By Scott Steinberg
Legendary British game designer Peter Molyneux, founder of Bullfrog Productions and Lionhead Studios and inventor of the “god game” genre with 1989’s Populous, tends to think big. Witness his resume, which includes epic strategy and simulation titles like Dungeon Keeper, Black & White and Theme Park, among the most ambitious of all time.
Occasionally vilified for overhyping new releases, Molyneux has spent 27 years of development on gaming’s front lines and hasn’t slowed his ambition -- or his willingness to buck trends. With his latest creation, the fantasy roleplaying epic Fable III, shipping for the PC this month, Molyneux talked about his commitment to grand, all-encompassing experiences -- and home computers.
S.S: Some studios and designers are transitioning to multiplatform development. But you continue to bring blockbusters like Fable III to home computers. What makes the PC platform a favorite after all these years?
I love the PC, but over the past 10 years I have worried about its future as a gaming platform. I think we’re now coming out of the dark days of retail-shunning core games and into the bright new world of simultaneous digital and retail releases. Ever-growing digital platforms, like Games for Windows Marketplace , mean we can start to believe that we can get great games to an audience who want to play them.
S.S: Where will the PC gaming field head in the future? Do you have any plans to change your signature design style to keep up with it?
Currently, I’m fascinated with mods like Garry’s Mod , which allow people to add to, change and enhance current games. Whether this fascination makes it into a game I’m working on remains to be seen, but I love the fact that on the PC, I can do so much more with a game than just play it.
S.S: Most of your creations are massive in scope and offer tremendous freedom of choice. From a design standpoint, how do you create convincing worlds?
P.M.: To make people feel part of a world is a black art which is slightly mystical, but there are some obvious ingredients: A world which makes sense and people can empathize with, as well as one that is filled with characters who display some kind of feelings; and one where you can choose to interact with characters if you want to, not because the story tells you to.
Also important is a world where there are things for you to care about and worry about, and where players have the freedom to make their own choices and suffer consequences which are of their own making. If you can achieve all of that, then you are pretty much there!
S.S: What kind of resources does it take to create projects of this scope?
The Fable team is big; at its peak, it is over 100 people. So we can deploy them as usefully as possible. To streamline the development process, we do try and lock the game’s design pretty early in the development cycle. But there are always some tortuous choices to be made on the development road where you have to revisit your locked design (although everyone hates you for doing this).
S.S: What benefits do today’s more powerful PC technologies, such as multicore processors and multithreading, offer you from a designer’s perspective?
P.M.: Designers are like greedy children gorging themselves on processing power. And the more we get, the more we want! When you’re designing games driven by script and simulation, it is particularly useful to have more processing muscle under your belt.
S.S: Many industry experts predict social, mobile and Web technologies to be revolutionary in how they change the gaming business. What do you think?
P.M.: I find all games -- social, casual, mobile, iPad, PC, console, handheld, etc. -- utterly compelling. What they add up to is that now there are more people than ever playing games. So while someone is reading this article, there will be hundreds of millions of people playing a game at the same time all over the world.
S.S: You’ve worked extensively on computers and consoles. What are the fundamental differences of gaming experiences on these platforms?
P.M.: Obviously there are several major differences in approach, as a PC is fluid, while a console is fixed. I always think a PC audience is more understanding; after all, a PC owner will be very aware of its idiosyncrasies, while a console owner is more demanding.
But the main and obvious difference is between the mouse and controller. I have played some very lackluster conversions on a PC where it is plain that not much thought has gone into the huge differences between mouse and controller.
S.S: As someone who’s known for hyping games, what do you think we should be excited about in gaming going forward?
P.M.: The launch of the ZX Spectrum in the early ’80s marked the birth of a new entertainment medium. As social and casual games demonstrate, this medium is constantly evolving, where innovations like motion control with Kinect for Xbox 360, touch interfaces, and Facebook contact lists give us developers the tools and motivation to continually innovate and redefine games. The more we learn, the better we are getting.
It took 10 years of console development to make Halo: Reach, so just imagine what this industry will be able to create in the future. Our audience is growing, and so is demand. Two years ago, maybe it was tens of millions playing games. But now with [digital distribution platforms like] app stores, Facebook and Steam, we have seen this increase to hundreds of millions. Just imagine how many people will be playing games, and what they will be playing, and how, in 10 years’ time? It’s incredibly exciting!