True Evolution: A Peter Molyneux Interview

The evolution of Fable is part of a wider storm of innovation in the industry, says Lionhead impresario Peter Molyneux, discussing everything from the advent of widespread motion control to creative drive versus focus testing in this interview.

Evolution. Innovation. Change. Peter Molyneux sees an industry-wide renaissance driven by a mixture of heightened creative impetus and better understanding of what players want and need from games.

Games can be both a product and an art form, argues the Lionhead co-founder and Microsoft Game Studios creative director (Populous, Black & White, Fable series), who sees creative evolution as driving audience engagement as much as research and marketing: "Why can't pieces of art be as successful as anything else? I think they should be; I think there's very good reason to be."

At this year's GDC, he explained that in quest of a larger audience he and the team at Lionhead have decided to simplify the much-awaited upcoming Xbox 360/PC title Fable III -- make the gameplay tie into the world more directly, and eschew statistics and menus in favor of instantly-accessible and comprehensible in-world reflections of game concepts.

Making Fable III's combat made the game simpler for new players, but also made it "more complex and sophisticated" for experienced players, argues Molyneux.

Not only is Fable evolving, but we're seeing the RPG genre as a whole changing.

Peter Molyneux: It is; it really is. We feel like the whole industry's kind of evolving, itself. There's a huge amount of innovation now. Only a few years ago, everyone was saying, "Oh, there's no innovation." Now, there's a lot of stuff happening.

There's a lot of social stuff happening; there's a lot of casual games happening; all the motion controllers are changing; there's new titles coming out that kind of change people's thoughts like Heavy Rain; [with] Fable -- we keep on trying to reinvent ourselves a little bit. A lot of this stuff is happening, and it's really fascinating.

You know, I think, to me, if you don't evolve, you die. This is true evolution in an industry that needs to push itself. Absolutely. I think that's going to be fascinating when we come out the other side in five years.

Fable III

Do you think it's because production processes and technical capabilities have evolved to the point where it's more possible?

PM: I think there's a lot of forces all coming together at once. First of all, there's the hardware force: the fact that the hardware manufacturers -- Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft -- have really realized, "Look, if we really want to revolutionize things, it's not about faster processors and more memory. It is actually about things that are being held in the player's hands."

You've got that side of it, and then you've got the side where, at last, we're starting to get what online really means. At last, we're starting to realize it's so much more than just being able to download maps and play them. There's this new thing called the digital relationship: we have a digital relationship with players now where now, in Fable III, any of the shops in the world can be online-enabled.

PM: So this little village here [indicating screen] -- you may not realize it, but what's in a shop in this village may actually be downloaded from online. So we can populate those shops remotely. This is a new digital relationship; that, coupled with the fact that we can give things episodic content.

There's digital relationship; what people do online is far more about social spaces, and there's this shared creativity. If you think about co-op in something like Fable III, now the co-op is not only co-op; it's being able to come in and play Fable III in my world, not attached to me but separate from me. Allow players to marry each other; allow them to have children together. All this stuff is all new stuff, which just makes a big difference to the game.

So, firstly, you've got the hardware change; you have motion control. Secondly, you've got the online side; thirdly, you've got us as software engineers and designers and creators actually keep on saying, "Hey, we can make emotional experiences." Games like Heavy Rain giving you a true emotional roller coaster ride. All of that's happening in one year.

You put all of that stuff together, and you start to realize that, in two to three years' time, when we all get used to all of this new stuff, all this new colors and the paint palette of design -- it really is going to make new genres happen.

It's interesting, because you are talking about the complexity actually increasing, right? Your goal with Fable III is more about streamlining the design decisions to make the game more accessible, but now you're talking about things that actually are additive again. So is it a priority shift?

PM: What it is, is that one of the big design problems is, when you've got all this new stuff, what is also happening that wraps all this up is making stuff accessible and understood. You can have all of this new tech, but if it's not presented in a way which is ultimately -- especially in today's world, where everybody just needs to get to the point as quickly as they possibly can -- if it's not presented in an amazingly accessible way, it's just going to fail.

That's why the in-game shop in Fable III is actually an important idea. It's not that that's anything new; you could go onto the dashboard and download new stuff, but that's not accessibility.

You're relying upon people to remember to go to the dashboard, whereas this way of doing it, presenting it to the player as part of the world, means that that it's ultimately more accessible.

That applies to everything from Natal to the Sony Move to the Wii to online to digital to what happens when you get your new box and plug it in. All the interfaces to our technology and our gaming experiences are really changing radically -- and very quickly, as well.

It's fascinating, Christian, if you just look at tutorials. What was the last game you played that had a tutorial?

Like "Now push X and..."

PM: Yeah, exactly. "Push X, and that will take your sword out." I haven't played one for ages!

No, and I'm glad, because those were one of the worst parts of gaming.

PM: Yes, they were like forewords in books; you never read them. It would be arduous. Now, we don't have them anymore. When you go back to a game and play them again, they just seem arduous and tedious and, oh God, I just want to know the game; I just don't want to be taught to play the game. They seem so old-school, but three years ago we had them all over the place.

You know, there were a few games that came out that actually made the tutorial part of your world, which showed the way. We wouldn't think about it now. Look at Fable III; we had a really interesting journey with the tutorials. "We've got to teach the player to use the sword and use guns and use magic!"

And we then said -- you remember this, Josh -- Josh [Atkins] is our lead designer on Fable III -- we said to ourselves, "What if we just had one sentence that said, 'To do a quick attack, press the button quickly; to do a build-up attack, hold the button down.' Suppose we said nothing else after that."

Because of that, we then made swords work in a very similar way to guns to work in a very similar to magic. Suddenly, the whole hour of tedium went away for players because we unified that combat system and actually made it much more accessible for the more casual side of Fable III players, and made it much more interesting for the core players because they could start combining magic together and switching between guns and swords, because they were the same.

That meant that, even though it was simpler, it was actually more complex and sophisticated.

I think that's something the game industry has, up to this point, struggled with: "complexity equals depth", which it doesn't, necessarily.

PM: Well, that was my big mistake. It took me years, you know -- a ridiculous number of years -- to realize that adding more features actually took away from the game rather than added to the game. It's not the number of features you've got; it's how well-exploited those features are.

You know, Fable 1 especially and Black & White and The Movies -- those were all games where I just kept on saying to the team, "Let's have this idea! Let's have this idea! Let's have this idea!" Kept cramming features in, just expecting them to shine like gold, where actually it just muddied it and made the games a more brown color rather than making them brighter.

Now, it's been a very interesting journey with Fable III: taking a lot away from Fable III actually adds a lot to it. We took away leveling up. Taking away the leveling up in the GUI and saying, "We'll make leveling up part of the game experience. We'll put it into the world." So taking away the complexity and abstraction of it and making it all part of the world actually made it better and more understood. People anticipated it more, and that really worked well.

If you look at the genre, you see similar decisions are being made in parallel; I don't necessarily think that people are referring to each other when they do this. It all seems like it's happening at the same time. If you look at Mass Effect 2, they dropped a tremendous amount of fiddly complexity from it and made the gameplay action-based.

PM: Yes, it's right. Fable 1, Fable 2, Mass Effect -- I think all of those games we probably were inspired in some sort of way by other games like... Things like BioShock came along, and that had a great start. BioShock 1 had a great start to the game; it threw you in there.

Then you look at something like Uncharted 2, which was another great start; there were no tutorials, and you were just kind of thrown in there. That was great. And the Modern Warfares and Call of Dutys -- that's looking really, really good. It's all happening at once.

So often, this happens like that. If you look at films and books and TV, everyone seems to have the idea at the same time.

An evolution towards simplicity has Final Fantasy XIII, as well, which, coming from kind of its own silo of development -- it's been quietly bubbling...

PM: Yeah. I've really got to go back and play the Final Fantasys. But I find them a huge time-sink, and it's kind of like saying, "Right. I'm going to go on a massive marathon now. I've got to get ready for it." I really enjoy them, but I haven't played Final Fantasy XIII at all. So what's it like? What have they done with it?

It's extremely streamlined. I think part of it was due to production difficulties, and they're pretty honest about that. But it's extremely linear for the first half of the game, and it gradually introduces gameplay in a measured way.

Unlike a lot of games, they've made the decision to stick with turn-based combat, so to actually try to make it understood by the player they very gradually introduce new elements over the course of the first 15, 20 hours of the game. Every so often, they just feed you another piece.

PM: See, that is such an interesting -- now, I've got this talk that I gave, which is all about steeds in World of Warcraft, because when I played World of Warcraft this was like a dawning moment of realization for me: that the steeds in World of Warcraft, brilliantly, didn't come until you were level 40.

That anticipation that it built up in me as a player -- I didn't care what the gameplay was like; I didn't care how tedious it was. I just wanted to get a steed! The fact that I'd be trudging along as a Tauren and someone would speed past me on a horse would just piss me off!

Measuring out those gameplay features so that they don't come at once. So often, as an industry, we've made the mistake of, "Oh my God; we've got to give everybody everything all up front, or otherwise they're going to get all pissed off!" and then, within half an hour, you should have everything in the game.

Now, it's much more about -- I mean, Fable III is like this -- okay, you've got your time with magic; you've got your time with the guns; you've got your time with the swords; you've got your time with judgments; you've got your time with rule; you've got your time with touch; you've got your time with the dog.

If you measure them all out and get people to anticipate them, then they're so much more powerful. That just is another one of those things where you think, "Well, why didn't I just think like this five years ago? Why wasn't it like this before?" It's a real inspirational thing.

You said, "I don't care how tedious this is; I just want the reward." Chris Hecker spoke about the fact that, that if we keep giving rewards for actually tedious gameplay, we're going to create a situation where gamers expect rewards and slog through tedium to get to them.

PM: Yeah. I think you've got to be careful. I don't mind grinding; I actually quite like grinding, and I actually quite like the idea that I've got this highly dramatic moment -- it's all about emotional gameplay, and it's all about the feeling of winning and victory and challenge -- and then I've got a bit of downtime. I've got a bit of peaceful time.

It's very interesting how, as game designers, you have to battle against, when you're in development, people's perceptions. The jobs in Fable II -- everyone hated the jobs in Fable II when we were in development. "Oh, you know; hitting a hammer against an anvil for half an hour -- no one's going to do that. It's ridiculous. It's awful. Where's the fun? Show me the fun."

A lot of senior management people would say, "Why are you wasting your time on these jobs? No one's going to do them." But the point was that doing those grindy things can actually feel really nice, especially if you feel like, "I'm doing this grinding for a particular purpose. I want to get this much gold." That's fine!

The trouble is if you overplay that hand or if the grind turns into tedium, then it ends up being an experience where you think, "Why am I doing this? This is just... I'm just wasting my life!"

It's kind of like watching bland television, and you go off and think, "Why am I grinding, watching this television?" You've got to mix it all together and all part of the whole experience, and so I do think, when I look at something like FarmVille -- which is a lot of grinding, but there's a social side as well; they just get away with it.

It seems like, when you play an RPG as a gamer who likes the genre, at different times you want different things; that's one of the reasons why the genre has its own unique fan base. I have very fond memories of grinding levels in certain RPGs that I've played, and it seems like in other genres there's this pressure to propel people forward always and to always be showing them something new.

PM: It is an overwhelming urge, and that's all part of the craft of what we're making. There aren't many -- if you look at this in an analogous way to movies -- there aren't many movies like action games, which are all about actions.

Most action movies have the love interest bit; they have the "Ah, my parents are wonderful" bit; the sort of enriching bit. They have those -- to me, a lot of them are very bland -- but the good movies that do it right, just when you think, "Oh, God, I don't want any more action; I just want a bit of downtime," then they give you that downtime.

I think we're just realizing that what we're making is a sort of arc of enjoyment, and that arc of enjoyment should have definitely a variety in it. It's so easy to get the balance of that wrong, I think.

It's like the basic philosophical argument that, without evil, good can't exist; without some downtime, action doesn't have any meaning.

PM: That's right; absolutely right. Yeah, you need the high action moments, and you need the low action moments. Quite often the journey to the action moment can be as enjoyable, in a very different way, than the actual action and the anticipation of defeating the enemy. It's a very interesting thing with Fable. I don't keep on saying "Fable III" because I want to market Fable III to you; I'm just saying it to show that we think about these things.

With Fable III, building up the bad guy -- and Josh will remember this -- I keep on saying, "Make the bad guy a real bad guy. Don't make him a little bit of a nice guy; make him a bad guy. Make me want to defeat him!" And then, when I defeat him, that will feel more emotionally powerful, and then you can turn the cards and say that this bad guy isn't all he's cracked up to be. Then it becomes more interesting.

But there's a lot of craft and skill which all comes together, which makes games a true art form now; I think it is growing up to be a true art form.

You also talked about how some of your motivation for streamlining or making Fable III accessible is commercial.

PM: Yeah. I mean, a lot of it is commercial. A lot of it is -- I said "We want five million people to play our game." That's me as a greedy kid just saying, "I want more; I want more." Of course you want people to enjoy it more.

A lot of times, I think, if I speak to someone and they say, "Ah, I really liked Fable, once I got into it" -- that's a disaster! That's a disastrous thing to think that you were crafting something which somebody has to struggle to get into.

That's never going to work, and that's what accessibility and simplicity are -- making sure, when you get the game, within a few minutes you're understanding who you are and who your allies are. These are all impossibly hard crafts that we've had to learn, and it is all about getting more people to enjoy it, for sure.

I think that people have a knee-jerk negative reaction to a commercial impetus.

PM: It's an odd thing, that, isn't it? It really is. I think it's kind of saying, "I want to make a game because I want to make it just for the creative sense." Is that right to do that? I think that you can be unbelievably brave and be commercial as well. I don't think one is the polar opposite of the other.

Quite often, we mistake this altruistic reason for making a game for being "Oh, well, that's just a piece of art." But why can't pieces of art be as successful as anything else? I think they should be; I think there's very good reason to be.

It's almost as if we're ashamed of success -- especially being British! The British people hate successful people; that's why our newspapers are so successful -- because we as a nation build people up, and as soon as they smell success we smash them down into the ground again! That's part of the British culture; we're ashamed of success.

I think the problem is sometimes people overreact; you see people go, "Well, this has got to be commercial. We can't innovate." I think people get a bit nervous themselves when they're faced with that problem, and we're finding out as things evolve that that's not actually true.

PM: Yeah. This is where, I think, creative people really have to have a voice: when something starts to be successful, the overwhelming urge is to use things like focus groups and research saying, "Well, 90 percent of the people enjoyed this in your game, so you should do more of this and less of this. Oh, no, we don't want any new stuff because they might not enjoy it as much."

I think that's where you need creative people to say, "Look; this is what we created. It was this successful, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't carry on innovating." When something -- like what so often happens in the movies -- when something gets into that rut and it's almost defined and created by the research, then I think bad things tend to start happening.

I have no doubt in my mind that a film like Avatar would never have existed if it hadn't been for James Cameron's force of will in saying, "Look, now I'm going to create six-legged animals. Why? Because I think it's right." I could bet you that some logistical people would sit down and say, "Why don't you make them four-legged animals, because they're so much easier to animate?" "No. I want six-legged animals." And it ends up, as a whole, being a more successful thing.

It's the creative texture that's required.

PM: Yeah, it's the creative texture and the belief in the creative process; the belief that the creative process should allow you the flexibility to do things against what research says and that bucks the trend of research. Sometimes, like in Fable, we use research a lot to actually say, "Okay, what bits didn't work, and what bits did work?" But I think if you feel like the creative direction of something is led by research, then that's a bit scary.

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