What we can learn from Peter Molyneux

Peter Molyneux has been on my mind lately, but that makes sense – Peter Molyneux has been in the news a lot lately. But who is Peter Molyneux, and why is he such a media icon of late? Well, let’s take a walk down memory lane.

Back when the Amiga was ascendant, Peter Molyneux founded Bullfrog Productions and went on to create massively popular and wonderful games that fuelled my initial interest in gaming and computers in general. Seriously, look at this list: Populous, Syndicate, Theme Park, Hi-Octane, Dungeon Keeper, and that’s omitting any sequels that were in many cases worlds better than the already-fantastic originals. In short, early on, Peter Molyneux was a gaming god.

Then, I suspect, it all kind of went to his head. Bullfrog got bought by and merged into EA, and Peter left to form Lionhead studios. His first game there was Black & White, supposedly a god game merged with a gigantic creature sim that was going to include industry-altering AI and groundbreaking gameplay. Instead, we got a shitty Populous clone mixed with a mind-boggling pet game. Your god powers were toned down to focus on your pet, which was your avatar on earth, but your pet was just… stupid. They seemed to always be learning the wrong things from your actions and got in the way more often than not. In short, Black & White was a massively-hyped letdown.

Undeterred, Molyneux began hyping his next game: Fable. He was going to turn role-playing games on their head! A huge, over-arching story full of incredibly lifelike characters, a main character that ages and has children that are important to the story — all kinds of things. Sometimes it seemed that in every new interview that Molyneux did, he unveiled another thrilling new feature that Fable was going to have.

Sadly, many of these amazing, groundbreaking features didn’t make it into the game. Having children? Out. Trees that grew over time, changing the world around you? Gone. Heck, even the “incredibly lifelike characters” ended up being flat and cardboard RPG stereotypes. And in a strange bit of controversy, you could roleplay an evil character evil and wipe out an entire village — except for the children. In order to comply with ratings, you couldn’t kill children, which led to strange towns in some games which were populated entirely by children who never acted any differently.

Fable game followed Fable game, and while Lionhead did develop other games as well, one was a crappy, over-hyped sequel to Black & White, and the other was an interesting — albeit not thrilling — business simulation about the movies. But every new release, it seemed, was going to be an amazing, medium-changing game with features never before seen in the industry, but then turned out to be merely reasonable games at best.

Finally, Peter left Lionhead studios to to work at an indie company called 22Cans, and that’s where the real meat of this story is.

Peter Molyneux started a Kickstarter for a project called “Godus,” which was going to be the god-game to end all god-games. People were really salivating for this, there not having been a really compelling god-game in a while, and in the end pledged over half a million pounds to see the game made.

Work progressed, and before long, Molyneux released a game — though not the game backers had asked for. It was instead a mobile game called “Curiousity,” where players tapped on various cube faces, revealing layer under layer. It was an online game, and the promise was that the gamer who tapped on the very last bit of the cube would get to see what was inside, and that it would be a life-changing prize. In the end, a young man named Bryan Henderson opened the cube, and the prize turned out that he was going to be the “God of Gods” in Godus, holding… some sort of special authority, and entitled to a percentage of all online revenue from Godus. Pretty neat, huh? Yeah, well we’ll get back to that.

Godus was funded in December of 2012, and the gameplan was for it to be released in under a year’s time. Aggressive, but there was already gameplay video, so it wasn’t unreasonable to assume that this funding was just to finish and polish an already-existing game that would be available in 2013 sometime, or probably more likely maybe early 2014. Well, it’s 2015, and it still doesn’t look like we’ll be seeing the complete, promised game any time this year.

Oh, it’s out and playable in an early-access state. You can even buy it on Steam, if you want a buggy, feature-poor, boring god-game. The multiplayer doesn’t work as it should, and so, so many Kickstarter promises are completely unfulfilled. Plus, internal company scuttlebutt is that a great deal of the promised features may never see the light of day, including the “hubworld” online component that was supposed to provide Bryan Henderson with his “god of gods” role and payout.

So that’s the history, and while it’s interesting, it’s not why Peter Molyneux is such a hot topic in the news lately. He’s a trending search term because of this interview he did with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, where he was taken to task by an interviewer seemingly out for blood. In fact, it’s so aggressive, the review starts off with the killer question: “Do you think that you’re a pathological liar?”

Now, it’s worth properly defining the word “pathological,” especially in this case. It means a person who habitually, potentially unknowingly tells falsehoods. The interviewer wasn’t asking Molyneux if he thought he was an evil mastermind or anything, just if he could recognize his repeated history misrepresenting his games and over-promising and under-delivering.

Still, it’s a startling way to begin an interview, and they even acknowledge that in the opening seconds, but I think it’s a very keen and on-point question.

See, the interview proceeds for a while, but it seems that Molyneux’s defence boils down to the idea that when he was talking about all these wonderful features that his games were going to have, he honestly believed that they were going to make it in, and that everything was going to be sunshine and lollipops. He was as surprised as the rest of us when time, technology, and budget issues interfered and he was forced to cut features and scale back time and time again.

When looked at in that light, isn’t Peter Molyneux just a very earnest, very optimistic guy, doing his best to see his dreams and fantasies realized in a known problematic medium? I mean, what game has come in on-time and on-budget with exactly the original feature set imagined? Games are notoriously difficult to make, with even the simple fact that often times what you expected to be fun turns out to distinctly not be and you’re forced to cut out what you felt was going to be an absolutely amazing feature. Heck, Godus isn’t even the most impressive disappointment of its kind in the world of gaming: Duke Nukem Forever took 14 years to develop and was available for pre-order for ten of those years.

Still, I think the question was perfectly formed, even prescient. Remember that a pathological liar is one who potentially unknowingly lies, and Molyneux spends the entire interview denying that his continual misrepresentations and undelivered promises are lies at all. Sure, game development is hard, but in another industry, he’d be pilloried.

Consider for a moment if you hired a Molyneux-esque contractor to remodel your kitchen, and he promised skylights, double the cupboard space, gas stove, and a garbage disposal unit, but then later told you that the amount he quoted wasn’t enough to afford the cupboards, there’s no gas line in the house for the oven, and you live in an apartment building, so skylights are actually physically impossible. He can still do the garbage disposal unit, though.

Sure, it’s kind of a contrived example. You’d bear a certain amount of the blame for not knowing these things are possible, and that holds true in the gaming industry as well. Your average gamer tends to have an understanding of game development budgets and timeframes. But it’s still woefully opaque, and things such as gameplay video can muddy the waters quite a bit. How much finished gameplay does that actually represent? How much extra work needs to be done still? It’s really hard to say.

The most telling lie, though — and this is an absolute lie, by the way — comes later on in the interview, when Molyneux discusses the budget for the game. See, it turns out there’s no way they could have developed Godus for the half-million pounds he asked for. Internally, the plan was always to develop an “early-alpha” version of the game and release that to players, then use the momentum to secure a publisher or early-access sales sufficient to develop the rest of the promised game.

This right here is absolutely horseshit, and it’s the kind of thing that is killing people’s confidence in Kickstarters (which isn’t strictly a bad thing, but that’s another topic entirely). The idea behind a Kickstarter is that you are asking for sufficient funding to deliver entirely on the product you’re describing in the Kickstarter. For the same reason you’d be upset if your contractor came back to you and told you your kitchen renovation would take more time and cost more money, people get mad when Kickstarters fail to deliver on their promises as well.

Now, while contractors very regularly discover conditions that require time extensions and budget increases, they don’t cut their estimates in half just to get your business in the first place, expecting they’ll be able to get more money out of you later. If they did, they’d find themselves in court with a quickness.

Fan reaction to this interview has been mixed, with some feeling that the interviewer went too far, and others thinking he didn’t go far enough. Fellow developers though, seem to be pretty solidly on-side with Molyneux. A common refrain is that when we treat our industry’s big dreamers like this, we discourage others from dreaming, and pretty soon all we’ll be left with is derivative, cookie-cutter clones. But that’s hogwash.

First, we’re already plagued with derivative clones. Battlefield, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry — all these series and more are released on a yearly or near-yearly basis with precious little to differentiate themselves from the previous entry. And look, nobody’s asking Molyneux to stop dreaming or even taking him to task simply for dreaming, that’s foolish to insinuate. What he’s being excoriated for is for promising those dreams when they’re still just dreams. He’s been in this business for almost thirty years. He should know by now that games change drastically from conception to implementation, and he’s been through the ringer enough times that he should have figured out that people take it poorly when they’re sold on a vision for a game that ends up being quite different indeed.

Godus could have been a good game. It might still end up being a good game, if Molyneux can manage the fortitude and funding to stay on-task until all of the promised features are implemented and iterated on. But whatever game it ends up being, it will forever be marred by this controversy — a controversy that Molyneux brought on himself with a combination of misrepresentation, the unacceptable downplaying of risks, and, yes, lies.

Molyneux has stated that because of this interview and the recent round of controversy over Godus, he will “never speak to the press again.” Given his history, I can’t help but see how that won’t be a good thing, both for us, and for him.

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