Peter Molyneux has sage advice for the next generation of developers. The manner in which he delivers it, of course, is what makes him Britain’s most celebrated and cherished games designer.
Speaking as headline act at the Gamelab event in Barcelona, Molyneux casually explained how he once temporarily abandoned an intimate bedtime moment with his wife because a new game idea jumped in his head.
“I told my wife, ‘just a moment, I have to write something down’,” he said.
“She was not impressed, let’s just say, and I’m not allowed to ever do that again,”
It was an admission – delivered within the first two minutes of his talk – that paved the way for several others.
But each confession that followed, however funny or slightly worrying they had been, were stitched together by a single, significant thread of logic.
“You can’t go looking for inspiration,” Molyneux said. “You have to wait for it to come to you. Even if it’s at the worst moments.”
The industry veteran said what he fears the most, even today with a wealth of experience to draw from, is a blank sheet of paper headed with the word ‘ideas’.
What works best is when an idea or a feeling comes to you, he said.
Black and White, a defining game in the BAFTA Fellow’s career, was part-inspired by a time when Molyneux was twelve, he said.
“I spent the first three months of my hamster’s life teaching it tricks,” he confessed.
“Now, sadly, hamsters aren’t clever animals. So eventually I ignored him. One day I came back and, after ignoring the hamster for a month, I found it in its cage and realised it had been dead for two weeks.”
It was an anecdote that, had it belonged to a famous film director or Premier League footballer, could have ended up behind the confines of a superinjunction. But Molyneux made the confession as proof that people can find inspiration anywhere and at any time.
“It was the shame of letting this cute creature die that inspired me,” he said, explaining that Black And White is a game where neglect for your character has its own consequences.
“I remember when I was in a shopping mall once and I remembered how much I wanted to have a minigun,” he said.
“I remember that feeling – whether I would do it or not I don’t know – and when we were building the prototype for Syndicate I said let the player loose! It was a feeling of power that I wanted to create.”
Another concept – one that permeates through a number of Lionhead games – came from when Molyneux was watching a James Bond film, You Only Live Twice.
“In this film, James Bond single-handedly takes out an entire base from an evil villain by pressing one button. I thought this was incredibly unfair. What about the bad guys?” he asked.
“They’ve spent years building this entire base and it is completely wiped out when James Bond presses a single button?! We never know about what happens to the bad guy,” he said.
“I decided to embrace the dark side, so Dungeon Keeper is all about being evil.”
His driving point was simple: “Nurture your ideas. Care for them. Don’t criticise them. Think about the reasons why they excite you. I obsess about the reason why my ideas excite me,” he told the audience.
“And be prepared before you tell other people about them. As soon as you present your idea you’ll have to answer to the negativity. Start with the people who will believe in your idea. Eventually, you’ll need to be prepared to change your mind as well.”
As a testament to his sustained relevance in the games industry, the Lionhead co-founder today had a conference room packed wall-to-wall, filled with developers and fans of his work.
As made clear today, of course, is that Molyneux’s fellow developers and fans of his work are often the same demographic.
As if by habit, when Molyneux went on to praise Minecraft for “breaking all the rules”, Mojang’s Daniel Kaplan – also in the audience – smiled triumphantly.
Where are Molyneux’s inspirations taking him next? The industry luminary concluded his well-applauded speech with these familiar, yet still exciting words:
“We’re doing a super secret project at Lionhead. It’s very different from anything we’ve done before. It’s a game that comes from modern inspirations, and it took me about one and a half years to eventually tell people about it.”