'Peter Molyneux was a broken man': Meet the new CEO that plans to fix him

We speak to 22cans’ Simon Phillips about Godus, Bryan Henderson and repairing the reputation of the world’s most divisive games developer
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Simon Phillips had an uneventful start to the year.

After working in the games industry for 20 years – across positions in programming, art, management and business development – he found himself working for a studio he had set up in Beijing, importing Western games and distributing them direct to consumers in China.

This was a major business goal Phillips had set for himself. But, he tells Develop, he quickly grew bored.

“Once we’d done the Chinese thing, which took us a year to set up, the games were a bit rubbish and it all got a bit boring,” he says. “So I kind of had a mid-career crisis. I tried to work out what it was I enjoyed about games and why I got into them in the first place.

“Then all of what we’re now calling ‘The Shit’ kicked off in February.”

‘The Shit’ that Phillips refers to controversy surrounding Godus, an ambitious reinvention of the god game genre developed by Peter Molyneux’s studio 22cans.

News emerged that multiple members of the team had either left the company or been moved to the firm’s next project, The Trail. Godus designer Konrad Naszynski openly stated on the game’s forums that he didn’t believe the promises made during the Kickstarter campaign were achievable.

This prompted a particularly scathing interview by PC gaming site Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Meanwhile, another interview by Eurogamer revealed that Bryan Henderson – the winner of Molyneux’s previous project Curiosity: What’s Inside the Cube? – had not received any information about his promised prize, to be the God of Gods in Godus.

In an effort to control the damage done by these events, 22cans hosted a video conversation between Molyneux, Nasynski and colleague Jack Attridge but the continuing onslaught of abuse and criticism prompted the studio founder to say he was done with talking to the press.

Phillips read the Rock, Paper, Shotgun interview and, having grown to know Molyneux over the years, emailed him to offer his friendly support and advice.

“Literally three or four hours later, an email came in inviting me to come down and have a chat,” he explains. “We had some very frank conversations over three very long days of me being honest with him about 22cans, what’s brilliant about it, but also what’s gone wrong, how they’ve ended up in that position.

“To me, it seemed like quite easy stuff had gone wrong. So we had this huge, long meeting where I basically came out and said what you need is a CEO. There had never been a CEO at 22cans. Peter had left Microsoft to get away from that sort of thing and make games, and yet suddenly he was doing everything again. He fell into that space because there was no one to do it.”

Molyneux offered Phillips the role of CEO then and there. After a few days of consideration, the new studio boss agreed, on the condition that Molyneux focused on what he did best: designing games.

There had never been a CEO at 22cans. Peter had left Microsoft to get away from that sort of thing and make games, and yet suddenly he was doing everything again.

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TRIAL BY FIRE

Phillips’ first day would have been a daunting prospect to many. Here was a studio that had been publicly lampooned over the past week, partly for its current game – a project technically still in development – and for its founder. But the new CEO approached his new role with determination.

“We had a good mutual conversation based around me saying to Peter: ‘You f**ked up and that shouldn’t have happened’,” he says. “The concept of all his stuff is genius but there was some really basic stuff he needed to do. He couldn’t see that because he was so close to it all.

“What he needed was someone to suggest things from a practical point of views, and even handle the boring stuff like ordering the bogrolls and all the nonsense that he shouldn’t be doing.”

Early on, Phillips started applying basic business management practices that he was surprised had never been suggested at 22cans. Perhaps the most crucial was establishing a heirachy.

“We literally grabbed a piece of paper and worked out what people did,” says Phillips. “There was a really flat structure, which was great for creativity but no one had any concept of who they’re being guided by or supposed to be working with. So my role was to give the company some structure. Again, really basic, ‘studio 101’ management stuff, but it’s easy to say when you’ve done it for years and can see someone who isn’t doing it.”

What Peter needed was someone to suggest things from a practical point of views, and even handle the boring stuff like ordering the bogrolls and all the nonsense that he shouldn’t be doing.

Ordering toilet paper and organising the teams was relatively easy compared to the biggest task that faced Phillips: tackling morale. Certainly when it came to Molyneux himself, the new CEO had his work cut out for him.

“Peter was pretty much a broken man,” says Phillips. “This really kicked the shit out of him. I think he faced a lot of questions, like why am I doing this? What’s the point of it all? How did we end up here? It was a low point for him.

“The thing we had to do quickly was to get Peter, and the rest of the guys at the studio, just to acknowledge what had happened. Everyone had their heads down, no one really wanted to talk about it or deal with it, but I knew we had to acknowledge and work out what had happened, be practical about it and just get on with it.

“It’s been three or four months now and the transformation in Peter is amazing. He’s back to his more buoyant self and getting involved with designs again, both for The Trail and Godus. He’s enthusiastically designing for both projects again, which is nice because he doesn’t have to worry about the boring stuff.

“Peter’s a lot happier. We’re starting to see that in the designs again, which is really cool. It was horrible to see him lacking that, particularly given that I’ve known him as a designer. But all it took was a frank conversation to say ‘this is shit, this is really, really shit’." 

 Everyone had their heads down, no one really wanted to talk about it or deal with it, but I knew we had to acknowledge and work out what had happened, be practical about it and just get on with it.

There were external issues to fix as well, namely the reputation of both Molyneux and the studio as a whole. Social media platforms were ablaze with people decrying the Godus developer and his team, with many claiming they would no longer pay any attention to Molyneux’s work going forward.

Phillips says this is not the case with everyone: “When we talk to professionals and members of the industry, we know we’re in a good place. Everyone can acknowledge why it happened, can see where and why we fucked up. But the community is going to take a lot longer to calm down. It’s a trust issue.

“For me, it’s semi-daunting but I know that if Peter can concentrate on the game, the game will be great – and that’s the be all and end all. I almost don’t care if people don’t trust us, because we’ll be delivering a good game. People can play it, or not play it. The important thing to me is getting that game right, so we’ll be taking any constructive feedback from the community, keeping our heads down when we need to, and try and get this right.

“And it’s incredibly difficult. Our concepts are challenging to realise because they’re always different. The Trail is different – it’s not Godus 2, because it would be easy to take something we’ve got and build on it.

“Our mission statement is to create world-changing ideas, and that means we have to try these new things and new concepts. And the studio’s now buoyant about that again, but it’s difficult to communicate that, to get it right and to hone the technologies that go into this." 

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RAISING THE TEAM’S SPIRITS

While much of the attention was on Molyneux and the effect ‘The Shit’ had on him, Phillips was also keen to ensure the rest of the 22cans team were coping in the wake of such hard times.

“The guys all take it on themselves as well,” he explains. “There is this shared view that it shouldn’t all be aimed at Peter, because we’re all in this together. The guys on the team – Peter included – acknowledged where they’d fucked up, and that was the first step to getting the morale back up. It is what it is, we can’t change it, so let’s just make sure we don’t do it again.

“I think everyone wanted to help Peter be more enthusiastic again. Peter being Peter wore his heart on his sleeves, said it’s all his fault, took the blame – but actually it’s not just him, it’s 22cans as a company.

“There’s a good tempo in the studio now. Everyone’s enjoying what they’re working on, and there’s passion about the games we’re making. We want to make them good and deliver them well, so there’s a good vibe to 22cans now. Everything I always thought 22cans was before I went in there, you can now see taking shape again.”

Peter was a broken man. But all it took was a frank conversation to say ‘this is shit, this is really, really shit’.

However, it was impossible to ignore the impact already seen by those staff departures that came to light in February. Notable members of the team such as producer Jemma Harris, and later Jack Attridge, moved on to pastured new, but Phillips maintains that the damage caused by their absence was kept to a minimum.

“People leaving affects production, of course, particularly if there was a solid plan in place for those people. Now we have a very rigid plan, so we know who’s working on what and how we’re going to deliver something – it would be really bad if more people left. We don’t want people to leave, we want them to enjoy what they’re doing.

“The real low point for the studio was that when all The Shit happened, the energy of the people working on Godus was probably at an all-time low anyway. They had done the Kickstarter, which had an immense amount of energy – you only have to watch the videos online to see that for yourself. So much energy went into that stuff, and at some point everyone had to stop and relax – and that’s the point where everything exploded.

“I can see the practical things like the dates people resigned versus when everything kicked off, so I know they were leaving before all that happened. It was a natural transition that I think maybe the press was a catalyst for people to say they weren’t comfortable with this or didn’t want to do that.”

Not only has Phillips since come on board as CEO, but the studio has also hired Colin Gallacher as PR and recruited a couple of programmers, strengthening the team.

So what are the priorities for 22cans’ new CEO now?

THE RESCUE PLAN

22cans is currently split into two separate teams, albeit with members that crossover when needed. One is focusing on Godus, the other is working on the studio’s next title: The Trail.

It is perhaps surprising to know that Godus only has six people working full-time on its development at the moment, but Phillips stresses that this does not mean the game is under-supported.

“Everyone else still helps,” he explains. “The lead coders are on The Trail, but they know the codebase of Godus and they’re quite happy to come over and work on features to help the guys work through things.

“The difficult thing is, and people ask this all the time, why can’t we just put 50 people on it and just get it done quicker? Because that’s not commercially viable. To stand a chance to get this product to where we all want it to be, we’ve got to do it really sensibly. We need a team we can manage, who can finish one bit of the game at a time.

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“Godus does alright commercially, it does enough to keep it moving forwards and keep everyone interested. We still back it up financially ourselves anyway because everyone has put so much into this game to get it this far, we want to get it to where we want it to be. That’s going to take careful management – not just throwing a lot of shitty features in there just to say ‘hey, look, it’s all in there now’.”

Phillips acknowledges that the team has “a lot of work to do” on Godus, particularly in the face of a seemingly hostile community, but he is attempting to smooth things out with those who have followed the game loyally by being honest with them and approaching their community updates more sensibly.

We can't just put 50 people on Godus and get it done quicker, because that’s not commercially viable. To stand a chance to get this product to where we all want it to be, we need a team we can manage, who can finish one bit of the game at a time.

Prior to Phillips’ appointment, 22cans had offered daily updates on the game – but didn’t always have something new to report every day.

“The team was only doing them because they thought they should, but they were rubbish and we weren’t treating our community like adults,” says Phillips. “When we stopped the updates, people asked us why. We said it’s because they were rubbish, and the community understood. Then we gave a proper update, saying here’s what we’re actually doing and what we want to deliver.

“At the moment we’re working on combat. We think we’re going to have the first version of this running by end of summer, and that’s a wishy-washy date because we don’t know how long it’s going to take. And then we’ll launch it, and we want constructive feedback.”

‘Constructive’ is the key word here. Phillips says for every thousand people posting something on the official forum, 99 per cent is along the lines of ‘Godus is shit, you’re shit, Molyneux’s a dick’. Phillips says the team is now ignoring all of this, simply filtering out the useful suggestions that will make the game better – and they’re hoping to do the same thing with The Trail.

In fact, true to his claims earlier this month, Molyneux has managed to rally fellow developers in 22cans’ hometown of Guildford to help critique the new project.

“We already have some of the local professionals ready to critique it for us – everyone’s massively behind that,” says Phillips. “There is a group set up, and we’re trying to get the right people into it. It’s going to take a lot of energy to manage, but we’re happy to spearhead that, start it all off but other people are going to have to contribute to it as well.

“Very few people have seen it: just the team and Stafford Bawler, who we’re working with. Only one person who isn’t involved in development has seen it. We’re going to start talking about it soon, when we’re ready.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do with our community and with general opinions before we can show something and get an honest opinion of it. Rather than people saying, ‘oh you’re those guys, that’s shit’.”

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THE FORGOTTEN GOD

There’s another, fairly major problem that Phillips needs to fix: the abandonment of Molyneux's chosen God of Gods, Bryan Henderson. The new CEO has established contact with the neglected virtual deity, but stresses that this is not an easy issue to resolve.

“The concept of Curiosity, Bryan and Godus is still utter genius,” Phillips insists. “But there’s technical issues with what was said to Bryan originally about the God of Gods feature. It requires multiplayer and that requires combat, which is what we’re working on now. And that in itself requires some hub world stuff. Once that’s all done, they can do this feature as planned and it’ll be great.

“But what they should have done was talk to Bryan, just on a semi-regular basis to keep him updated. I’ve taken it on board to talk to him myself, so I’ve emailed him a few times.

“From what I’ve learned of him so far, he’s a very calm, normal teenager and I’m very conscious he’s become a bit of a pawn – we keep getting asked about him at every conference. Him being in the middle of this sort of tug of war seems to be a bit offish.

“But like I said, the concept of God of Gods: utter genius. The execution: bit shit.”

We’ve got a lot of work to do with our community and with general opinions before we can show The Trail and get an honest opinion of it. Rather than people saying, ‘oh you’re those guys, that’s shit’.

It’s a long road ahead for Phillips, Molyneux and the rest of the 22cans team. 2015 has already been an incredibly tough year for the studio, but the result has been a newfound level of resilience. With a structure in place, a little more caution when sharing information, and Molyneux finally focused on what he most enjoys, Phillips is confident that both 22cans and Godus can live up to their potential.

The plan is to get our shit together, make sure we’re confident in what we’re delivering and that we’re happy with it, and then we can go out and talk about it,” he says. “We’ve just got to make good product – that’s all it boils down to. Make a great game and everything will be alright.

“Peter’s designs are going to make a great game. He’s made a lot of great games in his time, he knows what he’s doing. When he’s in the right mood, he’ll say something or pitch you an idea – you see moments of genius when you work with him.”

And, thanks to an email offering a friend’s support, it’s safe to say Phillips’ mid-career crisis is over.

“One of the big draws for joining 22cans was seeing the enthusiasm of the guys there,” he says. “It reminds me of when I first got into the industry. It was exciting, and the team has the right sort of attitude for making great games.”

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