Peter Molyneux Q&A
We talk with the respected game developer about Project Ego, developing on consoles, and Lionhead's future plans.
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It's not much of a stretch to say that Peter Molyneux has had a hand in some of the most influential PC games to hit the market over the last few years. Since tantalizing gamers with their first taste of godhood in Populous, Molyneux has taken gamers to some unique and interesting places on the PC, most recently with Black & White. Console gamers first came to know his work via conversions of his PC games on home consoles starting with Populous' appearance on the Super Nintendo. While the ports did they best they could, given the limitations of the hardware they were on, they didn't quite capture the unique experience offered by the games from Molyneux and his development teams. Molyneux's upcoming console game, the tentatively titled Project Ego, is his first dedicated foray into console development, and it finds him teaming up with Lionhead satellite studio Big Blue Box to take a fresh approach to the RPG genre. We recently spoke with Molyneux about Project Ego, console development, Lionhead's upcoming titles, and the changing state of the industry.
GameSpot: Tell us about Project Ego's development.
Peter Molyneux I'll be completely open and honest about this, it's the first game I've ever designed specifically for consoles. I've been thinking about Project Ego's game design for 20 years. I've been playing role-playing games forever. I've played a huge number of them and loved every second of a majority of them. The first thing I realized coming to a console for the first time is that it's like going back to school. It's like a new job. There are assumptions you make on the PC about the way people play games (how they play games, what they use to play games, where they're sitting when they play games, what their attention span is when they play games) that you have to completely rewrite. So I found that immensely rewarding and enormously challenging.
GS: How much did you have to change your approach when you started work on the game?
PM: Well, when I say it was like going back to school, it was. Sitting down and thinking about the simple things. A really simple thing is that--and this is oversimplifying it a lot, but it's actually true--PCs are things that you set up and sit in front of and play a game for hours and hours and hours and there are no other distractions around. Console games are things that you go down to the pub, you get half drunk, you come back with your mates, and you play a game. And that is the difference, in film terms, between writing a documentary and writing a feature film. It's totally different.
Console games are much more about entertainment, much more about dramatic scenes, much more about giving you a feeling of the game in an incredibly short amount of time. Thinking that the player may not have played the game for a week and is not going to be playing it day in and day out. And that makes a huge difference. The other element, which can't be stressed enough, is that the mouse on the PC allows us to make certain sorts of games. And those sorts of games really shouldn't be brought to consoles, except in very notable cases. The gamepad on the consoles allows us to make certain types of games that really shouldn't be done on a PC. So the control mechanism, the way people play the game, the sort of content that we're providing--it's all completely different.
Now, that's not to say that we don't think, "Well what can we take from the PC? What on the PC is unique to the PC that hasn't been seen on consoles before?" And that's what is very bold and incredibly scary about the game. I'm probably going to get beat up in the press for saying this one line--I am just opening up my trousers and asking you to kick me in the b**** for saying this--but the ambition of Project Ego is to make the greatest role-playing game of all time. And that is it. It defines everything. The reason why we're making that ambitious claim is because we're taking some of the things we've done on the PC and putting them on a console, and those things have never been seen before. And I'm talking about things like not setting a role-playing game in a scripted world where one hour, two minutes into the game, this happens. We're setting it in a simulated world that reacts to what your character is doing. Your character will influence and change the world in some way. Things like the fact that a typical role-playing game is always set over a weekend!
You know all these role-playing games--you arrive on a Friday night, you realize the world's coming to an end, and by Monday morning it's all over and done with. So what we're doing with Project Ego is that the main character at the start of the game is a kid--he's 15 years old. And you play through the life of that character. By the end of the game, he may be 30 in your case, while in my case he may be 40, in another person's case he may be 50 or 60. You'll find changes that the game makes to the character are important. The character in Project Ego morphs to reflect the way you're playing. You don't have to be the good guy. You can be nasty. If you want to, if you really want to, if you want to walk into a town and think, "I don't like the way these people are looking at me. I'm gonna kill 'em all." Absolutely. Fair enough. And the world will change to reflect that.
Another element is the fact that you aren't the only hero in the world. That's the other thing about role-playing games--you're the only people who realize the whole world's about to come to an end. So why not have a role-playing game where there are other heroes trying to do the things you're doing and there's a slightly competitive nature to it? You know, to put it very simply--and this is not an example out of the game, just a simple example to illustrate it--is that if you're down in a town and someone in the town says, "A princess is being held captive in a castle and we have to help her" and you look up there and you may see another hero there who's just beaten you to it and rescued the princess you think, "You b******! I wanted to rescue her!"
The whole object of this is yes to play through the story, because yes the world is under threat, and yes there's this big storyline. But actually, the key to the game is that you have got to be the greatest hero of all time. And what your hero is, how he is, what he looks like, the way his hair is cut, how many muscles he's got, and whether he's dexterous or whether he's got more intelligence and can use magic more is all based on how you play the character, not some decision you make.
What's always aggravated me about role-playing games is that at the start of the game quite often I'm asked if I want to play as a fighter, a mage, or a thief. Well, how am I supposed to know? I haven't even played the game yet. They should ask it at the end. So just taking that simple inspiration from Black & White, where we had that changing, morphing creature, and applying it to a human being is so much better than having a cow morphing into a more evil cow. I mean, your character will change as you use your skills. Of course, if you start to battle a lot he'll start to look like Conan the Barbarian after a while and have no stealth in him at all. Or if you have a character who is stealthy that's not as muscular. Or having a character who uses magic who's going to look like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. Some of those sorts of innovations that were inspired from the PC enable us to do things that no one's tried before.
GS:One of the conventions that's necessary in an RPG is that it has to end. How will the ability to finish the game at 30 instead of 40 affect the main story?
PM: You're absolutely right--without an end to the story and without there being clear objectives of what you have to do next in the game, you're going to get bored. You need to give players direction absolutely every time. Whether you're distracted by activities we put in front of you in addition to that the main story. Then it becomes a linear story that you weave around in your own choice. For example, because we play this out over a period of years rather than months and days, the way we tackle that is there are events in the story where time passes much faster. One example is that at one point in the story you're actually thrown in prison and you're there for 10 years, and your character ages, which will affect his appearance. Prior to that, if you'd been out in the sun, his skin would have been weathered and tan.
You can also chat up women in the game. You know you're a hero. I mean one of the benefits of being a hero, for god's sake, has to be that. If you can't chat up women, then what's the point? Standing on a mountaintop posing after performing a heroic deed will certainly make it easier to get a date. Whether or not you go off, get married, and have kids is totally and completely up to you. If I want to, I can just play through the game and go through the game as "the hero" and not be interested in sex. And it just means I might finish my game in 20 hours while you might finish yours in 25 hours.
GS: What did you bring from your experiences on the PC?
PM: Well, the techniques of how to build a story, a linear story, and craft it into a simulated world that reacts to you. In some role-playing games, I can walk into town, go up to somebody, do almost anything in front of him or her really, and they'll say the exact same thing. I can be naked, or I can kill their firstborn, and they'll react exactly the same to me. That really compromises your experience in a simulated world. So we're trying to make sure people react to you accordingly.
GS: What console RPGs have you looked at for inspiration?
PM: Well, I've played them all my life, and a lot of what I've drawn on are the amazing production values. These are not trivial things anymore. They contain amazing cinematic sequences. I'm talking of games like Devil May Cry and even Metal Gear Solid, which I'd argue, is more like an RPG. This is why Project Ego has already been in development for almost two years and I almost don't know how long it's going to be in development for because we have to put that kind of production quality in. Coupled with the pure gameplay of something like the Zelda series, which I adored. I loved the incredibly clever way that there was always something to find that kept you going. They always made sure when you finished a challenge there was always the start of another one. Lots of those challenges were based around your character becoming something he or she wasn't before.
Because we've got this morphing character we can really explore that. Part of a role-playing game is wondering what it's like to fight with this new weapon or have a new experience. And they always tempted you with another carrot in the game. Zelda was amazing at threading in different overlapping plot points to pull you in. And the sheer enjoyment of discovery of what was around the next corner. So I would say, in summary, Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry and several other modern-day ones as well.
GS: How big is the world you'll be exploring? How much interactivity will you have? Will it be something like Shenmue?
PM: Well, I thought Shenmue was an incredible achievement, but the balance was slightly off and it's a shame. We actually had discussions about objects in the game, and I think this will answer your question. When walking through a room or a dungeon, there are loads of objects around, and we could make it so you could use any object you like. We can make it in Project Ego that you can pick up a sword and by the force of your physical power it could become the sword of ultimate doom by the end of the game. But that means you walk into a room and almost anything could be significant in that room. Now that is actually really boring and tedious.
If you want to make that choice yourself, you should be able to see and identify the things that are important. So if there is sword lying in there and it is important to the story, then, absolutely, you need a big arrow. Well, not literally, but you need something that says, "Look at this." Without that being there you're not making entertainment, you're making a game where you have touch everything, pick up everything, talk to everyone, and so on, and that's kind of pointless. The point is you're playing through a story and there are shortcuts that we have to take, just like a film. If you're watching a film and it was just a single stationary camera looking down it would be really boring. Films use the camera to say what is important. What games have to do is use that same technique with players--if something's significant, you point it out to them. You don't leave them to guess it. That's not to say you're not allowed to do other things, some bizarre things, but there is direction there.
GS: What else is Lionhead doing?
PM: Well, let me just set the scene for you. Certainly last year was the most amazing year. I mean Black & White came out and the first thing I realized was, "My God we actually finished that title." It wasn't perfect--there were things I would have loved to have changed--but it was a good start. The first thing that we did is...well, one of the problems we have as a developer is that when we create something that's successful and sells, you're kind of insane if you don't follow it up. But asking most people who worked on a project like Black & White for three or four years to carry on working on it--well, you might as well be asking them to jump off a cliff, because they'd probably rather jump off the cliff. But some people are just really, really motivated to take it further. So what we did was create these satellites. Lionhead is sort of made up of Lionhead and these things called satellites. One is Big Blue Box, which is making Project Ego, another one is Intrepid, which is making BC, and we started up a new one called Black & White Studios. A third of the people at Black & White Studios were from the original team--people who really wanted to take it further--the rest of them are new blood. They're going to be doing two things: working on Black & White 2 and working on Black & White Next Generation for the consoles, a completely different game. Not a port in any way-- you don't play the role of a god, you play the role of a creature. All the game mechanics in it are geared toward consoles.
GS: What can you say about Black & White for the PlayStation?
PM: There was a developer that reckoned they could do a version on the PlayStation, which is an amazingly ambitious undertaking, and it's still under development.
GS: How far into development did the Dreamcast version of Black & White get before it was cancelled?
PM: Well, it was a port that actually got pretty far--you could play the first land. It was actually a real shame because it pointed out that doing a god game where you have a hand that was designed around a mouse is very tough to do, almost impossible. All the things that we said earlier about the differences between PC games and consoles were really just highlighted. It said to me that you can't even think about a port. That's why the Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions of Black & White will not use single line of code from the PC version of Black & White. The story's different. Everything's different.
GS: When will those games be released?
PM: You know, I got beat up so much for being late on dates, I'm kind of saying now that I don't honestly know. The only thing is that we're doing an enormous amount of bug testing very early on. That will kind of determine when it gets released, because I don't want to make the same mistake I made with Black & White.
GS: What can you say about BC?
PM: Well, I can tell you a little bit about it. Basically put, BC is set in prehistoric times. Imagine if you discover these pathetic semi-human creatures. They're obviously humans, but they're pretty pathetic. I mean, they hardly know how to wipe their own bottoms or how evolve into the greatest race of all time. Your job is to help them survive.
GS: So, are you playing as a god again?
PM: No, not a god. You are one of the tribe but not one particular person. You control them directly and you guide the tribe outside of its cave initially--this is the first 10 seconds of the game. As you break the opening in the cave you see it's just full of the most incredible life. We've made the dinosaurs just a little bit bigger than real life. When I saw the actual size of a tyrannosaurus rex I was disappointed. In summary, this is going to be one of the most brutal, gory, and savage games that has ever existed on a console. When you kill a tyrannosaurus, there's going to be a sea of blood. We're not talking a few drips--were talking about a flood, a deluge. I remember times as a child wondering what it would be like if I went back in time and what would I do to change the world. This is kind of what you're doing in the game.
GS: BC will be exclusive to the Xbox, right?
PM: Yes, it's Xbox-exclusive.
GS: What else is Lionhead working on?
PM: If you look at all the things we have coming, you'll notice there are members of the original Black & White team not working in Black & White Studios. They're actually working on some new things as well.
GS: As a fan and a businessman, what do you think of the way the console industry has changed?
PM: We have seen some amazing changes and some amazing evolutions in the last couple of years. We all knew the PS2, GC, and Xbox would change things, but, actually, I don't think people fully realized that games were fully becoming real entertainment, not just a niche concept on the fringe. They've become much more set in the real world and much more like movies--but games in themselves. I think it's really terrific. Every time a new game comes out you can see there's still more to come. You look at Metal Gear Solid 2 and Devil May Cry and you have to put down the gamepad because it's so incredible. We theorized about that, but the industry's kind of delivering. The simple fact of what's happened over the last five years--and it's very important, if you think about it--is that if you go to the average kid on a playground and ask him if he or she has a console, the answer would be yes. I mean, I'd be weird if I didn't have one right? That was kind of true about televisions when I was a kid. If you didn't have a game console you're just a weird family. So that means we're not building hard-core games anymore, we're building entertainment. An entertainment that could be part of anyone's repertoire of entertainment--it could be going to the cinema, it could be watching a DVD, it could be playing a computer game. That means the concepts you're seeing and the genres we're redefining are just going to change. Anything you can think of as a computer game is gradually changing. I mean, what is Metal Gear Solid 2? Is it a role-playing game? Is it a shooter? Is it a strategy game? It's something new, you know?
GS: There seem to be concerns that the changes in the industry have started to hurt the creation of original games. As a businessman and a game developer who made his name with original content, how do you feel about that?
PM: Well, it used to be, and I'm more guilty of this than anybody else, that was almost enough--just the very fact that you had something original. You would put a little story in there but you wouldn't spend too much time on it. I mean for something like Dungeon Keeper, well, the story was about as important as the installation screen. It was just there as a sort of placeholder. You didn't really worry too much about it. So the uniqueness of a game used to be enough to make it sell well. But nowadays that isn't enough. If you want to make a unique game it needs to have the same production quality as the very top games out there. So that means you not only have to create the most stunning-looking game, but you also have to make it totally original and you have to make it in a window of opportunity. You hear about people working on a game for the last five years but ultimately you have to get a title out so that your original concept and the engine and technology that you used actually have a chance to be original by the time it comes out. That makes the challenge of making original games much harder than it's been. A lot of people in the industry are still having amazing, original ideas--there are probably as many original ideas as there ever was. But the chances of getting those ideas implemented with a team that's good at original ideas and good at doing amazing gameplay and visuals is really tough. You're still going to get games like Rez, which I think is one of the most significant game advances there are, and Parapper the Rapper. So there are still original games out there, they're much harder to do.
GS: Well, in spite of its unique style and gameplay, Rez didn't sell very well.
PM:In the end, I think there is a lot of innovation going on, but it's within the game. It's not the whole game, it's actually within the game. I would argue, and this is going to sound like an insanely stupid thing, that something like the double jump could be seen as being as innovative as anything I've done. It's just that the whole game isn't centered on that. We really are going to continue making games that a huge number of people will play, but we'll try to innovate with the way they play. I mean, look at Pikmin--creative games still exist, but they'll have to change to be accessible. We're not saying, "Buy this game simply because it's original," we're saying, "Buy this game because it's entertaining." That's one thing. The other is that there are fewer games in production now. Someone should chart it out. Two years ago, there were 3,500 games in development around the world. That number dropped last year, so I shudder to think how low the number is going to be at the upcoming E3.
GS: What do you think of the hardware players (Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft) on the market right now?
PM: I think you've got to have huge players in the market. You can't be timid and you can't be niche. The professionalism that Microsoft has brought into the industry is never a bad thing. Competition is always healthy. Having the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube in the industry just means we're going to get better machines and better software out of this. So, at the end of the day, it's going to be a good thing.
GS: As a developer who's developing on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, do you feel like you can develop on all three consoles, or do you feel you have to focus your resources on one console?
PM: Well, I think you have to focus on one. Black & White Next Generation is different because it already exists as a property. But Project Ego and BC--Project Ego especially--we had to have the Xbox. It couldn't be done on the PlayStation 2, and it's a very boring reason as to why: because it didn't have a hard drive. In creating a simulated world where you can break a sapling in one town and come back 20 years later to see the sapling hasn't grown into a tree, you've got to have a hard drive. So that means exclusively designing a game for a console to exploit the hardware fully is very hard to do if you're trying to do it across all platforms. As a developer with finite resources, what we need to do is balance things that we produce across different platforms. I mean, I never stop wanting to do PC games--I think our focus as a company will be on more console titles, but it will still be diverse.
GS: Do you think you'll ever develop on the GameCube?
PM: GameCube development is purely a capacity thing right now. At the moment we're not doing a game for it simply because we don't have any resources to devote to it.
GS: But you'd be interested in supporting it?
PM: Oh yeah. The structure of Lionhead is based on these satellites where each one has about 20 to 25 people. We can keep on expanding this without affecting the teams, but I think we've pretty much filled them to capacity at the moment. There are eight projects going, which has more than doubled in the last year.
GS: Which current console games interest you?
PM: Where do I start? There's a lot of good stuff. Well, I loved Devil May Cry. It was a fantastic game. I didn't think I would love it, but I really did. I loved Metal Gear Solid 2--I have to admit I did skip through quite a few of the cutscenes, but I still think it was just a brilliant game. Strangely enough, the purist in me loved Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance on the PlayStation 2. I think it was underrated. I think Halo was an amazing, incredible achievement--really a first-rate title that was as good as anything out there. I also enjoyed the quirkiness of Munch's Oddysee. Pikmin was a great game too.
GS: What do you think of the changes the industry is going through? It seems like the smaller development houses won't be able to survive unless they partner with larger ones.
PM: Well, I'll tell you, there's a terrible divide between developers. You'll have the bigger studios with successful titles on one end and the smaller studios on the other. The smaller developers used to be great ground for innovation and kept us big guys on our toes. In Europe there's blood on the streets. It's tragic. It's hard to see how it's going to stop.
GS: Do you think if you were starting out right now you'd be able to accomplish everything you did when you started?
PM: No. It would be impossible. I get people coming up to me saying, "We have this great idea, there's three of us, we want to start our own development group." I have to tell them, "You have to spend 10 million pounds." Ten million pounds! One of the big limiting factors in our industry now--and it may seem like it's come up all of a sudden but, if you think about it, logically, it's true--is not 3D motions, or physics systems, or gameplay mechanics, or even artwork. It's animation. Animation is a massive problem because now we have characters in our games that can move like human beings. The animators we have to use are all being hired by ILM and Disney. I mean, where do we find these guys? Obviously, we do find them eventually--they're just very hard to track down.
There have been so many times on Project Ego that I've turned around and said, in design terms, "The hero needs to do this." Then I realize we can't do that until we adjust his animation, and that means it has to be blended and inputted in. Which all means we need to have a big programming team, a big art team, and now a huge animation team. These are not animators who have worked in the industry before. They've worked in cartoons and television. That just means that small developers have less and less of a chance to get them on board. I'm as impatient as any other gamer, especially when it comes to PCs. I picked up some games and was pretty disappointed by what I saw. The production quality was not good, the animation was shoddy, and the storyline was all over the place. I'd rather look at a console title. With standards being set so high and console hardware offering so much power to work with, there really is nowhere to hide.
GS: Thanks for your time.