- 10 Mar 09, 16:20 GMT
In 20 years as a business reporter for the BBC, I always found that small firms had more interesting stories to tell - and livelier people telling those stories - than giant corporations. And the same goes for the games business, if my visit this morning to the six-times BAFTA-nominated Media Molecule is anything to go by.
The developer behind "LittleBigPlanet" is housed above a shop in a very unglamorous warehouse unit in Guildford. But when I met one of the co-founders Mark Healey, he had a great Hollywood style rags-to-riches story to tell.
Mark is Creative Director of LittleBigPlanet, the build-it-yourself Sony PS3 game which has received rave reviews for its inventiveness and the way it hands over the controls to the gaming community to go away and take the game on to new levels. It's just three years since Mark and his four co-founders gave up secure jobs in the games industry to try to pitch an idea to Sony: "Through a friend of a friend," he explains, "we managed to get an audience with Phil Harrison, who was then the big man at Sony. The downside was that it was in a week's time and we didn't have anything to pitch. So we spent a week putting together a demo - and then luckily impressed him enough to get six months' funding."
But at the end of that six months there was a bigger hurdle to clear - what Mark describes as the "green light" stage. "It's a very Dragons Den style scenario - we had to go in and show them our wares and convince them it was going to sell lots of copies." They obviously convinced the dragons - and walked away with a valuable deal to develop Little Big Planet for PlayStation 3. What Sony got was exclusivity - and the ownership of the intellectual property.
None of the founders had any management experience - but they had to go away and recruit and motivate a team to build the game. What I found really fascinating from my chat with Mark Healey was the way they went about the recruitment process. "We've really tried to handpick the most talented people," he says, "and while most of the people here had a lot of experience in the games industry, some had none at all." He pointed out one in particular : "Danny was an estate agent - he'd spent a lot of time "modding" first person-shooter games as a hobby - he just impressed us with his enthusiasm."
But everyone who came in for a job interview also had to do a test. Those recruited to design levels of the game, for instance, were asked to watch a video of a Japanese TV programme involving an obstacle course, and then design a new set for the show. "From that we could judge their creative skills - but also how well they could sell their ideas, because that's a big part of this job." Aspiring games programmers were asked to look at a broken version of Space Invaders, fix it, and suggest improvements.
Media Molecule ended up with a workforce of 30 - still tiny by the standards of the teams assembled to build many of the blockbuster games of today. But small has turned out to be beautiful, with nearly two million people across Europe now playing the game invented in an unprepossessing shed in Guildford.
Mark Healey and his hand-picked team are still working away on developing the game - and trying to learn from what the community of LittleBigPlanet players have created on their own. But this is still a one product, one customer company and I put it to Mark that Media Molecule's next challenge is that "difficult second album". He smiled - and nodded, but seemed pretty relaxed. Then again, if you've spent the last three years creating a best-selling award-winning game (even before the BAFTAs it had picked up plenty of little statues) and a thriving small business out of nothing, you've got a right to look pleased with yourself.
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