Populous, Syndicate, Dungeon Keeper, Black & White, Fable. For many long-time gamers, these names are synonymous with incredible experiences which many would consider the best of all-time. I certainly wouldn’t disagree with anyone who thinks that. These are also all games helmed by industry legend Peter Molyneux. However, when one thinks of him, one also tends to think of a career littered with the ashes of broken promises. He’s a genuine guy who despite his status, always comes across as humble and who can captivate a crowd with his ideas, ones he clearly believes, yet almost always fail to live up to his own hype in the finished products. His games are always good but he is legendary for making them sound like they’ll be so much better before they come out. It’s a clear case of letting your mouth get out in front of your brain. Some people love this about him, some hate it but it always leads to interesting debate and even a popular parody Twitter account.
The latest instance of this is different however because it involves something fans made a reality. Molyneux Kickstarted the game GODUS some time ago. In short, the game is way over budget and past deadline, many of its promised features are missing, tons of microtransactions and skinner box mechanics were added, rumours are both the staff and scope of the game’s PC version have been gutted (while the free-to-play mobile version still goes strong) and the winner of a contest involving Curiosity (Molyneux’s last “game”) that was supposed to lead to him having a position of influence and financial benefit from Godus haven’t happened. All this while they’re still taking money for the PC game on Early Access. This type of behaviour certainly isn’t unique among game developers but it’s different this time, especially for Molyneux as it’s consumers who funded this project, not a publisher who traditionally has much more control over the purse strings and uses that to wield influence. The contest situation in particular has resulted in a new wave of consumer frustration this past week, one I can certainly appreciate.
Peter Molyneux’s charisma and the games press’ general lack of willingness to ask anyone of note tough questions has meant that his tendency to grossly overpromise and underdeliver has largely gone unchecked and treated as something that’s almost cute and funny instead of irresponsible. Rock, Paper, Shotgun decided to buck that trend by conducting a very hostile interview with him. I think the term “hit piece” is overused these days and often is used by people who can’t take criticism as a way to attack something that didn’t agree with them. In this case, I think it’s a perfectly apt descriptor. RPS in general tends to alternate between being kooky British and being just smug douchebags and this is the latter without question. I’m all for asking tough questions and it’s great that Molyneux finally got asked some but when the first thing you ask is “Do you think that you’re a pathological liar?”, your agenda is clear from the get go and makes you sound like a forum troll at best. It was unnecessary and clearly designed to drive clicks through controversy, something RPS and many of its defenders claim they’re above. Molyneux wasn’t the subject of this interview, he was a target. Funny that industry darling Tim Schafer, who is guilty of many of the same things including screwing paying customers, but has staunchly defended the unethical journalists who attacked their audiences, has not been given the same level of scrutiny.
To be fair to John Walker, a lot of the interview consisted of him calling out actual things Molyneux has said before and asking him to explain them. The response to most of these was attempts at deflection or him claiming that he meant something different than what he actually said, as if we’re all supposed to be mind readers. While I think the tone was overly and intentionally hostile and trying to trap Molyneux into saying something Walker could point to and go “Gotcha’!”, he also didn’t do himself any favours and rarely admitted to his mistakes, claiming instead he was misinterpreted or that he meant it at the time, as if that justifies the failure to deliver. He then tries to turn the tone back on Walker, claiming he just hates him, wants to see him driven from the industry and claiming he’s going to just stop talking to the press because of this (though he’s already done it multiple times since.) Neither person comes up smelling of roses here.
Walker repeatedly chastises Molyneux for still seemingly being unable to manage a project properly, despite being in the industry for more than 30 years. To a certain degree, I can sympathise with any creative person who is trying to make the best art they can. Business and art are oil and water in many ways and I can imagine that even for an experienced creative like him, trying to make anything that isn’t based on a well-trodden formula must be like trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole. If you’re trying something new, it by definition something that you’re not experienced at. You can rely on past project planning experience but no matter your skill in that, it can only take you so far. I think saying that Molyneux is lying to people might be going to far because a lie requires an intention to deceive. I don’t think the many unfulfilled promises in Molyneux’s past projects were put out there with the intent to deceive people into being hyped for the game or pre-ordering or whatever. I think he truly believed what he said, he just wasn’t sure of its viability before he said it and that’s a very different thing.
Where I do have a big problem is when Molyneux says straight up that they purposefully lowballed the amount they said they needed for the project on Kickstarter because they were scared that if they asked for what they actually needed, they probably wouldn’t hit the target and since Kickstarter pays nothing if you don’t fund, they had to hit the target. This is a project that was pitched as being funded by the fans for the fans and wouldn’t have investor or publisher interference (though the mobile versions of GODUS did indeed end up with a publisher.) If that’s the case, then you can’t say you need less money than you do because you’re scared you won’t get it. Ask for the right amount or scale back, you can’t have it both ways. Saying you need less than you know you do sounds straight up fraudulent to me and the kind of thing that a real investor could sue over.
Combine that with rumours that most of the GODUS team is now working on the next project, which Molyneux has announced despite this furore and this looks like something that many would have called and out and out scam if it was someone less known. The new Lead Designer of the game (who started out as a backer with no industry experience and worked unpaid for a year) has also stated publicly that a lot of the promised features just aren’t realistic, including possibly the ones that would allow the fulfilment of the obligations to the Curiosity winner. Molyneux claims he’s learned a lesson from all this and may not use Kickstarter again as a result but that’s cold comfort to the people who paid for what is at best a prototype, well after the game was supposed to be finished.
I’ve long said that one of the biggest problems with this industry is the over reliance on PR speak. The message, especially with big games, is controlled so tightly that everyone who speaks about it ends up sounding like a corporate robot who has no real passion for or investment in the thing they’re promoting. I like creators who are honest, who speak to people like human beings and want to make you as passionate about their ideas as they are. Gaming wouldn’t have evolved past Pong without those people. It’s also important to me that they are willing to admit where they fucked up. Everyone makes mistakes and sometimes they’re big ones. What’s important is what you take away from those and how you apply it to your future work. Peter Molyneux’s problem is that many years into his career, he has learned how to own his fuck ups and say what he’s learned from them but then he just keeps making the same fuck ups over and over again. Rightly or wrongly, his historical cachet has cushioned him through a lot of that but I think this time is different because it’s not some publisher who has to weight the financial consequences of this, it’s his customers directly and I would say they’re far less forgiving.
There seems to be no middle ground any more when it comes to the balance of creativity and business in gaming. On one side, we have the extremely creative people like Molyneux, Schafer and even people like Phil Fish, who make amazing games but seem to have no concept of the business needs of development and treating fans respectfully. On the other side, there’s the extreme business end of things where you have the Ubisofts, EAs and Activisions, that are cranking out manufactured, risk averse, endless sequels that are iterative at best and creatively bankrupt at worst. There has to be a way to balance these two extremes in a way that allows expansion of this medium as an art form with the investment to make those experiences amazing and successful so that we get more of them. Right now, things seem to be very polarised and consumers are left in the middle of it, demanding new things but getting increasingly burned when they try to back them.
The press’ role can’t be overstated here either. As we all know, there’s been a large pushback lately on the press and the often too friendly relationship they have with developers. I think it speaks volumes that while too hostile and rude, the RPS interview is one of the only ones where Molyneux has truly been called out on his broken promises. I think the lack of such treatment Tim Schafer (who is very friendly with large swaths of the gaming press) has gotten over Broken Age and Space Base DF-9 speaks volumes to the lack of critical distance many journalists have from their subjects. Ultimately, the press is supposed to protect consumers and well, they’ve been failing miserably at that for a long time now. I think John Walker and Rock, Paper, Shotgun came across as petty and purposefully spiteful in their interview but I also applaud them for willing to ask the tough questions no one else was.
Ultimately, I still think we need more people like Peter Molyneux in game development. They’re visionaries with the ideas that will drive the next big trends and they’re willing to experiment and push against convention and that’s ultimately a good thing. They just also need to temper their expectations and realise that like it or not, this is also a business and you need to work within the constraints that presents. Some of the best games ever made were ones that purposefully kept a narrow focus and scope and did a few things well instead of a lot of things poorly. Molyneux strikes me as a man with big ideas but one that also needs walls and constraints to keep him focused and he’s rarely had that. For as much of a disaster as GODUS is and as much blame can fall at his feet for it, I hope that having to address his customers directly in response to it does provide the lessons he needs to control his impulses and redeem himself going forward. I don’t want to see him leave the industry, indeed this industry needs more people like him. But I would so like him to exceed my expectations instead of merely meeting reduced ones.
In spite of all this, I still believe in you Peter but I’m done believing the hype. Please deliver something awesome.