We spoke to 22cans’ Peter Molyneux about (indie) videogame development, working at a smaller studio and the mechanics of free-to-play games. We’re happy to now share this with our online followers in a two-part feature.
You’ve been very interested in human interaction with videogames through touch, motion and voice. What do you feel is the next big thing?
When I saw the Star Trek Holodeck I realized that is where we want to be, isn’t it? If I could be the designer of a game that you actually experience it and walk around in it – that would be the ultimate dream. We’re seeing all these steps to getting us closer to that game and I think they are really steps worth taking. For me, it started with motion control for the Wii. We all got excited about that, but it didn’t really pan out. Then there was Kinect, which recognized your gestures. When I first saw Kinect, I thought “this is it”. I imagined it being able to see my face, recognize my expressions and see the room around me. But then it got cost-reduced down massively, so it wasn’t nearly powerful enough.
So we have all these experiments going on, and the latest one is Oculus Rift. I’m a great fan, but the jury is out on whether that will be a success or not. I do feel though that a lot of these developments are using tricks that require us to behave in different ways than we normally would. Ultimately, we are going to really be experiencing the worlds. If you said to me, “There’s an operation you can have and there’s a 1 in 10 chance of it working. If it works you actually believe you’re in a videogame, but if it doesn’t work you die.” A bit like Totall Recall… but I would do it, for sure. That experience is ultimately where we’ll get one day. I think there’s going to be a lot of dead ends in the process, and I think touch is probably the best thing so far as the invention that allows you to touch a game. I would love it if there were features like haptic feedback and for touch to be high resolution. When controllers first came out, they went through lots of iterations until we got to the dual shock controller and I’m sure touch will go through the same.
What are some of the games that you yourself are most fond of?
It’s impossible to choose. I mean, there’s the brilliant artistry of Ico, the compulsive gameplay of Civilization, the enchanting world of Ocarina of Time, the emotional rollercoaster of Half-Life 2, the tenderness of Last of Us. The brutality, but loveliness of GTA V, the multiplayer of Starcraft, the addiction of World of Warcraft. These were all hyper moments of my life. The most amazing experience I’ve ever had in a game was probably in Minecraft though. It was this unbelievable moment which changed a lot of things for me. Me and my son were playing together, and I said to Lucas, who was about seven at the time, “Let’s go and explore.” We had built a house, went exploring, and then… we couldn’t find our way back. There was so much fear in my son’s eyes, and he actually broke down in tears. “Oh no, we had all that stuff there in our house.” Then we came over a hill and saw that everything was on fire, and that was a moment where I thought “this is more emotional, more engaging and more memorable than any story I’ve ever played in a game.” It’s because it was about what we had done – a truly magical moment.
22 Cans works as an Indie studio. Do you feel people expect different things because you’re involved?
I think I come with a certain amount of baggage, if I’m honest with you. We launched Godus on iOS last summer, and launched it as a free-to-play game. There were two massive reasons to do that, and the first is that I’ve always had a passion to make games that bring more people into games. The truth of the matter is that you can’t reach the casual audience with a paid game. The second reason is that I think free-to-play could be a brilliant way for people to experience a game rather than paying up front for it.
So to come back to your original question, I come with baggage, and if a ‘normal’ indie developer does free-to-play, people don’t notice it. If I’m involved with free-to-play, people get very angry; they think I’m “selling out”, that I’m weakening the industry. I think of myself as a true indie developer, but there are pros and cons that come with that. I feel that I’m beholden to the community – that’s who my boss is, and not some publisher… and I have to take that seriously.
You seem to be embracing public opinion in your development….
Being a creative person – not just a game designer – is very different now. In today’s world you’re partly coming up with ideas yourself but you’re also curating ideas from this community out there. You have to be very careful with that, because your community is like a living organism which sometimes gets incredibly excited – too excited even. “Ooooh, this game’s gonna be brilliant. Oooh, I can’t wait for them to implement that feature. Do this, do that, it would be great!” And sometimes, the community is the most hateful place on the planet. “The game’s gonna be rubbish, we hate you for doing free-to-play, we hate wait timers.” So what you have to do is to balance all that out, look at it and make sure you give them the right thing. You can’t let yourself be ‘bullied’ by them, and that also applies to the people that are saying nice things.
That’s a challenge, and we’ve faced it with Godus. When we released the iOS version, our Steam community was in uproar. There were haters coming on saying some incredibly vicious things, with everything from death threats to, “I’m never going to play any Peter Molyneux game ever again.” We’ve had people saying, “I’m going to burn every game that you’ve done in my back garden.” In those cases, you have to ask yourself what they really want. Do they want me to stand up and say I’m withdrawing my free-to-play game from the app store? Do they want me to jump off a tall building and commit suicide? What they really want is a game and an experience that they’ve never had before. Part of our strategy there has been to release modding tools so people can tune the game to their liking – and at the same time educating us on what they like best.
AAA-development is partly fueled by commercial drivers. How different is it to be away from that now?
You still have to look at your balance sheet and say, “How much money have I got and how much freedom does that give me?” The challenge is solving that before it becomes a problem if you want the freedom to make something great, so there is a lot of time and thinking that goes into that. What we’ve done in that regard is gone from Kickstarter to early access to mobile, and part of that is a need to find sources of revenue to continue developing the game.
A lot of free to play titles feature aggressive monetization mechanics, but that’s not what you mean here…
There are books, papers and ‘best practices’ on how to make money on a free-to-play game. And you know what? They’re all rubbish, because they are saying, “You’ve got to make the maximum amount of money off the people who play your game in the smallest amount of time.” A lot of free-to-play games introduce their monetization techniques within the first five minutes and the first time you will be aggressively monetized is within the first 10 minutes, because they’re worried you are going to go away and do something else. We’ve resisted that temptation, and there isn’t a single mention of gems for the first half hour – no mention at all. When we first introduced gems there was nothing to spend those gems on and you cannot buy “pay to win” items. If we wanted to make lots of money, we would allow you to buy cards that will evolve your people. Instead, you earn them, because buying them would ruin the game. We’re learning how to do it and we’re going to make mistakes – just like we made mistakes with settlements and refined it. What I really want to do with free-to-play is to get to an audience of people that aren’t playing games like this. They think that Match 3 is what gaming is all about, and that seems wrong. There are millions of those people and it pisses me off that those people are being exploited.
Have those games turned the free-to-play industry into a minefield?
Not in the sense that it’s something we should run away from. What happened on Facebook with companies like Zynga is that they made billions of dollars off that cash cow. People came in, all the money was squeezed out of them, and they fell out the bottom – and I think that’s a disaster. If we continue to make apps that squeeze hundreds of dollars out of people then we’re destroying consumer confidence in this delightful world that I love so much. My answer isn’t not to do free-to-play, it’s to try and do it right.
That doesn’t mean we can’t do a version for Steam – we have to think about that version differently. Give people the same sort of experience, but allow them to use their skill rather than their money to do it. Free-to-play should be the ultimate thing for gamers, because imagine that free-to-play was the only model that existed. Suddenly, I come along and say, “I’ve got this new model. You give me 50 Pounds, or 50 Euros, and the only way you can judge the game is off the PR hype of the game. Buy the game, and you cannot take your 50 Euros back – just trust me.” That’s a horrible way to monetize off people, whereas with free-to-play you play the game and only spend money if you’re interested. We’ve had demos, but demos are always broken because they are not the true experience of the game. I love the idea that if I do my job right, the most hardcore gamer should eventually say, “You know what, I’m gonna spend money because I want to, not because I need to.” It is a minefield, and it’s taking a lot of courage to continue to do it. Part of me really wants to turn around and say, “We’re not gonna do free-to-play anymore,” since my life would be a lot easier… but you can’t be bullied like that. I was bullied at school and I said, “I’m never going to be bullied again.” I do feel that my duty as a creative person is to try and show them why I’m doing something by actually doing it, rather than not….
Stay tuned for part 2, where we talk a lot more about Godus.