The team behind Little Big Planet invites us behind the scenes to see how it focused crazy ideas for a Vita game into the platformer Tearaway.
People like talking about Rex Crowle's desk.
Some say it casually, that he likes to draw and leaves a pile of papers there — doodled on, cut out, folded up, colored in, glued together. Others take it to extremes, saying how his pile swallows the desks around it.
"If you put a stack of paper in front of him and a pen and come back an hour later, all that paper will be covered," says co-worker David Smith.
"Every Thursday, I get a reminder in my calendar which makes me laugh," says Crowle. "It just pops out and says, 'Clear desk day' ...
"I have not seen the wood of my desk for maybe five years."
For someone working on any other game, that might be a sign of procrastination. But for the past two and a half years, Crowle has been directing Tearaway, a Mario-style action/adventure game for PlayStation Vita. Fittingly, it's set in a world made of paper. And it regularly breaks the fourth wall, showing video footage of the player's face in the background and popping giant fingers up through the floor when the player taps Vita's rear touch pad.
Much like Crowle's desk, the game's design has had wildly creative concepts pile up and fall away for years. For many projects, that can lead to trouble. But Crowle and the team at Media Molecule recently opened their vault to show how they were able to focus their ideas.
Crowle's tendency to work with his hands started at an early age.
He was raised on his parents' farm in Cornwall, a county on the outskirts of the United Kingdom that he refers to as "stormy" and "pirate country." As a child he looked after sheep.
"I was gradually getting all these sheep," he says. "And you know, each year sheep tend to hang out with sheep and there's more sheep. It's kind of a beautiful thing."
At age 11, Crowle's interests skewed towards art so he sold the sheep for money to buy an Amiga with a copy of Deluxe Paint.
Rex Crowle papercraft
Keeping the artists at Media Molecule honest, Tearaway offers players files they can print, cut out and glue together to make real-life papercraft versions of objects they find in the game. In that spirit, we asked Crowle to design a version of himself in the game's art style to accompany this story, along with printable instructions so anyone can make their own version of his avatar.
Download the PDF here.
"I think my dad was pretty skeptical," says Crowle. "He thought, you know, 'You can't eat a computer. How's this going to help you in any way?' But I just straight away started making images and animations and stuff, and showed [my parents] what could be done."
The Amiga led to studying graphic design in college, which led to a series of independent projects and a job at game developer Lionhead Studios. Lionhead had a tendency to reach for the stars and sometimes fall short, and Crowle worked on "all the games that got released and plenty of ones that didn't."
After Crowle had been at Lionhead for about six years, a group of his coworkers broke away to start their own company, Media Molecule. The four had previously collaborated on an experimental portal-based tech demo called "The Room" at Lionhead, which ended up stalling as a research project. And in leaving, they stepped out of the shadow of then-Lionhead Creative Director Peter Molyneux, who many knew as the face of the company.
Crowle left around the same time, initially "swimming alongside" the team while developing projects like an animated miniseries called "Grip Wrench" for MTV Italy's QOOB channel and an iOS to-do list app called EpicWin. As Media Molecule gained traction, Crowle joined full time. Sony would later acquire the studio altogether.
The team's first game, platformer Little Big Planet, won accolades for creativity and the way it let players not only play pre-made levels, but create their own and share them with the world. Crowle worked on what he calls the game's "visual anarchy" — the stickers and the abundance of pink designed to give the game a pop culture feel — and helped solidify the game's purpose through presentations, trailers and drawings.
"Little Big Planet was always really hard to explain, and [Crowle] would just find a way of knitting that together and presenting it back to all of us," says Media Molecule Studio Director Siobhan Reddy. "And we'd all go, 'Oh yeah, that's what we're making. That's really cool.' ... [He's] very good at being able to take a whole lot of complex things and summarize [them] in a very simple, visual way that actually matches the tone of what you're trying to achieve."
The back touch concept
In early 2011, Media Molecule needed a change. After working on the Little Big Planet franchise for five years, the studio was ready to branch out.
"[For] the first six months, everyone just had such big LBP hang-ups," says Reddy. "... It's our heritage and we love it and it's a really important thing, but you kind of need to just creatively move on from there and get rid of things. ... The team needed creatively to just be able to move on from that and be liberated from those themes."
For the majority of the team, that meant breaking off to develop a PlayStation 4 game based around user-creation and sharing concepts like Little Big Planet. At Sony's PlayStation 4 announcement event in February this year, Media Molecule Co-Founder Alex Evans teased it as a project that will allow players to "record [their] dreams" by using the PlayStation Move wand controller to do things like make players dance and play instruments.
Crowle had something else in mind.
"We had been really looking to give [Crowle] a project for awhile," says Reddy. And the end of Little Big Planet 2 seemed like the right time to siphon off a small team.
Naturally, Crowle's idea came from his hands.
Prior to finishing Little Big Planet 2, he'd gotten a look at Sony's early Vita hardware while it was still in development, and started thinking about what he could do with it. "We saw some early hardware where it was just a few circuit boards held together with some wires, and we knew that it would have a back touch," he says. "At that stage it was too dangerous to even touch it, with the raw electricity and the circuit boards ... [but] we were sort of looking at it at the system level, and I pitched some ideas."
The back touch stuck in Crowle's mind, though he didn't have a game idea in mind — just a visual of a player holding the system and their fingers sticking up through the back. He stuck it in a drawer. When Media Molecule finished Little Big Planet 2, he revived it as a pitch for a proper game where the fingers would serve as the game's main character.
His idea clicked and Crowle and a small team started conceiving a game around the idea of a player sticking their hands into a game world.
"Then I had to sort of think, 'Well, what's the context around it?'" says Crowle. "'If you can see your fingers, what are you [doing]? Are you pushing through something?' So then sort of thinking about what kind of materials would allow that kind of tactile-ness to happen.
"But yeah, there's just all this paper everywhere, so I just started thinking, 'Well, maybe this could work. Maybe this could be an interesting kind of landscape to explore, and obviously like make it feel very tactile and really utilize the fact that essentially you can't touch the Vita without giving it an input."
As the idea took shape, Reddy told Crowle the project needed a codename, so Crowle thought back to his days at Lionhead and came up with the name "Sandpit."
"[I] remembered all the various sandbox kind of games we'd made at Lionhead, and how they were very broad," says Crowle. "And it's kind of ironic, because we then went and tried to make a not very broad game. But they were very much sandboxes, and I thought, 'Let's pull it more back to the more playful interaction of making sandcastles.'"
The dungeon crawler
With the fingers and paper idea decided, Sandpit had its base. From there, almost everything else changed.
"When you get a new toy like the Vita ... everyone goes a little bit mad," says Reddy.
"The game was sort of going wide in lots of different directions," says Crowle.
Given the small team size and its experimental nature, hundreds of ideas would come and go, making it difficult even for team members to recall which happened when. Media Molecule Co-Founder David Smith describes it as a "continuous" process that's hard, in retrospect, to nail down in a simple way.
"You can always find different ways of retelling history," says Smith three weeks before release, "and I'm aware that when we get to the end of a project we're kind of inventing these slightly arbitrary milestones and saying that these were significant turning points."
Crowle, using his ability for describing things simply, summarizes Tearaway's development in three acts.
Act 1, he says, was a mix between a dungeon crawler where players attack enemies and loot their remains, and the classic arcade game Qix where players cut out sections of the floor. In practice, that meant players used their fingers to cut out Sandpit's ground, with Vita's camera showing a real world video feed below it. So players would cut out the ground around an enemy, and the enemy would "fall out of the game," at which point players would "unlock" them and be able to make them in papercraft form outside the game.
At that point, there was no character running around the world — the player's fingers were the character, character customization meant dressing up the fingertips and the team experimented with an 18th century France setting that was still made out of paper but featured far more detailed visuals.
"It was really hard to do the camerawork," says Crowle, "because you had to have a camera that would follow your fingertips, but also as soon as the camera's scrolling then you're in a kind of weird position ... there was all kinds of maths that I didn't understand. But it wasn't all coming together.
"Through lots of playtesting, we recognized the fact that anyone that was working on the game could play kind of well, with the rear touch all the time, doing that navigational fine tune stuff, but anyone else was really struggling."
The open world RPG
The project's second act, says Crowle, came with two big ideas: The team added a character in the world who could run around the player's fingertips, and gave the game a new open world role-playing structure. For much of this period, the game took on the name "Uncovery."
Crowle, always looking for visual ways to explain things, wrote and animated a comic book showing how it would work. An "adventurer" with a boxy look and a camera around his neck would explore the world, find animals to ride, take photographs of the world and earn experience by snapping shots of specific items.
"It was really good to get that character into the game," says Crowle, "because it just meant that you started to have someone to sort of care about in this world, and therefore it gave you reasons to sort of push your fingers in in a more dramatic way, and help them or hinder other creatures."
As time went on, the main character's design changed from a boxy boy to a boy made out of paper with an envelope for a head, who would later be known as Iota. And that envelope would contain a secret for players to discover, an idea which has carried through to the final version of the game. "It gave the character a visual purpose," says Crowle. "It was like, 'Well, what's in the envelope?' And then we started thinking about that, and the fact that maybe they had something in the envelope for you, and that's where the whole kind of meta story of the idea of the character being in the paper world, trying to get out of the paper world to deliver you this message [came from]."
Some may see another connection to Lionhead here, as former Lionhead boss Peter Molyneux recently wrapped his own experimental game based around a secret. Curiosity: What's Inside the Cube? focused on a "life changing" surprise that would be revealed once one player reached the end. Crowle cautions against putting the same type of expectations on Tearaway's secret.
"I mean I'm not going to tell anyone what it is, but at the same time, you know, the game is about the world and the journey that you're going on," he says. "It's one aspect of that story, just like if you were reading a novel you'd be annoyed if the last page had been torn out ... I'm not gonna say Peter Molyneux-style that it's going to change anyone's life."
One of the team's grandest ideas in Act 2 was to incorporate procedural level designs — levels automated by programs rather than crafted by artists' hands — and use Vita as a GPS so players would unlock new areas as they traveled. The team divided up areas of a map and determined that whenever a player went to a new area in real life, they would open a corresponding level to play in the game.
Team members liked that this used the Vita in another unique way, but never got far enough in the process to prove it could work well. After Reddy attended a panel at the 2012 Game Developers Conference and realized the difficulty of creating procedural worlds, she looked at all the ideas on the table and realized the team needed to make some cuts to be able to focus.
"Everybody had a different thing that they wanted us to do," says Reddy. "Sony people wanted us to do one thing, and people in the studio like Alex [Evans] would have his input, and [Co-Founder Mark Healey] would have his input and [Co-Founder Kareem Ettouney] would have some input ... there was a lot of noise."
It all came to a head when Reddy asked Crowle and Smith to whittle down the concept into something they could produce. "So [Crowle and Smith] basically went away into a room," she says, "and were like, 'OK yes tick, no, no, no, no, no, no."
"The meeting was probably like an hour," says Smith. "It was one that was sort of needing to happen. That was the point when we dropped all the real world GPS connection. We were kind of excited by it, but we kind of looked at the game we'd made and said, 'Well, we've made this papery magical world where you have all these kind of novel, interesting interactions ... but then you can be running around the physical real world and you could like go to Big Ben and use your Vita to play a paper version of Big Ben or something. We realized, 'We haven't made that. We haven't proven it. And if you take it away, we've still got a game that we would be excited to play and know how to make.' So it was kind of a simple decision in some ways.
"Emotionally I think it was a bit painful for everyone on the team for a brief moment, but then I think — it's the kind of thing where you sort of tear off the plaster, and it feels painful for a brief moment, and then everyone sort of sleeps so much better. You suddenly realize, 'Whoa, OK, we suddenly know how to make this game.'"
The Vita-heavy platformer
Over the course of five months in early 2012, Tearaway found its final form.
Act 3, Crowle explains, is where the team took all its crazy ideas and focused them into a platformer that would keep some of the team's early ideas, but lean heavily into the idea of breaking the fourth wall with the Vita.
Early in this stage, the game went by the title "iota & I," with upper and lower case uses of "I" to make it feel like a "buddy movie adventure kind of thing between you and the character in the game," says Crowle. That name stuck with the project until "Tearaway" came along, and didn't work out in part because in this phase the team added a female playable character known as Atoi. The name was also similar to the Sony-funded "Papo & Yo."
With the Vita-heavy platformer focus decided, the team organized a game jam for members to once again experiment on whatever inspired them. But this time instead of team members experimenting broadly, they all dabbled within the theme of breaking the fourth wall and crazy ways to use Vita's features. Reddy says the initial idea was to spend a week on these experiments, but the team ended up spending six.
Some of the ideas they came up with were fun but didn't work for practical reasons, like only opening certain doors in the game if the Vita's camera recognized that the player was wearing glasses — which Media Molecule's Omar Cornut extended for a joke by making the game crash every time one of the team's programmers looked at it.
"That wasn't one we'll ship with," says Crowle.
But many of the jam ideas made it into the finished product. When Sony revealed the game publicly in August 2012, the announcement trailer was a highlight reel of ways the game breaks the fourth wall. Players drag their finger on the touch screen to scratch a record, scream into Vita's microphone to make Iota blow a horn and of course pop their fingers up through the floor in the game's signature moment.
Only now the back touch finger-popping is toned down and only usable in select parts of the game. "In order to allow [the fingers] to be really powerful and really cool, it did mean at the same time we couldn't just let you use them all the time," says Crowle, "because then ... you're not getting that pacing and ebb and flow."
In addition to the normal work required to produce the game, that sense of balancing the crazy ideas is what carried the project from announcement through to completion.
"One of the challenges we have of these various different concepts [is] how do you pull them together and make them simple for people to understand," says Reddy.
"And not feel like you are doing these sort of quicktime events," adds Crowle. "That's the last thing we want to end up with — that we're just replacing stamping X with tilting wildly for 10 seconds."
For scratching the record player, that meant including it in the game in small doses so players wouldn't tire of it. For screaming into the microphone, that meant pulling back from Iota's horn and instead using it for select moments that wouldn't scare as many strangers overhearing things in public. For the fingers in the floor, that meant only letting players poke them through in certain areas where the ground appears thinner.
Looking back, Crowle says most of the fourth-wall features from that trailer made it into the final game. The team had found a way to be creative within a focused concept.
After almost three years in development, Tearaway is now complete.
While it suffered a one-month delay towards the end to balance and polish, team members say they're happy with how well they were able to focus the game.
"I'm quite proud ... of having the sense to say, 'Well we tried that and it didn't work. Let's try something else,'" says Smith. "We succeeded fairly well in that area."
Thinking back to the struggles with experimental projects in the old days at Lionhead, Smith sees similarities in how Media Molecule generates ideas and differences in the teams because of their size.
"That sort of connection back to Lionhead I think is one that we're sort of very aware of," he says. "There's a certain kind of genetic ancestry you can trace, just thinking, 'Well, what's just some fun crazy silly thing that just sounds exciting and kind of ignoring what games necessarily are.' ...
"I think being smaller than Lionhead sort of forced us to get a bit more honest. I think perhaps in a company as big as Lionhead, there's such a big gap between the person with the idea and the people who have to make it, that it's hard to stay honest about the process. Whereas at Media Molecule, we're still all just in one room together. ... I think that just forces us to be confronted with what we're making, and not sort of delude ourselves into thinking that it's going to be something better or more than what we're really doing."
Smith cautions, though, that being small may not always be a solution to properly focus experimental projects. "I don't know if that will always happen," he says. "I think there's always some amount of luck as to whether — the idea you have, whether it really goes in a way that's sort of viable both creatively and financially."
The biggest challenges for Tearaway at this point, in fact, may come from its place in the market, given Vita's struggling sales numbers, the challenge of porting the game's Vita-specific features to other consoles and Sony Japan's announcement of Vita TV, a device that runs Vita games through a PlayStation 3 controller on a television, but doesn't feature a back touch panel so it won't work with Tearaway — at least for the moment. Crowle says he hasn't given much thought to whether he's worried about Vita TV not working with the game.
"There are definitely, I guess, some challenges," says Crowle, "to figure out if it could be done. ... I'm not quite sure how rear touch can work without you kind of sticking your fingers in the back of the TV, which is probably not advised."
Team members are optimistic, however, about continuing to do more with the Tearaway world.
"We definitely see it as the beginning of a franchise — there will be [more], but what that is [we're not sure]," says Reddy, pointing out Media Molecule might want to find an external team to continue things similar to how developers Sony Cambridge, Double Eleven and Tarsier Studios worked on the PSP and Vita Little Big Planet games.
"I think of this being — the screen you're looking at on the Vita is like one window into this world, and you know, there may be future windows but we don't know exactly what they are yet," says Crowle.
At the moment, Crowle seems relieved. He's finished his work on the game, culminating in an office party where co-workers doodled on his arms, much like he has on the papers on his desk for so many years. As for what's next, he says he doesn't know at this point.
"I did hear once that landscape gardening was the most popular career to go to after making games," he says. "I don't know whether it's because you just want to get outside and get your hands dirty again but still want to make worlds, you know, just very different worlds. Maybe I just did it in the opposite way around — cutting down trees and milking cows, and now doing this."
Images: Rex Crowle, Media Molecule
Editing: Russ Pitts
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan