Why Peter Molyneux hates free-to-play and thinks Godus' controls are 'delicious'

Why Peter Molyneux hates free-to-play and thinks Godus' controls are 'delicious'
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

February 26th 2014 at 10:30AM

Develop speaks to the Fable creator about his vision for mobile games, his Dungeon Keeper woes and the latest on Godus

Peter Molyneux is perhaps the highest profile development icon that Britain has to offer. His career stretches back to the work of Bullfrog Productions, with pioneering titles like Populous and Theme Park, to triple-A blockbusters like the Fable series.

Since his departure from Microsoft a few years ago, Molyneux has returned to his indie roots with experimental titles like Curiosity: What’s Inside The Cube? and upcoming god game Godus.

We were able to catch up with the veteran developer at Casual Connect earlier this month, where he told us that Godus on Vita is “a possibility”, and that he believes he’ll never make his perfect game.

But, never a man of few words, that’s not all he had to say.

Read on to find out why Peter Molyneux hates free-to-play, why he doesn’t mind upsetting Early Access users, why indie development is more like taking a flamethrowing to life’s candle rather than burning it at both ends, and why everything we’ve seen of Godus so far is just a hint about what’s to come.

You recently said that in-app purchases in the recent Dungeon Keeper reboot were “ridiculous”. What would you have done differently if you had made the new game?

First of all, my comments were in the context of being a consumer. I think they did a brilliant job of recreating Dungeon Keeper, and they did faithfully implement a lot of the Dungeon Keeper features. But then they felt like they crammed and chained the game into free-to-play.

The brutality of the free-to-play mechanics in Dungeon Keeper upset me because before I could even get into the game, it was asking me to wait countless hours for it to complete certain tasks and that was obviously part of the free-to-play mechanic.

Personally, what I would have done was to let people dig out new areas for their dungeon themselves, drawing on ideas from things like Minecraft with its digging mechanic. I think even Markus Persson used to play Dungeon Keeper, and he got a lot from the digging out that was in the earlier Dungeon Keepers, so I would definitely go down that route. Maybe you could even set it in the mines of Moria, for example, so as you dig you discover a Balrog at the end of your dungeon.

I would make the game I wanted to make, and then work out how I was going to monetise it. If it was a recreation of the old Dungeon Keeper, I might charge £5 and be done with it. If I wanted to explore new free-to-play mechanics, I wouldn’t just copy the model used by previous games. The gem pricing in this Dungeon Keeper was the same as Clash of Clans, but that’s a very different game.

There is a lot of contention happening in free-to-play right now. I hate the term, and I hate the way free-to-play is burning through our consumers and the tender shoots of new gamers. I think the world is ready for a new way to approach that whole angle.

We’ve got to move players away from their first thought about free-to-play games, which is that they will never spend any money on it. Every consumer is saying the same, and a lot of games gradually wear them down

What we’re trying to do with Godus is not think of the free-to-play angle, but a different term, which is ‘invest-to-play’. The idea of players investing in their games is much more interesting. We were worried about motivating players and getting them to feel like the game is a hobby before we even thought about monetisation.

Analytics people have looked at Godus have said it’s insane to do monetisation this way and that we could get thousands of pounds from consumers in their first few hours if we were to do it the same way as other games. But we’re not replicating those models because Godus is completely different to that, and it approaches monetisation in a completely different way.

We’ve got to move players away from their first thought about free-to-play games, which is that they will never spend any money on it. Every consumer is saying the same, and a lot of games gradually wear them down, and then they take a lot of money. My approach is very different: if people feel like this game is a hobby, they will want to spend money. When they spend money, they must feel like they’re cheating. What they get, the type of thing they get, the amount they get, must feel like an investment not a cheat, and if we do that, that feels like a more responsible way of monetising free games.

Molyneux believes Dungeon Keeper would have been more enjoyable if players were able to dig out new areas themselves, rather than paying to speed up the automated process

So similar to something like League of Legends, where players play for free and often spend on outfits for their character if they’ve poured dozens of hours into the game?

Yes, that’s a good example of that, but we need to be as inventive with our monetisation strategies as we are with the rest of our gameplay.

And we need a change in mobile games. Think about the amazing step that Bungie took with first-person shooters on consoles with Halo. Up till then people thought it was impossible to do that genre well on consoles. That’s the shift we need on mobiles.

The big problem that’s building up is that core gamers hate the smartphone. They can’t find anything on it that is crafted for them, and casual gamers are being abused by it. If we’re not careful, the amazing opportunity that this device presents – and that is to engage the whole world in gaming, not just a small sector of people – is going to slip through our fingers.

Because I bet you any money you like, the British government is going to introduce tough legislation laws against free-to-play and if we’re not very careful, we’ll be in the same place that gambling apps are now. Those go through unbelievably strict legislative requirements. We’ve got to be responsible with our consumers, and for me basing your revenues off consumers spending hundreds of pounds on an app just isn’t right. That’s treating whales as addicts, feeding their addictions by requiring unbelievably high amounts of money for them or letting them quit, and then we lose them.

With Godus, we’re trying to approach that monetisation very differently and in a very unique way. We’ve got a limited launch coming up – we’ll announce the actual date at GDC. The whole of the game is insanely different from what people think. They’ve already looked at early access and said, oh we know what Godus is, but that’s just a slither of what the game will be.

We’ve got to be responsible with our consumers, and for me basing your revenues off consumers spending hundreds of pounds on an app just isn’t right.

How so? How does the final Godus differ from the god game we’ve seen so far?

I somehow stumbled on the god genre with the first game I made [Populous] and we’re re-inventing that entire genre from the ground up. We’ve been asking ourselves: What is a god game? What does it involve? What do you do in a god game? What motivates you?

In Godus, we’re giving you a world that is uniquely yours, and it is filled with your followers that trust in you to take them from the most primitive time, where they’re sitting under trees eating bananas, up to the modern day – and that may take months, or it may take years.

Everyone who is playing Godus is connected together, and you are actually playing with millions and millions of people simultaneously. We did that with the learnings we got from Curiosity and we’ve weaved those learnings into a god game. We’re also re-inventing the way we monetise people, motivate them and retain them – all of that has been approached in a completely different way. We’ve forbidden ourselves to look at the way other developers do things and think ‘oh that’s the way to do it’. We’ve absolutely gone and said we need to invent stuff that hasn’t been done before.

Curiosity taught the 22cans team a lot about monetisation but some of their experiments were canned when Apple argued that they made the game more like gambling

What were the biggest things you learned from Curiosity in terms of microtransactions? You started with the famous £50,000 pick axe, but then you added a number of other items, too.

All of those were experiments. I wanted to understand how these ‘whales’ worked. There was a report that someone had spent £500,000 on their tanks in World of Tanks. And so I said one of these chisels would cost £50,000 – that was the experiment. It told me that if you put something out there and put a price on it, it attributes value to that thing and generates curiosity about it.

To be honest with you, we had planned to do more tests on monetisation, but Apple came back to us and said if we monetised the app, it would be classed as gambling. Their argument was if you pay to improve your chances of getting to the middle, it was the equivalent of gambling. So we had to abandon further experiments with our monetisation strategy.

Later on we had some very interesting  experiments: we allowed you to spend a certain amount of money to take more cubes away, and then a certain amount of money to add cubes back. What we found was a little bit of a war starting between the people that wanted to elongate the cube experience and those who wanted to shorten it. Again, it was all about finding out what motivates people and it was fascinating.

And learning from Curiosity, we’ve spent man years making the interactions with the Godus world silky, smooth and delicious. We’ve replaced tapping with stroking and it’s delicious.

I’d rather upset people and then have them end up with something glorious than give them little tiny bite-size updates

What’s the response been like to the Early Access version of Godus?

We actually found ourselves facing a fundamental problem – and I think that every developer that goes onto Early Access faces the same thing.

When you release on Early Access, you get people that are used to looking forward to updates. We’ve released this slither of Godus, where we weren’t connecting worlds together, and then we updated every week and we realised that looking at all the data and analytics, there were some core systemic changes that we needed to make to Godus and they would take months to work.

So we had to rewrite from the ground up, the whole simulation. The whole interface of Godus was wrong, and the analytics proved that: people got exhausted from stroking over and over again. So we had to go back the drawing board and do man months of work. And that means we had to stop this daily update stuff, because otherwise you’re just doing updates; you’re not improving the game, you’re just tweaking the game.

Back in October, we said to the community that we weren’t going to do any more updates until we’ve changed these core features, and I think that upset people a little bit, but I’d rather upset people and then have them end up with something glorious than give them little tiny bite-size updates.

My worry is that what people think of Godus and what Godus actually is are two different things. It’s a completely different game to what people think. It’s like comparing Black & White to Fable. It’s an entirely different genre. What we did with Early Access is we gave people a game they could play, one that they could succeed in and on that had an objective, but that we learned from to help us progress.

In the last year we’ve seen a number of one-man indies leave the industry, such as Fez creator Phil Fish and Flabby Bird’s Dong Nguyen. Do you think indies are burning out, and are we losing valuable talent?

Making games is an insanely hard thing to do, and it becomes ten times harder as you go on. What you do in development is you burn your existence out. You’re not burning the candle at both ends, you’re taking a flamethrower to it. You almost destroy yourself, especially if you’re a small indie. I know this because of when I was an indie.

When you put your game out there, the huge weight of social media now is incredibly caustic. You have to have a skin of steel because any negative comment completely drowns out the positive ones. So I can understand how [Nguyen] has put his heart and soul into this game, and all of a sudden the whole world is playing it. It’s like a form of insanity. And then he takes it down for whatever reason – I still don’t fully understand why, he was making £50,000 a day – and I can totally understand how scary it is.

There has never been a game that hasn’t had hate mail attached to it, and you have to be ridiculously tough or inhuman in your way of taking criticism.

What you do in development is you burn your existence out. You’re not burning the candle at both ends, you’re taking a flamethrower to it.

Do you feel disappointed that you’ve not made a Fable game that quite lived up to the original premise?

Yes, obviously. The trouble with me is I do this stupid thing – and I always do it – where I start talking in an excited way about what I’m working on before I’m finished. And what people are actually seeing is me as a designer being excited about what I am doing. You’re not seeing someone who’s a brilliant PR person selling ice cubes to the arctic. When I was at Microsoft, there were these PR policemen in the room trying to pour buckets of cold water over me when I got too excited.

In my mind, as a designer, whenever I’m making a game I have this perfect jewel in mind. Fable for me was this beautiful, incredible, amusing, funny, artistic, wonderful gem of a game that anyone could play, that tugged on the heartstrings and that was instantly engaging.

The gem that was in my mind has never come to be, it’s always flawed in some way. I thought Fable 1 – when you consider that it was the first game I ever did of that type – wasn’t bad. It was hugely flawed in some senses, there were technical issues like the animation didn’t work, but it wasn’t bad. I think Fable II was a step in the right direction, I think Fable III was a trainwreck. It was built to be much bigger than what it was constrained to be and eventually ended up as. If I had my time again, I’d take the advances we made from Fable 1 to Fable II, I’d make the same advances from Fable II to Fable III and spend another entire year working on Fable III. But would it be that perfect gem that’s in my mind? No.

I just shouldn’t get so excited in front of the press. There’s an empirical decay between what the idea is in your mind and what you end up with, no matter what creative field you’re working in. I talk to a lot of creative people and they’re often disappointed in their own work.

Saying that, of course, Godus exceeds that gem.

Fable III was a trainwreck. It was built to be much bigger than what it eventually ended up as. If I had my time again, I’d spend another entire year working on Fable III. But would it be that perfect gem that’s in my mind? No.

So what’s the next step for Godus? You’ve got the limited launch coming up but what’s the roadmap look like after that?

The order of play is that we’re going beta soon. Then it will go to full test with testers playing it for 24 hours. It stays on that until it reaches certain targets, which is a certain level of engagement from players. We’ll continue refining it, and then we will launch it worldwide maybe as soon as the end of April, or as late as July to September.

And at that point, we are going to have the ability to connect up to eight million people playing simultaneously. There’s a huge goal we’ll set, like Curiosity where the goal was to reach the middle. Godus will have another goal, where everyone is playing together. We are going to take the world of Godus from the primitive times – when we do our Gamma release, you’ll be able to take control of two little ape-like forms – and take them up through time, with the little people discovering pottery, the ability to hunt, the ability to farm and so on. We’ll take them through the bronze age and iron age, all the way up to the philosophical age.

As you take the people through those ages, you’ll be meeting other gods. You’ll be competing with some of them, co-operating with others. We have a completely different take on the idea of clans and what clans are. We’ve got these incredible motivators. We’ll be adding later ages, so probably by this time next year we’ll be able to reach the industrial age, and we’ve got plans to take you all the way up to the modern day.

In fact the very opening scene of Godus, when you download the app, is a video where you see someone holding a phone and for 30 seconds it replays all of the historic events that led up to that. It’s about how we got from being Homo Erectus all the way up to here in 50,000 years. That’s the game we’re planning.

And the whole monetisation stuff is completely different to any other take on the model.

One of my obsessions is getting casual people to play with core people. There are virtually no games that I can play with my family.

Godus is a re-invention of the god game genre, but Molyneux teases that it will also reshape clan interactions and in-game purchases

You’re developing Godus for smart devices and PC, but are you tempted to develop anything for the new generation of consoles?

Godus is multi-platform. I can have Godus on phone, tablet or laptop – they’re all portals into your world. If I sculpt on one, you’ll see it come out on the other – it’s a truly connected multi-platform title. We could include the consoles in that and we would if not for one major obstruction: Godus is all about touching your world, stroking your world. We get away with that with the mouse, even though it’s not as nice, but it’s very hard to do for console.

What about other devices with touch inputs like PlayStation Vita, Wii U, 3DS?

I think the Vita is a possibility. I think the Wii U, if you tweak that very clumsy device, is a possibility but I find Wii U very awkward. I think the Steam Box with the touch-sensitive controller is interesting.

We’ve got a plan to do it on consoles because if we did it well, I’d love to have the core gamers from the console market in the mix of the eight million people. One of my obsessions is getting casual people to play with core people. And Godus is designed for that. It is designed to satisfy the core gamer as well as the casual gamer. There are virtually no games that I can play with my family because my son wants to play a core game, my wife wouldn’t know what to do with a core game and I kind of stand in the middle.