Peter Molyneux and the 'life raft' of independent game development

The famed talker and veteran designer is unusually circumspect heading into the launch of Godus, the first game he Kickstarted. Gamasutra finds out why in this new interview.
Peter Molyneux can't help but make waves -- and piss off his long-time fans, it seems. His Curiosity: What's Inside the Cube? app experiment segued directly into a Kickstarter for Godus, a god game in the mold of his career-defining game Populous, which is due to test-launch on iOS across several countries in less than a month ahead of its full global rollout. His new studio, 22Cans, delivered the alpha of Godus to its backers almost a year ago, and has also been selling it on Steam Early Access to audiences -- who are less than thrilled with it so far. Still, he says, the team has been making steady progress. Molyneux is still making the big promises that have in some ways defined his career, too (as you can see in the video above). But he's also thrilled by the bad reviews for reasons that he explains below. Now that Molyneux is independent, he seems more determined than ever to fulfill those promises and answer those reviews in concrete ways.

You've been thinking about this for a long time -- even before you went and founded 22Cans.

Well, I founded 22Cans to do this. That's what I was doing. I left Microsoft because I think when you have the ability to be a creative person, you have to take that seriously, and you have to push yourself.
And pushing yourself is a lot easier to do if you're in a life raft that has a big hole in the side, and that's what I think indie development is. You're paddling desperately to get where you want to go to, but you're also bailing out. Whereas if you're in a big supertanker of safety, which Microsoft was, then that safety is like an anesthetic. It's like taking antidepressants. The world just feels too comfortable.

When you showed me the video, you said "these are more Peter Molyneux promises," and of course I understand why you said that, but I think knowing how games are made, this does sound plausible. Do you feel like you've got a handle on scope, in a way, because you're talking about this life raft scenario? I know that you dream big, but as you said, Microsoft made that feel a little bit comfortable.

Well, here's the thing. One is, this "we're all playing on a planet the size of Jupiter" does sound like a Peter Molyneux promise. I love big numbers. When I say "50 million" and "1 trillion" these are big numbers, but it's the only way to explain what is going to happen. Now, this particular promise is a reality in less than a month's time. It'd be pretty crazy of me... It's not like saying, at the beginning of Fable, "you can plant acorns and they'll grow into oak trees" when we didn't even have a build you could play at that time. This is something that works now, and it's something that we tested in Curiosity. It's the same tech that drove Curiosity. And Curiosity could support 400,000 people all doing something on a cube. Now we're supporting millions of people doing something on a big sphere, essentially. So I think that's going to be a reality. Now, what's going to be fascinating is that I have no idea what's going to happen. All I'm going to do is put all of these people together, just like I did with Curiosity, give them some abilities, and then see what happens.
"Pushing yourself is a lot easier to do if you're in a life raft that has a big hole in the side, and that's what I think indie development is."
I know some of the things that shouldn't happen -- for example, bizarrely, one of the most powerful features of when you connect people is that we're not going to give you the ability to chat. There's no chat. We've realized that chatting destroys community. If the only way for you to communicate is by playing, then brilliant things happen. Games like Journey and apps like Curiosity kind of proved that. Whereas especially if you're dealing with a casual audience... If you're asking a casual audience, where the only thing that they've played is match-3 games, that they're going to be connecting with a Call of Duty player playing Godus, they'll probably feel intimidated and won't want to do it. Whereas if you take away that ability to chat, that's less likely to happen. So all of this stuff seems incredible and amazing, and I think that it's going to be a fascinating journey to take people on.

You said you're doing a limited launch and after you tweak and test you'll do a global launch.


But even after that happens, there's still going to be a service running where you're going to be continuously updating. I guess that's pretty new for you.

It's completely new. And already this has been kind of running, with Early Access on Steam. And realizing that now my job isn't so much to have ideas. My job is to curate those ideas. We did this with Early Access. Early Access was brilliant in one sense. It gave us a way to learn. We developed the whole of this gameplay interface -- the whole of this interface is newly developed because of the PC version. And that, in one sense, is fantastic. But in another sense it's incredibly difficult because you've got an audience of people who want one thing, but you as a designer, you've got to say, "No, I won't give you this thing, because I'm trying to get you down this path. You want to go down this path, but you're going to have to trust me and go down that path."

I don't know how it is now, but I looked at the Steam Reviews for Godus. There was a lot of vitriol there.

There was. There was an incredible amount of vitriol. Obviously, you don't want that. But in a way, it's been brilliant. The first thing it says on our Steam page, the very first piece of text is, "Don't buy this if you're expecting a finished game. This game is full of bugs. It's only 29 percent of the entire game. It's going to be boring, it's going to be tedious, and all you can do is sculpt." That's what it says in the first paragraph on the Steam page.
The real Early Access text.
Even though you say that, people still download it and expect it to be a finished game. And of course, why wouldn't they? Really, what people are doing in Steam Early access is that they're buying a season pass. It's like you're watching a film being shot.

It's like watching the making-of documentary before watching the film.

Yes, exactly. Even worse than that, it's like standing on set and watching the actors talk and you're thinking, "Oh, God, this is never going to work." The brilliant thing for us is that our analytics have been running now a year, since we released the first the first version of Godus to backers on Kickstarter April of last year. So we've been looking at the way people play, how they sculpt, and the invention of this sculpt only came about because what we saw on the PC version, and what we realized on the PC version is they want to make everything flat. They just wanted a flat world full of flat, horrible world.
That meant they were sculpting far, far, far more -- about 20 times more -- than we thought that they would. We realized we had to go back, and we introduced the ability to pull out cliffs because of that. We needed people to come back and say something wasn't working, so that we could learn how to make it work, if that makes any sort of sense.

And now, two of the top games on Steam are Early Access games: DayZ and Rust. And of course Minecraft is the ultimate Early Access game.

And that's my inspiration for doing this. Minecraft invented this way of development, I think, and that is this way to release something that is just the seeds of what the final thing will be. I've been playing Minecraft since the first alpha, I think. The first Minecraft was incredibly slow. There was no creative mode. You literally had to sit there and go like this [Molyneux mimes mining] looking for a piece of coal. And what he [Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson] did, brilliantly -- no one's realized this -- over the alpha period he refined not only the big mechanics like the chiseling, he also changed the resources in the world. It wasn't until beta that coal was exposed; you didn't have to dig down for coal. I think he realized that people at the start of the game, it was going night and people couldn't see what was going on. He introduced charcoal, turned wood into charcoal, to solve that problem. We've done a similar sort of thing. It's only through people playing that you learn this stuff. When you're designing a game, you just cannot -- it is completely different to playing the game. The best way to design a really good game is watch people play. And it's not watching 10 people; it's watching thousands of people play.

Microsoft is huge on focus testing, but it's not the same thing.

Rubbish. It's rubbish. For a start, focus testing is always done in the final stages of development. You can't change the game. We had focus testing on Fable. The only time you can have focus testing is when you have a complete world. Well, that's six weeks from launch! You could change how difficult how a battle was. You couldn't do what we've done -- we've totally reengineered the whole AI simulation and the whole sculpting mechanics. You couldn't do that in focus testing. By definition focus testing is a two-hour snapshot of someone playing, and you have to make all of your decisions on this. I can watch someone playing this game, and they'll play it for like 10 hours. The other interesting thing about Early Access, people say the game's really boring, and it is boring, because it's only 29 percent of the game, but they're still playing it for 10 hours. So that's a fascinating thing. If you really are serious about making a great game, then it has to be an iterative step, and you need to realize the negative comments are the most valuable thing. The most destructive thing is the positive comments. Because they make you think, "Well, I don't need to worry about that stuff."

I know that you work with a lot of developers who have been willing to push back with you. But it's still not the same, because you were in charge.

No. Exactly. And pushback, the problem is, with someone like me, is that I am very, very persuasive. And I'm persuasive not only because I can set an argument... Jack knows this, because you've worked with me, and I am very persuasive. [Molyneux is addressing 22Cans game designer Jack Attridge, who attended this interview.] Jack is very good at countering that persuasiveness. If you've got someone like myself who says, "I think we should do this," when that sentence is born out of almost 30 years of experience, it's very hard to turn around and say, "Well, I'm new to this industry, but you're wrong." But if you've got 100,000 people doing something in your game like this, you can't question it. You've got to question your own decisions.

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