Peter Molyneux Talks 'Fable 2,' 'BioShock' Lessons -- Leaves Interviewer Confused

Fable2At long last I've transcribed my GDC interview with Peter Molyneux, head of Lionhead Studios and chief architect of the Xbox 360 fall exclusive "Fable 2."

I teased a video excerpt earlier this week. Now you can read my conversation with him about:

  • What people ask him about at GDC.
  • What the most ambitious element of "Fable 2" is.
  • How you can steal his wife in his game.
  • How to punish your "Fable 2" family with an apple pie.
  • Why you might want to live in a town called Bloodstone.
  • What lessoned he learned not to repeat from "BioShock."
  • How he left me completely perplexed at the end of our interview.

And more! Read on. It's Molyneux, so, you will be both informed and entertained...

NOTE: This interview was conducted in a hotel suite in San Francisco, where Molyneux was running demos of "Fable 2" for press.


Fable2Multiplayer: Why are you here at GDC?

Peter Molyneux, Founder, Lionhead Studios: My name is Peter Molyneux and I am a game designer. I am currently working on two games, one of which is "Fable 2," which will be out this year.

Multiplayer: How many GDC's have you been to? Have you lost count?

Molyneux: Let me just tell you: there's a snobbery about GDC. -- about the first GDC you went to [and] how many people attended it. Now the first GDC I went to had about 200 people. I've been coming here for almost since it was invented.

Multiplayer: Is part of the snobbery that you're going to tell me that GDC isn't as cool as it was before I got to GDC?

Molyneux: Well, there were only 200 very geeky geeks. We ate pizza and drank coke. When you reminisce that's always cool.

Multiplayer: Do you have a lot of young game developers approach you at GDC? I don't know if your entourage keeps them away from you. And if they do come up to you and get through the security, what do they say to you? Or what do you say to them?

Molyneux: They do. We're in this room at the moment and I'm rather like an embarrassing old relative who's got personal hygiene issues. I'm rarely allowed out of my room. And when I am, I'm shuffled back in it quickly before the doors close. But I do get out occasionally, and when I do it's always fantastic to meet people and talk to people. Quite often people come up and they say really nice things. Sometimes they say very honest things. Sometimes they ask for advice. And it's really good to give that.

Multiplayer: What's the most common thing people ask? And don't tell me it's "Where do you get your ideas?" What do developers tend to tell you?

Molyneux: No. It's not "Where do you get your ideas?" It's "Why do you have such complicated ideas?" quite a lot of the time. A lot of questions are: "Are you going to do this game again? Are you going to do 'Syndicate' again? Are you going to do another version of 'Populous'? Are you going to do a 'Magic Carpet?' I think that's the most common one at developer conferences.

Multiplayer: Looking at what Microsoft announced today, the Xbox 360's Community Games service, with basically enabling regular gamers who are amateur game programmers to get their games onto the Xbox 360 -- how do you feel about that empowerment of an amateur development community? And do you have any advice to anybody who's looking to get involved in something like that?

Molyneux: Anything that we can do to bring in amazing new creative smart bright clever people is fantastic. But the coolest thing about this is there's now a route into the industry that doesn't involve going to university and spending like five years of your life training for a degree and then going for an interview. You can actually go and build something and prove that you are creative or that you're a good programmer or a good artist. And that for me as someone who tries to bring cool people in is the important thing.

To see somebody create something from nothing is incredibly impressive. ... The first piece of advice is: Don't recreate something that's already been created and is good. You want to have an idea, think of different idea. Don't think of someone else's idea. Don't say, "I'm gonna remake 'Space Invaders' and there's going to be 10 times the number of aliens." That's pointless. The second [thing] is, don't try and make the biggest game of all time when you're making your first game. Just make a tiny little mechanic. Rather thank make a game with 100 levels, make a game that has 10 minutes of gameplay.

Multiplayer: Peter Molyneux telling people not to overreach.

Molyneux: [laughs] This is just ridiculous.

Multiplayer: No one's going to believe you.

Molyneux: Once you've done 10 minutes, then you can do 100 hours.


Multiplayer: Speaking of ambition, what's the most ambitious thing you've actually been able to pull off with your team in "Fable 2"?

Molyneux: In "Fable 2"? Oh, I was going to tell you about something else. But I'll tell you about "Fable 2."

This doesn't sound very exciting, but it is. It's the fact that you've got all these new cool things working together. This is the first time -- this is an incredibly big thing; people don't realize how big this is -- you've got a simulated world with a simulated economy with a simulated renown system with families in there and relationships, and they're all simulated, and co-op. That all working together is incredible. You coming into my world, and you as my henchman being able to chat up my wife and woo her away from me. Those systems all working under the hood, it's amazing, man. It's not just a single thing anymore.

Fable2Multiplayer: So I can woo your wife away? What would be the best way to pull that off?

Molyneux: The best way to do it is through money, I'm afraid. It's the horrible truth.

Multiplayer: [laughing] So this is a "message" game?

Molyneux: The horrible truth is that if you end up giving my wife more money than I've given her, she's more likely to find you attractive.

Multiplayer: I'm interested in you talking about all these simulation systems that are in the game. I assume that leads to a lot of unpredictability. So can you describe any situations in the game that you've encountered that really highlight that? I was curious about what would have played out from the moment we saw today, when your [co-op] colleague killed your spouse. I wondered what was going to happen to your son. Could you elaborate on that?

Molyneux: I'll tell you a story, an absolutely true story… for a start you're never sure what's going to happen. I'll give you an example. It's not in "Fable," but it's a great example from when we first created this creature we created in a game I did called "Black & White." There was this creature that came to life and was driven completely by AI. The first moment that he was created, he stoof up and I felt like Frankentein. I felt like he was alive. It was a very emotional moment. And he was swiping down and sort of hitting his legs. And me and Richard Evans, who was the AI programmer, were wondering what the hell was going on. We'd been working on his brian for months. And it turned out that that the first thing we had taught him was to find food. The most important thing was to find a food source. But we hadn't said to him: exclude your own body. So he had seen the most nutritious thing around and the most nutritios thing around was his legs. And he tried to eat his legs. That taught me that you can't predict a lot of these things. When these systems start working there's chaos that goes on. But the biggest chaos is the player.

What we found in "Fable 2" is -- this is a horrible example, actually, of cruelty and evil, of which people seem to find creative ways of being cruel and evil with your family. Families are very important and families depend on you for their sustenance. What some people did was they were exploiting that and starving their family of all money and food. And then they would go home and take out an enormous apple pie, which you can buy in "Fable," and eat it in front of their starving family while they begged for food. And that was all these simulations working That was not a scripted moment. There are 10s of thousands of lines and one of those lines is: "Daddy, please," and this 10-year-old kid going "Daddy, please, please,"-- it's harrowing to watch.

Multiplayer: Sop what would happen in the situation today in which, you playing as a woman, you're married to a guy… your buddy came into the game… he killed your husband. We didn't get to see what would happen to the son. What would the son do?

Molyneux: Well, first, the son would be incredibly upset. We didn't want to show that in that keynote. .. You are a single parent and if you leave your child alone -- if you leave the region -- he will be moved into an orphanage. It's only at that point that he disowns you as a parent.


Multiplayer: We haven't talked about aging. There was an aging system in "Fable 1". Is there an aging system in this game?

Molyneux: Absolutely. The first moment in the game you see yourself as an eight-year-old boy or girl. And over the course of the game you change into kind of leaps -- chapter breaks when a big amount of time passes. The other way time passes: traveling across the land takes months. We've got what we call the aging morphs. The texture of your skin changes. The animation changes. So toward the end of the game you'll tend to see what has happened to you as a result of how you've played it.

We do this really cool thing. We've got something called purity and corruption, good and evil. Your face changes and you grow horns if you're evil and sort of alabaster if you're good. We've got purity and corruption as well. If you're pure you tend to be stood up really straight and al your animations are much more graceful. Whereas if you're corrupt your animations tend to be much more hunched over. And you sort of walk along with a hunch. Purity and corruption only comes out when you're older.

Multiplayer: Can I be evil but have people be attracted to me in this game? Because, in the last game, if I remember correctly, women were only attracted to me if I was really nice. I'm not sure if that's the way the world really works. In fact, I think it works the opposite way.

Molyneux: [laughs] Ah yes. There are women who find nice people attractive… I've never met them.

Multiplayer: My wife… my wife likes me.

Molyneux: No, we've found this, and it's a very good point: if you want to find an evil partner, you should go to a place called Bloodstone, which is on the south coast. Bloodstone is populated by people who think evil is pretty cool. It's kind of the reverse of somewhere called Bowerstone which has got a conventional morality system, crime system in it and is all conventional. Bloodstone inverts that. Being big, vicious and nasty is applauded.

Fable 2Multiplayer: Do you see morality systems in games as necessarily having to be fairly binary? People always talk about applying shades of gray, but, any time a developer tells me about that and then I play their game, I see they've essentially had to go back to creating more of a black and white morality system… and I wonder if that's ultimately because they need to be able to quantify things, need to show distinctions. Do you see an increased graying of the morality? Or does it always have to be sifted apart?

Molyneux: Well, here's the thing. There's a very simple way to answer that. In conceptual terms, good and evil is a very clear, well-defined and well-understood thing which is great when you’re designing a game. If you’re good, it’s all about sacrifice and care. And if you’re evil, it’s all about being selfish and uncaring.

The way it turns out is, rather than just going for the polarity of killing things is evil and saving things is good, we’ve mixed that up. That’s why we’ve introduced a few other scales, purity and corruption being one of them.

Cruelty and kindness is a really interesting one. Now you would naturally say, “Kindness, that’s good. Cruelty is evil.” Well actually if you’ve got a child … to my son, when I say to him, “You can’t have a chocolate bar two minutes before you go to bed,” he looks at me a says, “Daddy, you’re so cruel.” Well I’m actually being kind. That’s what’s really interesting. The end result is it all boils down to good and evil because otherwise it gets a little bit philosophically complex, but underneath the hood, judging what that is, is quite interesting.. We play out the cruelty and kindness. Just to try and -- what I wouldn't want people to do is just play this game and -- some people will play and they won't give a damn. They're just going to go through and be who they want to be. And they're not going to think about it. They're not going to turn the game off and think about it. Other people will think, you know, "What am I going to do here? This is a really interesting point. "


Multiplayer: When I interviewed you for the New York Times for the first “Fable” you talked about the potential for the dropped acorn that grows into the oak tree…

Molyneux:: Yes.

Multiplayer: …and got yourself into a bit of issues with that.

Molyneux: [smiling, rolling eyes]… trouble…

Fable 2Multiplayer: Can you clarify the capacity of acorns growing into trees for “Fable 2??

Molyneux: I can tell you definitively that there is absolutely an acorn and it does absolutely grow into a tree. And it is actually part of the story now. We decided we got into so much trouble over acorns and trees that we are going to make it part of the main thread of the story in “Fable 2?

Multiplayer: So it will be like the [”Portal”] Companion Cube?

Molyneux: Kind of. I’m not as cool as the Companion Cube.


Multiplayer: Did games that have also been trying to something interesting with morality, like "BioShock," recently, have any influence on what you're doing here? Have you felt yourself prodded in ways that you hadn't felt earlier when there seemed to be fewer ambitious games, in terms of morality?

Molyneux: I think "BioShock" was pretty interesting. I felt that the thing that "BioShock" taught me was that if your morality makes it so difficult for you to make that choice ... I don't know anybody that actually harvested the girls. Everybody saved them, it seemed to me, because that was such a tough thing to do. [The developers'] remark was, "These weren't real little girls." But they kind of looked real tome. I just found it very difficult. And I realized, yeah, you could give people the most harrowing experience, then you're always going to take that choice [to avoid it]. That doesn't become a choice at all. That becomes: I'm just not going to go down that avenue. So not making things too harsh [was the lesson].

I think, for me, "BioShock" was probably the game of the year last year, the one I enjoyed the most. I thought the first half of the story was fantastic. The dialogue was spot on.


Multiplayer: You talked about having games talking to games. So you're going to have this gambling Xbox Live Arcade game that allows players to earn money they can spend in "Fable 2." How did you have this idea of games talking to games come about?

Molyneux: The game's called "Keystone." It's one of several games which will be released on Xbox Live Arcade. The idea, really, is if you have these amazing games that you've been playing for a long, long time, wouldn't it be cool for those amazing games to talk outside of themselves? This is one example of that and I'd like there to be other examples. And we'll probably be showing a different take on "Fable" talking, if you like, later on.

Multiplayer: "'Fable' talking"?

Molyneux: Yeah, that's confused you, hasn't it?

Multiplayer: Yeah.

Molyneux: How can I talk about this without giving the feature away? So there's another little surprise I've got up my sleeve which is all about "Fable" being able to -- it's very hard to do this -- "Fable" being able to communicate outside itself in a way you perhaps haven't seen before.


And, thus, I moved on to talk to Molyneux about video game dogs and then ended the interview, still perplexed. "Fable 2" is set for a fall release on the Xbox 360.