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Peter Wept and Troy Scratched His Head

November 23rd, 2012 by Troy Goodfellow · 16 Comments · Design

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 teamPopulous 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.

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16 Comments so far ↓

  • Gunner

    Great points Troy, I reacted similarly as I was reading the interview. Perhaps he just didn’t understand the audience he was addressing? The comparisons he gave seemed more apt for appearing in something like Forbes than a hardcore PC games news site.

  • Chris Floyd

    It seems to me that “god game” is a mostly useless term because it either has to be interpreted narrowly and only encompasses a few games like Populous and From Dust, or broadly, in which case it covers almost any game where you view a landscape from top-down.

    I admire Peter Molyneux even while I laugh at him. I think his enthusiasm over these decades is real, and I bet if I were in a roomo with him I’d be as swept up in it as anyone else. He’s made a joke of himself partly because enthusiasm is almost all he has to offer. That’s very forgivable in my book. The “Molyneux moment” I think of first is when he talked about the dog in Fable like he had just transcended all that gaming had ever been. “You can’t control the dog!” “It’s about Love! Fable is about Love!” It was silly, but endearing in a way.

    Molyneux probably hasn’t played any of those new games. Most serious game developers I know play a lot less than anyone would imagine, and he’s running his own company and wrangling his personal passions, which is probably more than a full=time job. I love your Sid Meier story because it shows just how unique a guy he is (where is that new CPU Bach?!). Molyneux is unique as well, but he’s at the other end of the spectrum from the humble, reserved, clear-eyed Sid Meier. God love ‘em both.

    Great piece, Troy.

  • Michael A.

    It is extremely rare that I want to see remakes of old games (inspired games – yes, remakes – no); but Populous 2 is probably the exception. I’d buy a re-make of Populous 2 with improved UI pretty much sight unseen.

    Project GODUS on the other hand I’m not so sure of. I worry that in “improving” it, they mess up the simplicity that is the essence of Populous. Talking about Populous in the same breath as CityVille doesn’t help. :-)

  • Robert

    Great article, Troy; I can see how you’d get so many words out of just one paragraph. I’d have a similar reaction if you hadn’t already.

  • The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun

    […] Troy Goodfellow on Molyneux’s tears: “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.” […]

  • Peter S

    Great point, and I agree about how important it is for designers to play — or at least, know of — games outside their own niche.

    Quick question, though – “Civ Facebook debacle”? I never followed the Civ Facebook game, so this is news to me! What happened?

  • Mo

    To answer a few of your questions: Molyneux is/was an obsessive Minecraft player (and asked Notch to add dogs to the game), and has at least played From Dust at E3 or something (Chahi mentioned this). I’m positive some cursory Googling would find sources for both. I suppose he left those games to strengthen the pitch?

    (I wouldn’t expect him to have played Dwarf Fortress or even Anno, as they are perhaps not mainstream/accessible enough.)

    While I was similarly worried with the pitch/interview, I think fundamentally he’s right. There have been city builders, games with terrain deformation, management games, etc but nothing has captured the Populous feeling since … well, Black & White. (From Dust came close, but ended up more like a puzzle game)

  • MadTinkerer

    I think this is what Peter meant: Compared to the output of Bullfrog in the 90s, the entire industry isn’t putting out as many god games per year. Spore is how old now. Dwarf Fortress has no release date. Even Minecraft has been out for a while (and really isn’t a god game despite Creative Mode) and Mojang plan to perpetually update it and put out other completely different games than try to further iterate on the ideas.

    And/Or maybe Peter just doesn’t have the time to play everything.

  • anon

    “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.”

    But Guitar Hero is simply a more marketable version of prior Japanese rhyhtm games.

  • AL/t

    Or perhaps one of you may actually dare say the emperor is not wearing any clothes.
    In fact he hasn’t been seen wearing any shoes for the past decade or two.

    If you go to his classic games you should ask how much actual control did he really have over them and how much were they created with/by someone else?
    Sid M. is credited with games he had NO involment in (SMAC&SMAX, and even “his” Civ series after a point) and yet he is taken for a master game crafter or something.

    Peter M. was, is and unfortunately will be either a windbag perpetualy unable to differentiante between fibbing & imagination and realistic design goals OR a con-man who keeps cashing in some small amount of personal fame and plainly broken shreds of credibility to peddle unfinished(unfinishable?) games which turn out a galaxy away from ANYTHING vaguely promised.

  • Alex Wallace

    After reading the RPS article it showed to me a side of Molyneux that I had never considered before. I guess I always confused his enthusiasm for games with an inability to understand scope and be realistic about his projects which, according to the events of his latest game Curiosity, sounds like he still has.

    The problem I am having with this is that despite him being enthusiastic, he is someone that has worked in the games industry for two decades and has had some pretty major responsibilities during that time (he was given Creative Director of Microsoft Game Studios, Europe, a hefty role I think you would agree.) and in the process has been exposed to probably every type of gaming out there. For him to be so unaware of what other games are on the market as well as some of the huge titles in the past ten years alone just does not compute with me. If he created the genre, then surely people would be drawing comparisons to his famous titles? Did no-one ask him what he thought of Spore?

    At this stage Molyneux should have a better understanding of the capabilities and limitations of games more than anyone because the things he has promised time and time again he simply just does not deliver and therefore gets some pretty volatile feedback. “You live by your mistakes, for sure.”: a quote from that very article and yet he seem to continue to make seemingly obvious errors in his concepts. It might sound a little harsh but I consider people who have more ambitious yet realistic projects on Kickstarter, those who do not have the contacts in the industry and financial backing themselves, far worthier than someone who has been given endless opportunities to learn from his mistakes.

    Move aside Pete, let someone else play.

  • Jarmo

    Off Topic:

    Imperialism is now available from GOG:
    http://www.gog.com/gamecard/imperialism

    Probably you already heard, Troy, but remembering your many favourable comments about it over the years I thought you’d like to know.

  • Alan Au

    I’ve been disappointed by Molyneux’s recent games, but that’s sort of expected. The reason why I’m disappointed is because he has sold me a vision of what games *could* be. That continues to be his contribution to an industry plagued with “safe” sequels and copied game mechanics.

    For me, the problem is that he can show me something wonderful, but that the grand vision is undermined by tedious game mechanics. As a result, I don’t actually buy any of his stuff anymore–twice bitten, thrice shy.

  • ShadowTiger

    I’ve been spending an hour here and there designing a god game for at least 5 years. I think the key is making it feel like you are a god, not making it feel like you are the owner of an ant farm.

    Gods have agendas, personalities, unique powers/domains, relationships with other gods, relationships with their people, reputations, transformations, evolutions, and most importantly, FLAWS.

    A game where you are just picking up rocks or people and displacing them is hardly deep enough to enthrall me. I want to be a cruel warmonger god who demands ritual sacrifice from my followers or else I will raise volcanoes or summon vicious storms to punish my people. Enemy nations will fear my nation for when they attack to capture slaves they are preceded by swarms of locusts and a terrible drought that seeps into their land. I should have to keep my hunger for blood in check or else other gods will ally against me and strike at my weak spot, either wiping out my followers or destroying my physical anchor to the mortal world.

    THAT is a god game.

  • Dave

    Molyneux has been talking about almost all of those games in the updates on Kickstarter.