Innovators in Action: Peter Molyneux

Peter Molyneux is one of those people that I’ve never met, heard the name a lot over the years and hold in very high regard as one of the people who could, in my estimation, justify being given the title of genius.

He’s had his share of detractors and comments that the games “didn’t live up to the hype” but being someone who never really listens to the press, I was able to form my own conclusions. This is a long article, be warned.

Before I get into the games themselves, two things. Firstly, I’m not going to go through every game he’s designed, only the ones that really jumped out at me from his list of credits. Secondly, a little piece of history… Way back in the mists of time, Peter’s parents owned a toy shop, and he would get the broken games to play with (for free, of course), and apparently one of the things missing most was the rules, so he had to come up with his own… and he did.

OK, so firstly I want to drag you back to 1987, to a little game called Populous. The concept is simple enough: you’re a god wannabe, at war with some deity out there. You both have followers, who bestow mana upon you, and it’s a duel to wipe out your opponent’s followers.

For the day this was big stuff. No-one had done anything like it before. Some of the elements, of leading a civilisation without having direct hands-on control, for example, weren’t new but this graphical experiment at the same idea very much was – so new, that it named a whole new genre: ‘the god game’.

It had its faults, of course – some cite the interface as uninspiring and even bland, and that the whole thing is real-time (so you can’t just architect a world and watch it unfold) – but to me, they help it: the interface is functional, and I never found it confusing though I know some did, and the fact it’s all real-time is part of it: it actually makes the whole experience more invigorating.

Some reviewers loved it, some loathed it, but even those who hated it still gave it grudging respect for trying something actually new out. 1991 would see us have Populous II: Trials of the Olympian Gods, which refined some of the details, and essentially gave the gods more powers and more depth but of course, it’s a lot less ‘revolutionary’ the second time around, no matter how much more intricately implemented.

Then let’s step forward a couple more years to 1993, and we would see Syndicate emerge on our screens. For years we’ve had visions of dark futuristic cities, cyborgs and corporations: in a word, cyberpunk. Syndicate took those ideas and melded them all together – you’re a member of a corporation, with several cyborg agents at your disposal, and you’re high above the city in a blimp.

So far it doesn’t sound that exciting, or that imaginative, but in many ways this was the game that did it all first: real time strategy games that involved moving troops into position weren’t especially new (with Westwood having done Dune II the year before, for example) but the missions weren’t structured in the build-bases-and-destroy-the-opposition mentality. Sometimes you’d be going out for an assassination of a target, other times using the ‘Persuadertron’ to ‘recruit’ them to your cause, while avoiding police and agents from other corporations. Some have likened it to giving you the script and director’s chair on a new version of Blade Runner.

Add to that, you’re not only in control of where they go, and what they do, but to a degree, how they do it – you can give them drugs in their cybernetic bodies, for perception, action and intelligence, meaning that you can turn everything up to maximum and just send ‘em in: for a brief period, they’ll be the sharpest shots going, never missing, never letting up. Just hope you got to fire first, otherwise the enemy agents might just do the same.

The real imagination the game though is that you’re not just being cyborg secret agents, exactly, you’re being more than that – for example, you don’t just control them on missions, but also the R&D to improve your agents in a fairly straight-forward setup. Another exmaple is that on some missions, you don’t just walk around to find what you’re looking for, you might decide to borrow a car and drive around the city for a bit.

At the time, it should be noted that the game did receive some criticism for violence; after all, not many games give you the scenario of having agents armed with heavy duty flamethrowers that could potentially be deployed in… urban areas, but I bet every player did it at least once to see what would happen; that’s another element of the game, things you do just to see how the game will react to it. The spirit of honest inquiry lives on, then.

1994, he gave us Magic Carpet and Theme Park. Looking at Theme Park first, we see an interesting dichotomy that is trying to be solved. On the one hand, it’s trying to be a management simulation – these were pretty popular in the early 1990s for various reasons, but in spite of their popularity, they had a tendency to be bland or make a hash of the mechanics; other games proved that such things could be done well, and even done competitively against AI players (Railroad Tycoon), or just a sandbox (Sim City).

Enter Theme Park: the same sort of game as Sim City, a building simulation of sorts, but this time in a theme park. It has all the structure and elegance of Sim City’s needs for putting things in the right places, of being aware of how people move round the park, whilst being fun and engaging – and involving you in it more; games that came before didn’t tend to involve you in the details so much – but Theme Park does to a degree, and it doesn’t suffer for doing so.

I have little doubt that Chris Sawyer looked at Theme Park when working on Rollercoaster Tycoon a few years later; all of the elements that make Theme Park enjoyable for many were brought through to RCT. Like some of the other games from the Bullfrog camp, the implementation may not have been perfect, but the ideas and general approach were something quite new.

Then we come to Magic Carpet. An interesting little gem, this one. Reaction split down the middle between being a work of genius and a second-rate game, mostly because its difficulty is surprisingly high.

Let me explain for a moment. You’re flying on a magic carpet, shooting at things with magic. It’s this beautiful, ridiculous hybrid of first-person shooter with flight simulation, and because it can’t be pinned down to anything, people have a hard time relating to it, which ramps up the difficulty level somewhat.

But think about that for a moment; you’re flying on a magic carpet – an experience that you cannot have anything particularly representative for – with a control system that feels unusual and frankly odd, but when you step back at the game, you realise that most of it stems from the fact that it is unlike anything done before. There are, of course, technical niggles that caused the game to be received badly, but I still would lay half of that on the fact that the game is, to quote one reviewer, too avant-garde for its own good.

It breaks so many boundaries, and expectations, that I can’t help but think people don’t get it. Putting aside unpolished aspects of the game, and the unusually high system requirements of the day, I genuinely look back and think that people didn’t understand it properly, because it was so genre-breaking, and so wildly different that people could only relate to it by finding poor comparisons to what was familiar, and looking down on it as a result.

Step forward another three years. It’s now 1997, we’re almost not fighting off memory requirements for DOS games, and out emerges Dungeon Keeper. It was years after that I finally got around to playing it, but I still remember not only the game, but of the articles in some of the magazines at the time, in particular one that interviewed Peter Molyneux about its development.

Remember, at this point, Bullfrog has had over 10 years of success and had since been acquired by Electronic Arts – Molyneux had become a Vice President at EA during this time, and what he found is what I would later experience in a corporate environment: that one can be too high up and too far away from what they’re good at, what they’re happiest with – and it was in no small part what ultimately led to him parting ways with EA and forming Lionhead Studios. Hard to innovate when you’re supposed to be up on high making the ‘big’ decisions rather than being able to make the right decisions.

Anyway. Dungeon Keeper. Another of the god game stable, established a decade earlier by the man himself. But this time, subverting the form: you’re not just a deity at war with another (though, through implication, you’re the good in good-vs-evil in Populous), but this time you’re expressly the bad guy.

I don’t recall a game where this actively happened before; where you’re expressly given the role of the bad guy, given the tools to act in a devilish way, and for the game to run alongside you with superb darkly appropriate comedy.

From my perspective, there’s something else here of interest, specifically one interview that I remember, though I forget which magazine it was in. It talked about how Molyneux had watched the team build the game but have this very complex interface in it, that while the mechanics were implemented nicely, the interface made it much more complex than it needed to be, and it went on to say about how he came in and rewrote the interface. I can only imagine how that must have felt, but at the same time, I have to believe that it was made for the right reasons: that the person whose overall vision is being implemented, that vision really must be protected when it runs throughout the entirety of Dungeon Keeper; you couldn’t just bolt on a different interface, it’s all part of what makes it what it is.

Add to that the ability to not only just direct what happens but to actually take control of a creature and *be* them, made an interesting if completely apropos twist to the game. The notion that an evil dungeon master might actually take control of one of his minions in order to do his bidding is quite apt, and certainly an avenue of interest for game designers to consider in the future perhaps.

Last but very not least, Black & White. It’s 2001, the time of Windows XP is almost upon us, and in the meantime, Molyneux had at this point formed Lionhead Studios in order to get back to doing what he wanted to do: making games without the corporate stifling.

As it happened, Black & White suffered from some of the same problems that Magic Carpet did: it was rather too avant-garde for its own good, as many players made known rather vocally.

But, putting aside that for a moment, let’s consider what it actually did bring us in experimental efforts.

The first thing that is noticeable, if not entirely original to Black & White is the lack of any other interface; you’re there in the game. Yes, other games were doing it years before, and very often with the same intent and result: it had a habit of leaving users confused. The effect was more pronounced here because you were supposed to be a deity and thus could see everything; it should be noted that most of the games that predate Black & White and have no apparent interface generally didn’t need much of one.

But that’s only minor when you really get into the meat of B&W: what makes this game so different to its predecessors and peers is that it tries very hard to let you play it your way. Whether you want to be a beneficial and kind deity, or an evil, black-hearted, callous fiend, you could, at least in theory.¬†How you treated your creature would also shape how it would then react to others, for example.

The main problem with B&W wasn’t that it tried new things; the problem was that it didn’t develop those new things quite as much as perhaps it should have done – but the fact that someone was willing to try them at all is a start, the notion that someone was willing to really go out there and try something actually *new* in a game.

You have all this freedom, in how you act, how you encourage your pet to act and so on, but ultimately let down because that freedom doesn’t get you anything; a similar thing would be said of Minecraft years later but in Minecraft’s case, it’s a sandbox to allow you to shape the world your way, but such a luxury is not afforded here. Note that it’s not the idea that’s wrong, it’s not the approach or style of B&W that lets it down, but simply that the implementation skips a few iterations that it would have done so much better to include.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on far too long here. What can I say? I think the man’s a genius for trying out so many different ideas over the years, even if they start out as variations on a theme, and that he still keeps going at trying new ideas, even if the execution of those ideas probably isn’t quite as awesome as the original idea was.

I think he doesn’t build games for gamers, I think he builds them for himself to see what happens, and that’s fantastic.

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