His games are infamous for their prolonged and sometimes tortuous design processes but in his UK Develop Conference speech entitled 'Design by Democracy or How To Be a Good Fascist' (“There’s no democracy in game design, just inspiration”), Peter Molyneux joked that next time Lionhead was going to do it right, if only because it had got it wrong so many times before.
Of course, the real punchline is that design is a dynamic process, and every game suffers from a new crop of failures to be fixed the ‘next’ next time. As he stressed, there is no right way.
But having gone on record in the past with strident views about design - the assertion that writing design documents is stupid being one choice example - Molyneux’s current design philosophy has evolved significantly from the days when he wrote a game design proposal while driving to a meeting with a publisher, or forced the introduction of disciples into Black & White
by announcing it during a magazine interview.
“I don’t do that anymore,” he confessed.
Indeed, even the past five years have seen a revolutionary change in the way Lionhead approaches design, as Molyneux, the one-time coder turned designer, now heads up design teams for each game. One physical representation of this can be seen in the case of Fable II
. With development in full swing, its design document weighs in at 1,000 pages. And even Lionhead’s yet to be announced new project - currently undergoing Microsoft concept review - boasts an 80 page design bible.
But if Lionhead’s design process has become more rigorous, Molyneux still places his faith in hands on experience. “The vertical slice is where the big inspiration comes,” he said. “My best games are the ones I played the most before release.”
Like most developers, Lionhead uses a prolonged pre-production process. This is broken down into concept, prototype, first playable and vertical slice stages. Each are important for pinning down different elements. Concept provides you with the core game idea, something Molyneux likes to distill into a single line. In the case of Fable
, it was ‘Become the Hero’. Prototyping is reserved for working out tricky technology or gameplay that’s never been attempted before. 'First playable' demonstrates some working aspects of the game.
“This is the most scary stage because this is when publishers set budgets or decide whether to kill your game,” Molyneux said. “Everyone expects a huge amount, but there’s no fun in the game at this stage because everything is a million miles away from where it should be.”
Instead, like developers such as Blizzard, Naughty Dog and Insomniac, Molyneux says the fundamental fun of your game can only be teased out over time by getting a wide range of people, as well the development team, to continually play it.
One example of this is Lionhead’s in-house testing program, which accepts everyone from local school kids to, on one notable occasional, a billionaire who volunteed for a week stint. But more important than their role in finding bugs, Molyneux said, is the opportunity to constantly get new eyes looking at your game.
“If I look through the window into the testing room and see that they’re bored after one day playing the game, I know we’ve got a long way to go,” Molyneux said, reinforcing the gut instinct he often applies in his design process.
What’s important to realise however, is this testing isn’t focus testing. “Focus groups can be very useful but as a designer, you need to be in control of what questions are asked,” Molyneux said. “It’s pointless to ask ‘Do you like this game?’, or ‘Is this fun?’.”
Instead, he sees game design as a holistic process, where all elements should be in sync with your original vision. “I’ve worked on games where I’ve forgotten what I was making,” he says. “You always need to come back to the main concept.”