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Let the Lionheads roar - a 1997 interview with Peter Molyneux & Demis Hassabis

Digging up an interview I did over 15 years ago with Populous, Black & White, Fable co-creator Peter Molyneux and his unruly charge, Demis Hassabis.

Simon Carless, Blogger

July 20, 2013

10 Min Read

0902 cir PETER[Back in 1997, I was working in the game industry as a game designer at Kuju Entertainment, but also interviewing a host of interesting game creators via email in my spare time. Following my interviews with Valve's Marc Laidlaw and 3D Realms' Scott Miller - both originally published on a site called VideoGameDesign.com - I'm reprinting this interview with Lionhead's Peter Molyneux and Demis Hassabis from 1997.

At that time, the duo were about a year into making seminal god game Black & White, which was eventually released in 2001. Peter (above) is obviously still in the game industry, having gone on to sell his studio to Microsoft, create the Fable franchise and spin off his own studio again, currently (as of 2013) working on a new game named Godus.

dhassabisInterestingly, after running his spinoff developer Elixir Studios until 2005, and making titles like Republic and Evil Genius, Demis (right) has now gone in another direction, and is a brain/memory related research fellow at University College London - though he still may be lurking around the periphery of games, for all I know!]

Simon: Are you surprised at how mainstream and legitimate computer games and games design is becoming, as shown by events such as the computer games exhibition at the Museum Of The Moving Image in London, where your “Populous” Lego prototype was shown?

Peter Molyneux: We all sort of knew that the computer games industry would be recognised as an art form, but never imagined that it would have exhibits in museums or be talked about by a Prime Minister. I have heard rumours of a museum dedicated to computer games, and it is hard to imagine where this will all end up.

populous_6Simon: Where did the name “Populous” come from?

Peter Molyneux: “Populous” was actually called “Creation” first of all, which I have always thought was a much better name. Unfortunately it turned out that “Creation” has already been copyrighted, so a person called Joss Ellis who worked at EA came up with the name “Populous”.

Simon: If you could take 5 games to a desert island, presuming you had the right machines and power supply to run them on, heh, what would they be?

Peter Molyneux: My top 5 are:

Civilization 2 – “I have played ‘Civilization’ and ‘Civilization 2′ more that any other game, but I have never managed a score of more that 75%. I’d love to have the time to test out whether or not Sid Meier’s formulas make it possible to get to 100%.”

Ultima Online - “Which I know is cheating, but it would be cool to live in a digital village, so instead I would take ‘Final Fantasy VII‘. Although I have an enormous amount of respect for the game, I haven’t got the patience to go through their storyline. But the long hours of solitude would mean I could take my time.”

Computer Pets – “I’d be lonely so it would be great to have a digital pet to train up. In fact computer pets aren’t advanced enough at the moment, but I suppose they’ll have to do.”

Quake + Mission Packs – “I am sick and tired of being beaten at that game, so this way I could practice for six hours every day until I was rescued, and then become the world wide ‘Quake’ champion.”

Total Annihilation – “To my mind ‘Total Annihilation’ is the second generation of ‘Command and Conquer’.”

Demis Hassabis: My top 5:

Civilization 2 – “It’s a very deep game and there are lots of different ways to play it. Therefore it would take a long time to exhaust all its possibilities.”

Diddy Kong Racing – “It’s extremely good fun to play, with masses of different levels and things to find. You could spend hours and hours getting better at it.”

Sim City 2000 – “Because it has got endless possibilities for creating your own city. It would help you kill far more time than other games, as it is so open ended with no final goal to achieve.”

Puzzle Bobble – “Puzzle games are the most addictive games there are. I could compete against myself for higher and higher scores. I think that puzzle games are far less boring than other games, because their major strength is their gameplay to make up for their lack of graphics and gimmicks.” [interviewer's note - "Puzzle Bobble" is known as "Bust A Move" in some regions of the world, just to confuse people.]

Command and Conquer + Red Alert – “Because it’s a brilliant game”

genewarsSimon:Gene Wars” [right] is perhaps Bullfrog’s most ignored product – do you think it was neglected a little unfairly? It’s got some brilliant B-movie touches.

Peter Molyneux: I agree. I think “Gene Wars” was overlooked, but in a way the B-movieness of the game worked against it, as people felt it tarnished what is, at its core, a good game.

Simon: Which game developers do you respect the most?

Peter Molyneux: Miyamoto, who has single-handedly changed the face of computer gaming. He is without doubt the greatest games developer in the world.

Simon: Why did you put the first-person view in “Dungeon Keeper”?

Peter Molyneux: “Dungeon Keeper” allows you to create your own dungeon, and I thought it would be great to experience that dungeon as one of your creatures. In fact, I wanted to take the first person view a lot further but didn’t have the time . Things like a dungeon populated by monsters who were played by other humans in a multiplayer/internet game would have been brilliant.

Simon: I know you’re a great exponent of ‘testbeds’ for games, where the whole gameplay can be perfected on a very simple version of the game. This works very well for the types of game you make, but do you think people should work in a similar way when making, say, driving games or “Final Fantasy”-style adventures?

Peter Molyneux: The testbed method of developing games is used mainly so that we can concentrate on the gameplay at the start of the development cycle. It’s based on how much earlier games were developed, when gameplay was crucial and graphics were minimal. Obviously the kind of games this method works best is games where gameplay is more important than graphics. But for some genres (fighting games for example), where the graphics are integral to the gameplay itself, then a testbed method can’t work so well. But, on the whole, I think for most games testbeds make sense – once the gameplay is right, the other elements just fall into play

Simon: Talking of “Final Fantasy”, who’s your favourite character, and why?

Peter Molyneux: The flower girl, although she’s pathetically sychophantic.

[This is an edited-down version of the answer, because in 1997, it was just after FFVII's debut, and Peter totally spoiled the shock 'death' twist with his answer. Haw!]

Simon: Do you think that schedules work well in the games industry, or should people be left alone to create games that are finished ‘when they’re finished’? And in which case, isn’t there some danger that people will want to perfect their games forever?

Peter Molyneux: You would expect me to say that schedules don’t work, but they do. You need a schedule to work to the question of what happens when you don’t meet your schedule – this has happened to me on every game that I’ve ever worked on. But without some kind of target (even one you always miss), you would be tempted to go on forever – like an unfinished painting where you would always be adding more brush strokes.

Simon: You gave the impression that Lionhead was pretty much happy with being a small team, but you’re also taking out full-page ads in “Edge” magazine (in the UK) looking for staff. Are you still intending to concentrate on just the one product, and if so, how many people are you figuring you need to get it done?

Peter Molyneux: Lionhead will only work on one title at a time, and it will never get bigger that 20 people ( We are currently 8 people). As we have developed the new game, we have come to the shaky realization that it is very ambitious and far beyond anything any of us have attempted before. So we need to attract, as the ad says, ‘the best of the best of the best’ (that’s a quote from “Men in Black”.) In fact, we have received over 100 CVs so far, and I should say that only two are of the caliber that we need.

Simon: Hypothetically, you can make a James Bond game or an “Alien”-based game. Which do you choose, and why?

Demis Hassabis: I’d do a James Bond game, although this conjures up images of “Goldeneye”. I think there is scope to do a totally different game based around secret agents. “Goldeneye” was a good game – a cross between “Quake” and “Virtual Cop” – but I think James Bond has a lot more to offer which no one has touched upon yet.

blackandwhiteSimon: Do you think the games industry should be trying to increase its appeal to those who don’t normally play games? And if so, how? [Black & White pictured, left]

Peter Molyneux: 90% of all computer games are written by gamers for gamers, which means that our industry is very insular. But there are games that are written for a wider market – e.g. puzzle games. Admittedly, it may not be as interesting designing a mass market appeal game. We have to try to broaden the games that we develop so that they can be played by more and more people. The key to this is simplicity, without sacrificing depth. The perfect game, in my mind, is one that you can play within fifteen seconds but enjoy playing for ten minute or ten hours.

Simon: Do you ever play “Quake”?

Peter Molyneux: As you have probably guessed from my desert island answer, I think “Quake” is a phenomenal game, but I’m not very good at it and it gives me motion sickness.

Demis Hassabis: I play “Quake” a lot, but only as a multiplayer game. I have never been tempted to play the single player version. As a multiplayer game, though, it is virtually unsurpassable in its playability.

Simon: Is the whole point of games to get as real as possible? Some people seem to think so.

Peter Molyneux: I think these people have a point. Environments in computer games are getting more and more real, and now the power of the new machines allows us to create very complex physics and maths engines. But we mustn’t be distracted from the main focus of game development – gameplay environments can only ever play a supporting role to gameplay, just as cool graphics do.

Simon: What do you see yourself doing in 5 years?

Peter Molyneux: I can’t imagine my life without me creating cool products. I’d like to think that in five years time I’d get one that I was truly happy with.

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Simon Carless


Simon Carless is the founder of the GameDiscoverCo agency and creator of the popular GameDiscoverCo game discoverability newsletter. He consults with a number of PC/console publishers and developers, and was previously most known for his role helping to shape the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Conference for many years.

He is also an investor and advisor to UK indie game publisher No More Robots (Descenders, Hypnospace Outlaw), a previous publisher and editor-in-chief at both Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine, and sits on the board of the Video Game History Foundation.

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