Interview

The Godus amongst us: Molyneux talks free-to-play farces, winning without chasing whales and his top score on Flappy Bird

The Godus amongst us: Molyneux talks free-to-play farces, winning without chasing whales and his top score on Flappy Bird

Godusmay have been in public beta since before the end of 2013, but according to the man behind it – 22Cans' ever-prominent Peter Molyneux – we ain't seen nothing yet.

You see, Molyneux's latest 'God game' is very much the product of modern day development and, as he explained last week at Casual Connect Europe in Amsterdam, that doesn't just mean stretching play across multiple platforms. It also means testing out amongst the masses.

Said beta test is described as a "ridiculous risk" by Molyneux, and the muted response across social networks the game has received from players to date highlights the dangers of exposing your title to the gaze of the public pre-release.

But, as Molyneux laid out when we caught up with him after his fireside chat, developers are at the beck and call of gamers in the modern age, and learning to accommodate both how consumers want to play and when is something all studios are going to have to get to grips with.

If they can tear themselves away from Flappy Bird for five minutes, that is.

Pocket Gamer: Some of our readers might be surprised to see you here at Casual Connect – you wouldn't necessarily spring to mind when someone thinks of 'casual' gaming. How would you define casual gaming in 2014?

Peter Molyneux:
Well I think that thereby hangs the quandary, because a lot of casual gamers are new to games – they haven't done gaming before. A lot of them you could have asked five years ago 'do you play games', and they would have looked at you as if you were some kind of alien.

Now though there are a few games they engage with, so they're very new and they're very naïve. They're these tender shoots where if we do a really good job, they'll be able to think of themselves of gamers. They're brand new gamers, really.

That's one side of the equation. The other side of the equation is that the core gamers that we all probably are – well, I don't know if you consider yourself a core gamer...

Well, I probably was before I started this job...

[Laughs] Well, those gamers feel slightly betrayed casual games – they feel that in some way they have dumbed down gaming, and I think my dream is to take those new shoots and mix them with the people who have truly thought of gaming as their hobby.

Why do we put up this brick wall saying 'casual games are not for core gamers, they're just for these new gamers'? We approach casual games in a very over-simplistic way, and we don't put as much love in them as a lot of core games have.

If you think of the amount of obsessiveness there is in things like the Call of Duty series or the Grand Theft Auto series – well, I think casual games need that much obsessive love.

So, I'd prefer to look forward to where casual gaming will be rather than saying, okay, so you have to be doing a match-three or you have to be playing a game like Clash of Clans.

Do you think there's a prejudice against the kind of studios that put out these kinds of casual games from other developers, though? A sort of snobbery?

Yeah, well I think it's not a snobbery from within the industry as such. The games industry is made up of core gamers - that's who we are.

We're either ex-core gamers or currently core gamers, and so it's not a snobbery in industry terms, but there is this kind of hatred against free-to-play by core gamers – it's like the 'child molestation of gameplay'. People think if you're involved in free-to-play, then your game must be awful.

But, when you think about it really, it should be the most liberating form of monetisation, because what you're essentially doing with free-to-play when it works really well, you're enabling people to get into your game before they start paying you money for it. Why shouldn't us core gamers love that?

We used to get demos of games, and we used to play them and think 'oh, that's alright' or 'yeah I'd like that' and then you'd go out and buy it. Well, this is all kind of built into the game itself now.

So, I don't think there's a kind of snobbery as such, but there is this big Chinese brick wall between casual gaming and core gaming. We're all gaming for Christ's sake – why shouldn't you be able to pull these two things together?

So, if we think of this as a new age in terms of both gamers and gaming, how have you approached Godus? What does it do that hasn't been done before?

It's very, very hard to describe, because I think that what we're doing is inventing an approach that hasn't been tried before. The way I describe that is, I think the term 'free-to-play' is wrong – it doesn't quite work. I like the term 'invest-to-play'.

I love this concept that core games have had loops in them that required core gamers to do impossible things. If you think of...well I was involved in Fable, and I asked people to run around this land for countless hours levelling up their character.

You did battle after battle after battle to get to level 10, level 11 or level 12, and I think in a way casual games shorten all this. They're saying to people, 'well, you don't have to play anything, you just have to pay.'

I think these two approaches have to be brought together, so I feel the first thing I've got to get people to do is to think of playing Godus as not just a game but as a hobby. There's always something to do – there aren't these big loops where you just say 'right, you've clicked on this, you've done three taps, now you have to wait a day'.

Godus

I think that way of approaching a game doesn't make it feel like a hobby any more. It makes me feel like I'm a service provider to the game. I'm not involved – the only decision I take is, do I spend my money now, or do I wait two days? I think that's really crude.

I gave this analogy – a bit of a crazy analogy – but if you think of a supermarket, the whole way a supermarket is designed is to persuade you gently to spend more money. When you walk into a supermarket you always walk in to the fresh fruit section, and you think 'oh, this is lovely'. Then they guide you past the bakery and you get the smell of fresh bread.

What they're doing is very subtly tempting you to treat yourself. You don't feel bad about treating yourself, and that mechanic, that psychological approach of getting money out of you as a consumer in a supermarket has taken years to refine and perfect - it was started in America when they started spraying fresh bread spray in stores.

We need to think about the way supermarkets think about laying out their stores. We need to think in that sort of deep way.

We also need to realise we're bringing together lots of different consumers that a lot of them at the moment with free-to-play games with this one thought: this time I'm not going to cheat and spend any money. That is never a great way to foster a hobby – people thinking, 'well if I spend money on my hobby, then I'm cheating'.

It's all about forming a relationship with the consumer and making sure they see the value of what you're doing. Giving them lots of alternatives to actually spending money, but also temping them – not demanding them – but tempting them into spending money.

Do you think the free-to-play developers that are guilty of demanding players spend money in this way – or punishing people for being impatient as you said on stage - are aware that's what they're doing? Or are they simply following what's been successful before?

Well, this is the thing. If we're not careful, governments are going to come and legislate against this stuff. It's already happening – it's inevitable.

If you have a game where a kid spends thousands of pounds of their parents' money, what's going to happen? Governments are going to leap in with their political agenda and the whole thing will be legislated against.

We have got to be careful about monetisation. I think games that are relying upon 'whales' – games built around the idea that you've got to monetise those whales, get as much money out of those whales as you possibly can, and then as soon as you've raped them for their money, you tell them to fuck off and move on to the next one – well, that is never going to last. It's not a model that can sustain itself.

I think if you look at the way those games are monetised over four to five years, then they're just not going to last. We've got to put as much inventiveness and as much inspiration into that relationship with the consumer as we would with any other part of the game.

I was intrigued about analytics, and we had some talks with some monetisation guys and they were horrified – 'you've got to get your currency introduced in the first five seconds of gameplay, otherwise your retention rate will go down'. The only time I think you should take a player to a shop that quickly in a game I think is if your game is about shopping. [Laughs].

I mean, if you considered starting a new hobby and the first thing you had to do was spend £200 on equipment, you're probably not going to do that hobby for all too long. The best thing to do is to get people to enjoy the games, and then to tempt them.

You know, my hobby is cooking. I don't have to spend £300 on a magic new mixer, but when I'm into my hobby I'm tempted to spend on it, and that's the psychological approach. Of course, all of this [in Godus] is woven around an unbelievably delicious, delightful, sumptuous game as well, which just feels so beautifully accessible.

Switching topics a little, you briefly talked about Flappy Bird on stage earlier – I can admit, it took most games journalists a little bit by surprise, and I think most developers thought the days of an indie coming out of nowhere to top the app charts were long gone...

Well, my theory about Flappy Bird is firstly it was an incredibly simple thing where you and I could compare ourselves. My score on Flappy Bird is 29...

Damn, I'm only on 28...

Anyway, it's a very easy way for us to communicate. Whereas other games are very very complicated. I think Flappy Bird demonstrates the incredible power of [Swedish game commentator] PewDiePie.

If you look at Flappy Bird's sales, they were kind of flat, and then PewDiePie did this hilarious video where the only way to beat his girlfriend at the game was to swear a lot. And then the sales just went right up.

Can you beat Molyneux's Flappy Bird top score of 29?

He is supremely powerful in this industry – he's one of the most powerful people around. If he plays a game and he likes it, he probably has more power than Apple's recommendations system.

But that's kind of all been lost in the noise hasn't it?

Well, yes, but then the game gets up there, and then people can so easily spread it by tweeting 'my Flappy Bird score is 49'. Me and my son played it and I almost did what PewDiePie did - albeit in a much gentler way - but there was lots of shouting involved. Basically, it's a one off.

Do you think there's a risk now every one will think they can chase Flappy Bird's success? Does it give hope?

Whenever anything like this happens, you then end up with like twenty Flappy Duck and Fluffy Bird games. You get all these clones, but it never works because it was just a moment in time.

It's like the equivalent of The Blair Witch Project. You know, that film was made with a $50,000 budget and with handheld cameras, but that doesn't mean every film is going to be shot on handheld cameras and with a cheap budget.

It was a moment in time that actually wasn't replicated again until Paranormal Activity until about twenty years later – it took that length of time. Now, I'm not going to say there isn't going to be another 'Flappy Bird' soon – there probably will be – but people that think that games are all about people doing this [taps a steady rhythm out on his phone's screen] are wrong.

What do you think it says about the games industry that Hollywood realised it couldn't just clone The Blair Witch Project, yet we've already seen scores of games try and imitate Flappy Bird?

Well, Hollywood did try, but they were all shit. [Laughs]. I'm sure there's going to be lots of Flappy Bird clones, but I'm also sure that the moment has gone. Is everyone going to want to play Flappy Bird all their life? No.

But what it does do is, it shows this device [points at his phone] is making new gamers all the time, and what a fascinating opportunity we as developers have.

When we spoke to you before Curiosity came out, you said you and 22Cans were almost treating the games you put out as experiments – that each one would teach you something about gaming today. What would say you've learned so far?

We've learned a hell of a lot. We've learned how to connect millions of people simultaneously, and we've learned that, in a way, Curiosity was a bit like Flappy Bird.

We never thought that millions of people...well, at one point we had over a million people tapping on the cube in one day. That was incredible. We had five million downloads, and it was this incredible success in that way.

I can't really analyse it or understand it, but we did learn that people will find a way of communicating even if you don't give them a chat mode – people love telling stories, even with the game mechanics.

Curiosity

The accessibility of something is so powerful and that's the thing about Curiosity. You could pick it up and just tap, and that's how we learned about the primary game mechanic of Godus which is all about stroking and feeling the land – pulling it to life.

We spent countless man-years on getting that feeling just right, and the sound of it just right. We've also learned how you can make something that motivates vast numbers of people to all join forces.

We had another experiment planned, but to maintain an app that has millions of people playing just takes an enormous amount of effort and time, and we realised that we would just be a company that does experiments and nothing else. But we did have another experiment where we had this cube on this hill, and you could push it up with your finger but it got progressively harder.

If you got your friends to push at exactly the same time, the cube would move further. In the end it would have taken thousands of people pushing simultaneously – the question was could you solve that problem without any help from the game, just through social media.

We realised it would take a long time to do and a lot of time to maintain and tell the world about, so we said 'right, we've learned enough from Curiosity, we've learned about all the tech and our motivations, now's the time to start development on an actual game.'

You were talking on stage earlier about how you have to have experts in all forms of hardware within a team now so you can take a game multiplatform, enabling players who want to play at home on their PC and then carry on play on the bus. What about the players who want to play a game like Godus just on one platform – do you have to compromise to accommodate them too?

Well, it's quite easy to actually think of mechanics that can support a mouse and mechanics that support touch. And if I play Godus on one platform, you can see it changing on another, so we're not saying...well, it's up to you the way you approach it.

Do you prefer this multiplatform way of thinking then? You were saying on stage that focusing on one platform in the olden days was a 'holiday' compared to how thing work now...

Yeah, I think the 'good old days' of totally focusing on one format have come and gone, and they've gone because consumers don't want to lock themselves to one big screen any more. They want to be free to do this stuff anywhere.

I love Godus on mobile because I don't have to boot anything up – it's just there, and you can tweak around in your world and then switch back to the PC to do the more strategic stuff.

You talk about switching between platforms there – it's been more and more difficult for us at Pocket Gamer to work out which devices we should cover and which we shouldn't...

Well, yes, that's it, isn't it? We as developers have the power to truly connect people through the software on these devices, but I just don't think much in the way that has done that yet.

That's what's important to us – you can literally be sculpting your land on Godus on one device and millions of other players could be doing the same thing on the same surface of the planet simultaneously. That is so amazing, and you really realise what we're doing when you see that.

The way we've developed Godus is by just showing just little tiny cracks of what the game could be – it's not going to be until next month when we go into gamma that the world will really learn what we've been making.

And then it'll take over people's lives.

[Laughs] Well, not take over their lives. Actually, this is a serious point - it will fit into your lives, and that's the trick. In one sense I loved World of Warcraft, but that took over my life for sure. For a while my one year old son lay crying in his cot for like an hour because I was in the middle of a raid.

People don't have those lifestyles any more. It's got to fit into your life, and if you happen to have a good Godus session tonight, then that doesn't mean you have to have a good Godus session every single night.

The artistry of what games are slowly becoming is this feeling that they're more like a hobby, and it's about how much time you give the hobby and not how much time the hobby demands from you.

I've actually had to delete mobile games I've loved in the past because they punish me for not playing them constantly.

Well, it comes down to motivation again. If playing something like Godus is like being on the beach and building a sandcastle, and you're building away and then you stand back and it looks great, and then someone then comes along and kicks that down, well, I'm going to end up in tears, man!

But, equally, there's got to be some kind of challenge – there's got to be some kind of threat in there. With Godus, you can end up competing with millions of people, and you will see absolutely empirically why we did Curiosity and where that led us.

It's completely insane. When it comes out, I predict it'll be a game changing moment, and that's why I left the safety of Microsoft and why I've put my money into the company and the ridiculous risk of doing Kickstarter and the even more ridiculous risk of doing the beta that we needed to test this game.

So you can expect something sublimely different from everything else you've ever played before.

That's quite a promise.

Well, there you go! [Laughs]. I think I'm slightly over-promising yet again.

Thanks to Peter for his time.

Tags:

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.

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