Peter Molyneux has been making games professionally for some 27 years. It's an impressive feat in isolation, but he hasn't let nearly three decades of development let him become stuck in his ways. In fact, just recently he's envisioned a new way to design games that he hopes will let him make his current project his greatest work yet.
Taking some time out from the organised chaos that was GDC 2011, Molyneux told Develop how he keeps himself and his team creatively motivated, and how he is continuing to refine his chosen craft.
How do you maintain a perspective on success and stay creatively driven in the context of receiving your Lifetime Achievement Award?
There’s three sides to the way I feel about this award, and what it means about my success.
The first one is guilt, because there is a long list of people that this award is really for, and I’m just the front man.
People like Russell Shaw who has done all the music on all the games I have ever been involved with. There’s Paul McLaughlin who’s done a huge amount creatively and been involved in almost every piece of art on every game I’ve done.
There’s Gary Carr who’s been on every game, and there’s Mark Webley who’s been working with me since 1992.
There’s this huge list of people, so there’s this huge part of me that feels those people need to be named and appraised more than me.
The second part of me asks ‘am I worthy?’; that’s because my metrics for success don’t really match the products that I’ve done. There’s three sides to success that you can measure.
There’s the review scores from the press, and with a project you naturally want the highest review scores you can ever get. Here I have to say, that while we all like to moan about review scores, and say they aren’t fair and that people didn’t actually play the game properly and all those sorts of things, but generally speaking they’re pretty close to the truth to be honest.
I’d love to have an across the board 95 or 96 Metacritic score. That is one way of marking success. It’s like the way a teacher marks a kid in school. It’s like a game’s school report.
Then there’s the number of people that played your game and enjoyed it; just the number of people that have played money for it basically. Again, I’ve had some very successful titles – but not ‘Call of Duty successful’ – so I enviously look at that and say ‘I’ve got to keep trying and I’ve got to be motivating my team to push harder and get that review score higher and the sales higher’.
There’s also the people that play the game and what they say about it. There’s some really, really positive things, and then just like with any public discussion, there’s some less than positive things.
You have to put all of that together and that is really what motivates you to think that you can do better.
The final part of looking at all of this is that in this industry there’s never a boring time. It’s not as if we’ve got a platform now which is completely static and we just iterate and succeed on that platform. It’s always moving forward.
Platforms completely change and new devices come along and there’s whole new avenues into the industry through things like social and mobile. All of that offers really exciting challenges to someone like me, and my job is to inspire the people I work with to say ‘this device is interesting, that device is interesting’.
That is a huge motivator to do more.
With all those perspectives, and all the feedback you get and other indicators to success, how do you now approach the creative process?
It’s very simple, in that to me there is an image in my mind; one that’s not as tangible as a photograph, but it is an experience or game which I’m striving to make.
Whether that be an RTS or an RPG or an action game or a social game is immaterial; it’s just this golden pot of pure entertainment which I’m striving for – and which I always, by myself a lot of the time, am pushing people too far away from what that vision should be.
Sorry to go a bit zen. I don’t sit cross-legged in some dojo slightly raised above the ground thinking of these things. But what I try and do – and now I try and do it more as a sensible designer – is I try and say to myself ‘is this idea that I’ve got a gimmick or a real mechanic?’
I have to consider if it is something that would sound good on paper but actually wouldn’t be that good to engage with, or is it something that is compulsive and fresh and new?
That’s always the challenge from with inside yourself, because you can get very attracted to the gimmicks. If you don’t think that all the way through then bad things will happen.
Once you have that experience in you mind – that pot of gold – how do you put it onto paper and turn it into a game?
The way I approach game design has radically changed since Fable 3. I’ve just gone through a very big refresh about the way that games at Lionhead or games that I’m involved with are designed.
That’s because of where the industry is going, and partly because of me realising that thinking about an idea is not enough. The idea alone is not enough. You can’t walk into a team or a group of people and say ‘I’ve had a great idea, why don’t we do this?’
It’s much, much more detailed than that. The devil is in the detail, so now the design approach at Lionhead is all about laying the experience out in this golden thread.
[Peter begins to show a notebook page that contains a ‘golden thread’, before PR politely tell him not to].
… We’ve got this tool that allows us to lay out every minute of the gameplay so that we can talk about every minute from the start to the end. Every minute is storyboarded and if there are branches in there we have branches in the tool.
Before we start work we talk through the whole of the experience, designing each minute of the experience, as opposed to the way we used to do it.
Classically we think of pillars. For example, lets say we decided Fable 3 was going to be about ruling, going to be co-op and going to be about fighting. Then we’d think about some ideas for pillar one and pillar two, and the team would go away and make some prototypes and that would take a few months and we’d pull it all together and then get to see what of game we’d got.
We have not got that luxury anymore. I’ve found that laying this thread out, and forcing ourselves to think about what it is that the player sees and what they are experiencing first, and what they experience after an hour and after two hours. It sounds like the way we should have always made games but we didn’t.
This hopefully will allow for you to get to more of what I call the ‘golden line’. If you think of a game as an experience, while it’s nice to have distractions, if the golden line is great then the game will be great.
You described this approach as a tool. Is it actually a piece of technology, or a methodology?
It’s actually kind of like a spreadsheet, and when we’re talking about it there’s a storyboard artist there sketching what we’re talking about on the line, and we’ll have a little summary that will say all the details.
Something like this – which I’m making up as an example – ‘the hero walks into a cave and is confronted by a horde of bats’. The storyboard artist will visualise that, and we’ll decide on how long the experience lasts to the minute, and decide on the details of what is in the cave and what the player can interact with, and really start talking in depth about that three minute experience, and then look at what happens in the following minutes.
It covers gameplay, story, environments, all laid out in one line.
That line sometime branches, but it always allows me and the team to see the game we’re building and the high points and the timing, before we start working on the game.
It’s kind of like what the film industry does with storyboards and scripts, but it combines the gameplay as well.
It’s about deeply thinking about what we want the player to experience, rather than leaving it to luck. Ultimately, previously it was left to luck, and you’d have lumps of content, and then you’d take different numbers of those lumps a year before release and that would be the game. That was a very haphazard way of working. It doesn’t really work well with storytelling and combining action with storytelling.
It’s really a methodology that allows us to really focus on a great experience before we start work on it.