The Peter Molyneux Interview, Part 1: From Fable 2 to Connect Four

It's funny how things work out sometimes.

During last month's Game Developers Conference, my beloved co-worker Nick Breckon decided to play a little prank on me. In short, he convinced me that renowned game designer Peter Molyneux, who is currently wrapping up production on Fable 2 (X360), wanted to do an interview.

Of course, there were a few stipulations, as relayed by Shacker Abigail Sponge, playing a convincing representative from Lionhead. At first they were mostly innocent requests, but they soon grew increasingly eccentric, to the point where I was expected to call him Sir Molyneux, wear a pink shirt that complemented my brown eyes, and polish up on my Connect Four skills.

BOOM widget 116957 Needless to say, everyone had a good laugh once the prank was revealed. I received countless messages from numerous folk scattered all about the industry. So many, in fact, that when Microsoft offered a real interview with Peter Molyneux, I was a bit apprehensive. How was I to be sure this wasn't part of another prank?

Thankfully it turned out to be legit, and I spent a good hour talking with Sir Molyneux about all sorts of things, including Fable 2, Lionhead's next project, Grand Theft Auto 4, the PC gaming industry--and of course, the prank itself.

Below is the first half of our lengthy conversation. Be sure to check out the second part here.

Peter Molyneux: Chris, what did they do to you? You must've thought I was a real--this is not an American word, it's a British word--wanker. You must've thought I was a real idiot.

Shack: ..No?

Peter Molyneux: You liar. I heard it the other day and you were so patient, you just kept saying, "Yes, yes, yes." But what was going through your mind when all this was happening? Were you thinking, "My god, Peter Molyneux is an idiot and everyone from Britain is an idiot"?

Shack: Well, it was in the middle of Game Developers Conference, so I was really busy. My train of thought was, essentially, "Either this is real, and it's going to be a really funny story, or this is fake, and it's going to be a really funny story."

Peter Molyneux: Well, it was that. I found it very funny anyway. They were very cruel to you then.

I'm just sitting here--it's nice to take a break from the play-throughs of Fable 2 at the moment, because that's what we're doing--I'm sitting, looking out on a very miserable, wet, rainy day here in England.

Shack: Before the interview begins, would you prefer to be called Sir Molyneux or Dr. Molyneux?

Peter Molyneux: Just call me.. idiot, if you'd like. That's probably the closest you can [get].

You've got to remember, that when I went up and got those honors, which they are incredible honors, I honestly believed at some point they were going to turn around and say, "Molyneux, get out of here! You're not supposed to--we didn't mean that Molyneux! We meant another Molyneux."

When they were given to me I was in a room with someone who had explored Antarctica single-handedly, and another person who walked around the world backwards with no legs. It was like these true heroes, and then there was me. Everyone was going around saying, "What have you done?" and eventually it came to me. I said, "I make up computer games," and the whole room went quiet for a while.

I don't feel I deserve that honor, at all. There's a lot more people in this industry that deserve that accolade than me. I'm just lucky to be British.

Americans should have this sort of thing! You need a king! Maybe George W. Bush should resign his presidency and become your new monarch. We could have the Bush monarchy. We have the Elizabethan monarchy, you could have the same in America. Then you can have knighthoods and all of that.

Shack: Some would argue that the Bush monarchy is already well-established.

Peter Molyneux: [laughter] Yes, well, it looks like that from this side of the pond. The Bush monarchy or the Clinton monarchy, one of the two.

Shack: My first question is, how confident are you in your Connect Four skills?

Peter Molyneux: [laughter erupts from the room] You know, I've got to tell you something. Now, this is something where they could have actually got it right, because I would play Connect Four any day of the week.

I play, and have played, board games every week of my life, pretty much, since the age of about eight. And while Connect Four hasn't featured very often into those things, if you suggest a board game, I reckon I could give you a good game.

So I'd be pretty confident [in Connect Four], yeah. I've got this group of people, we have played board games every two weeks for about the last 15 years. One of the people in there is [Ian] Livingstone, he works at Eidos and is one of the guys that discovered Lara Croft. There's another guy that's at the head of a studio called Deep Red.

We're all kinda game developers, but we've been meeting, and I've consistently been top of that group of people for the last three or four years. Although, if they read this report, they're gonna kill me.

I'd be pretty confident in my Connect Four skills. How confident would you be in yours? That's the question.

Shack: I'm fairly confident.

Peter Molyneux: What we should have done is pull up MSN Messenger. They've got two-player Connect Four and we could've played, every question would allow us to take a move, and see who won by the end of us.

Well Chris, let me ask you this. What's your first move, then?

Shack: I'd probably drop a piece in the second row to the right.

Peter Molyneux: Fatal.

Shack: ..Fatal?

Peter Molyneux: It's a well known fact, consistently proven, second row to the left is definitely the winning move.

Shack: ..Yeah, you probably would have taken me.

Peter Molyneux: [laughter]

Shack: You mentioned that you're play-testing Fable 2 right now. How's that going?

Peter Molyneux: It's pretty good. The way we work at the moment is that the whole game is completely playable, from start to finish. There's a group of people, and I'm in that group, that just keep on playing through it and making minor adjustments.

We're just playing through the opening scenes of the game, which is childhood. When you first play the game, you start off as this eight-year-old kid who's either a boy or a girl. We're just playing through the first thirty minutes of childhood at the moment.

Turn the page for Molyneux's thoughts on Fable 2's co-op, its distinct lack of mini-maps, and its elusive release date. _PAGE_BREAK_
Peter Molyneux (cont.): Today, for the first time, we've got snow [worked in], because it's snowy at the start of the game. Now there's so much bloody snow you can't see anybody anywhere, it's so thick. All the balance that we'd done before, the subtleties about you seeing things out of the corner of your eye--there's a moment in the very, very start of the game where your sister, because you play with your sister, says, "Look at that beautiful castle. Wouldn't it be fantastic if we lived there?"

At this moment, you can't see the beautiful castle. It's playing through, coming up with perhaps a hundred things that are very slightly wrong with that scene, them going out to the team, them making those changes, coming back in again, and then giving more feedback. We just do that over and over and over again, pretty much, all day, every day.

We'll do childhood, probably from now until about 10 o'clock tonight, just playing it over and over again.

Shack: So you're in the polishing stages of the game?

Peter Molyneux: We're just driving. There are a number of these hurdles that we've got to get through. One is called a hurdle of code complete, which is coming at the end of this month, where effectively all of the programming code on the game is completed.

We're just coming up to that hurdle. We're just in the closing stages of Fable at the moment, going through these hurdles. There's content complete, then there's all sorts of different hurdles to get through.

If you were to be here now, and you'd see it and look at the screen, I think you would say, "Wow, childhood looks finished. When are you going to put it in a box?"

But there's a lot of subtleties there yet to go in, and what we've got left to do, is to play through as if we were not people who wanted to get through the game. A lot of the time, the way you play through is to say, "Okay, we think people are going to do this at this point, not try to break it."

We have to do a play-through that says, "Okay, supposing I want to jump off this wall at this point or suppose I want to go in a house at this point." There's a lot of steps to go through to get the game finished.

Shack: So, when are you putting it in a box?

Peter Molyneux: I'm not allowed to tell you. I'm not sure why I'm not allowed to tell you, because I've got the exact date, I know the exact minute that we're going to release this to manufacturing.

The only thing I'm allowed to say--there's a lot of staring at me, very viciously at the moment--is that it will be autumnal time.

I know the exact date, I think they're waiting for some sort of event, maybe there's an eclipse coming up or something, when Hillary Clinton announces that she's got the Democratic nomination, I don't know. There's some event, which I don't know about, when they want to announce the date around.

Shack: Speaking of things I know you can't say much about, at GDC you mentioned that only half of Fable 2's multiplayer component has been revealed?

Peter Molyneux: That's right. The couch co-op play is the thing I revealed. I think there's a bit of innovation in there, with the ability of having your persistent hero earn gold and experience and being given gifts that you can take back into your world.

But I was only talking about [one] Xbox. I didn't talk anything to do with Live or anything like that. The only thing I can tell you is that we at Lionhead love innovating and giving you stuff that you haven't done before.

Certainly, the stuff with multiplayer that we are unveiling--this sort of thing has never been seen before.

Shack: Is co-op just limited to two players, or can you bring more players into that?

Peter Molyneux: That is edging on the side of me giving away stuff. The only thing I would say is that I don't think conventional questions that you could ask would get to the core of what this is.

This sort of thing hasn't really been seen before.

Shack: You noted during your GDC lecture that Fable 2 won't have any mini-maps. I believe your exact words were, "Mini-maps are shit."

Peter Molyneux: What I should have done during GDC is stood up and said, "What have been the biggest battles in Fable for a design idea to get past the team upstairs?"

One of those big ideas was the idea of saying, "Look, why do we have these mini-maps in the first place? They take up so much screen space or they're shrunk down to being insignificant, you have to get a magnifying glass to make out any detail on them. They're very old-school, and a lot of the time, especially with Fable 1, you could kinda play the whole game on the mini-map. It was just madness.

"Let's try and be brave--this is what you have to do when you design--and say we're not going to use mini-maps."

That was the first design thought, when we said that. That means we're going to architect our levels a certain way to be sympathetic with that, and that also means we needed something that gave players a strong idea of, when they want to go where they should be going, where they can go.

That's where we came up with the idea of a breadcrumb trail. This breadcrumb trail is dynamic, it's reactive to what you're doing. It can glow brightly or it can glow very, very dimly. It can almost be incredibly obscure, you can hardly see it at all--or it's the most important thing on the screen.

It's very dynamic; it's driven by AI. If you choose to jump down a hole and you choose to swim across a river, it will follow you and guide you and always be there for when you actually want to get back on track. It will glow more and be more excited the more important it is that you get to your destination and the closer you are to your destination.

That filled in a lot of the problems that a mini-map supplied to you. When you are trying to navigate from point A to point B, you don't actually need a mini-map. You actually need a guide, and that's what the breadcrumb trail is. That's the first thing.

The second thing was that when we were thinking about the design of our levels, we made sure that we designed them in such a way that it wasn't absolutely necessary to have a mini-map.

Now, we still have a map. We still very much have a map. There's a world map, and there's a level map, and you can bring it up and you can see, "Oh, there's a shop in this alleyway."

We've got maps like that, but the concept of a mini-map as the main way of navigating around the world has gone.

Turn the page for talk on cutscenes and the Fable 2 XBLA game. _PAGE_BREAK_
Shack: I agree with a lot of that. I can recall just staring at the mini-map for Final Fantasy VII and playing the game through that, instead of paying attention to what was actually on-screen.

Peter Molyneux: We spend millions and millions of dollars on making these beautiful graphics, and yet our mini-maps have remained exactly the same. It's a bit crazy.

It took a lot though, to actually get people to think in the right way. That was a big thing. Not as big as another thing which [I] had to really push hard on--the idea that there were little to no cutscenes in Fable 2.

Shack: Little to no cutscenes?

Peter Molyneux: The concept of the traditional cutscene--where you play a bit of the game for ten minutes and then there's a cutscene that takes control away from you, and then you play a bit more--is very, very old school.

I think that what we decided to do was to remove almost all of those. Not all of them, there's an intro to the game where a cutscene is a great place for an intro, there's a couple of high-drama moments where you don't want the player to have control.

But pretty much around 99% of the time, the player has control. That means that you, as a player, can move around during cutscenes, you can use all of your expressions.

In fact, you don't even realize that you're in a cutscene. It's just part of playing the game. You can see that in my demo at GDC. When we went to meet my son and my husband, that actually would have been a cutscene in Fable 1. But it wasn't, as you saw. We were still able to emote and still able to do all the expressions and stuff.

The great benefit of that is that, to a certain extend, you can alter the course of what we call an interactive cutscene. Characters will, as they're conversing with you and telling you stuff, they'll be looking at you.

If you happen to do something like point and laugh or draw your sword or gosh knows what else, that will modify their reaction to you, and hence, the dialog in the story they're playing out to you.

That was incredibly tough to get the team to buy into. It's so much more work for them to do. The possibilities of players messing it up is almost infinite.

Shack: Won't the Xbox Live Arcade games that tie-in to Fable 2 unbalance the Fable economy?

Peter Molyneux: It's interesting you say that. There's a very interesting concept which I'll run past you before really answering that question.

If I spent ten minutes playing an Xbox Live Arcade game and it gave me 10 million gold, I could go into the Fable world and buy absolutely everything and I would agree with you.

But let's put this scenario past you. Suppose someone went in and played an Xbox Live Arcade game like Wizard's Tower or Keystone, and they played for ten hours--I'm just using these numbers, there is no science behind these numbers--and they accrued 10,000 gold, which is enough to buy a nice farmhouse for your family.

Do you think it is fair and reasonable that they get that farmhouse or do you think that we should limit it to 1,000, so when they load the game up it says, "Sorry, your 10,000 has been devalued to 1,000"?

I think, personally, if people put in the time and the effort, they should get the money that they've earned and that the game should realize it and should balance itself around the event that's happened.

Now, fortunately with Fable, what we have got is a system where money is detached from being a hero. You can play the whole of this game, Fable, and be poor. Your weapons won't be as sharp, your clothes will be bedraggled, your family will live in a small hovel, but you can finish this game and be poor.

Or you can go through this game and spent a lot longer, and be rich. You'll have the finest, most beautiful looking sword, the finest clothes, and your family will be in the most wonderful location. That is completely up to you, and it is dependent upon how many hours you're willing to put in as a player. The answer really is, if you're willing to put in the time, if you're willing to earn the money, you can be wealthy within the Fable world.

It's not going to throw the balance of the game unduly, because you can't buy magic, for example, with money. You can't buy the skill levels on melee combat and on range combat with money, you have to buy it with experience.

Shack: Have there been any plans for other Xbox Live Arcade games, or even other Xbox 360 games, that would tie into Fable 2 in a similar way?

Peter Molyneux: We're talking about the future of this connection. It's a big thing for me and I want this to be the start. At the moment, there's no announced plans for anything else, but I'm very hopeful that this is the start of games communicating with each other.

I think that certain games, not all games, it could really, really work well in. You can certainly expect more of this stuff from Fable. I think Fable has been designed with the idea that you can have gold be eparated from experience so it doesn't unnaturally unbalance things.

The other title that we're baking here definitely has got this sort of similar idea in mind, that you can do things outside of the core game which add to the core game.

Move on to part two of the interview, which includes Molyneux's thoughts on the PC gaming industry, Grand Theft Auto IV, and how he feels about playing the role of a designer in the public eye.