Peter Molyneux: At What Point Does Ambition Become Deception?

February 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

It’s not hard to remember a time when Kickstarter appeared to be the solution to all of the video game industry’s woes. Projects such as the Double Fine adventure, the Oculus Rift, and Elite: Dangerous proved that a combination of ambition and fan support was all that a producer required to get their idea off the ground.

It wasn’t long before the cracks started to show. The Double Fine adventure (eventually titled ‘Broken Age’) was split into two parts of which the Kickstarter backers would only receive the first, development of the Oculus Rift has necessitated the company being bought by Facebook, Elite: Dangerous was released to decidedly middling reviews, and that’s without even mentioning the Ouya. It would be an exaggeration to say that Kickstarter has been an abject failure, but as time passes it appears more and more as though crowd-funding should be seen as a supplement to, rather than a complete replacement of, more traditional funding models.

Godus is the most recent project to have courted controversy. After a turbulent development period that saw the mobile version being prioritised over the full PC version (itself delayed with no release date set), and the winner of a key promotional competition being ignored for months, the previous head of development has taken the decision to pass the reigns on to someone else within the studio to allow them to bring the project back under control.

Normally this wouldn’t be big news, Kickstarters spiral out of control all the time. It’s the nature of video game development, costs start to ramp up, unforeseen technical and design problems crop up, and before anyone realises the project runs out of budget. Under traditional funding models which see a deep-pocketed publisher footing the bill this is a tricky situation, but when a project is crowd-funded developers have significantly fewer options. The result in most cases is a cancelled game and public embarrassment for the developer.

Godus is different for one simple reason, and that simple reason is Peter Molyneux.

Peter Molyneux is no stranger to the spotlight. A veteran developer of over twenty years, Molyneux is one of the founding fathers of the God-game genre, as well as being the creative mind behind the Fable franchise. In recent years however his name has become synonymous with ambitious marketing hype and under-delivery, to the extent that a satirical twitter parody named ‘Peter Molydeux’ has amassed 80,000 followers.

In Microsoft’s 2009 press briefing at E3 Peter Molyneux was prominently featured in the announcement video for ‘Project Natal’ (later released as the ‘Kinect’) in which he made ambitious claims about how the technology would allow gamers to interact with characters in a virtual world. When Kinect was eventually released it turned out to be little more than an Eyetoy with depth-perception and voice-recognition. Not an abject failure by any means, but hardly the revolution Molyneux promised.

In the run up to the release of Fable II Molyneux made similar claims about the role of the in-game dog that would act as your companion. According to him it would change the face of the gaming industry as well as have a profound effect upon the game world. The reality was that your canine companion would help you dig for treasure and occasionally attack enemies. Again, not exactly a broken feature, but hardly the revolution promised.

Molyneux has a clear problem with over-promising and under delivering. He speaks passionately about the games he’s producing, but in retrospect it seems as though the promises he appears to be making are ideas rather than concrete features. This way of talking about the medium would be fine were he to be approaching the medium from a theoretical perspective, but it’s at odds with the need of a marketing push to sell a product which is actively in development. Were Peter Molyneux to be chairing a panel at GDC such philosophising about the potential of the medium would be welcomed; at a trade show it comes off as a little deceptive.

However, for all intents and purposes, these promises have been taken with a pinch of salt. Molyneux has certainly received a fair bit of flack for his promises, but whilst the finished product was ultimately still a good game then there was little problem. Consumers have enough tools at their disposal to make informed purchasing decisions; games reviews are hardly undertaken for the sake of it.

With Godus however, things were different. Molyneux was not delivering his lofty ideas to a hall of informed journalists, he was delivering them directly to his fans, who would have to give him money years in advance of being able to critically evaluate his product. There are no preview copies, no proofs of concept, just the ambition of one man.

And now the bubble has burst.

It’s understandable that people are upset. Promises have been broken, development has substantially shifted gear (in a bad way), and despite receiving a great deal more than their initial Kickstarter goal, Godus is still months away from release. I wouldn’t go as far as to call Molyneux a ‘pathological liar’ but the Godus that will eventually see the light of day is a far cry from what was initially promised.

And yet it’s hard not to feel that Molyneux’s withdrawal from the spotlight will be a substantial loss for the industry. In a world of bland PR-promises that never have the potential to cause any controversy, Peter Molyneux at least added a bit of spice with his ability to convey his sheer excitement at getting to develop a game. Yes he over-promised, and yes his finished products never fully delivered, but his ideas still ended up in the public domain for others to gain inspiration from.

Maybe the problem isn’t so much that he made ambitious speeches, but that he gave them in the context of promises about an existing game. I’m of the opinion that whatever happens, the industry needs people like Molyneux to speculate about where the medium might be going, to at least put the ideas out there for the industry to draw upon. If everyone suddenly becomes terrified of vocalising their ambitions then it’s easy to imagine a future devoid of creative sparks to drive the creative industry at large.

That would be the biggest loss to result from this controversy, if creative refused to share their ambitious ideas for fear of failing to completely deliver on them. Sometimes the industry needs individuals who are prepared to throw out half-formed ideas, if only to allow the wider community a chance to develop upon them.

There was a time when Kickstarter was seen as a place to throw caution to the wind, but increasingly it seems as though access to customer’s wallets is a cause for less, rather than more, ambition.

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