Interview: Molyneuxâ??s vision for Lionhead

Interview: Molyneuxâ??s vision for Lionhead

By Rob Crossley

August 3rd 2010 at 9:30AM

The industry veteran discusses the Fable studioâ??s creative future and current challenges

It feels like betrayal to record the words of Peter Molyneux and entomb them in transcript. He speaks with an inspirited frankness that’s amusing and fascinating when heard, yet quite alarming when isolated in print.

Molyneux is the creative director of Microsoft Games Studios in Europe – an almighty corporate responsibility – and yet he’s free to joke about the airport level in Modern Warfare. Free to unremittingly criticise the last game he helped design. Free to – as seen below – describe a social gaming ethos as “a load of shit”.

But contrary to popular belief, Molyneux doesn’t really talk in soundbites. He just speaks his mind; openly, with a unique mixture of passion, sincerity and tranquility that is inevitably lost when recited. Develop sat down with the industry veteran to discuss a wide range of topics – from people leaving Lionhead to potential problems facing Fable III.

I wanted to talk about [recently departed Fable lead designer] Dene Carter, because he’s a very talented designer.
He is. He’s amazingly talented.

And it’s not just him who’s quit studio life to make iPhone games, lots of developers are breaking away from well-paid studio work. I think it’s principally because developers come into the business with their own dreams for designing games.
Oh I agree.

And perhaps the App Store is offering developers the best chance to realise them. If someone like Dene decides to leave a studio as reputable as Lionhead, do you feel this is a foretoken to a wider movement?
I think there’s this opportunity now for game developers. I think of the iPhone and Facebook and all these types of channels offer a window of opportunity for small developers to experience what it was like in [bedroom coding era of] the late eighties.

Dene was around in the late eighties and was part of that. He was actually the designer of the first game I ever worked on. I got into this business by converting a game from the Commodore 64 to the Amiga, and it turned out that Dene was the bloke who designed it.

But here’s the problem. We are just one or two games of high production quality away from all this coming to an end.

That’s my belief. It’s inevitable that a Star Wars or Disney game, a five million dollar iPhone project, will be released. And when it does, consumers are going to like it. They’re going to say “I can pay 59p for this [indie iPhone game] or I can pay 59p for this [triple-A iPhone game].”

I think these channels are a brilliant opportunity for people to get a foot in the door, and establish their name. The most recent example being Joe Danger, which won two Develop Awards, on PSN.

But don’t expect this to last forever. Triple-A is here to stay. When TV came along it didn’t replace the movie industry. Social gaming is like TV. It is going to co-exist because, frankly, there’s too much money in it.

Slowly the publishers are moving in on this space. They will nibble away at the market. My advice for anyone doing iPhone games is to be original, think about the things the big companies won’t try.

And in regards to social games, don’t believe the hype. The hype is this: “Oh we only build 20 per cent of our game before releasing it, we do the rest after!” That’s a load of shit. It’s not true. What they should say is: “We add 80 per cent more to our game.”

If you release a rubbish game at the start, it’s always going to be rubbish.  

This is Lionhead’s third Fable project in a short span of time. How do you keep the team motivated and excited?
I’m introducing something at Lionhead. It’s going to be this creative week where, nearer Christmas time, everyone in the studio is going to have an entire week to do whatever they want. And at the end of the week we’re all going to come together look at people’s ideas, and that’s going to form the foundations of what happens next at Lionhead.

I’m a bit frightened the team is going to find out about this ideas week through Develop, rather than an email from me, but I want our staff to know that giving people the creative freedom in what we do is important.

But to be honest with you, what’s more important is that anybody at Lionhead should absolutely feel free to come to me, or a lead designer, and give their honest feedback. I consider that very, very, very important.

Having said that, I think you need to be a creative tyrant at times. If you don’t have a focus, and someone’s got to decide on that, then you get bedlam.

The second Fable project plunged into a crunch period. Could that have been prevented, or is crunch an inevitability?
I don’t think that crunch is possible to avoid in any creative industry. If you’re making a TV advert, a film, a building – anything creative where it’s difficult to predict what obstacles are going to be ahead of you – you’re going to face crunch.

Even lawyers crunch, for Christ’s sake. Accountants crunch. If they have to crunch, then we’re always going to have to crunch.

That’s one side of the argument. The other side is that the games developer’s crunch is so hard and harsh is because, across the line of development, the point where the project has fully formed into a game experience is very late on. Way, way, way too late on. That’s something we have to get away from, it’s something we must get past.

It’s almost like test driving a car two weeks before it’s released to the general public. You’d never do that, it’d be insane to do that, but that’s what it’s like for game developers.

A lot of games development is all done in parallel. For example, all the level tech on Fable is done at the same stage as all the character tech and navigation – it means that everything has to meet a certain level of quality before you discover what it really is like. The developer’s ability to change and refine the game is then restricted down to this narrow band.

With the new additions to Fable III, such as scrapping the HUD and axing a lot of text, it appears as if you’re attempting to widen your target audience. You’re trying to make the game less frightening.
Part of that plan is less clutter, less aggravating little inventions that Peter Molyneux once thought was a good idea.

Less of that rubbish, more clarity, better story, better cast, better balance. Of course, we have to do all this still with fresh ideas and a new feel to the game.

A lot of studios think along two tracks; that wider audiences can be sought with motion control, and core audiences are tailored by more traditional game experiences. It appears as though you want the Fable series to work for both audiences, how?
Well, here’s the thing. The truth about role-playing games is that they are all based on those old paper board games, like Dungeons and Dragons. The weird thing is that what the game industry took from those games was the dice-rolling and all the stats. In fact a big selling point of today’s role playing games is how deep they are, that you can for instance adjust 100 different perks.

But actually, the purity and the core element of role playing games is to feel more powerful. That’s the true core of them. It’s about growing as a character, finding and collecting things, and freedom. What we want to do is amplify those feelings with Fable III.

So here’s the thing; if you can do that clear enough, and do that in an accessible way, then who wouldn’t enjoy it?

The elephant in the room is the controller, then, which is complex and frightening for that audience.
The controller is a skateboard. It requires an element of skill and practice for use. And yes, it is lovely and refreshing to use motion controllers, but they are a different kind of experience.

You can argue all you want that bicycles are better for cycling than skateboards, but ultimately they’re too different experiences for compare.

Games controllers have been designed for two decades, and they’re not going anywhere, they will continue to evolve. I don’t think motion control, in itself, will cause the death of standard controllers.

Motion control has been a really interesting concept over the last few years. Though I’m not sure it’s the most important change over the last five years. That would be a difficult one to choose – handheld gaming, social gaming, the cloud, online gameplay.

It’s been an amazing ride these last five years. I don’t think anyone’s stopped to notice that every six months over the last five years something’s happened that’s changed the course of the industry. Completely out of the blue as well. I mean, I couldn’t believe E3.

All the journalists out there saying they were disappointed, “no surprises”, what do you mean!? [laughs]. What do you expect!? We’ve pulled all these rabbits out of the hat and we haven’t even launched yet!

We get quite addicted, I think, to these world-changing events.

At your Develop Conference speaker session you were keen to have a wider discussion about infusing drama and comedy into Fable. Why?
Part of it was this big question I’ve got on my mind at the moment; why are we [at Lionhead] so RPG oriented, and why aren’t we more action-adventure orientated? Why aren’t we making games in the action genre? – a genre, by the way, that has a large slice of the game market pie chart.

And as part of our new push into the action adventure genre, we realised the story has to be clear, it has to be dramatic, but the cool thing is we can add in our Fable-ness, we can throw in our humour.

I still think there are very few games that make me laugh, and I’m missing that at the moment. I think less games are making me laugh as well because we haven’t seen the Ratchet and Clanks for a while. Call Of Duty is great but I’m hardly going to roll around floor laughing when it’s on.

Unless you’re playing the airport level.
[Laughs] Good point, I was laughing quite a lot then.

You’ve been in the industry for decades. What inspires you to stay?
Easy, it’s an amazing, fantastic, incredible job. I get to play with ideas. Whatever ideas I have, I’m allowed to go to people and tell them – and, get this, if they like it, I can build games on those ideas. Jesus Christ! You can’t get tired of that.