It’s every gamer’s dream: You play a videogame so much it actually lands you a job making that game.
That’s exactly what happened to LittleBigPlanet super-fan John Beech.
The 28-year old U.K. native has been working at LittleBigPlanet creator Media Molecule for the past two and a half years as a game designer. But before that, he was just a gamer – a construction worker without a high school degree. Though he didn’t have much – he didn’t even own a computer – Beech did have a PlayStation 3.
“I’ve always been a PlayStation fanboy, and I’ve always been a gamer,” Beech explained at a PlayStation event in New York last December. “Though I’ve never had much money, I had just enough to get the console and then maybe buy a game every four or five months.”
And when LittleBigPlanet was released in October 2008, he was hooked. He spent hours and hours playing the game, designing his own levels and finally posting them online. It was around then that Beech was nearly killed on the construction site by a collapsed foundation. After narrowly surviving and a brief stint at the hospital, he noticed his LittleBigPlanet levels, including the well-known “Future Warzone,” were instantly popular among the LittleBigPlanet community. It quickly garnered attention from the folks at Media Molecule.
“His levels stood out because they were so intricate and beautifully engineered,” said Media Molecule co-founder and technical director Alex Evans. “What we loved about them was that he was trying to do narratives and tell stories. He was doing cinematic things, and we had no idea that was possible at the time. He bucked the trend and used his imagination to do greater things, and we were just really inspired by it.”
In fact, Media Molecule were so inspired by Beech’s levels, that they contacted him via the PlayStation Network to try to schedule a meeting – but he never saw the message. The whole thing could’ve easily never happened. Thankfully for Beech, after several missed messages, Media Molecule eventually got a hold of him with the help of the community, and they asked him to come to their Guildford offices to show off his levels in person.
“He came in sweating profusely and completely nervous,” said Evans, laughing. Beech had obviously never been on any kind of job interview before, wearing an ill-fitting suit he borrowed and driving a rusty, white builder’s van to the offices. “The suit really didn’t fit him, and he brought his own PS3 with him,” he added. “We were like, ‘Um, we have PS3s here. About 50 of them.'”
After showing some levels to co-founders Evans, Mark Healey and Kareem Ettouney, Ettouney brought the rest of the company in to see Beech’s demonstration. When Beech was done playing, the room was silent.
“I was looking at the TV, still sweating and still nervous,” Beech remembered. “Then I slowly turned around, and there were a couple of people who had their mouths open. Someone started clapping slowly, and then everyone got up. I was freaking out.”
So why the standing ovation? Beech had basically showed off things the developers hadn’t seen done before in the game, as well as other design elements they’d already been working on to implement in LittleBigPlanet 2 – everything from using direct control for level design to creating cinematics with special effects. It was all made within the limitations of the game, and some parts even exploited the game’s bugs in creative ways.
All this from a guy who’d never used e-mail before. While Beech didn’t even know it was an interview, Media Molecule offered him a job, one they created just for him, right on the spot – an “insta-hire,” as Evans puts it.
“It was possibly the best moment of my entire life,” Beech explained. “The ‘interview,’ as it were, lasted three hours. From not having any experience to be working at one of the best game companies in the world, it was such a quantum leap for me. It absolutely blew my mind.”
Beech wasn’t the first gamer turned game developer at Media Molecule; the company had hired several LittleBigPlanet community members to become community managers. However, he just might be the first stonemason turned game designer at the studio. While he never completed a formal education – suffering from severe migraines, he dropped out of school at age 16 – Beech used his training as a builder to help him to create innovative LittleBigPlanet levels. And it’s clear from speaking with him and looking at his work that – degree or not – he’s no dummy.
“Physics is one thing I can’t get enough of, and LittleBigPlanet, being a physics-based game, made sense to me,” Beech said. “When I was builder, I learned a lot about fulcrum points and just the physics of how buildings work. ‘How am I going to get this big lump of steel up there?’ So when I got to play LittleBigPlanet, I knew how to make things work. The tools in the game allowed me to try things with my mind, and I didn’t have to lift a ton of steel. I could just draw it in the game.”
When Evans and Media Molecule first created LittleBigPlanet, they had hoped ordinary people like Beech could become game designers in their own right. But they never thought they’d be hiring them.
“We probably joked, ‘Oh yeah, it’ll be the end of our jobs!'” said Evans. “But for me as a programmer, the craft of making games is actually about giving tools to people like John. And LittleBigPlanet puts [game creation tools] in the hands of millions of people. I just wanted people to feel empowered. It’s a dream come true.”
Though he joked about losing his job, Evans maintained that people like Beech are what the industry needs. “John’s story is inspiring because it shows you don’t have to come through the traditional route to be in the industry,” he said, adding that about a third of the studio had never shipped a game before LittleBigPlanet. “It’s like the wisdom of a beginner who hasn’t been jaded by how games are made. People who come from outside games approach it differently; they don’t know what’s typical or what’s hard. On the flip side, there are the jaded game developers who just go, ‘That’s not possible.’ But then you think, ‘Well, actually, that’s a good idea,’ and you try to re-think how to do it.”
“So John saw the game totally differently than we did,” Evans continued. “Now you’re actually a professional game developer, we’ve probably corrupted you,” he said, smiling at Beech. “You’ve probably lost your innocence somewhat.”
“The first thing I did when I got to Media Molecule was to shut up, listen and learn from everyone, so now I have a much broader overview,” Beech said. “And like Alex said, they’ve probably corrupted me in some ways. But at the same time, I’ve still got my spirit and my willingness to do the impossible!”
Photo courtesy of JesseAngelo.com.
Tracey John is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York. When she’s not writing about games, she’s preparing for the inevitable zombie robot apocalypse… and baking cupcakes. See funny pictures of cats at her website, www.traceyjohn.com.