The Peter Molyneux Principle
The industry overachiever shares the secrets of his new studio, 22 Cans, and what made him leave Lionhead behind
There are some people in the games industry that need no introduction. Peter Molyneux is one of them, but he deserves one anyway. He's just set up his own small studio, 22 Cans, but you probably know him best as "the Fable guy" from Lionhead Studios. He's also "the guy that made Milo," the incredible Kinect prototype and a few other, smaller games you've probably never heard of. Just Dungeon Keeper, Populous, Black & White and something called Theme Park.
Here Molyneux talks openly to GamesIndustry International about why he left Microsoft, says too much about 22 Cans' first project and reveals why he'd like to shoot a man over a science fiction plot. He also reveals his innovative plan for staffing 22 Cans, and explains why, whatever your background in the industry, he might need you.
There's a logical answer to that and there's an emotional answer to that. I think the logical answer to that is we're in another cycle and it's amazing that this industry is old enough to have cycles. There's been many times in the past, even if you go back into the late eighties, where developers have come together and publishers have formed these big, huge development companies. Then they split apart again and come together and come apart again and I really feel we're in one of those cycles now - where if you look out in the industry there's a lot of inventiveness and creativity that's going on in general, out in the smaller - and we call it indie, but that's just a title - indie development.
And for someone like me...I love experimenting, I love inventing, and if you can find an incredible team of people, and you have to find the right people to do that, then I think great things can be done. That, in conjunction with the industry as it is at the moment...I think, where I've just said we're in a cycle, what's unique about this time is just the sheer amount of innovation there is in hardware and things that are going to support gaming experiences. Everything from the cloud to persistence to connected experiences to multi device play to server based games, you name it. There is a huge amount of innovation which really hasn't had time to be fully exploited yet.
You're getting real surprises. We had Draw Something which came out of the blue, you've got the rise of Zynga - and they're proving that there's not a few millions of people that would play games but there are hundreds of millions of people who want to play games. I think the time is right for small independent developers to really exploit those hardware changes and to really take innovation to new levels. So that's the logical side, that all sounds very sensible.
I couldn't accept that I wasn't going to do a truly great game.
I think for me the emotional point came really in the last 18 months when these strange things started happening, where I started to get all these industry accolades. There was a BAFTA lifetime achievement, there was a lifetime achievement from Spain and a lifetime achievement from France, and they were incredibly emotional things to receive and I lined all these up on the shelf and thought 'what do all these mean?' And what do they really mean? Do they really mean for me that I've done the best I'm ever going to do already?
If I look back in my past is there something where I can say 'that's the best I'm ever going to get?' I couldn't accept that. I couldn't accept that I wasn't going to do a truly great game. I do have to measure myself against measures that journalists and consumers have put against you and I have to say no. I don't think I've done anything. I've worked with incredible teams and incredible people and yet not quite touched that greatness. I've experiment and invented, I've gone through pretty much every type of genre you could possibly imagine and I still haven't got that.
So that drive and that passion to do something great is definitely stronger in me that ever before...Oh god I sound like Obi Wan Kenobi from Star Wars! But you know what I mean. I think any person has to ask themselves - 'do you to want take on this huge challenge of starting a company and pulling a team together again, and do you have the drive to do that?' I think I realised that I have got that drive, and when I asked myself that question I went and spoke to some people at Microsoft and we explored a few options, but it was obvious to me that the very very best option was to leave Microsoft and leave Lionhead. Amazing people though they are, and the incredible history that I had there, it's still a huge advantage that a small independent company has over a large company when they're inventing and experimenting and creating. They're not bound by the same limitations that larger companies naturally are, be it Microsoft or whatever.
So naturally this process went on quite a few months, if not sort-of-going-on for a year, and the first week of March I actually took a deep breath and walked out of Lionhead Studios and up the road to a new company called 22 Cans.
Yeah, it is difficult to say goodbye. I mean it's an odd emotion, because you've got all the excitement of starting something fresh and new and working with a combination of fresh and new people and people you haven't worked with for a while, and you've got all the grief and sadness of not walking into such familiar place and seeing people who you know, love and respect. And as I walked up from Lionhead Studios to 22 Cans, it's 275 steps I took, and it felt each step I took, the excitement of starting something new outweighed the grief of leaving behind Lionhead and Microsoft. When you've got an idea and there's an opportunity in the industry it's hard to dwell too much on the sadness of leaving people behind and not let that excitement overtake you.
So the first thing I did when I came into the new office was I sat down and I thought, 'right, well what am I going to do? It's the first 15 minutes of this new company, what shall I do?' And what I did was I opened up my calendar and I cleared out all those reoccurring meetings which just pollute your working life. And some of them were very sensible meetings but they're very mechanical meetings and they kind of block you creatively. I realised at that point what an enormous amount of time I had spent just on helping run Lionhead, a 200 person company. And that is an incredible amount of work and freeing myself from that just left me massively excited by it all.
I think it's called the Peter Principle actually, which is nothing to do with me, I think it's that eventually you get to a stage in your working life where you've managed to get yourself into a position where you're actually not very good at the job, where you've left behind what you are good at and you're only doing the job that you never should have done and I think it tends to be true. Some people of course have a huge talent for doing that and that's their super power, being able to run big companies and being able to manage their time. I always found it an incredible challenge being creative and being a manager and being a designer, I found it hugely challenging and never really solved that problem.
So here we are at 22 Cans, and my obsession at the moment, and really the reason why I'm doing this interview, is to build a team. I've got an idea for a game and I can go through the ingredients of that without talking about the whole idea a little bit later, but that idea is worthless, it's useless, without incredible people.
I really want to find five people who have no industry experience at all. Absolutely none. From different industries.
And so I've really put some thought behind how this team here will be made up. And the temptation I think when you're starting a team is just to be a little bit lazy about it and 'I'll just get all the best CVs in and if I worked with any people before I'll employ those people' and I think that's a mistake, because if you found a company and you found it with a sole intention of innovating and and creating new experiences that are going to touch people in new ways you've got to form a team that actually believes in that. I've got this idea of splitting this team down into distinct areas. The first area is working with five people who are just wonderful industry veterans, and I'm lucky enough to have a few of those already.
I've got someone called Peter Murphy who I have worked with before who's a great business guy, he's going to make sure the that I'm not dwelling on business or negotiating things or doing any of that stuff. He's obsessive about this new wave of digital relationships we have with customer. I've got Tim Rance who was one of the founders of Lionhead and the chief technology officer. He's just a fantastic person to have around both for recruitment and being fascinated by the new technologies that are coming round.
So that's the foundation stone and where we start, but I want to mix those five veterans with maybe five to seven people who have got good games industry experience. They've probably made a game before, but they are still hungry to invent. And these are the people that I'm really targeting with this press, I'll be absolutely honest with you. People that maybe have worked on triple-A games, maybe are just a bit bored by it. Maybe they're bored, as I was slightly, of running on the treadmill and they just want to break away from the normality of that life and come and experiment and invent again. So seven of those people.
And then I really want to find five people who have no industry experience at all. Absolutely none. From different industries. I'm fascinated by certain industries like the games industry. I think we in the games industry think we're special in some sort of way and we're unique, when actually if you look at other creative industries, whether they be things like architecture or advertising, I think they have a very similar creative problem, and finding some of those people from the creative industries and other industries is fascinating.
So for example I've got someone starting in the next couple of weeks called Paul Knight who worked for her Majesty's government as a senior architect designing lots of databases that effectively allow GCHQ to analyse what's going on in the world. I can't really say more than that, but it's an incredibly fascinating problem that they've got, where they've got vast amounts of data and trying to find gems from those vast amounts of data. In the industry at the moment anyone who's not thinking about analytics and not thinking about analysing the way people play is probably sticking their head in the sand, so someone like that from another, completely different industry but with a very similar problem I find fascinating. And finding five of those people who are experienced in business and understand about business but not necessarily experienced in the games industry I think is fascinating.
And then lastly, and almost most importantly, five people who have no industry experience at all, but who want to really desperately get inside the games industry. And they're going to be graduates, they're going to be interns, they're going to have maybe little projects that they've worked on at home and bringing those people in and saying to those 22 people 'right, here's the idea, these are the pieces of the idea, let's come together and let's create an experience - and this is me - that is going to change the world. That is going to grab all this maelstrom of technology that's around at the moment and use it in the most amazing and incredible way.' And that's where I sit at the moment, I'm really fascinated with finding that problem. I've got someone called Dimitri Mavrikakis for example, he's got a fantastic first, had the best dissertation in the country two years ago, and his enthusiasm, because he hasn't made a game before, is fantastic to mix with the old fogies like myself.
You've hit the nail on the head. Because we could all make a game. That's not the problem we're trying to solve. It's not making a game, it's actually doing something that takes all this technology in a completely different way. And so often, it's so tempting, especially now everyone in the industry is older, when I started we were all twenty-something people that certainly didn't have partners, the word relationship didn't come into anybody's discussion, now ten years on we've all grown up, we're in relationships and we've all got children, we've all got families and it's very hard to keep that passion when you've got that.
It's very easy to slide into a comfortable world where you turn up to work every day and you do a game or an experience or your job and it comes out and it's OK and you move onto the next one. And for me that's like a creative padded cell, it's very safe, you don't have to push yourself, you're definitely not scared, but that safety is actually the worst thing for creativity. Whether I was a school kid at school or whether I'm working in the games industry the danger of standing on the precipice is the creative energy that you need.
Especially when you're experimenting and innovating. I think there's a way I want to try and approach that experimentation. I think you so often find another flaw you have in the big big game experiences, which I have been involved with in the past, is that you tend to over-develop the idea before you implement the idea and that means you get all your ideas in a box before they're even implemented and that makes it very, very challenging to be experimental. If you can't play the experience that you've played around with and experimented with, six or nine months or 70 per cent of the entire development experience is all about implementing those ideas you may have had in the first few weeks of development, and it's very, very difficult to balance all that. So our approach is going to be to innovate in layers so we're playing and engaging with the experience as soon as possible.
I don't think you can have - I think there are techniques that you can use, you can be agile, you can use Scrum and all that stuff - but I think if anyone turned round to you and said they had a formula which absolutely in prescribed, is cast in stone, then they're kidding themselves. When you got an unbelievable amount of change in this industry, whether it be the change from retail to digital or whether it be the idea of having cloud computing or whether it be connected devices or whatever that is, you have to change the way that you approach the design problem.
Even in film they change their approach to filming on a script by script basis almost and I think we have to be unbelievably sensitive to that because if you're not, if you believe you've got a formula, then I think you're far less likely to innovate through something. And I think although Draw Something seemed to come from nowhere I think that company had quite a few experiences they'd done prior to that and then certainly Draw Something came out and I think probably the crux of the matter is that you have to play something, to try something out.
I think that's right. Maybe that's their process of extrapolation? I don't know but I definitely want to implement and play as soon as possible and this experience that we're going to make is going to take many many months, if not years, to make. It's too scary to take the old approach to developing where you tend to develop for a very long time before you actually play that experience. You just couldn't do that. Let alone that the industry at the moment is, I mean, between today and yesterday there's probably been three things that have happened in this industry which is going to change the world in three or four years' time. Everything's moving so fast.
I think this is not a unique event. It happened in the nineties and it happened in the late nineties where small developers suddenly realised that they could be a lot more nimble with everything that was happening than the very large publishers. It's incredibly difficult for a large publisher to be so nimble, partly because they've got huge successes. When you've got huge successes, whether they be Call Of Duties or Halos or whatever it is, you don't want to certainly say 'well just throw all those away and do something new!' You're literally throwing money down the drain.
When you're a small developer if you release something too early and it's your first outing it's like a stake in the heart
So there are good reasons why they're not so nimble, and then you've got all the incredibly passionate and very innovational small developers - I do think small developers have another problem which is they have too much choice almost about what to do. So a lot of small developers start up and they make some very very crude errors in founding their business. One of their errors is not to get funding, not to get enough funding at the start so they're forced into this vicious spiral where they're forced to develop a game or experience in a certain amount of time. And they cut corners on the craft or the quality of their experience and release it probably too early and those sort of criticisms we fire at triple-A games as well, but when you're a small developer if you release something too early and it's your first outing it's like a stake in the heart.
It's very, very hard to recover from that and quite often I think small developers can make a success out of copying what's already there but it's still a very very dangerous approach. They tend to structure the whole of their finances and the whole of the way that they set up their company around releasing something in ten weeks because that's what everyone else does and I think that is dangerous. I just feel small and large developers, they're always changing, they always have to change.
The thing is we are a proper industry now. And I think there are some of us that think we're still the new kids on the block of the entertainment industry and we're not. We're a proper industry and a proper industry you have to have a proper business approach. You can't just all gather round a table and come on, let's make a fantastic game without thinking of that proper approach, and that proper approach includes business plans and financing and finding partners, knowing your audience, all of these things are obvious things that any business, whether it be a retail business or a creative software developer has to approach.
And in that respect it's a little bit different to the early days, when I started out I did it the way which quite frankly was based so much on luck it was unbelievable. I literally sat in an office and made a game and ate baked beans because I couldn't afford to eat anything else. I just kept going until I ran out of baked beans. But you can't do that now. You can't found a business on those kind of very shaky foundations.
I think there's some very solid bets that you can make that are almost certainly going to come off. I think for me it's less and less about a particular device nowadays. I'm sure there's going to be - at the moment the iPad is dominant and the iPhone is dominant - but history proves there never is a king of the hill for very long. I'm sure there'll be people along to challenge that with different platforms, but some of the things we know we're going to have, we know we're going to have the analytics and the way you engage with your customer and the way you persuade them to spend money on your product, that is here to stay. We currently call it free-to-play, I do think if someone wrote an article comparing just what free-to-play was 18 months ago compared to the experiences coming out now it shows you that that is evolving incredibly fast. So we know we've got that.
We know human beings love connecting to each other, they love the idea of playing experiences with their friends - and what we call friends is different from what we called friends five or ten years ago because of Facebook, because they may never have met their friends, or maybe a friend is someone that they've just bumped into in an experience - but connecting people together definitely, absolutely is here to stay. We know that we've got the cloud, the cloud is not going to go away, we know that there's some interesting design problems around the cloud because there's some computing that can be done in the cloud that takes pressure away from the device that you've got and I think the cloud allows for this incredibly wonderful word for us designers, and no-one quite looked at this and I love this, persistence. That my experience is persistent. It isn't bound to a device and bound to a save game, it isn't bound to a disc that I put in a drive, it's a persistent that can last for some time. So I think those are the things that anybody could bet on, and are pretty safe bets.
We've also got the other delightful thing that's happening, we're now getting used to the smart glass. It took a while to get used to it. I think Apple did a stellar job when they introduced the iPhone of showing how amazing just the flick of a finger could be, and us in the games industry are just slowly getting the hang of that. And so if anyone were to bet on an input device that is here to stay I think smart glass is. I'm sure it will continue to evolve, there's all sorts of scary but very exciting inventions to do with haptic display and 3D and gosh knows what else which, I'm a bit more reticent to bet on but for sure they're going to be around. That input device is also fascinating, and the way that we are entertained in our homes is changing a lot. I think you can say that interactive TV is slowly creeping into our lives more and more and all of these things put together make for very interesting ingredients in a gaming experience.
It's very interesting what's happening with consoles. I mean partly what's happening is that the console manufacturers obviously had a dream for this to be your home entertainment system, which is slowly creeping into reality. Netflix and LoveFilm are on your Xbox and your PS3, you can slowly start to see non-gamers starting to put those devices in their living room, which was always the dream of hardware manufacturers of course. But that aside, really consoles represent the top of the food chain for what we call core gamers.
Consoles used to be the whole of our industry, now, more increasingly, they're becoming a part of industry.
And as an industry no one's really defined core gamers. I think core gamers are probably the people that buy Call Of Duty every Christmas and play it, and there's a finite amount of those people and we deliver experiences to those people they actually want, and I'm sure a lot of publishers use focus groups and user research to nail exactly what those consumers want. And I think those consumers are willing to pay lots of money for these wonderful, fantastic triple-A experiences, just as us cinema goers are willing to pay huge amounts of money to go and see Avatar. It doesn't mean that every form of entertainment is like Avatar, not at all. We've television and we've got all sorts of other mediums.
So I think consoles are - I'm not going to say they've become niche - their main way they entertain people, their main audience is slightly niche, and provided they can continue to adapt themselves for people's living rooms I think there's a future there. But they used to be the whole of our industry, now, more increasingly, they're becoming a part of industry. And whether that's a smaller and smaller part I think depends on how many consumers and how much money they're willing to pay.
To be honest with you we're three and a half weeks old so it is just pulling the team together. I was pretty much the first person to walk into the office so there's not much you can do with an old hackneyed coder like me, I'm definitely not going to be relied on for my coding. Our main obsession at the moment is getting a team together, doing everything that we can to do that, to find those fantastic people.
I can't help working on a prototype, it is something that's like a tiny grain of sand in the overall experience, but there is something, a semblance of something already feels a little bit unique, or there's the signs of uniqueness there. And as soon as the team - there's a person starting every week for the next few weeks - and as soon as those people come on board then we'll start really prototyping in anger. And just experimenting. I'm a real fan of just saying 'look, let's not worry about the code, let's not worry about the structure, let's just get to the experiment and let's just find out if that works.' And that means prototyping in days rather than weeks.
Emotion is incredibly important. If I'm just playing an experience and it's just a throwaway experience and I'm not emotionally linked to it - now you can be emotionally linked in many many different ways, you can be emotionally linked to a story, you can be emotionally linked to an environment and a world, you can be emotionally linked to a character - but I do think there's one thing you can bet on from 22 Cans, we're definitely thinking about emotion.
And one of the first things that I did, and I started talking about this on Twitter, is play around with can I make the simplest object feel like there's an emotional link to the person interacting with it? So I just played around with this green square, to try in my own mind and clarify that thought. But yes, sure, you're going to see emotions in there. I love emotions, I love the idea that an experience is to some extent adapting itself to something you want to do rather than necessarily what I want to do. And again that's something I've falteringly played around with over the years and you're definitely going to see player choice in there. I love that sentence 'this is a reflection of me as a player as much as it is of how successful I am getting through a game.'
The idea of ultra-secrecy and keeping everything under wraps, it kind of feels old school. And it kind of feels last generation
And I think it's got to be - and this is one of the real secrets here, and again and again I see this mistake being made for me as a consumer being made on apps on mobile devices - it's got to be unbelievably accessible. And what accessible means is people must love engaging with that experience, and engaging successfully with that experience. There's a lot of just really delightful games on the iPad that I play that are just way way, way too hard. They're just way too hard and the first few moments you get killed or you get brutalised it's just too mystical.
So you can think about that accessibility that's there, you can definitely think about it connecting, I mean I'm obsessed with, I've been obsessive ever since the early days, about connecting people. And even games like Populous I did in 1989 you could play multiplayer. I mean you had to get your soldering iron out and cross over the cables on an RS232 lead, but that's been always my fascination. When you connect people you give them worlds which they can engage in in the way they want to engage and you give this emotional link and amazing things can happen. And there isn't any experiences like that in the world at the moment. They're still very, very short and very compartmentalised... I'm talking too much about the game now. I just get so enthusiastic and so excited about it!
I always used to almost tell the world about ideas that I had almost within a day of me having the idea. I do think another thing about this industry is that more and more we are engaging consumers less and less, certainly the big companies. And when people like Markus Persson comes along and he does Minecraft he talks about what he's going to put in that game! As he's having the idea! And guess what? He's got 600,000 followers and a hugely successful company. And I just don't get this shock and awe PR campaign that a lot of people lean themselves on, 'let's make a game and then let's tell the world about it.'
I'm a total believer in involving the community of fascinating people in the idea and fostering people's points of view. And what Double Fine are doing with the Kickstarter project, they way they're grooming money from people is saying 'give us your ideas'. I don't think that's a bad thing, I think that's a good thing. It's going to be tough, but I think it's a good thing.
All this secrecy that goes on, why do we do it? What is the real benefit? We're making products and games and experiences for consumers, you should involve them in that. Just saving all the outward-facing consumer stuff to six weeks before it comes out in some retail store is just not the way the world works now. Those days are gone. We're not completely digitally engaged in these amazing things are happening across the social networking world, and the idea of ultra secrecy and keeping everything under wraps, it kind of feels old school. And it kind of feels last generation. And now it's all about engaging people and being open and fostering people's opinions, good or bad, and engaging with them. And you can totally expect that from us.
I mean, you need to get your ducks lined up in a row before you do that, but as soon as you do I don't see any reason not to. And that's one of the things that drove me insane at Microsoft, is that paranoia that some disaster was going to happen if you engaged the community. And I think that's a huge advantage of a small developer. You don't want to do anything in the press that's going to hurt the product, you should never badmouth people, but it just seems sensible to in so many ways to engage and do that nowadays.
I think, and I truly believe this, there are some unbelievably and incredibly talented people at Lionhead. For sure. You only have to go along, you only have to look at when Edge covered the creative day that happened this time last year to realise that there are lots of very super-creative and passionate people there. I do think though those people have been somewhat constrained by the glass ceiling that I represented. Whether that be my management style or whether that be the simple fact I've been there since the start of the company I'm not sure. But I honestly feel that now that glass ceiling is gone you're going to see some expected people blossom and grow and some unexpected people to blossom and grow.
I think Lionhead has a great franchise in Fable, I'm going to be fascinated to see where they go with that franchise. I think Journey is going to be a very important part of that franchise, and I'm still consulting on that a little bit, but not in any substantial way that hinders people being creative. I will be fascinated as to where it goes. I truly, truly hope that they continue to be successful, and I'm absolutely sure they can be. The studio manager at Lionhead is actually my brother-in-law, so I'm still slightly emotionally invested in that. I'm sure some of the people there will be brilliant.
It hasn't gone terribly well with some of the other things that I've been involved in, whether it be Syndicate or whether it be the iterations of Theme Park or whatever. It hasn't gone terribly well. I would say to Microsoft they've got a fantastic franchise in Fable, and I'm sure they'll continue to invest in the franchise and that will be brilliant if that continues to go on. I do feel very parental and proud about their achievements, they've got Heroes coming out which I feel almost tearfully proud of, because that was a project that was started from this creative day that was had at Lionhead and driven by people like Ted Timmins and now it's going to be released. And that's fantastic, it's really really good. And I think that's brilliant.
I'm very interested, I know Phil, I've known him for years and years, ever since he was at Mindscape. In fact he, bizarrely, he was the first publisher person to ever come and visit Bullfrog in the very, very early days. It's strange how things come around. What I'm fascinated with myself with Phil is I've never heard anyone say anything bad about Phil, but what I found interesting was his opinions about the world prior to leaving to Sony, compared his opinions about the world post leaving Sony. He seemed to feel like there was an exciting world out there when he left, and he commented sagely on things like iOS and mobile devices and digital relationships that were slightly contrary to what his opinions were at Sony, and it's going to be fascinating how he takes that into Microsoft and blends that together.
I know a lot of people respect him, and big companies need big personalities, holding big flags for people to follow. Phil is definitely one of those personalities and he's great with developers, and he's great at finding diamonds in the rough. I think it's nothing but positive actually.
I've spent a hell of a long time on Vimeo, the creative YouTube equivalent, and that is absolutely fantastic, just playing round and seeing some of the incredible submissions on there. And just realising there's an enormous amount of creativity out there. I mean I am a total gamer, I really am, much to my family's disgust. I've played and loved everything from Skyward Sword to Skyrim this year already and I'm probably your number one expert on iPhone and iPad games, I love all of those.
Inspiration isn't just the brilliant things you see, it's from the things that frustrate the hell out of you.
But my main inspiration - and this is where I get on my soapbox a bit - is how incredibly aggravatingly blandly horrible the majority of Hollywood's output is these days. It just astounds me. It shocks me that films like Thor and Sucker Punch can come out and they can ruin what are great stories and great ideas. It's just shocking to me that there's so little bravery and so little change in the way that entertainment is being delivered to people. More and more I think people are just sitting at home turning the television off because of the blandness of most of our entertainment. There are notable exceptions, but they are exceptions. The world is just awash and clogged down with this blandness that is out there at the moment. A lot of people are just copying other people, definitely with action movies and science-fiction-based action movies. I don't know who came up with that formula but I want to take them out and shoot them, because I am so bored of two minutes and 20 seconds into a film the hero or the person you know is going to defeat the baddy you saw at two minutes 15 seconds. And it's that formulaic! It's incredible that they can get away with!
Inspiration isn't just the brilliant things you see from things like Vimeo, it's from the things that frustrate the hell out of you.
If what you've read has made you interested in working at 22 Cans, email Peter Molyneux directly at email@example.com.