Feature: On the week of Curiosity’s release – and the reveal of his next experiment, Cooperation - PETER MOLYNEUX reflects on his roller-coaster of a career, and considers what might be left of it.
Peter Molyneux is going to die soon.
Of course, everything is relative: the 53-year-old game designer is unlikely to pop his clogs tomorrow. He’s probably got a few decades left. But the fact that he’s heading inexorably towards the end of his career is clearly something at the forefront of his mind.
Molyneux has been open in the past about his plan for 22Cans, the indie studio he established this year with former Lionhead CTO Tim Rance. After a series of ’22 experiments’, the company would go on to make one full game, and then cease to be. When I catch up with Molyneux 24 hours after the launch of Curiosity: What’s Inside The Cube? – and 36 hours since he last slept – he muses on what might happen next. “Death has got to be coming soon, surely,” he says. “I’ll probably just drop dead at the launch, or something.”
He’s clearly joking with these morbid remarks, but there’s a sense of finality to Molyneux’s words that strike me as a new thing for the veteran designer. Throughout his entire career, he’s been outspoken about his plans, his aims and his ambitions. Now he’s enthusiastic, but also reflective – as if pondering a career at its end point.
So much so, in fact, that he goes as far as to call 22Cans his final project – when I ask him, hypothetically, what sort of game he’d make should he only have the chance to make one more game in his life, he tells me that’s exactly the situation he’s in. “And that thought,” he says, “the thought of every ounce of my energy, every ounce of my experience, every mistake that I’ve made in every single game – if I can learn from that and use that energy to make one game… well, that’s what I’m trying to do.”
The lion’s share
It’s almost 30 years since Molyneux’s first release – a text-based business simulation title he developed as part of a ploy to sell more floppy discs. In that time his work has spanned a variety of genres and platforms. He invented the god game, pioneered AI development, and – by the time the mid-1990s rolled around – had cemented himself at the heart of the British games industry.
But as the years passed, enthusiasm waned. Molyneux left Bullfrog to found Lionhead, its first title the super-ambitious strategy game Black & White. While it reviewed well initially, over time the criticism began to mount. Its sequel launched four years later, in 2005, to a considerably more muted response.
By this point, Lionhead’s portfolio also included an Xbox RPG called Fable. With the benefit of hindsight, looking back at these couple of years in the mid 2000s reveals what was almost certainly the turning point for a then-revered innovator of the games industry: a pair of much-hyped titles, both of which failed to live up to the expectations that Molyneux’s sea of followers had in mind.
Fable became famous as ‘the acorn game’, Molyneux having planted the seeds of an idea in players’ minds in an ill-judged PR moment. What if, he said, you could plant an acorn in the game, and over time a tree would grow? Of course, no such acorn ever existed – except as a metaphor for the possibilities that were emerging with the new generation of gaming technology. One thing’s for certain: gamers are a ruthless bunch, and we never forget.
Molyneux’s passion remained, though, even through two Fable sequels that – yet again – failed to live up to the expectations that many felt had been set. With each new release, Molyneux was full of criticism for his last game, and excitable about the future’s possibilities. Now in an extended deal with Microsoft, many began to wonder whether the man could ever really keep his increasingly ambitious promises.