Curiouser and curiouser! Peter Molyneux on 22 Cans, F2P and experimenting in a completely undiscovered gaming country

Down the rabbit hole into Wonderland

Curiouser and curiouser! Peter Molyneux on 22 Cans, F2P and experimenting in a completely undiscovered gaming country
If there was one thing that stood out during Peter Molyneux's stint at this year's Unite conference in Amsterdam – both in terms of his keynote speech, and his post talk chat with – it was the idea that 22 Cans is the biggest risk of his career.

At 53 he had nothing to prove to himself any longer, he said, but leaving Microsoft and setting out with a new team has brought back the kind of fear developers need to keep them creative.

One thing we can say about the studio's debut title Curiosity is that it won't be lacking on this score.

The game, which will see players from over the globe hacking away at the same cube in unison in order for one lucky player to reach the mystery object inside, is to be the first of 22 experiments designed to cast light on how people play games.

It should also cast light on how the industry as a whole can better serve this rapidly evolving market.

Indeed, one of Molyneux's current focuses is playing around with the role of the in-app purchase. Rather than simply being a means to drawing cash out of consumers, he sees those who part with their money as investors and is set to reward them as such.

We sat down with Molyneux – bizarrely on a park bench next to a chicken pen in the brisk but warm Amsterdam air – to find out why he hopes 22 Cans experiments will deliver results all mobile developers can benefit from.

Pocket Gamer: The idea of referring to players as 'investors' seems to me to be like a hybrid of the kind of reward model some developers are using with Kickstarter.

Peter Molyneux: It is. It is Kickstarter inside a game. I'm just naming what the reality is, and rewarding and saying thank you to people for investing in the tool. That's the reality – if they are investing, we're going to use some of that money to build this fantastic game.

Kickstarter is only just coming out in the UK – that's frustrating – but I love the idea that people are involved.

We've got to realise that people want to be involved in a game's development, and they are now, whether it's before the game is released or after the game is released.

We have to react to what people say on an hourly basis – it used to be on a yearly basis. It's just a new way of thinking.

When you spoke at Rezzed in Brighton, someone questioned whether you felt bad about making money from Curiosity's in-app purchases...

This is the 'indie' thing, though, isn't it: that it is somehow slightly disgusting that you make money. You feel like it is like prostitution – development prostitution.

I don't think we should feel like that. After all, it is the biggest compliment that someone who plays your game can give you – that they spend money on it.

In today's world, where people aren't forced to go into a shop and spend money and they're giving it directly to you, you should feel proud of it, not ashamed of it.

That's what this is all about – thank you for doing that, you're in the credits for the final game, and if you spend a bit more you'll be on the private beta, and if you spend a little bit more you'll be in the game.

Do you think the reluctance to embrace that idea comes from the fact that a lot of developers are still aggravated by the freemium model – that they just don't like the idea of giving their game away, even if they actually end up making more money via IAPs?

It's the purist nature of creativity – the tormented artist, and the idea that tormented artists should be poor and should at least cut off one part of their body at some point, and have to be on some kind of drug. Otherwise, you're not an artist. [Laughs.]

I think there has to be an element of that in it.

Who do you think is getting the in-app purchase model right in the mobile field at the moment?

I think there are a lot of people playing with stuff at the moment.

There are a lot of people frustrated that they're getting a huge number of downloads, like Angry Birds – there are a billion or so people playing that, a vast number, but I don't imagine they're making the amount of money that people think they are making.

Then there are other people making huge amounts with other games. It seems to be that we've only just started to explore free to play.

What we're dealing with here is the fact that if you realise that people aren't just buying 'stuff', that they're investing in the experience that you're making, then that's a very different way of thinking about asking people for money.

That's part of this experiment we're doing – to find out if there's a different way of thinking about it all.

The other observation I've got at the moment – and I'm still playing around with it in my mind – is that, wouldn't it be great if me and my friends could invest in something. It's not just me – it's us together.

When I was a kid we used to buy these Warhammer sets, and all of us used to buy different bits of them and put them all together.

I think there are loads of these models that we haven't even thought about.

Like collecting stuff – collecting baseball cards used to be a big, big thing back in the 1960s and 1970s, and kids used to spend all their pocket money on this flat chewing gum that probably caused huge carcinogenic problems. [Laughs].

We haven't had any aspect of that online yet – there are lots of aspects we haven't explored yet. Free-to-play is only two or so years old really, whereas retail and shops are 200 years old, so there's plenty of stuff to explore there.

Was mobile your first thought when you left Microsoft? Was it the logical leap?

Well, I wouldn't say 'mobile' was my first thought. My first thought was 'there is no platform anymore'.

In a few years' time, the thought that you would go into a shop and buy a machine to play your games on will completely go. Because this [points at iPhone] is with you all the time. All these devices are just different sized screens that deliver the same experience.

That's my real fascination and obsession. I love mobile – all of my gaming takes place on this or this [points at iPhone and iPad] and I play three or four hours a day. I love it. I can't remember the last time I turned on a console game.

They actually feel to me – this is contentious to say – they feel very 'old school', they really do.

Do you think other people in the console industry feel the same way?

Well, there is still a lot of money being made in console games, for sure, and there is still a huge amount of human effort going into it, which is very, very laudable.

But, they feel slightly that they're in an ivory tower that is somewhat sinking.

What will the next generation of consoles be when the competition appears to be this [points at iPad]? By the time the next generation comes out, iPad will probably have been iterated on twice, at least. It's just crazy, and I think you've got to think in an incredibly nimble way.

As I said in my talk – and I probably didn't say it very well or capture my point – you've got to slap yourself in the face and stop thinking that you have solved the problem of entertainment. We haven't even started.

We are literally in a completely undiscovered country with these devices, because these devices are always connected, they're always on, they're always with you, and that offers amazing potential for the future of entertainment.

So with 22 Cans' 22 experiments, you're essentially testing the ground?

Yeah. If you think like that and realise that you have got to think differently, then the worst thing you can do is lock yourself back in another ivory tower and think all your ideas are perfectly right the first time you think of them.

For me, that's when my worst ideas come to reality. What you have to do is what we're going to do with Curiosity.

We're going to release that, it's going to go out there in the world, and every time a surface of the cube is cleared, we can change the game completely. We'll just play around with it – we're going to investigate and explore it.

That's what we are – we're explorers with this new game play. What the fifth surface of the cube will be, what the the tenth surface will be, I don't know.

But can you gage now what you might learn from Curiosity, or 'experiment one' as it is?

The things I'm looking to learn are, firstly it's about motivation. Phones are with you all the time, so there's never an excuse not to play.

I could be sitting here – and this is what personally I like about the cube in Curiosity – I could tapping away while I'm talking to you. I'm still playing.

I love that ability for me to focus on it, or to be relaxed about it.

I love that I could be tapping away in a pub and get to a chain of 20 cubes tapped, and I could think 'I need to go to the toilet' and I could just pass it to you and you could keep on tapping. I love that, man!

That's engaging people at a level they want to be engaged rather than me demanding 100 percent of your attention 100 percent of the time.

Do you think that means developers are control freaks then?

Yeah, we are control freaks.

You can only begin to imagine what it feels like to be a designer if I can at this point at time during this interview bring up a web change page and change the gameplay of this entire cube and all the experiences on it – you feel like a God. [Laughs].

That power is there today, but we're just not using it. Ultimately, we've got these connected devices where we're all linked together, and that is an amazing piece of technology.

Will you share what you learn from these experiments, though?

We will publish everything that we learn. It's a bit of work to expose it on a web page, but we're going to probably carry on with that – it depends on how many people are engaged with the experience.

But even if it was a 'failure', you'd have learned something from that.

Absolutely. If it's a failure or it's a success, we can still look at the bits that didn't work and refine what we're doing.

It's also an experiment in regards to the team working together. Bringing a team together is always the trickiest thing of all.

If you bring a team together and they work well together, then it's fantastic, but sometimes it can be a disaster. As far as that side is concerned, the experiment has already been a success.

I read that your team comprises of people with various levels of experience in the industry, and then you have someone who used to work at GCHQ and an architect and so on. On a day to day level, how do you manage such a mixed group like that?

Well, it works well when you're in an office that's not too big, because everybody works together.

Also, the experienced people like me and like Tim [Rance, 22 Cans co-founder and former Lionhead CTO] don't feel like we know it all – we feel a little bit like mentors, but these people bring something completely new. You have to have that.

There are a couple of people in the office that come from completely different backgrounds. They've played a few of these games, but they've never built them, and they ask 'Why can't we do that?'

I would never think to ask those sort of questions before because I'm just used to doing it the way I have before.

So it's all about breaking up the rigid formula?

Yeah. It's about thinking differently about how you make the game, what the game is, what the motivation is, how you tell the story – all of it.

That's how I thought back in 1989 when I did Populous. I didn't have anything that I'd done before, really – I'd done a conversion, but that was it. And that enabled me to come up with Populous because I didn't have 'oh, well I can't build a game without objectives' hanging over me.

It's about recapturing that kind of spirit.

But is this a direction you'd take if you were just fresh starting out now, or is this something you can only do with the level of experience you've built up?

That's a very interesting question.

It's insanely scary what I'm doing – I mean, I just couldn't sleep last night, I was too scared. [Laughs]. I haven't been like that for ten years.

That feeling of being scared must be quite a good feeling at the same time, though.

Well, yeah it is. This is probably not a good thing to print, but it would have been so easy to say 'I'm 53 years old now, I don't have to prove myself anymore.'

To go out and start all over again, and not to have backing and not to have a team that is fully funded, not to have desks and computers and relationships with Apple is a mad thing to do, but the time in your life when you get the most out of life itself is when you take on something incredibly hard.

That's when you get that sense of achievement.

At the end of all this, though, what would you be most happy with – a huge hit game, or the knowledge that what you discover during this process goes on to change how the industry works?

I'm a greedy person, so both. [Laughs]. It would be a sorry state if I glimpsed something, but didn't act on it and someone else did. But it would also be a sorry state if only I could use it.

It's a fantastic feeling to be part of an industry that evolves and changes, whether that in a tiny way inspired by something I've done or not...

It would be quite a legacy to leave behind.

It would be amazing. Amazing.

I also read something that you wanted to produce something that goes beyond the kind of quick appeal of something like Draw Something – something that lasts. With Curiosity, though, won't it all be over once the object at the centre of the cube is revealed?

I don't know. We'll have to see. I have no idea – there is a movement of people who say we should allow the person who discovers what's in the middle of the box to put something else in it and restart it.

There's another movement that says 'that's the last time I ever want to tap on anything again – thank God that's over', and there's a movement to say there should be another cube inside that's got something else in.

I know what it's inside – it is something amazing, something very, very unique, and something no-one has guessed yet. Something you will not be disappointed with.

I intentionally tried not to talk too much on stage on that – in the past, I spoke at Rezzed [in Brighton] and I think I overcooked it and got excited. It's a mystery is all I can say. Will that be enough? We'll have to see.

What do you make of the merits of the kind of 'short burst' games Zynga has mastered?

For me – and this is purely for me as a gamer – I find them way, way, way too greedy. They're almost monetising me in a way that expects me not to be engaged with that experience for more than a few hours.

They want to squeeze everything out of me in the shortest space of time. But these devices are with us all the time, so we have to start thinking about gaming in the way that TV thinks about soap operas.

Coronation Street and EastEnders [British soap opera] aren't made for 'well there's your ten episodes, you're done' – they're made for life. They are both going to be on in 50 year's time – they are enduring properties that are going to exist, as wonderful or depressing as that is. [Laughs].

There is nothing on smartphones or tablets that thinks in that way.

There is for social media – you can imagine using Facebook and Twitter using for years and years, but we have no experience like that, because we're far too greedy and far too obsessed with a beginning, a middle and an end. That is it.

It's all 'how many levels has the game got?' or 'how long is your gameplay?' That's the way we think, and if we try to think differently, say think about some experiences being one that you spend 5 minutes on every day just like every day some people watch EastEnders – maybe there's something to think about there.

It has to mean something to me, not just to the masses. All of that is possible today – it just needs someone to do it.

To do that you'd need to have a game that evolves with the audience, then.

That's where we are. We don't have games that don't evolve with the audience anymore.

If you go on the App Store and you read all the comments, you'll see some of the features have actually been employed. That's the world we live in today.

The frequency of updates and what the update is doesn't even have to be as lumpy as that. One of the things with Curiosity is, I can change any experience on any level of the cube at any time from a website. That makes it really cool to be a designer.

Does that not add an extra level of pressure, though?

It's insane! It's a stupid amount of pressure. I can wake up in the morning and make the most disastrous of changes.

With that pressure comes incredible amount of mistakes that you can make – especially with someone like me, who can come in and I'll have an idea that just burns in every cell of my body.

It's dangerous to have that power – you just think, 'I'll just try this out!'. [Laughs].

How easy for is for the bigger publishers to implement that kind of flexibility? Is this an area where indies have an advantage?

I think the likes of Zynga is already doing something similar. It's not just changing it for everybody, it's changing it for certain sorts of people.

If I said that – just as an example, with Curiosity – over 45s are tapping more slowly, then I can relax the chaining mechanic for players over that age.

But some would view that almost as a 'dirty' idea – manipulating the game to suit different people in that manner.

Well, it's just kind of sensible. We're not all the same, and we should test those ideas out. There's nothing wrong with it.

Why just use that user info for monetisation – why not also use it to actually improve gameplay? One of the fundamental problems you face with design is whether you're making a game too easy or too hard. Is the game challenging enough, and is it still understandable?

This is the impossibility of design, because the answer is really very simple: it depends on who is playing.

Now, that can answer can finally come true, because if you give me access to your Facebook account, I can see what you've played, how well you've done, who you are, how old you are, where you're from, what your background is and who your friends are.

I can tweak the boundaries of a game for you, and that's a very interesting experiment. Then the problem comes that people who are playing the same game will say, 'hang on a second, you bastard, why is the game so much easier for you?' [Laughs].

There are all kinds of interesting psychological things, and that's what I mean by experimentation and thinking differently. We're only just realising all these things exist today.
Thanks to Peter for his time.

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