Sunday, March 22, 2015

Peter Molyneux on what went wrong with Godus - and how to save free-to-play

GodusAs Rock, Paper Shotgun recently pointed out, Peter Molyneux's Godus is in a spot of bother. Possibly quite a big spot.
We sat down with Peter in December to talk about the challenges his mobile game has faced so far, his regrets with Kickstarter, and his opinions on solving the free-to-play problem.

Godus save us all

When we met with Peter Molyneux a year ago, he was enthusiastic, optimistic and excited. He beamed with that child-like wonder that only Molyneux can. Now the Theme Park creator talks with a tone of caution, even regret.
The last 12 months have been trialing. Molyneux hasn't only ventured into the bold new world of mobile gaming, he's also walked the precarious path of free-to-play. The reception to Godus, his 'reimagining' of Populous, has been a mixed bag all the way from its early Kickstarter birth to its launch. That's not to say he regrets making it. But it's safe to say that in the space of a few months, Molyneux has learned some invaluable lessons.
"If I had my time again I wouldn't do Kickstarter at the start of development, I would do it at the end of development or towards the end of development," he tells us at Bilbao's Fun & Serious Game Festival. "I'm not saying I would never do Kickstarter again, but if I was to do Kickstarter again I would say 'Look, we've done half the game, you can download this demo, you can play the game. You know what the game's going to be, now we're going to take it from this point to this point."
"I think what ends up happening, and what ended up happening with Godus, is that people get a view of what the game is going to be like from what you've said here, and that view quite often from what the final game is. And there's this overwhelming urge to over-promise because it's such a harsh rule: if you're one penny short of your target you don't get it. And of course in this instance, the behaviour which is incredibly destructive, which is 'Christ, we've only got ten days to go and we've got to make a hundred thousand, for f**ks sake lets just say anything'.
"I think what i've also learned, is that doing Kickstarter and Steam Early Access before you've got something which is defined and playable is a hugely risky undertaking that can be very destructive to the final quality of the game."
Freemium has become a dirty word. You might think that companies like EA would be the ones setting a good example, but go tell that to anyone who had their childhoods ruined by Dungeon Keeper earlier this year. Even Apple has changed the dialogue of its app store so that the little button that once read 'Free' now reads 'Get' on games with in-app purchases.
"For certain genres of game, the free to play model has got a bit fairer," argues Peter. "If you look at how [Supercell's] Boom Beach has evolved it, and what's been happening on some of the other apps, it's not nearly so harsh. It's far less 'you need to introduce five friends' or 'you need to spend 50p or you can't go any further'. That's got fairer. The disappointment however, and I include Godus in this I think, is that the free-to-play model hasn't evolved and spread out to other genres. So that free to play model is great for certain games, it's great for car battle games, it's great for world builder games like Clash of Clans - it's just not as good for open-ended open world games like Godus.

"These games have got a very simple model. If you look at things like Candy Crush, you pay money if you want to carry on playing, if you feel so obsessive. And I think that's a good thing to stop people just spending endless hours. You pay money for that and you pay money if you're struggling to get past a level. That hasn't really translated into other areas."
"I think it needs to be simple and it needs to be understandable. And the thing I've learned from Godus is that the game and monetization need to be together, they need to be part of the flow of the game. It needs to be feel not like a requirement, like a gate."

We need to talk about PC

The thing is (as Peter points out) these free-to-play Facebook-y type games, which have infested our mobiles, are based on a model that pre-dates smartphone gaming entirely. The difference is how that model is being exploited.
Take Hearthstone, a game in which you can never spend a dime and you'll never feel punished for it. Sure, in-game purchases will help you build that extravagant deck even faster, but you can comfortably earn it without opening your wallet if you're willing to put in a bit of extra time and effort. To put it more simply, it never feels pay-to-win.
"The model I'm absolutely fascinated with, and we don't talk nearly enough about this - the press doesn't talk enough about it, and I don't think the gaming community do - is the PC," says Peter. "It's Team Fortress 2, and League of Legends 2, and Dota. They're all quietly going on and refining their model in a much more interesting and a much more mature way.
"I think we're not talking about it because there's not the data in your face like there is here [on phones]. I don't think they need the press, they don't need to talk about their numbers, so we don't see it so much. In places like Korea and Taiwan, PC gaming is massive… that's totally invisible to us. I'm very inspired by what's happening in those markets that have been using free to play, or the equivalent of free to play, for many many years, many more years than free to play has been on phones. And if you look at that stuff, it seems fairer, it seems more interesting, it seems more integrated with the game itself."
Peter Molyneux is a passionate man. And while he's earned an unfortunate reputation of over-promising and under-delivering, no one could ever accuse Peter of not loving what he does. With Curiosity: What's inside the cube? Peter proved that thousands of people would happily tap away at a screen to pursue an invisible prize, but with Godus, he explains, he was also out to prove something to himself.
"I proved to myself that making the transition from console to mobile is possible, but it's very, very difficult. It's not just about an idea, and thinking 'OK I'm going to be dealing with a new audience of people, and I'm going to be dealing with a new audience of people that want to use their phones to relax more than they want to use it to be excited'. It's far more complex than that because there are so many skills that you have to learn from the base up."
If you head over to Peter's 22Cans site right now and click on 'about us', you'll see the following message:
"Peter's dream was to hand-craft a team of the 22 most talented, passionate and creative individuals with which to make the defining games of his career.
22 Cans create games for the world, and the journey has only just begun."
Indeed, it feels like Molyneux is far from done. He'll take his lessons from Godus with him to his next mobile game, The Trail - "I think the next IP is an interesting step" - but we can't help but ask him if through the trials and tribulations of Godus, there was ever a moment he longed to be back on the lavish green pastures of Microsoft.
"I had a fantastic time there. I'm not sure it was the most sensible thing for me to do to leave in terms of life. I had a very comfortable existence there, a very defined existence, I knew what tomorrow would be. And I left the luxury cruiseliner to get into the lifeboat with a big hole in the side. Creatively speaking, I'm at my most creative when I'm most in peril. Necessity is the mother of creativity, it's being forced to do something. If you don't create now you're going to sink.
Then you tend to come up with better ideas."

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