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Molyneux: Free-to-play is like 'smashing consumers over the head with a sledgehammer'

Molyneux: Free-to-play is like 'smashing consumers over the head with a sledgehammer'

"In some ways, this industry has changed incredibly," offered Peter Molyneux during his fireside chat at this year's Casual Connect Europe in Amsterdam.

"We've gone from an industry where every single person in the industry could have met in a room like this to a monstrous $50-60-70 billion industry.

"But in other ways, it's stayed the same. We're still trying to solve the same basic problems – inventing new stuff that engages more and more people."

As reflective as it was progressive, Molyneux's chat with GamesBeat's Dean Takahashi in the conference's opening hours naturally touched on the issues of the day - Flappy Bird, Dungeon Keeper, and Molyneux's reputation for "over-promising" all popping up.

His most rousing statement, however, was on everyone's favourite debating point: the free-to-play mechanic.

"There cannot be a term that's less true about the current generation of free-to-play games than 'free-to-play'," Molyneux said.

"What we need is a new term, something like 'invest-to-play'. Because, at the moment, what really are we doing? We're tempting people to invest some of their money into a game."

The art of temptation

Free-to-play games tend to tempt people an incredibly unsubtle manner, Molyneux added. Supermarkets, he argued, have mastered the art of tempting consumers, bringing them in through fresh fruit and vegetables before then guiding them past freshly baked bread.

"There's a skill and psychology to it that's been refined over multiple generations," he added.

"What we're doing, however, is smashing consumers over the head with a sledgehammer – we're punishing them for them for wanting things early. We're talking to them like children and we're beating them up by saying 'be patient or pay money'. That's not a delightful mechanic."

The end result, he argued, is a mass of consumers downloading free-to-play games intent on never spending any money in the game at all. Gamers are putting up walls before they've even started up the app.

"That's how crude these mechanics are," he said. "There has to be a better way."

When free isn't free

Naturally, the subject of free-to-play had been triggered by Molyneux's thoughts on EA's recent revision of Dungeon Keeper.

"The problem is whenever I reminisce about something, my memories don't really match the reality of the experience," he admitted.

"When I came back to it, I expected a remake, but what EA and Mythic did – exceptionally well, I have to say – is they reinvented the game for the free-to-play world. But, as a gamer, free-to-play crucifies my impatience – it beats me up for being an impatient gamer, and that's what Dungeon Keeper was originally about, getting things done. That's why I think it's a hard game to match up with free-to-play mechanics."

The risk in constantly punishing gamers for wanting things early, he said, is that the industry as a whole will end up disconnecting large masses of consumers longterm.

"We're incredibly blessed as an industry at the moment, because we have all these new gamers coming in and playing games for the first time," offered Molyneux.

"If we don't give them something fresh, and superb and gloriously inventive, they're going to go away again. At the moment we're giving them the juicy Candy Crush games – they're genius – and the brilliant Supercell games, but is that it? We need to try and connect people together in a more inventive way."

Growing pains

Not that any facet of modern-day development is straightfoward.

"The problem now is there's demanding necessity to grow," he continued. "The idea now is that if you have a team of people, you don't have the luxury of developing on just one platform. Those days were gone.

"Console was a holiday, really. This team [22Cans] is made up of enough people so we can support all those formats, because gamers now want to play it at home and then go off and play it on the bus. And so we have to have people who can be experts on all the devices people want to play on.

"As a developer, you never actually finish anything these days – you release something, but it's just another day of development."

Molyneux also argued that many of the tools developers turn to – like monitoring analytics – don't give them the answers they're looking for.

"Most analytics don't do the fundamental thing they should – they don't make the game better," he offered. "They certainly squeeze more money out, but they don't make the play any better, and that's my key question – can we use all this information to actually make a game better."

Hidden gems

Would it be fair to say, therefore, that scores of quality games are slipping through our fingers because the developers behind them simply can't get to grips with the industry as it stands today?

Are hundreds of brilliant games being lost in the noise? Molyneux believes not.

"I truly believe that quality and dedication and delightfulness will shine through," he argued.

"You used to have games like Ico – a beautiful game that was never the commercial success that it deserved to be – but on mobile, I don't know many games that are truly 'lost gems'.

Instead, Molyneux concluded, mobile's biggest problem is holding on to the audience it has already amassed for itself.

"Any game where the bulk of money is made by 5 percent 'whales' – hardly a complimentary term, by the way – endlessly paying out for features is doomed to failure," he concluded.

"We're burning through consumers, and we need to approach things differently if we want people to make this their hobby. You've all heard this idea that we're bigger than the movie industry and the music industry, right? That's bollocks.

"Yes, we make more money than those industries - that's because we're fat greedy pigs – but we're not as culturally significant as them right now, and we really could be."


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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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Fraser Ross MacInnes Product/Design Director at Danke Games
If only Molyneux spent as much time honing his skills as a designer of products people love, as he does honing his ability to self promote through flamey soundbites.
Paul Rogozin
What a great text.
Maksim Kuzmin
Peter is a godlike master of gamecraft. I remember how I was playing Dungeon Keeper for a first time almost 20 years ago and it was unbelievable genius game with endless potentialities and staggering atmosphere. When I read this article I once again ascertained that this man is purely awesome: you can't disagree with anything he has said.
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