Industry legend Peter Molyneux departed Microsoft last month for a new outfit, 22 Cans. Here, he tells MCV why he left the platform holder, his thoughts on the future of games and his latest bid to change the world
What happened the day you decided to leave Microsoft?
Before that, about 18 months ago, I started to get all these accolades.
I got a BAFTA Fellowship. I got a Lifetime Achievement Award in Spain, another in Italy, over in the States I picked up a few more.
Of course, I was unbelievably proud of it. But eventually I took a long hard look at all these awards lined up on the mantelpiece and asked myself, do I deserve these?
I couldn’t accept that I’ve already done my best work.
And I haven’t made one of the greatest games ever, have I?
To achieve that is my absolute, absolute passion. I want nothing more than to create something truly worthy of all these trophies I’ve got.
So, back to leaving Microsoft.
One day I was at the studio sitting on my chair, in the zone, my eyes closed, my headphones on, blaring music in, trying to think of ideas for Fable: The Journey.
Suddenly I felt my chair move. I looked around. Standing there was the Microsoft chair adjustment personnel, this nice woman who comes over once a month, fiddling with my seat settings to make sure it was posturepedically correct.
I thought; this is insane.
I was in a creative padded cell. Microsoft was so safe and nice. You’re so supported. Everything I did couldn’t hurt me, both creatively and physically. The danger was long gone. I had this desire to make something special, and I felt like I was being suffocated creatively a little bit. That was the moment I realised I had to go.
Now I can obsess about one thing, which I will dedicate all my energy to.
At Microsoft I was I was presiding over these Fable games, I was flying to the US every three weeks, I was visiting other European studios and seeing what they got on with. There was a hell of a lot going on and I wasn’t able to focus on anything.
Lionhead didn’t know whether or not I was going to come in for half an hour and start drawing ideas on the board, or whether I wasn’t going to see them for weeks. That whole relationship wasn’t quite working perfectly for me, and it’s my fault.
Your studios Lionhead and Bullfrog were major, long-established businesses. Is your new studio 22 Cans your final stretch?
Well I’m 52. I have a strange attitude to life. I consider it a marathon that you’ve got to keep pushing yourself through. I just hope I’m coming near the end of it. I’d like to think I’m coming into the stadium now. Just a couple of laps around the track, and I’ll be done.
I’ve been given so many advantages in life. Many of them through luck. I’ve got a profile, I’ve worked with incredible people, publishing bosses know me, developers know me.
I believe it has all led me to this point. I believe the greatest game I’ve ever made is still ahead of me.
I think it’s fair to guess this will be a digitally distributed game. Are you out of the console business?
Well I don’t know; the world’s going to be out of the console business if we’re not careful. The whole games industry is evolving quickly.
There is this whole relationship that designers are now having with consumers through digital portals. If you’re going to make something that’s going to last for a few hours, then you have to have a digital relationship with your customers, and that makes things tough for retail.
The incentives for driving me out of my seat and into a shop is becoming increasingly limited. I don’t go to retail to buy music or a film. I don’t go to buy books any more. And I’m certainly not that interested in buying games in shops.
I think retail has got a place – we still love buying gifts. But as a studio, restricting ourselves to retail I think has become a challenge.
It appears that retail is no longer synonymous with what developers want to do with games.
That’s absolutely it. If you look at everything that’s exciting, from the resurgence of PC to iPad and iPhones, it’s very hard to see where retail fits into that.
You’ve spoken about having the chance to make this one great game. Wasn’t that your canned Kinect game Milo?
I think that the world – whether that world is retail or marketing execs – wasn’t quite ready for Milo.
I think people were ready for it. They were discussing it, puzzled by it, excited by it.
What was so hard for some people to imagine is what Milo would look like on the shelves, sitting alongside these murderous shooter games.
“I can’t imagine what it would look like in GAME,” is what I was told.
It took me a long time to get over it. I understood the decision. I really did. I’m not complaining about it. You have to be realistic about these things.
Let’s discuss the your next game.
There’s three central philosophies that will drive my next game.
The first; I love connecting people in multiplayer. The best way to play Populous was linking two computers together. You had to get an RS232 lead and unwire it, and switch over pins two and three, but when you did that it was an amazing game.
It’s only now that we are able to truly build games that can connect all kinds of people.
So building something that’s truly multiplayer is one of the things I want to achieve.
Secondly, so many of our connected experiences are bound up in these little boxes. I’d love to play Call of Duty more online; I just can’t. There’s this huge skill barrier. At the other end of the scale you have Zynga games where everything is crafted in such a compulsive, hungry way that it puts me off.
I think there’s got to be a kind of game that’s accessible for everyone.
The third philosophy, is to build something that doesn’t have a full stop. I mean, Draw Something, I’m almost at the end of my time on it. I’ve done it, it’s been a laugh, it’s wearing a bit thin now.
Even games like Portal 2. I loved it. I got to the end of it, I was done. But what if a game wasn’t like this – what if a game was like a hobby?
There’s no game that encapsulates a hobby. The closest we’ve got is World of Warcraft. The thing about hobbies, be it gardening or fishing or whatever, is that people do these things for years. Why can’t we have a game that feels more like that,where you can dip in out of it over the course of a very long time?
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall all those years ago when the producers and writers for Coronation Street first sat down to pitch the show.
“We’re going to make this TV series,” the writers would say.
“Okay, what’s the story”, the execs would reply.
“There isn’t one. It’s just a street.”
“Okay… what happens to the street? Does it blow up?”
“No. Not much happens. All sorts of little things happen.”
“Right, what’s the story though?”
“Well we’re going to write it, as we go, for 50 years. It will be the most watched show in Britain.”
How was this conceived? It’s an unbelievably brave idea. A TV series that will last forever. I can’t imagine how it was ever commissioned.
So what kind of people do you want to hire for this project?
It’s going to be seven industry veterans who have been through the mill many times before.
Add to that five experienced and passionate people who have been through triple-A work a few times.
Then we’re going to hire five people who haven’t had any industry experience at all. They’re going to be graduates, or maybe people who have done some intern stuff.
Then, lastly, five people who work outside of games. My theory on that is, if we are going to make something truly new – something where people can’t say “well it’s a bit of this game mixed with a bit of that one” – then we need to hire people who exist outside of our box.
So I want to mix those people outside our industry with young and enthusiastic people as well as industry veterans.
If we wrap those 22 people together, around this crazy and ambitious idea, and we experiment and innovate, then maybe we can make something that can change the world.
This is an edited version of a widely-read interview that you can read in full at our sister site develop-online.net.