The last time I spoke to game developer Peter Molyneux was four years ago, in March of 2015. At the time Godus was months behind schedule, the player supposed to be the ‘God of Gods’ had been forgotten by studio 22Cans, and Molyneux was subject to intense scrutiny and criticism. Such was the backlash that, at times, it left him scrambling.
This period came to an end with Molyneux saying to various press, myself included, that he was going to stop talking about his work prior to release.
To his credit Molyneux has, despite the occasional interview on other topics, largely stuck to that. In the four years since, he popped up briefly in late 2016 to discuss his game The Trail, after it was released and available to the public, and then went back to quietly making the next thing.
Bearing this in mind, I was pleasantly surprised when Molyneux agreed to an interview on a cold wet morning last week in Guildford. He apparently had no games to discuss, but regardless I went along for a chat. I wanted to ask about how he’s found stepping back from the limelight, and how the whole ‘not talking about my games until release’ is working out.
“You know, I think you can either bury your head in the sand and say ‘I’ve got the way I am working and that’s that’s the way I’m going to work’, or you need to adapt and have your pulse on what’s happening in the rest of the world,” laughs Molyneux, unsurprised we’ve reached the topic so quickly. “I think promoting your games, or exposing your what your game’s going to be while it’s in development, that’s just not the world we’re in anymore. I think honestly it would have just been foolish for me to continue that.”
“I think the way I was doing things aggravated a lot more people than it actually interested.”
As ever, talking to Molyneux is a unique experience, and his charm is tough to explain. The man exudes sincerity, even when it’s occasionally unwarranted, and you want to believe him and take everything his says at face value. In this case the years of silence about his projects lend some credibility to his stance, but it’s still a surprise how instantly disarming he is.
“Stepping back enabled me to do a couple of things. Firstly, it freed up an enormous amount of my time. What you’ve got to remember is, in its heyday back when I was at Microsoft, press and promotion used to take up almost half of my day. I was talking to European magazines, European websites, American magazines, American websites, Japanese websites, and all of that put together was taking up a huge body of time.”
“When this all happened [the Godus fallout] it was a real opportunity for me to kind of reinvent the way I worked. What I decided to do with all that extra time was to go back and to learn the craft of making games again, because I hadn’t really done any deep involved design, or certainly not any coding, since working on Black and White. What I’ve really done since then is I’ve immersed myself in development”.
Looking around 22Cans' offices, it does at least look like there has been a change, from Molyneux the studio director to Peter the team member. As we walk around the office he points out where he works, a chair at one of a row of computers in the middle of the programming team. No longer set aside from those creating his ideas, he’s back in the thick of things, elbows-deep in the current project rather than managing it from above. After decades where his role had a large element of being a ‘face’, for Bullfrog then Lionhead then the early days of 22Cans, he’s found his way back to the guts of the games themselves.
“Certainly during my time at Microsoft that was exactly what they wanted from me, simply to be a forward-facing spokesperson… It was a delight, I do miss it, I really do. I miss meeting people, and that’s partly because there aren’t so many of you in the press any more, and partly because the nature of the world has changed and forced me to stop talking to journalists.”
“But when you stand apart from a team, because of what you do talking to press and running the studio, you don’t feel part so much of the culture. Honestly, the big change for me is I now feel like part of the team. I intimately know what everyone on the team is doing, I’m helping with what everyone is doing, I’ve got coding tasks to complete myself.”
A theme in my time talking with Molyneux is the way he talks about his move away from this role, and what it says about how he views the events that happened around Godus. Molyneux frequently refers to the world changing as the key factor in his moving away from the press, rather than talking about his own then-actions and the role they played in those events:
“I think promoting your games, or exposing your what your game’s going to be while it’s in development, that’s just not the world we’re in anymore.”
“Because the nature of the world has changed and forced me to stop talking to journalists”
“What used to happen is the publishers use to, you know, developers used to say something in the press. The public used to see it. And so when they're in to see a publisher, the publisher would say ‘Oh, you know, I've seen your game, it looks really interesting.’ I think they've lost that voice and that has meant that developers are a lot more frustrated by the process of getting funded. It's a real challenge for, uh, for developers here, because the public don’t want to hear about games before they’re released.”
“Previously, before The Trail, the strategy was that we had to get the world excited, a long time before the game is released you have to get them excited, so when it’s coming up to release retailers order the product because they can see that public excitement for it, this circle that we used to be in that doesn’t really exist anymore.”
Molyneux rarely puts his own past behaviour under the spotlight. He talks as though no developer anywhere in the world promotes their games ahead of release anymore, and that’s why he had to stop.
It’s only fair to acknowledge that, yes, the industry has changed an enormous amount over the seven years since Molyneux left Lionhead. And Molyneux does acknowledge making mistakes. But he doesn’t seem to see those as being at the root of the problem: the fallout is always contextualised in terms of industry trends.
I want to believe that his moving away from pre-release promotion shows that he’s internalised the issues that Godus brought to a head, but it does feel like he still doesn’t quite accept his own responsibility.
Looking at the games 22Cans as a studio has released in its lifespan, there’s a clear shift away from the PC and console titles Molyneux spent his early career making (and is still best-known for). Curiosity: What’s Inside the Cube was mobile-only. Godus did come to PC in early access but missing significant features and, much to the frustration of the playerbase, it was clear the mobile version was the studio’s priority. The Trail was mobile-only.
“The journey that I’ve been on has been learning to take my passion for making games for home computers and consoles, and to turn that into something that could appeal to this incredible audience that’s out there,” Molyneux says. “That has been a long, sometimes painful, journey as you know. There’s been some terrible mistakes that I have made, I admit and apologise for those mistakes, but the best way that you improve is by making mistakes and then learning from them. Learning to engage with that audience has been a fascinating thing.”
At this point Molyneux and I had a long chat about the changing face of development, from “this quite, quite toxic way of working” at Lionhead to current practices at 22Cans. To avoid this piece getting too long, we’ll publish that as a separate chat. But it did make clear how much of an effect working as part of a small team has had on Molyneux’s view of development. He clearly has a lot of respect for the people he’s working with, and a desire to work a lot more closely with them than he’s done in the past.
A small example of this is a wall in the 22Cans studio, filled with framed and signed posters. Each poster represents a different public build of a 22Cans game, and the signatures are from every member of the company at the time it was released. Molyneux says the idea is that everyone in the studio should have their voice heard, and no release should be pushed out if someone on staff has a concern about it.
It’s a nice idea even if, having never attended one, it’s hard to know what the atmosphere is like in these signing sessions. Would a developer really feel able to refuse their signature, or feel pressured to just join in? The intention is there, and it does show a public face trying to engage with the ideas of his team in a more grounded manner. It’s supported by other initiatives, too.
“We just got this really long table and we all come round at the end of the day, you all sit around that long table and we just talk about what's happened that day and people show off what they've done,” says Molyneux. “Every day. And that for me is a really important step. I think of it like a family dinner, coming together for a family dinner. That's what I think about it as. Catching up on your day.”
“Also, when someone joins here, and I say this to everyone that kind of joins, is what you're giving us by working here is a part of your life. And we really, really value that, and we really respect that. There's nothing more valuable than you giving me a slice of your life to developing that game and at the very least, I owe you honesty and openness. So we're very, very open about everything that's going on in the company. And you know, I think that openness makes people feel more engaged with what they're doing.”
While we ultimately spoke little about his upcoming projects, we did touch on the way Molyneux now works on games, the big difference now being that he’s returned to coding his own prototypes, rather than describing his ideas for others to implement.
“The latest project that we’re working on started by me thinking ‘Right, I’ve got this crazy game idea, how could I possibly explain it to people,’ because explaining my games is just what I’ve always done. Instead of doing that I coded all of it up, just like I coded up the little prototype of Dungeon Keeper back in the day, so I did the same with this.”
“I coded up a prototype to explain the depths of the idea, and while I’m sure there are some incredibly skilled designers who could have done that all on paper, I found it so much easier, and I think the team found it so much easier, to take this prototype and actually play the ideas that I had. And because they were so crazy, they were easier to get their head around by playing rather than me trying to explain the concept. It was really nice to return to coding my ideas”.
As I left 22Cans I was, as is often the case following an interview with Molyneux, left feeling a little unsure about what had just happened. As a man, he still has this enthusiasm and magic about him; he’s an incredibly easy person to talk to, and it’s easy to buy into whatever he’s saying at any given moment.
You leave wanting to believe. I want to believe Molyneux really has changed. His lower profile in recent years does suggest he knows he needs to act differently. I really do think that we’ve seen the end of the Molyneux who promises features that won’t materialise, and spends half his working day talking to the press.
I also believe what he was saying about the atmosphere at 22Cans, because he has clearly thrown himself back into the ground-floor work of a development studio. As is clear from his thoughts on older projects, hindsight has led to a genuine distaste for the crunch culture that he was part of.
Still, there’s a nagging feeling I can’t shake. Maybe it’s the language that distances him from the fallout over Godus. Maybe it’s the fact that, whatever Molyneux says, he’s still so good at playing the press. Maybe it’s just that a history of over-promising and painting everything as amazing has made it hard to take what he says at face value.
The Molyneux I met in Guildford last week feels, in some intangible way, both different from the man I interviewed four years ago, and somehow completely the same as he ever was. As I was leaving, he offered me a sneak peek of his upcoming project, Legacy (he's previously announced the title, though no details). All off-the-record, naturally. I was excited to see it. I also wondered why he showed me it, after all that talk about staying away from the hype cycle.
The day after returning from Guildford, my editor received an email about the announcement of Molyneux's next project. Now I know why Molyneux agreed to meet me. Now I know why he showed me the game. Now I know why the studio OK-ed an interior shot with the new game's logo in it, and separately verified that it wouldn't be releasing until later in the year. And now I know Molyneux is, later today, going to be talking about Legacy months before it’s released.
Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to believe.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.