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Devil's in the details for Peter Molyneux

Legendary developer sweats the small stuff in Black and White 2 and The Movies; shows both titles-in-development at GDC.


SAN FRANCISCO--It started with a god's-eye view of a lush and peaceful island.

Then, with a flick of the scrollwheel, Peter Molyneux zoomed in--all the way in--until the screen was filled with blades of grass, gently swaying in the wind, and ants. As an aside, Molyneux noted the ants are "fully simulated" and have their own nest.

So went Molyneux's Game Developers Conference demo of the upcoming sequel to his best-selling Black and White--a veritable peek into Molyneux's philosophy of giving the players an insane level of detail in every aspect of his games.

Molyneux, who heads up Lionhead Studios, discussed his vision for games in the 21st century, using incomplete builds of Black and White and The Movies to illustrate his approach to game making. For game players, the most exciting part was getting a peek at both of these promising games.

Molyneux's next iteration of the Black and White franchise further embraces the concept of the "god game." While the original cast you as a tireless servant of your people's needs, the new game will challenge the player to assume the role of a god of peace or a god of war. The war aspect aims to marry the traditional real-time strategy game with Black and White's physics engine.

Taking a cue from the first Black and White, Molyneux is looking to revolutionize gaming by moving away from menu-driven interfaces. In Black and White 2, the left mouse button enables the player to move around the landscape and the right mouse button lets the disembodied hand manipulate objects.

While deceptively simple, the system allows for a wide variety of interactions.

For example, the player can use the hand to organically place walls of any height or thickness, duplicate existing buildings, move or chip rocks, spread flowers or just rub away the grass in a particular area.

How those interactions will impact the RTS portion of the game will be up to the creativity of the players, but having a real physics engine opens up a plethora of strategies. As an example, Molyneux explained that players can gather rocks on top of a hill and wait for the enemy army to show up. When it does, the player can yank out the bottom rock and send an avalanche rumbling down on the unsuspecting troops.

Fireballs and boulders can also be tossed in the fray, decimating friend and foe alike. "Being able to cause untold death and destruction is all part of the fun," Molyneux said. The armies themselves won't have an artificial population cap and will be limited only by the player's resources and, presumably, your computer's ability to keep track of all those warriors. An army of 5,000 fighting a similar-sized force will be possible, Molyneux said.

The creature avatar, which was central in Black and White, takes on a different role this time, either as playful pet or ruthless warrior, depending on your war and peace proclivity. "You're either making a puppy dog or an attack dog," Molyneux said.

Alternately, you can forget about it entirely and tie it to a tree, though Molyneux notes that it will slowly starve.

In a nod to Molyneux's earlier hit Populous, Black and White 2 will include late-game epic miracles, including volcanoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes that will lay your opponent's tribe to waste.

Molyneux demonstrated the volcano, a horribly destructive calamity that began with a short cutscene of a mountain rising from a plain and ended with a charred village and torrents of lava snaking out in every direction. Molyneux also noted that players will be able to heat and cool the lava, but didn't offer specifics on how that was done.

The preview of The Movies was shorter, but demonstrated some of the same approach to design.

Molyneux said he realized while playing an early version of the game that it relied too heavily on menus, and did away with them. The result is similar to Black and White. Players, who are charged with running a movie studio, use a hand to manipulate the world, training movie stars, directors and script writers, and interacting with movie sets and facilities.

Leaving a cursor over a person or building reveals information about the game object. "If you leave it there a long time, you will even get the thoughts going through your star's mind--and those are some disgusting thoughts," Molyneux said.

Created movies can be in just about any genre and resemble films created with The Sims 2 moviemaking toolset.

Of course, since this is a Peter Molyneux game, it's not just about filmmaking. A sordid rendezvous can be arranged between stars to spark onscreen chemistry or generate extra publicity before opening day.

Molyneux wouldn't commit to a release date for the titles, saying there was a lot of balance issues yet to be dealt with in both games.

The demonstrations showed why Molyneux is regarded as a visionary in the industry. By focusing on even the tiniest elements of his games, he creates convincing worlds that immerse players in his reality.

But sometimes, that approach gets taken to extremes.

At one point during the presentation, Molyneux mentioned that a six-person team spent two weeks working on the consistency of the feces of Black and White 2's creature, deciding whether it would be hard or soft.

Was he kidding? Knowing Molyneux's attention to detail, probably not.

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