In part two of our exclusive interview with Lionhead studio head Peter Molyneux, we discuss how the industry is growing up, why he used to be such a mouthpiece, and the joys of being a small cog in a big machine...
In recent years it seems that more developers are being honest about failure, and reassessing the way that they do things. Do you think there’s any particular cause for this?
We’re growing up. When I first started in this industry we were like six year-olds. We used to go out and do ridiculous things, we never used to plan anything, we had no idea of anything financial. I can remember that back in the early nineties the word ‘producer’ was spat upon. We used to laugh at developers that had a producer – you know, ‘What would you want one of those idiots for?’ – and we thought that anyone with a producer ended up making games that were rubbish anyway. Now we’re becoming adults, we’ve come to realise that mistakes are a good thing; they’re good to go through, and you learn from them. Just because you’re doing something doesn’t make it right.
My feeling is that if you’re making mistakes when you’ve got 100 people, that’s a really big mistake. So you’d better make sure that you’re making the mistakes when you’re a ten or 20 person team; where it’s absolutely fine to turn around and say ‘You know that last month’s work – it wasn’t right, let’s start again’. If you’re doing that with 100 people, you are throwing millions of pounds down the toilet. I just don’t think that’s acceptable any more.
There’s some very logical production-orientated things that really enable the creativity and the quality of the final product you’re making. But yeah, mistakes are essential, and it’s essential to realise that you’re going to make mistakes – and I call it iteration – but there’s a time to make them, and there’s a time not to. We’re being honest; we’re being more grown up.
It’s a scary thing for this industry to realise that we’re not the new kids on the block anymore. We had so many excuses when we were only ten years old – purely as an industry, we were very, very arrogant. We said things like, ‘no-one else knows how to make creative stuff’. Now a lot of the people I know, both inside Lionhead and at other companies, are realising that this creative process that we do isn’t that different to other creative media, and rather than reinventing the wheel every time we should look elsewhere to how other people do things.
You also changed your PR style at around about the same time, becoming a lot less public about ongoing projects...
After Fable, there was pretty dark time where people looked at the game and compared it with what I said in the press, and they felt cheated. I realised that we just couldn’t keep on doing that. But that was very much a reflection of how we worked, because what I was talking about in the press was what we were experimenting with at that moment, and a lot of those experiments would sort of come out as you were making the game. So I’d be talking about trees growing, and then we’d cut trees growing, and people would, of course, feel cheated.
So I made a rule: I will not talk about any concrete mechanics unless I can actually show you them in game. I’ll talk about our ambitions to make the best role-playing game of all time, but if you see Fable 2 press you’ll see that I talked about stuff as I demoed it.
People understandably get enormously upset about it – it’s like seeing a trailer for a film and seeing Batman die, but then he doesn’t die in the film; it would just be wrong. So I think a lot of what we do is realise what we’ve done wrong and work to try and make that right. It’s far better than thinking that we get things right all the time.
How have you found it? I think people realised that it wasn’t out of malice that you said these things, but just pure enthusiasm.
It’s very, very difficult. There are lots of things I would like to show you know. Within ten feet of you right now is possibly the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen. I would love, with every atom of my body, to show you that. I’m like a kid that wants to show his toys off at Christmas, but it’s just the wrong thing to do. You just have to restrain yourself, and there’s a lot of willpower that goes into that. And that’s caused a second rule: I must never, ever talk to the press when there is any alcohol around me, because then all my defences go down and I just blabber on and on about what we’re doing and end up in terrible trouble.
I like talking to people about the games we’re developing because I think that developing games is an amazingly incredibly exciting thing, and obviously it’s good for publicity. But the real reason is that I’ve been showing off since I was two years old. This is all part of that process, and being the spokesman for the amazingly smart clever people here who make me look smart is just an incredible experience, it really is. You sit in front of a room full of journalists, especially at shows where half of them are practically dead due to lack of sleep or alcohol abuse, and just seeing a little spark of wonder in their eyes is just amazing. Sometimes it’s so amazing that I just get incredibly emotional about it. It’s an incredible feeling.
Now that it’s been out a few months, how do you think Fable 2 has performed?
Well, I’m a greedy kid. I always want more. I think you can look at the number of copies that we’ve sold and the feedback and awards we’ve got, and you can say, ‘Wow, that’s an amazing achievement’. I’m incredibly proud of what we did – a lot of it seemed impossible when we were doing it. So there’s an incredible feeling of pride.
I do think that, however, that there are more people out there that would enjoy Fable 2. Thinking about that is a real frustration. You can read that as, in my mind, Fable 2 should sell more, because I think it’s a great experience and a great game. Sure, I think there are things desperately wrong with it. Do I want to go in there and fix all of those things? Yeah, of course I do, but I really think it’s one of the best games that Lionhead’s done. It certainly had more innovation in it, even thought it was a sequel, than a lot of other experiences.
Are you worried about becoming just the Fable company?
Lionhead stands for much more than just what Fable is, and we’re working on things beyond that. We’re working on Fable things – we’ve just done the DLC and we are working on other stuff. But we’re also working on other innovational titles – and I’m not going to say title or titles, whether it’s a prototype or experiment, whether it’s near or far away – but I can say that what we’re always trying to do is create something that is meaningful. When we think why we want to do this, it’s because we want to make a landmark title.
It’s a very interesting time in the industry to be trying that, because the industry is turning around and asking itself everything from the experiences we make for our current audiences, what they are, the balance and mechanics of what they are, even to who our audience is. Lionhead tries to stand for innovation and to give people things that they perhaps might not have expected or imagined. That’s very important to us.
So you’re working on multiple games at the same time again?
I really don’t think anymore of them as games anymore – I think much more of franchises. Fable and Fable 2 are just events in the whole lifecycle of the franchise. If you start thinking more like that, and less like ‘we’re going to make Fable 1, then see what happens, then do Fable 2, then see what happens’ – in other words, if I’m trying to make something that’s going to be big, that’s going to sell this much, that’s going to make this much money – then you need to think about much more than just the game.
You’re also recruiting at what’s a pretty tough time for development. What’s brought that about?
It’s a very challenging time for the industry, we’re not used to this stuff. For a long time we’ve been reading things about teams doubling in size, and I think we’re reaching the ceiling of that now. It’s like when Hollywood did movies like Cleopatra, which in today’s terms would cost $300 million dollars. Suddenly Hollywood said, ‘Hang on a second, we can’t do every film for this amount, we just won’t make enough money’. We’re getting near that thought now as well; we just can’t keep on making these massive huge bets, and nor should we be.
Part of the excuse is that it’s the new generation, but that’s here now, and so now’s the time to bring the costs down. Lionhead’s in the lovely position that we can grow just a little bit. Only because of what we’re doing – it’s so insanely hard and difficult that we need wonderful people to do it.
You’re obviously happy with the support you’re getting from Microsoft – how do you feel about the relationship now that the dust has settled?
Of course I’m going to say it’s great, but I’m going to speak with complete honesty: I think they’re a fantastic company to work for. It’s very, very frustrating working for a company that’s 5,000 miles away; I don’t pretend that there aren’t frustrations there. But they have a will and a passion to do things that we want to do, and I think our shared belief of the future and the games that we’re making has been fantastic for me.
I’d say, even more than that, I’ve learnt an enormous amount from them, and I never expected that. And that’s from Microsoft as much as it is from MGS – I’ve learnt that being part of a corporation can be hugely creatively enabling, and I just need to learn and develop a few new skills, some of which involve the fact that working inside a massive machine doesn’t mean you can’t be the fastest spinning cog. It just means that you need to learn where to work. It’s been a very, very interesting time.
I love the job I do. I love it so much. Lionhead is just a wonderful place to work. You’ve got to realise that nothing, nothing, compares to the enormous struggle of dealing with venture capitalists. That was tough. There was a band of people that had invested in Lionhead because they very clearly wanted to make some money, and there was me bursting into the board room and saying, ‘I’ve got a great idea!’ and they’re saying, ‘Oh God, Peter, will you just shut up with your great ideas and get on with making money’. And they were completely right. But that was a real, real learning process, and coming from that – and VCs are in one way easy to work with, because they’re very clear on their motivation is – but when you’ve got a child like me coming into that mix… I had to learn a lot in there.
So going from that world to the Microsoft world is like getting out of jail, being able to breathe again. I’m in a fantastic place, I’m enjoying it, I love the challenges and the pressure. I love the idea that Microsoft has this vision and we’re getting towards that vision. And it’s a great time to be who I am, my position in the industry – sometimes I’m this passionately creative person, sometimes I’m this sales person and sometimes I’m this financially-led studio manager. It’s fantastic to be able to be all three.