"At that time I started making this terrible mistake"
Molyneux keynote at Reboot entertains, but avoids the elephant in the room
Peter Molyneux has made his first public appearance since vowing to retreat from the limelight after the storm of controversy which erupted earlier this year over Godus and Curiosity.
At that time, following some comments on Microsoft's Hololens and a Eurogamer interview with Brian Henderson, the boy who 'won' curiosity, Molyneux gave a combative and controversial interview with Rock Paper Shotgun. After that somewhat uncomfortable read, in which the veteran was held very firmly to account over unfulfilled promises on Godus, he spoke to the Guardian, indicating that he would not speak to the press ever again and was unlikley to re-enter the public eye.
Just three days ago, he suffered the loss of Jack Attridge, one of the first employees at 22 Cans and a man who many considered to be his protege, with Attridge departing to begin his own project. It's not been a great year for Molyneux or his team, so suffice to say there was some speculation as to whether the speech would take place at all. With so much to address, and so much negativity surrounding his studio, it seemed entirely possible that the full hall would be waiting for a presentation that would never come.
"I have a medical condition. When I'm bitten by a certain spider, within a 12 hour period, my body size will double."
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In fact, it was classic Molyneux: charming, engaging, autobiographical and almost completely off-topic - as evinced by a dozen or so unused slides about the future of the industry which he flashed up after a brief Q&A. Whilst he didn't exactly gloss over the events of the first few months of the year, he certainly didn't approach them directly either. Anyone hoping for a tearful confession or a strident rebuttal would be disappointed, this was neither. Instead, he gave a potted history of his career, peppered with anecdotes, advice and some good natured swearing.
Starting from his earliest days at Bullfrog, where Populous was developed with a team of two "in a room with a sink we used as a toilet, for ones and twos," Molyneux rolled through the stories behind the development of each of his games, and some of the high and low points of his career.
In between some of the more bizarre anecdotes ("I have a medical condition. When I'm bitten by a certain spider, within a 12 hour period, my body size will double." "We never had any intention of including a giant blackcurrant in Black and White." "You could minigun babies. In those days political correctness was something someone else did.") Molyneux revealed a few flashes of the personality traits which have made him such a brilliant, but at points incredibly frustrating developer.
"We never had any intention of including a giant blackcurrant in Black and White."
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"One of the best ways to recruit is to hunt out people with no experience," he said. "Recruitment agencies make a terrible mistake - they filter people by their experience. I don't want experienced people. Experience very often, not always, means the dampening of the most brilliant human quality. The most brilliant human quality is excitement and drive....If we really are going to take this invention process seriously, that's what you need: the drive and enthusiasm to embrace insanity and creativeness."
Moving on, Molyneux spoke about the bonding which happens in small teams, warning against the loss of the "family culture" which occurs when teams grow larger.
"That's when I realised that there was something changing in the company," he said of the team growth which occurred during the production of Syndicate and Magic Carpet. "There's an overwhelming urge, especially when you create a successful project, to grow in size. That has problems. When we started, and we were pissing in the sink together, we bonded. When you grow, that feeling of family disappears."
However, it was forty minutes in when the 22 Cans founder came closest to addressing the elephant in the room: his incredible ability to overpromise - something which tended to charm whilst he worked at a publisher, but crossed a line for many once the crowdfunding of Godus began.
"You could minigun babies. In those days political correctness was something someone else did."
"At that time I started making this terrible mistake," he said, speaking about the early PR process for Fable. "Oh God. I feel like curling up into a ball and just withering away. The mistake I made, and I've made it again and again and again, and if I ever do this again I'll probably still make it, the mistake I made is to go and talk to the press about my current ideas. As you can see, from the iterative development side, the current idea seems like the most exciting thing ever. It seems like it will fit, but sometimes you have to throw it away.
"I remember the interview, for Fable. At E3 I used to have these one to one press briefings. The truth is, the journalist comes in and they're utterly exhausted. They have three days of hangovers building up. They've been walking around the show, lugging an enormous amount of kit. They're about as excited as they would be from talking to an accountant. My job was to explain why the game I'm working on was going to be better than any of the other 700 games shown off at that E3.
"What I did was simple. I said, these are the things that excite me about this game. I said, and this was utterly true, 'what I would love, in role playing terms, would be to have a world that evolved, like Black and White.' We had this technology. 'I'd love to have trees that grow, that you could plant an acorn that grew into a tree.'
"To my utter horror, that became the headline. Fable will have acorns growing trees. And of course it didn't - the result was that everybody leapt on it. People were so incensed. This is why you have to watch yourself with the press. I wasn't lying. People actually said, 'this is fraud, you should be arrested.' The same thing is happening in today's world. There are thousands of indies, there's only one editor's choice. That's the problem, you've got to get the world excited about your game. If it means talking about acorns and oak trees to try and get your head above the others, maybe you should. Personally, I would never choose to do that again."
This is why you have to watch yourself with the press. I wasn't lying. People actually said, 'this is fraud, you should be arrested.'"
His words are unlikely to assuage the anger around either Curiosity or Godus, however. In fact, Molyneux touched on them only briefly, defending the concept and impact of Curiosity if not its execution.
"You may think Curiosity was a stupid idea, but I'll tell you what. When it ended it was the number one trending global topic on Twitter. How cool is that? All it was was 'What's inside the fucking box!' Can you imagine how that felt? For me, that's what this industry is. We've spent 20 years creating something that Sir Clive Sinclair said would become the dominant entertainment medium. We're almost there. Now is the time we have to show the world that they don't need to be anaesthetised by the deluge of rubbish from TV and film, because they can be involved. They can solve puzzles, create things, they can feel good about themselves. That's why I love what I do."
Not exactly a show of contrition or humility, but the man certainly still knows how to keep a room entertained.
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