Four months ago, Peter Molyneux's Godus was a disaster. Four months later, it's… still in pretty bad shape.
Minus small tweaks and changes, Godus is worryingly similar to the game it was four months ago. The features players clamoured for — the ones they felt like they were promised during the god game revival's crowdfunding drive — are still absent. Combat is in an embryonic state, awkwardly brandishing a wooden sword in a sporadically updated opt-in testing build (as opposed to the default, more stable build people get on Early Access if they don't opt in). Multiplayer, which 22Cans insisted can only really thrive with combat implemented, continues to look more like an "if" than a "when." Long-demanded backer rewards such as an art book still haven't materialised.
The biggest addition since February's outburst of outrage? A series of collectible diaries labelled as a "story mode." Fans saw it as a bandaid over a bullet wound, and an ineffective one at that. If nothing else, 22Cans is finally giving Godus' underdeveloped PC version — a source of ceaseless ire since mobile publisher DeNA entered the picture in 2013 — priority over the mobile version. Players, however, still lament that Godus feels like a simplified mobile take on the god game genre rather than a successor to Molyneux classics like Populous and Black & White. Civilisations don't evolve much over time, AI doesn't learn or adapt, things just kinda… stop without constant micromanagement. God powers, especially sculpting — where you manipulate terrain — feel alright and allow for some cool player creativity, but they fail to build to a satisfying progression. You move through various ages of civilisation, but the game never moves far beyond surface level interactions. It's a big anticlimax.
People are still pissed. If you go to any Godus resource — especially the game's Steam forums — you'll see questions ("is this game still being worked on?"), complaints, and requests for refunds. Things would likely be better on that side of things if 22Cans kept fans in the loop, but they ceased their promised daily dev updates in April. In May they pivoted to focus on streaming the game's development, but that hasn't really given a strong indication of where the game is headed, how in-depth features will be, and when/if it will be "finished" — polished and fun enough to leave Early Access. In some ways, it gave rise to more questions than answers, especially where the seemingly paltry size of the Godus dev team is concerned. Fans are worried that 22Cans continues to put the brunt of its developmental force into a mysterious new project called The Trail, not the thing they helped fund.
What the hell happened? Why are we still here despite promises of a turnaround? Well, for one because a lot of people did turn around — and then they walked out. 22Cans has seen multiple departures over the past few months, some of them high profile. The company insists splits were amicable — and perhaps they were — but that doesn't change the fact that they lost Godus co-designer Jack Attridge, finance director Peter Murphy, CTO Tim Rance, programmer Pavle Mihajlovic, and programmer Richard "fabs" Fabian. The latter wrote a blog post in which he explained why he decided to move on, citing issues with the company's direction. Meanwhile, ex-22Cans sources who requested anonymity tell me that Murphy and Rance's departures signal choppy waters ahead, especially where money is concerned.
So basically, there's been a big internal shake-up. 22Cans has made a slew of new hires, with Peter Molyneux stepping down as CEO to favour his role of creative director at the end of May. Longtime executive director Simon Phillips has assumed the CEO role. They have also hired on Colin Gallacher as PR Manager, Anthony Straub as producer, Richard Williams as a programmer, Annah Wootten-Pinéles and Shay Hulbert in the art department, and Ryan Singh as a programming intern. I asked representatives for 22Cans which of those hires are working on Godus as opposed to The Trail, but after two days they have yet to reply to my questions. It is, however, well-known that the current Godus team is led by Konrad Knaszynski. Originally a Godus community member himself, he's definitely dedicated to the project, but he's also green — clearly not, you know, Peter Molyneux.
Apparently, however, the new hires signal a "reboot" for a company clearly in severe need of one. And while Godus continues to move forward not by leaps and bounds but with a series of agonised yet strangely silent steps, new CEO Phillips at least appears to have stepped up the Godus team's communication game. In the past few days he's appeared on godus.boards.net, one of the most dedicated Godus communities, to talk things over with players. He's even addressed some of their more specific concerns, something 22Cans seemed hesitant to do in previous months.
Speaking about the current status of combat and why it's taking so long, he said:
"The combat stuff being developed right now is very, very PC focused. Combat's a pretty big task in itself and despite the general opinion being that it's slower because it's only got a small team on it. It wouldn't really go much quicker with more people on it. Will it go to mobile? Possibly at some point. Let's get the PC combat working well first then we'll see where we are… I think the new combat will start to ship to opt-in later in the summer for feedback."
When confronted with the idea that combat doesn't fundamentally change Godus — that it doesn't alter a disappointingly shallow, disjointed experience that feels designed for casual mobile players rather than longtime god game fans, he said:
"There is design happening as to how we can make it more of a feature in its own right, but I understand your concerns about the potential of it not having impact on the main game flow. Lets see how it stands a bit further down the line."
On the idea that bringing in all these young, new hires to replace experienced vets might hurt the overall quality of the game, he replied:
"There's a misconception that having lesser 'experienced' people on it is a problem. The guys working on it are incredibly capable and have the full support (constantly) of everyone in the studio, that's from code, art, design and production etc. Interns come with a scarily good amount of experience and talent these days."
As for why communication broke down:
"I guess a lot of these opinions were conceived from the daily dev updates, which I thought, being honest and with full respect to the guys producing them, were a bit boring, pointless and ultimately a bit patronising in the end (as I'm sure a lot of you are aware, development is a long repetitive process that sounds far more exciting than it actually is). Hence they stopped. We'll find a better way of communicating what the Godus team is doing and how best to present that to the communities in good time. We remain very committed to Godus and committed to actually producing good quality updates for it."
He added that backer rewards — specifically the art book and documentary — are "almost completely ready to ship," which sounds nice but doesn't really mean much at this point. Meanwhile, concrete plans for the game's future go as far as wrapping up combat. Beyond that, things have yet to solidify to a point where the leadership of 22Cans feels comfortable announcing them, Phillips said. However, he said that "Kickstarter and Early Access [will] form the basis" for future plans.
All of that sounds fine, but so did a lot of the stuff Molyneux said four months ago. Words are wind until they result in something tangible, and so far the people behind Godus have mouthed things like "Let there be combat" only to produce nothing but a muffled fart noise. Moreover, Phillips' reassurances are hinged on a rickety tower of "ifs." He told buyers and supporters to stop worrying without really providing them a concrete reason for why they shouldn't be worried. Combat won't go faster with a bigger team on it? Why not? And if so, why not put other 22Cans staff on Godus features still waiting in the wings? Bigger isn't always better, but surely a more focused studio could polish off Godus in less time.
And why shouldn't we be worried about a sudden influx of less experienced developers? Game development is complicated and skillsets take years to master. On top of that, they're joining production midway through a tumultuous project. That sounds like — from where average Janes and Joes are standing — a worst-case scenario. Why shouldn't we raise an eyebrow or two?
And finally, why has communication been a problem for so long? Why should players believe it will get better when 22Cans has already had so many chances to get it right? Phillips' recent bout of openness is definitely a step in the right direction, but it seems insubstantial. He's said a lot but offered little in the way of reassuring details. Perhaps we'll get those when the game's current lead designer does a Q&A or — more likely — when a substantial update finally hits. But until then his argument falls over when poked with the mouldy tree branch that is scepticism, as though merely a replica of an argument fashioned from cardboard.
It's not surprising that players remain doubtful. Clearly, 22Cans is doing something with Godus, but it's hard to shake the feeling that they're not doing all they can. And how long will they keep doing it? What will a "complete" Godus even look like? Nobody knows, yet they feel like they're owed at least that much. That's what it comes down to: fans put money, time, and dedication into Godus, but it seems like 22Cans isn't reciprocating. Maybe in four more months, their recent company "reboot" will pay off and they will right the ship good and proper. That would be awesome, and it's good to see the team (once again) seemingly rededicated to making something great. For now, though, we're looking at a pile of unanswered prayers and a fundamental truth about them: they don't garner much faith.