The Godfather of the British Gaming Industry speaks exclusively to Digit.
Peter Molyneux is a British design phenomenon. Single-handedly responsible for the ‘God’ genre of games with the advent of Populous, he has created some of the biggest smashes in gaming history. Yet there is something troubling the game-design guru.
How to get you involved with the British game industry.
Peter Molyneux is a modest man. Although rightly hailed as one of the finest games designers in the world, responsible for such titles as Populous, Magic Carpet, Theme Park, Black & White, and the upcoming Fable and The Movies, he is quick to point out that game creation is a team effort.
“There have been a lot of incredible, amazing things written about the work I’ve done, but really the credit has to go with the team I’ve worked with,” he makes clear at the beginning of our interview.
“If I’m the person that holds the lantern in the distance, then they’re the ones that have the incredible task of getting to that point.”
For such an icon, he’s candid about what motivates him: the fact that no matter how many millions of copies his creations have sold, he feels that his games have never come far enough. It’s a muse that has kept him innovating since 1989, when his first game debuted.
“I know this is going to sound strange and quite British, but I feel that a lot of the games that I’ve worked on have gone a certain distance, but not gone far enough, and what motivates me more than anything is to do a game that will be played by millions and be as good as it can be. We come close to that, but not close enough.”
For Peter, game-design was almost pre-ordained – he reckons he’d have been a fairly mediocre programmer if he hadn’t worked at games design.
“It’s an easy thing to say, but there was never any question about whether this was what I was supposed to do,” he says. “It felt the right place to be, and what a fantastic place it is. You have a dream about a game, and then you get to see it in reality. Admittedly, you have to wait for years to see it, but seeing people’s reactions to the game, that’s the real pleasure.”
Yet, while Peter is a champion for the industry, he has seen many changes since his first game – Populous – debuted over 15 years ago. And now, it’s all about giving players a show-stopping experience.
“We used to be able to design games and say, ‘We’ve got this cool mechanic to move the player’, and you’d base the entire game on that,” he says. “The questions about a game you were working on used to be ‘how many levels does it have?’ or ‘how difficult is it?’.
“Of course, now we’re not making games, but entertainment. You have to mix mechanics, an incredible storyline, some amazing cinemas, world-class music, great voice-overs – and increasingly, more and more games are being measured against highly-polished blockbuster films. And that’s in addition to making it entertaining.”
An involving world
It means games design today is harder, more involved. Peter says that there is a push to deliver on the real minutiae of detail in a game – and ensuring things like skin look great (making it glossy when the character is hot or ill, for example).
“And, that means that if one tiny, little thing is wrong, your eye is drawn to the mistake,” he says, “especially with things like art and animation.
“It was only seven years ago when I did a game where you had one dot for each eye, and two for the nose. Now, we’re talking about individual wrinkles and hairs, and even beads of sweat on game characters,” he says.
And this has implications for creating a game in today’s market. Peter’s company, Lionhead, has had to transition from a core team of 15 people to over 100. “Now, it’s an orchestrated army,” he says.
Yet Peter is an advocate for the industry – and is especially keen for people in other mediums, such as film, to get in touch with him and break into the industry.
“You do feel like a pioneer,” he says. “You feel as if you are treading territory that has never been trodden before – and that is wonderful when it works, and scary when it doesn’t.”
For designers, Peter reckons that getting into the game industry is a lot easier today – provided you don’t set your sights too high.
“It’s unheard of today for someone to submit a game design and for that to go into production as in the past,” he says. “It’s a bit of a shame, but the reason is that hundreds of hours of work and an enormous amount of thought goes into a game design.
“I get a few game designs a month from people, and the majority make the same mistake. There’s always one common game design – usually a spacecraft travelling through space containing the last remains of humanity. And it is a great story, but at the end of it you think ‘hang on – what does the player actually do here?’
“So, in a way, game design is becoming more of a definable skill, where you learn from experience rather than having a really good game idea.”
Yet newcomers are welcome at Lionhead (it currently has four vacancies for artists), says Peter: “The first thing is that if anybody with skills in cinematography, scriptwriting, or direction wants to get into the games industry – then contact me. The industry is desperate for these skills, and the industry has very few people experienced in this kind of thing.
“If you compare our stories and cinematics, and lighting, and acting ability, and compare it to B-movies or even made-for-TV movies, it’s still very, very shoddy. It’s the equivalent to a kid with a new video-camera.
“I would say to those people: make that step and move into gaming.”
However, Peter cautions that the world of games design is very different to the film and TV industries, which he says are much, much quicker.
“There, you can have an idea, point a camera, and you’ve got it,” he says. “Also, the money isn’t as mature as the film industry, so you’ve got to consider yourself a pioneer – although the money will get there. You’ve got to love it.”
Writing the script
People making the move will need to be prepared to adapt, Peter concedes.
“If you’re going to come in as a scriptwriter and not adapt, then you’re not going to get on,” Peter warns. “There are so many differences with games – for example, traditional camera work doesn’t apply, as the player is in control of the camera. Traditional scriptwriting doesn’t work, as you’re never sure who the player is going to talk to. It’s not linear, but we still need those skills.”
Universities could do better as well, Peter says, with the main problem being courses that are too general – briefly touching on art, animation, programming, and project management. The lack of focus on a particular area means that graduates can’t slot neatly into the team structure.
“The second problem is that by the time you’ve finished a degree, the industry has changed,” says Peter. “Art courses are still teaching low-poly modelling, and that’s useless, as the power of the machines we’re producing for now need very high-res models. We used to use a model with ten faces on it to do the whole body; now, that will do just one eyelash.”
Yet for all the challenges facing the drive for talent, Peter remains, as he puts it “insanely optimistic” about the game-design industry: “It’s about putting a flag a long way out and then getting the team to come to that flag. It’s about being ambitious.”
And that means game design is simply reaching for the next level.