Molyneux on media mistakes, and creativity

Colin Campbell, Friday, September 8th, 2023 9:08 am

Image credit: DanielAlexanderSmith / Wikipedia

For decades, Peter Molyneux was a regular fixture on the game media outlet interview circuit, his face gracing the cover of magazines or website feature splashes. Molyneux’s attraction to editors was undoubtedly his track record of making great games that readers loved to play, and to hear about. But he was also an engaging interview subject, uncommonly willing to talk frankly about himself and his projects.

Eventually though, his prowess as a source of commercially successful games – Populous, Theme Park, Dungeon Keeper, Fable et al – began to wane. His propensity for talking up his latest development project began to sound hollow, almost to the point of parody. Indeed, a Twitter parody account called Peter Molydeux regularly posts amusingly bats-arse game design ideas.

The badly botched launches of Kickstarter game Godus, and mobile game Curiosity further damaged his reputation. In 2015, he declared that he would no longer give interviews, and has largely retreated from his previous high media profile.

This week though, he gave a long and frank interview to Simon Parkin’s excellent My Perfect Console podcast, in which he spoke about his habit of over-promising game features that often fail to materialize. It’s a useful insight into the fraught relationship between the press and a certain kind of high profile game developer, who courts fame, but then struggles with its costs and its risks.

Interviewing days

Parkin asked Molyneux, right at the start of the podcast, why he had decided to call time on his interviewing days …

“The world had moved on from when I first started in computer games [when] there was a fascination in the creative process. I used to kind of specialize – if that’s the right word – in talking about the games that I made before they were finished

“Quite often, things change in the development process. I think people mistook that as being promises of features in the game. I just realized that the ability to talk openly and honestly about that design process just wasn’t what it was. So I, like many other creatives, retreated from that incredibly bright spotlight which just seemed to, in the end, burn.”

Molyneux says he sometimes misses “that fantastic feeling of going into a room full of tired journalists” at E3 and other shows, but that he now has more time to focus on creating games.

It may be that demand for Molyneux interviews has diminished, as has the attraction of a certain kind of recognizable game industry personality, usually men who are now well into middle age, and past their creative heyday. But Molyneux’s penchant for speaking off the cuff about his work stands in stark contrast to the carefully rehearsed, and relentless, bland interviews that senior game developers tend to give these days.

Gaming culture has also changed, in the sense that publishers are far less willing to use creative figureheads as marketing fodder. Molyneux’s media profile undoubtedly added to his commercial value during the various corporate take-overs and executive roles from which he benefited. Game companies these days are more interested in burnishing their collective brands, while claiming that they are serving the collective value of their workers, rather than focusing too much on any individual. (This strategy, it should be noted, does not seem to apply to the equitable distribution of salaries and bonuses.)

Detemined blather

Molyneux said that his company is now around 25 people, and that they are working on a new project called M.O.A.T, but he declined to offer any details, underlying his determination not to blather to reporters.

“‘In days gone by, I would have already announced the whole game design. I’d have probably said it was gonna be the most brilliant game of all time. But this is going to be kept under wraps for a considerable amount of time.”

Molyneux’s past interview style matches his somewhat freewheeling approach to life. He got his start in game development when Commodore approached him to create a piece of software, believing his company to be a software house and not, in fact, a baked bean distributor. Molyneux took the contract and did not reveal the error. When he missed milestones, he made outlandish excuses, including that his thumb had been cut off in an accident.

But when he turned his attention to developing games, he proved his worth with a string of critically acclaimed hits that led to his studio, Bullfrog, being acquired by Electronic Arts. He then formed Lionhead, which was bought by Microsoft, where he served as creative director of the company’s gaming operation. He then formed 22Cans, a smaller operation that has not, as yet, enjoyed spectacular success.

Later in the interview with Parkin – in which Molyneux picks five of his favorite games, while looking back at his life and career – the conversation returns to the topic of media interviews. Molyneux is clearly keen to dispel any accusations of dishonesty, instead saying that he just liked to explore ideas on the fly.

In any given interview, he said, he might have a moment of inspiration, so he’d run with it. “Yes, we’re going to have flying pigs or whatever. I was designing the game as I was talking … In today’s world, that is total insanity.”

Molyneux acknowledged that a major downside of such behavior is the pressure it puts on the team, back in the office, and unaware of his unfolding ideas, until they read about them in interviews. “It was atrocious and I have an enormous amount of regret for it. I feel remorse for what I did,” he said.

While explaining that team members would often be annoyed at his mercurial way of creating games, he said it felt necessary to him at the time. “We were creating [new] genres almost every year. And when you created something it was an act of true invention. It’s easy to get lost in the passion.”

He said that, while he no longer brainstorms in media interviews, he still likes to work in an open-ended fashion. When striving for originality, he said “you are at the whims of your half insane creative mind, which doesn’t work by sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper and writing all the ideas down. That’s not the way it works.”

You can hear the full interview here.

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist. © 2024 | All Rights Reserved.