The Lion King is dead: Peter Molyneux and the paper napkin incident

Thursday, 8 March 2012 13:58 GMT By Patrick Garratt

Microsoft’s loss is gaming’s gain. The news that Peter Molyneux has decided to revert to indie development is the best you’re likely to hear this year, says Patrick Garratt.

He’s sold untold millions of games in his time; he’s a member of the AIAS Hall of Fame; he holds an OBE; he’s a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; he holds the GDCA Lifetime Achievement Award; and he’s now the owner of that tear-stained BAFTA Fellowship. He made Populous, for God’s sake.

Yesterday’s news that Peter Molyneux has left Lionhead and Microsoft is by far the cheeriest story to yet emerge from games in 2012. The big cat has finally escaped the circus.

I spoke to Peter in San Francisco last week. He was at Microsoft’s Spring Showcase doing PR duties for Fable: The Journey. I tried to get some time with him on the first day of the show, but he was being filmed with Geoff Keighley. Lydia from Microsoft UK managed to get me a 15 minute slot on the second day, however, for which I’m eternally grateful. Being creative director of Microsoft Game Studios Europe means your time’s at a premium.

Peter never recognises me. I must have interviewed him a dozen times. I was the only British reporter to speak to him at E3 2010, after which we shared a conspiratorial conversation about Milo and its suspicious absence. I spent over an hour with him and lifelong PR Cathy Campos at Lionhead once, talking about his career for a Sunday Mail feature that never aired thanks to some fuck-up with a photographer. He told me about how he’d received death threats and had to be guarded by US security forces, and how he loves his Nissan Skyline but can’t drive it for shit. I think I’ve interviewed him for every Fable game. Every time I speak to him it’s the same. I’m introduced, and I always make as if I know him, just to see if my face or name has yet seeped into his memory any further than those of the hundreds of people he’s given the same answers to month after month, year after year. This time was no different.

“This is Patrick Garratt from VG247. Have you met Peter before?”

“We’ve met, yes. Hi, Peter. How are you?”

“Yes, we’ve met,” he says, but his expression belays the lie. “Pleased to meet you,” he adds as he shakes my hand and looks at the floor.

Wake-up call

Peter Molyneux is always tired, and this is one of the reasons I’m so pleased to hear he’s finally kicked his time at Microsoft to the curb. He’s a very nice man. He’s mad as a bat. I’ve never worked with him, obviously, but he comes across as a genuine, emotional person. He actually cried during his BAFTA Fellowship acceptance speech last year. You can tell he cares. That this energy will now be focused back into pure creation rather than management is obviously for the greater good.

I have a cold at the moment, and half way through the interview last week, during which I was fluffing some nonsense about the future of Kinect while apologising through a film of snot, he got up from his chair and fetched me a tissue, a paper napkin lying on the carpet. He didn’t have to. He wanted to, because it was a considerate thing to do. Further, his brain doesn’t suffer all the bullshit of oh no I can’t blow my nose on this napkin what the fuck will people think and if I can’t blow my nose on this napkin a piece of paper which isn’t designed for nose-blowing but rather mouth-wiping then I’m sure this guy won’t want to blow his nose on it either. He just solved a problem without pretense. Logic. As I went about happily blowing my nose, he talked about walking round the horse in Fable: The Journey and how it would have been stupid, and how he always has to have something that arrives as a product of your personality during play, because that’s how he can connect to you emotionally. When you talk to him about games it’s never about level design and box-checking. It’s always about psychological engagement and concept. Peter Molyneux is not your average games developer.

He also clearly isn’t that bothered about his appearance. He was staying at the same hotel as us, the Mark Hopkins up on San Francisco’s hill, and he appeared for breakfast wearing a sloppy grey sweat-top and some nondescript trainers. He was wearing the same later for interviews. What he does care a great deal about, however, is creating the content he wants to create and being lauded for it. I think that’s important to him, as it’s important to any creative. He’s a self-professed “believer” in games and the future of games, but you don’t further a medium in a bubble. Everyone wants to be told how good they are. He may not care about floor-trampled napkins and what shoes he has on, but that’s because he’s not seeking approval for his dress sense or his hygiene habits. He’s seeking approval for his games. Maybe he realised cranking out Fable into every niche Microsoft supplied for it wasn’t the best use of his remaining time.

The king is dead

I’m sure we’ll discover in the coming days what his reasoning was for leaving Microsoft, but I’m equally sure it’ll have something to do with being able to work on creative projects with a great deal of freedom and getting back to what he loves: making games. For you and I, Peter’s decision to move on is incredible news. There are exceedingly few developers that can boast success levels remotely close to Molyneux’s. He’s sold untold millions of games in his time; he’s a member of the AIAS Hall of Fame; he holds an OBE; he’s a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; he holds the GDCA Lifetime Achievement Award; and he’s now the owner of that tear-stained BAFTA Fellowship. He made Populous, for God’s sake.

No one deserves the accolades more. Peter Molyneux is British gaming’s national treasure, a genius creative who’s pushed games in areas no one else has dared. Yes, he’s failed on more than one occasion, but that’s because he’s tried. In such a risk-averse industry, that’s rare. If you push you will fall, but he never stops. Going it alone again means he can experiment in ways a large corporation would never allow, that he can remain on the road of innovation. I sincerely hope that the next time I sit down with him he doesn’t know me from Adam. And I hope he pretends he remembers me, because that means he still doesn’t want to offend people. I hope he continues to seek approval, because that means we’ll see his best work. I hope he stays true to the revolution. I hope he continues to believe.

Because no one was ever immortalised for putting names to faces, were they?

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