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Lionhead's Biggest Challenge

Peter Molyneux and co-founders talk about the challenges of the past decade

In the second part of our look back on the first decade of Lionhead, Peter Molyneux, Mark Webley and Tim Rance talk about the sale to Microsoft, they're own favourite memories, and what they want to be doing in ten years' time. Read part one here.

At around Christmas 2005, some offers for the company came in, including one from Microsoft, and the Lionhead team decided to accept.

GamesIndustry.biz: What made you accept the offer from Microsoft, as opposed to the others that came in?

PM: They simply told us that they wanted us to be unbelievably creative and inventive, and they wanted to give us an environment where we could create great games. And that really is the way it's worked out.

We worked out what we wanted to be within Microsoft, and our mission statement is really two things - to create landmark games that the world respects, and to be the most professional studio within Microsoft Game Studios. And that's the dream, and I think we're doing quite well with that.

MW: It's interesting that it's changed over the years. With 15 people you can have schedules on little bits of paper, and communication is easy. With bigger teams now, going through that transition, we've done a good job of becoming more professional, and I think we're now in the process of making sure we haven't gone too far, that we still have the breathing room to be creative.

TR: When you've got people like Microsoft pumping tens of millions of pounds into a game, it's no good if you have a production team who can't report back to the mother ship about where they are.

PM: Also the realisation is that you think that professionalism, and schedules and all of that, is counter to the creative process. But if you are professional and understand that process, it can actually work for it.

And the idea is to make all the creative decision up front. If I change my mind on Fable now, everybody's going to go crazy.

MW: That said, it's still the most important thing to create the best game we can, and if there's something wrong, we will put it right.

PM: This is the way I think about us now. We have had some very good excuses as to why our games haven't been as good as they should have been. I still think that Black & White had a huge amount of flaws in it, I still think that Fable had a huge amount of flaws in it. And there are excuses for that. There's time, there's pressure, the small group, there's being distractedâ¦

But now, we haven't got those excuses, so now, really, the next projects that we do are a true measure of our ability, our ambition, our passion. We've got all of that comfort, as Tim put it, to make a great game.

TR: The best is yet to come.

PM: The best is definitely yet to come for the people that are playing our games, no question.

Is the biggest challenge to live up to your own standards then?

PM: The biggest challenge for me is that, and I know this sounds crazy but it isn't, I feel there are a lot of people that are working for this company that are incredibly smart and clever, and they're trusting that we can make a great game that shows off how good they are. Which is an awful lot of the reason why I do stuff.

And I really believe that we've come close to doing a great game, but we've never made a great game, and I include all of the games, right from the very first one.

What about MMOGs, are they changing the industry?

PM: I think there's a big change in the wind, I think rather like the music business tries to resist it, and ignore it, the simple fact of the matter is that the audience we're making the game for is changing faster than we are. And it seems to me that more and more we're going to see games which exploit that rather than try to ignore that.

We're working on two titles here. One of those is Fable 2, and obviously there are features in Fable 2 that are trying to attract those sort of people, but it isn't built from the core of thinking about how that's all changing.

The second game we're making is radically different from anything we've done before because we're taking the view that all these things are changing, how can we make something to appeal to that change, so it's far more of aâ¦well the closest thing we can say is that it's casual game, and I don't want to use that term, but it's built for an audience that's broader.

TR: It's funny, because it used to be the case when we were working on Black & White, the change we were always trying to catch up on was hardware. But now it's different.

What about the industry in the UK?

PM: For an independent developer, the world was predicting that there would be no independent developers. And for a very long time that was absolutely true. And actually, if you back over the last five or six year, over that time a hell of a lot of them have gone by the wayside.

Part of that was the cost to make a new game, also you had to be incredibly adaptive, because a publisher wasn't going to sign something up to you unless they thought you knew what you were doing. So this idea of being 10-20 people actually scared publishers.

There was a lot of blood on the streets. At one time there were nine studios in Guildford, and we were the only one that survived, and we survived through a combination of having games that survived, but also the business experience.

Do you look back fondly at a sense of romantic old days?

PM: Being a developer is always very, very, very hard work, and there are always deep worries and insecurities, and there's always a reason - even when you're really successful - that the sky's about to fall in.

TR: When you've got 200 salaries to pay, and you miss a milestone, what happens? The thing about our industry is the financial services - they hate it. For them it's like having a bet on the horses. They won't lend us any money at all, it's down to the two business guys that we had that we did manage to borrow money occasionally.

MW: The business models in our industry are not good for developers. You get the milestone payments in which you pay back to the publisher, so there's potentially a period of months before the royalties come in even if you are successful. And the romanticism is, for any developer, the reality is that you have to pay the salaries each month, even if it's only 10 or 15 people.

We worked such long hours, it was insane.

TR: I remember going home just as the morning rush hour started.

PM: We worked unbelievably hard for a year and a half on Black & White, every hour that was humanly possible, and then we did the same with Fable for a year and a half, and then Black & White 2 and The Movies. And you always have to run a business at the same time.

But there's a great saying - the higher the mountain, the greater the sense of accomplishment, and I'll never forget the first royalty cheque from Black & White, and seeing the complete sales forecast from EA exceeded within three days.

TR: We repaid the entire development cost for Black & White in three days.

MW: We should have given up then.

PM: Fable again, that beat the sales forecast by a factor of five.

What's your perspective on the mobile gamespace?

PM: There's no doubt in my mind that we will be playing more games on mobile devices. What those mobile devices will be, and what they're capable of is still very much up for grabs.

They're changing as fast as the early computer games industry changed, if not faster. My one wish for that is that mobile phones were made with some sympathy for games to be played on them, because they're not, and that must be immensely frustrating for people developing for them.

It's down to some very simple things - these clicky buttons are useless for playing games, and it's down to some other stuff, display drivers and hardware chips obviously. But even if you had simple buttons that would help a lot.

I think this is another thing where we're, as an industry, not looking at the problem and saying "How can we make something that appeals to those people?" At the moment we're making Tetris, and we want to saying "What am I doing? I've got a mobile phone. Should I be feeling like I'm playing all the time, or should I be loading up Java?"

It's just very clunky at the moment, and every time I try and play a mobile game I end up wanting a PSP, or DS.

What are you favourite memories of working at Lionhead?

MW: I think releasing Black & White was quite an achievement as part of Lionhead. It was our first game, and it was really hard work getting to the end, so seeing it sell so well was fantastic.

TR: We have had a lot of really good times together. Some of them are when the management team have gone away together and just relaxed. But if we go back to Black & White, I had a big battle to do this online thing with it, but EA didn't want any of it, and we fought and fought and fought. In the end they just backed down, so we actually came up with something that was more advanced than anything else at the time, and has only been matched in the last three or four years or so.

PM: I know what mine is, it was when we were working on Black & White, and we'd got what we thought was the final version, and it was 4 o'clock in the morning. We had this disc in our hands, we wrote "done" on a piece of paper and crowded around the webcam, thinking that nobody would know.

But there were hundreds and hundreds of people just watching us, like Big Brother, and all these emails started coming in, it was incredible.

What will you be doing in ten years' time?

MW: I'm working on something now which I'm really enjoying, hopefully that'll be finished in ten yearsâ¦

If I can be doing the stuff that I really enjoy, I think the industry's going to be so different. I don't know what I'm going to be doing in ten years.

TR: I would like to see a bit more convergence between all these different devices. We had a brilliant idea for mobile for The Movies, which was about streaming them to people's mobile phones, so if you have a moment and you don't know what to do, forget the problem about buttons, it's just a viewing device.

There's plenty of other things you can do, and I think that could be very exciting in the future, with the fact that social networks are really what the internet is being about - Facebook, YouTube, you name it - people are wanting to get online, get noticed and make connections.

If we could somehow bring that into gaming, that's what I'd like to be involved in.

PM: I still feel that I want to achieve something. I still feel that there are things that can be made that have never been made before, and be invented, and still feel that those can make people have a sense of wonder. And that, to me, when you do a game you see that fantastic look in somebody's eyes that they're seeing something they've never seen beforeâ¦I'd like to do more of that.

Peter Molyneux is CEO, studio head and chief designer at Lionhead. Mark Webley is a director and Tim Rance is CTO. Interview by Phil Elliott.