Legendary Game Maker Peter Molyneux Talks Regrets and What's Next

In his first major interview in over a year, Molyneux opens up about his legacy, his empathy for the 'No Man's Sky' team, and redefining himself

Peter Molyneux in San Francisco, March 2017 Credit: Glixel

When Peter Molyneux – the charismatic designer of Fable, Populous, and Black & White, among other seminal video games – announced a couple of years ago that he was going to stop talking so much, a lot of people didn't believe him. He was the seventh person inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, after designers like Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, Civilization creator Sid Meier, Id Software founder John Carmack, and SimCity creator Will Wright. He was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Game Developers Choice Awards in 2011. He was even honored with an OBE, the Order of the British Empire, in the 2004 New Year's Honors list. Yet by the point in his career that he was for this particular announcement, Molyneux had became almost as famous for not delivering on grand pronouncements as he was for delivering extraordinary video games.

This time, however, Molyneux followed through, for the most part. He hasn't gone completely silent, but he has changed how he talks about his games. Last fall, he released The Trail – the newest mobile game from his studio in the UK, 22 Cans – almost without telling anyone about it. The Trail received an Editor's Choice notice in the iOS App Store, and Molyneux says it's actually the most popular game he's ever made. The idea for it, he says, came while he was walking his dog near his home in Guildford, England, and ended up being late for an appointment because he couldn't stop wondering what vista he might discover if he and his pet kept exploring.

That enthusiasm for the unknown is the hallmark of 57-year-old Molyneux's long career. He stopped by the Glixel offices in March to talk – barely – about his next game, Legacy, as well as to speak at length about everything from No Man's Sky and Pokémon Go to his aborted Kinect experiment, Milo.

"Crikey," he exclaimed at one point. "It's like that path that I was walking with my dog: What is around the next fucking corner, man?"

What are you up to these days?
I've defined myself as a coder again. The last time I did real coding was when I was working on a game called Black & White. I thought, "I'm going to go back and do that again, learn it all over again, because that would be the most efficient way for me to get my idea across."

Black & White was probably the best project I worked on. There were 25 of us. The team was amazing. There were no real money issues, so we could just focus on making the game.

After that, insanely, Lionhead started to expand. When you go from 20 people to 250 people, what it actually does is dilute you. It dilutes your time. It dilutes your energy and your focus. Really, the last time I was absolutely focused on a single game was probably Black & White.

A third of the entirety of EA's revenue came from Populous for almost two years. It was unbelievably successful.

So I started coding. When you're in your 50s, it's rather like being on a couch for 20 years and getting up and entering the London marathon. It's not a pretty sight at the start. But now I feel so much more empowered than I have for years. I've been working on this game called Legacy, and I can – rather like the first game I really did, which was called Populous – just try an idea and see if it works. I was in the hotel this morning, I was having breakfast, I was coding Legacy, and I had an idea. Within an hour, I was actually playing with the thing.

What else can you tell me about Legacy?
I think it would be a mistake to talk about it.

This gets to your new strategy of not over-promising?
The only thing I think is wise to tell you is that it's very different. One of the things I am proud of is the number of different genres that I've attempted. At the moment, it's hard to peg what genre Legacy falls into.

Is it another mobile game?
More and more, I think it's better to be platform agnostic at the start. The first problem is to get the feel of it right. You do have to worry about the interface. You have to worry about the input method. At the moment, I'm focusing on the mouse, purely because it's the easiest for me.

I suspect if you asked the average journalist, "Has Peter Molyneux been as successful on mobile as he was on PC and console," they would say no.
I'm sure. And in one sense, they would be absolutely right. A third of the entirety of EA's revenue came from Populous for almost two years. It was unbelievably successful. Powermonger was number one in America and number one in Europe. Syndicate was number one in America and number one in Europe. Magic Carpet was number one. Theme Park was the most successful title I've ever done, actually. It sold 50 million copies. It was huge in Japan, massive in Europe. Black & White was number one. Fable was the most successful role-playing game on the Xbox. Fable 2 was number one. Fable 3 was number one. So that's a pretty fucking awesome record. But you go to mobile, and you're not number one.

The last game I did, The Trail, within seven weeks of it being launched, more people played The Trail than all the people that played Fable 1, 2 and 3 on all the formats, PC and console, put together. Within seven weeks.

Have more people played The Trail than played Black & White?
Oh yes. By many, many times over. To have millions and millions of downloads, you only have to be in the Top 100.

Yet it's basically invisible.
In the video game press. Microsoft announced that 122 million people have downloaded and played Minecraft. That's incredible, isn't it?

It's nothing. Let's have a look at how many people have downloaded and played Pokémon Go. In a year, that's 650 million people. Jesus Christ! As a designer, just imagine for a second what it would be like to make a game that would be played by that many people. How can that not be incredibly alluring?

Like you, the people who love this medium love to think about the future, about what's next. I think that's why people got so excited by things you would say to the press about your games. You painted these air castles that people fell in love with.
This is what's so dangerous. There's something that keeps spinning around in my mind, and maybe I can get away with it by talking about this: We haven't got a 1984. George Orwell warned about where the world was going, and almost 75 years later, it's still relevant. Where is the computer-game equivalent of that? Because you know what, computer games should nail that.

Should I have left Microsoft? I'm not sure I should have. Should I have sold Lionhead to Microsoft? I'm not sure I should have. Should I have sold Bullfrog Productions to Electronic Arts? I'm not sure I should have.

No Man's Sky, like some of your games, didn't live up to our fantasies about it. Did you have empathy for what Sean Murray and Hello Games went through?
Absolutely. He lives two miles away from me. I worked with his wife on all three of the Fable games, incredibly closely. I went to see him. I really felt for him. People don't realize, for me and for him, it was like an ice-cold dagger in the heart. Every game that I work on, I put so much of my heart into it. And always, it's never quite what it should be.

I sometimes wonder how that game would have been received if everyone went into it blindly. What if it was a surprise to learn, after waking up on a hostile planet, that you could fly off the planet and go to another one?
Absolutely. I totally agree. This is what's so unfair about No Man's Sky. If you approach it without knowing anything about it, it's an incredible experience – flying from a planet, no loading, no nothing, into space and then realizing that all those little dots you're seeing, you can visit. Bloody hell, that's pretty incredible, isn't it?

I'm not sure if this analogy works, but it's a little bit like how the Lord of the Rings films never worked for me. They were incredibly good, but that world was so defined in my mind by reading the book. In a way, No Man's Sky was the same. It was so defined by everything that people had heard and seen. It was ruined in the same way that the Lord of the Rings films, for me, were ruined by all the hype that came before.

Are you interested in virtual reality or augmented reality?
I love virtual reality. I worry about it being oversold to consumers before we as an industry are ready. It's something that desperately needs a couple of titles to define it. If I had a VR demo about two people having a conversation, I think that would be fascinating.

That connects a little bit to Milo, a virtual character you created that was never released for Kinect.
Yes, it does. Milo was an incredible piece of technology. You could draw something on a piece of paper, and then Milo would look at it, recognize it, and show it back to you. It was magical. He could recognize numbers, and letters, and shapes.

It's one of the dreams of games, right? One is, can you simulate an entire world that I can live in and disappear into? And another is, can you create an A.I. who seems believably human? They're both old science-fiction dreams.
At the time, my son was 7 years old. And just the awesome experience of seeing him experience something for the first time. That's what I wanted in Milo. As a parent, it's life-changing. Wouldn't it be fascinating to give that to people?

When you look back on your career, is there anything you would have done differently?
Oh God, if anyone says no, they're a sociopath. There are many, many things I would do differently. Should I have left Microsoft? I'm not sure I should have. Should I have sold Lionhead to Microsoft? I'm not sure I should have. Should I have sold Bullfrog Productions to Electronic Arts? I'm not sure I should have. There are so many mistakes to be made. But really it's how you deal with those mistakes.

If you face a mistake, you have to think about reinventing yourself. And the older you get, the lazier you get, and the harder it is to pull yourself out of the mire. To get the best out of yourself, you have to be at risk. You have to be on the cliff edge. If you're in a place that's too comfortable, then you can stagnate.

What don't people understand about Peter Molyneux? What do we get wrong about you?
I think the whole press, me talking to the press, hyping a game up, I think people misunderstood what I was doing. I was doing what I did every day in the studio. In Fable, I said we were going to make the best role-playing game of all time. Why would you bother making a role-playing game if you weren't going to try to make the best one?

I think people, completely understandably, thought that that was hype. And it was, in a way. But it's no more or less hype than you have to use on a team. If you've got a team, in Fable's case, of 50 people, which grew to 150 people for Fable 2 and Fable 3, you've got to motivate them to make something great. I think people misunderstood that. I should have been a lot more sensible about it, a lot more logical about my press approach.

You were one of the first victims, in a way, of the social-media mobs that Jon Ronson wrote about in So You've Been Publicly Shamed.
Yes. It was immensely hard to go through, personally. But it allowed me to redefine myself, and redefine the way I interact with my team, especially. Looking back on it, I'd probably go through it again, just to get out on the other side.

My measure is simply this: There are a billion devices. How many times should my game be downloaded? A billion times. That's my success metric.

What do you mean by that?
I was thinking, at the time, I'm not sure if what I'm saying in the press these days – this was about two years ago – I'm not sure who it's for. I'm not sure who the audience is. It felt a little bit like a runaway train that was out of control. And runaway trains can either slow down and stop and everything's fine, or they can smash into a thousand pieces. And it felt like it was getting faster and faster and faster. There was a remake of Dungeon Keeper that I commented on, and I thought, "Who am I to judge that game?" And there were some new VR devices that I commented on, and again, I felt, "I'm coming across as being this wanker."

There's no way of massaging those words. And so when that article came out...

Are you talking about the interview you did two years ago with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, in which the first question was, "Do you think you're a pathological liar?"?
Yes. I said at the end of that interview, the best thing I could do is never talk to the press again. I think if I could do it again, I'd redefine that. Never is a very long time.

So is the hype-less launch of The Trail a successful model for you? A sign of the new Peter Molyneux who releases a game and doesn't tell anyone about it?
I mean, yes, it is successful. Is it enough? No, it's not. I don't care what you say, if you're a designer, you're competitive. You have to have that gene inside you. My measure is simply this: There are a billion devices. How many times should my game be downloaded? A billion times. That's my success metric.

Did Bryan Henderson, the player who was supposed to become the "god of gods" in Godus for finding the inside of the Curiosity cube, ever get his prize?
That was a real problem. The only thing to say is, Yes. You'll remember that Godus is a free-to-play game. And while 33,000 people are playing the game, 33,000 people aren't spending money on the game. So in terms of pure profit, actually Godus has not quite even broken even. We got Kickstarter money of about $1 million. After you're done with the pledging and all that stuff, that works out to about $400,000. But Godus cost about five times that to make. We really struggled, at times, to finish Godus. I'd love to pay Bryan money. It would be insane to do it just for a publicity stunt, because that's what it would be.

Is there anything else we should talk about?
I'd love the last line to be that it's been an honor. It's been an absolute honor to have been involved with so many amazing people, and be allowed to have these insane ideas. It felt like magic.

When I was in school, I was destined to do nothing. I was the least smartest, least brightest kid there could have possibly been. And then computer games came along. It was like being abducted by aliens, and given a purpose.

This interview has been edited and condensed.