Can Molyneux Reinvent The God Game?
Peter Molyneux is worried; that much is obvious from the moment I begin talking with the man responsible for Populous, Black & White and Fable. The video games visionary has had an eventful three weeks that have seen him endure the rocky launch of Curiosity, the first project from his new studio 22cans, and launch a Kickstarter that hasn’t set the world on fire in quite the way he’d like.
To the uninitiated, then, it may seem surprising that the first words out of his mouth are about how excited Godus is making him. But, this being Peter Molyneux, the man who created the god game genre can’t wait to tell me all the ways in which he’s planning to reinvent it with a new project that aims to stitch together the best of bits of Populous, Dungeon Keeper and Black & White into some beautiful Frankenstein’s monster.
But one thing is clear; this is not the Peter Molyneux of bygone years. This is a man ready to make amends for what he openly admits were “insanely big statements”. The first step towards this, he argues, was the decision to use Kickstarter. While some were quick to criticise the move, arguing that such a big name in the British development scene should have no problem getting hold of funding without turning to consumers, Molyneux is quick to disagree. This isn’t him begging; this is his penance.
“It was time for me to face people,” he admits. “For me to go out there and say ‘Look, I’ve done a lot of talk and I’ve said these amazingly, insanely big statements, do people believe?’ And that took a lot of courage to do.
It was time for me to face people. For me to go out there and say ‘Look, I’ve done a lot of talk and I’ve said these amazingly, insanely big statements, do people believe?’ And that took a lot of courage to do.
“I can’t begin to tell you how difficult it was to make the decision to do a Kickstarter because it’s like being naked in the middle of a shopping mall. People are just going to point and laugh. For someone like me it’s been an unbelievably scary thing but seeing people’s feedback from that and really engaging with people has been an incredible experience.”
It’s a bold move, especially following the rocky launch experienced by Curiosity in early November. The team at 22cans had originally planned for around 50,000 downloads leading to 5,000 concurrent users; to date, over two million people have downloaded the experiment with a quarter of a million logging in every single day. Due to this pretty extreme underestimation, the app has been plagued by connectivity issues that at best left the guinea pigs unable to get on the wheel and worst caused users who’d invested significant amounts of time to lose all their hard earned coins.
Though this has now been fixed, it’s clear the experience dealt a pretty heavy blow to Molyneux that he’s yet to fully recover from. This was supposed to the first experiment that marked the start of his redemption in the public eye, the moment he securely rebranded himself as a successful indie developer, but instead he’s been forced to hold off on discussing the truly interesting discoveries the game has allowed him to make. No matter how quickly it was fixed, it’s clear the wound is still fresh and he’s worried about the effect it may have on his quest for Godus funding.
“I just want to make sure we have all the problems sorted, otherwise our credibility would be zero. If we started to talk about the psychology of tapping, the psychology of mystery and Curiosity people would just say ‘Shut the f*** up and get on with fixing the mother***ing gold.’ And you can totally understand that… I shouldn’t have said ‘f***’.”
Thankfully it looks like most of Curiosity’s problems are in the past. A second version of the experiment is due to land with Apple for approval sometime this week and should be released before too long, bringing with it a range of new tools to help us burrow towards the enigma nestled at the centre of the cube.
Aspects of god games went onto Facebook games and then the free-to-play mechanism came along and totally greedily exploited some of those delightful mechanics in a very harsh way.
With this done, the full attention of Molyneux and the rest of 22cans is now directed towards generating interest for both Godus and, crucially, the studio itself. But what was it that made Molyneux decide to revisit a genre that, arguably, has become pretty irrelevant in recent years? According to the man himself, this isn’t simply to play to his strengths, but rather this his chance to right a great wrong and protect his legacy.
“This genre of game that I helped to create has been abused. In a very real sense, it’s been abused,” he argues. “Aspects of god games went onto Facebook games and then the free-to-play mechanism came along and totally greedily exploited some of those delightful mechanics in a very harsh way.
“If it’s not reinvented it’s just going to die off. It’s going to die off like slapstick comedy died off in the films and I owe that genre too much; it made me, I didn’t make it really… It should be the genre that’s the best for today’s technology for handhelds and PCs and connecting people and cloud, and that’s what I’d love to do with it.”
And thus the Godus Kickstarter was born. Aside from giving Molyneux a chance to face his critics head-on in a bid to restore confidence, Godus is also to be a collaborative work between fans of Peter’s earlier games and 22cans. To this end, it’s released a video series addressing backer concerns and asking for feedback in a bid to replicate the success of other community-heavy titles such as Minecraft.
As Molyneux explains, “[Minecraft] was released as an alpha and I saw the genius of Notch and what he did and I thought to myself, if I’m ever going to create a really truly great game again, that’s how to do it. To involve people.”
Kickstarter is all about paranoia…if I was confident I don’t think I would be as passionate.
The other reason a Kickstarter was chosen to generate interest in the project was to free the team from the oft-restrictive shackles of publisher control - but, as Molyneux is discovering, for all the perks that come with being an indie developer there are also a fair number of sleepless nights.
“Kickstarter is all about paranoia…if I was confident I don’t think I would be as passionate,” he explains. “Being an indie developer is all about being brave; it’s all about doing the things that aren’t safe because from doing brave things, you may be able to discover important things.
“I’m not against publishers, I think they’ve done an enormous amount of good for this industry but publishers are the sort of animals that like experiences that are ultra-successful. So a publisher, you know, first they’ll sign up the shooters and action games then role-playing games, but if you went to them and said, ‘Look, I want to reinvent the god game genre’ they’d say, ‘Well, god games, are they really popular anymore?’.”
The elephant in the room, of course, is that despite all these grand designs there’s still every chance that the Kickstarter might fail. In the 14 days since the call for funding began, 22cans has raised around £200,000 of its £450,000 goal with only 16 days left and Christmas threatening to suck the money from would-be backers’ wallets. This demands the question; can beggars be choosers?
For now, at least, it seems they can: Molyneux freely admits that the failure of the project Godus Kickstarter campaign may not spell the end for the game. But far more troublingly, he asserts it would raise serious issues regarding the studio’s future commitment to remaining an indie, as well as have serious repercussions for the gaming development scene far beyond his own aspirations to reinvent Populous.
I am worried about it. I wonder what we should do that we’re not doing…
“If people really want an indie development community and they really want experimentation and bravery from developers and they really want to see something new, and this is it’s not just [about] me [and Godus], it’s [about] supporting Kickstarter because that is where it’s going to come from.
“You know, I have these lines that I get in an insane amount of trouble for. People call it overpromising, but it’s this: with all this power at our fingertips as designers and creators we should be thinking of an experience that changes the nature of gaming, changes who interacts with it, how they interact with it, whether we’re using tablets or phones or PCs or cloud or multi-devices.” He really believes it. You can tell.
As our time together draws to a close, it’s clear our chat hasn’t done much to settle his nerves. In the midst of our farewells he muses, “I am worried about it. I wonder what we should do that we’re not doing…” It’s been a more candid chat that I expected, and one that’s made me start to believe all over again, despite the myriad disappointments I’ve experienced previously. Peter Molyneux’s past contributions to the industry have undeniably been immensely varied and immensely valuable despite their flaws, but I can’t help but wonder…what if this next project is the one that finally gets it right?
Luke Karmali is IGN’s UK Editorial Assistant and counts Black & White among his favourite games. You too can revel in mediocrity by following him on IGN and on Twitter.
By Luke Karmali