Industry icon reveals why he quit Microsoft in pursuit of that perfect game, and why he now needs you...
The PR bodies, whose trained politeness and diplomacy skills will often ensure Peter Molyneux does not discuss certain matters with the press, are nowhere to be seen.
Cathy Campos, a frizzy-haired champion smoker who has devotedly represented Molyneux since March 1994, is conspicuously absent in particular, to the extent that when a Silver BMW X6 pulls up I still check the back seat expecting her smile to beam back at me.
"Cathy's no longer with me," says Molyneux, eyes fixed ahead at the steering wheel.
"She's with Microsoft."
In what will most likely be his final major attempt to craft a perfect, industry changing video game, Molyneux is prepared to cut even his strongest and most personal ties.
Speaking with Develop, the industry luminary breaks his silence on why he left Microsoft, lays to rest the story of Milo, and declares why his new indie studio – and next project – “will change the world”.
What happened the day you decided to leave Microsoft?
Well I’ll wind back a little further and firstly discuss what led up to that day.
About 18 months ago, this series of strange things started to happen. I started to get all these accolades.
I got a BAFTA Fellowship. I got a Lifetime Achievement Award in Spain, another in Italy, over in the states I picked up a few more. They were all coming in.
Of course, I was unbelievably proud of it. But eventually I took a long hard look at all these awards lined up on the mantelpiece and asked myself, do I really deserve these? Are these a representation of everything I’ve done before? I couldn’t believe it.
Is this it? People were saying “you’ve done it all, Peter”. Have I?
All those awards, they should have gone to the people I worked with at Lionhead too. I don’t think I deserved them. I couldn’t accept that I’ve already done my best work.
I’ve waved my arms around on stage and talked to the press for years and got people excited about games, but my passion is making games and I think I’ve still got something to offer.
I don’t think I’ve made my best game.
And I haven’t made one of the greatest games ever, have I?
To achieve that is my absolute, absolute passion.
All the steps that I’ve taken in my life have led me to this point.
I want nothing more than to create something truly worthy of all these trophies I’ve got.
So, yes; back to leaving Microsoft. I had this unbelievable desire to make something special. Of course I didn’t have the idea for the game itself, partly because when you’re at Microsoft any idea you have is property of Microsoft.
But then, this terrible thing happened to me.
One day I was at the studio sitting on my chair, in the zone, my eyes closed, my headphones on, blaring music in, trying to think of ideas for Fable The Journey.
Suddenly I felt my chair move. I looked around. Standing there was the Microsoft chair adjustment personnel, this nice woman who comes over once a month, fiddling with my seat settings to make sure it was posturepedically correct.
I thought; this is insane.
I was in a creative padded cell. Microsoft was so safe. Microsoft was so nice. You’re so supported. Everything I did couldn’t hurt me, both creatively and physically. The danger was long gone. I had this huge desire to make something truly special, and I felt like I was being suffocated creatively a little bit.
That was the moment I realised I had to go.
You felt like a punk rocker in a brass band.
Yes, that’s right. It feels like that. I need the sense of… well, I find you produce your best work when you’re at the precipice. You only work out how to achieve something when you actually need to.
The last game I really truly actually worked on was Black & White.
I suppose I did some things on Fable one and two, but even then I was starting to get pulled away in different directions.
It’s been a long time. Now I can obsess about one thing, one true thing, which I will dedicate all my energy to.
At Microsoft I was I was presiding over these Fable games, I was flying to Redmond [Washington] every three weeks, I was visiting other European studios and seeing what they got on with. There was a hell of a lot going on and I wasn’t able to focus on anything.
It’s typically the structure of any creative business that, the higher you are up the ladder, the less chance you have to create something yourself.
Yes absolutely and usually it’s about not having enough time. You jump from stool to stool so quickly, there’s such little time to be creative.
I was essentially an editor. The points at which I touched things like Fable The Journey and Fable 3 were so brief, that the way I interacted with those teams became very fractured.
Lionhead didn’t know whether or not I was going to come in for half an hour and start drawing all these ideas on the board, or whether I wasn’t going to see them for weeks. That whole relationship wasn’t quite working perfectly for me, and it’s my fault.
We’ve spoken to a lot of Lionhead staff since you announced your departure. They’ve all said they love you.
[Holds emotions] It’s amazing. But I frustrated them. My leaving is the best thing for them. I was this glass ceiling. Now that’s broken, great people will emerge. I love them and hope they do.
You’ve spoken about having the chance to make this one truly unique, standout game. Wasn’t that Milo?
Milo was interesting... I was... For me, Kinect was all about connecting people... I wanted Milo to be like nothing else before.
The game did work, it really did. But I think that the world – whether that world is retail or marketing executives – wasn’t quite ready for Milo.
I think people were ready for it. They were discussing it. They were puzzled by it. They were excited by it.
Yeah, I know, I know. And we had gone through a lot. I mean, there’s three or four or five hours of crafted gameplay in there, and it was an amazing experience.
Sounds like the project was nearly finished.
Yeah it was. It’s just that... what was so hard for some people to imagine is what Milo would look like on the shelves, sitting alongside these murderous shooter games.
“I can’t imagine what it would look like in GAME or Gamestop,” is what people told me.
Of course, now that we live in this digital world, maybe things will be different. I know it was only axed a couple of years ago, but that’s a long time in the industry.
The first time I pondered you retiring from Microsoft was when I heard about Milo being axed. You need creative fulfilment.
It took me a long time to get over it. Of course, I understood the decision. I really did. I’m not complaining about it. You have to be realistic about these things.
You can’t just grieve for months over the death of something, whether it’s a game or family member. But it was really hard.
What hurt the most is that the game actually worked. It was this amazing, emotionally engaging game that was all about forging a relationship with the player.
Did you ever get the chance to show it to people outside the industry?
Actually I did, yes. What was amazing is that those who played it were emotionally touched by it, that’s for sure.
Let’s move on. You’re now focused on 22Cans. Let’s discuss the financials behind it. It’s seed funded at the moment – do you want a VC partner?
Well let’s get something out the way – I’m not going to be in charge of the business. I made that mistake with Bullfrog, and with Lionhead, I’m not going to do it again.
I’ve got a business partner called Peter Murphy [formerly Lionhead chief financial officer] who utterly gets what we’re doing.
Now, about money; one of the things I’d like to point out is there are no true indie studios. For me, a true indie is someone that can do everything themselves with no dependents at all.
Everyone else in games has to answer to the amount of money they have, and in my experience, that can be hugely constraining on a brilliant idea. In fact, that’s probably the single most destructive thing on creativity.
Ninety per cent of the time people take this one approach to eliminate risk. It goes like this: The studio plans the average team size needed for the project they’re going for. They then map out the average development time. Then they calculate how much money they need based on these factors.
It sounds logical. You have x amount of people and have planned out x amount of time. That process is a complete disaster. Because what you’re doing is looking at a template of how things are already done to determine your output.
We can’t look at things like that. What does it take to rise above the competition? You need the funds in place to take your team through as much experimentation as they require. We can’t just make something like an iOS game in three months and hope it hits.
That being said, yes we have the seed funding to allow for a considerable amount of time to experiment. But undoubtedly, we’re going to need a partner.
We’re going to need a partner, because our scale of ambition is not just about the game. It’s about the infrastructure. It’s about the technology.
We are, probably in a matter of months, going to seek a partner.
There is a theory that if you pay your team enough so they don’t have their personal finances on the mind, they become much more goal-orientated. They begin to go from thinking ‘how can I earn my wages’ to ‘how can I do something great?’
Yes, and brilliant people are incredibly hard to find. When you have one, you need to do everything you can to make their lives as easy as possible.
But there’s a line. If you make people too comfortable, they can lose that hunger. How we challenge this is really simple: when we founded 22Cans, there is a pot of shares in the company that we’re going to distribute to all 22 staff. So it’s not my company, it’s ours.
For me, that’s the incentive to all of our staff. It’s not just a base salary – it’s about making people know they are the company.
Is that why it’s called 22Cans? Twenty-two people working together?
[Evasive] Well I, well...
That’s a secret to be revealed another time, perhaps.
Yes it is. It could be about twenty-two people saying they can. It could be twenty toucans.
Let’s discuss the founding design principals of the new studio.
There’s three central philosophies that will drive my next game.
The first; I love and adore connecting people in multiplayer. The best way to play Populous was connecting two computers together. You had to get an RS232 lead and unwire it, and switch over pins two and three, but when you did that it was an amazing game.
It’s only now that we are able to truly build games which can connect all kinds of people.
So building something that’s truly multiplayer is one of the things I want to achieve.
Secondly, so many of our connected experiences are bound up in these little boxes. I’d love to play Call of Duty more online; I just can’t. There’s this huge skill barrier. At the other end of the scale you have Zynga games where everything is so… it’s crafted in such a compulsive, hungry way that it puts me off.
I think there’s got to be a kind of game that’s accessible and amazing for everyone. People of all different skills and tastes playing together. That’s what I really want. I want to be able to play games with my son, and my wife, and someone I’ve just met down the pub and people who love games.
The third philosophy, and I’ll have to be a bit more general about this otherwise it’ll give away too much, is to build something that doesn’t have a full stop. I mean, Draw Something, I’m almost at the end of my time on it. I’ve done it, it’s been a laugh, it’s wearing a bit thin now.
Even games like Portal 2. I loved it. I got to the end of it, I was done. But what if a game wasn’t like this – what if a game was like a hobby?
I’m a bad example, because my hobby happens to be playing games. My point is that there’s no game that encapsulates a hobby. The closest we’ve got is World of Warcraft. The thing about hobbies, when you think about them, be it gardening or fishing or whatever, is that people do these things for years. Why can’t we have a game that feels more like that, in which you can dip into and dip out of over the course of a very long time?
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall all those years ago when the producers and writers for [Longstanding British Soap Opera] Coronation Street first sat down and discussed this show they wanted to make.
“We’re going to make this TV series,” the writers would say.
“Okay, what’s the story”, the execs would reply.
“Well there isn’t one. It’s just a street.”
“Okay… what happens to the street? Does it blow up?”
“No. Not much happens. All sorts of little things happen.”
“Right, what’s the story though?”
“Well we’re going to write it, as we go, for 50 years. It will be the most watched show in Britain.”
I mean, how did they do this?! How was this conceived?! How? How did it happen? It’s an unbelievably brave idea. A TV series that will last forever. It sounds impossible. I can’t imagine how it was ever commissioned. But it’s here.
With regards to games, it appears that your new inspiration is Minecraft, specifically when you discuss how players can shape game worlds and gameplay isn’t fixed.
Oh it is a huge inspiration. The thing about Minecraft is that Markus Persson did something on his own and wasn’t constrained by the foundations of games design.
These foundations – things like progression, and scores, and teaching the player – have become features that people assume are essential in all games. They are weighing us down more than anything.
A lot of the time in this industry we forget that we’re supposed to be making great games and just get caught up in this treadmill.
Markus just threw people into his world and left them to it. No beginning. No end. The gift was giving people a world to play with. The genius was not adhering to those old stale rules of game play.
There is an approach to making this new game that’s crucial to us. We have to design it in layers. What I want to do is have something playable in a matter of weeks. From that point onwards we are going to play it and refine and refine it until it’s ready.
So what kind of people do you want to hire to carry this ambition forwards?
Well I’ve got this idea. I’ve got this idea of how 22Cans, as a company, will be shaped.
It’s going to be is seven industry veterans who have been through the mill many times before.
Add to that five highly experienced and unbelievably passionate people who have been through triple-A work a few times.
Then, adding to those twelve, we’re going to hire five people who haven’t had any industry experience at all. They’ve probably hardly ever worked at a games company. They’re going to be graduates, or maybe people who have done some intern stuff.
Then, lastly, five people who work outside of games. My theory on that is, if we are going to make something truly new – something where people can’t say “well it’s a bit of this game mixed with a bit of that one” – then we need to hire people who exist outside of our box.
So I want to mix those people outside our industry with young and enthusiastic people as well as industry veterans and highly experienced staff.
If we wrap all those 22 people together, around this great and crazy and highly ambitious idea, and we sit down and experiment and innovate and play that idea, then maybe we can make something that can change the world.
Tell me more about the people who have joined so far, to give an idea of the people you want.
Let me give you an example of someone who’s starting in one week’s time. He’s called Paul Knight, and he has for the past seven years been working at a GCHQ – a company that essentially data mines our lives. Paul has been responsible for that, and what’s great about him is he has this passion for data.
What I’m fascinated by is how data has become the nuts and bolts of our lives; what you’re doing, what you’re not doing, where you are, who your friends are. That’s what is going to bring this world alive.
I could have gone for some analytics engine developer at Zynga, but that’s just not good enough, it’s just not good enough.
I love bringing people like Paul in, who reads and understands data so easily. Games aren’t his skill, data is.
That’s what you mean by people outside of the box.
Yes absolutely. I mean, another person I am fascinated by, and am thinking about hiring, is an architect.
I mean, I know that sounds mad, but think about it. Architects are people who design things that dominate spaces, and they do it from nothing, from a blank sheet of paper. And they don’t just think about its visual style, they are thinking about how it works. How do they even do that?
Who has joined the company so far, and by when do you want your 22 people?
We want 22 staff hopefully by the end of the year. Finding them will be very tough, I know it will, which is why we’ve contacted Develop and why I want you to put the firstname.lastname@example.org email address in the article.
So far we have Tim Rance, we have someone called Dimitri Mavrikakis, as I’ve said we have Paul Knight, and in a few weeks we’ll have a couple of people that I’d love to talk about but I can’t just yet. It’s still a bit sensitive. One of these people is definitely a veteran, one is a person who’s had one month’s experience, but as soon as you meet him you know he has this passion and this boundless enthusiasm.
How would you pitch the studio to people reading this?
Well, we’re going to set up a brilliant team, together making something completely new, together making something that will inevitably change the world.
If you think that’s not possible, if you think that’s too crazy, then stop reading this and get on with your job.
If you’re bored. If you feel there is more you have to offer. Email me at email@example.com
This will be the fourth studio you’ve established.
[Reflects] Yes, yes it is, well, it’s the fifth company I’ve set up.
Lionhead and Bullfrog were both major, long-established businesses. Is 22Cans your final stretch?
Well I’m 52 years old. I have a strange attitude to life. I consider it a marathon that you’ve got to keep pushing yourself through. I just hope I’m coming near the end of it. I couldn’t do another 26 miles. I’d like to think I’m coming into the stadium now. Just a couple of laps around the track, and I’ll be done.
There’s so much riding on this. You want to make one of the greatest games of all time, you have one, maybe two chances.
So... [Long pause] I’ve been given so many advantages in life. Many of them through luck. I’ve got a profile, I’ve worked with incredible people, publishing bosses know me, developers know me, people know who I am.
I believe it has all led me to this point. I believe the greatest game I’ve ever made is still ahead of me.
I hope this isn’t too personal. What does your son think of your job move?
Well he’s another huge motivator in my life. I have to make him proud of me. He loves the idea that I design games, and he loves it when we talk about them.
He just isn’t quite old enough to fully understand the consequences of games design though. To him it’s simple. Daddy’s gone to new job place, he’ll still be back later tonight.
Let’s go back to the mantelpiece. All the awards lined up. What do you really want your legacy to be?
[Contemplates] Earlier today we were chatting over lunch talking about Portal 2. We talked about it with the assumption that both of us had played it to the end, and loved it.
I want to make an experience that will compel everyone to talk about my game in the same way.
If you could put just one more award on your mantelpiece, what would you want it to say?
The same thing as my gravestone: He believed in something and was a nice guy.