Disclosure: The Dutch government paid my way to Casual Connect Europe, where I moderated a session. Our coverage remains objective.
AMSTERDAM — Peter Molyneux is an elder statesman of video games who has made the leap from consoles to mobile gaming. The creator of titles like Fable is now working with a team of 30 people on Godus, a mobile entry in the god game genre that Molyneux pioneered with titles like Black and White and Populous. He is known for the silky voice that he has used to tout — and some critics say over-promise — the games that he has worked on.
But now he’s using that voice to both promote Godus as the best game he has ever made and caution the creators of mobile titles about monetizing free-to-play releases (where the game is free and the player pays real money for virtual goods) in an honest way. He fears that many offerings, like the recent Electronic Arts remake of his own Dungeon Keeper, are milking gamers with crass money-making schemes.
At his new company, 22cans, Molyneux is trying to create games that will successfully monetize because players are wiling to invest in them as if they were hobbies. His new projects are humbler efforts than the ones he had undertaken in the past. Molyneux once led 300-person teams at Microsoft’s Lionhead Studios, but at his new startup, he has just 30 people. 22cans raised 526,563 British pounds ($881,571) in a Kickstarter campaign to fund Godus.
We are eager to see if Molyneux can show everybody the right path to making games — as he had done so many times in his career. Godus is available in beta form now on Steam, and it is still undergoing further development.
I interviewed Molyneux in front of a crowd at the beginning of the Casual Connect Europe game event last week in Amsterdam. Here’s an edited transcript of our on-stage interview as well as a one-on-one interview afterward.
GamesBeat: How have you seen the game industry evolve since you started making games?
Peter Molyneux: It’s been an amazing journey. To go from … I’ve been in the industry doing games since the BBC Micro, the Acorn Atom, the Commodore 64. Most of the people in this room were sperm at that time. Did anyone here play games on the Commodore 64? Wow, that’s pretty playful sperm.
We’ve gone from an industry where the whole industry used to meet in a room this big. The one end there would be Trip Hawkins, who was starting up this crazy company called Electronic Arts, and the other end there would be Jez San, who was doing Argonaut Software. We’ve gone from that to this monstrous, $50, $60, $70 billion industry. We’ve gone from home computers to consoles and consoles to mobile. In some ways it seems to have changed incredibly.
In other ways, it’s stayed the same. This industry has always tried to solve a simple, fundamental problem and that is how to invent new stuff and engage more and more people. It’s been this 20-year journey of incredible experiences. But the amount of creativity you have to put in each time remains a constant.
GamesBeat: What’s the biggest game development team you ever had?
Molyneux: The biggest was me running Lionhead at its peak. That was about 305 people. I’d say that was, for me as a creative, one of the most hellish times of my life. Normally running a team is like herding cats. This was like herding the entire African plains. You don’t know what people are doing. Some people are doing one thing. The people over there are doing something else. We ended up diluting our creative impetus. That was a nightmare, to be quite frank with you.
GamesBeat: Does it feel like, with 30 people, you don’t have enough people to do what you want to?
Molyneux: The problem is, now…. There was this unending, demanding necessity to grow. The reason we’ve got 30 people … if I could talk about how those people break down, we’ve got three main designers. We need three of them, because we need three different minds.
At the back of the hall here, there’s [22cans game designer] Jack Attridge. … He’s into the experience, into what people are feeling, how it feels to touch things. He doesn’t give a shit about schedules. He’ll just add a feature in two days from launch. On the other side, we have someone called Jamie Stowe. He used to be a designer on Assassin’s Creed. He’s super logical. It’s all about the planning side of design. And then in the middle, you have someone like me.
For the coders, you have a specialist on this device. Then, you have another coder who’s a specialist on the Android version and another coder who’s a specialist on PC. The idea now is that if you have a team of people. You don’t have the luxury of developing on one platform. Those days, for me, have gone. It was a lovely holiday when we developed on console. We could do just one format. We knew what the memory in the machine was.
Now we have the real world. Consumers don’t give a damn about what device they’re playing on. They just want to play it everywhere. They want to be playing on the console and then take it off to the bus. This team is made up of enough people to support that multiplatform release. And then, you have a whole army of artists.
GamesBeat: We’re not at the point where you can write it once and run it everywhere?
Molyneux: Another thing that’s changed, and this has radically changed, is that you don’t finish anything. Releasing something is just another day of development. What we’ve done with the game we’re developing now, we went from the public exposure of Kickstarter to the even more public exposure of Early Access, and then from those two inputs, we’ve rewritten, redesigned, and completely reinvented the game we’re making.
If you have hundreds of thousands of people playing your game, and you realize that your assumptions about the game were all wrong — that it’s literally moving the needle from one end to the other end — you’ve got to do that. You have to be radical and brave. So often in development, whether you’re developing on one console or all across so many platforms … there’s this fatal thing in development, where you all meet and go over a feature, and you look at the analytics. Not only the analytics about retention, which I’m all for, but most analytics don’t do the fundamental thing they should. They don’t make the game better. They squeeze more money out, certainly, but my point is, can we use analytics to make the game better? To make people enjoy and invest more time in the game?
GamesBeat: I think we have a lot of would-be game designers here. You mentioned earlier that you view your role as a sort of curator of design ideas.
Molyneux: That’s the point. The last thing, so often, a game needs, is another idea from some crazy old shit like me. What you’re doing is using those analytics, using people’s suggestions from Kickstarter, using suggestions from Early Access, and saying, “You know what, that idea is 10 times better than mine. That idea plus this way of working with it is a lot better.” You end up being a curator. You end up with 100 ideas in front of you, and you have to say, “This is the one we’ll focus on.” It’s not my idea. It’s the community’s idea. And you have to have people behind you who are willing to be that reactive.
If you look at something like Godus, we implemented one version of it on Early Access, and then we’ve totally changed every single motivation in the game. We’ve rewritten the simulation side of the game. We’ve changed what people do and how they do it. That’s because of the feedback, and because of me as a designer saying, “I had this idea. It was not right. This idea over here is much better.”
GamesBeat: You raised about $732,000 on Kickstarter for Godus. What has the Kickstarter aspect of the project been like?
Molyneux: It did raise that much, and that’s the key thing about Kickstarter. Unless you’re Chris Roberts — his project has been pretty amazing — it’s there to kick it off. Employing 30 people for a year, or for 18 months, is going to cost a lot more than $700,000. But it kicks the project off. What we chose to do, which worked fantastically well, is use that Kickstarter money to take us from the closing of the Kickstarter to the launch on Steam Early Access.
The reason we did that was to help out with the funding, for sure, but if you are going to make a game which connects millions of people together, you need hundreds of thousands of people to play and test that game. Those were the reasons for releasing that way.
GamesBeat: Your critics on the Internet have argued that this project and some others have been over-promising. With Kickstarter, do you feel like you have to rein some of your enthusiasm in a bit, and give more detailed progress reports along the way as far as exactly what’s happening?
Molyneux: In a way it’s your fault, Dean, that I left Microsoft and started 22cans. I wanted to address this promises issue. I wanted to go out and say, “This is not a promise that I make.” This is exactly what I say to the team. “We’re going to go out and reinvent the god game and revitalize that genre.” When you go through Kickstarter, it’s almost impossible to hide. You’re making this contract with the people that pledge. That is a very visible contract.
With Kickstarter, if anyone here is brave enough to enter that, there’s a few rules that you kind of stumble across. No one tells you any of this, but you stumble across it. Rule number one is obviously what you’re alluding to. Don’t promise the earth, moon, and sun for $10,000. The temptation, when you go into Kickstarter, is that the first three days are wonderful, and you believe you’re a god. You go in your spreadsheet and think, “If every day’s like day one, we’re going to have suitcases of money arriving at the front door.”
Then, it dips into this slump. You wonder if you’ve been strangling kittens or doing something horrendous because no one’s pledging. That period of time, you’re tempted to say anything, add any feature, to get that curve to move up. You can look at this live, and it’s very scary. So, the first rule is, don’t promise things you cannot deliver. You have to have a budget. You have to say, “I’ll have this much money come in, and I’ll use this much money to do this.” Every time you add a feature, that money is diminished.
The second rule is, never ask for the money that you actually need. Ask for the money that’s going to kick your project off. The trouble with Kickstarter, what’s so terrifying about it, is their rule that if you’re a pound short of the target, you don’t get anything. The temptation is to go out there and ask for a million, when actually if you ask for 100,000, you’re much more likely to achieve it.
This amazing thing happens at the end of all the Kickstarter projects, you go from this high number of pledges into this slump, and then in the last five days it picks up again. I was intrigued about this, so I looked at all the people that pledged at the end of the project. 90 percent of those people had pledged to more than 10 Kickstarter projects. What that said to me was, a group of people use Kickstarter as a hobby, and they’ll keep on pledging money to successful projects because they want the stuff. So, if you have your target low and you exceed your target, you look like a project that’s worth investing in.
The last thing is, don’t panic. Don’t feel like you have to work 24 hours to get a demo out there. Just stick with your vision and be super clear about it.
GamesBeat: Does Godus feel like you’re back in the days of Populous? Are you thinking about how you did it back then and maybe making a different take on that kind of god game?
Molyneux: In a way, it is like Populous, but maybe not the way you think. Populous was made by myself and someone called Glenn. … We didn’t know who we were making it for. It actually ended up being played not just by the core gamers of those early days. It was played by a much wider audience than we ever thought.
Making Godus, I wanted to be as crazily experimental and insanely inventive as the original Populous was in its day. I mean, if you look at it now, it looks atrocious, but in those days it felt like it had that crazy inventiveness.
This is the core thing that I feel. We are in an almost blessed position in this industry, where all these new gamers, these people who have never played games before or thought of themselves as gamers, are coming in and playing games for the first time. If we don’t give them something that’s just wonderful, that’s superb and inventive and fresh and different, they’re going away again. They don’t care. They’re not loyal. They come in and try something, and, at the moment, they’re trying something brilliant like Candy Crush. Nobody can deny that’s brilliant in its juiciness. And the fantastic Supercell games. But is that it? Can we not take them somewhere else?
That’s what Godus is trying to do. It’s trying to say that we can approach things like monetization in a delightful way. It doesn’t have to be this caustic mechanic. We can approach the ability to connect people together in a completely new way. That’s what we’re trying to do with Godus. I don’t care if you call this is a promise. It’s not a promise. This is unquestionably the most wonderful, incredible, delightful, smooth experience that I have ever been involved with.
GamesBeat: I didn’t even have to push you to get that.
Molyneux: This is what I’m like when I get to the office in the morning. It drives the staff absolutely insane. There’s someone from 22cans in the back. You can ask him. He’s probably got a sniper rifle coming out of his backpack.
GamesBeat: We’ve seen free-to-play games evolve. It seems like you have some interesting new ideas for how to do that with Godus. Dungeon Keeper also just came out from EA. I gather you weren’t really pleased with the way they did free to play.
Molyneux: I think “pleased” is the wrong word. Dungeon Keeper was meant to be this new take on who you were in a game. You were supposed to be the baddie and build these dungeons. Of course there was no free to play back then.
For me, there are two big problems with Dungeon Keeper. The first is, whenever I reminisce about something, whether it’s an old film or an old game or an old book, my memories don’t match the reality of the experience. When I came back to Dungeon Keeper, I expected Dungeon Keeper again. I expected a remake. I expected to be able to dig out the dungeon for free and fight other players. I expected all that stuff.
What Mythic and EA did — exceptionally well, I have to say — is they gave me a reinvention for the free-to-play world. I wanted, in Dungeon Keeper, to play and keep on playing. What they did with free to play, and what free to play does an awful lot of, it crucifies my patience. It just beats me up for being an impatient gamer. The whole of Dungeon Keeper was designed around digging it out quickly, building your rooms quickly, fighting and fighting again. That motivation is hard to match up with current free-to-play mechanics.
It’s an exceptional implementation in its look. There’s a lot of stuff I recall there from Dungeon Keeper. But the pace of the gameplay I find grating.
GamesBeat: What’s a better way to do free to play?
Molyneux: There’s two things. Again, this is something where we’ve sat down doing Godus and said, “We don’t want this free-to-play mechanic.” Free to play is the wrong word, for a start. There cannot be a term that’s less true about the current iterations of free-to-play games. What we want is a new term. That term is more like “invest to play.”
For me — and this is going to sound crazy, but it’s the way I think about it — I’ve thought a lot about free to play. What are we doing? We are tempting people to invest — and that’s a very different word, by the way, “invest” — some of their money into a game.
Now, if I walk into a supermarket, supermarkets have refined that temptation mechanic into a brilliant art form. The first thing you see is the vegetable aisle. It smells lovely. They walk you past the bread and it smells delicious. They’re tempting you all the time to spend some money. The skill and psychology and motivation to that has been refined over generations.
What we’re doing with consumers, we’re taking a huge hammer and smashing them with it. We’re saying, “You will spend money! Otherwise you will not enjoy!” We’re treating our consumers like children. “You’re a bad person for wanting this so early! I’m going to punish you! I’m charging you five pounds because you want it now! Good children have to learn patience.” We’re beating our consumers up with that message. “Be patient or pay money.”
That’s not a delightful mechanic. That’s not going to get people to invest their money. What it’s doing is inevitable. It means that every consumer approaches the game and what’s the first thing they say? “I’m never spending any money on this game.” It’s like a supermarket putting the sanitary products at the front by the door. You walk in, and it smells of disinfectant. That doesn’t make you want to buy stuff, and that’s what we’re doing. That’s how crude these mechanics are.
There has to be a better way. … The first thing we teach people in these games is how to speed things up and spend things. That’s insane. Absolutely insane. So, we’ve gone back and asked ourselves, “How can we get people to invest in their hobby?” That’s all about setting people’s minds … their mindset and their motivation. You have to get that right.
Asking people for money, it’s not a right. You have to justify that. That requires a huge amount of design and analytics and all that stuff.
GamesBeat: What do you think of this indie resurgence we’re seeing? What are the challenges indies face when their games are one among millions in the app stores?
Molyneux: It’s an interesting time to ask that question when you’ve got Flappy Bird around. That’s the one-in-a-million shot. Yes, as an indie, it’s hard. As an entrepreneur, it’s very hard, whatever you’re making. But you know what? How many out of those millions are real, wonderful lost gems? I truly believe that quality and dedication and delightfulness will always shine through.
We have lots of stats about how there’s million apps on these devices and all that stuff. But there are 999,000 really rubbish apps. I don’t know many games that are lost gems. I know games like the brilliant Ico that came out on PlayStation, that wasn’t the commercial success it should have been. It’s one of the most beautifully balanced games, and it was a kind of lost gem. Unfortunately, now, in this industry, unless you’re Flappy Bird, it’s hard to do a quality experience unless you’re a substantial team of people.
Audience question: On a typical day, what sort of things do you take care of now?
Molyneux: It goes in rhythms. It depends what stage we’re at in development. At the moment, it’s about making sure that the polish of the ideas we put in games goes out to the team. Most days, I use a Mac and a hell of a lot of Keynote. I’m the world’s leading Keynote specialist. I don’t believe in documentation. If you can’t get an idea across to a member of the team in three sentences, the idea’s not worth anything.
In the morning I tend to do a playthrough of the game. I write up a spreadsheet — do this, change that, we need to worry about this bit of analytics. But if there’s anything more complex to talk about … for the moment we have a slight reinterpretation of one of our big mechanics, called settlements. Then, I’ll make a Keynote doc. That will be pictorially representing the idea. Coders and artists will never read text, but if you can show them a picture and give them an example they need to go. I spend three or four hours a day making those Keynote files. The rest of the day is rolling that stuff out to the team and just being generally grumpy.
Audience question: You mentioned impatience as a big motivator for people spending money. You said you had a different way of doing that. Could you give an example of what that looks like?
Molyneux: That’s hard to do because one of the things we’re not doing quite yet is talking about monetization. Suffice to say that I think you can’t layer in monetization all at once. It gets on my nerves. For example, in Dungeon Keeper — not that I’m knocking it — one of the first things I did with one of my imps is start mining out a block that took two days. It’s just madness.
The first thing you’ve got to do is be subtle about it. You’ve got to take them through the vegetable aisle and then slowly layer in those mechanics. The word I want to use is, we should tempt people to think about being proud about investing.
The big problem with monetization is that it’s actually a cheat. If I’m playing whatever game, whether it’s Candy Crush or Clash of Clans, and I spend money while I’m playing with a friend at the same level, they’ll turn around and say, “You cheating bastard. You just spent loads of money.” That’s the wrong way to get consumers into that. If you can find a way — and without showing it to you it’s hard to name it — that it isn’t empirically a cheat…. Say my hobby is cooking, and I buy a new kitchen knife. I’m not cheating at cooking. It’s just a way of enhancing my cooking.
We’ll be showing all this stuff very soon, hopefully, when Godus goes into the gamma release. You’ll see that stuff then.
Audience question: Is there any place you’re thinking out loud about this kind of thing, so we can read up on this stuff? Is there an exchange about this all happening somewhere?
Molyneux: Not that I know of. But what we’ve done in the game industry, and what we must continue to do, is that we can’t just sit down. It aggravates me when people say, “Oh, we know how to do free to play now.” You know the idea’s wrong, by the way, when it’s got too many acronyms involved. “It’s your ARPPU [average revenue per paying user] multiplied by DAU [daily active users] by retention rate….” I feel like going crazy. No. What you’re doing to your consumers is training them not to spend money. You’re burning through them.
Maybe this is me being crazy and hippie-ish, but any game that makes its money out of its five-percent whales — which is hardly a complimentary term, by the way — who spend hundreds of pounds on features that don’t really add to their gaming experience is ultimately doomed to failure. These games are making millions of pounds, but they’re burning through consumers. They leak like a sieve.
What it ultimately means is that we as an industry have to continue to invent. We have to continue to realize that we want people to make this their hobby. We have a chance to truly be the thing which we’ve thought we are for countless years now. We have this stat, which is that we’re bigger than the movie industry and the TV industry combined. That’s bollocks. In terms of money, yes, because we’re greedy fat pigs who take as much money out of consumers as we can. “You want to play our game? Pay us 50 pounds.” And now we’re saying, “You want to play our game? Learn to be patient or pay us 100 pounds.”
We haven’t got millions of people as the movie industry has. We aren’t a culturally significant thing like that industry. But we can be. That’s what I find so fascinating. Personally, I love this industry. It’s an honor to be in this industry. I’m excited about what’s going to happen over the next five years.
GamesBeat: I listened to attorney Paul Gardner talk about the coming regulation of virtual goods. It sounded like they’re going to make a lot of the things you were talking about illegal. Quick-monetization schemes are going to disappear.
Molyneux: It’s inevitable, absolutely inevitable. We as an industry are being incredibly crude about our approach to this. We’re asking governments to turn on us. Do you really think we can get away with kids spending thousands of dollars on a game? We’re asking to be regulated. You can’t fund a game with a business model that relies on a tiny percentage of its consumers spending vast amounts of money. It’s begging governments to legislate against that.
We should constrict that. We should be responsible with those people. We shouldn’t allow people to spend that much money. It’s not right. It’s not fair. It’s treating consumers like addicts. It started in Japan, with the complete gacha mechanics. That’s spreading inevitably to the West. If we’re not careful, we wind up in an over-regulated environment, much like the gambling industry, where you have to go through unbelievably strict ways of monetizing with consumers.
GamesBeat: If we turn to other ways of monetizing, does that favor traditional game development? Is that the right way?
Molyneux: This started with the approach that Zynga took back in the day, when they were the first company to really introduce free-to-play mechanics in the West. They famously said, we don’t need designers. We just need analytics people. They hired those people, and they came in with one single motivation, to get the maximum amount of money out of you in the minimum amount of time. Retain you and monetize you every day. We have that acronym that came out of it, ARPDAU, average revenue per daily active user. Their job was to maximize that.
That’s the fundamental problem. Where is the use of analytics that makes games better, that makes them more joyful and engaging and delightful? Currently, they’re used to make more money, and inevitably, the government turns around and says, “We’re going to regulate that.” It’s borderline illegal when you tell consumers, “All right, we’re going to give you not quite enough resources to actually play this game.” You make consumers believe that they’re going to get an experience that they won’t.
We’ve got companies like Supercell that weren’t doing anything five years ago, and now they’re at a $300 million valuation. That is just too much.
GamesBeat: Those guys have been famous for essentially monetizing revenge in their gameplay. Have you played The Hobbit as well? My motivation there is, I spend out of fear that I might be kicked out of my clan.
Molyneux: There’s an interesting mechanic there. It’s fascinating to look at it. They take you within 10 percent of success, and then, they play on your fear of being attacked. My worry is, they’re in control of when you get attacked, especially in Clash of Clans. They control when you’re going to get attacked or not. And that 10 percent, just keep knocking down. All that’s saying is, “Sod it, I’ll pay the money. I’ll level up my town center, and then I’ll be all right.”
That sort of notion is okay, but if you continually do it over and over again, if you widen the gaps between people who play the game, if you don’t give them any alternative … there’s a fundamental thing I think about, which is that it’s not as if free to play invented the idea of gamers sitting around and waiting. Fable, to get from level 10 to level 11, you had to play for three hours. You had to do 20 fights. But there was an alternative. You could use your skill to get past that point.
That’s the sort of feeling I want, is to take that panic … there’s always something you can do to add to it. There may be ways you can spend money to shortcut that or approach that in a different way. But you must give people a true free experience. It must be fair. When they do spend money, it must be more like they’re investing than it is about getting rid of their fears or anticipations.
GamesBeat: EA is another good example of how hard it is to get it right, like with Plants vs. Zombies 2. The company got 25 million downloads, but it found that the benign monetization in there, where you could play the whole game for free, was probably too generous on their part.
Molyneux: I love Plants vs. Zombies 2. I’ve played it utterly to completion, and there wasn’t a single moment where I felt a need to monetize. The fundamental problem was that I was playing at the same time as my wife, and she said, “I bet you’re going to cheat.” What she was actually saying is, “I bet you’re going to spend money.” If consumers’ approach to Plants vs. Zombies 2 is that, “I’m not as good a gamer if I spend money,” you’re never going to get any money out of it. It was delightful. It was lovely. But there wasn’t enough of a motivation in there.
I only spent money to get a new plant, where the only way to get that plant was spending money. But that led me to the conclusion that that plant was a cheat. If there was a gameplay route to that plant as well as a monetization route, that would be much better. Then my wife would look at that plant and say, “Oh, how did you get that,” instead of, “You spent money on that!”
It just goes to show that free to play is very delicate. It requires a lot of inventiveness and a lot of refinement. You can’t center it around a tiny percentage of people. It’s an honor for people to spend money on your game.
GamesBeat: So, it sounds like nobody has cracked this nut in an honest way.
Molyneux: No one’s cracked it in a way that’ll still work in five years. I don’t see that the free-to-play loops that we have now are going to last much longer. They’re going to be legislated against. A lot of consumers are going to rebel against them. Core gamers already rebel against free to play. You only have to look at Dungeon Keeper as an example of how vociferously people react to that. They feel angry and betrayed, and rightfully so, because there are no alternatives to the gatekeeping points there.
We’re in a transition. If I’m working on something like Godus, I’ve got to approach monetization in the way I approach everything else — with creativity and thinking about the player’s motivation. I keep coming back to this simple sentence. I have to think of Godus as a hobby, not just a game. You invest in a hobby, rather than it being a ticket that I take as you go in, or rather than getting people so addicted that they feel like they have to spend money. They’re not going to continue doing that for a very long time.
GamesBeat: It’s encouraging that in this era we’re moving into, we still have some enormous successes like Minecraft.
Molyneux: It would be interesting to have a free-to-play version of Minecraft and see what Markus Persson would do with Minecraft. I think he would probably take a very different approach to it. But it’s fantastic that we’ve got successes like that. I would still cite Clash of Clans as a success. It’s done a brilliant job of being simple enough to draw people in, but interesting enough for you to think about it. I just think that after a while, when you go into those long waiting loops, it gets quite painful.
I love things like The Hobbit or Age of Camelot. … There’s still a lot of experimentation going on. We’re on a journey, and we’re only partway through it.