Few game developers speak their minds as honestly as Peter Molyneux, and while it's landed him in trouble with publishers and gamers alike in the past, it doesn't seem to be hurting his overall reputation as one of the industry's most interesting personalities. Just before he unveiled Fable 2's typically iconoclastic take on co-op at E3, we caught up with him at Lionhead's offices to discuss, among other things, the dangers of complexity and how his team feels when he goes off to speak to the press.
Eurogamer: Fable 2's coming out in 2008 - is that too soon?
Peter Molyneux: There're two things that tell me now is the right time to release Fable 2. One is obvious: the game's coming together, you can play through from start to finish, all the mechanics work, and it's got easily the best story Lionhead or Bullfrog have ever produced. I can say that globally-scary thing with full confidence. The second reason is, everybody here feels it's the right time. When you're developing a game you have to wait for the maturity to come, like a cheese. There comes a point when the mature cheddar turns into a stinky cheese, and now is the right time for the game to be released.
Eurogamer: As a first-party, does Lionhead have the kind of relationship with Microsoft where you can say that it's not ready yet?
Peter Molyneux: Yes. But there's a time to say it's not ready and now we've passed that time. That was about nine months ago where we all sat down, and said, "These are the things we've got left to do, can we do it?" We all mutually decided that we could do it.
Eurogamer: With games as ambitious as both Fable 1 and 2, can you ever really feel they're ready to be released?
Peter Molyneux: There are things that you can polish more brightly, and there are things that you regret. Normally, the things that you regret are decisions that you took years ago, when things were going in a certain direction. Where I've got a slight regret is that, as in Fable 1, there's a hell of a lot of distractions in Fable 2: buying a house, moving your family in, decorating it. Like before, there is this undercurrent of systems that perhaps one percent of people will discover, and I wish I had the time and skill to actually expose those for more people.
Eurogamer: So you have all these ideas, is it always a struggle to bring them together coherently?
Peter Molyneux: Yes, and I think I've been more guilty perhaps than anyone in the industry of making games with mechanics in them which don't mean anything. They're very nice, they sound good, but when you come to play them, there's a kind of feeling of what should have been. When I think back to Dungeon Keeper, and even the original Fable, they were incredibly guilty of having those mechanics in them where at the end of the day you think, "So what?"
In Fable 1, all of the world's economy changing, the prices changing, the villagers' reacting to you, that was a tiny proportion of what the game was about, and when you think about the number of times that I spoke about that, it would seem that it should have been a lot more important than it actually was.
In Black & White 1, famously, it was announced that the weather in-game when you were playing would be the same as the weather outside for real. And that actually worked. We had 300 weather stations sending updates to your machine. In fact what it meant was that people in Britain probably just played a grey Black & White, which is pretty depressing.
There was an enormous amount of effort to do that, and it was a feature than meant nothing. We never told anyone about it. We never said, "Hey, look at the sky here and look at the sky outside!" To be a good designer you've got to think about the experience, and that means right from the very first moment. Just because I think we've made an amazing eighth feature, does that make the game better or worse? I would argue now that your poor little mind has to think about eight different features rather than seven, and even seven is too many to start off with.
It's far better to cut it down and have a smaller number of things, polished. The dog is the perfect example in Fable 2. The dog is polished to make sure that the limited things that he can do, he does well.
Eurogamer: There seems to be a lot of MMO mechanics in Fable 2. Are MMOs something you've been thinking about recently?
Peter Molyneux: [Gestures to PR] Well, there's someone in this room to make sure that I don't say too much about that question. I have been looking at MMOs. I love the interaction, and I'm fascinated by the idea of really feeling secure and cool enough to actually do it.
Eurogamer: Have you thought about making an MMO, and about what a Lionhead MMO would look like?
Peter Molyneux: Yes.
Eurogamer: And you can't answer the question...?
Peter Molyneux: No.
Eurogamer: You said that you spoke to the press too much during the build-up to Fable, and you've tried to say less during Fable 2. Has this worked?
Peter Molyneux: We'll have to see. When I talk to the press this time, I've tried to always show what I'm talking about: Here's the dog, here's one button combat. When you get the box, you're not going to say, "You bastard! You told me about this bloody acorn I could plant to grow a tree! Now where is it?"
You've got to remember that the press I do isn't some deeply thought-out strategy. It's just some kid showing his toys off. There's no long-term press strategy here, and that's the problem. People thought I was hyping Fable. I wasn't, I was just getting bloody excited about it.
Eurogamer: Do your team get a bit nervous when you go out to talk to the press?
Peter Molyneux: Oh, you have no idea. There were people who would literally come and shout in my face and say, "What the hell are you doing? You can't do this to us!" I would turn around and say, "I'm sorry, all I'm doing is telling them what I'm excited about; don't worry about it." When I'm sitting down and talking to someone, I've got to think about why I'm telling you things. I'd love to tell you about our next game now, but that would be the wrong thing to do.
Eurogamer: You're a high-profile figure in an industry that still doesn't have very many--
Peter Molyneux: Well, of course, you know why? This is my conspiracy theory: the last thing the publishers want is high-profile figures, because it works counter to everything that they do. What does a high-profile person do? They either go mad, or they leave, or they start developing a game that the publisher doesn't want to promote, and it takes the power away from the publishers. That's why you don't see high-profile figures at companies like EA, because they can't control these people. I'm going to get in trouble now - publishers are wonderful and I really like them.
Eurogamer: Because you are high-profile, your games often grow up in public - is that a problem?
Peter Molyneux: It's a mixed blessing. On balance it's a fantastic opportunity and I thank everybody who's interested in what I say. But there are some things where you think, does it have to be like this? But if I phoned you up and said, "I'm a designer, I've got a game idea," you'd probably say, "No thanks." If I phone you up and say, "I'm Peter Molyneux, I've got a new game idea," you'd probably be interested. And that is a massive, massive advantage.
Eurogamer: Can you talk about your role at Lionhead? A lot of people think you are Lionhead.
Peter Molyneux: I know, and that's a problem. I'm trying to make people realise that there's more to Lionhead than just me. We have these video diaries, and I've told people that I can be in them for ten seconds at most, and the people who make them get an extra pat on the back if they don't use me at all. I think one of the things that I would find immensely aggravating outside is that I get the credit for almost everything. So trying to expose people more is one of the things I definitely want to happen.
My actual job is the creative director. What that means is I've got three jobs. My first job is the studio head: it's my responsibility to make sure Lionhead's run in a nice way, and I have a people who make me look fantastically good, a director and production director. My second job is that all the designers ultimately report to me. Fable 2 has a design team of seven designers and I like to think of me as a guide. I don't come up with every idea, but I try to guide people to making the best decisions. At the moment, I'm also responsible for the balance passes of Fable 2, so I'm still intimately involved in the design.
Eurogamer: You won't say what you're working on next, but are there specific things you're interested in at the moment, specific problems you want to solve, perhaps?
Peter Molyneux: One thing I can say is that technology is getting more technological and complex, and that upsets me.
The second thing is that I think the games industry has failed us all. When I first listened to Clive Sinclair, he said that this is the big new medium that's going to change the world. That led me to make Populous, which sold four million units. Our market share has not changed an iota since those days: we still make games that sell four million units and we still hail those as universal successes. Very few times a game sells eight million, and we celebrate those as being the biggest thing ever. But the biggest thing ever will entertain hundreds of millions of people.
Eurogamer: Do you think you might know how to make that?
Peter Molyneux: I think I'm learning how not to make that. People like Nintendo, I have to take my hat off to them because they're doing a lot more for mass entertainment than the techie side have done in a while.
Eurogamer: It seems the success of Nintendo in the casual area has given Microsoft a crisis of faith in their overall strategy. Do you have any insight into the long-term strategy?
Peter Molyneux: Yes. I think Microsoft are fighting very hard to make the revolution that will eventually lead to mass entertainment. It's a shame that somebody's made that first step, but Microsoft's instinct is to be braver and bolder. I can't say anything about the strategy, but if they say they define themselves as making games for gamers, I think they're going to revolutionise what that means. It's fascinating to be part of a company that thinks like that, and that's more than just Xbox.
Eurogamer: Where does Lionhead fit in?
Peter Molyneux: Lionhead has a mission statement: to be the most respected developer in the world. Underneath that is a new line: to be the most professionally-run studio in the world. A lot is riding on Fable 2, but I hope people would say we're very professionally run, and we're nice to work with. We don't shout here or throw tantrums, and that's very important to me, and I hope that means we're listened to a bit more deeply.
Fable 2 is due out exclusively for Xbox 360 in October.