Peter Molyneux of Lionhead Studios - Part Two
Interview - the second part of our interview with Peter Molyneux, this time covering the final stages of Black & White's development and the various console ports
Last week we talked with Lionhead's Peter Molyneux about some of the inspirations which helped to form Black & White, from the basic idea of being able to choose between good and evil, to the two hundred foot tall animals which help to carry out your wishes in the world. This week we look at the other end of the game's development, finding out more about why the game has taken so long to finish and what the future has in store.
Following The Script
God might have created the world in seven days (including a well deserved nap on the last day), but it has taken Peter Molyneux and his team at Lionhead just over three years to create their new god game. Originally we had been expecting Black & White to emerge some time last year, but a series of last minute delays pushed it back to a spring 2001 release.
"Round about this time last year I started thinking about the story - I was stupidly naive, I really thought 'how hard can it be to write a story, surely it isn't going to take longer than three months'. As it turned out we've taken scriptwriters from Hollywood to help us out with the storyline", Peter explained. "You may think the technology in Black & White is pretty cool, but I would say the hardest thing to do out of everything that we've done so far was to incorporate a story. Because the story had to keep you interested in the game."
"It's true that Black & White is a god game, but it's a story-based god game, and that's something that I have never attempted before. There's been directors from the BBC helped us with it, and scriptwriters from Hollywood coming in and doing bizarre things like saying 'can you shave a quarter of a second off the cut of this'. I would never ever have thought of that. It's just a very interesting thing that we are starting to use people from other industries."
Hollywood is once again becoming interested in computer games, and it's likely that we will see more cross-over between the two industries in future. "They had their fingers very badly burnt about five or six years ago when they decided to invest an awful lot of money into the games industry, because they believed what was printed in magazines, that we can do interactive movies and movies with multiple endings. They got a little bit of cold feet, but now there's an awful lot more interest."
"And it's not only interest from the big studios making films of things, but from people in the movie industry who want to creatively try other things. That's going to be very interesting, and we need them. You only have to look at games like Metal Gear Solid 2, which is very cinematic, and it's not so much about 'does your graphic engine do this', but much more about the fluidity of movement and how much the camera moves and what cuts are made. Soon you're going to be able to tell the games which have had some sort of input from outside the industry, especially Hollywood. I reckon you'll see the difference in the storyline of Black & White, just because it's had proper scriptwriters writing it, not a would-be programmer who thinks he'd like to write a nice story. My little script that I started writing was so pathetic compared to what a proper scriptwriter could do."
Obviously Peter wouldn't tell us much about the story to avoid spoiling it for everyone, but one thing he did reveal is that the game is going to be very much open-ended. "I was always disappointed by games like Zelda, [because] when I finished the game it threw me out of the world. I was the hero of the world, and I wanted to go round and visit all the places I had been to before. I prefer that the end of the game means that you have killed off the main adversary, but it doesn't mean that you can't keep playing around with the world and the little people. That's the charm of Black & White - there's always the little people, and you can always build your little tiny village into a whole city. I've seen people start with this little tiny village of a man and a woman, and then after about five hours (I know it sounds banal, but it's amazing to do this) you end up with this teeming mass of buildings with people moving around it. So there's always something to do in Black & White."
Make It Stop!
One of the other reasons why Black & White has taken so long to complete is knowing when to stop. "Normally I don't produce a design document at all, I just produce two pieces of paper at the start, and then from those two pieces of paper people get inspired, and they start doing incredible work", Peter told us.
"That's why no game has been fully designed by me, it's always designed by the whole team. That also leads to a problem - where do you stop? It's like a painting, and you just keep thinking 'Well, if I put a bush over there or if I put another house over there or another person there then it's going to look even better', when in fact sometimes you just have to turn round and say to yourself 'No, enough's enough'".
"But it's a bizarre thing, as you get close to the end suddenly the most minute features become unbelievably important. There is this one thing with the version that we've just finished, this one stupid little thing that I suddenly got into my head that we had to have, called artifacts. And what you can do with an artifact is place anything down in the middle of a town and the little people, when they have time to rest, start dancing around it. And then after a while you'll notice that this starts shining."
"The idea was, if I took something like .. this glass", Peter said, picking up a plain glass of water from the table, "and I were to put it on the altar of St Peters in Rome, and it was there for ten years, then suddenly this glass would attain significance. If I said 'this is the glass that was on the altar at St Peters', you would think 'wow, that's pretty cool'. And suddenly that became so important that I honestly considered pulling the version to make sure that everything to do with artifacts worked. Which of course, a rational person would turn round and say 'Peter, that is just not significant at all, it doesn't matter about artifacts'. You have to stop somewhere. Normally it's someone else that turns round to me and says 'For god's sake, stop doing this and get on with the rest of your life'."
Just a few days before the press conference, Peter had finally finished Black & White. The first evidence came from a webcam photo on the Lionhead website showing a group of rather drunk looking developers standing around holding a big piece of paper with the word "Done" scrawled across it. But after over three years of work, how does it feel to finish?
"It feels brilliant, deeply scary and, I'm not joking saying this, it's the first time in six months that I've really stepped outside the office - I haven't been out at all", Peter told me. "So it's an enormous relief, but it's also scary because there's so much hype around the game that almost whatever we do it's probably going to disappoint people. I'm crossing fingers and hoping it's not. I think it's the best thing I've ever been involved with."
As well as being able to escape from the Lionhead office for the first time in six months, the team are also taking the opportunity to have some fun and maybe even relax for a bit after three years of hard work. "We had a party planned which we had to cancel because we didn't quite make our deadline. So now that's being rescheduled and we're going to definitely do another party, some celebrations, and I think I can take a holiday some time in April, once all the press and stuff is finished."
And having resisted the temptation to spend another few weeks perfecting the artifacts system, Peter Molyneux is happy with the end result. "I don't think there's anything I would have done differently. The trouble is, when you make games, it doesn't go away. The game has just been in my head, and that's all I've been thinking about. You submit the final version and you are supposed to just turn your head off and not think of any more ideas in the game, but you can't help yourself. So I can feel myself thinking 'Oh, wouldn't it be cool to have this', but you don't have a second chance. We might patch it though."
The game might be finished but that isn't the end for it, as a whole new sub-company called Black & White Studios has been set up to continue supporting the game and working on add-ons and maybe even a sequel. "One of the things we are doing is really supporting the gaming community as far as Black & White is concerned, even down to the fact that right from day one, right from the 30th of March, anyone can go on to BWGame.com and vote for what they would like the development team to develop next as an add-on for the game."
There are also the console ports to consider. Peter confirmed that "the Dreamcast version is still in production" despite the console's recent demise, and he is also hoping for a PlayStation 2 version. "Yes, we are probably .. er, we just can't make an announcement about any next gen console at the moment", Peter mumbled. "But it would be nice to see it."
For now though we have the PSOne port, which Midas will be publishing because they're "jolly nice people", according to Peter. The question on everybody's lips is obviously 'why?' though. "That's a slight reflection of how long the project's taken", Peter admitted. "The first line of code for Black & White was started on February 14th 1998, when of course there wasn't even a rumour of the PlayStation 2. Also, initially I thought that .. well, the PlayStation would be able to have some of the features of Black & White. But Krisalis have done a fantastic job and we've been able to keep most of the spirit of the game."
One of the changes which Krisalis have had to make is replacing the gesture system for magic with beat 'em up style combo moves, because obviously the PSX has no mouse. This turned out to be strangely appropriate though. "The interesting thing is that the gestures on the PC version were inspired by PlayStation games because, especially when doing things like fighting games, all the special combo moves that you make, actually what you're doing is drawing pictures with your fingers. So why not do the same thing on the mouse?"
The Man Himself
While other developers continue to work on the various console ports, Peter himself will be starting on a new game once he has recovered from the stress of developing Black & White .. probably by slaughtering a few thousand more villagers, or training his giant ape to drop them off of cliffs.
And beige box owners everywhere will be glad to hear that rumours of the PC's demise have been greatly exaggerated. "I didn't actually say that the PC was going to die or anything, I said that I would enjoy the challenge of doing a console game next", Peter explained. "I think that there's no doubt that the PC is brilliant for some forms of games - I can't imagine Civilization ever appearing on a console, and even things like Red Alert are far better on the PC than on the console. For those sort of games it's fantastic, but for more mass-market entertainment type games, especially games with a story where you can just dip in and dip out, then it's probably the console which is going to be a better home for those."
"It really comes down to the way you sit. I know that sounds bizarre, but if you're playing a console game you sit back and you're relaxed and you play for fifteen or twenty minutes. If you play a PC game you sit up and you're concentrating on the screen, and so when you're developing a PC game you kind of know that the person is going to be there for a few hours."
All of which means that Black & White is "definitely not the last PC game I will make", although Lionhead are still considering what platform their next game will be developed for. And in the meantime, we still have Black & White to look forward to. Expected to appear on March 30th or (failing that) April 6th, it promises to be one of the most original games of the year. Look for a full review right here on EuroGamer just as soon as we can get our hands on a copy!