Black & White - Day One: Q&A
Yes, last year at E3 we told you that Black & White was only weeks away from completion. Yes, later that year at ECTS we told you the same thing. Now we're crying wolf for the third time in less than 12 months, and we expect you to believe us yet again. Why? Because this time, it's the truth. Lionhead's long-anticipated god game/real-time strategy/RPG hybrid is a matter of days away from completion--we've been to the Electronic Arts offices and have seen a nearly complete, almost perfectly stable version of the game with our own eyes. We not only saw it, we played it, and judging from our experience, the game's depth and attention to detail are quite impressive.
As part of our weeklong coverage of Black & White, we'll be bringing you hands-on reports, screenshots, and video of this immersive and truly impressive game every day this week. However, it wouldn't be right to start GameSpot's Black & White Week without first checking in with the man behind the game: Peter Molyneux. By now, most people who've been anticipating this game already know a lot about it, and yet they know little about the ideology behind it--about what this game means to Molyneux or why he even chose to take on such a massive project. We sat down with Peter to talk about Black & White from a somewhat existential point of view, while still discussing some specific details of the game like the creature AI and its accessibility to more casual gamers.
Peter Molyneux: I have had a religious background and have personal beliefs which I won't go into now--but I do find religion and especially man's interpretation of what God thinks is right and wrong quite fascinating.
GS: What do you want people to walk away with after playing Black & White extensively?
PM: A feeling of wonder, a feeling that anything is possible but mainly that this is a real world and a real creature.
GS: Are the game's creatures more influenced by your actions at a very young age, like children are?"A feeling of wonder, a feeling that anything is possible."
- Peter Molyneux on what he wants Black & White players to walk away with
PM: Initially, we studied quite a lot of psychological texts to learn more about the development of children, but in the end, we shied away from this as it didn't work in gameplay terms. So in the game, a creature's peak learning cycle is when he is between 3 and 8 years old (estimate this to be one creature year equals one hour of actual gameplay time).
GS: You've said that the creatures won't have a cap on the amount they can learn. Does the single-player game then have to constantly adapt to the experiences that the creature learns in the skirmish and online modes? How big of a headache was that for your programmers?
PM: Truly one of the most amazing and impressive features in Black & White--and one that I'm most proud of--is the emerging AI behavior each creature exhibits. There is absolutely no limit in terms of what a creature can learn. On the flip side, the creature (like humans) can get set in his own ways. The flexibility of teaching the creature, both on- and offline, is one of the most incredible features of the game, and yes, whatever the creature learns on either side, as well as during whatever game session, will most definitely result in additional learning.
GS: Who in the Lionhead offices has the smartest creature? What's the most amazing thing you've seen it do?
PM: Andy Robson, the head of the test department at Lionhead, has the smartest creature, but that's because all he has to do all day is play the game--he is quite a vicious player, and my creature gets scared when he sees Andy's creature around. My creature enjoyed playing many games of catch with Andy Robson's creature, but this may have been because he was better at catch. After a while Andy's creature was getting fed up, and he did the most amazing thing when my creature wasn't looking. He placed a rock in the fire so that it got hot and then maneuvered it into my creature's pile of rocks with his feet. My creature picked up the hot rock and badly burned his hands.
GS: Your creature is the wolf, right? Why not the lion?
PM: Indeed, my creature is a wolf. I really like the wolf--he is a well-balanced creature who's quite intelligent, good at fighting, and has a very cute bark. Hmm, as for the lion...that would have been rather too predictable.
GS: If you play the game long enough, will your creature die of old age?
PM: No, the creatures in Black & White can get very old, and they will slow down, but they can never die.
GS: You've previously mentioned that the creatures in Black & White were initially humans. Why did you ultimately choose to use animals instead?
PM: Initially we did have a male and female character in Black & White, but we felt that it was a bit strange to hit or stroke humans. Somehow it just didn't seem right, so we replaced them with the creatures.
GS: At the end of the game, Black & White will force you to choose between the worlds you spent so long conquering and the creature you've raised since birth. Why present this moral dilemma to players?
PM: There's an excellent reason as to why we end the game with such a huge decision--it stems from the idea that "ambition can't come without sacrifice." We had to think of what would be the ultimate sacrifice a player would have to make after investing so much time (and emotions). I wouldn't be surprised if some people find religious parallels to this--and the game.
GS: Admittedly, Black & White is a complicated and deep game. How do you think casual gamers will take to it?
PM: Well, yes, Black & White is an extremely deep game. I know that I haven't seen everything in the game myself and quite possibly may never see everything given the almost infinite number of "features" (creature behavior), but we have checked over and over again to ensure that the depth does not get in the way of the simplicity by which you play. I do believe that gamers of all types will love the game for different reasons. For example, I have seen children as young as 5 play and get totally obsessed with Black & White.
GS: You've said that around 1,000 people have already played and tested Black & White. What's the most interesting piece of feedback you've received from these people? And from what walks of life are these people? How young was the youngest of these testers? How old was the oldest?
PM: One of the most interesting pieces of feedback has been about the interface. I have reams and reams of comments about how you move around the world--how you can give a player total freedom in a three-dimensional world. The youngest player has been 5 years old, and the oldest 60 years old. The testers have come from very different backgrounds--college students, schoolkids, game fans who have taken time off from their day jobs, even a few girls!
GS: Why did you have to record the voice acting three times over?
PM: The main reason for this was the first two attempts at voice-overs just didn't gel with the game. We also had huge problems finding the right voices for the gods. But after three sessions, I think we've successfully accomplished and secured the appropriate voice and dialogue.
GS: Is this the same game that you started working on nearly four years ago?
PM: Actually, we didn't start work on the game proper until February 14, 1998, but it has stayed remarkably true to the original design.
GS: Looking back at the long development process of Black & White, what would you do differently, if anything?
PM: I'd say that we underestimated the length of time it would take to create the game's rich storyline. The idea of the game was a role-playing game based around a compelling story filled with multiple paths and moral decisions based on actions. Honestly, I thought this would only take a few months, when in fact it took a good year to create and develop a fantastic story--which I think we've really delivered on.
GS: Before you and your designers wrote one line of code for Black & White, you set a number of rules in stone--no onscreen icons, for instance. Do you regret doing that now? Did you during the development process?
PM: Yes. You're quite right. After the mistakes I made in my previous games, I was certain that I wanted no icons in Black & White. This idea had us pulling out [our] hair many times during the development process, and there were times when we almost compromised and placed one or two icons in the game--but ultimately we opted to approach the interface in the way we originally envisaged.
GS: How will you continue to support Black & White now that it's done? Will there be an add-on? Will you give the mod-making community the tools it needs to continue expanding the Black & White universe?
PM: Yes, there will most definitely be support for Black & White after the game ships. We will support players as much as we can, and we will give the gaming community the chance to tell us what they want and to vote on it. Such examples could include which mod or add-on they want the team to develop next from map editors, script editors, new creatures, etc. and also to possibly make parts of Black & White open source.
GS: What are you going to do once the game ships?
PM: Get very, very, very drunk!
GS: Sounds like a plan.
Our weeklong coverage of Black & White resumes tomorrow with a hands-on report of the game. Be sure to come back.