, I had a Christmas party and was talking with Mark and Alex.
They were telling me their plans, and I was telling them I was looking for something new. We weren’t talking about working together, I was just saying, it’s time for me to move on and I want to do something really creative.
Anyway, they followed up with me and said, “Why don’t you come and join us?”
For years and years, we were all in Guildford, I had seen what Alex was doing at [Lionhead Studios], and what Mark had been doing with Rag Doll Kung Fu, and I knew Kareem really well. So, it was just a convergence.
They were at this point where they really wanted to make something creative and ship it, and they’d been in the [research and development]team at Lionhead. I was coming from the world where, I was shipping [games]every year, and I wanted to do something more creative. So we sort of had this good overlap; I was good at shipping, and they’d come from somewhere that was really creatively led.
LittleBigPlanetThe studio’s first game was LittleBigPlanet, and it was this big success.
The Play Create Share idea was totally new, nothing like that had been done before. How do you feel about that project looking back on it today?
I obviously think back on it really fondly, but in the early days of Media Molecule… Mark, Alex, Dave, and Kareem really represented this burst of creativity.
They wanted to do something to do with [game jamming], and this sort of idea of sharing creativity with people, and I was like, “That sounds amazing, let’s build that.” We had a meeting very early on talking about our goal as a studio.
The goal we came up with was we wanted to make genre-defining console games, and we wanted to start with this idea of creative gaming.
When I look back to us then — I was 27 at the time, we were all babies — I see a group of people who just latched on to this idea, and worked really hard to figure out the constraints it would need in order to make it onto the console. When I think of LittleBigPlanet, it was a real kind of exercise of constraints. Obviously, external producers at Sony helped out a lot with that, I’d be remiss not to mention them, [Peter Smith and Leo Cubbins]. I remember a lot of the conversations we had were about what we weren’t going to do — it was about, how do we edit this so we can make it into this cohesive thing.
The physics prototype that Dave made, that’s the sort of genesis of everything to do with how LBP moves, and how Sackboy moves, and the playful anarchy that Media Molecule titles embody. It was a brilliant thing to build the rest around; we could build it around how this character was gonna move, interact with the world, how that would impact Create Mode. I think it was really good that we didn’t know what we were doing, in terms of how big an idea it was.
How big was the studio at that point?
During the first year there were nine people. By the time we shipped LittleBigPlanet, there was about 25, or 26.
Okay, so you grew quite a bit.
Yeah, we did. We announced [LittleBigPlanet] at [Game Developer’s Conference] in 2007 — that had a big impact, we were able to hire a whole bunch of people on the back of that, once it was announced, and people could see the support we were getting from Sony.
Media MoleculeAnd Sony clearly liked what you were doing, because in 2010, it brought Media Molecule into its Worldwide Studios group. How did you feel at the time about that transition?
Well, for Media Molecule it was a huge change, because we got to have a new, fancy office, which was amazing.
To be honest, the day-to-day didn’t change so much.
All of us had experienced acquisitions before, so we took very seriously how we would help the team adjust.
And you know, Sony has a great record of not meddling with the good parts of studios once they’ve been acquired. We set it up so that for a few years we still went in via the XDev group, so we had these sort of training wheels, and over time we gradually took them off.
So yeah, the big changes were the studio, the continued investment, and the ability to take these really big risks on things like Dreams.
There’s obviously different trajectories for when you’re acquired vs. when you’re not, and for us it’s definitely been about us being able to double down on innovation, and what we can do in the [user generated content]space.
Just as an aside, I wanted to talk about Media Molecule hiring people in from the LittleBigPlanet and Dreams communities. I believe John Beech was brought on as a designer from the community, and Jamie Breeze was hired at the end of 2019.
Also, if you look at our design team, [Christophe Villedieu] who’s ex-community, [Steven “Big Guns” Belcher] who’s ex-community…
There was a time during the early LBP days, and particularly during LittleBigPlanet 2, where we had a big influx of community hires.
And that’s what we’ve seen with Dreams in the last 12 months, there are definitely more and more community hires coming in for roles where, you know, we need people who can use the tools.
The community has the best people to demonstrate that.
TearawayIt’s very cool to see, and what a way to build a portfolio, whether it’s Dreams or LBP. I suppose, being able to find the best and brightest from your own community, that’s almost a luxury to have.
Well, people do still have to apply. Sometimes we’ll be like, “Oh, will this person apply?” and it’s one of those things where, you know, there’s limits to where people can be, and all that stuff. But it’s amazing. I love meeting people who have used Dreams and come into the studio, because they will always bring something. You know, they bring something very unique. One of the things with Media Molecule is we’ve always wanted to make sure that our studio isn’t just filled with the same kind of person with the same kind of experience. It’s really important that we have all different types of people. It’s like trying to figure out, what’s the target market of a pencil? It’s lots of different types of people, so it’s really important for us as a studio to have diversity in who we hire, what their experience is. In some positions it’s important that they have years of game development experience, while in others it’s important they’re experienced with the Dreams tools.
Moving forward, you had LittleBigPlanet 2, which introduced a lot of new ideas to the franchise. You followed it up with Tearaway in 2013, which was kind of a step away from the ethos you’d established with LBP. What are your thoughts on creating this more “traditional” game when the studio had a history of more creative projects?
With Tearaway, that really started as an experiment with what we could do with the PS Vita. It does have its own sort of create element to it, so it’s still in the creative gaming genre, but obviously not to the same extent as LBP or Dreams. We really wanted to play with the Vita and get a sense of what we could do with something handheld and portable.
The idea was to have a small team spend some time, particularly while we were spinning up Dreams, making this project.
We learned a lot making that title. It was a great reminder to make a game experience that had to stand alone as a game experience, and make something that really relied on a narrative, and a character arc, and all these things which are slightly different to the LBP approach. I think at that time Tearaway gave the design and art teams experience building 3D worlds, which was where we were going with Dreams. So it really ticked a whole bunch of boxes: we learn about the Vita, we learn about the [DualShock 4] following that, and then it taught us a bunch about narrative, game design in a 3D world, it levelled up the designers, and we got to make this beautiful little game. We’re really proud of Tearaway.
We get the most incredible fan mail still for Tearaway, of just this journey people go on with it. I really love that people who’ve played it are so touched by it, because a lot of effort went into making that. When I look back on it, I’m really happy we got to make that, and we got to learn a bunch of things along the way.
Media MoleculeYou then made your PS4 debut with Tearaway Unfolded, but in the background, you had been working on Dreams as well. It’s no secret that Dreams was a long time in the making. Looking back on that development period, how do feel now that it’s finally out there?
It was a long time, but it was a very small team. For the first few years of Dreams, it was very small — under 10 people. It was really small, it was incubated for a while. You’ve got to remember, at that point the studio was relatively small; we would’ve been about maybe 60, 70 people at that point. So, the Tearaway team for those years was the bigger team.
We all merged back together once Tearaway finished, and that was actually really great. It was great to get everyone back together again, it sort of taught us that running two teams is really tricky, because we were so small and we were a bit overstretched in terms of making sure everyone had the right resources. But then we were all back working on Dreams together.
When I look back on it, I think, oh my gosh, what a big, ambitious project Dreams has been. I’m just so proud of everybody, because when you’re making a creation platform, and have to figure out how you make art tools, animation tools, audio tools, game design tools, wrap all of those together in a nice UI, tutorials, etc. I look back on it and think, wow, I’m really proud we got that out early last year, and got the early access started.
You know, the early access was a really important milestone for Dreams, and then launching it last year was another important milestone, and there’s further important milestones to come. But when I look at what people are making, how we’re able to springboard off it and take it in different directions… I’m just really proud of it, and proud of the team for actually working through the thousands of different design questions that come up when you’re creating a tool. It’s pretty different to making Tearaway, which had its own design questions like any game, but when you’re making a creation platform with the depth of Dreams, it’s a whole other ball game.
Dreams has just passed its one year anniversary. What are your thoughts on how things are going after these first 12 months? Is there much in the pipeline moving forward?
We’ve obviously just had the second Impy Awards, and I think you can look at the first Impy Awards, which were very much celebrating what was made during early access. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is amazing, look what people have made!” And that’s a common phrase we say with Dreams — look at what’s been made. With awards, there can only be a few winners, but the lists of nominations that went into the Impys were really impressive. If you go through all of those, I feel like the thing you see is that the content is speaking for itself.
The content in there, there are projects and content that’s been released that is good not because it’s made in Dreams, but because it’s just really good. You know, a game like Lock is really good.
The Snowgardens is really good. Noguchi’s Bell was released today, which is an animated short episode — it’s really good. I think there’s a point with a creation platform where you aim to have the content just speak for itself, so I’m really proud of that.
I think the big thing over the last year, it’s been a really challenging year for everybody, and what I’ve really loved is seeing all of the community projects.
There are those in collaboration with Media Molecule, but then there are the ones that are just run by the community themselves.
There’s a lot of positivity in that community space.
I think we’ve got really good foundations for where we want to take Dreams.
At this point we’re in that stage where it’s very much a creation platform, and everyone’s asking us about where multiplayer is, and social features, and — all of those are things we’ve got in our sights, and I think the future for us is bringing in those play audiences to Dreams, and that’s really exciting. For us there’s aspects of working on LittleBigPlanet where it was game first, creation second, and with Dreams, it’s the other way around. It’s been creation first, and we’re building the play layer on top of that.
I feel like a year in, we’ve evolved as a studio, we’ve evolved in terms of where we are within PlayStation Studios, we’re growing to meet our ambitions — we have big ambitions about building a big social entertainment platform, and that means we have to level up our structure a little bit. We’ve been lucky to bring on some really great people in the last six months, and we’re looking for more great people. So yeah, I feel excited, actually. I feel like the future is very exciting, there’s a lot of possibilities.
DreamsWhile Dreams has its first birthday, Media Molecule is also celebrating with its 15th anniversary. What are your thoughts when you look at the team’s history as a whole?
I think, right at the beginning of Media Molecule we had that goal to make genre-defining console games, specialising in creative gaming. 15 years on, I think we still love creative gaming, we have a huge passion for user generated content. We want to use that to keep building our social entertainment platform, we want to bring in lots of people to that platform, and I’m very excited by the fact you can draw a line from where we were 15 years ago to now. I think for us, I’m excited that we’re growing — a lot of us have worn many hats for many years, and it’s really great to have the investment from PlayStation to grow the studio to meet that vision.
Culture is a really important thing to us, and I think studio culture is one of those things that’s evolved in those 15 years — we’re not the same group people we were at the start. When I think of where we are now, 15 is a good time to review your strategy, look at what you’re doing and where you’re going, and align with all the different groups. We’ve been going through that process and it’s just been really positive.
You know that thing of, if I asked my 15-year-old self, would they think I’m cool, or whatever. If we were to go back, would those of us in 2006 be happy with what we’re trying to aim towards and what the vision of the company is? I think we would be. I’m really happy we’ve found our niche within PlayStation Studios as being the user generated content team. We’re creatively brave, and that’s what we’ve always wanted to be. It doesn’t matter that sometimes we feel like the weirdo in the room, that’s fine. We love being the weirdo in the room.
Dreams is obviously out now on PS4 (backwards compatible on PS5), and if you hadn’t guessed, we’re big fans.
A huge thank you to Siobhan for taking the time to talk to us, and to Sony for making the interview possible.