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Peter Molyneux - Part One

The MGS creative director on GDC Europe, creativity in tricky times, de-risking projects and learning from TV

As well as potentially heralding a new era of gaming with the Project Natal reveal at E3, Peter Molyneux was also named as Microsoft Game Studios creative director at the event.

Here, in the build-up to his keynote at next week's GDC Europe conference, he talks about his role so far, the responsibilities of first party, why de-risking projects is crucial and what the games industry can learn from super-successful TV series'.

Q: What made you want to get involved with GDC Europe?

Peter Molyneux: The main thing is just what an amazingly incredible experience has been previously - there was a show at Leipzig and they're extremely well run and efficient. It feels like you're meeting the very people you want to meet when you go there, which is the people that buy your games.

I'm not going to talk these things up too much, but Leipzig was very much the best consumer show I've ever been to - I compare it with ones in Japan and America, and that's hugely positive, but you always wished you had another reason to go over there and having the GDC brand, putting the two things together, is brilliant.

Q: It'll be interesting to see how it works out - there was some backlash to the changes initially, but most people seem used to the idea now.

Peter Molyneux: Yes, I think it's very exciting. It's great to go over to GDC Europe and see your peers, talk about your games, talk about how you do things and inspire each other - and then walk out the door and you're in front of tens of thousands of people that actually play the game. That's a recipe for success for me.

Q: Does it surprise you that other events haven't used a similar idea, and added consumer and trade shows together?

Peter Molyneux: It does - Britain was one of the places that had a fantastic consumer show, we had this show and I can remember going along there in the Populous days. It was just brilliant, absolutely amazing - but those were the days you didn't have any PR police forces following you around, and it was great to go and experiment on ideas with these consumers. Brilliant.

Then that seemed to fade out, and I think it was all because of cost. What happens quite often when you have a consumer show I think what goes through the planner's mind is that it'll cost however many thousands or millions of dollars - what else could we do with that money, and how many more people could we reach?

Of course, even if you have a hugely successful booth that gets 50,000 people there, it's still going to cost you an awful lot of money that you could spend on print or TV advertising.

Maybe that's one of the reasons. Another one is that I've never really been to a great consumer show - although there are some in Comic-Con and Penny Arcade - in the States, simply because you have to do more than one consumer show as it's such a vast continent. You wouldn't hope to touch people on the East Coast with a show on the West Coast, and vice versa.

Q: Maybe the Eurogamer Expo will continue to expand and be a leading light for the UK? The last time we heard from you was at E3, and Project Natal aside, your new role within Microsoft Game Studios. How has that been going?

Peter Molyneux: It's been going fantastically well. I've been going around visiting various teams and groups of people, and there are some amazingly smart people there. Just being able to see how other people approach the problem of making games is absolutely fascinating, and what I'm trying to do is to say simple, basic things... it sounds like the schoolboy approach to being a creative director, but asking: Why are we doing this game? What's different, unique, about this game? What are people going to say about this production if they're talking down the pub?

So just saying that to people, looking them in the eyes and seeing how much passion is there - it's been really interesting. I've been very surprised by the amount of passion there is in Europe.

Q: First party has a big responsibility, not just in supporting its own platform, but in supporting creativity in general.

Peter Molyneux: I agree with that, and I think that's a very important statement. First party has almost a mission statement to create things which surprise people, instils a sense of wonder in people, and that really exemplifies what that platform - and Microsoft - is all about.

I think that is very important, just writing on the wall that we're first party, and asking what that means. It's a useful exercise I think.

Q: One of the things we've seen since the economic conditions became tricky is third parties having to be more careful about their activities... which serves to reinforce that point further, about first party providing new game experiences.

Peter Molyneux: I think more and more this is where the creative side of a project can be the greatest salvation for that project - but also the greatest cost. If you don't have a creative direction, especially with first party, if you're woolly about it - and I'm not saying I've seen examples of this - then it can be enormously expensive and you can pour money down the drain.

Because creatively you haven't got what I call the pillars - what the product stands for, why it's important, what are the main games features - and unless you've got that completely locked down you can waste this money.

And you can also, in first party, start making products that really don't mean anything - they don't mean anything to the platform, they don't mean anything to consumers - just going in there and beating the drum, talking about what first party means and stands for... when we invent or create something from new, or refresh something that existed before it's got to be done for compulsive reasons.

Q: But at the same time, third party publishers aren't about risk at the moment - but isn't that one of the areas that the biggest creative benefits are to be had?

Peter Molyneux: Well, let's talk about risk. If risk is not knowing the game you're making, then I think first party, third party, second party, whichever party you say, should be risk-averse. But if you want to create something, invent something, do something new, then you've got to realise you're investors need to have the comfort to make that investment.

If that means doing user research before you kick off a project, making demos or flavour videos, or locking people in a room and brainstorming them until they understand the concept in order to take that element of risk away - so be it.

To my mind, just because you want to create this new piece of IP, why should that be so risky? New products are created all the time in other industries. Let's take one example - every time I turn on the television there's a new way of cleaning your lavatory. It doesn't matter if you shoot blobs of gel on the side, or there's a new flush system, or whatever, they create new products all the time - they don't run away scared about doing it, it's just part of their business.

They do that, and other industries do that - they know they need to create a new product, and look at how they can be sure it's the right product to create. Who is the customer going to be? Why are they going to buy it, and not something else?

I think these are all gates you need to get through to give your investors - whether it be first, second or third party - the sense of security to make that investment.

Let's just say I invented a game about jumping from cloud to cloud as a big-nosed clown. First of all you'd say it sounds pretty weird, Peter... but if I could prove that's what consumers wanted you'd feel pretty happy about it.

Incidentally, the big-nosed clown thing is not actually a game under development.

Q: So you're giving that tip away for free?

Peter Molyneux: I'll throw it out to public domain.

Q: Then I'm glad we can provide a service as well - perhaps it'll be an iPhone game. But going back to risk, bringing a new household product into the market is a very different process to when it's art - it's more subjective then, isn't it?

Peter Molyneux: Okay, let's take a more tangible example. How do you think the TV and film companies come up with their next ideas for films?

Q: Market research, and looking at what's been successful in the past?

Peter Molyneux: That's what they do. I can tell you, they've got this nailed now. Gone are the days when some long-haired person would sit out in the wilderness for countless weeks and come up with this weird and wacky script - they just don't do that any more.

I don't know this for sure, but I suspect it's true - when they did a TV series like Dexter... that's a TV series where the hero is a serial killer. Now, if I said that to you, you'd say it sounded awful. But they did the research and hey, guess what? It's a success.

So I think this is another part of my role - can we look to places other than the games industry and look at how they approach and de-risk things for their investors? How do they create new IP?

I think television especially, about five years ago, started to have this Renaissance - this golden era - with all these new series. It's going off the boil a bit at the moment because of the writers' strikes and so on, but you can look at that industry. It costs millions of dollars to make the shows, but they can still make a series about a mass murderer, or undertakers, or whatever you decide to choose and make them a success.

Peter Molyneux is creative director of Microsoft Game Studios. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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