Train conductor John Beech approaching! Or should we say creative director? Either way, as the CEO of BeechCorp, John takes his virtual train driving role very seriously. Here, we chat to John about his former life as a builder, his love of World War 2 tanks, and being the LittleBigPlanet "boss guy". All aboard for this latest Molecule Profile!
Hi John! What do you do here at Media Molecule?
I’m the creative director at Media Molecule, and very excitingly I’m leading the creative team working on Tren at the moment. Tren is a little game about trains that I started as a small personal project shortly after we shipped Dreams, which has since then been taken on by a wider Mm team at large as an upcoming Mm Original. And now we have an awesome crack team working on finishing off Tren - which is thrilling!
How did Tren go from something you were working on individually to being picked up by Mm?
Tren was probably one of the first games that helped define that process of little projects becoming something larger within Dreams. But Mm has always had this game jam culture where we're encouraged to make weird and wonderful things, and just experiment. Originally, Tren was more of a personal project, just something I was making in my spare time. I think I started initially by working on it during some Friday game jams at work, and then I took it home and I continued working on it in my spare time a lot.
And at some point, I think I was showing it off because I was really excited about it, and the leadership team at Mm approached me and said, "John, we really like what you've done here. This looks really cool. Is this something you would actually like for us to take on board and for you to do at work full time?" At that point, Tren had grown into such a fully formed idea in my mind that I jumped at the chance to fully create my passion project. From then on we've really taken the time to explore what it means to transition it from a personal project to a fully-fledged Mm approved release. This has included bringing various people on board, defining what the sign-off process is, the green lights and the milestones and all that production gubbins and working out how to bring this to life. So it's been a really big team effort that's sort of coalesced around that initial seed of excitement for Tren.
Tren has this almost childhood toy box style aesthetic with the wooden trains and track pieces. Do you often use your own childhood experiences when you’re creating your own games?
Absolutely. Especially with Tren I wanted to bring to the game my vision of the world, and show just how joyous that spark of creativity can be. Whatever you design has to have a sense of authenticity because you’re actually pulling from your direct first-hand experiences. In the case of Tren it came from my love of playing with those toy trains as a kid. I really wanted to grasp that sense of nostalgia and make something that those who love trains would enjoy. But then there's also a sort of meta-narrative within Tren, which relates heavily to me, as my dad used to make lots of toy train sets when I was very young and it was the thing that I would bond with him over. He'd come home from work and start making these little toy trains, so I would always hang around and watch and learn and get involved with whatever he was working on.
Now I have a child of my own and I sort of understand the view from the opposite side. My daughter, Betty, would love to come and play with me all the time, but I have to work. She doesn't quite understand when I’m working that she can't just start playing toy trains with me! So it's giving me that wonderful dual view of the world of being a child compared to being a parent. For me, Tren represents that parent-child connection and so I hope that it resonates with people who are playing it, and that it appeals to adults as well as children. I think that approach really leads the sense of wholesome authenticity.
In a similar way to you playing with wooden trains your dad made, do you want Betty to eventually play Tren?
100%. So the really cool thing about it is that I've gone and bought a lot of toy trains now for “research” purposes. Betty plays with them, and regularly we go down to the living room and we make a train set together, and it's actually really helpful for Tren development. So I can look at how I've laid out a train track in our living room and then relate that directly to Tren. Lots of the environments that I've created within Tren's world are very much based on my own house because I've been slowly renovating it over the last two years, which is coincidentally about how long I've also been working on Tren. So I literally look around me - and I've got a brick wall here and everything's exposed and I've got bits of plaster board, and so it was very easy for me to bring that chaotic house renovation style to Tren - and of course, bring Betty along for the ride.
Have you always worked in game design?
I've always been a designer, and initially was a level designer. But actually before any of that I was a builder for 11 years down in Devon, and I spent many years learning how to build things like walls and pools and plaster and kitchens and windows and curbs and everything. You name it, I could build it - and then LittleBigPlanet came out and I was like, wow! So then I started making stuff in there as a community member, got spotted by Mm, and got offered a job! I literally stopped being a builder that week and became a level designer at Mm. That was nearly 14 years ago. I guess in a way, I stopped building stuff in the real world, and started building stuff digitally instead. My first task was working on DLC for LittleBigPlanet 1, and I was one of the primary level designers on LittleBigPlanet 2, then transitioned into Tearaway later on. And then I've been working on Dreams since the inception of the idea.
So you didn't have any kind of formal education in game design?
That's right, no formal education. In fact, I suffered terribly from migraines when I was younger, and I missed out on a lot of school. Without tooting my own horn, I was academically bright, but because I missed so much time at school I wasn't allowed to even sit my GCSE exams. So, technically on paper, I am highly unqualified, but it certainly hasn't stopped me from achieving my goals and becoming a good level designer. But really it's been the mentorship of working with other incredible level designers, artists and all the really good people at Mm and other games companies who I've had the pleasure to work with that have honed my skills.
What's been your favourite thing that you've worked on at Mm?
Obviously, I'm incredibly proud of Dreams, and I remember when we first added sculpting into Dreams, which we had originally called the Blob Editor early on. The PlayStation motion controllers had only just come out, and not being a traditional game dev, it was quite easy for me to pick up. There were no preconceptions for me about how it should work, so I just started modelling straight away, which I thought was something only programmers could do. All the artists at Mm were initially finding it hard because they were used to vertex editors and sliders and technical stuff. So for me, it was a real achievement that I became the first person who was able to do tons of sculpting in Dreams and discovering new techniques from the beginning, so that was a real highlight of my career.
Another thing I'm proud of was creating the bosses for LittleBigPlanet 2, because for some reason (I don't know how it happened) I ended up being the boss guy for LittleBigPlanet 2. I didn't create all the bosses, but I definitely did the majority and there's one boss in particular that I love, Copernicus, in the level Fowl Play. It’s a giant robot chicken that chases you across the level and smashes everything. That itself had been inspired from a LBP 1 level where a bride chases you in this big rolling bulldozer thing and I wanted to make my own version of that. But I really like mechs so I made it into a chicken mech in this sort of 1am energy drink fuelled all-nighter. I was so into what I was working on that I made this thing over Thursday night into Friday in a bit of a haze.
On Fridays we had something called Friday Feature where we would show off our ideas. I've got this tell that if I'm really tired, I start beat boxing. So everyone knew I was really tired as I was blurry-eyed and just beatboxing away badly in the corner. I started playing it and there's a bit in the level where you get to what you think is the end of the level. Copernicus falls down into lava, like it was in the LBP 1 level that inspired it, and you get to the scoreboard. But the scoreboard was fake, as I had built this really accurate looking replica. One person suddenly said "it's really good John but it's a bit short, though", and as they said that, the fake-out moment came where Copernicus rose out of the lava and starts chasing you again. The timing of the person saying that was perfect and all 50 people who were watching recoiled and almost fell over backwards as this giant robot chicken burst out of the ground covered in flames. I was so proud of that moment.
Is there any advice or guidance you have for people looking to get into game design at all?
The reason I got the job was because I had something that was relevant to Mm at the time, which was a bunch of LBP levels that people enjoyed. I had something I could directly show to them, even without a degree in game design. Having a level which was enough for Mm to go, "well, this person's got potential, they could make something good" was definitely the most important part of me getting the job. So my advice is to show examples of work that relate to what you're trying to get into.
I’ve seen job applications, CVs and portfolios where there’s a lot of words and fluff, and it's all very nice and good for getting a feel for people's experience. But what I really want is a link to a little flash game or mobile game or something that you've made. I just wanna play it as you get so much more from that. They say a picture is worth 1000 words. Well a game is worth 1000 pictures, plus the words too. There's so many ways to be a game designer now but I think when I was younger you had to do coding and to be good at maths. But now there's so many great tools that people are getting their hands on for free. Game design courses are completely valid and I would have absolutely loved to have taken one. But I think if you take an unusual path into the industry you're going to have a more unusual skill set than a more traditional path, which can be beneficial for some creations or studios that are a little more out there.
Mm staff seem to have a lot of interesting items on their desks. What’s on your desk at the moment?
I usually have a ridiculous amount of Lego on my desk at the office but we had to take it away for the studio renovation that happened earlier in the year, so almost all my Lego is in storage because my house is also undergoing one heck of a refit and there's not much room. But I do have this Lego tank that I designed and built and it's a British Conqueror tank. It’s a Cold War, end of World War Two era tank. I really love British tanks, especially the World War Two era and so I've recreated almost all of them in Lego. But usually I would have obscene amounts of Lego and I do have one good anecdote about this.
When we were in the office a few years ago, Hideo Kojima was doing a tour of the various PlayStation studios to get inspiration before he opened up his own new studio to create Death Stranding. He came to Media Molecule and he walked into the office and saw my desk covered floor to ceiling in Lego. He immediately stopped, turned and looked at me, then exclaimed something excitedly in Japanese. Obviously I can't understand Japanese, but he gesticulated towards the Lego and I could sense the excitement. After he finished talking, his translator said "Kojima-San would like you to know he really likes your Lego" and then he just gave me two massive thumbs up and then he walked off. I just stood there dumbstruck because obviously we all know who Kojima-san is and I'm a massive fan. He's this huge celebrity and he just complimented me on my Lego designs and it was amazing!
To wrap up, what are your favourite Dreams, and are there any that you'd like to recommend?
There are some fantastic Dreams out there, but I tend to get excited often by the one-off sculpts and these unusual things that people have made. I always enjoy the little bite-size things people make - they really hype me up, because that's kind of how I like showing off the things I do through these little chunks and there's a couple of people out there that I want to shout out. I mean, there's tons of people, but the ones I want to highlight here are Prinz_Laser and John-berg1995. And they both make hilariously good World War Two tanks with really accurate suspension, and that is absolutely my jam.
What I really want to do in Dreams one day is sculpt the most accurate tank all the way from the hatch on the top to the little screws and the welds and the bolts and the dirt and the rivets and have it all working and moving. So I look at how they've done theirs and they've managed to get the suspension and all the moving parts working, and it's incredibly impressive. But I guess I'd better actually finish Tren first, huh?
Tren will be released in Dreams later this year. Keep up to date with our socials(opens in new tab) to find out exactly when Tren pulls into the station.
The Dreams User Guide is a work-in-progress. Keep an eye out for updates as we add more learning resources and articles over time.