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It Came From the Molyjam: Peter Molyneux

The acclaimed, controversial designer and inspiration for a hysterical Twitter account on Lionhead, the future, and first hearing about Peter Molydeux.

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This is the third and final of my stories about the Molyjam. I could have written many more. Wednesday, you read about the one man army behind Bowl or Die! Yesterday, a couple faced incredible adversity. Peter Molyneux, take it away.

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It's unconfirmed whether Peter Molyneux has or has not kissed a green cube in real-life.
It's unconfirmed whether Peter Molyneux has or has not kissed a green cube in real-life.

It wasn't until Peter Molyneux left his Microsoft-owned Lionhead Studios to start yet another company, 22 Cans, that he finally, publicly acknowledged the existence of Peter Molydeux.

Peter Molydeux, if you aren't aware, is a parody account of the designer, constantly spitting out 140 character updates that sound suspiciously like real-life design ideas of Molyneux.

That nod would have happened earlier, if Microsoft was a company more encouraging of Twitter, the way Molyneux puts it.

When the Molyjam was coming together, I reached out to Molyneux. Mostly, I wondered if he was offended. It wouldn't be hard to imagine. This character is both complimentary to Molyneux's grand aspirations and a critique of his daydreaming.

The first line of his response email? "Dear heroes." The rest of the email confirmed he was taking everything in stride, and I sighed with relief. All Molyneux wanted to know was what he could do to help, which amounted to having him show up at the London arm of the game jam and giving everyone a pep talk. We ended up showing that same speech to everyone here in San Francisco, a perfectly meta way to kick off a weekend of total weirdness.

I spoke with Molyneux over Skype this week, a few days after we had originally arranged to talk, because I'd convinced myself London was eight hours behind San Francisco, not ahead. These days, he has more free time.

It's been a little over a month since Molyneux left Lionhead, and 22 Cans is just coming together.

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Giant Bomb: How is the transition going?

Peter Molyneux: Ah, you know, it’s very, very exciting. I don’t know if you know, but I did some press last Wednesday.

Giant Bomb: I read the Develop interview, which was really well done.

Molyneux: Yeah, and since then, we’ve had just over 1,000 people apply for jobs at 22 Cans. That’s pretty damn exciting. I’m working 16 hours-a-day just answering those emails. I’ve said to myself “Look, I’ve put this thing out there. I’ve got to answer all these emails, I’ve also got to look at all the Molyjam entries, and I’ve got to [use] Twitter.” That’s taking up a huge amount of time. It’s a fantasticly, amazingly, incredibly exciting, though.

Giant Bomb: The way you talk about 22 Cans, there is this sense that you feel the need to get more hands-on.

Molyneux: Absolutely. There was this amazing thing that happened when I left Lionhead. The office of 22 Cans is only 275 steps away from Lionhead. It’s literally just walking up the hill.

Giant Bomb: Oh, wow.

Molyneux: It’s not far. When I sat down, which was five weeks ago almost to the day, the first thing I did was clear out my diary of all reoccuring meetings that just happen as part of running a company of 200 people, and being part of Microsoft. I realized that 75% of my day was just doing nothing, basically. It was just doing meetings, and now, doing everything from answering emails to doing press stuff, to going and talking at universities and designing the games, it just feels fantastic to be that hands-on, it really does.

Giant Bomb: In hindsight, do you regret it getting that way, or do you feel it was a valuable experience? Was it all leading to this point, and all of that just informed the next step with 22 Cans?

Molyneux: Here’s the thing about it all. I’m not just saying this because I have to but because it’s really true: it was an amazing experience being part of Microsoft and seeing how a big company like that works, and being on a team of people that was incredibly high up at Microsoft and seeing some of those decisions. It was amazing for a little old game designer like me, who’s got this quirky English accent. It’s just an incredible experience. I think there were some amazing things that happened there, but is it the good job that I’m best at, or is it the job that I’m really good at? I don’t think it is. I think I’m better at getting my hands dirty and experimenting with crazy ideas--just thinking, “Look, can we do this ultra ambitious thing really, really well?” and that’s, hopefully, what I’m better at. I’ve got myself into a place where I was okay at the job I did, I still found it quite fascinating, but it just wasn’t what I was good at. There was this very, I think it’s [an] American saying or maybe a Microsoft saying, and that’s “What’s your superpower?”

Giant Bomb: I’ve heard that before.

Molyneux: All the time, you meet people and they say, “What’s your superpower?” And I just felt like my cape and my mask was hidden in a box somewhere and I’ve just opened it up again and I’ve now got my superpower back, for what it’s worth.

Giant Bomb: In terms of what you’re going to be doing at 22 Cans, are you actually in the nitty gritty of programming? Do any of the skills you used to have still apply in today’s development environments?

Molyneux: Here’s the trick. The absolute truth of the matter is that I was born a programmer. That’s how a game called Populous came about--I programmed it. I did the majority of the programming, almost all of the programming, in Populous, and a game called Powermonger, some of the programming on Syndicate, some of the programming on Magic Carpet, quite a lot of the programming on Theme Park, not much programming on Dungeon Keeper, not much programming on Black & White. Ever since then, I haven’t done any programming.

Americans always find these analogies very uncomfortable, but this is an analogy that really works. When you reach my age, 53, there’s something you should never do, and that’s stand in front of the mirror and look at yourself. It’s never gonna [have] a happy end to the story. [laughs]

If you look at my coding style, it’s just horrible. It’s old school, it’s horrible. There’s all this stuff that goes on with professional coding and coding standards--I haven’t got any of that stuff. It’s just terrible style, but I still love to have an idea at 10 o’clock at night, and walk up to the computer and play around with that idea for a couple of hours. That is just such a wonderful, incredible feeling, and, for me, it’s a little bit part of the design process. But I haven’t done it for such a long time that my style is terribly ugly, as ugly as my body is in front of a mirror.

Populous, which Molyneux largely programmed himself, is one of the first
Populous, which Molyneux largely programmed himself, is one of the first "God" games.

Giant Bomb: There’s something that Braid designer Jonathan Blow talks about quite a bit. He’s a game designer that also mostly programs his own games. He speaks to how he finds it impossible to be a designer that isn’t a programmer. When you have to take the additional step of articulating an idea that’s in your head to someone else, then they have to create it, you’ve already created one layer of miscommunication.

Molyneux: You’re absolutely, right, Patrick. You can only begin to imagine what that’s like when you’re working with a team of 150 people, where you’re so abstracted from the actual code phase of implementation that you’d literally explain an idea to someone, who explains it to a team of people, who then explains it to a team of people, and by the end, you think, “Who thought of that idea? It certainly wasn’t me.”

That’s one of the things. At the moment, I’m sitting in an office now, and there’s a few of us here, and if I have an idea, I either program it or I stick my head up and say, “Hey, what do you think of this?” And that’s the shortest line that you can have, I guess.

Giant Bomb: When you first heard about the Peter Molydeux Twitter account, what was your first impression?

Molyneux: I can tell you I first heard about it was when someone at Microsoft or an associated company said, “Oh, dear, there’s this parody of you, maybe we should try and see if we can close it down.” That’s the first time I ever heard about it. When I was at Microsoft, it was frowned upon for me to use Twitter, let’s put it that way. It certainly wasn’t encouraged.

And then I started reading this guy’s comments, and some of those comments were quite shocking to me. They were...crikey, I’m obviously saying things that’s upsetting people! And then I realized that, firstly, he was being critically eloquent. Secondly, he was amazingly funny. Thirdly, he was very, very creative. Despite myself, I suppose, I became a fan of his. I actually quite looked forward to his twitters, so much so I thought all his game ideas--it was frustrating I couldn’t respond to them--were really, really exciting and engaging. I found it lovely. I kind of almost forgot that he was a parody of me. [laughs] I was one of those people watching him do some stuff.

In my fantasy world, I kept thinking, “I wonder if I said this in the press, if he’d pick up on this angle, and say something even funnier.” When I left Lionhead, one of the first things I did was to engage him on Twitter and then we started talking via email, as well. He was even more inspirational and funny than I dared hoped. That’s the complete story.

Giant Bomb: When the Molyjam started coming together and snowballing, the reason I wanted to reach out to you to get a sense about how you felt about all this was because, in a sense, the Twitter account is this backhanded compliment. It encapsulates a larger critique of your games over the years, but at the same time, is also a testament to people really wanting to believe in the very grand ideas you talk about.

Molyneux: First thing, the whole thing about Molyjam is amazing, man. It’s incredible. That someone at Double Fine can have an idea and that idea can turn into a truly global event. I mean, what an amazing, incredible world that we live in, and I think there were so many smart, clever, amusing, funny, inspirational ideas that Peter Molydeux had had, whether seeded by me or as a seed of frustration or not, there were so many ideas, it was a very viable theme to have for something in the world.

Putting all those things together is just an amazing event that happened, and me turning up! I did feel very nervous turning up there because I felt, well, one, it was the first time I’d been out in public since I’d left Lionhead and, two, I felt this huge pressure to be inspirational myself.

Giant Bomb: I’m surprised things can still make you nervous after all this time.

Molyneux: Oh, for god’s sake, yeah, absolutely. If you don’t get nervous, you don’t really care, so I do get very nervous. When I was waiting to go into the London Molyjam, I was sitting outside having a cup of coffee thinking “What on Earth am I gonna say?” And people are going in and I though “Oh god, they look so smart and clever and brilliant” and I was winding myself up as usual.

Giant Bomb: Yeah, at that point, nothing you say can live up to what they’ve built up in their own minds.

Molyneux: Well, absolutely. People’s expectations are always far, far more than, in reality, whatever’s there. But I walked in, and the room was full of these people that were all huddled together, obviously just kicking off. I thought to myself, “God, I’d love to be one of these people,” and then I stood up and did a crappy little speech. They kicked off, and I really regretted not being one of those people, actually.

Giant Bomb: Does that speak to the reason you decided to create 22 Cans? Missing that garage atmosphere, the ability to react quickly, to be agile as a designer? The nature of game development these days, esepcially at the scale Lionhead was working at, requires years of preparation, and it’s hard to turn the ship, even if halfway through you realize this isn’t going to work anymore.

Molyneux: Exactly. The advice I gave the teams that I did speak to is “Just don’t throw yourself in there and expect everything to just come together. You’ve got to do a little bit of planning.” And of course you have to do a little bit of planning, but it was the idea, “Oh, well, let’s just do it.” And I love that feeling. “Let’s just do this, and let’s do this now.”

You’re right in saying that when you’ve got to--and not just talking about Microsoft actually, it’s talking about the gaming industry--is when you’re making a title that is going to end up costing millions and millions, tens of millions of dollars, Patrick, you just cannot have that attitude of, “Well, let’s just do it.” It’s all got to be meticulously and carefully planned and structured and thought through and discussed and that does take the creative energy out of it. It must, whether it be a triple-A computer game or a film.

I would point at films especially, something which creatively they’ve lost their way a little bit. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that I thought, “Well, that’s really fresh and different.” When anything creative requires vast amounts of money and huge amounts of people, it makes that excitement and edginess very, very difficult.

Fable: The Journey was the last game Molyneux touched at Lionhead. That's announced, anyway.
Fable: The Journey was the last game Molyneux touched at Lionhead. That's announced, anyway.

Giant Bomb: I wonder what your impression was of some of the young designers that you talked to at the event. When you got started, there was no framework for game development and genres were only starting to come about and you could create whole genres yourself. That’s very much less so these days.

Molyneux: I’m actually not going to agree with that point, Patrick. I think if we’d been talking about this just a couple of years ago, I’d have agreed with you, absolutely, categorically. It felt like the wild west frontier of game development when I started, where there were no books, there was barely compilers and assemblers, let alone books. A lot of the cornerstones of the industry hadn’t been laid down. For a long time, those cornerstones have been laid down, and [there were] very defined genres, whether they be role-playing, first-person-shooters, whatever.

But you know what? I look at the world today, and I look at a world where we’re starting to make experiences which are connecting people together, where we’re starting to make experiences that use [the] cloud, where we’re using different input devices, whether it be smart glass or Kinect, having multi-device play, where we’ve got customers that have never played games before starting to play games for the first time, and it feels like that wild west frontier.

You can’t go out to a book shop and buy a book on how to program a Facebook game yet. Those books are coming about just about now after two years of Facebook games. You can’t go to a shop and find out how cloud computing will be important in computer gaming in three years time. It feels familiar.

All of the designers that I met in Molyjam definitely weren’t those people who were thinking, “Oh, we’re going to make a first-person-shooters.” They felt like they were exploring, as opposed to treading the paths of existing territories. Does that make sense, Patrick?

Giant Bomb: It’s this feeling, this undercurrent, that it doesn’t have to be this way. People look at a lot of the triple-A games and think, “Okay, that’s where that path has gone because it makes sense for risk averse projects to go in that direction,” but the whole industry doesn’t have to be that way. And it requires designers to actually say it doesn’t have to be that way, and then to go out and do it. The Molyjam gave people this structure to come together, to feel inspired together.

Molyneux: Yeah, I agree. That’s the whole feeling of jams and the limitation of 48 hours and that pressure cooker is all of that together, so there’s also this feeling of wanting to complete something, which is great. The only risk about when you put a lot of creative people together in a room normally, in my experience, quite often things don’t happen without there being some goal to head for. That’s the great thing about having a 48 hour jam. Everyone has to solve all of those problems and make all of those decisions, which ends up being something tangible at the end of it.

Giant Bomb: The most inspiring story in the San Francisco one was this husband and wife couple who had connected with these two programmers. The two programmers had to drop out. They were really stressed out and close to giving up, but they downloaded some middleware called GameSalad, which is aimed at people that don’t know how to program. They spent the next 36 hours actually making this rudimentary implementation of this idea that they had, and they were one of the last to present, and they got this really wonderful standing ovation.

Molyneux: I love stories like that. They make your heart sing, don’t they? God, it’s just fantastic. To have two people like that, willing to download and learn something in 36 hours just because they’re so enthusiastic to get their idea out, it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up every time I hear stories like that, and it’s just brilliant. I could feel that enthusiasm and that energy in the room in London, and it was just a fantastic feeling.

I’ll be honest with you, Patrick, I definitely want, if we had a few people with that enthusiasm here at 22 Cans, then our chances of success would go up exponentially, I think. If you really want to make something great, then you’ve got to have that sort of enthusiasm, that diehard dedication to getting something in. It’s fantastic.

Secret Dad was a Molyjam game created by a husband and wife who'd never made a game in their life.
Secret Dad was a Molyjam game created by a husband and wife who'd never made a game in their life.

Giant Bomb: Have you had a chance to check out many of the games?

Molyneux: Here’s the thing, Patrick. I’ve gone through and played, I suppose, about 20 of the games, and I’ve got to do it. If this press hadn’t come out just four days after the games came out, then I would have done an awful lot more, but I’ve been deluged with all that stuff. I’ve felt insanely guilty that I haven’t played [more].

Giant Bomb: I’ve only played a few more than you, and I helped put the thing together. [laughs]

Molyneux: That’s a relief! I’ll quote that every time. There’s some very interesting ideas and interesting adaptations of Adam’s inspirational one-liners. There’s some surprisingly well executed ones, and I thought, “Wow, that’s incredible in 48 hours.” A lot of the time, I think, what a shame that these people can’t be given more time to spend on these ideas. Some of them are really, really interesting ideas that you’d think, “God, it’s so good, imagine if they have 96 hours or imagine they had two weeks.” That’s the whole process of game jams that’s always frustrated me a bit.

Giant Bomb: It’s an interesting dilemma. I’ve talked to different jam organizers about that, but the rationale I always here is that if you gave people two weeks, you start increasing the chance that people just won’t finish anything.

Molyneux: Maybe somebody gets together and form a little group of people, thinking about another Molyjam or something like Molyjam, maybe it shouldn’t be called Molyjam, maybe it should be called something else. Maybe there’s some way that someone could play around with the process of that jam. I love the 48 hours, I absolutely love that focus and concentration, but is there a way of saying to people, “Okay, there’s this idea or these three ideas or five ideas or 10 ideas, I don’t know how many” and maybe there’s an elongated period of time that they continue experimenting with those ideas. That’s what gets me--I just want everything. [laughs] I just love to see, time and again, I thought, “God, I wish there was just a bit more.” I’m just being greedy.

You have to give 22Cans credit for having a pretty clever website, as it begins to staff up.
You have to give 22Cans credit for having a pretty clever website, as it begins to staff up.

Giant Bomb: I was in the room for most of the 48 hours here in San Francisco. It was interesting to watch because it seemed people were really liberated by how audacious the ideas were. When tweets didn’t fit within a certain genre box, that was the most exciting part.

Molyneux: When you try to do something very, very fast, a lot of this completely unnecessary spinning and iteration is removed, and that very often leads to much, much better things.

Giant Bomb: As you look back on all of this, what’s your biggest takeaway from the experience?

Molyneux: For me, it was amazingly cathartic, it was amazingly inspirational. It was like being bathed in fountain of youth for five minutes. I found it incredibly energizing, and amazingly exciting. After the event, I was skipping around the streets of London saying, “This is incredible.” All that creativity and energy, which I hadn’t seen for so long, exists in the world. For me, it was the perfect time, and as an event, a global event, it was utterly amazing. The way, Patrick, it used everything the digital world had to offer, whether it was webcasting certain sites, uploading the demos--it’s amazing that it all kind of works. I just hope it’s the start of something bigger.

You know what? I think the indie game community--or the experimental game community, maybe indie it the wrong word--needs things like this. This is a crazy thought, [but] maybe this is the start of something much, much bigger. The film industry has film festivals. Why can’t we have experimental game festivals? And maybe stuff like this is the start of that. I think it does inspire the world and will continue to inspire the world. As long as those people that worked incredibly hard and unbelievably dedicated don’t mind pushing forward, I’m really bullish about it.

(Thanks to Velocity Gamer for snapping the featured photo of Molyneux at the London event.)

Patrick Klepek on Google+