“We've hired four people from the LBP community" reveals Alex Evans, co-founder of UK studio Media Molecule and creator of LittleBigPlanet. Including one lucky soul who dodged death to get a job on LBP2. Enter John Beech, or 'johnee' to his PSN friends. Two years ago John was a builder with absolutely no qualifications to speak of. But now? He's a full time designer at Media Molecule working on LittleBigPlanet 2, one of the most anticipated titles on PlayStation 3. This is his story.
"It's quite interesting really," begins John. "I used to be a builder, just a construction worker. And then LittleBigPlanet came out." John Beech is 27 years old. By his own admission he'll try everything once - including randomly asking Media Molecule for a job - just for the hell of it. Oh and he's got a talent for designing LittleBigPlanet levels. It would be this hobby that changed his life forever. "I've always been a gamer and I'd been really looking forward to LittleBigPlanet coming out. I managed to get a copy for myself and started making levels in my free time."
John began creating levels. Things evolved quickly. He had a talent for it and a gift for manipulating LBP's tools in innovative ways - when and if he could find the time between a demanding job and a stubborn girlfriend. "My girlfriend wasn't a particularly big fan of LBP" says John, "I was only allowed to play it a couple of hours a day if I was lucky - and I had to put a quilt over my head and the TV so she could go to sleep!"
John continued to create, but LittleBigPlanet remained a hobby project - until a life-changing incident at work inspired him to pursue something a little more, ahem, concrete.
"So I created a few things, and that was fine but then I had a particularly bad day at work. I got trapped in a trench that collapsed on me - it nearly killed me!" John had been working on a factory extension. After noticing that a small area of a foundation had collapsed, he jumped down to fix it up. "We'd dug some fittings for the foundations. It's actually like two trenches that were two and a half metres deep, but barely wider than my shoulders, and when you're in them, you're in them - you can't reach the top. We were having the concrete delivered that morning to fill them up, and when we'd got there a tiny part of it had collapsed and fallen in, so I jumped in to get it out because the concrete was arriving in half an hour.
"The guys that used to work with me were like 'don't do it John.' I was like, 'Nah it's alright. I'll be fine.' So I was digging it away and then suddenly one entire half of the trench instantly collapsed. I managed to jump as it happened, but it pinned me down and the concrete wall it was supporting slipped and hit me straight in the back. By all rights it would have chopped me in half, if it wasn't for a tiny alcove about the size of my waist that I somehow managed to slip into. Immediately everyone came running out of the factory and ten minutes later it took about 20 people to get me out, with everyone pushing pulling and straining. As I was being pulled out into the ambulance I still managed to scream, 'cancel the concrete.' So yeah, I was lucky. The paramedics were amazed I survived."
Bizarrely enough, only a couple of nights before, John had mustered up the courage to start publishing some of his latest LittleBigPlanet creations. He came home from the hospital that day, after one of the most intense experiences of his life, to find that hundreds of people had been checking out his work. The verdict was unanimous: John's levels were more intricate, more innovative, more fun, than any other levels in the LBP universe.
Almost overnight, 'johnee' had become one of the most popular creators in the game. "I'd gotten home and saw the comments on my levels and everyone was just saying how good my levels were, and that maybe Media Molecule should hire me. I remember thinking 'wow, that would be cool.' So I tried to contact them."
"I didn't get a response at first and I thought they must have hired someone else from the community." But, having built up a sizeable following in the LittleBigPlanet community, the very second 'johnee' mentioned his intention to find a job at Media Molecule the response was immediate.
"When they didn't get back to me I ended up sending a really pensive, meek message to all my PSN friends, saying "Hey guys, it's johnee here, you don't have to help me." I was really polite, but I basically asked everyone on my friends list if they could post on blogs or forums, trying to spread the word that I wanted a job at Media Molecule. I thought a couple of people would respond, but the next morning I woke up to hundreds of messages saying 'No worries johnee. We'll help you!' They bombarded Media Molecule with messages telling them to give me a job.
It was an incredible effort from a community looking out for one of their own - but it turned out to be an unnecessary gesture. Media Molecule had, in fact, actually tried to get in contact with John who - by his own admission - had never owned a PC and usually received roughly two emails a year if he was lucky. Somehow he didn't receive, let alone read, the first email Media Molecule had sent him.
"What I hadn't realised was that someone at Media Molecule had actually tried to contact me, but for some reason the wires crossed and we didn't receive each other's emails. It was only a couple of weeks later, when they were going back through some stuff, that they came across it and thought, 'Oh, he did try and contact us.' So I got an email one day out of the blue saying 'Hi John, where are you based?' When I saw it I almost choked on my breakfast, emailed them back, and they invited me to come up and see them."
Having worked as a builder from the day he left high school, John had literally no idea how to prepare. "The next day I drove up to Media Molecule. I actually brought my PlayStation with me, because I had never really used a computer. I didn't even have a memory stick. I arrived sweating my ass off in my suit, because my GPS had taken me to the wrong place and I nearly didn't arrive in time, but when I eventually got there they put me in a small room with Mark Healey and Kareem Ettouney, two of the company directors, and they started talking to me gently about what I did, and so on and so forth. I didn't even have a CV, and I hadn't done anything except be a builder my whole life, which they thought was hilarious. Then I loaded up my PlayStation and started showing them one of the things I had done.
Two minutes in Kareem, the art director, told me to stop and said, 'Hold on a second.' He went and he brought half the company back in and then said, 'Okay John, you can carry on now.'" So John Beech, sweating up a storm in a full suit, minus a CV (and any clue what to expect) began to nervously show half of Media Molecule what he had been working on with a blanket on his head, while his girlfriend was snoring beside him.
"I'm really sweating by this point and I started talking in a high pitched voice, playing LittleBigPlanet in front of the people who created it. It was nerve-wracking, but at the end of it I pretty much got a standing ovation. Mark Healy comes up to me and says, 'Well, you've got a job.' I started two weeks later. They said I didn't have to come into work until 11 on my first day. I found it really odd, being a builder and having to start at 7 in the morning my entire life. I couldn't resist turning up earlier. Everyone was like, 'Oh, John you're not supposed to be in till later. We haven't set up your computer.' I was like: 'I'm so excited!' I was massively enthusiastic, so they let me just sit down and mess around with the tools for a little bit."
After he'd managed to get familiar with the new toolset for LittleBigPlanet 2, John was invited to sit in on his first production meeting. "They let me sit in on a meeting to discuss some stuff for the game. I remember them assigning jobs to all the designers who were there and Kengo, the lead designer, said 'Why haven't you assigned anything to John?' Mark, the Creative Director, said 'We're just going to give him a couple of weeks to get settled in.' But Kengo just said, 'Oh no, he doesn't need that! He's fine. I've been watching him this morning, right John?' And I just paused and said, 'Yeah... I guess so.' Then he gave me a job to do and I did it. I was in my element."
So how did a man like John Beech get so good at LBP? "When I was a builder, I wouldn't say I was a stereotypical builder - I actually cared about what I did. I was really passionate and always made sure I did the best job I could. It's hard to explain - I did all the graft obviously, but I used to like making hand made kitchens, for example, where I had to use a bit of brain power instead of just building a brick wall. But apart from that I had no design experience. Nothing at all. In fact I actually left school with no qualifications, not because I was stupid, but because I used to get terrible migraines when I was younger and I wasn't allowed to sit exams, even though I was predicted to get Bs and As. On paper, I'm a complete dimwit!"
So, a complete dimwit by personal admission and a man lucky to still be alive. Fortunate? Sure, but maybe you do make your own luck in life - even if its under the sheets, pad in hand, next to your snoring girlfriend.