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Gamasutra speaks to Bullfrog and Lionhead co-founder, Populous, Black & White and Fable series designer, and iconoclast Peter Molyneux on his studio's evolution, the role of emotion in games, and what's next.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

May 1, 2009

19 Min Read

At this year's Game Developers Conference, Gamasutra once again had the chance to speak to Bullfrog and Lionhead co-founder, Populous, Black & White and Fable series designer, and iconoclast Peter Molyneux -- on the eve of his presentation at the show.

During his GDC presentation, he displayed the company's prototypes for many game systems and elucidated on its processes of developing these "experiments". The company has a long history of these experiments, recounted by both current staffers and those who have moved on to other projects at other developers.

With Fable II having been released via Lionhead parent company Microsoft late last year for Xbox 360 [NOTE: this interview contains some plot spoilers for the game], and no new project yet announced for his studio, Molyneux was chomping at the bit to discuss his next project -- as the below text reveals.

He did, however, manage to keep mum on the details, but not the philosophy of the project, which he described as an evolution beyond what the studio has been trying so far -- "You could possibly see where it came from in terms of our history. But if you look at it, there's nothing like it."

The studio has long known to be working on projects beyond the scope of the Fable series -- most publicly a prototype for a game called "Dimitri", which Molyneux again speaks about here. To learn more about the company's processes and Molyneux's hopes and expectations for the company's next project, read on:

Christian Nutt: You guys are famous for prototyping. And when I talk to people who either still work at Lionhead or are veterans, they talk a lot about the extensive prototyping -- bits and pieces of it show up in your games later. One thing that Iwata said is that he'll see something in a prototype that they're working on, then it might get yanked out of the game and never ship in that final game, and then he'll see it two years later in another game.

Peter Molyneux: Yeah, well it's very interesting how it works. Prototypes, a lot of them are inspired by designers and some of them by me, but some of them are inspired by anybody that's got a bit of free time, like at the end of a project. Anybody can kick of one of these experiments.

And we call them "experiments" and not prototypes because "prototypes" makes it sound like it's being built just for a product. But they are experiments. Some of the experiments are just completely out there. You would think, "How could that ever fit in anything?" I feel really happy with that because you never know when you're going to see some little glimpse.

There's one particular experiment I'm going to show, which has got a fantastic feel to it. It has this amazing feel. It kind of feels like it's a room. And in this room, it kind of feels like there should be an old person in this room.

I'm spoiling it a little bit. I instinctively know that we're going to use something from that, but I don't know what in. This is going to be my first real [GDC] talk, you know. I'm not PR-ing a product. This is a real reveal of how Lionhead works and how the experimental process works.

CN: It's quite exciting, too, I think. I was happy to talk to you just because again there's no product in the room, so it really opens up the possibilities.

PM: If it were up to me, I would be talking about what Lionhead is doing today. I think we're doing some pretty astounding stuff, and some of that is a result of the experiments. Certainly, the thing that I hope that we're going to be in a position to announce soon is very, very different from what you expect.

We're a little bit of, "Lionhead is Fable, Fable Lionhead." I don't think Lionhead should just be that. We should be able to try very challenging things. So, this big thing that we're working on is very, very different. You could possibly see where it came from in terms of our history. But if you look at it, there's nothing like it.

CN: And is that because of an inspiration that you or someone on the team had, or is it because of these experiments? Is that a natural evolutionary process when you come up with projects?

PM: Well, without going into any details... I have to be very careful because two interviews ago, my mouth just started talking, and my brain wasn't processing what was coming out of my mouth, so I almost let something out which was crucially secret.

But there's this idea, an idea or an ambition that I have had, and that people at Lionhead have shared for many, many years... A long time ago, I was talking about a project -- it was actually an experiment called "Dimitri", which was a project that we were kind of working on for a long time. That kind of evolved and changed as these experiments do.

The core of this idea, the thing that it lacked, was the way to describe it to you, what that kind of wrapper was. And then, this moment, this evangelical moment came to me while I was sitting in a meeting.

I was sitting in a meeting looking at someone else's game from another studio, and I saw this one picture. It was just this single image of a picture. And when I actually show the game finally to you, I'll show you the picture.

I thought, "That's it. That's exactly what it needs." And so I rushed back and said, "Right, we should do this." It was one of those, so rarely happens in your life when you see something and you know so strongly that it's the right thing.

This is horribly teasing you, isn't it?

CN: It's alright.

PM: It's just tantalizingly placed...

CN: But it's interesting to talk about process, right? Like last time we spoke, we talked about your script writing and your process with the actors and scriptwriters and that. I think that kind of stuff, for our audience, is exactly what's useful. On the other hand, inspiration is something that you can't talk about concretely. It comes to you.

PM: Well, there are two ways inspiration comes... One is, I look outside this window now, and I can almost see two or three game ideas that you could latch onto, and I think that's part of the process of being a designer.

That's the sort of the more mechanical side of inspiration. And a lot of times, you do think deeply about how you're going to get people to feel like this, or how you're going to get them to experience that.

If you think of Fable, it's how you get people to feel like they've got choice. And that's one side of inspiration.

The other side of inspiration is that moment where you're never quite sure when it's going to come. It can come at the most surprising, shocking times. I think the worst time for me that I've ever had an inspirational idea, which was an idea for a feature in Black & White, was actually when I was being intimate with my wife.

CN: [laughs]

PM: Having to sort of stop and write it down was... Yeah, I wasn't popular. My mind wasn't on the job. It was at work.

Something that makes me think about is the creative tension in games. I think a lot of it arises from the fact that there's a tension between the demands of software development, which is feature-driven, and creative expression, which is driven by inspiration. It seems like what you said might speak to that, to an extent.

PM: Yeah, here's the key thing. If you really want to get in some features, and sometimes they're very, very difficult inventions, to get a key feature in a game...

You know, if we take the dog, it was an invention, just like inventing anything. It's all very well for me as a designer to come in and say, "Hey, let's have a dog in the game." That's one sentence, and there you go. But actually, what's required to invent that is a lot more process-driven.

The dog started in a very, very different direction than where it ended up. It started with your ability to be able to praise and reward the dog, stroke him, hit him, and his behavior being driven by that.

We got to that prototype, and we kind of see this prototype and kind of look at it and think, "You know what? This doesn't make the dog feel real at all. It makes him feel completely artificial."

CN: Like a Tamagotchi.

PM: Like a Tamagotchi. It kind of trivialized him. The player would have to worry about... They weren't worrying about being a hero. They're worrying about, "Has my dog seen this? should I be punishing the dog about that? And should I be rewarding him about this?"

That wasn't the direction of the game. The direction of the game was that this dog was a dog, and he kind of learned the things that you did, and you didn't have a button to press to change his mind or behavior.

And so, how that changed was a real process. It was this experiment that started where you had a dog, you could stroke him and you could hit him, and what was fascinating about that is the one we had...

A lot of times with prototypes, the gameplay testers play the prototypes, and 90 percent of the gameplay testers, when they actually touched this dog demo, immediately went to the dog's bottom and started fondling the dog's bottom, which is obviously completely... That's not what we wanted.

[all laugh]

PM: We didn't want people to feel like they could do that. But that really showed us, "Hey, this doesn't feel like stroking the dog. This doesn't feel like owning a real dog." The next process was to say, "Okay, this doesn't work. This isn't the core mechanic. The core mechanic of Fable is actually running around the landscape and exploring. How can we help the dog with that?"

We had this one moment, there was an experiment, in which we used the Fable 1 engine, and again I'm going to show you this [in my GDC presentation]. In almost all games, when you're traveling with something, the thing that you're traveling with tends to stick behind you. Companions always travel behind your or alongside you.

Well, what we did was we just very simply said, "Well, let's put the dog in front of you." And suddenly, you could see it -- in this demo. And suddenly, the emotion of feeling like you were with something that had its own mind suddenly was there. It wasn't because of any brilliant AI, it was just simply moving the coordinates of the dog so it was in front of you.

That is all part of that process, but it's done in a way so that you're not limiting the amount of time that you're going to executing that idea, because this is where it gets really scary. If you've got an invention, an idea, or a prototype, and you're eating into your development time, you're actually limiting the amount of time that you can polish that feature, so we did a lot of prototyping here, which enabled us to polish the dog... Does that make sense?

Mathew Kumar: The dog, obviously, is very important to the player. But I was interested in the processes you put into making the people of the world important to the player, as well.

PM: Right, yeah. That's interesting. With Fable 2, I've got my list. I always have a list of things that I think we kind of could have done better on. I wouldn't say we "failed" on, we could have done better on. I still think there's a long way [to go] with the people in the world.

One of the things we did with the people in the world, some of the small things, was to almost try and eradicate repeated dialogue, which is just really destroys that connection you've got with a world.

If you've got someone saying, "It's a nice day today, it's a nice day today, it's a nice day today," every two to three minutes...

Trying to eradicate that, trying to not make people sort of come into your face and demand your attention, but more feel like that if you sort of interrogated them, they were interested in you. So, there's still a lot more work to do here, I think.

MK: It's interesting because there was kind of a split between the mechanics of people interacting with the characters, but also when you wrote the story, there's a point obviously where they have to make the decision, right?

And the interesting fact is that when my girlfriend played through the game, she became very upset when she had that choice, and she made the decision to give up the person that was closest to her... Or rather she made the decision to save the world, essentially, rather than save the dog, obviously.

PM: That was a big decision, it really was.

MK: I noticed how other people were actually very affected by that choice, and even with what seems, to many people, to be such a limited mechanic, to do with the populace of the world.

PM: What's fascinating about it is that when we thought about good and evil, it's so tempting to say, "Well, good is saving lives, and evil is hurting lives and killing people." But actually, I think where the real emotion comes is when you really start testing people.

If I said to you, "Your family is over there. What would you do to save them?" "Well, I would do anything." "Really? Would you really do anything? Would you actually kill a thousand people to save your family? And what does that say about you?"

I think, finally, that decision made people think, because it forced them to think, "My goodness, my natural reaction is of course I'd save my family. Of course I would save the people I love." But actually, when it comes down to it, would you? Would you sacrifice everything for that very selfish act of having what you want? There are a lot of philosophical questions that come up in your mind when you're doing that.

MK: But that was what was amazing; the story made me question that. It's easy to just paste that on as a bunch of cutscenes, right?

PM: Yeah, yeah.

MK: The mechanics also helped. My girlfriend and I, we played separate games, obviously, to experience it. The example of her giving up the family to save the world was that, afterwards, she actually became quite upset because she realized she spent forever trying to find a particular... I think her son liked a toy sword.

PM: Yes, yes.

MK: And she realized she never got to give it to him.

PM: Oh, really? That's a fantastic story, yeah. See, that sort of stuff we never designed.

MK: Exactly.

PM: You design it. The player designs that emotional connection between, you know, "I never got to give my son the sword." When that happens, that's a real emotional connection.

MK: That's why I find it so interesting, because you gave the player -- as well as having an overlaid story, you give the player a bunch of simple tools with which to interact with these people of the world. Was that something you prototyped?

PM: I'm going to write this down, I'm sorry. That's really good inspiration. I've never heard that toy sword...

MK: Well, I can give you another story that I specifically wanted to tell you. You know how you come back, after being away from the Spire?

PM: Yeah.

MK: She had her husband and her son, and she'd been away, and it was just a baby when she left, right?

PM: Yeah.

MK: And he goes, "Oh, this is your son," right? And she obviously reacted like, "I don't know what to do with my son because I've never really dealt with children in the game before."

So, she thought, "I'll do a puppet show." And she's all scarred and scaly and everything, and she's like, "I'll do a puppet show for him."

But she got it wrong, and she was like, "Argh," like punching. And the child was scared. And she went, "Oh no!" So she held the buttons, and she cast a bunch of monsters. We remember him going, "Mommy, don't kill me!" and running away. He might not have said that. She built a narrative out of just these simple interactions.

PM: Wow. I can tell you -- and this is not giving you any exclusive or anything like that -- this is the sort of stuff that fascinates me absolutely as a designer.

I think it was a small step towards what is quite a goldmine of emotional gameplay, which is kind of -- as you say -- giving the player the tools to kind of build their own relationships with people in the world. There's one thing missing, though. And I...

MK: You can't say it.

PM: I can't say it because I see [Microsoft PR rep] Carol in the background shaking her head. There is one missing, and we've got that one thing. We've been kind of thinking about that one thing, and it will be powerful. When I show it to you, you will exactly understand...

MK: Just to kind of talk around that, do you think it's maybe that you limit what the player is actually able to do? And it helps them fill in these gaps?

PM: Absolutely. It really does. I mean actually it's not... The things you could do in Fable 2 were slightly less than what you could do in Fable 1. There was no boasting. And what we wanted to is kind of simplify it and make it so...

This is what I think about all the time, how can I make things simple so it's really enjoyable to do, rather than more complicated? It's better to do ten simple things than a 100 complex things, if it's really enjoyable doing those things.

I think, again, there were small steps we're taking on a much, much longer road. And this kind of feeds into other things that we're doing -- trying to make things so simple that you can build up that sort of narrative in your own mind.

CN: That puts me in mind to what Ueda did with Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. A lot of people think those are some of the most emotionally effective games they've ever played, and they barely have any dialogue. His philosophy is subtractive rather than additive.

PM: It is, it is. And I still think with Fable 2, we should have distilled more. I think of it as "distilling", taking a lot of things and kind of refining it down and distilling it down. I think when you do hear about what Lionhead's doing next, you will really, really see that. Wow, I can hardly wait to show you.

If you thought that Fable is in any way approaching that, just a tiny little baby step toward the thing that we're going to show you is a huge leap forward. You and your girlfriend will enjoy this like you've never enjoyed anything else in your life.

MK: She just plays them, and that event attracted my attention. I just really was so interested in the way you managed to make both a narrative you've written, but also allowed the player to experience a narrative that they wrote within that boundary.

PM: That's exactly what we're going to show you.

MK: And going back to the concept of... I think that's how MMOs fail, because you can talk to everyone, right?

PM: Yes.

MK: You can say whatever you like, and then you don't know what to do with that.

PM: That's right. There's no consequence. It's too much freedom. That's such an interesting thing. Gosh, I just realized how I'm going to present something.

You know, freedom... The funny thing is that the concept of freedom is that freedom ultimately leads to bewilderment. If you really were free to do anything in the world, I think you'd end up being confused, and that's a very interesting point, a design point, actually.

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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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