The Mak­ing Of…


EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY CHRIS SCHILLING For­mat Vita Pub­lisher SCE De­vel­oper Me­dia Mol­e­cule Ori­gin UK Re­lease 2013

We un­fold the tale be­hind Tear­away, Me­dia Mol­e­cule’s PS Vita paper­craft ad­ven­ture

The story of Me­dia Mol­e­cule’s jour­ney from page to screen and back again

Tear­away didn’t be­gin with a piece of paper, as you might sus­pect, but with a strange slate-like de­vice sur­rounded by a ter­ri­fy­ing tan­gle of wires. As a Sony-owned stu­dio, Me­dia Mol­e­cule was among the first to get an op­por­tu­nity to play around with this early Vita pro­to­type. Yet de­spite its un­friendly ap­pear­ance, this slab sparked the imag­i­na­tion of Rex Crowle, the stu­dio’s pro­lific artist.

“It was go­ing to be this very touch­able con­sole, but at that point you were ner­vous to touch it,” he says. Even so, it in­spired Crowle, and he was soon en­cour­aged by the stu­dio’s bosses – in­clud­ing David Smith, one of its two tech­ni­cal di­rec­tors – to make some­thing for the cu­ri­ous new hard­ware. “We’d started off mak­ing

Lit­tleBigPlanet as a small team,” says Smith, “and we wanted to find a way to give other people with [Me­dia Mol­e­cule] that same kind of ex­pe­ri­ence. So we cre­ated [some­thing like] a com­pany within a com­pany.”

With most of the stu­dio con­sumed with cre­at­ing down­load­able con­tent for Lit­tleBigPlanet

2, Crowle as­sem­bled a small group from the few free staff to be­gin pro­to­typ­ing. Con­cept artist Men Lu, pro­gram­mers Paul Holden and Nathan Ruck, and pro­ducer Michelle Ducker were the other mem­bers of this five-strong team, which was given its own room. Crowle, hop­ing to cap­ture a play­ful feel, called it The Se­cret Tree­house. “I cov­ered it all up and made it quite mys­te­ri­ous,” he says. “We’d all sit there with a huge amount of Lego and lots of other bits and pieces to play around with.”

The team’s brief was to make a hand­held ti­tle that em­braced Vita’s porta­bil­ity, al­though Crowle was par­tic­u­larly keen to take ad­van­tage of as many of its fea­tures as pos­si­ble. One in par­tic­u­lar stood out. “The rear touch panel is un­like any­thing on any other [elec­tronic] de­vice there’s ever been,” en­thuses Tear­away’s head of au­dio, Kenneth Young. “That was what in­spired Rex. A lot of launch Vita ti­tles were us­ing it, but it didn’t feel like it was nec­es­sary [in those games]. It was just there. For us, it was al­ways about in­te­grat­ing it into the ex­pe­ri­ence – we didn’t want it to feel bolted on, or that we’d had to do this be­cause Sony made us.”

Vita’s most un­tapped fea­ture was about to dom­i­nate the ini­tial stages of de­vel­op­ment. One early ex­per­i­ment would in­form the rest of the cre­ative process as the team be­gan to un­pick Crowle’s con­cept of a game that con­nected its own world with the real one. “We were think­ing about what we could do with [rear touch] that’s stupid and silly, and whether that could gen­er­ate some ideas,” says Crowle. “At first, we had these pri­mary-coloured sausages on­screen as you touched the back, and we tried to get a feel for what that was like, and to fig­ure out a world that could give it a con­text.”


In Crowle’s words, “a huge amount of mis­steps” fol­lowed, with the team’s ex­per­i­ments tak­ing it down sev­eral blind al­leys. Vita’s GPS func­tion­al­ity led to the idea of lo­ca­tion-based el­e­ments (“so the game con­tent would dif­fer depend­ing on where you were play­ing it”), but it soon be­came ob­vi­ous that the pro­ce­dural tech­niques re­quired for this idea were at odds with the stu­dio’s de­sire to build a beau­ti­ful 3D world to ex­plore, and stu­dio di­rec­tor Siob­han Reddy sug­gested it was hardly play­ing to the strengths of Me­dia Mol­e­cule’s artists.

So, for a while, Tear­away be­came an iso­met­ric role­play­ing game, fea­tur­ing a cen­tral char­ac­ter that was guided by the player mov­ing their fin­ger on the rear panel. “It was top-down, and re­ally crude, but we cre­ated lots of lit­tle dun­geons,” says Ducker. “We pulled in some of the other guys to play around with it, and sat around watch­ing them play it. And we were con­vinced that the fin­ger [in the game world] was the way for­ward.”

Watch­ing the strug­gles of those testers quickly re­vealed that the con­trol scheme wasn’t quite in­tu­itive enough. “Some wanted to kill the fin­ger!” says Young. “But there was just enough about it that did work.”

Af­ter six months, the team ex­panded, and Ducker or­gan­ised a se­ries of game jams to en­cour­age ev­ery­one to ex­per­i­ment. One pro­gram­mer used Vita’s face-track­ing li­braries so that the game could an­a­lyse the player’s fa­cial ex­pres­sions. “There was a sec­tion where you needed a beard in or­der to play it,” laughs Crowle. “I’m not sure how far you could take that, though. Maybe you’d have to get busy with the felt tips.” Smith, mean­while, de­vel­oped additional func­tion­al­ity for the in-game cam­era. “You’d get XP for tak­ing pho­tos of things,” he says. “Like try­ing to get a photo of a go­pher with a squir­rel, or a go­pher on a squir­rel.”

“Mak­ing that sort of thing just en­er­gised us into think­ing what was pos­si­ble,” Crowle says, “and just go­ing all out, even if we had to cut back on some of the wilder el­e­ments.”

There was a lot of fat to trim, how­ever. Too many ideas had emerged from the jams, and some of them had been de­vel­oped far be­yond crude pro­to­type stage. “The team hadn’t man­age to prove out some of those ideas,” says Smith, “so some of these things were just ideas. We wanted to strike a bal­ance where we were push­ing the en­ve­lope enough to make some­thing new, but also some­thing that’s good, and not a to­tal in­die ex­per­i­men­tal thing that no one gets.”

Stream­lin­ing the game was nec­es­sary. Crowle and Smith had to be ruth­less, even with their own ideas. “I wanted to use the [cam­era] flash to stun en­e­mies,” says Smith, “so it had this game­play func­tion­al­ity. But then the game be­came too much about the cam­era and not enough about your in­ter­ac­tion with the world.”

The cuts were par­tic­u­larly painful for some. “There were lots of fea­tures people worked re­ally hard on that we had to chop,” Ducker ad­mits.

“It’s not un­til you get that Borg hive mind thing go­ing on, where ev­ery­one’s on the same page, that as a team you’re able to eval­u­ate a fea­ture and say that it’s a re­ally good idea, but not a good fit for the game you’re mak­ing,” says Young. “And that’s re­ally hard. When you’ve got some­one who spends a month on a fea­ture,

they’ve got to be re­ally strong to say, ‘No, you’re right’. People get in­vested and they ar­gue.”

“The [in­ter­nal] re­views were re­ally bru­tal in that sense,” ad­mits Ducker. “There were awk­ward si­lences – it was re­ally fraught at points. We sim­ply had too many ideas.”

It was the paper­craft mo­tif that helped to bring ev­ery­thing to­gether. The idea had been mooted from the early pro­to­types, ty­ing into Crowle’s aim to build a world that would yield to the player’s touch in both sub­tle and dra­matic ways. The big­gest hur­dle was not tech­ni­cal, but artis­tic. This world needed to look like paper but, more im­por­tantly, it also needed to be­have like paper.

“We started with some con­cept art, con­verted it into 3D meshes and ended up with that kind of low-poly look,” says Crowle, “which is kind of fash­ion­able, but it looked more like low-poly mod­els with tex­tur­ing than paper.”

With lit­tle more than a place­holder en­gine, the team started to build phys­i­cal mod­els of ob­jects from real paper, while Crowle in­vited a pop-up book ex­pert into the stu­dio to dis­cuss how they work. “That in­stantly ex­cited the level de­sign­ers, be­cause they saw how these mech­a­nisms could be com­bined,” he says.

“Part of the prob­lem was that we were ig­nor­ing how paper moves,” Smith ex­plains. “Ev­ery­thing needs to be­have like paper… per­haps mag­i­cal paper that’s some­how come to life, but ev­ery­thing has to [be based on] real paper. So you wouldn’t have float­ing plat­forms any more, but in­stead you’d have these con­certi­nas that would ex­pand.”

En­er­gised by this new line of think­ing, de­vel­op­ment fi­nally be­gan to gather mo­men­tum. It’s graph­ics pro­gram­mer Mark Zarb-Adami that’s cred­ited with the big­gest break­through, though. Along with tech­ni­cal artist Ste­fan Kamoda, he worked to trans­late the qual­i­ties of paper – in­clud­ing its phys­i­cal prop­er­ties, and even how a per­son might add tabs to bol­ster in­di­vid­ual con­struc­tions – into the game. “Mark wrote this amaz­ing en­gine to build stuff out of vir­tual paper,” says Ducker. “So that if you folded the paper [mod­els], it would fold like real paper.”

“You’d hear him scream­ing from the other end of the stu­dio: ’We’ve got bend­ing!’” says Young.

With the en­gine es­tab­lished, Me­dia Mol­e­cule could work on get­ting the an­i­ma­tion right, which in turn made Young’s job eas­ier, since he was now able to make these mov­ing parts sound like paper. “I had early com­plaints that it didn’t sound ‘pa­pery’. It sounds ob­vi­ous when you say it, but the sound of paper is the sound of paper per mov­ing. There’s no ex­cuse for sound if noth­ing is s mov­ing!”

Find­ing the right kind of paper was the head of au­dio’s next job. “My go-to was sand­wich dwich bags,” he ex­plains. “A4 is too thick; it makes this kind of brit­tle sound. News­pa­pers are too thin, too tis­suey, too noisy. Sand­wich bags are just the right paper to get the best of both worlds.” ds.”

With paper act­ing as one form of con­nec­tive tis­sue be­tween the game and the real world, the de­sire to in­volve the player in the nar­ra­tive tive and forge a link there grew stronger. So it’s per­haps sur­pris­ing to learn that the story only be­gan egan to take shape when Crowle and Young worked out the end­ing, draw­ing ev­ery­thing back from rom the

Crowle grew up on a farm, which helped give Tear­away “a bit of raw­ness un­der­neath all of the bu­colic English­ness”

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