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Friday, October 2, 2015

Interview: Media Molecule's Siobhan Reddy on creativity, community, and chemistry

There are few women more prominent in the games industry than Media Molecule’s Siobhan Reddy. There are even fewer people in the industry who advocate for a more pure sense of creativity. Based in the UK, she was Australian raised, and her prominence has been recognised by both nations – she was Australian Woman of the Year in 2013, and named as one of the 100 most powerful women in the UK.

As studio director of one of the most creative studios in the industry, none of these plaudits are particularly surprising, but what is fascinating is just how eclectic Reddy’s work is. How do you go from LittleBigPlanet to Tearaway and on to the PlayStation 4’s upcoming Dreams? None of these games have anything in common, other than the fact that they exhibit such an entirely different sense of creativity than anything else on the market.

“I don’t think we would be able to do it any other way,” Reddy laughed. “We love coming up with new ideas, we love playing unique games, we love bringing out the creativity of the team and we don’t really want to repeat ourselves over and over again. It would be really hard for us to change that now, I think.

“One of the challenges is when people say to you ‘oh, I don’t think I understand that’ or ‘why did you make that decision?’ after playing your games,” Reddy added. “You have to really stay true to what it is you wanted to do in the first place and actually get that made. I think that’s a very common creative challenge.”

Related reading: Media Molecule's upcoming Dreams won us all over at E3 2015.

In the games industry, that’s a more difficult challenge than it might seem – especially for large developers like the Sony-owned Media Molecule. In an industry where there is an expectation that fan feedback will be implemented into each game, and focus groups determine the ideas that will and won’t work, staying true to an artist’s (or team of artists’) vision can carry a sense of commercial apprehension. You only need to look at what happened to Mass Effect 3 and the changes that fan feedback ultimately caused to that game to see the impact that fan feedback can have on the artist’s vision for a product.

Reddy has been fortunate that none of her team’s projects have attracted that kind of response, but nonetheless believes that it is possible to avoid an aggressive response from fans by focusing on making the games according to the team’s vision while not allowing creative direction to be too influenced by demands from the fans. It’s simply a matter of conveying the importance of the purity of the vision to the community and being open about what the game is and will offer, she said.

“In working with people like the team at Sony it is brilliant that we can access so much of that feedback and reach out to such a large audience, but then sometimes you just need to go back to work, stop reading the e-mails coming in, and just focus on the project,” Reddy said. “It’s a really interesting problem that we all need to straddle with how do we keep making the things that we love, keep the audience that love the things we are making happy, and I think the only real way we can do that is to keep making the things that we love.

“If a band decided to worry a lot about what they think people want them to make, then they would lose the reason why they were making music in the first place. I think a game team is very similar in that you are a bit like a band: you’re a bunch of creative people who have come together around a particular area of games, you have amazing creative chemistry, and you reach the momentum where it’s actually making things personal. You have to go to places together, it has to come from somewhere personal. I feel like we can never really second guess what’s going to happen when we release something, that’s the whole terrifying nature of creating something new.”

That in itself is interesting, because the success of so much of Reddy’s work relies very heavily on community input. LittleBigPlanet would not be the experience that it is were it not for the community using the software to make and share levels of their own. The studio’s upcoming Dreams seems to scale this further, allowing players to create and animate full 3D objects. Keeping the community happy while maintaining the ultimate creative control over the project is another area of balance that the Media Molecule team need to manage.

And, given that Media Molecule’s games are designed to be enjoyed by all members of the family, it was equally important that the community was able to avoid the toxicity that plague so many other online communities. According to Reddy, Media Molecule’s success in fostering a positive, vibrant community stems from being inclusive.

“We have a great community management team, and they made sure there was a constant dialogue between us and the fans, but also between the fans themselves,” she said. “When we create games it’s important to us that we keep a vibe of inclusivity, and allow people to exchange ideas with one another. We had representatives in every area for that reason. And by facilitating that positive spirit of inclusiveness, we found that our community became almost self-governing in the longer term, where people would let others known when their behaviour was not acceptable, and they would look out for one another.”

Making games for everyone

One of the unique features of Media Molecule’s games are that they are genuinely for everyone. It’s not that they are games for children that adults can play along with. Rather, it is games that genuinely aim to delight and inspire people of all ages. Certainly, this must be a bigger development challenge, but according to Reddy, it starts by respecting the intelligence of all players.

“Children have got really good taste so it should be hard to make things for children, for them to enjoy,” she said. “And there are loads of amazing games out there for adults to play. So it’s good for us that we are one of the unique reams making happy, fun, creative games. We’re happy to wear that crown.

“It’s actually very important to us as individuals that we’re able to bring people together through our games,” Reddy added. “Making things is fun, and playing together is fun. We’ll always be a part of that because those ideas are what brings us together as a team and forms part of our creative chemistry.”

The other thing Media Molecule is well known for is making full use of the hardware platforms they work on, without descending into gimmickry. Tearaway, on the PlayStation Vita, made a wonderful use of the touch screens to give the game a tactile feeling, not unlike the experience of playing with real paper. The upcoming Dreams, meanwhile, makes heavy use of the PlayStation Move and motion controls to allow players to interact directly with their creations.

Reddy said her team had a very specific approach to the use of hardware features that allowed them to be innovative and creative in the interaction of person, machine, and game, without ending up with a mess of gimmicks in the process.

“When coming up with ideas we very often use a game jam approach to design, and the whole team have a go at trying out different things, and from that we get a spread of ideas. We used that process with Tearaway on the Vita, and again when it came time to port it to the PlayStation 4, and that was a really interesting process because it meant we had a whole lot of things to play with. From there we really get an idea of what’s jarring or what ergonomically works really well, and we start to get rid of anything that isn’t clicking with everyone, so we can get things down to the smallest number of features that will get across the largest amount of fun,” Reddy said.

“Then we basically just play the game over and over again to the point where we are happy with how everything fits together.”

Related reading: Sam raves about Tearaway in his preview of the Vita game.

As befits a gaming veteran with such an eclectic style to her work, Reddy’s personal taste in games is also more than a little varied. When she’s not playing Media Molecule’s own games, Reddy is currently working through both Until Dawn and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Dragon Age and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. More than anything, however, she is looking forward to giving Super Mario Maker a spin.

And in a way it’s a nice, neat circle that the 2D platformer that started it all would inspire Reddy when Media Molecule worked on LittleBigPlanet, and for her work to in turn be a clear source of inspiration for Nintendo when it decided to develop Mario Maker.

- Lindsay M.
News Editor
Interview: Media Molecule's Siobhan Reddy on creativity, community, and chemistry
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