Box Clever: Peter Molyneux on Unity

Box Clever: Peter Molyneux on Unity
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

October 5th 2012 at 2:45PM

We ask the 22Cans boss why he has picked Unity to power his new title Curiosity

[This feature was published in the September edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad]

The Unite Conference brings together the users and creators of the Unity games engine.

This year, one of the tech’s latest converts took to the stage to deliver a keynote on his game Curiosity: What’s Inside the Cube.

His name is, of course, Peter Molyneux, and he’s a man who seems infatuated by a game engine that a few years previously was largely the realm of hobbyist and microstudio developers. Develop caught up with him immediately after he concluded his keynote.

What made you choose to work with Unity when you started work on Curiosity?
For me, the whole point was how quickly I could get started by choosing Unity. Literally, I left Lionhead, strolled the 274 steps up the road to 22Cans’s office, which had opened the day before.

I walked in, sat down, and like a nine-year-old with a game idea, I wanted to do everything straight away. So there and then I installed Unity and, for the first time in some time, I was tucking into the actual process of making a game. I was coding.

And Unity is very impressive from the start of using it. I was amazed by how quickly it let me play around with stuff, and without any artists and a couple of programmers.

That’s just what you need when you’re playing around with new ideas and need to be able to iterate very quickly.

Without that ability, it’s insane. When we started Lionhead we had the idea for Black and White, and it took us six months before any single element was seen on screen.

In that context, working with Unity must be really refreshing on a personal level.
Absolutely. Using Unity is a nirvana. And as well as being nirvana, it also led to the realisation that, as much as I want to be a cigarette-smoking, Coca-Cola-drinking,
20-hours-a-day-programmer, I now know I’m not intelligent enough. That’s the honesttruth.

But you talked on stage at Unite about how Unity does make ‘everyone a games developer’. And you suggested that will change the types of games we see made. What do you think the change will be?
I think that the games being made today really are starting to properly engage with their communities as they are made.

In the industry, we’ve spoken before about engaging with communities for something like ten years now. But for most that just meant having a discussion board and a website that would be ignored most of the time, and have just a few posts picked out.

Now it’s different, because we’re engaging in a mass social space, and there you’re being hit by input all the time.

Even just now, I’ve been been hit on Twitter about Curiosity: What’s Inside the Cube. ‘I don’t get the cube. I don’t get why you’d want to do that,’. That kind of input is incredibly useful stuff, and it now comes in before you’ve even finished your game.

The democratisation process that Unity has extends to the point where the masses offer a huge motivation for me. You have to not be frightened to use that information, and believe me, it is so tempting to bury your head in the sand.

In fact, being honest, sometimes I’d love to put my head back behind the Microsoft sandbags and just go into my ivory tower. But those days are gone.

And the way games are released now, especially on some of the platforms Unity is famous for, it’s just another day of development. If you release on a Monday, on the Tuesday you’re developing again.

So now you’re out of your ivory tower and working with Unity. You described during your Unite keynote the feeling of ‘working without masters’. Is that the only way a game like Curiosity could have emerged?
Well, part of the problem is that any big developer – or any big publisher – has to have process. They can’t allow unbridled creativity, because if they did us creatives would run off into the sunset spending all the money.

There has to be process, be it through greenlighting, concept approval practices or something similar. But, that process does hamper creativity.

There’s no way that you could stand up and say, ‘I’ve got two people in the office, and within four months I’m going to be releasing a game that’s going to be completely different’. At a big organisation you’d need that long just to get the concept approved.

For me, at a smaller studio and working with Unity, there’s a nimbleness and swiftness to being a start-up that can lead to a game like Curiosity. In that setting there’s an insane mount of that ‘just do it’ mentality.

What about the idea that technical limitations can stoke the creative process? You’ve said recently that Populous might not of existed in a post-Unity world.
Well, if you have to design around problems, then quite often, as with Populous and its raising and lowering of land, many things were just work arounds. That is creativity; trying to approach and navigate problems.

But there’s a whole host of new problems to keep us creative, and there’s plenty more to come, and plenty of opportunities.

When you can properly take an iPad and mirror it to your big screen, and you’ve got two screens, that’s an insane design problem.

There’s analytics too. That isn’t a solved problem. We’re only at the start of things there, because we’re only using analytics at the moment to motivate people to spend more money. That’s not going to last long if we continue. We need to start using analytics to keep people engaged.

Moving on, you talked in your keynote about the strength of having a single vision for your game. What did you mean by that?
It’s this simple. I’ve got an idea. It’s for an experience, and it mixes together a lot of other stuff that I’ve had experience of and childishly dabbled with, but not yet got the real delight out of. And I’m hopeful this idea will be the most incredible thing I’ve ever worked on.

If you have an idea like that, you’ve got to sacrifice all the comfort blankets you have. If you’ve been blessed with one single idea, and have clear motivation to implement that idea, you have to go for it. That’s what led me to leave Microsoft and go with a start-up.

And I’ll be honest, it’s truly terrifying being a start-up. I can’t even explain how terrifying it is. I literally didn’t sleep last night as I was so nervous about things.

But there must be some pleasure in being in that position again; to have your own employees, your own studio and a completely new game to work on from scratch. What has that process been like?
Oh, yes. And, I mean, funding is a little easier when you have an established name and a good track record, but there’s still that problem of bringing your team together. It’s an insanely hard problem.

My stomach turns at the thought that you could be bringing together people that may well end up hating each other, or it may become one of the greatest experiences ever.

These people aren’t people I’ve worked with for 20 or so years. Nothing’s tried and tested, so it is terrifying. And there’s all these new people on the block; the likes of Gree and Zynga. There’s relationships with Apple and Google to master. But, yes, it is a very exciting experience.

The big challenge is still establishing games. When Clive Sinclair released his computers, he said we could create the forth most important entertainment medium in the world. We failed.

As developers, we started making content for ourselves, and we forgot about the rest of the world. We found ourselves servicing a narrower and narrower corridor of people.

Our opportunity now, is to take all this amazing, democratising technology, and present things to huge audiences, and show them how incredible being involved in entertainment can be.

www.22cans.com