Q&A: Lionhead's Molyneux roars

The legendary developer talks about a possible sequel to Syndicate, who is best positioned to win the next-gen console wars, and the state of indie game development in the UK.

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Peter Molyneux has been developing games for longer than many people have been playing them. From timeless classics such as Syndicate, Populous, and Theme Park to the likes of Black & White and more recently the success of The Movies franchise, Molyneux has been at the head of the independent game-development class.

That all changed when Microsoft shelled out an undisclosed fee back in April for Molyneux's Guildford, UK-based Lionhead Studios. The acquisition brings Lionhead into the fold with the likes of Bungie at Microsoft Game Studios.

In advance of his planned keynote at the upcoming Leipzig Game Convention, GameSpot caught up with the brains behind Black & White to get his views on the console wars and why he felt that the increasingly cutthroat game market meant being bought out was necessary to maintain his studio's true creative independence.

GameSpot UK: Microsoft's purchase of Lionhead Studios ensures exclusivity for them on Windows and Xbox 360. As a developer that had only produced games for these platforms in the past, what did Lionhead have to offer Microsoft from a buyout? Were you planning some extraordinary multiformat title that Microsoft wanted to grab exclusivity on?

Peter Molyneux: I think Microsoft saw in Lionhead a group of creative and talented individuals who had the passion to make great games. It was a big plus for them that we were working on the sequel to Fable and also that we had some fascinating and unique concepts and prototypes, as well, which they found hugely exciting, so the short answer is both!

GSUK: Lionhead has always had a meticulous attention to detail, taking the "It's done when it's done" line to release dates. Do you think Microsoft will continue to support this approach?

PM: Actually, as an independent we were starting to find it increasingly difficult to continue the development of a game until it was done. Working with hundreds of people, we found ourselves having to make some very tough decisions on the quality versus release-date front. What I can say for certain is that Microsoft wants us to create games which will get the whole world excited and to spend time on polishing a game till it shines, although in saying that, we still intend to be as professional as we can be.

GSUK: The Movies and Black & White 2 didn't enjoy the same level of success as previous Lionhead titles, despite being critically well received. Would you put their lack of success down to marketing?

PM: It's very easy to blame marketing departments and publishers when sales don't live up to expectations, but in reality there are many, many reasons for what happened, so I'll just focus on three. Firstly, the PC market has been declining; the number of PC-only titles that have been successful is nonexistent. And, in fact, The Movies was, in sales terms, the most successful original IP over the Christmas period. Secondly, launching any game over the Christmas period is challenging, as there is so much focus on a few games which have massive marketing budgets behind them. Thirdly, I think the type of people playing and buying PC games has changed. If you exclude World of Warcraft, there seems to be many more casual gamers playing games on the PC than hardcore gamers.

GSUK: With each successive generation, the concerns of independent studios seem to become louder and louder. As someone with experience in building up studios from scratch, where do you see the future for UK independent games developers?

PM: Things have been very, very bleak and tough for independent studios who are hoping to create triple-A titles--but for studios creating games for [Xbox] Live and download, I'd say the future is brighter. Independent companies can make games for these platforms within smaller budgets. For me, I found I was having to make too many compromises on quality issues to remain independent.

GSUK: And what about costs--have the fears over escalating budgets on next-generation titles proven to be true?

PM: Costs for next-generation development have increased dramatically, certainly--we're talking about 10s of millions of dollars to make triple-A games. But it should be remembered that there is a law of diminishing return here, so if you spend $5 million and double that to $10 million, you don't get double the quality. This trend really can't continue, and the industry must face the fact we need to stabilize our costs. This will mean that reuse of technology and assets needs to be much better managed.

GSUK: The UK academic community has been quick to offer games-design courses for students. What's your interaction with this community, and do you think that this is the way to go for budding designers?

PM: I have spoken to a few educational establishments about the games-design courses, and they are teaching very sound technical skills, but they don't focus as well on the more esoteric design skills that are needed for the job. Designers need to be able to communicate, inspire, and listen, and I see these skills as being just as necessary as an appreciation of the technical side. A good feel for design is also fundamental, and I think this is a talent rather than a skill that can be taught.

GSUK: There seems to be a backlash mounting against the PlayStation 3, while the Wii seems to be going from strength to strength. How do you think the next-gen console war is going to stack up?

PM: Well, I have been through console wars before, but this one strikes me as particularly interesting. Nintendo has done a great job of convincing us that next gen is about game play rather than high-tech specs. Microsoft has done an incredible job of expanding games online and making them more mass market. Sony, in my view, seems it has been rather more lazy with their message. How all this pans out really depends on one thing and that is the brilliance of the titles that appear on each platform over the next two to three years. Marketing the hardware is nothing compared to the games that run on it, so I expect the system with the greatest games on it to end up on top.

GSUK: Black & White was hugely innovative on its release, and its gestured command system has ironically been matched by the Wii. How important is innovation in interface design to you?

PM: Without any doubt the biggest revolution we will see in games will be to do with what the player holds and how they control a game. I can see the joypad continuing to evolve over the next generation, and this will result in completely new games concepts.

GSUK: Do you have any plans to produce a sequel for some of your most successful games?

PM: Aside from the licensing complications, some sort of next-gen online version of Syndicate would certainly be popular with gamers...I 'd love to reprise games like Syndicate, Populous, and Dungeon Keeper, but as you point out, we'd need some business development people to sort this out.

GSUK: Thank you for your time.

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