The Peter Molyneux Interview, Part 2: From Fable 2 to Peter Molyneux

Wrapping up my fireside chat with acclaimed designer Peter Molyneux (check out part one), we discussed Lionhead's next project, the sole acorn in Fable 2, the PC market, a possible revival of his older franchises, and just what it's like to be a designer in the public eye.

Shack: What can you say about that other game?

Peter Molyneux: I've already been told off for saying that it is going to be amazing. Quite why I'm being told off for that, I don't know. I'm not going to say it's going to be rubbish.

All I can say is that we have been working on some really, really cool A.I. and simulation stuff for a long, long, long time now. We had a breakthrough about six months ago, and that breakthrough led to this game.

It's a very, very different game. I don't want you to think of it as a normal Lionhead game, or a normal game. It's a very, very different game. It was a breakthrough that led to the game, as opposed to a particular idea, say, of mine.

Shack: Is this the same game that you said would be on the cover of nature and science magazines?

Peter Molyneux: That's the one. [laugh]

As you know Chris, I do say things that continually get myself in trouble. It's sort of the PR equivalent of Tourette's, I can't just help saying things that are going to get me into trouble.

Shack: Have you actually been approached by any nature or science publications?

Peter Molyneux: We haven't unveiled it. The only people that know about it are some universities here in the UK that are helping us out with one particular element.

They're the only people that really know about it, other than people at Microsoft. Also, some Microsoft research people have been looking at it and helping us with a few things on it.

But no, we haven't announced it to any major publications yet.

Shack: From my end, it seems like Lionhead's been working on simulation technology for a really long time, and attempting to somehow fashion a game out of that. I guess you really can't say much about the breakthrough.

Peter Molyneux: I think your imagination is a good imagination, and whilst I couldn't confirm or deny it, I think simulation, life, should be bubbling around in your subconscious at this moment.

Shack: Since we're on the subject of simulations, I wanted to briefly touch on the subject of trees in Fable 2.

Peter Molyneux: The trees? Ah ha ha!

Shack: I've heard that there will be an acorn in Fable 2 that will play a central role?

Peter Molyneux: I got into a lot of trouble with that, an acorn in Fable 1 growing into an oak tree. What we've done, and I'm not going to give you the exact story thread, there is a whole thread about something called the Golden Acorn and how it's got to grow into an oak tree.

There is a whole thread of the story absolutely about that. I don't want anyone to say, after Fable 2, that we don't have acorns. We definitely have acorns. Acorns are central to the game of [Fable 2]. If you don't get your acorn, you can't finish the game. That's how ingrained it is into the world.

Shack: Now, is there just one acorn, or are there multiple acorns?

Peter Molyneux: You're getting greedy about your acorns now [laughter]

Isn't it funny how some things just spark in people's imaginations? I think I should be absolutely clear about it.

This is as clear as I can get because I think this is where the excitement comes. You can't pick an acorn off an oak tree, decide to plant it in someone's back garden, then come back after three hours and see it sprouted into a little oak tree, and then after five years it be a bigger oak tree.

You can't go crazy and plant multiple oak trees all over the world. We did actually look into doing that, by the way. But actually, proper growing tree technology is quite tough to do, what with all the other stuff that we could do.

But, saying that, in Fable, there is a Golden Acorn. I don't want to spoil the story too much, you will see it being planted and you will see that oak tree growing over the course of the game.

_PAGE_BREAK_ Shack: Were there any ideas you had to cut from Fable 2, for whatever reason?

Peter Molyneux: There were things every single day which we had to pull back on. There's loads and loads of things in Fable that we had to pull back on. A lot of the time it's due to the fact that, when you actually sit down and think about, "Okay, players are going to be doing this at this point in time and this at this point in time," when you actually lay that down there's so many things in Fable 2.

It's just incredible the number of things that you can do in this game. It's really incredible. A lot of times you think, "Gee, we haven't finished implementing this feature yet and god knows where this is going to fit. Where are we going to be telling the player how to do this?"

There's a very good example of that, where we thought, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool in Fable 2 if you could wear disguises? If you could disguise yourself so you could go into a town and you could commit a crime and then you could be chased out by all the guards, and then you could put this disguise on and come back in town and creep around and hear what people have to say. Wouldn't that be cool?"

We realized that if we were centering the game around disguises, that would be cool. But it being a hidden feature that people have to discover for themselves? Balancing that against the idea that to do disguises you would have to have three less costumes in the game, we chose to have three more costumes.

There were a lot of things like that within Fable, where we sat down and thought, "Wouldn't it be cool if we did..?" and we didn't fit it in. There's a ton of things, a list of about fifty things that we thought of, which may have been experimented slightly with, or we partially implemented and then realized or saw that the experimentation didn't work, or they didn't fit in the game, or it was too complex, or it took up too much processor time.

The funny thing is, the way that we work this is kinda the way I've always worked, has been to be very ambitious at the start, and then pare back, which some people would think is a pretty fool-hearted way to work. The reason I like that way is that even if you get to half of the features that you thought of, it's a better place to be, to try and get innovation in the game, rather than saying, "Look, we'll be safe about doing this game."

Shack: What are your thoughts on the current PC market?

Peter Molyneux: I think anybody that looks at the PC charts, certainly here in the UK, they can see that the PC charts are centered really around two basic products: The Sims and World of Warcraft.

While I suppose both are incredible games, what the PC lacks is that huge variation which it had only a few years ago, where every month there was a new game coming out and there was some fantastic innovations in RTS, first-person shooters, and, oh gosh, the action-adventures--all of their homes exist on the PC.

[There] doesn't seem to be that innovation going there at the moment.

But let me just say this. Really, there is something else happening on the PC, which is kinda not happening on the consoles, is that the PC is slowly but surely being owned by non-gamers. It's being owned more and more by casual gamers, who are playing games from a variety of sites.

They are beginning to own the PC gaming space. Now, they are really under the radar at the moment, but there's an awful lot of them playing these games, an awful lot of people playing Flash games.

I think the PC is just reinventing itself. What there isn't is the spectacular triple-A titles coming out on the PC with the same frequency that they came out with before.

Which I think is sad, because there's no other gaming platform which is quite so comfortable to take on a plane and play. You've got handhelds, but they haven't got the same tour de force type games.

Shack: Do you feel that the lack of innovation is due to the increasing popularity of console development?

Peter Molyneux: I think obviously a lot of developers have switched to console, and that means a lot of innovation is happening on the console. But the trouble with innovation is, a lot of times, innovation is masked by the fact that it is hidden within games that are existing franchises. I think there was some innovation in Mario Galaxy, I think there was some real great little gameplay moments in Mario Galaxy and there was a huge number of them. The fact that it was in a Mario game kind masked the fact that that was innovation.

If you look at the Call of Duty series--okay, that was on PC, but it was also on consoles--I think there's an enormous amount of innovation in that series. But again, that's masked because it is, essentially, a first-person shooter. And that first-person shooter is really innovating an awful lot.

I do think though, that innovation is a scary thing these days because it costs so much to make a game. I mean, it costs tens of millions of dollars, and when you've got crazy designers waving their arms around like me, saying "Why don't we try not using a mini-map," or "Why don't we try having interactive cutscenes," then people are going, "Yeah, well, okay, you can try that, but it's gonna cost you twenty million to do." That is very scary for a lot of people.

So, innovation is much more difficult when a lot of money is on the line. It's just far more comforting when you're making a game to say, "I'll make another one of these because at least I know that that one was successful."

_PAGE_BREAK_ Shack: With the budgets for games constantly rising, have you ever considered making a smaller, casual-oriented title? Maybe on Xbox Live Arcade, or with Flash?

Peter Molyneux: Yeah, I have, I really have. I've thought about casual titles, I've really thought about making games for the casual space. But I'm greedy, I want all the drama that something like a high-budget game can make, as well as having all the innovation. I always fall down upon wanting more, and that's my crime.

At this stage in a project, I always say, "God, I know what I'm going to do. After I finish Fable, I'm gonna lock myself in a room for six weeks and I'm gonna make this little casual game."

I've had a great idea, in the last two weeks, for a little mechanic to do with a mouse, which is kinda like the mechanic that I did on the original Populous for raising and lowering land. I thought, "What I'm going to do is when I finish Fable 2, all the playthroughs, me and a friend are gonna go and we're gonna lock ourselves away for six weeks. And we're gonna make this little casual game and just release it on Xbox Live Arcade. It'll be brilliant."

But, of course, I never get around to doing that because there's always something else to do, and there's always my family as well. I probably won't get around to do it, but I'd love to do it.

Shack: Has there been any talk or mention of reviving or remaking your older games, such as Dungeon Keeper or Magic Carpet?

Peter Molyneux: When we were doing Black & White, we did actually talk about releasing a smaller version of Populous. We talked about that for quite a long time, and then I think that fizzled out.

There's been no talk recently. There is Populous coming out on the DS, someone's doing it--it has nothing to do with me. I haven't seen it even.

I would love, I really would love to redo a version of Syndicate. Syndicate was probably one of my favorites. I'd love to redo Syndicate.

I'd love, everyone would hate me to do this one--because it was so wrong--I'd love to redo a game called Power Monger, which was back in 1991.

Strangely enough, Magic Carpet was one of the ones where, god, we could have made so much more money if we had just stuck you in a dungeon with a big gun. But no, there's not talk about a [revival] at the moment.

One day, I'm sure that opportunity is going to come up and I'd love to do it.

Shack: What other games have you been playing lately?

Peter Molyneux: At the moment, I've been playing a lot of, and almost finished, Phantom Hourglass on the DS, which is great. I really, really enjoyed it. That's all I've had time for, because I'm literally working about 15 hours a day on Fable, and normally I get starved of playing computer games.

If I have my choice, I would be playing a lot more, definitely. I'm looking forward to Grand Theft Auto.

Shack: Have you heard about the multiplayer?

Peter Molyneux: No, I haven't.

Shack: There's 16-person online multiplayer, with 15 different gameplay modes.

Peter Molyneux: Wow. So can you play the story multiplayer?

Shack: No, you can't play the entire story in multiplayer, but there is a co-op mission. Most of the game modes are objective based, like Team Deathmatch, Territory Wars, or racing to see who can assassinate a target first, and it all takes place in the same map as single-player.

Peter Molyneux: Wow, that's incredible. So it's a bit like Crackdown, and I know that Dave Jones is doing APB, which is like a big multiplayer arena.

Shack: Everything I've heard about APB is pretty exciting.

Peter Molyneux: Well, [Grand Theft Auto IV] is only a month away, so that's really exciting.

Shack: Alright, last question. Is it different being a designer now that you're constantly in the public eye? Do you ever miss just being another guy at Bullfrog?

Peter Molyneux: Chris, you know, the funny thing is, I've kinda forgotten what that world is like. I am a big show-off, that's what I am. I'm just a kid showing off his toys, really. I love doing it so much.

I love showing things to people who haven't seen it before and I love having a tired, worn-out journalist come into a room and sitting him down and saying, "Look, this is the vision of what we're trying to create," and then get excited by that. It's a wonderful feeling to be able to do that. I've kinda almost forgotten what it's like to be not like that, because it's been like that since 1992, it's been like that for a very long time.

Sometimes, I wish--I truly, vehemently wish--that I could close the door and I could just focus and not worry about thinking, "Gosh, what's everyone going to think of this and how will this fit into everything else," but I think that's just a general frustration of being a designer.

If you asked me, would I forgo the ability to say things and see my work being talked about in the press and on community boards, I wouldn't forgo doing it.

What I am trying to do--and seriously, seriously trying to do--is trying to, firstly, allow people to understand why when I talk about something, that I'm talking about it in a way that's important to me, rather that it being a definite feature that's on the back of the box.

When I talk about a game feature, then that feature I always show now, because of mistakes I've made in the past. I've talked about combat, but I've shown what combat is going to be. I've talked about drama, and I've show the dog and what that's going to bed. And I've talked about the co-op, and I've actually shown it.

I think people got very, very frustrated when I would talk about, "Hey, we're experimenting with this, isn't this exciting," and then it didn't end up being in the game. That's where this acorn [in Fable 2] came from in the first place.

I just realized that that must frustrate the hell out of people. They get very excited about those things and then understandably, when they're not there, they feel slightly betrayed. I promise not to do that. I've been very, very careful in [Fable 2] only to talk about things that are definitely, definitely in the game.