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Molyneux On Curiosity, GODUS, And Forgotten Promises

Facing The Facts, Pt 1

Most cubes contain air, sugar, or tiny men named Rubik. Not Peter Molyneux's, though. Instead, Molyneux himself emerged from the cuboid cocoon with promises of virtual immortality. Bryan Henderson from Edinburgh, Scotland will soon be godding at an eons-old level even though he's just 18. For some, though, that prize rang hollow. "All that tapping," many cried, "for the sole purpose of advertising 22Cans' next game?" And what would've happened if GODUS' Kickstarter didn't succeed in the first place? Would the prize have been something else entirely? Also, what does cell phone cube tapping have to do with a primarily PC god game at all, and why weren't we able to at least participate in the tapping on PC? Molyneux initially promised it, after all. There are, in other words, some things to answer for. I got in touch with Molyneux to ask about all the rather questionable changes of plan, and also how all the "god of gods" stuff will affect GODUS for everyone else. Here's the first part of our chat.

RPS: So Curiosity ended, and it contained virtual godhood. Was that the plan for Curiosity from day one? No switcheroos when Godus' Kickstarter succeeded?

Molyneux: Yeah. To be honest, this idea came years ago. Just after I finished Fable II, I think it was. I’m a crazy gamer. I play all sorts of games and I’ve played them for an awfully long time. I was looking at what was happening to god games. They were being reinterpreted by some Facebook games, like some of the Zynga games, and by some RTS-like games. And I thought, well, wouldn’t it be amazing one day to have the opportunity to redefine or reinvent what god games are? When I started thinking through that, I thought, if we really are going to reinvent something like this, then we should use some of the technology that’s being used in the games industry, connecting people together. Whole worlds connected together.

That led me to the thought that, well, all sorts of god systems, all religious systems, have a god of gods. There’s a Zeus or an Odin. Some hugely powerful figure at the top of the pantheon of gods. Wouldn’t that be cool, if that was a person, and that person had influence over everyone’s worlds? That’s when the idea, or the obsession, about reinventing god games came into my head, and that’s when this thought about having a god of gods came in. Then I thought, well, it couldn’t be someone like me. It couldn’t be someone I worked with. It would have to be someone from a normal walk of life. How do you find that person at the start of the game?

That led to the idea about, wouldn’t this be an amazing thing for someone to get? How would they feel? That led to the idea of Curiosity, really, that we needed to experiment with all this tech about connecting people together and about them expressing with such a limited vocabulary. Those two things came together, and then Curiosity was released. The center of the cube came way before the cube, and it came out of the desire to use some of the technology that’s around that isn’t really being used and exploited yet. I’m sure it will be. That’s where it came about.

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Fortunately, I’m in a position now that the center of the cube is not only the ability to influence and change aspects of the game – I’ll talk about how that works in a second – but also it is to receive a share of every penny that 22Cans gets from Curiosity. That goes out to the god of gods. Now, the interesting thing is that what Bryan has won is a grace period where he can be god of gods for a certain amount of time. He is going to be god of gods. We’re talking about that period of time. It won’t be less than a few months. It might not be more than a year. Then we’ll unveil the ability to usurp the god of gods and replace the god of gods with someone else. That someone else will then take on all of Brian’s powers.

RPS: So being the god of gods is temporary. Don't you think that lessens the impact of the Curiosity prize? Seems quite a bit less life-changing if it only lasts a year or so.

Molyneux: It doesn’t seem right to me that Brian is god of gods for all time. It seems right to me that he has a period of time to be a god of gods. That can’t be a few days. Definitely not. It needs to be a substantial amount of time. In that time, many things can happen. It depends on how successful the game is, how much actual physical money he gets of course, but it should be not an inconceivable amount of time.

That will be a year from release, by the way, not a year from today. There would need to be enough time to make it meaningful for him, in every sense of the word. But we could make it five years. We could make it ten years. I think I wanted, before I thought about exactly what the time would be, I wanted to gauge what people’s reactions were. Not only to the center of what Curiosity was, but also to gauge the reactions to Godus. Maybe later today, but certainly tomorrow, we’re releasing the alpha of Godus to our Kickstarter pledgers. It didn’t seem like that sort of decision should be taken without some feedback from the people who will be playing Godus.

RPS: What would have happened to Curiosity’s prize if Godus didn’t get funded on Kickstarter?

Molyneux: That’s the interesting thing. Everyone says this, that they do the Kickstarter because they want to get feedback from people. Everyone says that. But that’s really what we did Kickstarter for. We did it because, in my opinion, a great idea is nothing when it comes to great games. It’s a good idea with a great team and a game that’s been played for thousands of hours to polish and refine and tune and tweak it. The 22 of us here just aren’t smart enough people to think of all the things that should be in the game, all the issues and the balancing we should use.

What I really wanted is to use a controlled stage approach to developing the game. In the next 48 hours it will go out into 900 people’s hands. We’re going to look at the way they play, get feedback from them. We’ll be asking them to fill out surveys. We’re going to be looking at analytics on their play style. We’ll be taking their suggestions on the forums and refining and polishing the game. Then we’re going to open that up to a bigger audience for the beta pledgers. That’s around about 17,000 people. Then we may even open it up to a wider, more public audience, depending on how it goes.

That was the important thing about Kickstarter. Secondarily, it was the money. Kickstarter is a fantastic way of raising money from people who believe in the thing that you’re doing. I love that. If we hadn’t been funded on Kickstarter, we would have had to seek another way of getting that money in, but I’m so obsessive about developing Godus. That is the only thing on people’s minds now, developing Godus. We probably would have found another route to developing the game.

RPS: Why did you opt to launch Curiosity before securing funding for Godus? Why couldn’t you have made sure that you had that and then launched Curiosity?

Molyneux: That’s a very good question. The truth of the matter, I’ll be completely honest with you, is that being as small a company as we are, and with me leading that company, I just take these insane risks all the time. One of those insane risks was not doing it the logical way. The logical way may have been to launch the Kickstarter first, to get the Kickstarter through, and then launch Curiosity, but it so happened that... The brilliant thing about Curiosity is it solved a lot of problems all in one. One of the problems it solved is that we needed to experiment with the technology that would make the Godus idea possible. Whether that should have come before the Kickstarter or after the Kickstarter is a matter of debate, but at the core and the center of the Godus idea is linking all these worlds together.

That hadn’t been done before. It needed something like Curiosity to experiment with that idea, and the end of Curiosity proved, actually, that the idea worked. You can have an experience which is delightful on everyone’s devices and connect thousands of people together concurrently. That’s the first thing. The other problem that Curiosity solved -- and this is a developmental problem, but it’s always a big issue – is that when you pull a team together for the first time, you have to give them something to work on. The thing that they work on cannot be your ultimate dream game, because the team is bonding and jelling and coming together. The brilliant thing about Curiosity is that it was a very simple problem for the team to get their heads round. It wasn’t a game. It didn’t require months of design. It was a cube in the corner of a white room that you could tap on. That was a brilliant thing, in the early days of 22Cans, for three people to get their teeth into, and for the team to grow to 10 people or 15 people – I can’t remember the exact number on the day of launch.

It wasn’t until late October [2012] that we really had a full team to start on the development of Godus. We didn’t really start on Godus until just before the Kickstarter. So you’re right. In logical hindsight terms, maybe it would have been better or safer or less risky to release the Kickstarter before Curiosity, but we did it that way round because we wanted to prove the technology, and because we wanted to get the team jelled, and because… During the Kickstarter, to do it well, it requires a big team of people. You have to have all the people doing videos. You have to have a prototype. You have to have screenshots. You have to have art. We simply didn’t have that at the start of 22Cans.

RPS: But you were also kind of gambling with people’s time and money. People had already put a lot into Curiosity. If they hit the center and didn’t find the thing that was intended to be there, that would have rung pretty hollow.

Molyneux: The prize was always the prize. We’ve just been very lucky that people can get their hands on Godus, those who pledged, within a few hours of Curiosity finishing. If we had been delayed by the Kickstarter not being funded, we still would be developing Godus. We would have had to go to more conventional venture capital or family and friends investing in the company. All that would have done is delayed Godus. It wouldn’t have meant that it would never exist, unless some disaster happened. We were always destined to do Godus. The question would then be, how long someone like Bryan had to wait before enacting his god powers?

RPS: What exactly is he going to be able to do within the game? What does being the god of gods entail?

Molyneux: There is going to be a god control panel. On that god control panel, there will be a number of options that he can choose. Those options sometimes are binary options, like “yes, it’s this” or “no, it’s that.” Sometimes they’re more like slider options – “I want this much of this or this little of that.” These options can be applied to the whole world, to every Godus player, or a sub-section of the world.

The sort of things that Bryan will be able to decide are that he may decide, for example, that all followers in the world should work harder. In everybody’s world, the god of gods declares that they should work as hard as they possibly can. Another decision may be that all followers in the worlds should work less hard, but be happier. So they’re going to be slightly morally-based decisions. They’re going to be morally-based decisions which affect either the whole world or a sub-section of the world. And they could be game balance decisions.

What they aren’t going to be is carte blanche, uncontrolled, unbalanced, unrefined decisions, which would throw the balance of the game out entirely. Bryan can absolutely request something to happen, and we will do our best efforts to make that happen, but they can’t be unreasonable. He can’t decide that everybody in Canada’s worlds explode. There are limits to his power. That dashboard that’s there will be active for him every period of time. Probably once every week. He will also be, of course, receiving a royalty from every penny of every version or every possible avenue of revenue that we get in from Godus.

RPS: Once again, though, doesn't that make this whole thing less life-changing? It sounds fairly tame, all told.

Molyneux:  Obviously there have to be limits. But I’m sure that him experiencing this is going to be an interesting thing. I’m sure that, because of his experience, he’s going to think of things which are even more interesting than we would have thought of. We love that. The key thing to remember here is that when we release the game later this year, we’re going to continue developing it, without stopping. We’re not moving on to another IP even. Part of the fascinating thing is, when you’ve got something you feel is going to be really good, why stop doing it? Why not continue evolving it? That evolution will obviously involve someone like Bryan.

RPS: But you're still putting some pretty hard limits on what he can ultimately do. Does that make 22Cans the god of god of gods?

Molyneux: [laughs] Well, no, because it’s the decisions that he makes. Now, a lot of those decisions, I hope, are going to be inspired by the community. Already we’ve got #FollowBrian started on Twitter. We’ve already received a gift to pass on to Brian from one of the potential followers. We’ll just have to see how that goes.

For this idea to work, it needs to be someone who is not part of the team, who can stand outside the forest of development, stand back. This was one of our problems – how to find that person? In a way, it’s good that Brian isn’t a core gamer. One of my fears was he was going to be so very very game-oriented and want to move it towards a more core element, but I don’t feel that he is.

RPS: Exactly how much is Bryan making? What percentage?

Molyneux: We’re settling on that number at the moment. Part of the problem here is that I had to keep this secret. I kept this secret for years. Then it was the cameraman and the sound guy who recorded the final video. Those were the only people that knew what it was. And so if I opened it up to things like programmers at 22Cans or the legal people, then it would get out. Someone would say something on Twitter.

I’ve got the meeting with the financial guy and the legal guy tomorrow to settle on how we calculate the percentage and what the percentage will be. I think this is one of those areas where we have to get Bryan’s sign-off. He has to agree to share what that number would be. I don’t think it would be legally correct for me to say, “It’s going to be this much” without him. How much money he receives is kind of a private issue to him. The only thing I’d say is my ambition, absolutely, is for it to be percentage points, not fractions of a percentage. Definitely not.

RPS: Curiosity never ended up making it to PC, even though it was announced at a PC show (that RPS helps put on, no less), Rezzed.

Molyneux: Oh, yeah. It is a PC show, I guess, isn’t it? We never put it on PC because it felt a little bit too, I think, trivial? Is that the right word? It was more about taking it out of your pocket and tapping for five minutes than it was about sitting down for a good long tap-fest. We could have put it on PC. We could have put it on browser. We could have done a number of different things to it. And, god, we could have taken it in a million different directions. But when we released Curiosity, we moved so that only a few people were working on Curiosity, because we wanted to obsess about Godus.

RPS: It’s just a bit strange that a mobile player gets to be god of gods for a bunch of people who are playing on PC, many of whom didn’t get a chance to even compete for the role.

Molyneux: Yeah, that’s a very good point. I hadn’t even thought of that, what an insane thing this is. You’re right. To be absolutely fair, if someone was a PC owner and they didn’t have a mobile device, then they wouldn’t have a chance to be god of gods. That means that’s not very fair. But I guess they could be the leader of the revolution that overthrows Bryan. Not that I have plans to overthrow him of course. Does that make it fair? That’s just me thinking out loud.

RPS: The other side of it is that initially, you said it was going to be on PC, and for a lot of people that’s just like, “Okay, we’re getting a thing.” When they don’t get the thing that they thought they were going to get, then they’re going to be disappointed. They will trust you less.

Molyneux: Did I say it was going to be on PC?

RPS: Yeah, I think that was part of the initial launch announcement, way back when.

Molyneux: Gosh. Do you remember that, Jack [turns away from mic to address Jack Attridge in his office].

Attridge: I think we did, because we were making the game on Unity, so it was very easy for us to make it on PC.

Molyneux: Oh, yes. Why didn’t we do it on PC?

Attridge: Well, I mean, it's a game that was not very...

Molyneux: I think you’ve caught us here a little bit, in that we maybe said it was possible to do on PC, but I think we didn’t do it on PC because we put all of our love of tapping into tapping with a finger and not with a mouse. I can’t remember playing it on PC, but I can imagine it would be a little bit more tedious with a mouse than it would be with a finger. But it’s a valid point.

RPS: Because of that, aren't you worried that you've reduced your credibility in the eyes of some of the people who are going to be getting Godus? Or future games in general? Since a lot of people expected PC and never got it.

Molyneux: To be honest with you, I didn’t feel that pressure from people. I don’t think I can remember many people requesting that. There were a lot more people that requested certain sorts of Android devices that we couldn’t support.

I didn’t feel that pressure, but that doesn’t mean that pressure wasn’t there. We could have done it on PC. But you must remember that Curiosity cost us quite a bit of money. We’re only a small team, so we had to choose the devices that we supported carefully. It is a point, I suppose. If you were a PC player and didn’t have a mobile device that you downloaded Curiosity onto, then you didn’t have a chance to enter into the spirit of Curiosity. But then how would people know? They wouldn’t know until afterwards, what’s in the middle?

RPS: Which makes the god of gods concept maybe even confusing for some of those players. They get on and think, “Who’s this person that rules over the whole world? Why do they get to do it and I don’t?”

Molyneux: Yeah. In fact, I’m sure that people will probably even forget about Curiosity by the time they get their hands on Godus, and I’m sure many people will not have even heard of Curiosity. The dramatic narrative of having a single human being who is deemed as god of gods should be an exciting narrative in itself, and not one that’s dependent on knowing that Curiosity even existed. That is the key point here. Having a human being who is known as god of gods and who players can appreciate or not or rebel against is there for dramatic reasons. It’s not there just to give away a prize at the end of Curiosity. Do you see what I mean?

RPS: I understand that, but I think it’s only natural for people to be, you know, curious about why it happened. They’ll try to find out.

Molyneux: Yeah, that’s true. But the truth is that it didn’t happen because of Curiosity. Curiosity was a way to make this happen. Not the reason for it to happen. It happened for gameplay and narrative reasons, because it’s a unique thing that’s never happened before in the game, to have this one person with this extent of power. To that extent, I could have just turned round and said, “It’s going to be you.” I could have said it’s going to be the third person in Godus to do X, Y, and Z first. I could have said, “Right, let’s all vote on the nicest person we know.” Curiosity was a way to select that person, but Curiosity isn’t the reason that the person is there. The reason that person is there is to make the game better, if that makes sense.

RPS: Doesn't that sort of lend credence to the people who declared Curiosity a giant ad for Godus, then?

Molyneux: Well, that’s an interesting one. I thought that people would start to say Curiosity's an advert for Godus. There’s a couple of thoughts on this. Of course I totally understand what people are saying when they say that. The first thing is that Curiosity existed for a multitude of reasons. We tried to be really clear that it was an experiment. We only used monetization in Curiosity in the form of that experiment, not to try and cheat people out of money. We tried to test the technologies that we would later use in Godus. We tested the psychology of what we were doing and have used in Godus. To that extent, we called it an experiment.

But yes, the center of Curiosity is something which continues to be intriguing in Godus. Maybe Curiosity isn’t over, it’s just changed into Godus. I do think that every game you get involved with ends up being an advert for the next game. There’s a saying I’ve always believed is true – you’re only as good as your last game. That thought led me to leave Microsoft. My previous game was always an advert for my next game, and you could say that Fable II was the best advert for Fable III and so on.

We tried not to overplay that. It would have been easy to put Godus adverts on every side of the cube or to drive people to our website all the time or to monetize it in a way that we didn’t, but we tried to keep it pure. The purity of Curiosity was, is the power of curiosity enough for people to get to the center? That’s all we said. We tried not to overplay that or oversell that. We didn’t try to charge for downloading the app or anything like that.

So although I see people’s point, maybe people can see what we were trying to do, and that was trying to find an intriguing way of picking someone to be god of gods, experimenting with technology and psychology that would go on to help us make Godus the best it could possibly be, and to get ourselves used to this multi-device, multi-connected universe that we now exist in.

RPS: Was Curiosity, on its own, ultimately profitable?

Molyneux: No. Definitely not. But, I’ll be honest with you, it ended up paying for its servers, which has been good. We didn’t play the monetization line particularly hard. We charged for a few things. We charged for removing cubes or adding cubes. Not because… Well, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind making money. I never mind making money. But we only charged because it was part of the experiment. The interesting thing in the end was, would people pay money to be lazy and remove cubes, or would they pay money to be disruptive?

We resisted the temptation to overly monetize. We could have monetized by charging people for gold coins. We could have charged for the app. We could have charged for an update. But I don’t think that would have been right to do that, because it was an experiment. We tried never to sell it as a game. It was an experiment that everyone was involved in, and that was a valid experiment, I think, in itself.

If there had been something like a big pile of cash in the middle, or a sports car or something like that, then maybe people wouldn’t have felt better, or maybe felt worse. I think what’s in the center of Curiosity is, philosophically, interesting. It’s something which is fascinating, and something that I thought about and dwelled on for many years. It somehow fits what Curiosity was.

Check back tomorrow to see what Molyneux has to say about GODUS' brand new publisher (something he explicitly promised against during the Kickstarter), possibilities of an online requirement, GODUS' business model and how much the publisher will influence it, and whether or not 22Cans' 22 experiments will continue after GODUS is finished.  

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About the Author

Nathan Grayson

Former News Writer

Nathan wrote news for RPS between 2012-2014, and continues to be the only American that's been a full-time member of staff. He's also written for a wide variety of places, including IGN, PC Gamer, VG247 and Kotaku, and now runs his own independent journalism site Aftermath.