Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

21 March, 2015

Defending Peter Molyneux
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 1:38 PM

“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.



13 Comments »

  1. People(especially me) will “boil things down”, or generalize. I myself will probably do it within the space of this very comment. :D
    Giving more allowance for miscommunication, especially via online, text only interaction, I feel a mass of general opinion will creep up, like a game reviewed by multiple sources and talked about at length, a general opinion can creep out of it; “People generally disliked the artistic style of “X”".

    And there’s this weird(to me) level of cultural influence that I find a huge disconnect. Take Derek Smart. Some people may think I like him, because I’d livestream and play his games and generally gave them favorable reviews and like a lot about them, and I even occasionally still exchange Tweets with him on Twitter. The truth is obvious; I don’t really know him, but I want to be cordial, respectful and I certainly understand that someone personality does not make their game(s) bad or good, especially after the facts.

    And, I don’t find this as some kind of new, unique, singular issue. As far as I’m concerned, Trion are extremely guilty of over-promising and under-delivering. But, through the spread or holding of past advertising, the leak of controlled information(which is not in itself bad, it’s just PR) very few seem to remember what RIFT was to be, before it was released. It was a completely different game after release, and this is what everyone does. Okay, maybe not everyone, but I am generalizing(see. I told you I’d do it).

    I find it ironic and agree with you on those terms.

    As for “Journalism”, Journalists will cater in a myriad of ways to an audience. I’ll do it. I’ll do it today and I’ll do it tomorrow. But let’s understand what I feel about generalizing “for advantage”. I’ll do that to, but where will I stop – when I feel it is a disservice, rude, mean or will paint me as a douchebag.

    I simply have to agree with you for the most part. Catering and reinforcing behavior in a sub-culture where journalists are already pointing out and distinguishing societal problems, and then catering to those elements looks bad for Journalists, no matter how many people come out and applaud a news source for “getting real” or “delivering hard hitting news”. Because they, like many of us can see and distinguish that they really aren’t getting real or delivering hard-hitting news. They are supplying what they know the subculture will respond to.

    I suppose using Molyneux as a poster-child or example “could” be done. He could be the unwilling whipping boy to set an example to how “hype” and developer hyperbole should change for the better, but… I don’t know. I think that’s a bigger issue that starts above a developer’s head.

    Comment by Jeremy Stratton — 21 March, 2015 @ 2:03 PM

  2. That whole interview was a train wreck on the questions, with so much passive aggressive insulting I was taken back.

    No one has any requirements to fulfil the expectations of others. Period. Certainly not within an entertainment industry or any form of artistic endeavour.

    The expectations of fans are bizarre sometime and it’s seen in games industry a LOT. It’s also elsewhere, look at the angry fans that have lashed out at George RR Martin or Neal Stevenson. People should just learn to go ahead and enjoy what they enjoy, and be disappointed sometimes. Without trying to turn it into some sort of judgement on the artists’ ethics or personal worth.

    Peter Molyneux has done a TON of great work in this industry. Maybe an interview with a game designer should focus on a game, or on design?

    Comment by Rog — 21 March, 2015 @ 2:07 PM

  3. Jeremy Stratton wrote:
    As for “Journalism”, Journalists will cater in a myriad of ways to an audience. I’ll do it. I’ll do it today and I’ll do it tomorrow. But let’s understand what I feel about generalizing “for advantage”. I’ll do that to, but where will I stop – when I feel it is a disservice, rude, mean or will paint me as a douchebag.

    I think one problem here is that we use “journalist” or even “critic” to encompass a lot of varied roles. I see you more as a game commentator, Jeremy, and I don’t mean that as a slight. You make great comments on games, but you don’t exactly “review” them, and you don’t critique them necessarily. I think some people have taken the mantle of “journalism” in an attempt to get the positive connotations to reflect on themselves. Even if what they’re doing is just being an asshole.

    Rog wrote:
    The expectations of fans are bizarre sometime and it’s seen in games industry a LOT. It’s also elsewhere, look at the angry fans that have lashed out at George RR Martin or Neal Stevenson.

    Yeah, I really don’t like to use the description “entitled”, but that’s kinda what it feels like. That paying someone some money gives you absolute control over their creative output. I mean, on some level is kinda cool that people get so invested in your work, but there’s a real dark side, too. We’ve seen this a lot with MMORPGs, as that added subscription seems to get people even more worked up.

    I don’t know what a good solution is, other than understanding that the audience absolutely plays a role in this beyond what the creator does.

    Comment by Psychochild — 21 March, 2015 @ 2:20 PM

  4. One angle on this: I wonder if it is a British thing. RPS is British, and has many visibly British features, such as a weekly column on the Sunday papers. Anyone who has lived in England will understand the significance of the Sunday papers. And of course Molyneux is British too.

    The British press is notoriously nasty in its approach to celebrities. I can remember Salman Rushdie saying one of his reporter friends was actually told by his editor to make a celebrity profile nastier, since it lacked the bile. Other evidence of the British press going over the line was the phone-hacking scandal, where they not only hacked the phones of celebrities, but also the parents in a high-profile child abduction case.

    So I wonder if this is, in part, RPS just falling in with the practices of their peers in the “serious” press (i.e. wanting to be grown-up), and attacking one of gaming’s greatest celebrities. Add that to the fact that there was a recent current of feeling that game journalism was too cozy, and you get a double-impetus to be nasty in this way.

    Comment by Simon — 21 March, 2015 @ 2:33 PM

  5. I agree 100% with your “keep it civil” sentiment, but it is hard for me to feel any compassion for Molyneux. He can “over-promise / under-deliver” all he wants, that alone doesn’t make him a bad person (it just makes him poor at his job), but, it is just disingenuous (at the very best) to take people’s money, then use it to fund 3+ other projects instead of the product he promised. Either he planned it from the start, or he got greedy when the funds started pouring in: either way, his reputation is soiled as it should be.

    It is clear to me that he measures his own success as a game designer with £. We, however, had hoped it was measured by the number of happy players and by the awesomeness of the resulting product. The truth is, the £ would have followed anyway, but we wanted, nay, we were sold on, his love for the game. If he had used all the money he raised to directly develop Godus, with the passion he promised, and it still failed, I wouldn’t think any less of him. On the contrary, he would have earned an A+ for effort.

    Comment by Martin — 21 March, 2015 @ 2:55 PM

  6. Personally, my takeaway from that interview was “RPS doesn’t understand how Kickstarter or Game Development works”.

    It’s nice to see that someone who DOES know how game development works agrees with me.

    Comment by Trevel — 21 March, 2015 @ 3:46 PM

  7. Can I feel for Molyneux because, let’s face it, none of us would have wanted to be on that hot seat? Yes.

    Can I feel for Molyneux because he got drilled before a massive audience by a huge asshole? Yes.

    Can I *defend* Moylneux? No, not even a little bit. He lied again *during* the interview. And got caught *again*.

    The RPS interviewer is like John Goodman in the Big Lebowski: both right and an asshole, at the same time. Do we want more class out of journalism? Sure. But demanding more from journalism while not demanding more from Moylneux would be hypocritical at best.

    Comment by HZero — 21 March, 2015 @ 6:09 PM

  8. Simon wrote:
    I wonder if it is a British thing.

    I’ve heard that explanation before, but I think it rings hollow for two reasons: First, the internet is an international place, and RPS certainly knows that they’re going to get readers who don’t understand British culture in that context. Second, as I said, RPS was at the forefront of criticizing the abuse of women in the game industry. To turn around and heap such abuse on another person in the industry, regardless of gender, smacks of hypocrisy.

    Martin wrote:
    …it is just disingenuous (at the very best) to take people’s money, then use it to fund 3+ other projects instead of the product he promised.

    While I agree that Molyneux absolutely dropped the ball in regards to Godus, I disagree with this statement. This is precisely how you run a business. You can’t focus on one game at a time, because if that game is a flop, you need to have plan B ready to go. Otherwise your company goes out of business and you have a lot of people out of work. Yes, perhaps we won’t shed a tear for Molyneux, OBE, but the company is more than just him. The programmers can’t go cash in the love people have for Molyneux to pay rent or buy food.

    Trevel wrote:
    Personally, my takeaway from that interview was “RPS doesn’t understand how Kickstarter or Game Development works”.

    I could do a whole rant about how a lot of people don’t understand Kickstarter. And I mean on both sides: people raising funds and people contributing funds. And, Kickstarter is fine with this misunderstanding because they get their cut. But, that’s a topic for another blog post when I get some time.

    Hzero wrote:
    Can I *defend* Moylneux? No, not even a little bit.

    I don’t think the issue is that simple. But, the main focus of my post here is about how he was treated. I would have loved to read an interview where the interviewer tried to get to the root of the issue with some compassion and respect. Instead we get an insulting interview that likely put Molyneux on the defensive.

    But demanding more from journalism while not demanding more from Moylneux would be hypocritical at best.

    I’ll disagree. I think it’s a lot more reasonable to expect the press to find out answers while maintain respectful than to expect a game developer to never make a disappointing game.

    Sometimes you just have to accept that you paid money for a game that disappoints you. This doesn’t mean that games suck, or that the developer is terrible. But, I think we absolutely should be able to expect journalism to be able to ask the hard questions without disrespecting people.

    Comment by Psychochild — 22 March, 2015 @ 9:29 PM

  9. It really does come down to expectations, and how they’re managed.

    The truth is that a good number of Molyneux’s games hinge on a single concept, and if that concept doesn’t capture you entirely, they’re just not very good games. The most glaring example here is Magic Carpet (also from quite a while ago, admittedly). It was a buggy game, it didn’t run on most commonly available hardware without horrible lag, and it all hinged on the gimmick that you’re flying on a carpet, not in a plane. It was a terrible flight simulator, dressed up as something different. You truly had to love the concept of carpet flying to like the game.

    Now… I am in two minds about that. On the one hand, I’ve got to applaud him for bringing out the game anyway. I’m sure not all of that was down to his decisions, but from the outside, it’s the act of throwing something over the wall in the hopes that maybe people find the beauty in it, and don’t get distracted by the ugliness. That’s such a hugely optimistic act, I can’t but admire the guy for it (again, he may not have made that decision himself, but that’s beside the point).

    On the other hand, it makes his track record spotty. Contrast him for example to Richard Garriott – a guy who calls himself Lord British and puts himself into his games as the supreme, good ruler. Most games that didn’t go well for him got cancelled after countless dollars got pumped into them, and the games that survive tend to be good. Again, it’s unclear to me how much of that is the guy’s own decision making.

    But when you look at both of them from the outside and compare their outputs, you have on the one hand someone who optimistically publishes what he makes, whether it’s good or not, and on the other hand someone who ruthlessly self-censors so his track record is damn impressive (to consumers, not investors).

    Basically, Molyneux is being punished for being honest, not for being a pathological liar. And he honestly has a spotty track record, which makes it so hard to predict whether to believe his claims.

    Unfortunately – for him, for me, for many people – it means that I’d rather pay money for a game that’s got Garriott’s name on it over Molyneux’s. As much as I can’t blame Molyneux for trying – and in fact, admire him for it – I also can’t blame the gamers for being disappointed, and voicing their disappointment.

    It doesn’t mean they should get insulting, though.

    Comment by unwesen — 23 March, 2015 @ 2:36 AM

  10. Just to clarify: RPG, claiming to be professional games journalists, should be held to higher standards than random, disappointed gamers. I’m not sure that became clear in that last comment. So I agree that opening with that question isn’t right.

    Comment by unwesen — 23 March, 2015 @ 2:39 AM

  11. @unwesen: In my mind, the important part of Magic Carpet was not the gimmick of flying a carpet instead of a plane. The single concept that Magic Carpet hinged on, and excelled at, was terrain deformation. The carpet was perhaps a misguided artistic choice; the terrain deformation was a huge technical accomplishment and another example of “pushing the boundaries of what was possible.”

    Comment by Tim! — 24 March, 2015 @ 5:30 PM

  12. It Is Impossible for Game Designers to Deliver Their Promises

    [...] by a Psychochild blog in a blog post last week Tobold asked for games designers using Kickstarter to should stop [...]

    Pingback by El Dobablos — 1 April, 2015 @ 1:04 PM

  13. At the end of the day, it’s about treating people like people.

    Comment by Psychochild — 23 April, 2015 @ 7:43 PM

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