How a Videogame God Inspired a Twitter Doppelgänger
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How a Videogame God Inspired a Twitter Doppelgänger — and Resurrected His Career | Game|Life | Wired.com
How a Videogame God Inspired a Twitter Doppelgänger — and Resurrected His Career | Game|Life | Wired.com
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Peter Molyneux has always been a dreamer. As a student at England’s Southampton Solent University in the early ’80s, he hatched a scheme to make a fortune by driving up to Scotland, buying a bunch of salmon, and then returning to sell it to local restaurants at a fantastic profit. It was only on the way home, after spending his savings, that he realized he had forgotten about refrigeration, leaving him broke and his car smelling of spoiled fish. In 1984 Molyneux designed his first videogame, a business simulator called The Entrepreneur, and was so sure of its success that he warned the local post office to hire extra mail carriers to cope with the onslaught of orders. In the end he received two—both, Molyneux suspects, from his mother. By his midtwenties, he was well on his way to becoming one of those guys with a million grandiose plans that never quite pan out.
Then Molyneux had one of his craziest ideas yet: What if you made a videogame that gave players control not just of a character but of the entire game? That concept resulted in 1989′sPopulous, a battle-strategy game with a twist. Players didn’t simply move soldiers around a map—they manipulated the map itself, building up mountains or plunging coastlines into the sea. Their armies shuttled around the territory as if by their own free will. There was no single correct way to complete the game; players could do whatever they liked, and the game responded to their decisions.
Populous was a hit; it was also a conceptual breakthrough. Up to that point, most game designers saw themselves as something like film directors—they created fictional worlds, then guided audiences through them, scene by scene. Populous showed that videogames could be more than movies with joysticks—they could be a radically new narrative art form. Gamers didn’t have to be just members of an audience; they could write their own stories.
Over the course of the next two decades, Molyneux would explore this idea in a string of high-concept hits. In 1994, Theme Park did for tourist attractions what Populous had done for warfare: It gave players the ability to design and manage a virtual environment—in this case an amusement park—then watch hundreds of in-game patrons enjoy the creation. Dungeon Keeper, released in 1997, subverted the standard fantasy adventure game by putting players in the role of a final boss who must keep a crusading hero away from his hidden treasures. And 2001′s Black & White was an even more ambitious “God game” than Populous, letting players decide whether to treat their tribe of followers with mercy or wrath. It also featured a beast that players could raise with compassion or cruelty; the creature’s behavior and appearance changed based on players’ decisions.
The Tweets of @PeterMolydeux
Adam Capone started his @PeterMolydeux feed as a send-up of Peter Molyneux’s heady, unworkable game concepts. But it became a rallying cry for many who want game developers to take more risks. Scattered throughout the story are some of his craziest, most profound tweets.
That spirit of intellectual playfulness established Molyneux as one of the most innovative game designers in the world. He helped turn his home of Guildford—a Saxon-era shire of red-tile-roofed row houses about an hour outside of London—into an unlikely videogame-industry hotbed. He built and sold two companies: Bullfrog Productions, acquired by Electronic Arts in 1995, and Lionhead Studios, which Microsoft purchased in 2006. Molyneux continued his success as an executive at Microsoft, helming the popular Fable series of role-playing games and rising to become creative director of the company’s European game studios. By the time he hit his early fifties, Molyneux seemed destined to spend the remainder of his career in comfort and security.
And yet, by the middle of 2011, Molyneux was in a funk. Working at Microsoft was almost too comfortable; he missed the risk-it-all adventure of running a startup. Instead of getting his hands dirty building games, he was spending all of his time on flights to Redmond and worrying about office politics. He feared that his best work was behind him; Fable III, his latest release, had garnered some scathing reviews.
Then there was the crushingly disappointing fate of Milo, a Kinect game based on another of Molyneux’s head-exploding ideas. His son, Lucas, had recently turned 4. It got Molyneux thinking: What if you could create a virtual boy so lifelike that players formed a genuine emotional connection with him? Over the course of 18 months, Molyneux’s team built a digital child that players could interact with and train. If a player yelled, Milo would cower in fear; if the player offered encouragement, the boy would come out of his shell. Players could teach Milo to skip stones or console him after an argument with his parents. Molyneux demonstrated the game at a 2010 TEDGlobal talk in Oxford, boasting that his team had managed to “create a real, living being in a computer.” But Microsoft executives weren’t as enthusiastic—they thought the concept was too off-the-wall to be commercial. (Some members of the Milo team also report that the game was glitchy.) Microsoft discontinued the project not long after.
Molyneux took the news hard. He had developed a Gepetto-like paternal bond with Milo, who was modeled, after all, on his own son. From his perspective, shutting down the project was the emotional equivalent of the scene in 2001 where Dave unplugs HAL—or even infanticide.
The Milo debacle also gave ammunition to Molyneux’s growing number of critics. This wasn’t the first time his outsize ambitions had left him unable to deliver on a promise. The problems began in 2002, when he was developing the first installment of the Fable series. Molyneux rhapsodized to the gaming press about the unparalleled freedom players would enjoy. They could do anything they wanted! Get married! Have kids! Plant an acorn that grows into an oak over the course of the game! But when it was released, Fable had none of those features; it felt more like a standard RPG than a vibrant alternate universe. Disgruntled fanboys pounced. After weeks of scathing online criticism, Molyneux posted an open letter online pledging not to make any more promises he couldn’t keep.
Ironically, even that proved to be a promise he couldn’t keep. In the buildup to every new release, Molyneux would admit to overhyping his previous game while making lofty claims for the next one. Before the release of Fable II in 2008, he confessed that Fable had “some mechanics in there that just didn’t work” and advised everyone to “skip it,” while promising that the latest game would make players actually experience love, thanks to a new canine sidekick. Two years later, he confessed that Fable IIwas filled with “schoolboy errors” that made him want to “stand in front of a mirror and punch myself in the face,” while lauding the uniquely engaging story line in his forthcoming Fable III. A year later, he admitted that Fable III “wasn’t quite up-to-date” but assured his fans that any future addition to the franchise would “stand head and shoulders with anybody else out there—the best of the best—in terms of its technology, its drama, and its storytelling.”
Frustrated gamers poured on the vitriol. Last year an epic 25-minute YouTube screed entitled “SCREW Peter Molyneux” dubbed him “king of liars.” The griping became so widespread that when you typed his name into Google’s search engine, autofill suggested “peter molyneux lies.” Within the industry, Molyneux was still highly respected—a legend, even. But in some gaming circles, he had become a punch line.
Molyneux couldn’t fault the critics. They had a point. He too considered each release something of a letdown. For Molyneux, starting work on a new project was like stepping onto a stone outcrop, looking out over a blanket of fog, and waiting for the mist to clear and reveal what was lying underneath. He couldn’t stop himself from conjuring up the most tantalizing possibilities—the equivalent of finding himself atop a mountain, a lush landscape rolling beneath him. And so every time the fog lifted, he couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. Now, at the presumed twilight of his career, it seemed as though he’d never get a chance to create a game that was worthy of his dreams.
There was at least one person who seemed to understand his frustration. In the summer of 2011, Microsoft’s PR department alerted Molyneux to @PeterMolydeux, a satirical Twitter feed that parodied his public persona. At first Molyneux found the feed annoying; @PeterMolydeux was a pathetic character. His shtick was to spout overheated, ridiculous game ideas that could never get made. One tweet described a Kinect game that required players to cry before they could pass through a gate. Another posited a racing game in which you controlled the road instead of the cars. But over time Molyneux found himself drawn to his online impersonator. The ideas were silly, yes, but they were also oddly compelling. It was clear that whoever was coming up with these concepts had to be awfully clever:
Online sidescrolling co-op 8 player game where each person controls a leg of an octopus. Each leg can attach guns which the player can fire.
War game where at the end you walk through a graveyard looking at each and every headstone of those you killed followed with 1 minute of silence.
3D adventure game where you have amnesia and wake up in a gigantic museum where every room is devoted to a year of your life.
GAMES OF PETER MOLYNEUX
Screenshots: Microsoft; Electronic Arts
Molyneux had to admire @PeterMolydeux’s creativity. The updates were like messages from his younger self, reminding him of the excitement and energy he used to feel when he was building something the world had never seen before. Those tweets formed a chorus with the niggling voice inside his own head urging him to take just one more shot, to try one last time to make a game that could live up to his mad visions.
On March 7, 2012, Molyneux announced that he was leaving Microsoft to start an independent game company called 22Cans. The news came as a shock to many. At Microsoft he had 150 people working on his games. Now he was investing “substantial amounts” of his own money to work long hours with a team of about 20. One online wit suggested the company’s name was a “reference to the amount of beer he consumed on the night he decided to go it alone.”
But @PeterMolydeux seemed to get it. On the day Molyneux announced his resignation, his doppelgänger posted a celebratory tweet: I’m freeeeee! Microsoft’s PR department had always dissuaded Molyneux from contacting the mystery tweeter, but now he could do whatever he wanted. Within minutes he had composed his reply: @PeterMolydeux yes we are.
Adam Capone, the man behind @PeterMolydeux, fell in love with Molyneux’s games when he first played Theme Park as a child. While most games locked you into a precise series of actions, Theme Park took an open-ended approach—players could try to maximize profits or just build an unstable roller coaster and watch cars fly off the track. Over the years, Capone remained vaguely aware of Molyneux’s career. He knew that Molyneux had a reputation for overpromising, but he was always more won over by the game designer’s ambitions than annoyed at his failure to accomplish them. “When he made the comment that Fable II would have a dog that would make you cry, I was just so enamored of that,” Capone says. “I could see what he was trying to do.”
A game artist himself, Capone wished that more developers had the guts to overreach as spectacularly as Molyneux did. As budgets skyrocketed—it now costs tens of millions to produce a major title—mainstream developers grew timid, afraid to venture outside genre conventions that had become as rigidly defined as a Hollywood rom-com’s, often revolving around the identical sort of immaculately rendered violence.
Although he’d never met Molyneux, Capone began to see him as a tragicomic character, forever coming up with outlandish game concepts that were met with apathy or downright hostility. “I imagined him going through the supermarket with a digital recorder and coming up with ideas while shopping,” Capone says. “And over dinner, he’s rearranging his peas and saying. ‘Is this giving me a game idea?’ And his wife is saying, ‘Shut up, Peter. Just eat your food.’”
On June 11, 2009, Capone set up his parody Twitter account. He was soon posting several game ideas a week:
Imagine carrying a radioactive baby in a pitch black environment, your baby would act as a torch. Rocking the baby intensifies the glow etc.
I also love the idea of playing a character who is PRETENDING to be blind, so you have to keep bumping into things to not arouse suspicion.
How about a game where you get to be a mother-in-law who bullies your son’s young wife? The aim is to have her thrown out within x months.
It took a couple of years for the gaming press to catch on to what Capone was up to, but when they did they became fans. Journalists like Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander and GiantBomb’s Alex Navarro began retweeting some of his posts. Sites like Kotaku and GameSetWatch also ran coverage of the mysterious online figure, who maintained his anonymity in the press. The exposure helped @PeterMolydeux hit 23,000 followers by the end of 2011. And gamer cognoscenti weren’t reading it just as a cruel joke at Molyneux’s expense; @PeterMolydeux was becoming an outlet for the widespread dissatisfaction within the industry, a voice for the thousands of developers who had grown tired of the limitations of mainstream gaming. If anything, the Twitter feed gave some followers morerespect for Molyneux.
In early March, just after Molyneux left Microsoft, a San Francisco game developer named Anna Kipnis posted a portentous tweet: Has there already been an indie game jam where each team picks an idea from @PeterMolydeux and goes for it? It needs to happen. (Game jams are informal gatherings where teams of developers race to create entire games in a weekend.) Within minutes, some of her followers in the indie-gaming community had volunteered to help organize such an event. A few hours later, Kipnis’ message had been retweeted dozens of times. Capone gave it his blessing with an @PeterMolydeux tweet: If anyone ever wanted to base a serious gamejam on my world changing designs, I would give it my blessing and support. The organizers found a free space in San Francisco and began putting together a jam called What Would Molydeux? But it quickly became clear that the outpouring of interest couldn’t be contained to one location. Soon the organizers were helping to set up sister jams around the world—New York City, Melbourne, the Netherlands.
Capone kept his distance from the events, but he did help out with a promotional video, complete with a sweeping operatic score and title cards that framed the jam in typically overheated terms. “It is time for us to come together and reclaim creativity from the oppressors,” the captions announced. “The time for emotional games is now.” At the end of the video, dozens of tiny green pixels flew into a series of office buildings—presumably the headquarters of big- budget game developers—smashing them to rubble.
On March 30, about 1,000 participants showed up for 32 jams all over the globe. The attendees included gamer celebrities—David Hellman, who provided the artwork for indie hit Braid, dropped in on the San Francisco jam—as well as absolute novices who had never worked on a game before. The organizers set up a live videofeed so anyone who was unable to attend could follow along; at its busiest, it pulled in 60,000 viewers.
Around 7 pm, the London jam was treated to a special keynote—from Peter Molyneux himself. He had eagerly followed the development of the event, now dubbed Molyjam, since Capone first tweeted about it, seeing it as a kind of cosmic confirmation of his decision to leave Microsoft. He had toyed with the idea of joining the jam, but he had too much on his plate, what with transitioning out of his old job and building a new company. Still, he was pleased to take the stage and say a few words. Throughout most of his career, he had been a model of diplomacy, but the revolutionary fervor of the event appeared to have roused his inner Howard Beale.
“Personally, I’m just a bit bored,” he said. “Bored of all the same pap that’s been popped out year after year after year. What we need is innovation, and we need to come together and do crazy things, whether they be radioactive babies or blind men walking into lampposts—I don’t care what it is. That’s what the world wants from us.” It was a debatable assertion, but Molyneux powered through it. “Now let’s go and do it!” he concluded, and the room erupted in applause.
The appearance cemented Molyneux’s new reputation as patron saint of the indie-game movement. Just weeks earlier, Molyneux had been eagerly promoting the forthcoming Fable installment; now he was railing against the small-mindedness of the entire videogame industry. If you closed your eyes, it was hard to tell who was speaking: Molyneux or Molydeux?
Forty-eight hours later, the Molyjammers had created about 300 games. In Coo, a pigeon presents suicidal businesspeople with emotionally charged objects in an effort to dissuade them from killing themselves. In Unbearable, a bear runs out of oxygen unless it hugs someone every few seconds—usually crushing them in the process. Cody and Kari Raos Clark, a husband-and-wife team who had never designed a videogame, made Secret Dad, a poignant game about a divorced father who must help his estranged family while evading their notice.
But while the games were funny and some even fun, most weren’t exactly revolutionary. They tended to wrap rote mechanics—catching objects, dodging enemies, beating a timer—in an eccentric skin. Capone estimates that in the end only about 15 games were “really interesting.” That’s not a bad ratio, especially when you consider that the purpose of Molyjam wasn’t to produce a bunch of great games but to celebrate the creative act itself. Still, in a game jam inspired by Molyneux, the most Molyneuxian touch may have been the sense that when the fog lifted, the results fell somewhat short of all the impossibly overblown rhetoric.
On an overcast July afternoon, Peter Molyneux is eating lunch with his family in his stately home just outside of Guildford. The house, like Molyneux himself, is an appealing mix of British tradition and contemporary wit—a renovated stone manor with an English garden out back and a life-size model of a Doctor Who Dalek in the basement. Molyneux is dressed in a short-sleeved polo shirt and jeans. He is joined by his wife, Emma, and their moppet of a son, Lucas. When Molyneux left Microsoft, he made a commitment to reserve the weekends for his family. By all accounts that seems to be working.
“He was happy at Microsoft, but I can see now he’s happier,” Emma says. “I think it’s obvious that he’s doing more of the creative stuff that he wants to do.”
“It’s a little scary, in part because you don’t have people around you to tell you when you’re doing silly or stupid things,” Molyneux says. “And also, going out into the world and saying, ‘I’m going to make a game that has 100 million DAUs’—that’s scary.”
“Are you saying that?” Emma laughs. “Oh my God.”
DAU stands for daily active users, and this is Molyneux’s latest dream: a game that will be played every day by 1.4 percent of the world’s population. (For reference, all of Zynga’s games—fromFarmVille to Draw Something—together pulled in a grand total of 72 million DAUs in July.) Molyneux says that he was motivated to build the game when he realized we had entered a new gaming era, in which an audience of several million hardcore PC and console gamers had given way to hundreds of millions of casual gamers tapping away on their smartphones. It’s also a more dynamic age: Every one of Molyneux’s games has been sold as a shrink-wrapped product, but now companies like Zynga use player feedback and advanced analytics to further refine and tweak their offerings postrelease.
Beyond those general details, Molyneux is uncharacteristically tight-lipped about the game. When I press for more information, his eyes get a devilish glint.
“Well, you do know what I’ve got planned,” he says.
“I do?” I respond.
“Very simply, I’ve spent the past 20 years designing it. You could guess—you could almost guess—the sort of game I’m making.”
“Now there’s a challenge,” Emma chimes in.
“It’s going to be a world, isn’t it?” Molyneux continues. “There’s going to be something to do with life and artificial intelligence and simulation, that’s for sure. And it’s going to embrace this new creative world that we’re entering now. And it’s going to be more a hobby than it is a game. And you put all those things together …”
“And there it is!” Emma concludes, the mystery no further illuminated. “Do you want more coffee?”
Molyneux is working toward releasing the game—which he has said will be “the greatest game I’ve ever made”—in the near future. In the meantime, the 22Cans team is building out a series of experiments that will inform the final product. They’re working on the first one now, a free game—initially for iPhone and iPad but eventually playable on Android devices and in web browsers—calledCuriosity. The idea is so absurdly high-concept that it might have been spawned from an @PeterMolydeux tweet: The whole world collectively chips away at a giant box, and only the player who opens it gets to discover the secret inside. Here’s the long version: Players tap their screens to knock pieces off a giant cube. They can buy chisels to make themselves more powerful, blasting away bigger chunks of cube with each tap. As the outer shell of the cube disappears, it reveals another surface beneath it. The process continues until the players reach the cube’s innermost layer. Only one player will strike the final blow, uncovering a secret that will be revealed to that player alone. Meanwhile, Molyneux’s team will be collecting data every step of the way. What are the most effective techniques for motivating people to tap? How long will it take people to break all 60-billion-plus miniboxes that make up the cube? How does the victor go about sharing the news of what’s inside?
Molyneux hasn’t told anyone what’s in the cube—not his wife, not his son, not even his coworkers. Instead, he has described the secret in vague terms that sound uncomfortably familiar. “What is inside the cube is life-changingly amazing by any definition,” he assures me. “That’s all I’m going to say.” In Molyneux’s vision, the question of what’s inside becomes a global obsession—he fantasizes that, on the day the cube is finally opened, the revelation of its contents will lead nightly newscasts around the world.
Unsurprisingly, Molyneux’s legion of online critics have leapt on this as yet another example of overpromising. “If you told me that what’s actually inside the cube is a gigantic picture of Molyneux’s scrotum, I would believe it,” one commenter remarked. “It wouldn’t be very different from what this man has done before. Just more direct.”
Even within his own home, Molyneux faces some doubt. “I don’t know what’s in there that would be worth it,” says Emma, who routinely plays the role of cheery skeptic to her husband’s unquenchable optimist. “Peter says it is, but it’s hard to believe.”
“Maybe it’s just friendship inside the cube,” Lucas offers. “Just the word friendship.”
“Well, that would be a disappointment to a lot of people,” Emma says. Across the table, Molyneux smiles cryptically.
Capone, who has followed the development of Curiosity from afar, acknowledges that Molyneux may again be promising more than he can possibly deliver. “But I love that,” he says, “because it gets people curious. (Capone has posted his own satirically overblown Molydeux videos promoting the game. One promises that “the events of the world will come to a halt” and the discovery “will make the God particle seem smaller than an atom.”)
At the time of my visit, Curiosity was scheduled to launch on August 22. By the time this article went to press, that date had been pushed to October. (The name had also been adjusted to avoid confusion with the rakish Mars rover. It’s now called Curiosity—What’s Inside the Cube?) Perhaps by the time you read this, the game will have already become an international phenomenon, with tens of millions of people tapping away at the cube’s surface. It’s possible that the cube will have even been opened by now, that its secrets will have captivated the planet and shown up on the nightly news, that its contents will have proven to be as world-altering as Molyneux promised.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons to think that’s not what’s going to happen—but good luck convincing Molyneux of that. And to those who suggest he might want to temper his expectations, to tone down the enthusiasm, he responds that they’re looking at the wrong side of the equation. “I don’t want to believe less in something,” he says. “I want to make something that is worthy of the emotion behind it.”
For the time being, Molyneux’s team is still building out some features. A few hours after we have lunch with his family, the game designer and I are at 22Cans, a 600-square-foot unit in a 70-acre office complex near a cramped roundabout. In case anyone forgets his mission, Molyneux has posted printouts every 5 feet around the perimeter of the office that read, “100,000,000 DAUs in 32 months.” CTO Tim Rance gathers the entire staff around his computer for a demonstration. While the idea behind Curiosity is simple, the technological infrastructure is tricky—22Cans needs to find a way to let potentially millions of people see the same dynamic object at the exact same time. When one player smashes a cubelet, it needs to disappear on the screen of every other player around the world at just that moment.
Rance pulls up the latest build. A bright white room fills the screen of his iMac, a dark gray cube floating in its center. As he zooms in, the object reveals itself to be massive—it is only by magnifying the cube about 800 times that we begin to see the millions of minicubes that make up its surface. Rance queues up thousands of bots, algorithms that each mimic a single player chipping at the cube, so we can get a sense of what the game will look like when it goes live. But we can’t see anything; the surface of the cube is too vast. Rance jacks up the power, but the cube remains opaque. It’s only when he pumps up his algorithms even further—the equivalent of 30,000 people clicking four times a second—that we can begin to see the vanishing blocks. They start as freckles, dotting the cube’s outer shell, then expand into clusters. Soon whole sheets of the surface begin to disappear. It’s the simulation of a dream, of tens of thousands of players all feverishly clicking away at Molyneux’s creation, racing to unearth the promised treasure he has buried within. Team members gasp as they watch the layers melt away. Molyneux leans forward in his chair and squints. It looks to him like fog clearing.
Jason Tanz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Wired’s New York editor. He wrote about Cow Clicker in issue 20.01.