Gaming Legend Peter Molyneux: What Makes A Great Game Great?

How do you make a truly great game? Peter Molyneux has been asked that question countless times. For the 53-year-old British gaming luminary known for both his veteran status in the industry and his polarizing ambition to surpass expectations, the words “mobile” and “social” are his next steps toward an answer.

“The way we develop games is changing very fast and it’s changing forever,” he says.

Molyneux, known best for launching titles from the ground floor of the PC era in the late ‘80s and going on to create the Fable game series, is probably the last person one would expect to staunchly reject the Xbox-and-Playstation-dominated console generation. In the age of slingshotting birds, farming crops and more Facebook word puzzles than you can spell, mobile and social games are thought of less for their greatness and more for the mindless actions they lure players to perform for unfulfilling rewards.

But Molyneux is turning that notion on its head. With a new studio, 22Cans, he is putting all his professional weight behind turning these simple games into full-blown social experiments, with the dream that he can get an unprecedented number of smartphone owners playing - and thinking - in his world all at the same time.

From Floppy Disks To Fable

Following a career selling floppy disks with Atari and Commodore 64 games on them, Molyneux almost left the industry after a rocky start developing his own titles, including a text-based business simulator that sold just two copies.

Bouncing back with a lucrative stint creating database networking software, Molyneux co-founded Bullfrog Productions in 1987. His first hit, Populous, a PC "God-game" that let players play the role of a deity, came two years later. Populous went on to sell 5 million copies and establish Molyneux’s career.

In 1997 Molyneux co-founded Lionhead Studios, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2006. Lionhead’s big hit was Fable, a game that continued to explore the good and evil tendencies that drive player motivations. As one of the first big studio titles to focus heavily on player morality, Fable was notable for weaving player choice and story, altering everything from your character’s appearance to the way the world reacted to you, all within a good-versus-evil framework.

A number of sequels eventually led to the stagnancy of the series, and Molyneux announced his departure from Microsoft last March. He now has co-founded 22Cans, an independent game studio based in Guilford, United Kingdom, with former Lionhead Studios CTO Tim Rance.

What’s Inside The Cube?

His first title since leaving Microsoft is called Curiosity - What’s Inside the Cube. It is also Molyneux’s first foray into mobile gaming, and it’s so veiled in secrecy that it conjures up memories of debating what Jack Shephard and John Locke will find inside the infamous hatch on Lost.

Marketed as half social experiment and half competition, Curiosity is a free iOS and Android game released last month that has many users and critics skeptical, and not because it’s even more mind numbingly simple than clicking a cow. Rather, it’s because the game allegedly has the power to change lives. Well, for one of us at least.

In Curiosity, you do but one thing: tap the screen and see a cubelet shatter away to the satisfying flutter of disintegrating glass. That block is one of 68 billion pieces of an enigmatic floating cube. But only one person - the one who taps away the final cubelet - will get to see what’s inside.

The secret contents of the cube have been described as “life changing” in the game’s brief intro and by Molyneux himself. Aiding the mystique is alternating cube art for every other new layer, ranging from real-life photos and still-life art to cryptic literature references.

This monumental tease has prompted a fresh round of accusations that Molyneux is once again overhyping the gravity of his creation, resulting in disappointment when the finished product doesn’t live up to expectations. It’s a tendency of his that peaked with the Fable series and has dogged him throughout his career, even generating a satirical Twitter account dedicated to his grandiose ideas.

But Molyneux has been steadfast on his promises, leaving players with an insatiable interest in 22Cans’ creations, of which there will be 21 more following Curiosity.

Molyneux has announced that Curiosity 2.0 is on the way, to be submitted to Apple this week and released soon after approval. He hopes to release it for Android a little earlier to get it in the hands of players as soon as possible.

As for the updates, “It’s a mixture of things we learned, new ways of interacting and making the cube smaller, there’s a real sense of new timeness,” Molyneux says.

So while the visibility of real-time changes and new destruction tools (including the most expensive downloadable content ever) will be nice, the more important addition with the release of Curiosity 2.0 will be the insight 22Cans has gained from the past three weeks.

“There’s some really fascinating things about player motivation we’ve learned. We’re going to go into a lot of detail… about how Curiosity has altered our perception of what a game is,” Molyneux says.

Currently, the app has been downloaded “a few million times,” Molyneux says, and players have blasted away more than 5 billion of the cube’s 68 billion cubelets, giving 22Cans a trove of data to sift through and analyze.

A number cruncher and Wikipedia editor has figured out a potential time scale for the cube, using some complex summation formulas. Because the first layer had 100 million cubelets and each layer is slightly smaller than the last, 68 billion in total equates to a little more than 2,000 layers. That puts the end date somewhere in the ballpark of late next summer at the current rate.

But Molyneux doesn’t want numbers like that to convince anybody that the game will drag on for a year and kill its namesake quality, especially considering the fact that we’re only on layer 70. “There’s a limit, but we can always bring that forward,” he says, meaning that at any point 22Cans could make the next layer the center of the cube and accelerate the entire experiment.

Meanwhile 22Cans has extracted a number of important lessons from Curiosity. For one, the studio learned the hard way what happens when an independent game company’s creation yields hundreds of thousands of downloads in the first few days, and had to formally apologize for the app’s early bugs.

Crowdfunding And Project Godus

Molyneux and his studio have been transparent from the beginning about their games acting as both social experiments and educational tools to be absorbed for future titles. While Curiosity still attracts new users every day, Molyneux is already gearing up for his next big thing — “Project Godus.”

Announced on Kickstarter on November 21, Godus is Molyneux’s vehicle for reviving the God-game genre he popularized decades ago. Slated as a reboot of Populous, Godus will aim to take that experience further on iOS and Android alongside a more graphically rich PC version.

The crux will be this ability to shift platforms, from desktops and laptops to smartphones. Molyneux hopes this will capitalize on how game playing is changing from long-duration console experiences to multiple-screen, on-the-go gaming. He says his studio can offer a truly balanced experience. “Most people are not overly attached to a particular platform anymore. The platform is just a window.” In three to ten years, “releasing something on a single device will be unthinkable,” Molyneux says.

“This is some of the tech that we tested on Curiosity,” he adds. “Can you link people together on many different platforms, over 200 with Android for instance? Can they all be fair? And if you looked at Curiosity, there were completely different engines powering that.”

Of the nearly £500,000 needed, the Kickstarter campaign has already amassed upwards of £192,000 with some unique prizes for generous backers, like a chisel-engraved titanium necklace with the game’s logo on it or the opportunity to co-design a character named after you.

While 22Cans isn’t the first group of indie developers to utilize Kickstarter to rekindle a popular franchise, the studio certainly jump-started the crowdfunding with the enormous interest generated through Curiosity. And while backers of the project may get some wearable swag, it’s a two-way street. The studio can develop Godus with unprecedented feedback.

Building An Audience Through Beta Testing

In Molyneux’s eyes, the common thread between great games is the amount of time spent playing, learning from and refining the game. “If that theory is sound, then how do you find a group of people that really care about it? That’s where Kickstarter comes in,” he says. “We can find a group of people that not only actually care to play the game, but they also want to pay to test it.”

With Godus, even lower-tier rewards for donations offer beta and even alpha testing of the game as it is being developed. That's better than than waiting and testing the finished product select focus groups, Molyneux says, which was a tendency that kept big studios like Microsoft from doing anything but minor tweaking to projects like Fable II.

Molyneux won’t offer any fresh hints about the secret inside Curiosity. “It’s not cash, a car or Half-Life 3,” is all he’ll say, though it does seem to pain him to fall back on his PR-approved one-liner.

Though the life-changing aspects of 22Cans’ creations may be Molyneux’s biggest overpromise to date, with the success of Curiosity, there's been no shortage of people willing to listen and cross their fingers right alongside him. It seems that many people would rather waste their time in pursuit of something grand, even if the chances of winning are infinitesimal, than follow companies like Zynga into a profit-hungry maze with no exit?