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For Peter Molyneux, simplicity is scary
For Peter Molyneux, simplicity is scary
August 22, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

August 22, 2012 | By Christian Nutt
More: Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Design

You can't top Peter Molyneux for enthusiasm in a keynote speech -- unless you're Peter Molyneux.

Unusually ebullient even for him, at today's Unite 2012 conference in Amsterdam, Molyneux delivered a presentation that protested the constraints of the big box console games he used to work on at Microsoft, in favor of new, simple ideas that appeal to everyone.

"One of the reasons I really wanted to leave my beautiful, wonderful, safe place at Microsoft was to have a single idea," he said. "For me, having one idea that I and my team utterly, completely, obsessively, focus on is the reason that I left."

Massaging those single ideas into games not only takes a new way of thinking, it takes a new kind of team.

Games for everyone

"The amazing thing about where we are today is that the whole world is becoming gamers," said Molyneux.

"I'm bored with movies, I'm bored with TV programs. We're in the industry, the last entertainment industry that really, truly can surprise people.

"We are in the industry where surprise has to be at the center of everything that we do."

A new kind of dev team

"We have got so many toys to play with," said Molyneux, referring to the various devices that now play games. In this new world, he says that we must "think in a different way in how we bring a team together, think in a different way how we design and develop, think in a different way how we test and experiment, and think in a different way how we present and have people discover our experiences."

That led Molyneux to get different kinds of people to work at his new startup, 22Cans; people who weren't necessarily video game developers.

"It would be easy for us to bring together twenty or so developers from the games industry, but that's not thinking different," he said.

Fresh blood, fresh ideas

He admitted that it has been "frustrating and bewildering" at times to deal with this new talent -- he's had to explain fundamental concepts like frame rate to his new hires -- but also their sense of out-of-the-box thinking and enthusiasm has been key to pushing the team's energy and ideas.

"You've got to have that energy, that fire in the belly," said Molyneux.

Thinking in new ways is key, he said, because getting out of old habits is hard. Games have conventions, and those conventions hold designers back.

"It's so tempting to fall back on our old cornerstones of design," said Molyneux. "But often these cornerstones can become millstones round our neck."

Why simplicity is scary

With 22Cans, he hopes to approach the broadest possible audiences with truly accessible ideas. But simple is tough, he argued.

"The scariest thing for a designer isn't complex stuff," he argued. "It isn't a quest with a story and an interesting outcome. The scary thing is simplicity."

"That is terror," argued Molyneux. "That is our abyss. That is the place we don't want to go, when we have to design the most simple and purest thing and make it delightful," he said.

"That's a mistake I've always made, trying to focus on more than one thing."


22Cans is developing a "big game," but first they're releasing an "experiment".

It's titled Curiosity, and it's for iOS, releasing this September. Everyone who downloads Curiosity will face a large cube. Zoom in, and you can tap squares on the cube to make them disappear. Eventually -- after layers upon layers and layers of squares have been cleared -- what's in the center will be revealed.

To one player, and only one player.

Characteristic for Molyneux, this isn't about the gameplay mechanics or even making money, though he said that 22Cans has added in level and chain systems to make the game feel fun, and in-game items to make it monetize adequately.

The question for Molyneux is: "People are tapping on the cube... and if only one person is going to eventually discover what's in the middle... what's people's true motivation?"

"It is a brave concept," said Molyneux. "It is something which I read on Twitter... And what people say on Twitter, I won't repeat what they say... What they intimate on Twitter is that it's crazy."

It's clear that Curiosity is an experiment of a game -- but it's an experiment not just to find player motivation in a granular way, but to find out what effect his game can have on the world of players.

22Cans sees Molyneux striving for the ambition he has always striven for -- but with a renewed sense of purpose, unfettered from Microsoft and console game conventions. Curiosity begs to be downloaded, but can it sustain a company? Can it really teach him anything? Will the lessons be learned?

We'll find out sometime after September.

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Jacob Germany
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It'll probably teach him that having a special mode of player for a demographic of one will be very underwhelming for him. Who's to say that person will even know what's happening? If Molyneux doesn't reveal it, there's a good chance the "one player" never even knows to reveal it. =|

Roy Baron
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You don't think that someone playing a game about tapping a cube over and over until something special happens will know to look for something special to happen?

Jacob Germany
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From what I gathered, there's a point to playing other than being that one lottery winner. So, no, I don't think a game that seems to have a lot of other functionality on the iOS App Store that has a special "reward" for a single person has a good shot of being noticed by that single person as being slightly different than the version for everyone else that they never experienced.

I'm kinda surprised you, or anyone else, does think that the average iOS player will instinctively know that his/her game is slightly different than everyone else's.

Roy Baron
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I think you're making a huge assumption here.

You seem to think that Peter Molyneux, a game designer who is trying to change the very framework by which we evaluate games, would go through all the trouble of creating this game about a mysterious cube that contains an experience or message that only reveals itself to one of potentially tens of thousands of players, only to have it be "slightly different" from all of the other players' experiences.

Really? Is that what you honestly think?

Jacob Germany
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Yes, but that's irrelevant. It could scream loud sirens and flash lights, but an iOS player wouldn't know it's not a common experience unless they knew, explicitly, that this game was designed to have a single "lottery winner". I think it's a huge assumption that your average iOS gamer will have that knowledge unless it's explicitly shoved into the player's face, long before it happens.

Story time! Black and White (a Peter Molyneux game) comes out. You have a creature you can teach, among other mechanics of the game. Now, this creature comes with a short tutorial about "good" and "evil" leashes, clicking to make him move, slapping him when he eats a villager or rewarding him if you like that sort of thing. You get the vague sense that you can teach him to eat or not eat some things, cast miracles, and in general be mean or nice. And the game gives you basic feedback like "Your creature will do that sort of thing more often", making you think that he'll eat that villager more/less often based on your punishment.

Only, you can do much, much more. It's a really, really sophisticated AI that is highly reactive to very detailed specifics about the environment. You can not only teach your creature to eat people, you can teach him to eat people of a certain gender and alignment when he's at a certain hunger rating. You can teach him to not only throw rocks, but to catch fireballs from the enemy and then lob them at neutral villages.

But all of that is blackboxed. Like, really really blackboxed. And the feedback you do get is so vague it often is less helpful than no feedback at all.

Peter Molyneux has very, very original ideas. But he also has a very strong history of being unable to bring those ideas to fruition in an elegant, accessible, or often even a real way. He gets lost in his theory, and the practical application ends up muddied and underwhelming.

I'll tell you what'll probably happen. The majority of players will just try it out to see what's going on, and there's a very good chance that, amidst the levels and chain systems and IAPs, they will assume that what they get is what they get. The most likely scenario is that the "winner" tells a friend about the neat game that he/she played and what happened, and his/her friend will end up confused as to why he/she was so excited. Assuming the "surprise" is worthy of excitement, of which I have no assumptions.

Also, regarding the "slightly different" assumption, do you really think it can be *that* good when the content/whatever will have been made for a single person? So, yeah, even though it's irrelevant to my original point, I think it'll be "slightly different".

Aaron Casillas
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Great points, I've always said "we have enough talent to bring down any machine to a framerate of 1!"

Christopher Thigpen
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For Peter Molyneux "honesty" is scary.

Fixed that for you.

John Trauger
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If only one player gets to see the Secret Toy Surprise, I am immediately turned off.

I know someone will go absolutely nuts trying to chip down to the center and claim the prize (I half expect someone to build a "chipping bot" to break through in record time), and since I'm not going to go nuts and devote my life to this quest, I know it's going to be somebody else that has that breakthrough moment.

Why be the mouse, pulling the lever when I know some other mouse is going to get the food pellet? But then, that may well be what Molyneux is measuring.

I might buy his game if destroying the cube is interesting the way Minecraft made breaking down cubes of material interesting, but otherwise...meh.

Tom Baird
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The same thing could be said for lotteries(only they have to spend cash), but people still buy tickets, because maybe you could be the big winner.

John Trauger
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All a lottery promises is a remote chance at getting the food pellet and that all the mice pulling the levers get the same remote chance at the food pellet. Molyneux' game doesn't promise this at all.

The winner of a lottery is chosen at random (at least in an honest lottery), not selected by some means that handicaps some and advantages others. Molyneux' game selects preferentially for speed in purchasing the game and time spent working at it. For me, since I know I will be selected out it's more like second part of Monty Python's "Motor Insurance Sketch"

Pick it up about 2:35 in, not that the whole thing isn't worth watching--it's Monty Python.

Michael Pianta
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This is my reaction. I don't believe Mr. Molyneux has any secret knowledge so impressive as to be worth the effort it would take to actually win. You just know that a bunch of guys will be going at it non stop and writing bots and things to break it - a normal person has no chance of winning. At least, that's how it sounds, if I'm understanding it correctly.

Raymond Ortgiesen
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I'm trying to think of it like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Except it's Peter Molyneux and the Magic Cube.

While there may be rich kids with a factory of workers opening chocolate bars (or in Curiosity's case children with access to their parents credit cards) there's always the chance that you could log in at just the right time and just so happen to get that golden ticket (final cube).

All I'm trying to say is, BELIEVE Charlie Bucket(John Trauger)!

Joe Zachery
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Reading comments from this guy is almost as bad as reading Pachter comments.

Marvin Papin
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The thing to notice is that there are people with not much money at the bank and others with a laaaaaarge amount of money whom this is a whim and they don't care about a game design. The only thing is how much would you like to spend to know the actual mistery (of course, people never make the ratio between how much they spend an how much they earn by month). There'll be probably a lot of lucubration about the 50 000$ pickaxe but in fact it's all about scaling. Another question, how to earn the most with the less AAAAAaaaaAAAAtchaaaangry bird... sorry. But this is like the game you play only 1s. Is it really about game desin or notoriety, will you play a game where you don't have the time to do anything and maybe sometimes the hope to briefly hear spoken about the result... Letting an apple fall is an experiment, analysing the deformation of a material thanks to a constraint gauge is an experiment, many people are experimenting every day why does the notoriety of molyneux should create advertising and maintain the illusion that we don't know what will happen, a good game desiner has to know what will happen and the succes of this experiment (or not) is mainly base on "how well the noise will spread to make people participate".

that's a litlle bit crude but there are so much designers who are making really cool things, work hard and well and who are nothing in our "industry" that basing everything on the popularity of one guy is insane. Sincerely, if a little designer just fresh graduated had done the same thing, will he'd been as popular as Molyneux, and has it been even done before ?

Johnathon Swift
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I love Molyneux, I love that he's going for it. I love that so many people do call him crazy, because it shows that he's doing things the average person can't even understand. "Bored with X, what could that even MEAN???"

It means he sees that there's still NEW stuff to do with games. If you go to a big budget movie in a theater, or watch a primetime TV show, or even independent stuff you almost certainly know what sort of experience your going to get. But with games there's still room for stuff that's really new. Games that can make you ask "what is this, what am I doing?" Games where you won't immediately now how to play, or what the objective is, where you'll actually have to figure things out. You go you crazy old Brit!

k s
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Mr Molyneux is one of my heroes, so much of what he designed/developed I loved and still love.

Carl Chavez
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If I was in Molyneux's shoes, I'd be so happy if somebody made a bot that tried to beat the game, because it would be great fun tricking the bot.

I look at it this way: this is not an experiment to see how people will play the game. This is an experiment to see how people will try to exploit the game. The real game is only played by his developers, who get some good experience writing behavior-detection code to catch and deceive bot attackers. The resulting experience could be used in later games for implementing much more interesting, behavior-based ideas that Molyneux has talked about in the past, and maybe this time the code will be battle-tested enough for his teams to successfully implement those ideas!

Samuel Batista
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Whatever his goal is, no one can argue that his idea is unoriginal. I think that's more important than any other factor in order to be successful nowadays as a small development studio. Go forth Molyneux, brave those uncharted waters, and prove to yourself that surprise, is a very powerful game mechanic.

Looking forward to this weird cube slot-machine game.

Jérémie Noguer
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The important thing to consider also is that every player buying virtual items in Curiosity will be in the credits and/or closed beta or even be a character in Molyneux's next "big" game depending on the amount spent.

I see this whole experiment as a more evolved and funnier form of kickstarter.

Christian Nutt
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Yep, that's valid stuff to write about that I left out of the article -- simply due to room -- for sure.

Timothee Garnaud
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"I'm bored with movies [...] We're in the industry, the last entertainment industry that really, truly can surprise people."

I think we don't watch the same movies...

Jean-Michel Vilain
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I can't forget all the excitement and the things he promised when he revealed Fable or Fable 2. These games have nothing to be excited about.
However he's such a great speaker.

Jacob Germany
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People often forget his vision far outpaces his ability to execute.

Jacob Germany
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Room has been made for him for decades. And he's made fun games. But he still can't execute as well as he can imagine.

Frankly, I'd appreciate someone who could do both well.

Roger Tober
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Chipping away blocks sounds fascinating. I think I'll be busy watching the grass grow, though.