Veteran British designer Peter Molyneux has always faced criticism and backlash for his work. He brings it on himself, most of the time, by promising ambitious features and then failing to fully deliver on them.
But with Kickstarted god game Godus - which recently launched on iOS as a free to play game - Molyneux has faced some of the most vehement detractors yet.
I chatted to the man behind Dungeon Keeper (the good one), Populous, and Fable to ask about the community's reaction to the launch, and asked him to defend his decision to go free to play.
We also chatted about the fate of Curiosity winner Bryan Henderson, Molyneux's reversal on the term "invest to play", and how you can make money by playing Godus. Or so Peter says.
Was it a different feeling launching a game that was funded by the fans, compared to one funded by a traditional publisher like Microsoft?
Yes, it was very different but bizarrely, and completely unexpectedly, there were some very similar things.
I knew when I started 22cans that I needed to go back to school as a designer. I started to see this thing in the industry about community-led development and watching playing people and analytics, and I wasn't exposed to it at all.
So doing a Kickstarter, launching on early access, and watching people play Godus for almost a year now has been a truly fascinating thing and I've felt kind of reborn as a designer.
However, the bizarre thing is that there are some parallels to the old publisher-led stuff. When you do a publisher-led game, the first thing you do is a greenlight - you go to a publisher with your game concept.
You've usually got a concept video, some images, you explain the game and they say "yeah, we'll fund you for the next few milestones". That's kind of exactly like Kickstarter.
The next stage in a publisher-led development is often "first playable". Now the publisher either says, "I don't like this, we're not going to fund it any more" or they'll say, "we'll fund it but you've got to make these changes to the game" or they'll say, "you're doing great, continue". That's kind of like the start of early access.
And very often, the game kind of discovers itself. With Godus, six weeks ago for some reason I woke up and thought "we've got to have Astari in the game" - it's this race of people that's in the iOS version. That didn't come to me until six weeks ago.
Now I wish, back in my Kickstarter time, I had said, "one of the biggest things in the game is the Astari," but my poor tired old brain didn't think like that.
The reaction online has been mixed. I looked at the comments section on your Kickstarter and some people are saying, "this is not what I paid for", and, "I'm disappointed", and, "the game promised something else". Were you surprised by the reaction?
The community forums are like this living thing. Sometimes they are just exuberantly excited about everything that happens, and sometimes they are incredibly negative about all sorts of things.
Now we always said in our Kickstarter campaign that we are making a mobile version. We were super clear about making a mobile version. And we've been saying now for nine months, "right, we're focusing on the mobile and then we're going back to the PC version."
I just think that the community has unfortunately twisted itself into two obsessions.
Firstly, the fact that we are doing a free to play game, they think that that is a betrayal. The simple fact is that if you want to do a game on mobile it's like doing a video on YouTube.
People will not pay for games on mobile. They are not used to paying for games on mobile - especially the audience that we want to find. Why would they want to pay for a game?
There are some paid games like Monument Valley for example that have been successfully, but they've had about a million downloads. Godus achieved that in a few days because it was free.
Designers in this industry have to own free to play and have to love free to play and have to define free to play and not run away from free to play.
So I think our community got very upset about that. They also got upset about one of the game mechanics in Godus, and that was the wait timers. And what I as a designer was trying to do, especially on the PC version, with wait timers was trying to get you the player to focus on more than one thing. And that's why I did wait timers and why they've always been in the PC version.
And really what I'm trying to do as a designer is try to persuade you to think like this: "I've set that off, I'll leave that going, I'll go an focus on something else". And this is an idea that I first experienced in Civilization. In one city you've set off some building and it'll take 40 turns and in another city you'll be defending some battle. I thought that was a brilliant thing to do and I wanted to pull that across to Godus.
Unfortunately, the community is really focused on that. So my answer to that is to say, [this] week, on Tuesday, we're going to release the ability to mod all those wait timers and all the cost of things. This is only on PC. You can change them live, inside the game, you can publish your changes on Steamworks, you can reduce the wait timers to nothing or you can ramp them up to hours.
If you feel that they're unfair, then make them fair. The tool doesn't require any programming and I think that is going to be an interesting point. If we say, "here is the heart of all the balance files in the game, go out and see what you can make of it".
Why is that only on PC and not on mobile?
For a start, we released on mobile and we've had about 20,000 five star likes. It's been downloaded millions of times. There are people playing Godus every single day and they love it. I don't think they're people who have played experiences like this many times before.
We are making slight adjustments to that. There are differences to the wait timers on the mobile and PC version because experiencing a game on mobile is different.
It's also, you've got to remember, because we're dealing with free to play, this is an economy that you're dealing with. You can't just suddenly change that.
How do the wait timers change from the ones in the Dungeon Keeper reboot on iOS, that you were quite vocal in your distaste for?
I think you said, "I just want to make a dungeon, I don't want to schedule my alarm clock for six days to come back for the block to be chipped". Couldn't someone say the same about making a house in Godus?
The problem with Dungeon Keeper wasn't the six days. The problem was that the first block I tapped on in Dungeon Keeper said two days and it was just a really unfortunate mistake exposing me to wait timers that were multiple hours long in the first thing that I did. It was terrible because I wasn't used to that length of time.
And when I gave that quote, it was a phone call and the BBC phoned me up and I said, "well let me download it" and I got it and tapped on a block and it said two days so I gave that line. It wasn't a mistake for them to use free to play, it was a mistake to expose the user to those elongated wait times.
Now if you notice that the wait timers in Godus, there are no wait timers that are multiple hours until much much much later in the game. I'm all for waiting an entire day for something, if there are lots of other things for you to do. That seems fine to me.
So I still justify that their mistake was to expose me to those elongated wait timers as the first thing I saw in the game. Not that free to play as a mechanic is broken, or that it was a stupid thing. Actually, the next block I tapped on was two seconds and I could build my dungeon out as much as I wanted.
That was a a tragic quote and it has caused people to absolutely hate me. And that one quote, which took me ten seconds to say, could mean that I have to retreat from any press. That could be the reaction to this.
Because now I'm doing a free to play game. I still stand by the idea that the only way to do a mobile game and to reach millions of people (unless you're Minecraft) is through free to play. And the more designers that really start embracing free to play and start balancing free to play to make it fair, the better that free to play will become. I still stand by that.
I love the fact that at least 50 percent of people who are playing Godus at this moment have never played a game like that.
It's interesting that you use the term free to play because when we last chatted at Casual Connect in Amsterdam you called it "invest to play" and you told me off when I called it free to play…
Well because of all this feedback, people have started to boot me up about saying invest to play, and saying I was just disguising something when it is free to play. I still believe in that, in that each time someone spends money it should feel like more than an investment, than you're just spending money and wasting it.
For me, I don't want Godus to ever feel like a game where a lot of free to play games make you say, "well if I spend £5, it will be about ten minutes later I'll spend another £5".
I can show you the analytics where people don't spend money like that in Godus. They spend £5 and then they don't spend any more money for a long time. And I can prove that it's fair in that sense.
So I prefer invest to play. But I feel now I am universally hated by the gaming people… I was bullied at school. Badly bullied at school. And I feel some of that emotion bubbling up inside me again now.
But I live and die by what comes out in the press. And I have to accept that. But when people are saying vehement things, which includes death threats and includes things like, "I'm gonna come around there with a shotgun and blow your head off" because I've done a free to play game it kind of reminds me of when I was at school and people used to beat me up just because I was a bit of a dreamer.
I'm not saying I don't expect it. I do expect it…
Looking back at your Kickstarter page, do you think it was representative of the game that's out?
Yes, I do. I think its representative because I have, unfortunately, always been a designer and it said this time and time again, and in the 40 videos we released afterwards, that we are discovering this game, we're iterating, we're taking people's feedback.
Every game I have ever made has been discovered as we've made the game. Now the heart of what Godus was is still true. We said at the start of our Kickstarter campaign that we want to reinvent the god game, and I feel like that we've stuck to that.
We said in the Kickstarter campaign that we want to do the PC and Mac, and iOS and Android, and we're working our way through that. We focused on PC at the start, and then on mobile, and now we're switching back to PC again.
There are some god powers we haven't yet implemented, like the whirlwind and the tidal wave, and we're winding our way through to that. But we've absolutely said on the PC version that this is only 50 percent of the experience.
I can't think of many things that I said in my Kickstarter campaign that haven't come true or that we haven't at least tried and rejected because it didn't work.
I just think that people are saying we aren't true to our Kickstarter campaign because of free to play. But that's not our decision, it's the decision of the device. We would be mad not to go free to play and we wouldn't reach the audience we want so dearly.
I have always said this. I have always said that I want to bring gamers and casual people together. The only way I'm going to reach those casual people is free to play.
And it isn't as if the free to play version of the game has introduced some tragic new mechanic. Actually, if you go and play and PC version today it's as similar as ever before to the mobile version.
So I think it's as true as my skill can make it. I have never been the sort of person to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and say, "there's the design, go and make that game". I've always involved myself in the game, and played the game, and tried to make a great game from experimenting with things.
If you look at Godus and you look at all the versions. We must be up to about 12 versions on Steam Early Access by now, and you look how building a house has changed, and how making settlements has changed, and how the world itself has changed, we have done everything we possibly can in the name of making a great game.
Do you think the game would be different on PC if there was no mobile version? Has designing for mobile changed the PC version?
I think if we had gone out in our Kickstarter campaign and said we are going to make a PC game it would be different, yes.
But if you look at our Kickstarter page it said: for PC, Mac, and mobile. And the reality was when we started the Kickstarter campaign a year and a half ago, paid apps on those devices was a lot more successful. That's the reality.
The reality is now that if you release a paid app on these devices it reaches a tenth of the consumers. It's like releasing a YouTube video that you have to pay for.
I'm not saying that's the only reason we did it but that's the reality.
Another criticism that people have had of the game is that it's all about squishing down idyllic hilly landscapes to make flat plains and then building houses. What do you say to that?
You are absolutely right, when the first version of Early Access - which wasn't a game, we never thought it should be viewed as a game, it was a prototype, it was a vertical slice, it was a tiny portion of the game - is that people made these vast flat plains.
And they were ugly and they didn't look right. So my answer was - I don't want to forbid people to do that, but I wanted to tweak the game in a way that incentivises them to not to do that. So I started to put different costs to the different heights that you sculpted out, and that allowed me to create landscapes which made it very difficult for people to make those big flat plains.
So if you look at our current land, there's this first starting area with all free sculpting. That's bounded by deep sea where you can't sculpt. You can unlock the ability to sculpt that but what I wanted to do was push people forward to use the landscape rather than just make those flat things.
So I'm trying to solve that through refining and balancing. Remember that we're not anywhere close to finishing this stuff.
As a designer it must be amazing to release incremental upgrades, and do soft launches and Early Access, but it seems like these early prototypes can stick in people's minds and make them think that's what the game is going to be like
Is that a challenge do you, and do you think you'd use Early Access again in future games?
Just because something's hard to do, it doesn't mean you shouldn't do it that way.
And this has been the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, because a lot of people have judged the entirety of my career and the whole future of something like Godus based upon [an early version of the game] which was released because we said in our Kickstarter campaign that we would release early, and said it was 25 percent of the experience, and everyone said, "this is a load of shit, all you do is flatten the land. All you do is tap. I've got RSI".
But I take all that criticism, I take the criticism now that has lasted for over a year, for the sake of making a great game. I'd take it every single time. I'd take the bullying, every single time, because I completely believe that there is a brilliant game there in Godus that is going to bring people together.
I believe that. and I'll take that criticism, and I'll take that community because sometimes for every ten haters, there's someone who inspires our team.
Our community now is a place that's pretty horrible. Someone sent me an email the other day and said I tried to say something nice on the Godus forums and I was bullied and shouted away. And to think that's happening is a pretty horrible thing.
But it doesn't mean that I should retreat from it, it means that I have to prove that we care about this game and this experience, and that's what I'm trying to do now.
What has curiosity winner Bryan Henderson been up to, lately?
He's not up to anything, other than he makes a portion of every pound we make. He accrues all that money - we're not paying him yet, but he's accruing it. But he's not doing anything until we turn on the multiplayer.
Now, I had hoped to do the multiplayer stuff pretty soon, but I think I'm a bit worried to experiment more with the PC early access stuff until we've got this current tidal wave [of criticism] sorted. But when we do that's when you have the opportunity to come together, to band together, as nations.
I'm very nervous about doing this. Because it's a very very different approach to multiplayer and at the moment if I launch that I think there would be a dot appear on my forehead because we need to solve this community crisis. But we are hopefully switching that on in the next month or so.
It's a very difficult feature to get right because what we're trying to do is make an entire persistent planet and that means that it's got to be totally robust before we do that.
So what will Bryan be able to do when multiplayer is online?
Oh, so Bryan breaks ties. There's a feature that we haven't rolled out yet called commandments where your followers will come and ask you for your guidance on something.
A classic example of this: should women stay at home and look after the family, or should it be down to men, or should it be equally shared? When you make that decision you'll see what percentage of players chose each decision and if there's a clear majority that becomes the default behaviour through everyone's worlds. Unless you override it as a god.
Now if there's a tie that's what the god of gods, Bryan, breaks. So each week we'll present him with "there's been these commandments and there are these ties, what decision will you make?"
His reign will last for about six months from when we unlock multiplayer. Within those six months, communities can come together to earn the right to challenge Bryan and overthrow him as god of gods.
At the end of six months he'll either retain his reign and retain the money, or we'll have a new god of gods.
Will he keep the money if he's overthrown?
Yeah, any money that he earns in his reign. And any subsequent person that earns it in their reign, it's theirs.
So if I become a god and overthrow Bryan, I will earn money from 22cans?
From that moment, any money that we make on Godus, you will share some of that.
Do you stand by your claim that the Curiosity prize was "life changing?"
We'll for an 18 year old kid who was sitting at home and wondering what to do next, to featuring in a Wired magazine, on the BBC, in his local newspaper, and accuring thousands of pounds in his bank account, and controlling the moral direction of an entire game, that sounds pretty life changing to me.
I'm sure there are more life changing things, but it's money, it's fame. When this starts, the challenges are all going to be televised on Twitch. It's not like being in the Big Brother house or anything. But it's pretty good.