More than 20 years after creating Populous, one of the first “god games“, Peter Molyneux is looking to reinvent the genre at 22cans, the independent game studio he left Microsoft to start. We sat down with Molyneux to learn more about how his upcoming title, Project GODUS, is going to change things.
Surprisingly, Molyneux admits that Zynga’s Farmville started him on this whole process. He described Farmville as a “perversion” of the genre that he’d spent decades advancing.
“Zynga had taken this idea of having a world which people interact with and they layered super aggressive monetization techniques on top of it, and those games were being played by millions of people and that pissed me off,” he said.
Molyneux, who had become a gaming legend through franchises like Black and White and Fable, eventually became so upset that he decided to leave his comfortable job at Microsoft to strike out on his own and create a new god game. In his mind, the technological advances over the past 20 years should have made god games “mind-glowingly incredible”, but developers have fallen short of the potential.
The idea for Populous originally came about because Molyneux simply wanted to play the game.
“I really wanted this little world that I could interact with that surprised me and delighted me,” he said.
Zynga’s Farmville success ended up leaving Molyneux with an obsessive thought to leave his corporate position and strike out on his own.
“I can stay here at Microsoft, climb the corporate ladder, move to Redmond, be comfortable for the rest of my life, or I can throw that all away, start out as an entrepreneur, do insane things, all for the sake of recreating this genre,” he remembered saying to himself.
Last March he followed through on the thought, leaving Microsoft’s Lionhead Studios to set up 22cans. After he got going, Molyneux ran into a problem, though. He realized that he didn’t know who he was designing the new game for. The team decided to do some research with an experiment called Curiosity – What’s Inside the Cube?, a game that tasked players with collectively removing portions of a giant cube to find out what was in the middle.
Molyneux’s original interest in the game was to gather analytics on how users interacted with the game and test theories on “emerging gameplay.” He originally expected at most 50,000 people to download the title. Curiosity hit 50,000 players in its first three hours and went on to exceed 5 million downloads.
In late May, the center of the cube was reached and the mystery was solved. 18-year-old Bryan Henderson tapped away the last cube and earned the right to become the first God in GODUS. In a video that Henderson later opted to share with the larger community, Molyneux offered the winner the opportunity to create rules for the game and share in its royalties.
“If you’re truly going to reinvent something, you’ve got to think up some crazy sh*t,” Molyneux said.
Henderson’s reign as God of GODUS will last for six months, at which point other players will be able to challenge him.
22cans pitched GODUS as a Kickstarter project late last year, and the game raised over £500,000 from more than 17,000 backers. GODUS players take on the role of god of a civilization as they interact with their followers, expand their territory and battle other players.
The project was one of the first European-based Kickstarter projects. The whole process was a learning one for Molyneux, and, based on that experience, he recommends that other creators test their campaigns before launch, ask for half the money they need, and be “super clear” about their message.
Molyneux is setting expectations high for GODUS. He says it contains “every ounce of simulation” that he has ever created “with every single mistake taken out.”
“Maybe this mobile generation can be defined by more than f***ing Angry Birds,” he said as he vowed to claim back the god game genre.
22cans’ decision to entrust their flagship game to a total stranger took a lot of faith, but Molyneux noted that the fact that Henderson’s role can be challenged will serve as a “naturally balancing act”. Molyneux compared Henderson’s role to that of a game designer, while also adding that there will be limits to his power.
GODUS is currently being alpha tested by 1,000 of the game’s Kickstarter backers and access will open up to a total of 10,000 backers soon. An exact release date for the game has yet to be announced, but it should arrive this fall if everything stays on track.
Morality and ethics have been a major theme among many of Molyneux’s earlier titles, and GODUS will be no exception. When I asked what his interest was in exploring the dynamic, Molyneux noted that for him, it was about creating an emotional connection in the games.
“Inside all of us is a dark side. We call it an evil side. People being tempted to explore [it] is a marvelous way of motivating people,” he said.
In GODUS, players will create their own morals. In-game followers will automatically assume the players’ actions are the “right” thing to do and continue doing them even while the player is away.
Given his fascination with god games, I was curious whether Molyneux himself believes in a God. He affirmed, while asserting that humans are “genetically, evolutionally designed to believe in something.”
“We as a society need to believe in something. That is what a society is, all of us coming together under a common cause. Until we evolve to get that part of our brain out, those people that try and resist that are just going to have a tough life.”
Indie vs. corporate
Molyneux says his move from the corporate world to an indie studio was necessary for his creativity.
He noted that Microsoft “really cared” about its employees, but that the nurturing environment became like a “creative padded cell.” Being an independent developer, on the other hand, feels like being “in a lifeboat that has a big hole in it and half the time you’re bailing it out.”
However, the plus-side is that the lifeboat is going somewhere else no other lifeboat has been, Molyneux continued.
“Everything has to be brilliant and it has to be brilliant the first time you do it. In a big company you can screw up a couple times a year. you screw up in a little business and you’re out of business. That energy, risk, edge of the seat adrenaline rush is what creativity is about. It’s about being insanely risky…partially insane,” he said.
Molyneux went on to say that an element of pain is needed to let creators “escape into the worlds that hidden away” in their subconscious.
“That’s sort of the drug that you need to make it work,” he said.
Molyneux did point out that the pressure that accompanies indie work might not be for everyone.
“Whether your muse is the lifeboat that is sinking or the comfortable oil tanker is down to the individual,” he said.
When I asked what’s next for 22cans, Molyneux emphasized that development of GODUS will continue long after the game launches.
“In this space, your day of release is just another day of development,” he said. “Probably the most creative time is going to come after the game is launched. Then we can really work to tweak and fine balance.”
He went on to compare the game’s evolutionary creative process to that of producing a soap opera like Coronation Street.
“Maybe one day we’ll think about something else,” he said.