Interview: Peter Molyneux On Curiosity’s Failings, GODUS

Last time I spoke with Peter Molyneux, he was practically abuzz with renewed vigor. He’d left Microsoft, started his own hand-picked studio, and ascended back into the high-concept realm he so loves to call home. But reality has a way of dousing even the most excited of flames, and Molyneux knows that better than just about anyone. But the godfather of god games was different when we spoke today: insanely thrilled to be launching a Kickstarter for his Populous meets Dungeon Keeper meets Black & White god opus GODUS, yes, but also wearied, frantic, and tremendously apologetic. It’s been a rough few weeks for 22 Cans, and it showed. And then something crazy happened: Molyneux cried. Openly. Without reservation. But not for the reason you might think. “I just,” he winced, his voice audibly cracking, “I still believe so much.”

Maybe it all only welled up because this was the first time he’d spoken about GODUS in a semi-public forum. Maybe it was exhaustion after weeks of struggling with Curiosity’s exceedingly rocky launch and resulting rage from an increasingly incensed fanbase. It’s tough to say, and I have no way of knowing. Personally, I think it came from the exact same place as Molyneux’s childlike excitement from earlier this year. He loves games. He loves the possibilities they present. He loves his creations. And even if they destroy him, he’s going to keep investing his heart, soul, and reputation into each and every one. “I think I will be doing games until the day I die,” he said. “At this rate, the way I’m burning through my life, I don’t see that I’ll be alive much longer.”

RPS: It’s been a pretty crazy couple of weeks at 22 Cans. How are you holding up?

Molyneux: It’s crazy, it’s mad. We’ve got Curiosity going on and we’ve just launched this Kickstarter for a project called GODUS, which is… One of the reasons I started 22 Cans was to create and invent and do slightly crazy things. Taking on this thought of the genre of god games, which for some bizarre reason I luckily stumbled on and kind of did the first of the god games – why not reinvent that?

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 feel like Populous created me, I didn’t create Populous. Why not use Kickstarter as a medium of involving people in the re-creation of a whole genre? Does that sound mad? What are we doing? Does it sound crazy? I suppose it does.

RPS: Not necessarily. It’s interesting, because a lot of games that were made around the same time you made things like Populous had this very overt ambition to them. They had a very large scope that’s been narrowed as time has gone on, which is kind of weird. You’d think people would build up and out – not narrow the focus of these things.

Molyneux: Yeah, I agree. I think the original principles of Populous were… It was an okay single-player game, but it was a wonderful multiplayer game. It’s been wonderful here, over the last few months, to replay Populous with loads of people in the office here. That’s where it really sung.

A lot of what we call god games now seem to be these narrow-focused things. They aren’t about the excitement of what it used to be. For me it was about influencing this world and seeing how this living [place reacted]. This is one thing I really want to explore, this real, living world which is at your fingertips, in a very real sense now. It’s going to be on PC and it’s going to be on mobile. Especially with touch, it really is at your fingertips. Those people are at your mercy.

I think there’s a lot to explore there. I don’t think there’s ever been anything like Populous, and there certainly hasn’t been anything like taking bits of Populous and mixing it with crazy things in Dungeon Keeper, like digging. I loved Dungon Keeper. I loved digging out stuff. I’d love to explore that. I think Dungeon Keeper’s multiplayer, again, was really good. It was probably stronger even than the Populous multiplayer. Looking at some of the Black & White stuff and mixing that together – those three games had a huge number of mistakes in them. But the community of Kickstarter can tell us and obsess about those mistakes and help us to reinvent the genre. That’s the reason to do Kickstarter.

We could have done a thing that I’ve done on every game I’ve ever made. We could have gone to a publisher, and maybe we should have gone to a publisher. Maybe that’s the sensible big-boy thing to do, signing up to a publisher. But I’ve always said, I’m exploring a way to make a really good, really well-balanced game. One of the great things about Kickstarter is you’ve got people that care enough to spend money. There’s a lot of talk about alpha and beta and people coming in and helping us with the design.

The reason that Dungeon Keeper and Black & White and Populous were so good, I think, back in those days, is because we played it a massive amount. We played Populous again and again. Same with Dungeon Keeper. We played it loads. I want to do that with these Kickstarter people. I want to play this game. We’ve already got a prototype we can fiddle around with here. I’m hoping to get to a state where we can have a public beta or alpha as soon as possible. Refine it and make it just fantastic. If we’re going to reinvent this god game genre, it’s got to be great. It’s got to be great on PC – obviously, that’s where it was kind of born – but reinvented for touch.

RPS: On Kickstarter, you talked a lot about reinventing the god game genre. But I guess that’s really the only sense I got – that you said you’re going to make a god game. Specifically, what makes GODUS unique and modern?

Molyneux: We’re releasing a lot of the design and concepts next week. Americans are all celebrating how much they hate the British at the moment. Is that what it’s about? I think that’s what it’s about [laughs]. It would be a bit of a waste. There’s a lot of those details coming out. But essentially, there’s no game I can think of at the moment where you feel like you’ve got a living world. A really true living world, that every time you come back to it feels like it’s more alive. There’s no game at the moment – this is unbelievable in my book – that really feels cooperative and combative on a mobile platform.

It’s amazing that there isn’t more experiences where you can feel like you and I, as gods in GODUS, can battle against two of our friends or three of our friends or four of our friends. That living world, with mechanics really crafted around touch and mouse, and this delightful map mechanic, a very relaxing mechanic, which is kind of what we’ve been trying out in Curiosity. You’re going to see some of the Curiosity stuff come through in this. How you control that, blending that together with this feeling of digging and sculpting a landscape rather than a stupid cube. The belief that these little followers give you with the ability to be cruel and kind to them, and these awesome god powers.

That combination hasn’t really existed since the original Populous, Black & White, and Dungeon Keeper. It’s not as if many people have done a Populous. It’s amazing to me. There’s been some nods to Populous, but nobody has done landscape changing. Already, the little prototype we have… When you rip your fingers on the screen and you tear the landscape apart with your physical hands, it just feels amazing, man. It feels amazing. When you’re doing it in multiplayer, it feels incredible. I love that.

RPS: Your main platforms are PC and mobile. Obviously the project is hugely ambitious in scope, but mobile has a fairly limiting stigma attached to it. Like, you have to port up from mobile. You can’t design a game for the biggest, baddest PCs and then cram it onto a far less robust platform.

Molyneux: That’s a simple one. The mobile platform is unbelievably powerful because you’ve got it with you all the time. Most gamers probably have some kind of mobile device on them that’s powerful enough to be a great gaming experience. This project, GODUS, it’s going to be 21st-century resolution and graphics and amazing visuals, but the mobile platform is capable of doing that. There is a low water mark on mobile that we won’t go below. There is only a certain number of Apple devices that we will support and a certain number of Android devices we support, because we want it to be the experience that it should be. I think if you try and dilute or downgrade that experience to support the very low-end devices, you do end up with something you may not be as proud about. You can think of it as higher-end mobile devices.

But I love the touch. Populous was invented because of the mouse, and it can be re-invented around the mouse, but also a lot around the touch. The touch, the grab, the stroke, all of those things we’re going to be obsessed about. So I don’t think of that [platform separation]. My ambition – and again, it’s an ambition – is that you should be able to play a game on your mobile versus someone who’s on the PC. That would be pretty cool.

Nowadays – this is part of the experiment – can we do an experience that’s truly multi-device? Can you play one god on the PC… You and me cooperating together, you’re on PC, I’m on mobile. I think we should do that. The bar on PC is very high.

RPS: I was wondering where the 22 experiments fit into this. You’ve said that the experiments were leading up to one big final project. Is that what this is, or is this something else?

Molyneux: This is an experiment that is a game. It’s an experiment called Cooperation. We hinted at Cooperation about six months ago. It’s part of the plan. It’s another project. It’s an experiment in applying some of the stuff that we’ve learned from Curiosity – and we’re still learning masses from Curiosity – into this. It seems more like a game, but I don’t think experiments should be just experiments. They should start becoming things. If you look very carefully in the concepts, the first concept shots, you’ll see a big cube in the background. This is part of that journey that we’re all going on.

The next experiment in Curiosity is happening probably next week, as we release version two of Curiosity. So experiments are still going on in that platform. Does that make sense, or does it sound crazy again?

RPS: This is an interesting time to unveil GODUS on Kickstarter. Curiosity launched, and you guys had a few hiccups to deal with it on that end. People pretty vocally criticized you for it.

Molyneux: It was a disaster. The last two weeks have been the worst and the best two weeks of my life. Here, we launched Curiosity and we thought it would be a slow-burning thing. We thought we’d be climbing up to tens of thousands of people over a month, and it took a couple of hours. Then we panicked and we put a fix in to try and get Curiosity up and running on a distributed load, on a cluster basis.

We were tired and we made a mistake. The mistake, which was very hard to unravel, was that people started losing their gold coins. We have now, in Apple cert, a fix for that. If people put the update on – it should be out in a couple of days – then they won’t lose coins anymore. The service of Curiosity is much more robust. The actual ability for getting on and joining now is pretty seamless.

Our original plan was to launch Curiosity on the Wednesday, two weeks ago, and on Friday to launch GODUS. That was the original plan. But by the time Thursday came, we had so many problems that we delayed GODUS until we felt we had a solution. I can understand people being angry. I’m angry. I’m super angry. My wife is barely talking to me now, because she lost a million gold coins. I walked through the front door a few days ago and… Yeah. It wasn’t a pleasant conversation as you can imagine. We desperately want to fix that.

22 Cans is split in two at the moment. Half the team is working on GODUS, half the team is working on Curiosity.

RPS: Back before Curiosity launched, you talked a lot about the technology underlying it and the fact that you were trying to make something that could bear the load of so many people simultaneously tapping away at it. Why didn’t that work?

Molyneux: The main reason? It was my fault completely. The server guys here said, “How many people do you think you’re going to have coming online?” This is the reality of it. I’ve done three talks. I did a talk at Rezzed, I did a talk at Unite, and I did a talk at MIT. There was the Wired article, but that was back in mid-October. So I said, “Look, it’s going to be a slow ramp up. We’re not going to go out to the press, we’re not going to start talking about it until we’ve proved our tech in the marketplace. The only way to do that with this is to get people to start using it.”

So those poor guys, instead of implementing 15 servers as there are now, they implemented a solution which was only one server, because they thought that they would have at least a couple of weeks before that one server was being pushed. The reality was [very different]. I don’t know how. I don’t know why. I wasn’t even online when it launched. I was in Israeli security because I’d just given a talk in Israel and I was fighting my way back. I had done one tweet saying, “Oh my God, I don’t believe Curiosity is out.”

But by the time I landed and got back to England, it had had 200,000 downloads. And all those people hitting our server, a single server, and trying to get on and trying to register and trying to go through Facebook and trying to tap at once… We were totally taken by surprise. Those poor guys, they turned around to me and looked at me with hatred as they said, “Look. As quick as we can, we have to implement our cluster-based solution, which we didn’t really want to implement.” They got this load-balancing solution out as quick as they could, and a mistake was made, which was a schoolboy mistake, but it was impossble to unravel. We lost the gold.

RPS: That puts you, with the Kickstarter I think, in a bit of a precarious position. You being you, a lot of people look at your work and say, “OK, he’s a guy who promises a whole lot and then it doesn’t always work out that way.” And now they have a very fresh reminder of that in how Curiosity turned out. Do you think that will make people a little more hesitant to donate to Kickstarter, because they’re not sure if you can actually pull off GODUS as you promise it?

Molyneux: Probably, yeah. What that means is that we would have to go down a more traditional publishing route. Whilst I’ve got lots of friends in publishing, it would be a shame. But you’re right. It just wasn’t good enough. We should have… I shouldn’t have been… Well, I don’t know how I could have predicted this. It’s just a cube in a corner of a white room. I don’t know what we did that made two million people download it, and download it in such a short time. I wish I had some time machine and could go back two weeks. You live by your mistakes, for sure.

But, you know, if I didn’t launch Kickstarter now, I would have run into Christmas. I would have had to wait until after Christmas. It’s a long time to wait, in the digital world, to kick off a project. It’s two months. So to a certain extent our hands are tied. I’m sure we’ll pay the price for that. I’m absolutely sure. At least this time it was a bug, though. I know that’s terrible. I hate bugs, I loathe them, but at least this time it was a bug.

I’m proud of Curiosity. I’m amazed at what the world’s done with Curiosity. I tried not to over-promise. I only ever said it’s a big cube and you tap on it. I never said anything else about it, like the diamond chisel, which is of course there. If today was launch day, I don’t know what could have come of it. It could have been amazing. We held off on the launch of Kickstarter until we fixed the issue [with Curiosity], until we announced the issue, and then we launched at the last possible moment before the holidays.

But you’re right. I can’t blame people for not believing. I am going to put everything, every ounce of energy, every piece of myself, every statement I made into this game, because this… Populous created me. I didn’t create Populous.

[That statement was followed by a long silence. And then Molyneux cried.]

Molyneux: I know I’ve said things… I wish I could not say them, I guess. I just… I still believe so much. I swore that when we started 22 Cans that we wouldn’t over-promise, and I guess through stupid mistakes we have. I have to live by those. If it means that the project doesn’t get kickstarted, if it means that people use the Kickstarter to vent their frustrations, then I guess I have to live by that.

RPS: At the same time, though, people are obviously very passionate about god games and about your legacy with them. So you do have that working in your favor.

Molyneux: Yeah. Maybe. I don’t know. We’ll have to see. It would just feel so wrong to go back to a publisher or some investor. I don’t mind using my savings to found the company and create the team and create Curiosity, but there comes a point where you need help on that. I’d rather go and face my critics and face people’s rejection than go down a conventional route, I guess. Maybe that is madness. I don’t know.

RPS: Modern publishing doesn’t leave much room for small, highly specialized teams, though. When you talked about reestablishing the old Bullfrog spirit from back in the day in the Kickstarter video…

Molyneux: That’s what we have already here. It is a team that really loves what they do. I haven’t worked with a team like that for a very long time. The fact that we’ve already played more hours of the original games of Populous and Dungeon Keeper and Black & White and all shouted at each other about the stupid mistakes that were made back then. We’re passionate about those. The art director did all the art on Dungeon Keeper and Black & White. You’ve got me, and then tomorrow I’ve got Glenn Corpes coming into the office. It was him and I that created the original Populous. This is as close to the team that created the thing in the first place. As I said, we’re insanely passionate about it.

RPS: You’ve also made mention of the culmination of the 22 experiments as your “final game,” though. So is that really the ultimate goal here? Is this your swan song?

Molyneux: Yes… Well, I didn’t really explain that. I’m one of those human beings who’s surprised he’s still alive every time he wakes up in the morning. I think I will be doing games until the day I die. I can’t see that, at this rate, the way I’m burning through my life… I don’t see that I’ll be alive much longer. That’s one thing.

The other thing is that – and you can see it with Curiosity – you don’t finish a game when you release it anymore. That’s when it starts. Next week we’re going for update two with Curiosity. It’s a very different experience. One of the things I’m so excited about nowadays is that you can adapt. It’s unexpected to us, or me, how much art people are doing on Curiosity. It’s a disappointment to me that it still feels like a solitary experience. We’re going to respond to that. It’s a disappointment to me that there aren’t more surprises. We’re going to respond to that.

A game is a living thing. Like any living thing, you have to feed it and nurture it and grow it. When we’re talking about the final game, then if I launch it, if it really is the final game, it’s going to need a lot of that tender loving care to help it grow. That means probably focusing on it and obsessing about it for maybe years. So to that extent it could be my last, because by definition, you’re adapting it along the way.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

Molyneux: It’s madness, it’s madness. But the best things that human beings do, I think, they do when they’re under pressure. It’s that insane energy. We’ve got our destiny in the path that we’re walking down, but we can’t walk down it. We have to run down it. We’re in this digital world that changes every second. That’s why we’re doing these two things at once.

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