Thursday, 12 February 2015

A Defence of Peter Molyneux

petermolyneux1The world is a pretty uncompromising place. Yesterday Eurogamer published a story which has caused quite the stir in the gaming community. It's also the kind of general interest story you can expect to see hit the national newspapers in a couple of days. It's a story about greed and ambition, money and fame, as well as that perennial British favourite: the satisfaction of seeing a man beaten by his dreams. I won't say too much about the content of the story which is worth reading in its entirety. However, in prĂ©cis: in 2013, a Scottish student won a competition run by the company 22 Cans. The prize was to play 'god' in an upcoming game in development at the company. The game is called Godus and it is the brainchild of gaming 'legend' Peter Molyneux.

What happened subsequently is a case study of how business and nerds rarely make for happy bedfellows. The winner was taken to the studios where he was treated pretty indifferently, largely ignored during a subsequent pub session and, when he returned home, the company did little to communicate their plans for him. He has yet to become 'god' in their game or get the 1% of profits that he was promised would change his life. That, however, is just one element of the story. Of more concern is the story of the game itself which raised £526,563 through Kickstarter and which has yet to realise some of the ambitions its developers had promised. The whole thing has now descended into a sustained campaign against Molyneux himself but that, in itself, is hardly surprising.

There are not many big names in UK games development but, I guess, Peter Molyneux OBE is the biggest. He made some extremely popular games in the early days of home computing. His company, Bullfrog, made Populus, Syndicate, Black and White, Magic Carpet and, best of all, Dungeon Keeper. He then became part of the Microsoft empire and was behind the Fable franchise before he grew tired of being part of that corporate world and decided to open his own independent studio, which is how 22 Cans came into being.

Yet the key thing to know about Molyneux is that he's not a programmer. He's not a true geek like John Carmack or even Bill Gates. Molyneux is a game designer and he has a fertile imagination that is only matched by his gift for self publicity. He doesn't make the things happen through code. He decides what things should happen and inspires artists and programmers to make that real. He is also a good speaker and can talk at length about the ideas he has for a game. It often means that when he speaks, he's talking about his vision rather than finished product. I recollect getting excited by his early vision for Fable when he talked about planting acorns anywhere in the world and how that acorn would grow to become a tree. It was meant to be a symbol of gaming freedom in a emerging world. He excitedly told us that the game world would be organic and respond dynamically to our choices. He was probably the first person talking about 'emergent gameplay' before emergent gameplay became the 'next big thing'.

The finished game was, of course, nothing like that but a pattern had been established. From thereon, anybody who knew of Molyneux's reputation, expected to be as excited by his vision as we'd be underwhelmed by the finished result. At launch, we would shrug our collective shoulders and try to appreciate what he had achieved. Fable and its successors weren't bad games. They were possibly even great games. However, they were never quite as groundbreaking as Molyneux had hoped or had hyped.

Molyneux's habit of over promising and talking too much has become a running joke among gamers. In the past, he's largely got away with it. Possibly the most famous example was 'Project Milo', a game in development for the XBox 360 in which the user could talk and interact with a child on the screen. It was hailed as a step forward in the way that users would interact with artificial intelligence. I remember watching videos of Molyneux talking in that slightly hushed way he has about the brilliance of the Kinnect system, Microsoft's new method of controlling the console through gestures and voice control. I also remember feeling enormously underwhelmed. I wrote at the time that I expected Kinnect to fail and I knew enough about AI to know that the world that Molyneux promised was at least a decade away.

And so it proved. The game was never published and is now described as a 'technical demo'. Microsoft foolishly gambled on Kinnect, making it central to the XBox One but only to dump it at the side of their XBox roadmap. If Windows 8 wasn't the biggest mistake in Microsoft history, that honour would definitely belong to Kinnect of which Molyneux was one of the early and most vocal advocates.

In a sense, then, the current shit storm has been a long time coming. This morning the gaming sites were filled with articles attacking Molyneux. The reader comments below the articles aren't as gentle. He's the subject of criticism ranging from the valid to the typically buffoonish ad hominem attacks by internet trolls who have never achieved anything in their lives but are quite happy to dismiss a man's career as though it were at best, a folly, and at worst, a well orchestrated fraud.

Yet beyond the typical internet nastiness, there are interesting questions about modern culture and, in particular, the recent culture of the Kickstarter campaign. Kickstarter is a way for creative people to raise money to make their projects real. Want to launch a new design of household plug? Kickstarter will probably raise the money if you can sell your design and make enough people believe in your dream. Plenty of people have used Kickstarter in the past. More will use it in the future. Many will succeed and (unfortunately) quite a few will fail spectacularly. But that's the nature of the Kickstarter business. That's the nature of business. That's the nature of Nature. We call it evolution, which works because there are more failures than there are successes.

However, there is an inherent problem with the Kickstarter model. It treats creativity as if it were highly predictable. Backers treat it as though they are engaging in a simple Amazon transaction. They pay the money so they expect their product to be delivered exactly as advertised, albeit delayed by a few months as the creator goes away and actually makes the product. In most cases, that's exactly what happens. The most successful Kickstarters usually involve doodads perfected in garden sheds. The money is simply raised so the producers can have that doodad made in large quantities in some Chinese sweatshop. That, however, isn't funding creativity. It's funding production.

Funding creativity is a perilous business. It's why the artist/patron model has never been truly successful since, probably, the Renaissance. Creativity is a very tricky business. It's why so few people attempt to do it. Creativity is about staring failure in the face at every step. It's why blogs usually begin and end with a post that reads 'Hello World' and why novels rarely progress beyond that superbly overwritten first chapter. It's why model kits usually end up as a half completely hull thrown in the bin and stuck to a tube of glue that's already gone hard. Software engineering is no different. For every success there are a hundred, possibly even tens of thousands of failures. Many are small. Some the size of government departments that have swallowed billions of pounds over a decade of mismanagement.

In that context, Godus is already something of a success and a damn sight more successful than 'Yogventures', the sandbox game based around the Minecraft Youtubers, which raised $567,665 on Kickstarter and was never made. Godus is already a game that people can play and some people might enjoy. It might not be the game they were promised by that's the nature of creativity. The people who backed Godus were backing a game made by a man who an established reputation for dreaming big and delivering something that can never be described as 'small', but is certainly smaller than the dream.

The worst offence (beyond the old fashioned rudeness shown to the competition winner) might be simply that of a man blinded by his own enthusiasms. I make no apology for choosing that side of the argument. My sympathy is always with the artist who produces interesting failures rather than the creative eunuchs that sit and throw abuse. Unfortunately, it now seems that Molyneux was singularly unsuited to the Kickstarter system. Previously his critics were third parties with an axe to grind. Now they are investors who demand value for their money.

The Godus problem shows us an important difference between private and public creativity. Great films are rarely written by committees. Most novels are the product of one mind. Show people your half-finished work and the process quickly devolves into rewrites and second-guessing. Bring critics into the development process and they will explain which parts are wrong and demand that you fix them before moving on. In the end, the process of communicating with your critics takes more effort than producing the product.

I hope the latest round of 'told you so-ing' doesn't break either Molyneux or 22 Cans. I liked Godus on both PC and Android. I loved the design and I liked the ambition. I still like the ambition and the only reason I don't play it now is because I want to play it when it's finished. And that is the only question that really means anything in this whole shooting match. Do we trust Molyneux enough to finish Godus?

There I have to say that I believe that we should. He might be eager to move on to dreaming new dreams but he has made enough great games that he should be allowed the chance to prove his critics wrong. This is the first time, I believe, he's been so open about the development of a game. Other companies delay launches or launch late and with obvious bugs. Godus is different. We've seen it grow from build to build and that means we do have a sense that things are messy. Molyneux admits to making mistakes but Kickstarting this project means that those mistakes so very public.

And what if he ultimate does fail? What if Godus never turns into the greatest God game ever made? Then like today, the critics, trolls, and spiteful naysayers will have a chance to have their fun. I, however, think that gaming is better because of men like Molyneux. In a way, his visions are more exciting than the games he produces but that is to his credit. We need people with big ideas, even if it means they're too busy to remember the important things like the competition winners, spoof letter writers* and, yes, even the people who invested money in... Well, I was about to write 'invested in the game' but that's not quite right. People didn't just invest in a game. They invested in the process and they are learning that the creative process is long, rough, at times tedious, filled with argument and passion, and that the results are often flawed. If they don't appreciate that, then they should think more carefully about investing in potential. Their complaints ring as hollow as investors buying penny shares. You buy the ticket, you take the ride. You don't really have a right to complain where you end up. Personally speaking, I love every bump of this rocky road.

* Molyneux was one of the people who never replied to my Stan Madeley letters. His PA was very nice, though.

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