Sleight of hand: Peter Molyneux’s final Journey

By Patrick Garratt
19 March 2012 08:30 GMT

Peter Molyneux’s final PR effort before quitting Microsoft was with Fable: The Journey in the US earlier this month. In this VG247 interview he talks the future of Kinect, Milo and more.

Peter Molyneux, Indie

Within days of this interview, Microsoft confirmed that Peter Molyneux had left Lionhead Studios, the developer he founded 15 years ago, as well as his senior role at Microsoft Studios. Molyneux has joined a new start up called 22 Cans, but will continue to work on Fable: The Journey as a creative consultant.

Since going indie, has been sharing his experience of getting back to programming via Twitter. Peter Molydeux, a parody account, has reacted joyfully to the news, and the two have even shared some playful back and forth.

It’s funny how things turn out. The week after giving this interview to VG247 in San Francisco earlier this month at Microsoft’s Spring Showcase, Peter Molyneux was making headlines for very different reasons. The Lionhead founder decided to quit the Xbox giant and go it alone with a start-up called 22 Cans, leaving Fable and his job as creative lead of all of Microsoft’s European studios behind for good.

Despite knowing his change in circumstances was imminent, though, Molyneux was as enthusiastic as ever about the possibilities of motion-sensing and his intentions with Fable: The Journey, a Kinect-based first-person riding and combat game set in Fable’s world of Albion. During a demonstration earlier that day, he talked for the first time about combining voice with hand movements to create stronger spells (if you shout words such as, “Just die!” during casting the fireballs you create will be more powerful) and said the entire experience will last between 10-14 hours. The game was looking in fine shape.

Read on.

Peter Molyneux: How long do we have?

VG247: Ten minutes, apparently.

Ten minutes? I do talk a lot.

I know. I want to talk to you about the horse, first of all. Why do you always feel the need to put something in your games that eventually – theoretically – reflects something about the player’s personality?

For me it’s all about the emotional connection. If I can make you care about something for just a second then it becomes a more emotional experience. We can always rely upon action and having bigger and bigger explosions and bigger monsters with bigger mouths and longer teeth, but you just run out of that drama. The real drama, the best combat, that we can ever give you is if you’re fighting to save something you love. That will be brilliant, and that’s why I love drawing upon that sort of stuff.

You can be horrible to the horse. You can injure it and torture it. Are healing and grooming the only nice things you can do to the horse, or is there more?

There’s lots of other things. One of the most tenderest, loveliest moments – this is going to sound ridiculously silly, is that you can reach up to a tree and pull an apple down and give it to your horse, and he just munches on it. There’s something just delightful about hearing that munching sound. And if you’re really cruel to your horse – cruel because you’ve had to be sometimes, you’ve had to push him on when he’s injured because you have to get him out of trouble, then, just once or twice he’ll refuse taking the apple. That’s a terrible moment.

You just feel, ‘Oh my god.’ It’s like when you hit your young dog for doing something bad. You just feel terrible about it. But you can groom your horse, you can customise your horse, you can feed your horse, you can give your horse water. You can talk to your horse, you can calm him down. There’s lots of stuff.

I really love the idea of using voice with hand movements. When you watch people play that and they start to realise they can increase the power of the magic by shouting at the screen, do you see them getting quite aggressive?

My dream is that people don’t feel like they have to do that all the time. But if they’re facing some opponent, who they really want to defeat, then I want them to talk when it feels natural to them to talk. A lot of the time you don’t have to power up your magic, but there’s an adversary you face called the Devourer, and it’s a really big battle; the Devourer is called the Devourer for a very good reason. I’ll not spoil it, but you really want to defeat this guy for a lot of emotional reasons. I want you to use every ounce of power at your disposal. I actually would love you to not only use your voice but to leap out of your chair and start casting on foot, because you just feel that excited that even the laziest person – and I consider myself a lazy person – even the laziest gamer really wants to do that. I don’t want to force you to do it, but I want to compel you to do it. That’s different.

Do you think that Fable: The Journey is a tighter concept, a more focussed concept than Milo? It appeared to be incredibly ambitious.

Watch on YouTube

Fable: The Journey E3 2011 announcement.

The problem with Milo wasn’t the ambition. It wasn’t the ambition, it wasn’t the technology; it was none of that. I just don’t think that this industry was ready for something as emotionally connecting as something like Milo. The real problem with Milo was – and this is a problem we had lots of meetings over – where it would be on the shelves next to all the computer games. It was just the wrong thing.

It was the wrong content.

It was the wrong concept for what this industry currently is. Maybe this industry one day won’t be like that, but at this particular time, having a game that celebrates the joy of inspiring something and you feel this connection, this bond; it was the wrong time for that. Maybe we’ll revisit that later on. There was a lot of technology that was in Milo that is now in The Journey, but it’s just not this delightful celebration of youth. What we were trying to achieve with Milo was just this key thing, which is: the most powerful story I could possibly tell is a story that reminds you of your own childhood. We’ve all had times in our childhood – we’ve all had common experiences when we felt down, and we felt up, or we celebrated doing something for the first time, and I loved that thought.

I’m gobsmacked. I honestly thought it was – I’m really sorry. I’m snotty. Thank you – I honestly thought it was a technology issue, not a content issue.

It wasn’t a technology issue.

PR: Can we bring it back to Fable: The Journey?

Yes, they get very nervous talking about that.


Thank you.

That’s absolutely fine. I know in the first generation of Kinect games there was a sitting down issue. There isn’t any more, clearly, because we have Fable: The Journey and we have things like Steel: Battalion. What’s moved on? Was it a tracking problem?

To be honest with you, I’m not exactly sure of the technical reasons why these things work or don’t work. With any new invention, like Kinect, it takes a time for that invention to find itself. For me, I think you start with the idea of ‘let’s concentrate on people standing,’ and that was the first approach, which led to fantastic sports titles and dance titles. But I love relaxing, I love engaging and being relaxed while I engage, and that makes being seated just as important. I think being seated is going to end up being even more reliable because you’re not leaning all over the room like a mad thing. We can measure this part of you a little bit more accurately then we could the entirety of your body, I would guess.

Favourite Molyneux games

Populous 1989

Syndicate (1993)

Theme Park (1994)

Magic Carpet (1994)

Dungeon Keeper (1997)

Black & White (2001)

Fable (2004)

Fable II (2008)

Fable III (2010)

There’s been a lot of talk about the potential power of the next generation of Kinect, of it being able to read lips and facial expressions. Are we going to see a real step change in recognition technology with the next generation?

I don’t think we’re talking about anything…

Well, not directly, but what I will answer. Yes, I’m sure that technology moves forward, and that the iPhone 4 is far, far better than the iPhone 3. It’s not that the hardware seriously changes, it’s that we, the designers, get used to it. The same is going to be true of Kinect. For me, Kinect’s real benefit is not about its ability to read lips or eyes, or whatever; It’s the ability for you to discover, the player to discover, gameplay because they’re unique.

To be honest with you, I do get a little bit worked up about this. I’ve realised that I’m just this idiot savant of a gamer, I’m a rat running around in a maze using a controller. When I sit in front of a game now my hand is clamped onto that controller, my thumb is on the thumb stick, my other hand is on the trigger, and that’s it. I’m obeying the rules. Like a good monkey. That feels horrible.

And I remember the days, and you probably remember them, when we used to do things like putting one finger on one button and rolling our thumbs back [onto another button]. You remember those days? You used to flick you’re fingers around. Those days are gone. They’re utterly gone. Now it’s do this, hold it that way: that’s it, that’s your experience. And I just miss those old days, and this is what Kinect represents to me. It allows us to discover new stuff, because great Kinect games have to celebrate how unique and how different we all are. That age of discovery really will come back again.

The Kinect software I’ve seen since I’ve been here is definitely the second wave. It definitely feels very different from the first lot. But people are still having to be coached. In all of the demos yesterday, not just this one, there was always somebody there saying, ‘Please raise your hand, please do this,’ because the person playing was just sort of standing there and not entirely sure of when and what to do. Do you think there’s still an intuitiveness issue?

For a start, I tried to avoid doing that.

But you did do it.

Sometimes that worked really well in a demo, and I really didn’t have to say anything. If you noticed, when I was coaching them, it wasn’t ‘how to play Kinect.’ It was ‘how to drive a horse.’

Right. OK.

When I explained, ‘The reins go to a bit in the horse’s mouth; when you pull the rein it’s attached to a loop which pulls back,’ I wasn’t coaching people to use Kinect: I was teaching them to drive a horse and carriage. Actually as a result of these last two days, I’m probably going to soften those rules a little bit, because some people just don’t understand the physics of those reins, the physical nature of those reins. But to justify this coaching stuff, this is all new. We’ve never had this, whether it’s Steel Battalion or us; we’ve never had this before. We haven’t got a language that we really understand.

Watch on YouTube

Just one of hundreds of “It’s not
on rails” remixes.

So when you poor journalists come into a room and we sit you down and we force you to play, that is an incredibly hard thing for a demo to do and an incredibly hard thing for a journalist to do. In a normal game experience we’ve got an hour, two hours, to subtly persuade you not to over-reach and not over-pull and not to over-throw, and that all has to be compressed into five or ten minutes, so there is an awful lot of coaching.

In Fable: The Journey there are no tutorials at all. We don’t ever tell you to sit up, sit back, do this do that. When we first wrote down the design, we had a whole load of tutorials popping up all over the place, and then we realised it was silly. We’re just trying to get people to behave like me, the game designer. And that’s just silly. Why don’t we just throw all those tutorials away and really celebrate the fact that you’re going to solve this problem? You’re going to solve this problem how you want to solve it, not how I want you to solve it, and that makes a big difference.

There are lots of video on YouTube of you saying “it’s not on rails”.


It may not be on rails but it’s certainly extremely linear, in terms of…


Or is it?

The only reason people think “oh well it’s on rails” is because they can’t imagine how we solve this problem of navigation without a thumbstick.

This is another problem with the demo. I defy you, other than the Minecraft demo downstairs, I defy you to point out any demo in this entire Spring Showcase that doesn’t feel on rails. Because this is a problem. You’ve got ten minutes of journalist time and they’ve got to see everything and you’ve got to get all your points across. And it’s very, very hard to nail freedom. I simply say this: stop where you like, in the horse and carriage, get off and walk around. Sometimes that makes sense. Other times, just like in every game except Minecraft, there are tricks that we use. We’ll put a cliff here and a cliff there. You can’t climb up the cliff, you can’t climb down the cliff. Whether you’re playing Skyrim, whether you’re playing Fable, whether you’re playing Call of Duty, those same tricks apply.

If there is a place in the world that looks like it would be existing to explore, absolutely explore it. There’s lots of branches and avenues. When you get off the horse, you can walk around just by subtly and gently leaning, and that allows you to change the angle of where you’re heading, and if you want to walk forward you move forward again, if you want to walk back, you push back. The only reason people think, ‘Oh well it’s on rails,” is because they can’t imagine how we solve this problem of navigation without a thumbstick. To be totally frank with you, I tried really hard not to use that system because it didn’t feel natural. Everything else in the game feels natural but then I realised that if I’m going to ask you to stand up and walk on the spot that would just be silly. This feels fine.

Fable: The Journey releases later this year.

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