For Peter Molyneux, simplicity is scary

Game designers are in their comfort zone when it comes to the complex stuff, but to create a simple, accessible idea for the masses not only takes a new way of thinking, it takes an entirely new way of making games.
You can't top Peter Molyneux for enthusiasm in a keynote speech -- unless you're Peter Molyneux. Unusually ebullient even for him, at today's Unite 2012 conference in Amsterdam, Molyneux delivered a presentation that protested the constraints of the big box console games he used to work on at Microsoft, in favor of new, simple ideas that appeal to everyone. "One of the reasons I really wanted to leave my beautiful, wonderful, safe place at Microsoft was to have a single idea," he said. "For me, having one idea that I and my team utterly, completely, obsessively, focus on is the reason that I left." Massaging those single ideas into games not only takes a new way of thinking, it takes a new kind of team.

Games for everyone

"The amazing thing about where we are today is that the whole world is becoming gamers," said Molyneux. "I'm bored with movies, I'm bored with TV programs. We're in the industry, the last entertainment industry that really, truly can surprise people. "We are in the industry where surprise has to be at the center of everything that we do."

A new kind of dev team

"We have got so many toys to play with," said Molyneux, referring to the various devices that now play games. In this new world, he says that we must "think in a different way in how we bring a team together, think in a different way how we design and develop, think in a different way how we test and experiment, and think in a different way how we present and have people discover our experiences." That led Molyneux to get different kinds of people to work at his new startup, 22Cans; people who weren't necessarily video game developers. "It would be easy for us to bring together twenty or so developers from the games industry, but that's not thinking different," he said.

Fresh blood, fresh ideas

He admitted that it has been "frustrating and bewildering" at times to deal with this new talent -- he's had to explain fundamental concepts like frame rate to his new hires -- but also their sense of out-of-the-box thinking and enthusiasm has been key to pushing the team's energy and ideas. "You've got to have that energy, that fire in the belly," said Molyneux. Thinking in new ways is key, he said, because getting out of old habits is hard. Games have conventions, and those conventions hold designers back. "It's so tempting to fall back on our old cornerstones of design," said Molyneux. "But often these cornerstones can become millstones round our neck."

Why simplicity is scary

With 22Cans, he hopes to approach the broadest possible audiences with truly accessible ideas. But simple is tough, he argued. "The scariest thing for a designer isn't complex stuff," he argued. "It isn't a quest with a story and an interesting outcome. The scary thing is simplicity." "That is terror," argued Molyneux. "That is our abyss. That is the place we don't want to go, when we have to design the most simple and purest thing and make it delightful," he said. "That's a mistake I've always made, trying to focus on more than one thing."


22Cans is developing a "big game," but first they're releasing an "experiment". It's titled Curiosity, and it's for iOS, releasing this September. Everyone who downloads Curiosity will face a large cube. Zoom in, and you can tap squares on the cube to make them disappear. Eventually -- after layers upon layers and layers of squares have been cleared -- what's in the center will be revealed. To one player, and only one player. Characteristic for Molyneux, this isn't about the gameplay mechanics or even making money, though he said that 22Cans has added in level and chain systems to make the game feel fun, and in-game items to make it monetize adequately. The question for Molyneux is: "People are tapping on the cube... and if only one person is going to eventually discover what's in the middle... what's people's true motivation?" "It is a brave concept," said Molyneux. "It is something which I read on Twitter... And what people say on Twitter, I won't repeat what they say... What they intimate on Twitter is that it's crazy." It's clear that Curiosity is an experiment of a game -- but it's an experiment not just to find player motivation in a granular way, but to find out what effect his game can have on the world of players. 22Cans sees Molyneux striving for the ambition he has always striven for -- but with a renewed sense of purpose, unfettered from Microsoft and console game conventions. Curiosity begs to be downloaded, but can it sustain a company? Can it really teach him anything? Will the lessons be learned? We'll find out sometime after September.

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