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Interview: Molyneux In The Moment, Pt 1

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Peter Molyneux is excited. It’s early in the morning of E3’s notoriously draining day two, but it certainly doesn’t show. The god of god games seems energized and animated – reinvigorated, even. Admittedly, this is a man who – in the past – has been known to become lightheaded at the prospect of hyper-realistic videogame acorns, but there’s substance behind the passion this time around. After years of being caught up in triple-A content churn, Molyneux’s finally doing everything his way. His team, his project, and – perhaps most importantly – his wildest ideas.

Will they even stick, though? Can his 22 seemingly abstract experiments be fun? Should they be? Will this gigantic cannonball into the deep end of gaming’s least charted waters even make any money? For now, these questions couldn’t be further from Molyneux’s mind. In his own words, he’s “just experimenting,” and – while many of his former colleagues continue to stick to game development’s straight-and-narrow – he has no idea what he’ll find. So, near the ruins of what appeared to be a truly formidable breakfast, he and I chatted about that.

 RPS: This is your first E3 disconnected from Microsoft and the whole big-budget console scene in ages. How’s it been?

Peter Molyneux: It’s been unusual for me. Normally, I’m in this room and I do my demos, and it’s just one rotation after another. Now, let’s see, I’ve been on the Spike TV host panel, and I’ve been a journalist for two days. It’s been a real eye-opener. I think every designer should be a journalist for a while. What’s enlightening is most of the journalists I spend time with are just fanatical gamers. And I thought they’d just be slightly tired, but no, they get genuinely excited about games, and that’s been quite refreshing.

RPS: So what sort of stuff have you been doing on the Spike show?

Peter Molyneux: I’ve just been commenting on the press conferences and doing a couple of interviews and looking at some games and saying what I thought and trying to be diplomatic. But still honest.

RPS: And so, aside from that, what are you doing at E3?

Peter Molyneux: Well, I left Microsoft in March, and I’ve set up this new company. I’ve been spending a lot of time with the team. I’m not here to show anything off right now. We are doing this thing called the Curiosity Experiment, which is coming out in a few weeks’ time. But I’m not really doing press on that, there’s no demo, it’s all something fresh and new and different. So I’m waving my arms and I’m excited about the new company.

RPS: What is the Curiosity Experiment, exactly?

Peter Molyneux: Well, the big reveal of what it is and exactly what it looks like and how it works will come in an Edge article which we’ve already done. So I want to keep a few things back from that. But it’s this idea where we’re working on this amazing game, it’s going to take us a long time to do this amazing game, and we need to experiment with some of the technology we’re going to invent for the game. You can’t just lock yourself away anymore – especially if you’re talking about this connected world and you’re talking about connecting people together and you’re talking about dynamically balancing a game.

So what we’ve chosen to do are these experiments. We’re going to release these experiments, and each experiment we release, there’s going to be something fascinating about it, something intriguing about it. These experiments are more questions to people and to gamers in the community.

Our first experiment is called Curiosity. It’s this simple idea: If I said to you, “There’s a box here in front of us, and it has a big question mark on it. There’s something amazing in that box.” Then my thought is that you would say, “Ah, I wonder what’s in that box?” That’s what this whole experiment is fuelled by. We present you with this beautiful white room, and in the corner of this white room is going to be this black cube. And you can tap and chip on this black cube with your finger, chip away at it, and slowly bits will fall off, and then you realize that actually everybody is chipping away at this one black cube together. It’s only one black cube, and thousands of people are all chipping away trying to find out what’s in the middle.

That experiment is fascinating to us. It allows us to test out this idea of how you can connect possibly tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people together. Plus, it’s a fascinating experiment with just the power of mystery and curiosity. [Apparently it will also include £50,000 DLC. Molyneux, sadly, neglected to tell me about that part.]

RPS: How freeing has this been for you creatively? What was the genesis of this idea versus, like, how you would normally come up with a game at Microsoft?

Peter Molyneux: Well, I think Microsoft is a fantastic company, amazing people, all the things you’d expect me to say. But I want to be playful and experimental, and I don’t think you can be fully playful and experimental when an organization’s got lots of agenda items, and it’s all about understandably keeping things secret and keeping things in here where nobody can see.

Being outside of Microsoft allows me to do these crazy things like this experiment with the cube, and then the next experiment’s called Cooperation. I think it would be very hard to do that within Microsoft. And the reason for doing that is, I’m being very honest, is because I want to make this game which is going to hopefully be the best game I’ve ever worked on. It’s going to need some unbelievable experimenting with what motivates people and how technology works and how I can use technology – which would be very frightening for someone like Microsoft, to publicly say, “Oh, we’re experimenting on the iPad or experimenting on the PC,” without it being some kind of public statement about their plans for the future.

RPS: Yeah, that’s what Day Z creator Rocket was telling me. He didn’t think he could’ve done this if he hadn’t launched it as a mod first, because he apparently pitched it to some publishers and they said, “Hmm, people don’t want that. It’s too hard.”

Peter Molyneux: No, I know. That’s a problem. A lot of publishers, a lot of bigger companies, they have to be risk-averse. They have to be safe. The very first game I did, Populous, it was very hard to find a publisher, because you go to them and say, “Oh, you play the role of God and you raise and lower this land.” They look at you and say, “We don’t want to take a risk on that.” It feels like those days are being repeated at the moment.

RPS: You’re releasing these experiments as apps, but they’re coming to PC as well, right?

Peter Molyneux: We’re going to release them on every single format that is not too much work to do. So we’re releasing them as apps, we’re releasing them on PC. The trouble is, if you want to release it on console, the amount of time it takes to get something approved for release on console [is prohibitive].

On the App Store, it takes five days. You submit something, and five days later, it’s released. Meanwhile, something like the consoles, on the PSN and on Xbox Live Arcade, it can take months. And that’s a big problem. I think that is a testament to how I think that consoles especially have to realize that they’re entering this instant world. People don’t want to wait for six weeks, six months or something, they want to get it the moment they read about it.

RPS: So your plan is to eventually combine all these experiments into a larger game? Are all of them intended to be deliberately linked together?

Peter Molyneux: Yeah, every single one of these experiments are really steps on the way to making this bigger game. We’re making the bigger game at the moment. One of the things I really want to do is connect people together, which is what this final game is. All the games I’ve ever worked on the past are about connecting just two or three people together – or, at most, 16 people. I don’t want to do that again, I want to go on and make something that puts thousands of people together. World of Warcraft kind of does that.

But we’re just experimenting. So each one of these experiments is definitely a step on the path to making that final game. It’s going to take a bit more time to make that.

RPS: How much are you hoping to grow 22 Cans? Is the “22” bit literal?

Peter Molyneux: 22 people. 22 experiments. Everything’s 22. [chuckles]

RPS: How do you keep those experiments engaging on the basis of releasing them one at a time if they’re going to be part of a greater whole as well?

Peter Molyneux: Well, you know, the great thing about these devices is, once you put an app on your phone [or PC], I can update that app with another experiment. You don’t have to do anything. It’s just there. And each one of those experiments are very different. This cube in a white room, there’s nothing like it. It looks different, and everything else we’re doing is different. I want each one of these experiments to be intriguing in that way. To find out what happens is going to be interesting. Analyzing how many people tap on the cube, whether or not they’re motivated to go on. As you tap away it will reveal something on each one of these surfaces that make up the cube. What happens on each particular surface is a fascinating thing. And I hope people are going to share that information.

RPS : So far, what is your favorite thing to come out of the 22 Cans ideas? What’s the thing that creatively motivated you the most?

Peter Molyneux: Ah, it would be just working with people who really enjoy getting lost in experimentation and inventing stuff that’s completely new and not being burdened by the fact that you did it that way before and that’s the way you’ll do it again. We’ve got 14 people now, and a lot of those people haven’t really been in the games industry before. So they don’t know what you can’t do, and they don’t know exactly the way it works. That sort of new approach there, I think it’s very refreshing. For me, creatively, it’s very refreshing.

RPS: How did you select most of these people? Where did you get them from?

Peter Molyneux: It was this amazing thing that happened. I sent some tweets out, I put a message on my Facebook page, I just did one interview for Gamesindustry.biz. And then this huge number of e-mails came in. Almost 1,700 people applied for jobs. And a lot of those people [weren’t game developers by trade]. I mean, there has been everything from a 15-year-old kid in New York who wanted to run away from home and get on the plane and fly out, to someone who used to be a peace envoy to the UN.

It’s an amazing range of people, people I’ve worked with before, people from the games industry, people from the film industry. It’s just an incredible collection of people fascinated, and hopefully wanting to help invent stuff. We have 14 people now. We’ll have to get another eight people before we’re up to strength, and then we’ll have to close the doors. But it’s been an amazing experience to have gone through all those emails.

RPS: That idea really fascinates me – that a lot of your people don’t come from traditional game development. This industry’s overflowing with genre barriers and “You should do this” or “It has to be done this way” statements. Also, I can’t help but think of The Wire – which was principally written and created by a number of people outside the television industry – and look how that turned out. What sorts of ideas and stories has this process yielded for you so far?

Peter Molyneux: It’s hard to talk about those ideas, because those ideas are so refreshing, they end up being part of what we build. But, just sitting in the office, one of the programmers had never done a game before. And his approach to one particular problem that we had… You’d say, “Oh, I know how to do that” if you’d done a game before. His approach led us to change one aspect of what we’re making, just because he hadn’t done it before. It’s hard to talk about those specific examples, but there’s definitely something there.

Check back tomorrow for part two, in which Molyneux gets angry at social gaming but then uses the word “amazing” 400 more times.

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