Joystiq interviews Peter Molyneux of Lionhead Studios

Yesterday at the Develop Conference in Brighton, Jennie and I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the founder of Lionhead Studios, Peter Molyneux. We chatted about the issue of hype, frustrations surrounding PC gaming and Peter's early days in the industry, amongst other topics.

Fable was pretty much portrayed as one of the most open games of all time, but in terms of hype, it failed to meet the high expectations that you gave the game. There was even a forum post where you apologized about this: why did it get to that level?

Well, it started with this fatal line that I made and that was that I wanted to make Fable the greatest role playing game of all time. I kinda still defend that because I honestly don't see the point in making a game that you don't honestly believe has a chance of being the greatest game of all time. I meet the press quite a lot, every 6-8 weeks there's some sort of press interview. The way I work then is to get a system in, play around with it, polish it, make it better. Sometimes I leave it as it is and sometimes I throw it away.

I think what ended up happening was twofold: because I was meeting people so frequently I was talking about features that actually hadn't gone through that process, like the tree example. Actually it was stupid! Growing trees took a lot of the processing power that could have been used for combat. What does growing trees really add for the player?

Do you think this is partially a result of the press misunderstanding your position? Not just you, in terms of everyone who's a developer has this idea about how they want their game to go?

No. It was my fault entirely. It was completely my fault because what I should have said is "we are experimenting with this idea and I quite like this idea" because I don't know whether it's going to work or not.

Was that actually reported?

I don't know really. The only way I do interviews is to talk about what I'm passionate about, and when you're passionate about something it's very hard to shut up about it. That's the problem, but the solution really is to talk about the stuff that I absolutely know is going to be in the game and to say "look, we have some really amazing stuff. I can't show you what it is until I've had a chance to play it and look at it myself".

The other thing is that for the longest time in Fable there was this concept of free roaming. And, in the end, we had a simple choice. We could extend the game development six months and have free roaming, or we could cut free roaming out. The way that we crafted the world, we first crafted the world round the path that you were following, and then we had a plan to craft the rest of the world. But we just simply didn't have the time and we chose in the end to put the game out earlier.

You talked in your seminar about how the industry has shifted away from programmers to designers leading games. Do you think people in management are better suited to leading games than people that have experience in coding?

I would answer that by saying that experience, and being able to appreciate the problems that people have is really important.

Especially in terms of developers.

Exactly, the coders need to know that this idea which I've conceived, which is very easy to imagine, but when it comes to coding an idea from a designer like "well I really want someone to feel like they're alive" you have to say O.K., you've got facial animation, but behind that you've got A.I. and having an appreciation of that is really important. I'm sure there are some designers who have never touched a keyboard in their life, and who've never programmed, but for me it is really useful to think that whenever a thought pops into my head I can find a way to visualize that in code.

Can you say anything about the concept or the genre behind your "secret project" which you mentioned during your seminar? Obviously I don't have my hopes up that you'll be able to talk.

It's going to be the most amazing game ever.

Yes, well you would say that!

Well, it is! I really honestly believe it, because I think that we almost wouldn't think about developing it if it's not. Here's the thing. What is our responsibility? What is Lionhead's responsibility and what should we do as Lionhead?

Your responsibility is to make a good game and make sure it sells well.

Well, kinda, yeah, but I think the position we're in now, and we're owned by Microsoft, and they said to us "make amazingly brilliant games that have never been seen before". And that's our responsibility. We could do another Fable game, or we could do a genre that we feel comfortable in but I don't feel that's what we should do. I think we should be saying "right, how can we get gamers and a wider audience to experience something they've never seen before?" And that's true of Fable 2, by the way. There a very big surprise in Fable 2, which is a fundamental part of the gameplay that no-one knows yet. I've never seen it in any other game before. But the other "secret project" has also never been seen before.

Do you find that, considering the background of you hyping up your games in the past, do you think you run the risk of being the boy who cried wolf? You keep saying "my game's amazing", "my next game's amazing"...

I do, I know that I'm gonna get in trouble, I know you're gonna tell me off and I know that. What I'm saying is that it's such a subjective thing. I can't lie to you; there's no point me saying I'm gonna make a really good game, because that doesn't do it for me. I've made so many mistakes, I've made so many terrible games, and I honestly struggle and strive as hard as I can to try and make the team struggle and strive around this as hard as they can and make the best game that I can. I honestly believe that Fable 2 is going to be the greatest game of all time.

But you said that about Fable 1!

I know, this is the problem. Fable, and this is not an excuse, this is not meant to be an excuse, we had never done a role playing game, or anything like a role playing game before. We had never done a console game before, we're never dealt with a controller before. There's so many things that we'd never done before that this time [with Fable 2] we've done that before, we haven't got those excuses. We've also got this fantastic team that I believe are the smartest people I've ever worked with. Jesus, if this one isn't amazing, we're being stupid somewhere, so when I put that Fable apology out really I should have said "I'm gonna create a great game".

Do you think there's some logic behind getting developers behind blogging and letting them be more open about their projects?

Absolutely, I agree with that. We've got Sam Vantilburgh, who is in charge of our communities, we're thinking about what we're going to do with the communities. I really want to support the idea of more than myself talking and get the team talking. The only problem with all this, and this is why developers are very closed mouth, is there are millions and millions of dollars riding on these things. We're talking twenty or thirty million dollars and that's a lost of risk. Still, I think things like blogs and even diaries are really informative.

I don't know whether you know, but Google has this scheme where they give developers 20% of their working time to work on their own projects of their own choice. Do you think this will eventually become standard within the programming world?

That's what Lionhead has already set up. It's not 20% of their day, because when you're working on a game I think you need people to be totally immersed in it. But when they finish a game, they have 6-8 or even 10 weeks to just play around and experiment. Some people would sit there and say "well I don't know what to do", and some people have a really strong idea about it.

I think this kind of thing is essential. People have said for a long time that the games industry is getting less creative and I think developers need more time to get out and be inspired to write good code.

I think that's true. The games industry is getting less creative, because in a way there's less games around.

Instead of saying there's less games, would you say that there are in fact more big games which are taking away the money and limiting the number of small games produced?

Yes, there are, and that is an enormous shame. But the reality is that, people as consumers, are being very honest. Consumers want to play something that has had fifteen million spent on it.

Some of my most favorite games are indie titles which are either free or are distributed via shareware, I've spent hours on these sort of games.

What was the last triple-A game that you played?

Ah, probably Rockstar's Table Tennis.

Right! God I'm aggravated with Table Tennis!

See, this is the thing! I love this sort of game where you have very little pressure, you have no, or very few cutscenes. I don't understand why the industry is moving away from this sort of thing where the gameplay is the central focus. I wrote this article about playing my sister where she beat me three times in a row on my first game with Table Tennis, and it was because I had this preconceived notion about how the game was supposed to be played, but my sister just picked up the controller and straight away just got the game.

Did she straight away get the game, or get the fact that all you had to do is press the green button?

Yeah, the article was about how she beat me by just pressing the green button.

My three year old son did exactly the same thing and he's never played a game in his life and he beat me and I thought, gee, that's not great. Yeah your point is a good one...

Yes, why are developers spending so much time with established genres, why aren't they creating new genres and why aren't they creating God games?

Because, the consumers buy those big games. They buy Halo and they buy GTA.

Do you think there's a failing in the press in terms of awareness of new concepts?

Well, here's where my hope is. I think online, and Xbox Live is somehow evolving in the way that I'd say television evolved. We all go to the cinema and we all look out for Spiderman 3 or Superman but the fact of the matter is that they are just big moments and I think we're going to have big games like that. But maybe there's a model emerging like live TV where you don't spend upwards of three hundred million dollars on a game and instead spend three million. And you create something which is not so high quality...

When you say Xbox Live, do you really mean Xbox Live Arcade?

Yeah, one of the big problems is that the big publishers are investing lots of money into the big titles and you can't blame them for that because consumers are buying the big titles, they're not buying the small titles. They didn't buy Ico...

...Psychonauts...

...these were just brilliant, excellent and amazing games. They didn't cost as much to make but they were truly inspirational games but they just didn't sell. So you can't blame the publishers for doing that. A lot of it is down to the publishers, and a lot of it is down to distribution and how you get those small games.

The internet is obviously the future of this.

The problem is, with the PC, where do I bloody go to get that stuff? You can go to Reflective or Big Fish Games, and it aggravates the hell out of me that there's no central location.

Do you think that Microsoft is actually dropping the ball here? Because they're doing this games management tool in Vista, but they're not actually producing a place where independent developers can put their work in the same sort of way that the iTunes Music Store has done for music.

I agree, absolutely. I mean, I think on Xbox Live Arcade there should be an experimental section.

But then, it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars even to get a title onto Xbox Live Arcade; but in terms of the PC, it generally doesn't cost anything to get a game out. Do you think Microsoft is focusing less on games in Vista than it should be doing because of Xbox Live Arcade?

Well, this is where I've got to be very careful considering what I say about Microsoft. I do think that the PC and Vista has a huge challenge ahead of it. The PC as a gaming platform has had a terrible two years. And again, just in terms of distribution, don't just blame the publishers. You walk into a gaming shop then you don't see a huge PC section anymore. It's more like The Sims, and just The Sims. It's such a messy format.

So two weeks ago I bought a new PC right? So I went along to PC World, and I said "could I have your bestest PC please?" And they gave me this HP thing...

...with a Radeon 9200 or something?

...and even I said to the guy, look, I don't know about these things. ATI change their line every six weeks. It doesn't mean anything. And I took it home, and I wired it up and it was all the hassle of all the wires and the cables and where they went and it didn't fit and they weren't long enough. You just don't get that on the console. And my son was just sitting down there and at last I thought, I'll turn it on. And I turned it on, and honestly, this hurricane force fan was literally blowing his hair back. That's not the place I want to play my games on. I mean, it's so loud I had to turn up the volume on the game, it's so fiddly. There's spyware, and the anti-spyware got in the way and it took about half an hour to boot. No wonder no-one wants to play games on their PCs anymore.

I'm actually working on a feature about how the Mac is very under-utilized in terms of game development. You mentioned problems about fans and Macs generally have silent/quiet operation, and there's also the fact that the Mac line-up is a pre-set line-up. You know what hardware you've got in a Mac and therefore you only have to develop for a limited set of hardware. Why haven't developers picked up on Mac OS X?

It's a very interesting idea. We've always supported the Mac and we've always done Mac versions of all our titles, and I think that this is a perfect thing (referring to the MacBook on table being used to record interview) and I've never really quite worked out why more people don't support it. I think...

There's this Catch 22 situation where not many people play games on the Mac and therefore developers don't want to make games for the Mac.

Exactly. I think it would need Apple to get behind games. There's nothing in their operating system that panders to games at all and I take my hats off to Microsoft. I think they've realized that games are important. And then you have this fantastic thing where they're saying that they'll let you play PC games against Xbox 360 players. Of course that's a nightmare for us designers, because we have to work out how to design games that work on both platforms equally as well.

You said in your keynote about the "pizza days" when you had small teams between 2-5 working on game, would you prefer to go back to these days?

Would you like to going back to being a child again? I mean, those happy 12 year old days skipping through the meadows with little bluebirds sitting on your shoulder?

You know in those days that's what it was like, I smoked more cigarettes, drunk more and did disastrous things to my body. I was a total introvert, the world outside of what I did on my computer became dim, almost psychotically so. But, there was, and I apologize for using this words, there was this orgasmic delight in physically creating something. Now, what you're kind of asking me is to trade anything I've got now -- I couldn't have a family, I couldn't have a son, I couldn't have the ability to inspire people because I'd be obsessed by that. I look back there, and I still work on little projects and some coding at home, and I think yeah it was a great time. But then I also look back at the skipping through the summer meadows with bluebells on my shoulder.

O.K., thank you very much for your time!

This article was originally published on Joystiq.