Every other week there is something in PC gaming that makes me scratch my head and ask stupid questions. Usually these questions are answered to my satisfaction so, to not look like an idiot, I don’t post stupid questions here on the blog. The last month has been nothing BUT stupid questions, personal and professional, so apologies for the silence.
But this week PC gaming UberBlog Rock, Paper, Shotgun published an interview with Peter Molyneux where the sub-lede is that he cried in the interview because he cares so much. And that is the one thing in the interview that did not interest me at all.
Let’s get one thing out of the way before you read the rest of this. If I could be trusted with a strategy game Hall of Fame, Peter Molyneux would have a shot at a first ballot entry. In the interview he speaks of playing Populous multiplayer, and how it sparks conversation with the GODUS development team – Populous was the multiplayer game of choice among many of my friends in college, and this was before there was any internet in the dorms, so multiplayer meant schlepping computers from one room to another and stringing cables. Populous was not simply ahead of its time – to play it properly demanded the future. Then you throw in Dungeon Keeper and, to a lesser extent, Black & White (a game punished more for Molyneux’s enthusiasm than its own sins, which would be a recurring pattern) and you recognize that for a time, Peter Molyneux was not the airy, talky dreamer so well parodied on Twitter – he made interesting, captivating and often brilliant games.
I’ve only met Molyneux once, and it was an E3 Fable II gathering at which I was one of dozens of press, but it proved impossible to not be captivated by his enthusiasm for the game, his excitement for the possibilities, etc. This was the Molyneux we had expected when we arrived to that session and the one now so firmly ingrained in the popular gaming consciousness – a man so in love with what gaming might be able to do that he sometimes loses track of what he is saying or promising. It’s been said that he has a childlike approach to what games can do, but the overpromising that brought him to tears in the RPS discussion with Nathan Grayson is almost childish – games can do anything, we just need to believe in them and ask and will other people into accepting our imagination.
But, for me, the most striking thing about the interview was how narrow Molyneux’s focus has become. It’s apparent in a lot of references to how no one else has picked up where Populous or Dungeon Keeper left off, etc, but a couple of sentences seem to capture the feel of the entire thing.
To my mind, the god game genre is now defined by titles like CityVille. It was always supposed to be more than that. It was supposed to be far, far more than that. Why not take that challenge on?
I’m not a language prescriptivist. Words evolve and usage changes, and I have come to reluctantly accept that “begging the question” is now lost to barbarians. Still, I think definitions and categorization matter, especially when you are making judgments about whether a given object is similar to or better than another. If Peter Molyneux thinks Cityville is a god game, then we can agree to disagree (personally, I’m not even sure I have a good definition for god game), though it thereby presumes that all city-builders are god games since CityVille is a minor city-builder. But if he thinks that people look at Cityville as the defining example of a god game, then we have many bones to pick.
First, the masses of people that take the work of Peter Molyneux seriously could not give two figs about CityVille. If you have heard of Curiosity, then odds are that you consider Zynga to be the enemy. People familiar with the term “god game” (whatever he means by that) will be more likely to think of CityVille as a “social game” even before they call it a “city-builder”. This is not a game playing in near the same public perception sandbox as Populous.
Second, and most worryingly, Molyneux seems to spend the interview ignoring anything that has happened in god games or city builders since his own brilliant innovations a decade or two ago. There is no mention of the procedural brilliance of Dwarf Fortress. The visual and ludic charm of From Dust. He claims that no one else has dealt with terraforming in a game even while millions of players online turn servers into whatever they like in Minecraft. Elemental has global spell effects, different in scope from those in Populous but similar in design intent – you can even lower land. Dungeon Keeper has seen a host of imitators or offshoots from Evil Genius to Dungeons to A Game of Dwarves. And then we have Spore – the ultimate god game, and one whose own legacy of overpromising should be a familiar story to Molyneux.
It could certainly be that Molyneux is aware of these games (most from the last five years) and just thinks they aren’t worthy of mention. But for an interview where a designer spends a long time talking about how games have not been able to capture the genius moments of his 15 or 20 year old games, Molyneux takes no moments to even point to other god games (however he defines them) beyond CityVille to see how technology, design, and player expectations have pushed strategy games in exciting new directions.
Look, I don’t expect developers to have played every game there is. Games are my job and I can barely find time to play anything I don’t have to because strategy games take time. But to write off modern god games as simply Facebook games ignores a world of fascinating experimentation; some failed, yes, but even some of these failures are more relevant than CityVille.
I hate to compare developers, especially two men for whom I have nothing but the greatest respect. But every time I read a major design figure ignore or blow off decades of game evolution, I think about Sid Meier. I recall attending a Sid Meier’s Railroads preview (I was tagging along with Tom Chick who was writing it up for CGM) and after the demo, there was time for boardgames and chatter. Meier was super enthusiastic about a new game he was playing and how he thought it would be something that changed how he thought about games, even if Firaxis never made anything like it.
Yes, we are still waiting for Sid Meier’s version of Guitar Hero (I suspect it would have had a harpsichord) but Meier is not unique. I guarantee that the best developer interviews you have read speak frankly about what they have learned from other games – even those outside their specialization.
Enthusiasm breeds blindness. We all know this. We love our hockey team too much to complain that there is no depth after the first line. We adopt new loves and passions and forget everything that came before until the passion cools. And there is no one as publicly enthusiastic and passionate about the potential of gaming as Peter Molyneux.
But I hope he takes time to play other games, think about what they have added and see how the strategy genre has exploded in amazing new ways in the last few years.
Maybe he has and he’s just not saying anything to avoid ignoring someone important. Maybe he doesn’t think that situating current god games near CityVille is an insult to what so many developers have thought about and iterated on since the first Populous and Dungeon Keeper. And I do wish him luck in his Kickstarter because I would like to see a modern Populous and besides, there are only a handful of people in this world to whom I wish failure in any case. Yes, there is more to the interview than that one blurb I have quoted, but it is impossible to read the interview and not feel like Molyneux has little idea of the current state of god games – or games in general beyond his own.
His tears and confusion about the response to his promises not to mention the easily avoidable mess in the launch of Curiosity (seriously? one server for launch? Do you have any idea who you are? People will buy this thing and play it.) make me curious about how plugged in many great designers from my youth still are. Chris Crawford has, famously, gone rogue to work on his story-telling engine and heaven knows what else. Sid Meier is still widely respected and, to my knowledge, very aware of gaming trends, hence his hands-on involvement in the Civ Facebook debacle. John Tiller has not changed his design ambitions for almost twenty years now. Norm Koger has, at least, moved to 3D naval wargames; I hope he has a nice pension from somewhere – the games are fine but can’t turn huge profits.
I’m not calling for anyone’s retirement or anything. Peter Molyneux is very important to the industry because his enthusiasm and love for ideas has never waned, he has never become “a suit” or decided he’d rather spend his time collecting craft beers. I guess I would like to see someone that has meant so much to many developers that followed pay respect to the games that followed in his wake. God games were not a wasteland after Dungeon Keeper and city builders have seen some amazing highs in the Anno series, not to mention Children of the Nile.
I’m on your side Mr. Molyneux. You just have to show that you’ve been paying attention.