The Lesson of Peter Molyneux

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

“Sooner or later the bullshit has to stop.”

This is the long-running sentiment surrounding Peter Molyneux, the British game development hero that spearheaded famous studios Bullfrog and Lionhead, but who also always had a reputation of being fluid with the truth. Molyneux was the guy who made Populous and led the studios that created Theme Park, Dungeon Keeper, Syndicate, The Movies, Fable, Black and White, Magic Carpet and many others. But Molyneux was also a teller of tall tales, a maker of wild promises in interviews that had little chance of being realized.

He got away with this for a long time because the gaming media fundamentally liked him. In a 2005 article former games journalist and current Marvel writer Kieron Gillen explained it thus:

“Why they hell do they always quote Peter Bloody Molyneux? He’s enthusiastic, intelligent and extremely talkative. He’s terribly indiscrete. He’ll play games with ludicrous concepts. He’ll get back to us.”

In short Molyneux may have been a bit wide-eyed and silly, but at least he was engaging and communicative. He may have been prone to gaffes, fibs, half-truths, misunderstandings and over-promises, but they were entertaining (so much so that spoof account Peter Molydeux became an Internet sensation).

The other reason Molyneux thrived was that his team delivered. There are, and will forever remain, disputes over exactly how much he was involved with some of the titles to his name (Glenn Corpes, Sean Cooper, Demis Hassabis and a variety of others deserve their credit) but what was inarguable was that Molyneux had managed to create an environment in which great games happened. Though his eye was bigger than his belly, many would say he at least dared to dream where others wouldn’t. And yet there are distinct phases when the Molyneux schtick worked better than others. The Bullfrog years were generally groundbreaking, for example, whereas the Lionhead years were more difficult.

I worked at Lionhead and had first hand experience of what those years were like. It was like the jungle and the Bengal tiger. All the animals in the jungle know where the tiger is at all times, if they have any sense.

It was all a personality thing. Molyneux was one of those people who had phenomenal charisma and the ability to use it. He was very good and inspiring people, particularly younger and more impressionable developers. He thought laterally rather than literally, metaphorically rather than functionally. Every conversation you’d have with him about one of his games focused on experiences, moments, possibilities, emotional pay offs, and other high–point ideals. He would combine those ideals to form an exciting story for what a game might be, often road testing a certain phrase or image with you before using it with the press. This, I gather, is not unlike the way Steve Jobs seems to have been.

However Molyneux struggled with consistency. He often couldn’t reconcile conflicting ideas no matter how many ways a team explained their problems to him, responding by trying to sell them all the harder, and if that didn’t work becoming emotional. Being questioned about details seemed to irritate him immensely, as though doing so compromised his dreams. Molyneux would also get fixated. In one example he had an idea for our business sim game (The Movies) to remove all cash meters because he felt numeric progress shouldn’t matter even though all the gameplay was based around generating profits. It would take weeks or months for commonsense to prevail in these situations, often leaving senior management feeling at their wits end.

His dual nature led Molyneux’s teams to treat him with kid gloves. They needed him to sell big visions and keep the press excited, but dreaded the day he’d turn up to get involved. In hindsight – and I choose these words carefully – subsequently learning that he’s dyslexic sort of put this in context. Dyslexics are often brilliant, but the multi-webbed way in which they think can make it hard for them to be understood, and some of them tend to react emotionally when they’re not. Looking back (and I don’t necessarily offer this as an apology) I think a lot of that held true in Molyneux’s case. He could be supremely inspiring, which is why many of the people around him were so loyal, but had a magpie brain that often undermined his intent. He was well suited to those verdant mid-90s days when there was room to experiment, be fun for the press and eventually stumble onto an idea that shone. But as games became more expensive to develop and the industry more corporate, I personally believe he struggled.

The week that I left Lionhead was coincidentally the week that the studio was sold to Microsoft. This, it seems to me in retrospect, was also when the Molyneux story stalled. While he had made some promises for both Black and White and Fable that never came to pass (later mea-culpa’d and accepted by the press as overeager-Peter-is-overeager) post-Microsoft Lionhead didn’t have the same ambitious aura. It had one solid franchise in Fable, but also an infamous project named Milo and Kate. A Kinect-powered adventure featuring an supposedly-real AI character with whom you could talk and play, it made many waves at places like TED. And yet it never went anywhere, never even seeing the light of day.

At the time Molyneux was also functioning as the creative director across all of Microsoft Game Studios Europe, but in 2012 he departed, declaring that he wanted to get back to a small studio environment and do great work. This – in retrospect – seems to have been a big mistake. While it wasn’t the freewheeling 90s any more, one of Molyneux’s biggest advantages had been his relationship with the publishing industry that propped him up. With the formation of 22Cans, on the other hand, he got into Kickstartering and working directly for the fans. That was his undoing.

He started innocently enough with a massive multiplayer game called Curiosity, a huge Borg-like cube at which players could slowly chip away, and at whose center Molyneux promised would be a “life-changing” prize for one lucky individual. That individual turned out to be a Scottish kid named Bryan Henderson, and the prize was he would get to be “God of Gods” in 22Cans’s forthcoming game Godus. The studio subsequently crowdfunded Godus, but it quickly became plagued with some very Molyneux-esque problems. The details are many, too many to bother counting here, but the long and the short of it was that his wild-promise routine of which publishers were generally forgiving (at least the promises got coverage) did not fly with the crowdfunding audience.

The tipping point was reached this week. Several articles in the gaming press asked just what the hell was going at 22Cans, and secondarily what was going with Bryan Henderson. Dark tales were spun of a studio that was moving away from all its promises and pledges, a permanently broken game being worked on by a skeleton team led by an inexperienced designer, and of Henderson forgotten and ignored. 22Cans attempted to respond to this with a community update video, but its awkwardness and lack of direct answers to certain questions only further fueled the flames.

However the headshot was a couple of interviews, one in the Guardian wherein Molyneux declared he would no longer be talking to the press, and the other a transcription of a phone interview with Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker. It’s this latter interview that really did the damage, opening with the question “Do you think that you’re a pathological liar?” and going downhill from there. The result was so bad that it may ultimately sink the studio or Molyneux’s career (at one point he declared “I haven’t got a reputation in this industry any more”).

But so what? Why the gossipy history lesson?

Another article from a designer recently caught my attention. In this case the writer (Greg Wondra) lamented the apparent death of the game designer. Despite having many years experience working in the industry, Wondra was finding it impossible to secure a new post. He noted that many studios seemed to want cheap design specialists, like game designers who knew endless runner games inside out and were willing to work for less than $60k. That the market for game design had become more of a market for those who could develop content for existing games, for game economists, or people who essentially had technical skills but could also have an idea from time to time – and no family. Many of the comments concur.

This seems to be the choice that game designers have before them. You can either be a tradesman who scripts content on pre-existing genres, or you can be a wide-eyed dreamer in a severe landscape who’ll flame out. In either direction the potential of games is lessened. To play a game like Candy Crush Soda Saga is to know what “by the numbers” means. But the same is true in the AAA space. Many of the biggest games are recycling fanboy templates, deliberately marketing themselves as feature-products, one in competition with another. Everybody’s acting as though we’ve “solved” video games, content to treat the entire field as little more than manipulating distribution networks for mass attention.

It’s not there are no shoots of ambition, but as an industry we’re having a difficult time explaining to the public, to investors, to our own media or even to ourselves why they’re a good thing without making daft promises. We fall back on a kind of known-known design conservatism. In the mobile space, for example, developers often follow the path of copying everyone else as fast as possible because they lack a basic framework for evaluating – and therefore respecting – creative game design. Product managers get too scared too fast, even more so than they did in the 2005-ish days of licensed console game shovel ware.

Never mind that pattern thinking led to the decline and fall of the Facebook gaming market. Never mind that pattern thinking always does that. Game designers get little respect, especially those of us who see the field generally and can correlate across it. We all seem to be Peter Molyneuxs, labelled idea men by “ideas are meaningless, only execution matters” bores who know nothing. Indeed that’s why Godus is even more of a tragedy. It would be one thing if Molyneux were at war with the gaming press and public over one of his hyperactively innovative games, but he’s not. Godus is little more than a rehash of the Populous template that made his name 30 years ago.

These signs are examples of where the industry is at with game design these days, and they are not good. They speak of a fragility, of an ecosystem vulnerable to whim at any moment as it mines tired ideas for cash engines. These are the days when we’re all dying to know what Clash of Clans secret for success supposedly is, as though that game represents design genius rather than a fairly normal game that hit the right distribution channels at the right time and built momentum. These times are anything but robust or certain.

So it’s with keen interest that I note that Apple started to highlight Pay Once And Play games this week. As I’ve discussed in several articles recently, it seems to me that the idea of the premium mobile game is one whose time has come. It requires support from the platform and the press to get there, but also needs original voices and thinkers to make it happen. And that means real honest-to-Zod game designers.

Peter Molyneux managed to do something that very few of us in this industry ever do. He built name recognition. Like a movie star carrying his brand from film to film, he became known as a voice, a presence, whatever. He had magnetism, and this meant that he was one of very few of us who could count on an audience to follow him. He could muster both the funding and the press attention required to make original games happen, something that most of his detractors could not do. Despite all his flaws, Molyneux’s story teaches an important lesson.

Ambitious design, big ideas and bold visions are what propel the games industry forward. When all is said and done, create-a-cash-engine mentalities are only ever temporary, but it’s the ambition that makes video games forever. I for one hope that Molyneux rises from the ashes one last time to teach us this lesson again.