Peter Molyneux on the Changing Face of Game Development

By Laura Kate Dale on at

Last week I visited Guildford to talk to various local game developers about what it’s like making games in one of the biggest game development hubs in the UK. One of the key figures in the scene, perhaps the key figure, is Peter Molyneux: co-founder of Bullfrog; founder of Lionhead; now founder and studio director at 22Cans.

Molyneux has been in game development longer than I’ve been alive and, with as varied a career as he’s had, I wanted to get into the weeds a little on the changes he’s seen over those decades. There was one big theme, and he wasn’t alone among Guildford’s finest in identifying it: crunch.

“It has been fascinating to grow up with the games industry, and I think that’s what we’ve done as an industry, we’ve grown up,” says Molyneux. “We were originally these new kids on the entertainment block back in the 80s and 90s, and we as developers were probably more surprised than anyone by the success that was growing around us. We didn’t have a direction, we sort of just existed every day. We’ve gone through from that to now, being a serious business, and that serious business has to take the development of games seriously.”

“If you compare the culture back when I started with the culture now, now it’s unthinkable that I would ask anyone here to work beyond 6pm, it’s just unthinkable. Now, often, if I’m working late, I get to 6pm and sometimes have to ask people to leave, because where I’m at in my life now it’s unthinkable to ask our team to burn their life away for their job.”

But there was a time when Molyneux’s companies, particularly Lionhead, were a byword among developers for crunch conditions. Why was that and what’s changed?

“Back in the early days, I’m thinking back to the Black and White days, we had nine months where a huge portion of the company never had a day off, never had a single day off. We worked literally from dawn until dusk. Now, you can’t imagine that.”

“Thinking back, you’ve got to think about why this crunch culture happened. What we didn’t really have back in those days was producers. We didn’t have experienced people thinking about how to manage our time. Those people didn't really exist. Back in the early days that was really frowned upon. A producer? ‘Uhhhh, they’re going to come in and tell us what to do, they don’t actually do anything,’ that was how we thought of them.”

“Back in those days everyone used to be a coder, or an artist, or an animator, there were really no other jobs we felt were needed on the team. There wasn’t a big clock on the wall saying today we’re going to start work at 8am and finish at midnight, we just sort of worked. There was no real plan to all of it. It wasn’t that crunch was any kind of management decision we were taking, it was really just the result of bad planning.”

Molyneux’s explanation is certainly plausible, though it does have the added plus of (mostly) letting management off the hook. He’s insistent, however, that what really did for Lionhead in this sense was the scale of commitments the studio had to make to stay open.

“In our case on Black and White it was a matter of  pressure from the publisher for us to give a date,” says Molyneux. “The trouble is, back then when we gave a date, we had no idea how reasonable or feasible it was, they were pressuring us so we just gave them a date. The planning we used to use was ‘how long is it going to take us? Can’t take longer than a month, surely?’ That then resulted in us then thinking ‘right, we’ve now got this deadline, we’ve told this date to the publisher, we have to do it.’”

“And as the date suddenly approaches, you can see that you’ve vastly run out of time.”

“It was just symptomatic of an industry that really didn’t have the structure or the maturity to handle things like big deadlines. Then, in amongst all that, you had the public date. A public date that you might have said once in some interview that you should probably have kept your mouth shut in. You’d say in some interview ‘it’s going to be finished by Autumn’ - we used to just give seasons - and then Autumn would be interpreted in some way by the interviewer. And then that became a huge pressure.”

“And again, you didn't have any planning, you know, the date was kind of a made up on the spot and this whole thing resulted in this, this quite, quite toxic way of working. And that was:

‘Shit, we better just do more work.’”

It would be easy to be cynical about how Molyneux frames this, although it should be said that he was also one of those crunching. What gives his perspective credence is the culture at 22Cans, which doesn’t ‘do’ crunch.

“If you turn around to today's world, you've got a whole infrastructure of people who care about the health and the smartness of your staff and how smart they are working,” says Molyneux. “You've got an infrastructure of people planning things ahead so that when you're talking to a publisher or you're talking to press, if we were still talking to press, we don’t talk to the press anymore, but if you were talking to the press, you would have a date that actually had some due diligence behind it.”

“You know that you've got people in the office, in our case from 10am until 6pm. and you know they're going to be bright and smart and engaged and passionate because they're not tired, knackered, and feeling incredibly guilty that the rest of their lives as people are on hold.”

No more crunch?

“Crunch was such a toxic thing to do. I'm not saying that we won’t work late ever, ever again. There could be, you know, some horrendous emergency, but what I am saying is that in the course of development, especially with mobile development where release is just another day of development: it's not the end. It's not a destination. It's just part of the journey. People have got to be fresh and they've got to be engaged. There's got to not be this toxic feeling of ‘oh, you're working twice as hard as I am. That means that you're going to get more money and more bonus.’ Why the hell did we ever do it that way? Why would we ever do it?”

At this point in our discussion, it becomes clear how much of an effect actually working as part of the team, in the trenches, has had on Molyneux’s view of development. At 22Cans he’s began to focus more on coding again, and less on floating around somewhere up high, bestowing instructions on developers. He clearly has a lot of respect for the people he’s working with, and a desire to work a lot more closely with them than he perhaps has done.

As Molyneux mentioned, part of 22Cans’ culture surely comes from the fact it’s a mobile developer first. Looking at the studio’s games, there’s a clear shift away from the PC and console titles Molyneux spent his early career making (and is still best-known for). Curiosity: What’s Inside the Cube was mobile-only. Godus did come to PC in early access but missing significant features and, much to the frustration of the playerbase, it was clear the mobile version was the studio’s priority. The Trail was mobile-only.

“It is a crowded ecosystem on mobile, it is, but the problem is even more subtle than that,” says Molyneux. “When you think about what the app store front page did, not so much anymore but it did, was gave you a huge kickstart. Within a week of the release of The Trail, it had been downloaded and played a factor more times than all the people who had ever played Fable. That’s the incredible audience that you’re going for.”

“Then, after that, this change takes place really, a real change from where we were five or ten years ago, and it’s [now] the responsibility of the app to keep people engaged, and to retain people, to keep them entertained. The way that you increase your audience size is the best way of all really. The more people who keep playing regularly, who stay engaged with the game, the more people talk about it, and the game spreads from there.”

What’s the main difference between a mobile title in this marketplace and the kind of big marquee games Molyneux used to direct?

“It’s not necessarily an easier ask to get someone in the door on mobile, it’s a different ask. The thing I’ve learnt trying to do a great mobile game, as opposed to doing a console release, is that what you’re really doing is building an ongoing relationship with that player.”

“With something like Fable, I can remember absolutely clearly, it used to really break my heart. We used to work incredibly hard, the culture when we were making Fable is completely different to the culture now, we worked such long hours, working so hard. We put all this time into the narrative and the mechanics and the world. We would release the game on a Friday, and then we would get emails from people by Saturday saying ‘I loved your game, finished it already, I’m onto my second playthrough.’ You’d end up thinking ‘Jesus, it took us all that time and you’ve finished it within a day?’ It was heartbreaking.”

“What you tend to get on a mobile game is emails saying ‘I am loving your game,’ talking about it in the present, not as something they rushed through and moved on from. The difference between ‘I loved your game’ and ‘I am loving your game.’ That’s what I mean by building a relationship with the player, you’re making a game that sticks with them for some time, not something to be finished and put away.”

“Ten, fifteen years ago we were entertaining, as a percentage of the human population, a tiny amount of the world with the things we made. We were attracting ten, 15, 20 million people to a title, we were standing on the rooftops shouting ‘that’s fantastic,’ but actually, there’s the mobile audience, and we’re talking about reaching hundreds of millions of people. You can release a title today on mobile, and within 48 hours it can be played by 100 million people.”

“It’s especially fascinating developing for mobile when you think how much of the world you’re reaching. You’re not just reaching Europe and America, games tend to be very Europe, America, Japan centric, where actually there’s this vast empire of China, India, countries like that out there, and there’s those consumers who have maybe never played a console game in their lives, because it was restricted from them.”

“The journey that I’ve been on has been learning to take my passion for making games for home computers and consoles, and to turn that into something that could appeal to this incredible audience that’s out there.”

We spoke to Molyneux as part of a wider visit to Guildford, and in another part of the interview covered his troubled relationship with hype cycles.

Peter Molyneux is a hard man to get a handle on. Critics will (rightly) point out that he ran Lionhead, and if the crunch there was a failure of management then it was his failure. Thing is, he probably wouldn’t disagree. And it is true, at the very least, that he and his studio are very different now.

“This has been a long, sometimes painful, journey as you know. There’s been some terrible mistakes that I have made, I admit and apologise for those mistakes, but the best way that you improve is by making mistakes and then learning from them.”