Peter Molyneux needs no introduction. The Lionhead head honcho has been an industry legend since, with Populous in 1987, he conceived the God Game. Having built up his development company Bullfrog to one of the world's biggest, he sold it to EA in 1995. He then started Lionhead in 1997, producing games like Black & White, Fable and The Movies. He sold Lionhead to Microsoft three months ago, and is currently working on Fable 2 for the Xbox 360 and on another as-yet-unannounced project.
The engagingly garrulous Molyneux was reluctant to speak to the press at E3, having just been inducted into Microsoft, but we caught up with him at his Guildford offices, and managed to worm some revelations from him on subjects as diverse as Fable 2, a hint as to the subject matter of his unannounced project, his views on next-gen consoles, why his Satellites scheme flopped and what it's like working for Microsoft. Here's the full transcript of Molyneux's first big major interview this year.
You may not be able to give us any details of Fable 2, but you must have goals dictating what you want to achieve with it, compared to the first Fable?
Yes, there is a list of things that we did wrong in Fable. In fact there are three lists that we made when we sat down with Fable 2: the things that we did that are atrociously wrong, the things that we did but had to throw away because either there wasn't enough time or they didn't fit, and the things we wanted to introduce that are new. The things that we did wrong include: the simulation kind of wasn't complete enough - it didn't have the impact that we wanted it to have; the mechanics were good, but could be better; stupid little things like the sneaking - you had to sneak by clicking and holding, which was exhausting.
There's a list of things like that - some of them are big things, and some are just really simple little things. So the approach that we took was to go down that list and say: "OK, we'll do this, this and this." Not only the things we promised, which people thought they were going to see in Fable... There is, for example, the classic acorn growing into an oak tree, that I mentioned in an interview some time and everyone latched on to. As merchandising, I'd love to give away grow-your-own Fable oak trees. So there is going to be a very tongue-in-cheek moment about acorns growing into trees. But there was a list of those things, some of which are things that maybe you wouldn't initially think of. For instance, I didn't really feel it was possible to, for example, play the whole game without using any magic, or to play a game as a swordsman, so you'd feel like a real swordsman. And obviously, there's a new story.
Those things are normally what goes into a sequel, and then, there are the big surprises. And there's a very, very, very big surprise in what Fable 2 has got, which I hope will be very unexpected. This is me in my PR mode, I must admit, but I haven't seen this particular thing - and it is one of the really big pillars of Fable 2 - done well in any game. In fact, it was done very well in one game, and that game is now almost 30 years old. That's a clue...
Also, people found Fable more linear than they thought it would be?
Yes. There are things like freedom and roaming; there are things like the story changing and adapting. These are obvious things if you're going to have a much stronger team, better planning and, strangely, more time to develop the game. Because of the way Fable was developed, it meant a huge amount of the development was done in the last year. So it feels to me as though we've got twice the amount of time. So, things like the linearity...
And this is another thing we've thought about a lot: OK you could be good or evil in Fable, but what about rich and poor, what about cruel and kind - what about those scales? How can you balance them to reflect what you're like as a person? Can I go through the whole game as one incredible hero, but being completely penniless? Or can I go through the game being not much of a hero but incredibly wealthy? There has been a lot of talk about those sort of considerations.
Are there any time-frames on Fable 2 yet?
There is nothing I can say about the date. You know me: every time I've talked about a launch date, I've been wrong. But I would say, at the stage we're at now, you can actually pick up the joypad and play parts of the game. We know what the world is, we know what the story is, we know who all the characters are, and we're in the process of building all the stuff that we've invented.
Are there going to be new technologies in Fable 2?
Yes. And there's a whole new engine - the same Fable engine guys are working on the Fable 2 engine. We've got a lot more people, because we've added into that Fable team some of the Black and White 2 team. We're doing lots of interesting stuff on the graphics technology. I want Fable 2 to look absolutely, jaw-droppingly beautiful. That's why I came away from E3 thinking that there are lots of very dark, shiny, metallic games, but there aren't very many beautiful games. We've been thinking about how to make the Fable 2 world beautiful. Sometimes, it is what I would describe as darkly beautiful - there are sinister and dark elements to it, but it's still beautiful.
Is it nice developing for just one platform?
It's fantastic. There is a massive advantage as a designer in not having to think about platforms X, Y and Z. One of the frustrations is that you always build for the lowest common denominator.
And you can't say anything about the other project you're working on?
Only that it's going to be the most amazing game ever (laughs).
Presumably it's also for the Xbox 360?
I can't say that, either. But I can say that it has a very different subject matter. If you think of Lionhead's strengths - simulation with other stuff - then this is what this game is. How can you get more game play out of an environment through simulation? I can tell you the date when I got the idea for the game. It was last year - I think it was September 23. If you look in the news, there was an event that went on in the world that gave me the idea for the game. [Hey, readers, what do you reckon that could be? Has he got his dates slightly wrong?]
How have things changed at Lionhead since you sold the company to Microsoft?
Not much. There's no-one from Microsoft here. They are very, very keen on preserving what Lionhead is, the way that it does things and the way that it makes games. So, there's no-one saying: "You should do it like this, rather than like this". They had an amazing team of people who made sure that we were part of the family as quickly as possible.
But now, with Lionhead owned by Microsoft, you have the financial clout to do games how you want?
Yes: for me, that's what it's all about. To be honest, as an independent, I had very little freedom. It was a case of: if we don't finish this game on this date with these resources, we'll go bust. And that is a terrifying place to be - there's no freedom in that. You can't say "OK, we can make the game on this day, but we've got to have 10 more people," or "We'll outsource this." That, when the industry is in a position where, I feel, there are some amazing games being worked on in the world, is in complete contradiction to why Lionhead was set up. Lionhead was set up to make amazing games, and we just didn't have the ability to do that so much.
I suppose it's a triumph of pragmatism over idealism?
It is. Lionhead was set up with big ideals. We all met down the pub and said "We're going to do this company right; we'll do amazing and different games." Then, as time went on, it became more a case of "OK, we've got to do it this way," which wasn't the wrong way, but it wasn't the ideal way.
I would say that it's all about value, and it's all about making games that make a difference to Vista and Xbox 360. The first thing we're thinking is: how can we make more people enjoy our games? And the other thing is, we've got Live, with the gamertags and gamers' points, so how can we use those in a way that really pushes things forward? That is the big change, I think.
This time last year, we were in the middle of the hell that was making four games simultaneously for three different publishers. Juggling all those different publisher balls, all those visits and all those different ways of working was very difficult. So having just one person that you're talking to is fantastic.