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From Populous to Fable 2, Lionhead's Peter Molyneux has seen a lot, and in this in-depth Gamasutra interview, he discusses why the game biz needs to find more "sweet spots" - as he is hoping to in Fable 2 - to bridge casual and core gamers.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

April 7, 2008

21 Min Read

We all recognize that the industry is growing, and that there are more types of gamers and more types of games than there ever were in the past. But are we doing enough?

To help answer this question, we sat down with Lionhead co-founder and seminal Populous creator Peter Molyneux - currently working on his ambitious RPG sequel and hardcore gamer's game Fable 2.

In this in-depth chat, Molyneux talks about how he hopes to open Fable 2 up to a broader audience, what the industry might do moving forward to expand, and what game gave him some surprising inspiration for his epic.

It's pretty interesting for you to be back with Fable 2. As the original game went through its publicity cycle, the excitement seemed to be well-handled - expectations rose, the game came out, everyone got excited and played it. How did you make that happen?

Peter Molyneux: Well, it was something I feel incredibly proud about. I mean, I'm proud about all the games that I've done -- I feel proud in the same way that a parent feels proud of his son who is really bad at football. He ends up getting squished by everyone in the football team, and he still feels proud.

And I think that Fable had -- you know, everyone got very, very excited about Fable, and I think it did some things incredibly well, but I think there are some things that we focused on, like the ridiculous acorn and an oak tree, and growing, that we cut, because of the goodness of the game. Which meant that hype got slightly out of control. Then people bought it, then they got disappointed with it, then they played again, they really got the game, and were excited.

So, there's never a perfect answer to the developing of the game and talking about the game; it just can't be done. What I've tried to do this time, personally, I've tried to say: "Look, here's why and how we developed it." And then going into Fable 2, I said: "Look, here's a prototype of the combat, this is what we're thinking of..." And the next time I show it: "All right, this is what's in-game; I guarantee this is in-game." I tried not to build that up too much.

It's still incredibly tempting to me to talk with excitement about what I'm going to do, because it is incredibly exciting. And quite often I am sitting on a couch, opposite somebody, and, you know, you just can't help getting excited about it, and that translates into hype a lot of the time. I'm trying not to hype; I'm trying to tell the truth...

There's an enthusiasm that is just so palpable when you talk about your games and your ideas. Way back at Fable 1 time, I remember we talked about an idea you had for an RPG on a real-life scale. And I don't know if that ever went anywhere, but at the time it was very exciting, and I remember I thought it was quite an interesting concept as well.

PM: I think that concept still exists, and I think a lot more of it is still being nurtured in Fable 2. In Fable 2 it is as much on the real-life scale as it is on the heroic scale, and this idea of there being a world there, and it's a world that you can interact with, and it's a simulated world, and you pick who you want to interact with. I think that still very much exists in Fable 2, and we'll be showing bits of that in the demos in the next couple of days.

And that's what's so exciting about a sequel, it's that doing -- first, to start off with, the fact that Fable 1 sold as many as it did, enables us to make another big leap in Fable 2. And that big leap in Fable 2 is to take everything that we tried to do in Fable 1 and make it work properly, and make it work well. And that makes a pretty amazing game in itself. Even if we just stopped there.

And then, on top of that, for an amazing reason to put three big wrappers -- three big, big systems that didn't exist at all in Fable 1, because they weren't something that were up here in our goals, up here. And that goal that's up here is very simple. It's to make a game which is designed in such a way that the hardcore gamer -- like maybe yourself -- can play Fable, and get all the enjoyment out of it that you would out of any hardcore game, whether it be Halo, or Ninja Gaiden, or whatever.

And that a total non-gamer -- who has never played a role-playing game before, who has never played an action game -- could play the same game and get equal amount of enjoyment out of it, and not feel stupid. And the hardcore gamer would end up getting to the end of the story, and be this incredibly powerful-looking, almost god-like, heroic figure, and be standing on hilltops, looking incredibly impressive.

And that's what a hardcore gamer would get out of it, whereas a casual gamer maybe wouldn't be that über-looking hero. Maybe he would look slightly average, but still be able to get through the game. That's we're going to do: try to get people who are hardcore gamers and casual gamers to play this game called Fable.

It's that all of this, a lot of this is wrapped up by the fact that Fable is fully co-op-able. You can play in the world, and invite people into your own world.

Well I know, previously, with Fable 1, before it got removed, there was something like a spirit who could travel with you. Is this going to be like that?

No. There's a henchman, and he comes into your world; he can do everything that you can do. Do all of the combat, do all of the expressions, he can chat people up, he can meet your family, he can meet your children. It's bloody cool. Bloody cool.

You're talking about the contrast -- or, rather, say, the spectrum of enjoyment. A game that can be enjoyed by a broader spectrum of players, on a number of different levels. And that feels to me like that's a very contemporary question in development. Do you feel that it's something that has arisen recently, or maybe has gotten more focus? It's tough to deal with.

PM: You know, I suppose if I was being harsh, I would say -- and here we are, sitting at the Game Developers Conference; and I don't know how many people are going to come here this year, but last year it was twenty thousand? It was a ridiculously huge number of people...

Almost that many, yeah.

PM: I would say, to a great extent, we in the development community have really let this industry down. Because I wouldn't say there were exponentially more people playing computer games today than there were when Game Developers Conference first started. Fifteen years ago? Twenty years ago? It's been quite a while.

When it seems to me that the number of people that use computer games as entertainment isn't getting exponentially bigger. Although the market is getting bigger, and we're selling eight million units.

But I've been really thinking about, I remember back in the early eighties... when Clive Sinclair in England released the Sinclair Spectrum. And he famously said, "Every home in Britain will have one of these, and people won't watch television anymore, they will play computer games." That was a dream that was put forth in the seventies, when this thing had 1K of RAM -- and for a little while, we all believed that.

Now, there seems to be this big barrier that exists. And I was actually just in the shops, down here -- I'd forgotten to bring a shirt -- and I was talking to the bloke who's selling me a shirt, and he said: "Aw, I don't play computer games. Because I'm not good enough. I can't get my head round this thing. [Molyneux holds up an Xbox 360 controller.] Every time I do it, I hit my head against a wall." Now that's a huge failure. That's our failure. For not being really, truly as big as movies. Because we're not. Because we only sell -- what do we sell? Eight million?

Well it's funny, right? Microsoft came out and said Halo 3 was the biggest "entertainment launch" in history, by dollar revenue. More money than Harry Potter, more money than Spider-Man 3! Well, it's more money, but it's not more people.

PM: That's it. That's exactly right. You are exactly right. And I think we have confused ourselves with the success of what we've made. But is that truly success? Is measuring it by dollar value rather than by the consumer, by the number of people that consume and enjoy our games?

I'll go even further, and say that for the casual market, next generation hasn't happened yet. For the casual market, Peggle is where it's at, man! And that could've been done on a Commodore 64.

And, you know, I feel that it's my responsibility as a designer, to try and think of ways that we can bring people together. A lot of this is purely selfish reasons. My dream is to play a computer game with my wife. She hates video games.

That must be sort of, uh... (laughs)

PM: She loathes them. She loathes the computer games that I like, because it makes her feel stupid. She just doesn't feel cool, and that's why we put the co-op in.

And I would guess she's not stupid. (laughs)

PM: She's not stupid. She just doesn't like -- like anybody in this world -- she doesn't like to be made to look stupid. And when I give her the controller of a lot of games, she ends up, you know, being Master Chief or whoever, running against a brick wall and looking really dumb. That's what my dream is to get around; to get a game that everybody can play together.

There's a lot of talk about "casual" and "hardcore" gaming right now. But I feel that people get awfully granular about it. They sort of say it's either Bejeweled or Halo.

PM: That's right. (laughs) There's no middle ground at all between Bejeweled and Halo, and no one mentions about The Sims, or World of Warcraft, or, you know, those are pretty cool games that are marrying the two together. No, you're right, there's this total dichotomy that seems to be there.

Now I would love... I think that winding forward 10 years... You know, I think you can already see that games are being made that are making inroads in that, but unfortunately, they're not quite as obvious. Maybe they are, when you think about it. Wii Sports is a huge step to bring casual gamers and hardcore players together.

What do you think about Nintendo? I see a DS sitting on the table. I'm assuming, since you're mow an MGS studio, that's not for demo purposes. What do you think about Nintendo right now?

PM: I think that they're a very cool company. I think they've done a phenomenal job of saying to people that this is what the next generation is about. I think, for me, they haven't expanded on that tremendously. As wonderful as Mario Galaxy is, I just don't see the people who play Wii Sports playing Mario Galaxy.

And you'll see that reflected in sales numbers in Japan, I think. You can't get bigger than Mario in America, but if you look at Japan, Wii Fit hit a million before it did, and it came out a month later.

PM: Yeah. So I think they've done a stellar job of introducing a piece of hardware, and introducing it as a self-contained toy. Wii Sports, that's it. It's brought out every Christmas -- in my house, it was brought out again at Christmas, and a lot of people pack it away again. And it's actually about finding that sweet spot that links those two arcs together.

Whereas -- I don't know, is Call of Duty 4 on the Wii...? I was trying to think of a really good example of, you know, something that someone who's playing Wii Sports would never, ever play.

Well there is a Call of Duty. There is the Medal of Honor game that came out this fall. And, that's true. And, it's difficult, because I think that publishers -- well, they're kind of struggling in a lot of ways, and one of the reasons... I was talking to a guy from Pogo.com, which is EA's casual games portal, and...

PM: You see, the fascinating thing with those sites... I've not been onto Pogo -- this could be the exception -- what I've noticed when I look at those sites, because I find them to be absolutely fascinating. Big Fish, and Reflexive, and Pogo, and all those first came out, I went on them and I thought -- in fact, there's one of the games that really inspired me for a feature in Fable 2. That was a game called Peggle, and how exciting it was. Such a simple game, but it was so much excitement.

And I was really looking at those sites, and they're running into the same problem that we've got. It's that now, you've gone to those sites now, and all the games are the same. They've just got different wrappers. I mean, they had the first -- they had this first findy-collecty game, where you have to spot things, and swap treasure, and it was brilliant. I really enjoyed it. But now they've got 50 of those, and they're all the same.

And then they've got, you know, the bouncy bouncy... like, Arkanoid revamps. They've got a hundred of those, and they're all the same. And then they've got the Bejeweled clone, where, you know, you've got to match four things in a row, not three things in a row.

And you start thinking, "Wait a second -- where has all that inventiveness gone? When they first launched, it was all there." So there's a whole microcosm of what is happening in our bigger industry -- where we struggle to actually find the new stuff to actually get excited about.

Well it's funny -- and the reason I was thinking about this is, you were just talking about us as an industry. With Pogo, Club Pogo is their subscription service. They're telling me the demographic is like 75% women... And I seriously doubt that 75% women are making the games. Not to say that men can't make games for women -- but you know what I mean? Sometimes I think about the demographic. Are we limited in our creative palette because of our talent pool?

PM: Yes. Absolutely. I think you're right. You know, the head of the Fable 2 team is Louise Copley, who's a woman. And I think her perspective -- and Louise and I work very closely together, and her perspective is really, really useful. It's really useful to get -- I think you're right. To a great extent, boys make toys for boys, and I think that's absolutely true.

I see the other thing, which is fascinating -- someone's got to do some analysis, comparing the average age and social position of your average games developer, ten years ago versus now, and look at the type of games that are made.

Because a lot of the game developers, myself included, who were footloose and fancy-free, and single blokes who went home and played computer games incessantly all the time, now are married with kids. And that is going to change the type of games that they make. Absolutely, it will change the type of games.

Because it changes your perspective, and also changes the type of games that you have time to consume. So you become influenced by things that surround you.

PM: Yes, that's right. I mean, that is one of the very big features on I thought about for co-op -- I think it's fantastic that I can play with my son now, and it's great, to get on the couch.

I feel like right now a lot of ways, we're at a crossroads in this industry, where -- you know, I was talking to David Jaffe about how he's making a first-party game for Sony in his new development studio, and he looks at the --

PM: What sort of games has he made [in his new studio]?

The game isn't announced yet. I just know that we were talking about how it's going to be a high budget, $60, first-party game -- a blockbuster attempt. He looks at the numbers that they have to crunch -- you know, how many copies do they have to sell? And it's a little bit scary now. Whereas, back in the PlayStation 1 era, when he was getting started with Twisted Metal 1, they'd spend, I don't know, half a million dollars, and sell a million copies, and everyone would have a party.

PM: I've got a better example than that. When you look at Populous, that I made back in 1989, it cost... £5,900 to make. Which was me -- my food consumption for nine months. Just about. That was it. I suppose maybe that was $9,000 in total. And it sold three and a half million copies.

And we compare that with the fortune -- I don't like to think of it! -- the loads of money that Fable 2 costs. Populous 1, back 20 years ago, versus Fable 2. In fact, Populous versus Fable, they both sold the same number of units. One cost ten thousand dollars; I don't know what Fable 1 cost, but...

I imagine that there's an increase between Fable 1 and Fable 2...

PM: Oh, God yes. (laughs) I mean, there is, actually, there's a lot of things that we could talk about, and one of the things that you talk about is the sustainability of these huge, huge titles, and how close this model is, at the moment, with what happened in the movie studios when they stumbled upon the Cecil B. DeMille blockbuster -- Quo Vadis, Cleopatra, all that.

And they suddenly turned from making films that cost five million dollars, into making films that cost a hundred million dollars. And that caused all the small studios to just completely shutter, for a long time, until they found a new way of working. You know, where everyone came together.

And I think you could look at this industry and say, "How much longer can we sustain this model?" We only need to have a couple of big, big losses -- we've probably already had a couple already, under the radar. I can think of a couple off the top of my head. When someone turns around and says "I think there's got to be a better way of doing this." I do wonder about that.

Right now I'd say that a lot of the games, like, SCE games -- Sony's own games -- some of them are clearly not selling enough copies at present to be successful. I mean, everyone loves Uncharted, but I don't think performing adequately.

PM: Strange one, that. I haven't played it -- I've messed around with it, but I haven't played it. But it doesn't seem wrong; it doesn't seem bad -- I just didn't find it particularly inspiring. Although I've been very busy recently, of course, with Fable.

Recently Lionhead became part of Microsoft Game Studios, and you went through this before, with Bullfrog and EA. I recently saw John Riccitiello speak at DICE, saying, "Bullfrog was one of our disasters, in the sense that we choked the life out of it."

PM: John was very nice, there. He's actually right, and I think that's a very interesting comment that he made, when he said you've got to give your creative flowers room to grow. And I think that was a really interesting, and very insightful thing to say.

But... There were lots of faults. Lots of faults on my behalf; lots of immaturities on my behalf, which meant that, you know, that relationship didn't work. So it wasn't all EA's fault, it was a lot of mine as well.

I was a rather young mid-thirty-year-old at that time, and the deal that was done, all this money came in, and suddenly the studio went from -- this was kind of where the real problem for me was -- the studio went from being thirty-five really close friends that went down the pub every night together, into 150 people who, 115 of which I had never met before, in the space of, like, six months.

And that was just insane for a little while. You had this core group of people that really work well together, and then suddenly you get like that. And it all, everything impacted each other, and it was really very, very messy.

And I think instead, if at the time -- this is hindsight, this is very easy to say -- but if at the time somebody had come to me and said, "What do you want to do, Peter? What do you really want to do? What's important to you?" I think we could've sat down and worked it out -- but at that time, it was more, "Oh my God, Peter's gone creative on this! We've got to do something!" There's panic!

But it's different this time with Microsoft.

PM: With Microsoft it's different. I mean, I think it's different, because one, I'm in a very, very different place, and two, I think I can define my role a lot more. Because back in the Bullfrog days, there was a very important, enormous difference -- I was programming a lot of these games. I was the lead programmer, and the lead designer in a lot of these games.

And when EA acquired us, I stopped being a programmer the day they acquired us. And that is a huge withdrawal problem... I'm not a very good programmer; I'm not fast enough...

So it's very, very different with Microsoft. Microsoft's a fantastic company to work for. And, currently, it's enormously exciting working on Fable 2; I'm also working on another title, which is unannounced, but it's an enormous, incredible challenge, which has taken [what's] almost my life's work, of A.I., to its ultimate end. And that's a pretty exciting place to be.

Definitely. And my last quick question is, what's inside of Peter Molyneux's DS? What game is there?

PM: It's the obvious one. It's Phantom Hourglass, which is, well, genius. You know, fantastic. I think it's the best handheld game yet.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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