The Man Who Promised Too Much

The Man Who Promised Too Much

Peter Molyneux is crying. I’m not sure how to react to this. Legendary game designers don’t often get emotional with the press. But here’s Molyneux, who has made so many games and done so many interviews over the past two decades, openly weeping into my voice recorder.

We’re talking about promises. Molyneux, who has helped design a string of hits including Fable, Dungeon Keeper and Populous, is a fascinating paradox, known both for his formidable creative accomplishments and his tendency to make big, lofty claims that never quite deliver. Through 20 years as the face of three different companies, Molyneux has earned a reputation as something of a huckster, a big talker whose best skill is making headlines. His quotes, delivered regularly and with aplomb, are both brilliant and nutty.

So it’s a little strange to see him cry in front of me.

“If I ask people to be interested in Godus, if there’s one reason for them to be interested,” he says, breaking into tears, “it’s that I could not do anything that would not make my son proud.”

Molyneux pauses. Sniffles. His voice is cracking. Part of me wants to give him a hug; another part of me wonders if he’s just putting on a show.

“He’s a gamer,” Molyneux says, “and if I ever make a game where he turns around to me and says, ‘You over-promised that,’ it would just kill me.”

The Man Who Promised Too Much

In October of 2004, just after releasing the role-playing game Fable, Peter Molyneux posted an apology on his game studio’s message boards. “If I have mentioned any feature in the past which, for whatever reason, didn’t make it as I described into Fable, I apologise,” he wrote. “Every feature I have ever talked about WAS in development, but not all made it.”

In interviews leading up to the game, Molyneux had made ambitious promises — that Fable would let you have children; that the game would span your hero’s whole lifetime; that you could knock an acorn off a tree and slowly, over the course of the game, watch it grow into a tree of its own. None of those things happened.

It isn’t just promises — Molyneux’s 20-year career in the video game industry has been a whirlwind of quotes ranging from the ridiculous to the more ridiculous. “I’d have sold my children for multi-player versions of Railroad Tycoon or Civilization,” he said in a 1993 interview. “[Fable is] amazing for a role playing game, because most role playing games are shit,” he said in 2007. “I don’t know what [my] marital status will be if I don’t make our [Godus] Kickstarter,” he told Kotaku in 2012.

These statements make for splashy headlines, but to some gamers, they diminish what Molyneux has actually accomplished. Every new Molyneux quote is met with a chorus of comments from angry fans who are sick of the grand gestures, tired of the promises that never materialise. It makes you wonder: in 50 years, is that how Molyneux will be remembered? Not for his smart, critically-acclaimed games, but for the things that come out of his mouth?

Fans and pundits have criticised his behaviour, questioning his motives and authenticity. But friends and colleagues describe Molyneux as a genuine, passionate, talented designer whose words tend to get him into trouble.

“I think he intentionally tries to say things to make them happen,” said Gary Carr, who currently runs the video game studio Lionhead and worked alongside Molyneux for close to two decades. “That’s him trying to retain control of his creativity… I think sometimes he does it to help push the team to shoot for the moon, really.”

“There was always this sort of joke between everyone — ‘the bullshit in the press again,’” said Sean Cooper, one of the first employees at Molyneux’s first game company, Bullfrog. “But it wasn’t really bullshit — it was more stretching the truth.”

“I’ve never really understood if Peter is a genius visionary who intends to make his claims come true, is a compulsive liar, just fantastically eager to please or perhaps even a crazy megalomaniac who believes his own hyperbole,” said ex-Bullfrog employee Mike Diskett. “I suspect it’s a little of all of the above.”

“The trouble is, I’m a terrible PR person,” Molyneux told me during an interview last year. “I’m just this person that absolutely loves what they do, I just love what I do, and when you get someone who loves what they do so much, you get them to talk about what they’re doing, of course I’m gonna come across as enthusiastic.”

Molyneux, who is 54, has the lanky frame of someone half his age. He has big ears and a giddy-yet-serene smile, resembling a kindly schoolteacher, or a reformed Bond villain. If someone turned his life into a biopic, he’d be played by Ben Kingsley. He talks in slow, deliberate sentences, his enthusiasm only muted by the occasional puff of an electronic cigarette. He keeps his credit card in a clear case attached to the outside of his iPhone. He’s not worried that people will steal the number — “I just trust everybody,” he said when I asked. “I just don’t think there are any nasty people in the world at all.”

Although he’s dabbled in a number of genres, Molyneux’s games have one consistent theme: morality. Sometimes they let you choose whether to be good or evil — Molyneux is fascinated by ethical duality — and often they allow you to play god, making decisions big and small to affect worlds of different natures, from dungeons to theme parks to movie studios. Molyneux’s games are not as iconic as, say, Shigeru Miyamoto’s Mario, or Sid Meier’s Civilisation, but they are always interesting, and always ambitious.

Once, the man so well known for his ambition had no ambition at all. Born and raised near London, where he still works today, Molyneux grew up thinking that he had no future. For years he struggled in school, embracing truancy and neglecting his grades. “I was famous at school for not achieving anything,” he said. “I got the lowest marks in every conceivable field of human existence — I was the worst sportsman. I didn’t pass any exams. I was just completely destructive the whole time. If you bet on anyone in school, you would never have bet on me.”

Like many future game developers who grew up in the 70s, a 17-year-old Molyneux remembers one particularly revelatory moment: discovering Pong at a local arcade shop. “It was as if I’d been abducted by aliens or something,” Molyneux said. “My life completely changed from that point.” He went home, stole money from his grandmother’s purse, bought the Pong machine, played a few games, and took it apart, ushering in what would become a lifelong obsession.

“There was no such thing as game development, or the games industry,” Molyneux said. “But there was this — something was triggered in my brain that said, ‘There is a world here, and it’s a world that I’m actually fascinated with.’”

Molyneux studied software development at college, and left with two big goals: make a computer game and become an entrepreneur. His first project was a combination of both — a business simulation video game called The Entrepreneur that he programmed and published himself, to absolutely no fanfare. Nobody paid attention to Molyneux or his game, and in his early 20s, after a string of failed jobs, he gave up on gaming, eventually partnering with his girlfriend’s father, Les Edgar, to start a trade company called Taurus. “I started doing this importing and exporting, things like baked beans to the Middle East, and making like half a cent for each can of baked beans,” Molyneux told me. “I ended up eating more baked beans than I exported. I can never eat another baked bean, by the way.”

If not for a silly accident, we might be remembering Molyneux as the baked bean guy. One day, as Molyneux recalled, he got a call from the electronics company Commodore inviting Taurus to come check out their newest computer, the Amiga. They sent a car for Molyneux, whisking him around their offices and showing off this shiny new hardware. Baffled, he went along with them, unwilling to risk the opportunity by asking why they wanted him.

“I was wondering what the hell’s going on — I’m just importing, exporting baked beans,” Molyneux said. “They gave me all these new machines. And it turned out they got the wrong Taurus — they thought they were getting ‘Torus’ which was a networking company. And I just lied — and I ended up with all these machines. And I thought, ‘Right, now that I’ve got these machines, I can program a game.’”

So Molyneux gradually moved back into game development, first helping port a Commodore 64 game called Druid to the Amiga, then beginning work on a game of his own, Populous, under the label of his newly-christened studio, Bullfrog. Not that it was much of a studio then.

“I remember getting upstairs to this very scruffy attic loft,” said Sean Cooper, who was Bullfrog’s fifth employee. “I thought, ‘Oh my god this is like someone’s bedroom.’”

“They clearly had no money,” said Gary Carr, who became employee number six. “But the passion of Peter back then was unbelievable. Even then he thought he was going to be great. He didn’t have a pot to piss in — he had no money — but he was making this game that, little did he know, was gonna turn him into a huge success overnight.”

In 1989, after months of maxing out credit cards, Molyneux released his first hit, a “god” game called Populous in which the player, as a deity, could grow and guide a group of followers by manipulating the terrain around them. The game’s main feature — the raising and lowering of land — was originally just a programming shortcut, Molyneux says. “I was too much of a crap programmer to work out how to get the little people to walk around the land properly,” he told me, “so instead I just got a player to raise the land and that was how it was created.”

The game was an instant success — everyone loves to play god — and Bullfrog was able to expand, which meant more staff, more games, and more ridiculous behaviour. They were almost all teenagers, and today, old Bullfrog employees describe those days the way a banker might describe his years at a college fraternity.

“There were BB gun fights,” said Cooper. “I’m not so sure I should be telling you this but we used to get these trainees in and we used to shoot them with BB guns. If they didn’t get answers correct, then Peter would shoot them with BB guns at close range just for fun.”

“We didn’t have any concept of ‘human resources,’” said Molyneux. “We used to do horrendous things, like we’d have these kids in to test the games that we did. We hospitalized a couple of them by shooting them in the eye.”

The Man Who Promised Too Much

Dangerous pranks aside, Bullfrog’s former employees remember those days fondly. Cooper told me the Bullfrog years were the best of his professional life, and Diskett, who won his Bullfrog job through a magazine contest, recalls being amazed at some of the games he saw when he first arrived: future classics like the action game Syndicate, the business sim Theme Park, and the first-person flying game Magic Carpet. Bullfrog employees also recall being charmed by Molyneux’s charisma.

“Nobody that worked for Bullfrog at that time was particularly experienced or qualified, but Peter gave them such a sense of worth and self-esteem,” said Carr. “Even though these guys were hired pretty much from the local shopping mall GameStop, he told them they were gonna be the best games company in the world.”

“Peter was such a great teacher,” Cooper said. “There were a couple times when he lost it with a couple of people, but he was so kind and patient with everyone. I think he really knew what he wanted.”

And then there was the piranha incident. Not long after shipping Populous, Molyneux came to the team with some great news: the game was selling well, and they’d all be getting bonus checks. Everyone was stoked — except one Bullfrog employee, Simon. “His bonus check was like £3,000, or $US5,000 back in those days,” said Cooper. “Simon was complaining about it, and said this wasn’t enough.”

Then, as the legend goes, Molyneux threw some sort of heavy object — one person remembers a Walkman; another thinks it was a stapler — at Simon’s head. Simon ducked, and the object hit their piranha tank, shattering it and sending fish flying across the room.

“It was my very first day of work. Peter forgot to tell me that the whole team — all five of them — were gonna be in America,” Carr told me. “I walked to the top floor where the attic was, and there was a whole bunch of dead, dried, coiled-up piranha all over the floor, and a smashed fishtank, and a whole bunch of wet patches. And lots of slightly dried up fish tank paraphenelia like weeds and things…. and being blokes who basically couldn’t look after themselves, they just left it and went to America.”

As Bullfrog grew and expanded, Molyneux began to embrace his role as the face of the company. Then in his 30s, the former baked bean salesman had become the frontman for one of the hottest companies in the burgeoning game industry. In addition to overseeing all of Bullfrog’s games, he would go out and talk to the press, making the grand promises that would go on to be his hallmark for years to come. Even then, the quotes came off as silly.

“In Theme Park, if your customers get injured on a ride then they will turn up in Theme Hospital,” Molyneux said in a 1994 interview with The Guardian. This did not happen.

“Theoretically you could have up to 60 players linked, but 20 is more feasible,” Molyneux said of the multiplayer mode in 1994’s Magic Carpet, which wound up supporting eight players.

Diskett, who directed the tactical combat game Syndicate Wars (1996), remembers being excited about one specific feature: video playback. Billboards in the game would be able to display video footage that the programmers set them to play. But in talks with reporters, as Diskett recalls, Molyneux would promise that players could insert DVD movies and let them play on in-game billboards.

“The journos at the time loved this and appeared to completely believe it, despite the fact that PCs of the day only just had CD drives, and computer DVD drives didn’t even exist yet,” Diskett said in an email. “I was kind of disappointed that what was an amazing AND real, existing feature was kind of overshadowed by a totally imaginary feature that wasn’t even remotely technically feasible.”

The Man Who Promised Too Much

“I particularly remember when [Molyneux] was talking about Syndicate, saying that the whole city is alive and everyone’s got jobs,” said Cooper. “And of course it wasn’t that. But it was the fantasy of that. So I think that’s what he’s doing, is he’s just creating a fantasy for the person he’s talking to.”

Could that be it? Could this be the explanation for Molyneux’s long history of extraordinary promises? Is he just trying to evoke powerful images in our brain — create the idea of a video game in hopes that the real thing will live up to that?

Video game fans do not buy ideas, of course — they buy products. If someone were to purchase a Molyneux video game based on his promises, they might find themselves spending $US50 or $US60 on something that doesn’t actually exist.

But who is buying Fable because of an acorn, or because Molyneux said it’d be the best thing ever?

“I always say, ‘This game is gonna be the greatest game of all time,’ because I believe that’s how you should approach game development,” Molyneux told me. “If you say to the team, ‘Let’s make a good game,’ that’s not enough. So do I regret those things? Yes. Should I never do them again, should I never be passionate again? In a lot of senses I’m the worst PR person in the world, because all I do is I just sit there and I just get unbelievably passionate about what I’m showing off because I love it so much, and I end up saying these things, and you know, they come across as promises or features.”

The Man Who Promised Too Much

The riddle of Molyneux is not easy to piece together. Perhaps this would be a simpler narrative if his work wasn’t good — “bad game designer talks too much” is an easy story to tell — but Molyneux has helped make a number of games that people love, from those Bullfrog classics to the rather-well-received Fable trilogy to the inexplicably addictive cube-clicking game Curiosity. In person, he comes off as gentle and kind, although it’s unclear whether the face he shows to reporters is the same one he wears in private.

Back in the Bullfrog days, according to people who worked there, some staff were bitter about Molyneux’s public behaviour. “I think Peter took credit for all of the games that Bullfrog developed,” said Cooper, “and there was a lot of, kind of, bitchiness back at that time when he was doing that.”

But in the decade following Bullfrog’s closure, Molyneux has worked to mend fences with many of those people, both in private conversations and public speeches. (After accepting a lifetime achievement award at the Game Developers Conference in 2011, Molyneux named and thanked a number of the people he has worked with over the years.) Today, former Bullfrog staff are more sympathetic to Molyneux’s public persona.

“Every company needs to have a front man and he was the front man,” Cooper said. “Bullfrog was him. He was the brand as well as Bullfrog. And he was probably thinking that he was, you know, in one of his god games or something.”

“Think about it this way,” said Carr. “Name the frontman of Queen. It’s Freddie Mercury — everyone knows Freddie… The frontman is basically the PR vehicle, and the person who’s gonna have more followers and more fans. That fanbase gets disseminated through the band by their success.”

Even if you don’t subscribe to auteur theory, the logic makes sense. The leader of the company gets out there, travelling across the globe, serving as the lightning rod for public attention both good and bad.

Maybe that’s Peter Molyneux. The Ozzy Osbourne of video games.

The Man Who Promised Too Much

We’re reading Internet comments. Molyneux is scanning through a GameSpot article that features a trailer for his newest game, Godus, muttering under his breath as he looks for a good blurb to read out loud. He finds one.

“‘Who is paying this useless bell end seriously this is one of the worst efforts for a game I’ve ever seen,’” Molyneux says, bemused.

“There’s this weird blend of people calling me a bell end and people saying they find the game really interesting. I kind of want to respond to some of them, but that would be a crazy thing to do.”

“Then you’d make more headlines,” I point out.

“Exactly,” he says.

Molyneux told me he tries not to read the things people say about him, which have been remarkably cruel. “Anything Peter Molyneux does, I hope fails,” wrote one NeoGAF poster back in September. “I think the guy is essentially a scam artist living off an undeserved reputation.”

“When I saw this morning that Peter Molyneux had slated Fable 3 in order to hype the next one, I almost vomited a rainbow,” the games writer Jim Sterling wrote in 2011. “The fact that he can keep doing this and not get called on his bullshit is astounding. Yep, the Molyneux hype train is ready for another ride!”

Once, as Molyneux recalls (and Carr corroborates), an unstable fan sent a string of nasty letters to Bullfrog, culminating in a terrifying threat: “I’ve got a shotgun, and I’m coming in a car to kill you.” Molyneux called the cops. When they got to the fan’s house, Molyneux says, they found a shotgun among his things.

“My overriding thought was, ‘What a fantastic way to go,’” Molyneux told me, laughing. “To be assassinated by a fan — that has got to be the ultimate thing that I could do. That’s perfect. So ever since then, I’ve just been hoping I’ll be out on stage and this laser dot will appear on my forehead.”

The Man Who Promised Too Much

In 1995, Molyneux sold Bullfrog to a big video game publisher named Electronic Arts. Two years later, unhappy with corporate life, he quit.

“I left because I forgot who I was,” Molyneux said. “When I was acquired by EA, I was made a vice president. I then ended up flying backwards and forwards to San Francisco a couple of times a month, rather than say, ‘Just leave me designing games, I don’t wanna be an exec, I shouldn’t be an exec.’ If I had done that, I could be still there now I guess. So I spun myself into a place where I shouldn’t have actually been.”

Molyneux went on to start a studio called Lionhead, where he would develop the god game Black & White, which was also enhanced by Molyneux Quotes. “I’m determined that Lionhead’s first release will be my best game ever,” he said in a press release back then.

A few years later came the infamous Fable acorn — the one that never turned into that oak tree. “That one line then changed people’s perceptions of me,” Molyneux told me. “Because I became someone who promised acorns that didn’t grow into trees.”

Over the years, many have offered up explanations for Molyneux’s crazy claims. He’s just trying to make headlines, some say. He just likes the attention. He’s intentionally selling his games on false promises. One longtime Molyneux colleague has a different theory: Maybe Molyneux believes that if he says these things, they will actually come true.

In 2006, as the team at Lionhead prepared to release their business simulation game The Movies, Molyneux traveled with Lionhead boss Gary Carr to a press event in Barcelona. They were there to show off the game, which would allow players to run their own movie studios, training actors and turning scripts into films in an attempt to make as much money as possible.

“There was one feature Peter wanted — he wanted the ability to make sequels in the game,” Carr recalled. “It was something I think I pushed back on because it meant a whole bunch of new work that we just didn’t have time for.”

But Molyneux was attached to the idea. So as they demoed The Movies to a room full of journalists, Molyneux started describing how a sequel could be generated with the game’s script-writing software, and he asked Carr to show it off — even though there was no such system in the game.

“He threw me under the bus, there,” Carr said, laughing, “and I remember reading a piece that said ‘the demoer’ — uh, thanks for that, I was the head of the studio — ‘didn’t seem to know how to play the game.’”

So maybe when Molyneux goes on press tours and says all those crazy things, he’s trying to light a fire under the people who work for him. Maybe he thinks that if he talks about a feature in the press, if he makes it public, his team will be forced to make it happen.

“You can’t have it both ways with Peter,” Carr said. “You can’t say he just talks in a fantastic way and gives people a lot of exciting dreams, and then say, ‘Oh, the dreams don’t always work so therefore he’s deceiving.’ I think you have to take that sometimes it works and sometimes it won’t work. Sometimes he’ll shoot for the stars when he tries to instill ambition in his team. And if it doesn’t always work, it can be taunted back at him. But I still remember those people who he dragged out of the gutters to some extent and made them into great developers. So I tend to have a much more balanced view of that. It’s something he can’t switch off. He’s ambitious, he sells dreams, he sells people to themselves. So therefore if it works, it’s great, if it doesn’t always work, then I think that’s just the chance you take.”

In 2011, a parody Twitter account named Peter Molydeux went viral within the games industry thanks to a simple, compelling gimmick: ridiculous video game concepts that could never actually happen. “You know, my dream for gaming is where in one game you’ll shoot someone and then during a game of say Fifa you’ll see their son crying,” read one tweet. Another: “When I first saw Street Fighter I was disappointed. I was hoping that you could build up your own street and fight other streets.”

Though they were merely inspired by the lofty claims made by the real Peter Molyneux, these parody tweets have added to the legend of Molyneux as a grand dreamer. Often, they’re indistinguishable from Molyneux’s own promises and statements. They have inspired an annual event called the Molyjam, in which game designers across the world team up to develop little games inspired by Molydeux’s tweets. And the man behind Molydeux, Adam Capone, says he’s got nothing but respect for his real-life counterpart.

“I had the fantastic opportunity to not only meet [Molyneux] but visit his new studio in Guildford,” Capone told me. “Upon meeting him I was instantly surprised by how real he is, just hanging out with a coworker during a smoke break. Not how I pictured meeting my very own Willy Wonka.”

In 2012, not long after his parody twin hit the scene, Molyneux left Lionhead and Microsoft. “I’m freeeeee!” wrote Molydeux then. “Yes we are,” Molyneux replied.”

By the end of the year, Molyneux’s new studio, 22 Cans, had already released its first game: Curiosity, an experimental project in which people across the world clicked and clicked their way through a giant cube. Each tap would knock off part of a layer, and whoever got the last click would receive some sort of prize. Molyneux, in his fashion, promised that the prize would turn out to be “life-changing,” and it ultimately delivered — the winner of Curiosity would wind up with a personal invitation to become the “God of Gods” in Molyneux’s next god-sim game, Godus.

That winner was Bryan Henderson, a Scottish teenager who didn’t know all that much about Molyneux before taking home the grand prize. Not long after Curiosity ended, Molyneux flew Henderson out to the 22 Cans office, where he got a chance to play an early version of Godus and see what ruling the universe would be like.

“I am glad that I won,” Henderson said in an email. “Not a lot has happened, but the game isn’t finished yet. When it is, that’s when I play my part: being the God of Gods.”

So Henderson’s life hasn’t changed all that much, but there’s still time. As God of Gods, he’ll be able to make a cut of the game’s profits, whenever it finally comes out. (Godus is currently in alpha.)

“I was so careful to say: in the center of the cube is something unique and something lifechanging and something I consider amazing,” Molyneux told me. “That’s the only thing I said. And I consistently said that. I didn’t promise it to be a huge pile of money or a sports car or anything. All I wanted to do was to see whether the same one sentence could affect the group mind, the group behaviour mind. And so I didn’t over-promise.

“Is it lifechanging? Well, Bryan’s life has been changed.”

The Man Who Promised Too Much

Peter Molyneux is crying. Seconds later, he’s smiling again, and we chat just a little longer before he’s off to catch a flight back to London. Later, wondering if the tears were just part of the Molyneux Experience — and remembering a similar moment he shared with the gaming website Rock Paper Shotgun — I ask some of his colleagues about the emotional display.

“I think being a father changed him as a person,” said Carr. “I think people who are highly creative are emotionally driven — [the question is] whether they are comfortable showing that. I think Peter has broken the seal on that now, and if it starts to happen, he’s unable to stop it. That’s not a bad thing.”

“I’ve never seen him cry,” said Cooper. “I’ve seen him get angry… Peter’s a very — he’s a father figure, but not too fathery. It’s a bit like having a mother that doesn’t mother you, but guides you. You think about all of his people that he’s guided in his time — they have all turned out to be huge successes.”

Indeed, the list of people trained by Molyneux is impressive. There’s Lionhead boss Gary Carr. Demis Hassabis, who worked at Lionhead and Bullfrog, just sold his company to Google for close to $US500 million. Jonty Barnes, who worked with Molyneux at Bullfrog and Lionhead, is now a top director at Bungie, where he’s helping make one of 2014’s biggest games, Destiny. A few Molyneux acolytes left Lionhead to start a studio called Media Molecule, where they designed the lovely LittleBigPlanet and one of last year’s best games, the underappreciated Tearaway. It’s hard to find a video game designer who hasn’t been taught or inspired by Molyneux over the years.

The Man Who Promised Too Much

And at 54, Molyneux has no plans to call it quits. “I’m not retiring — I’m just gonna die,” he told me. “I don’t know what life is without making games.” He has no plans to stop saying ridiculous things, either. In an interview just a few weeks ago, Molyneux lamented his tendency to keep getting in trouble with overambitious promises, then vowed that Godus will be able to support up to eight million simultaneous users.

But something would be missing without him. The video game world can be depressingly rote, full of PR-managed corporate leaders and platitudes peppered with buzzwords like “visceral” and “immersive.” Molyneux has earned his reputation as a blusterer partially because it’s so unusual to see someone willing to preach big ideas, even when they don’t always come to fruition.

“I think the day Peter stops being in the games business will make [reporters] have to work a hell of a lot harder to write interesting things,” Carr said. “Because Peter gives you a lot of stuff to write about. You’re gonna have to find other interesting personalities in an industry that doesn’t have many.”

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