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Peter Molyneux On Building The Future

June 27, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[The respected, effusive game developer Peter Molyneux speaks candidly about how Fable III didn't turn out to be all it could be, and how he hopes to reform production at Lionhead in advance of creating more games -- and juicy tidbits on Milo and more.]

Once again, Peter Molyneux's dreams seem to have been bigger than the realities that his studio has been able to achieve. "It didn't end up being the game that I dreamed it would be," he tells Gamasutra of Fable III.

But this time, he says, he intends to steer Lionhead's production process in a new direction -- one that will not only help realize the blockbuster goals he has for the series (he promised sales of 5 million units for Fable III at GDC 2010) but also one that allow the team to more carefully craft games.

"The game came together so late that we had so little time to balance and refine" some of the play mechanics, he says. "There was just a few weeks to do it. That meant that what could have been a great mechanic turned out to be a good idea."

In this interview, he discusses the refactoring of production processes, his feelings on indie developers, his observations on Zynga, and even just a little bit of what happened with the elusive early Kinect demo Milo.

You've been personally recognized, but you're also open about sharing credit with others you work with.

Peter Molyneux: It's difficult, you know, because anyone with any sense has sat down and thought, "Well, what does Peter actually do? Let's just empirically work it out; what's he do?" And, of course, all I do, really, is inspire people. I'm not programming anymore, and I don't fiddle with numbers on spreadsheets. It's more to do with inspiration. I think it's more true than ever before, that the rest of the team really deserves the credit.

What about knowledge transfer?

PM: Like mind melding? As in Spock? I don't do that; I'm not that skilled. If I could, I would!

But in terms of inspiring people, or sharing experiences.

PM: Yeah. It's interesting. I went to visit Zynga yesterday, and it was very interesting just talking through what it's like being a designer for 20 years. It's fascinating how sometimes you can spot people, or spot things that are happening, where you think, "Oh my goodness; that happened to me like 15 years ago!"

I think that's a lot of the job. When you get a little bit older and you have a bit more experience, a lot of your job is helping people through the mines of the mistakes that everybody makes. I've been doing quite a lot of angeling -- angel, you know, sort of guiding people.

I met a few people this week and just told them really obvious stuff that I wish someone had told me: Just focus on one thing, for God's sake! You're only six people; don't try to do three projects at once! Just focus on one thing and make that brilliant.

Say "no" to people; that's very easy advice to give, but actually if someone had said one thing -- just say "no" more times than you say "yes" -- I would have saved myself an enormous amount of trouble and angst.

When you look at the way things are, with people at Zynga or in mobile games, does it remind you of the past?

PM: Absolutely. You know, I was talking to Markus Persson -- he's doing Minecraft, which is absolutely brilliant, probably my most brilliant gaming moments in the last 10 years from playing that game -- and his story's almost identical to my story.

He started out and got some work experience -- mine wasn't in computer games; they weren't really around then -- but he got some work experience and then, one day, he took a deep breath and started his own company, and he was more or less known. It's kind of the same as me, and then just this feeling of "Well, I might as well just do it! I've got nothing to lose." I think that I really recognize that in him, absolutely.

In a way, many, many things have radically changed, but many things are the same. What's so fascinating at the moment is, if you look what's happened to independent games, and the fact that this industry can support success stories like Minecraft at the same time as supporting the totally blockbuster, triple-A, multimillion-pound games -- it proves that we're no longer the babies of the entertainment industry; we're starting to grow up. That's what the film industry does: It can support independent films, and it can support big blockbuster smashes.

Do you think that Microsoft, especially in your role above studios in Europe, is doing enough to incubate that independent talent or to give it a platform, or the nurturing it needs?

PM: Well, I don't think anybody is. I think that's in history -- I don't think anyone is. I think it's more you can do some very functional things which are very helpful: You can give out development kits and have conferences and have events like this, which really help, but I think it's giving those independent people maybe a small amount of funding which would be really good because obviously funding is quite often the biggest problem.

Although... I was going to say... I don't know about "harsh" -- I think there is a catalyst... Hunger is a great catalyst for creation. If your life is made too comfortable when you're starting out and you're creative, if you're not risking something and you're not a little bit hungry, I don't think it works the same way. That has to be carefully balanced.

Then just giving access not only to the tech, but also to some people that can say, "Okay, that idea's a great idea, but have you thought about it this way?" You know, just a little bit of time.

But I don't say that our industry does it any better or any worse; I can't think of any form of industry that does a great job with mentoring and with helping people to grow. We could do what business does and have television programs about mentoring people -- and we've got something called the Dragon's Den [in the UK] -- we could do things like that, but it's never enough.

I mean, there is, I suppose, an obvious thing. There is something which we've all been careless in -- the governments around the world, really -- but the British government could help with tax breaks, I think, which would help small people an awful lot because it's very, very financially tough to start development.

It's been quite a hot-button issue, particularly as there have been some studio closures in England. You see comments from Bobby Kotick saying he wants to exit the UK. Activision would like to potentially exit the UK because it's not competitive.

PM: It's tough! You know, just regarding everything about the UK, it is a very expensive to live; it is a very expensive place to have a studio. There is -- being British I'm going to have to say something about Britain -- there is something in the British psyche which is good at doing weird stuff.

I don't think it's a coincidence that Kinect Sports and Kinectimals came from England, because I think that we, instead of saying "Oh, well, Kinect might not work, and it has sync issues and framerate issues and all that," we just lapped it up. It's a piece of innovation that we would love. I think that's on the plus side.

On the minus side, it is a very hard place to set up a studio. Employment laws are very difficult if you've got a larger studio; there's all sorts of employment laws that are extremely arduous, to have HR departments to the eyeballs to cater to those. So it is a tough place, but it's still a very, very creative place. After all, talent is very, very rarefied in our industry, and there is some great talent in Britain.

That's a good spokesman role for me. I could be a politician.

You should talk to David Cameron about it (laughing).

PM: The frustrating thing for us is that we had a deal on the table with the government for there to be creative tax breaks, and then it was taken off the table again, because of the financial crisis.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Kevin Patterson
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I loved Fable 3...... The ending in Fable 3 was so much better than Fable 2, that made it better at least for me.

The thing about Fable 3 that wasn't so good was the real estate. I LOVED having that feature but it was tedious managing upkeep, I felt it took away from the fun.

One of the best things about games like Fable, is being able to go back to the places you have been in the previous games. While the games have had some of that, I wish lionhead would have more of that in the next Fable game.

I also felt the game jumped too far into the future for the 2nd game, I miss the hero's guild, and none of the fable games since Fable 1 has had a villian as interesting or as menacing as Jack.

Great Interview...Thank you Peter for your games, and your idealism.

Andrew Pace
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To me, Molyneux has forever marred his image. He continually apologizes for his marginal games, which would be okay on their own. His position is made worse every time he releases a new Fable, because he comes out and tells the world that the latest installment is going to be the greatest game ever.

Are his games good? Yes. Do they deserve the criticism they get? Yes. Does Mr. M. come across as an arrogant twit? You decide for yourself. Can he recover from this? Maybe, provided he stops building up his games to the point that the world expects nothing short of perfection.

I strongly believe that everyone in the game industry could learn from Molyneux's foot-in-mouth faux pas: There's one thing to be said for a great game that can stand on its own merits. It's a whole different story when you don't deliver on your overly-grandiose promises.

I could say a lot more about my own feelings on Fable 3, but suffice to say that I think the last half of the game was a chore, and lacked any real substance in terms of plot and gameplay.

Mark Venturelli
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The impression that I get from Molyneux when he talks about his games is that he's really the "idea guy". He just shows up and throws ideas at the actual designers, doesn't bother to play the game too much, doesn't bother too much with details, doesn't bother too much with what actually makes games good or bad. I don't know if it's actually the case, but if I was one of the designers it would make me sick to have someone like him taking blame on the not-so-good game *I* designed, as they were *my* mistakes to make, not his. It would be interesting to see what Lionhead could cook up if the designers stepped up and took 100% creative control over a project.

Nathan Verbois
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I've loved the first two, and I've only played the demo of the third, but it already 'felt' like the best. I can usually tell within minutes of playing a game whether I'll like it or love it, and I'm certain I'll love Fable 3 as soon as I can afford to pick it up. For the record, I have never felt disappointed by how any of the games have turned out. They are each wonderful games that I've completely enjoyed, and I expect the same from number 3.

It's important to always shoot for the moon, even if you don't make it. I say, keep it up, Peter!

Joe Webb
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I like Molyneux's ambition and doubt he deserves as much wrath as usual. But from a design POV there were some things in Fable 3 that seemed like they were a result of them trying to build the game around tacked on Kinect (then Natal) capabilities which were taken away at the last minute; the villager interaction stuff would be a prime example. I don't think they simplified that for ease of play, I think the new system was developed around Kinect (as hinted at by Molyneux earlier) and then abandoned. If that's the case it's a shame they didn't go back to the one from Fable 2. Not being able to choose the specific expression aside, you lose the ambient villager interaction that happened before; for example, farting AT one villager and making them hate you while the others around find it funny and like you. There's a lot less stuff going on based on the tastes of the villagers and it just feels like a game that would've come before Fable 2.

Although the "Sanctuary" menu replacement is long winded and a bit annoying (not to mention the Butler's DLC adverts every time you pause) its a valiant effort from a design point of view, to move away from typical menu-heavy RPGness. But I think the point that he's missing is that, for people who don't play RPGs, it's not necessarily because they're too complex, but because that demographic simply isn't interested in Fantasy. I consider myself relatively hardcore but the iconography and setting of a game still dictates my enjoyment quite a lot; probably why Fable 3's interesting, cliche-breaking Arcanum-style swords-and-steampunk setting made up (at least in my mind) for it's retrogressiveness in playability.