21 March, 2015
“Do you think that you’re a pathological liar?”
Imagine someone coming up to you and saying that. About the only context where I don’t think the person is the world’s biggest asshole is if this were a good friend giving me some friendly teasing. As the opening to an interview? Yeah, that’s probably the world’s biggest asshole on the other end.
Let’s look at why this phrase is garbage.
In case you’ve lived under a rock and don’t understand the context, the site Rock Paper Shotgun did an interview with Peter Molyneux where that was the opening question published. No, I’m not going to link to it because I’m not willing to give them any ad revenue; I promptly took the site out of my RSS reader because this is not the type of behavior I think is appropriate when interacting with anyone. But, Mr. Molyneux is a better person than I am, because he continued the interview for many more pages despite that opening.
See, Mr. Molyneux has a reputation for over-promising and under-delivering. He tells you a great story and builds up excitement about the game, but when the game is shipped it never quite lives up to expectations. We can argue if the reputation is deserved or not (and I will later), but the reality is that he has that reputation. And the fumbles with the recent game Godus have seen this reputation being used to bludgeon him.
Sadly, a lot of people cheered the article, calling it “serious journalism” and a needed change from the usual softball questions. Now, I’m no fan of most games “journalism”, but there’s a lot of area between sycophantic games “journalism” and slinging an insult at the person you’re talking to to prove how “tough” you are. Especially on a site that was known for being considerably more insightful than most others.
The problem on a conceptual level
Peter Molyneux is a game designer. This might seem like a “no duh” statement, but it has consequences that people don’t really consider. A game designer’s job isn’t just to come up with ideas (that’s the cheap and easy part), but to communicate those ideas to others in an effective way and get them excited about it. The designer who just throws an idea at someone else and doesn’t get them excited is going to have a harder time getting that vision realized. Not only with the rest of the team, but also with the gaming press and therefore gamers as a whole.
But, games change over the months/years they’re developed. The original concept might start out grand, but get whittled down as deadlines, budget limitations, and technical limitations set in. Let me pull a quote from Scott Jennings that sums this up:
Making games is… the art of the possible. You do what you can do. You have limited resources, you have to herd cats to get things done, and you have to be a bastard to everyone you work with, but in a nice way so they don’t hate you. Oh, and you have to keep perspective so you don’t go insane….
That bold vision you have doesn’t always die easily. You might be hoping until the 11th hour that some awesome feature makes it in. But, that feature gets cut because it can’t quite beat the deadline. Or maybe some bit of tech just doesn’t come together. Peter Molyneux isn’t so much lying as being terrible at telling the future.
The problem on an audience level
Being a great game designer isn’t just about designing great games. Many of the designers we know well these days are ones that have been good at self-promotion one way or another. Will Wright’s talks are amazing and never to be missed if you get the opportunity. Raph Koster has a book, a blog, and gets asked for quotes all the time. Sid Meier’s name is right on the damn box! And, the press has always lined up to talk to Peter Molyneux. Really, Molyneux has been doing what he’s been rewarded for doing: speaking in grand terms of exciting visions. And, in the modern day of the internet, speaking in hyperbole is pretty much required to rise about the noise.
I’ve seen this lesson repeated over and over again: building a great game in obscurity is a great way to remain obscure. If nobody knows your game exists, then nobody is going to be able to play it.
But, this is more than just letting your audience know about your game, it’s about getting them excited. But, there’s a contradiction between what the audience says it wants and what it really wants. People say they want innovation, but players are quick to discard something that tries something new if it doesn’t do everything else as well as existing games. The person who talks about innovation but delivers a solid game is the one who is actually doing what the players really want. And, frankly, this is precisely what Molyneux does, even if some people (guided by the press) build up unrealistic expectations of a game.
The problem on a concrete level
It’s that second part, delivering “a solid game”, that is important here. It’d be one thing if Molyneux talked big and then delivered buggy, half-broken games on a regular basis. But, let’s take a look at Peter Molyneux’s list of credits on MobyGames prior to Curiosity. Here’s a list of games he was designer or manager on:
- Populous (1989), Original Concept
- Populous: The Promised Lands (1989), Game Design
- Flood (1990), Designer
- PowerMonger (1990), Producer
- Syndicate (1993), Producer
- Syndicate: American Revolt (1993), Producer
- Theme Park (1994), Project Leader
- Magic Carpet (1994), Executive Producer
- Magic Carpet: The Hidden Worlds (1995), Executive Producer
- Hi-Octane (1995), Executive Producer
- Genewars (1996), Manager
- Dungeon Keeper (1997), Design and Project Leader
- Black & White (2001), Concept and Design Lead
- Fable (2004), Designer
- The Movies (2005), Executive Designer
- Fable: The Lost Chapters (2005), Designer
- Black & White 2 (2005), Lead Designers
- The Movies: Stunts & Effects (2006), Executive Designer
- Fable II (2008), Creative Director
- Fable III (2010), Creative Director
Seriously, look at that list of games. Two decades of games that sold well and were critically well-received. Some games pushed the boundaries of what was possible (artificial intelligence for Black & White) or defined whole genres of games (Populous and Dungeon Keeper). Sure, there are some losers in there, such as The Movies which pretty much everyone has forgotten at this point. But, the point is there are a lot more hits than misses there. A lot of fondly remembered games compared to a few turkeys.
So, to complain that you can’t grow acorns into trees in Fable seems a bit, well, silly when you consider all the other stuff the game does. I played the game and had plenty to do even if watching a tree grow wasn’t something that was included.
So, to say that Molyneux routinely under-delivers when he’s been integral for so many tremendous games is perhaps the pathological lie here.
The problem on a human level
Here’s the thing that truly disappoints me: Rock Paper Shotgun was a site that emphasized inequality and bullying as problems in the games industry, particularly in the ways the industry treats women. But, then it turns around and bullies Molyneux in an interview to get attention. To the point that he says he doesn’t even talk to the press anymore. If you like to get a look at what’s going on behind the curtain of game development secrecy, then this is a shame. Because, all it does is send a message to the rest of the game developers that their cone of silence, secrecy, and empty PR speak really is the best policy.
But, the point here is simple: Peter Molyneux is a person, and like all people, deserves a measure of compassion and respect. Just like any other person. You cannot stand for equal treatment of all people and then abuse someone when it happens to be socially accepted.
The real problem
tl;dr: if Peter Molyneux is a “pathological liar”, this at least reflects poorly on games “journalism” and the gaming audience as on Mr. Molyneux himself.
I’ve spent a while defending Peter Molyneux here, but that isn’t to say there aren’t some problems, especially with the way that Curiosity and Godus have been handled. I think that Curiosity in particular was more of a PR stunt than a game. But, the press was complicit in covering that “game” in detail. And, it’s obvious that Mr. Molyneux has not didn’t uphold his end of the bargain of what was promised to the winner. (I think Eurogamer did a good job in covering the topic and showing the problems without being insulting to Molyneux. Even if RSS feed for comments on this post.