Game Masters: Peter Molyneux

What's the fabled game designer up to now that he's left Microsoft?

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This interview is part of GameSpot's Game Masters: Behind the Talent feature, which explores some of the biggest names in game development. The feature coincides with a new exhibition celebrating video game culture taking place at the Australian Centre for Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, Victoria.

The exhibition showcases the work of celebrated game designers from Australia and overseas through a combination of concept art, interviews, and more than 125 playable games from the arcade era through to new releases.

"There is no end to development."--Peter Molyneux.

British game designer Peter Molyneux's projects have spanned PCs and consoles over the last 20 years, from Populous (1989), his first commercial release, to the Fable franchise (launched 2003).

Released by Molneux’s Bullfrog Studios, Populous sold four million copies and introduced players to the god game. Following Bullfrog's acquisition by Electronic Arts, during which Molyneux became vice-president for the publisher, the designer left to spearhead a new studio, Lionhead, using $6 million of his own funds to create the studio's first tile, Black & White (2001).

After shifting focus to Microsoft's Xbox console, Molyneux developed the action role-playing game Fable (2003), combining fantasy, moral choice, and plenty of humour. The same year Fable was released, Molyneux received an OBE in the British New Year’s Honours list.

Earlier this year, Molyneux quit Microsoft to start a new studio, 22 Cans. His latest project, Curiosity, deals with psychology and social media.

Check out our interview with Peter Molyneux after a few words from the man himself:

What three things does the game industry need right now that it doesn't already have?

That's a big question. The number one thing we need is a sense of unity. At the moment we don't feel like one industry: we feel like two or three. On one side you've got all the core game developers making games for consoles; on the other side you've got social games; and on the third side you have mobile games. It doesn't feel like we are coercively one industry anymore. It just worries me slightly that we're not able to join together.

Secondly, we need to recognize that we as an industry have an incredible future. If you look at how much the game industry is worth worldwide, there's a huge future there. If we have that sense of a future it will means publishers will invest more and when they invest more, it will mean innovation. The industry could always do with more innovation.

Thirdly, we need more knowledge of what the hardware manufacturers are thinking about in the next three to five years. Normally, console manufacturers tend to be really closed shop, but a lot of the innovation in games development tends to happen within the smaller developers. So we need [the console manufacturers] to include the more independent groups in some of their decisions.

The idea of the auteur has been discussed recently in the games industry. Can the gaming industry be defined by individual personalities, rather than entire companies?

Now that we are a substantial industry and there are lots of different avenues for people's creative ventures, you can start seeing that there is room for auteurs, whether they're individuals or tiny groups of people.

The huge 400-strong development teams who sit on the other end of the spectrum are of course very different to this, but essentially they're both doing the same thing: creating something that is going to entertain people. That's a fantastic sign of the future.

How are new business models like digital distribution impacting on how people get their games out there?

Existing publishers that have models which are based upon investing a lot of money in product development and then launching at retail, that world is changing very fast and its causing publishers to redefine who they are, what their role is, and what their specialty is. Along comes digital and it redefines everything. When anything changes that much, it causes a lot of opportunities and I think it's fantastic that there's this very short route between a developer and a gamer. Only goodness can come out of that.

As a game developer who has been in the industry for a very long time, what things have become easier, and what things have become harder in the last twenty or so years?

The one incredible thing that's become much, much easier is reaching people. It's much easier to reach consumers because of social networks, and digital communication as a whole. You can build teams and literally ask the gamers who like your games: "Hey, what do you think of this?"

That was impossible when I started. The only way to do that--and I tried this once--was to take an ad in the paper and ask people to write in. Now you can Tweet and ask people what they think and you can get thousands of responses. Just being able to pull people's experience is priceless. That is an incredible shortcut. That's also allowed us to find talented people--that's also become a lot easier nowadays.

But that global communication is also a double-edged sword because it leads you to a sense of confusion. There's something to be said for locking yourself away and closing all the doors and create something amazing. At the moment, you can almost ask too many questions and get too much feedback. There's no idea which you can put out there which someone won't try to shoot down. With so many games coming out every single day on a variety of formats, it doesn't feel like you can as easily go out there and find an idea that hasn't been explored before.

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Back to that idea about consumer feedback, what are your thoughts on how far that can go? Should consumers be able to demand changes from game creators, if they don't like how something has been done?

There has been many times where I've watched films or read books and felt cheated at an ending. It's just today that you can say that about a computer game and then give feedback and that feedback can create a controversy.

I think that we as authors of stories and entertainment, we have to stand by our decisions and justify them and take the rough with the smooth. If people don't like it you can't just go and change it because if you have any sense of authorship, you're playing through a plan. That being said, nowadays there is no end of development anymore. You used to release a game and that was it, you were done. It was in the box. Now, you release a game, and there is this possibility and technology that allows you to change it. [In regards to the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy], BioWare are the authors, they are the creators of this world. They entertain millions of people and we have to put our trust in them. If they believe in what they did, they should stand by that.

Can you tell us a little bit about your decision to leave Lionhead and Microsoft, all the things you achieved there, and the new direction you're taking with 22 Cans?

I love the people at Lionhead, but for me, I think the way my creative mind works best is when I'm in a small team of people just trying out insanely ambitious ideas. That's where I work best. It's not as the captain of a huge ship, but rather a nimble little sailing boat. I left because I felt Lionhead had the Fable franchise worked out, and I had all these mad crazy ideas that I wanted to experiment with and that meant finding completely new people to work with.

Not being bound by any platform or any larger corporate direction gave me the freedom to explore avenues I wouldn't have been able to explore at Microsoft. Yes, it was a hard decision to make--it's very scary out here, and I cried when I left. But as soon as I walked into my new office it felt unbelievably refreshing. I've been more creative in these last eight weeks since leaving than I have in a very long time.

Due to personal reasons, Peter Molyneux will no longer be coming to Australia to attend ACMI's Game Masters exhibition. Check ACMI for more details.

To find out more about GameSpot's Game Masters feature, visit the home page.

Read our Game Masters interview with Tim Schafer and Warren Spector.

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