Godus: Peter Molyneux talks new game, Xbox One, and where it all started

Peter Molyneux isn't just a gamer, but a game creator in the truest sense of the word. He has been involved in the industry since the beginning, first creating Populous for the Amiga, before moving on to titles like Black & White and the Fable series.

In 2012, Molynuex left Lionhead, the studio he founded in 1997 before selling to Microsoft, to take on a new challenge, the challenge of app games.

"I'm a gamer for sure. I get excited about hardware and I can't help myself, but I am not sure whether I am as excited about what I've seen in the two consoles as much as what is in my pocket already," explains Molyneux to Pocket-lint over a coffee during E3 in Los Angeles. "It was funny, the Xbox conference was on and they were showing all these games and I was sneaking peeks of the Apple WWDC live stream. That kind of said it all really."

Molyneux's latest company is 22cans, a company focusing on the creation of app games for the iPhone and iPad.

First there was Curiosity, a game that saw players from around the world removing boxes on a huge cube to win the ultimate prize waiting for them in the centre: a chance to start in Molyneux's next game.

"Arguably I have shifted from those games to bigger games, because the audience is just so much bigger," the game designer explains when we ask him if he misses developing "big" games. It's clear that this brave new world is one that interests Molyneux for the time being.

"It is just a massive audience, and that is what is exciting, that is what excites me as a creator."

The big lure, it turns out, is the creativity the devices bring to someone like Molyneux. It's not just button clicks or running down corridors killing things, but a device that allows him to get his gamers to interact with his games in a way be believes they haven't been able to before.

"Imagine if I can create something that appeals to that vast audience out there. What is happening on these devices, is that we are training a whole breed of new gamers that would never consider themselves as gamers and there are millions of those people that we are training up in gaming and that is fascinating."

"A year and a half ago I thought to myself this is where I've got to be. I shouldn't be doing the adrenaline-based gameplay, which is exactly what this show [E3] is all about. It is all about adrenaline, it's about the biggest explosion, the most dramatic head-shots. What excites me now are games that are about relaxation, about playfulness, and this," says Molyneux pointing to an iPad "lets me embrace that and as a designer that I am, I find that so much more exciting."

Populous was Moylneux's first game released in 1989

That focus is on Godus, a god-game for the iPad that allows you to control a tribe of people and command how they act or react to your every move. Already in alpha, and about to move into beta, before being released later in the year, it's the culmination of around 20 years work says Molyneux.

"My plan for what it is worth, is to take everything that I've done in the past 20 years and remove all the rubbish, and in the games that I've done there has been a lot of rubbish, and distractions, and create and absolutely amazing delightful world that people will be able to interact with in a relaxing and playful way for many, many months."

A bold statement, especially given that's the polar opposite to some of the more recent games he has created, something that Molyneux admits.

"That is completely the opposite to the last few games I did, where what you were doing is entertaining someone for - if you were lucky - 20 hours, but more likely 10 hours. People would to work on a game for two years, and then some people used to buy it from a shop, and then play it for 10 hours and move on to the next one."

If it sounds like there was a eureka moment, it's because there was.

"It started when I saw Steve Jobs introduce the iPhone. That's when we first saw touch. As a designer, the most innovational thing you can do is change the way people interact with something. When I saw that, I thought, just imagine the games you could create, because people are going to be using their finger, they will be interacting in natural ways.

"That stayed with me, and over the course of a few years, I thought you could do so much more than this. Really what I want, and this scares people, is that I want to interact with a simulation, a world that seems to understand my every touch, and the fact that I can say every touch rather than every click or every thumbstick is just fantastic. That is my objective, it is to create this incredible, relaxing, amazing world that always surprises you. And that's what Godus is about."

Curiosity was Molyneux's first game for the iPhone and iPad

Realising that you need to learn to walk before you can run, and that the world of apps is very different from blockbuster games like Fable, Molyneux has spent the last year trying to understand how phone and tablet users play games on the go. If you're a gamer you'll already know that how you play on your phone is different from how you would play on a console in front of the TV, but without any data designing and creating for the new medium is hard.

"I could have left Microsoft and launched straight into my first game. Pedantically I could have said I know everything, but I had to get used to designing things for touch and I had to get used to this world where people are always online," Molyneux says.

"If I was to learn, I had to do something that was so incredibly simple. You learn more stuff doing simple things, than more complicated things, because otherwise it can get confusing. Curiosity couldn't have been more simple, however what seemed simple actually had a lot of complexity to it because what I wanted to do was support a huge variety on how people interacted with the cube.

"Some people drew, some people just tapped with both hands crazily, some people where clearers and they cleared things out. All of that learning and breaking down the percentages of people that were, be it artists or vandals, helped us understand how people play games. If you look at what we've done with Godus you can see what we've done with that learning from that."

An understanding learnt, Godus was born.

"With Godus you can use your finger to push and nudge the land any way you like, and you can use your finger to interact with the people any you like. It's a bit like Populous but a 1,000 years on. Then you realise you can use multiple fingers, and stretch the land, and all of that is delightful and relaxing, is just a lovely thing to do, and seeing your people evolve over time. It is not edge of your seat adrenaline stuff, because I don't think that the iPad is the device to do that. If I really want to be blown away by skyscrapers blowing up I'll go to my console. There are just millions more people that want this kind of games. We learnt a lot of Curiosity."

But it's not just about touch. Molyneux is taking advantage of other features of the tablet too - including features that Microsoft is trying to use with the Xbox One - The cloud and online gaming.

"One of the amazing things we can do, if we are going to re-invent the god game, is to use the technology of the cloud. Everyone of these worlds is connected in the same that Curiosity was. You don't see that when you first start playing the game, but just over the hill is one of your friends, and that is an amazing feeling."

It's a bold move and one when got wrong can cause the near death of game - just see SimCity for the backlash it got when it insisted gamers are always playing online.

"I needed to test that technology. I needed to test thousands of people all playing simultaneously and I think Curiosity is one of the only apps that really does simultaneously and concurrently bring people together. All of that stuff was there to be tested."

But as Molyneux explains his grand vision for next-generation gaming on the current-generation tablets, we can see a glimmer in his eye. The moment where he is about to detail the cherry on top:

"The final problem was that if we could connect all these worlds together, wouldn't it be amazing if one person in the world could change aspects of the game. If this is a god game he is a God of Gods. So we have this one person, who got to the centre of Curiosity, he is going to be the first God of Gods in Godus, so he decides certain things morally about what is right and wrong in everybody's game and he does that on a weekly basis."

In steps Brian - yes, as in Life of Brian - an 18-year-old from Edinburgh who won Curiosity, and who for the first six months of Godus will be paid to be god.

"He was the last person to tap on the cube, he got to the centre. He is an 18-year-old kid, he didn't know what to do with his life. He comes from a poor family in Edinburgh, he is perfect. Within two hours he was interviewed by magazines, he was interviewed by the BBC, his life has already changed and that's before all this has properly kicked off."

That's right, after a year of development, and decades in the making Peter Molyneux OBE is going to entrust the pivotal role of his new game to a 18-year-old from Scotland.

"He will last six months, and then this is where you start layering in some really interesting gameplay about clans. Clans are a scary thing for a lot of people and a fascinating thing for a lot more. Some people love being in a clan but can be very shy. If your clan, which you are in, and we are doing some very interesting experiments with clans, is successful then you can challenge this guy Brian [the first God] and you win, then one person in your clan will be the new God of Gods, and they will decide the moral flow of all the worlds. They will get a royalty from any money we receive, which could be a significant amount of money."

"What is so exciting, is that while you are playing this game you may think, 'God that Brian guy, why has he done this?' and that might give you a big motivation to get rid of him."

"We found in Curiosity that if you give someone an insanely big motivation, like what is in the centre of the cube, that will motivate people and people will talk about it and discuss it, they'll like Brian, or they will approve of Brian, and they'll follow Brian, and that has already started to happen."

But if you think that Molyneux has just created Populous for a new generation, think again. There is some Black & White in there too, although no animals.

"There is a lot of Black & White in there. There is no creature like in Black & White. This is part of my rubbish as a designer, is that I think that Black & White was actually two games. There was the creature and there was the world. They shouldn't have been in the same game."

"The creature should have been in one game and the world should have been in another. We've taken a lot from Black & White. The interesting thing is - and all this stuff sounds almost unbelievable - but your little people are totally unique to you. They learn from you, to the way you sculpt the land and the things that you do. Instead of slapping a monster, you are punishing your people. They learn. These little people in this world absolutely love you. They worship you. And it just feels brilliant to be worshiped."

We are interrupted by Phil Harrison, currently corporate vice-president of Microsoft, and the former head honcho of Sony PlayStation. Molyneux might have left "console gaming" industry, but he is still a man to be wooed.

The conversation changes. If Brian is to be paid, how will Molyneux's 22cans make money?

"People in this conference are obsessive against free to play. I think that there is a lot of very interesting stuff we can do with design in free to play. For me, it is the way I want to interact with the game. I don't want to pay £9.95 to play a game up front. What I want is to get anyone who interacts with with Godus to think that they are interacting with a hobby. If you've got a hobby you like spending money on it, just like people do cooking or gardening."

It's rather wishy-washy and not really confirming anything something Molyneux acknowledges.

"This is a huge topic," he adds when we push further asking whether he is suggesting going down the same route as Real Racing 3 or Tiny Tower where you can play it for free, or opt to enhance it with purchases?

"We could talk for hours on this. In a way I want people to feel good about investing in money in the world of Godus. I don't see this as a gate, or a pay 79p to move forward. I think there was some very greedy free to play mechanics in the early days. Some of the really exciting stuff happening in free to play is happening in Korea and Japan. The free to play model there is two to three years ahead of where we are. My first thought as a designer is that I want people to love interacting with this world for a very long time. I would rather sacrifice revenue for a game that allows people to make Godus part of the rhythm of their day."

With Curiosity 22cans found that people would have a quick tap before going to bed or that people tapped every hour, once a day, or something else entirely random.

Whatever the pricing strategy, Molyneux does agree one thing, that launch day is just going to be another day in the office.

"This is the thing that I've learnt Stuart, and this is what happened with Black & White. I added so many ridiculous things like the weather was the same in the game as it was outside that it became too bogged down with stuff that we didn't need. That was great, but we should have spent more time balancing the game rather than adding f**king weather. If we don't get the core of the game right then all these toys are ridiculous."

How true to his word he will be come launch day is another thing though. We can already see Molyneux getting excited as he throws a yet implemented idea into the conversation.

"Wouldn't it be cool if you were playing a track on your iPad and you happen to go into the game and the music keeps playing and all your little people are dancing to the music you are listening to and what's even cooler is that they would form a little chant based on the rhythm of the music you are listening too. That would be brilliant."

 

The interview is interrupted once again, this time by Don Mattrick and Aaron Greenberg, the two men (at the time of the interview) heading up the new Xbox One console from Microsoft. Mattrick is now of course CEO of Znyga, Greenberg is still at Microsoft. The interruption leads us on to what Microsoft is trying to achieve with its new console.

"I think some of the Kinect stuff is very clever, but we forget to get excited about that because we get so fanatical about the core gaming elements."

But is the Xbox One the future? Molyneux isn't so sure. Five years from now the future is a lot more hazy than it was five years ago agrees Molyneux.

"The answer to that question is a lot more complicated that in used to be. I am not sure the living room exists as it was when consoles first game out. In the 1920s the family used to gather around the radio. The thought of the family gathering around the television is starting to feel as archaic as people gathering around the radio was.

"This device [picks up an iPad] certainly frees us. I have found in my family, rather than turn the TV on every night you are sitting around with a various screens on different devices. The only problem we've got with all that, is that the rate of innovation we've got with these devices is starting to get incremental now, it is not the massive evolutionary steps it once was."

"So in five years, these devices will get a lot more portable. That's what this one is all about [picks up an iPad mini]. I would love to see some update in stream technologies. But for a billion people in the world, this is where it is at. Not sitting around a huge plasma TV playing on your console. I can imagine using my TV to watch the next Superman, for sure, but it is not going to be apart of the routine of my daily life.

"There is a lot of exciting stuff that is going to happen here. If you've got a billion people with this device then some sort of entertainment product, some sort of computer game is going define gaming interaction. It will be played not by a million people, or in COD Black Ops case 10 million people, but a hundreds of millions of people." 

"The interesting thing about the iPad is that it has done incredible things for music, it's not done incredible things for movies and TV shows, there is no thought about not watching TV on it, but there hasn't really been a computer game that really represents gaming on the go."

We ask what about Angry Birds? But Molyneux doesn't agree.

"Everyone has played it, it but is doesn't define the platform. It doesn't use the platform to its full. Godus does that."

Bold words, but one that Molyneux feels he has the right to claim partly because of his heritage, he has been building game longer than most.

It's something we can confirm. We interviewed Molyneux 13 years ago for the launch of Black & White. At the time Molyneux referenced an episode of the Outer Limits as one of his key influencers. Called Sandkings it stared Beau Bridges as a scientist who discovers a race of Martian insects that live in a big sand pit in the barn in his garden. The creatures mimic him, worship him, and eventually turn on him. It's the ultimate god experience.

""I've shown the whole team it. Well remembered by the way. That moment where he steps into the sand that it exactly what we are gunning for. The realisation now, is that Black & White could have never have been that, because you were interacting with the world with your mouse but now it is your hand reaching into the world. Those little people, what I loved about Sandkings is those little insects where interpreting what was right and wrong.

""Sandkings was a big moment for me. I have always dreamed of this moment today, I dreamt that we have been connecting together simply and seamlessly back since when I first created Populous. Populous was best when you got a cable and plugged two Amigas together. That's what the game was really designed to be played like. I dreamt of having worlds that you could interact with all the time and it wasn't until we were able to carry these worlds around with us that they became a reality.

"I was dreaming 20 years ago. I just needed that hardware to enable my dreams and now I have it. That is why I am more excited, more passionate, more focused that I have ever been. Every piece of the puzzle has come together and is now the time to give these amazing, incredible simulated worlds to millions of people who don't think they are gamers, they just want to be entertained, they just want to be surprised, and we can do that for people."

As for his hopes for what Apple do next:

"When Steve Jobs got on stage and showed me that device that was a moment of near orgasmic excitement. It should be the games that Apple show off on stage, not a spreadsheet. We should be able to give people a little window into a world, which they have created. I would love that."