On Rock Paper Shotgun and “that” Molyneux Interview

Over valentine’s weekend, the gamesphere was busy dissecting and criticizing what went down over at RPS recently when John Walker interviewed Peter Molyneux on the whole Godus debacle (for details check Aywren’s article) among other past failings. In the wake of the “ethics in game journalism debates” of last year, I was hoping to read more blogosphere opinions on the matter. Now, I will say this: I am for the most part a fan of Walker’s work at RPS and his often candid and brutally honest writing that hasn’t made him the most popular videogames journalist in the past. I hold neither grudge nor particular awe for Peter Molyneux who seems to be notoriously overselling games ever since the wane of the Populous fame and making petty, snidy remarks about more successful developers like Notch – which is what got me to unfollow him years ago on twitter. He is, as far as my interests are concerned, a somewhat silly figure but I’m not a Godus backer, so I don’t harbor any ill will against him for screwing with my money (also, some of that is a risk you’re taking with KS).

As for the interview itself, at some point I wasn’t sure I could continue because it’s so bloody long and extremely awkward. You can’t possibly not feel some degree of empathy for Molyneux who is starting to disintegrate halfway through, appearing less and less credible and informed about his own projects, until he arrives at the inevitable (sulky) conclusion that maybe he should not be giving press interviews anymore ever. And maybe he shouldn’t – it wouldn’t be the first time a genuinely enthusiastic and creative person isn’t fit for the whole business and marketing aspect of their enterprise. Anyone more PR savvy should have stopped giving an interview after being asked “are you a pathological liar?” and yet he did not, he walked right into it and once more, talked himself into another pickle for one and a half hours. If he’s not in fact pathological as Walker suggested, he is either too narcissistic to understand what’s happening or kindly put, a little out with the fairies.

So yeah, I kinda feel for his romantic optimism but I don’t feel sorry for Peter Molyneux – a man with lots of resources at his hands who doesn’t understand why “I really believed with all my heart this would be successful” (half of his defense paraphrased) doesn’t quite appease his crowdfunded investors. There needs to be a degree of transparency and accountability when you operate in the field of selling promises. I’d rather not imagine him working in investment banking.

And no doubt, John Walker delivered the most insistent and unwavering line of questioning in a developer interview I have ever read. He conducted the interview at eye level, emancipated from the type of crippled “fan interviews” we get to read all the time by grateful enthusiasts. As a professional, he was adamant to get his points addressed without much wiggle room. The opening question was an aggressive and ironical double bind because strictly speaking, if you’re not in fact a pathological liar, “yes I am” would be the best way to prove you are not. Given that this wasn’t a cross-examination of a witness in court, Walker came across as accusatory but hardly malicious. There are two sides to this debate and generally speaking as a consumer, I would want my advocates to be as thorough and unceremonious as John Walker. Accusations of him “kicking a puppy” in this interview are frankly ridiculous and not very respectful towards Peter Molyneux, who is not a victim.

Gamers need to check their softened up standards when it comes to the “heroes” of their hobby; do you want videogame journalists to seek accountability or stop and smile (as so many do) whenever it gets uncomfortable? In the games industry especially, the power balance between producer and consumer is still askew. Opinions welcome.

36 comments

  1. The last tweet covers my thoughts on the vidya game ethics issue here. The type of interview depends largely on what you’re used to. Canadian news is so largely different than the US and then UK is in another league. I liked the tone of this one. Seemed more like an older school investigative report rather than your typical PR schmeel.

    As for Peter, eventually something has to give. Older promises were at least 50% delivered and it’s hard to find anyone else on the planet that wants to spend time on god games (outside the now-trainwreck The Sims). Godus looked neat, and I’ve had it on my list for a long time, waiting for launch. But the last week seems to indicate that’s not really going to happen.

    I wonder what this means for any future VC work that he tries to do in the public space.

    1. It’s interesting how very differently this interview is perceived. For some it’s perfectly okay, others think it’s either too rude or hostile or sensationalist or all of the above.

  2. For all my adult life I have listened to, read and watched interviews in which even simple witnesses to events or experts and observers invited to analyze them are treated to intense, aggressive, hostile, and prolonged interrogation. That’s the standard throughout UK media for interviewing even sympathetic subjects and has bee since the 1970s at least.

    When the interviewee is someone deemed to be at fault in some way, then the gloves really come off.

    I’m used to it but it irritates me. In my opinion you rarely learn anything beyond how well the researchers have done their background work and how well-prepared the interviewee has been by his or her team. It’s not a style I want to see used in the leisure media. As a player of video games I am more than happy to have soft questions lobbed gently at games designers in order that they can use them to tell us what they want to hear about their games. That’s enough.

    These are video games we’re talking about ffs! It’s not politics, religion or any kind of matter of life and death. Let’s get some perspective.

    As for the substantive issue, the whole Kickstarter funding concept clearly needs a good looking-at by the relevant legal and political authorities but until and unless what’s happening is actually illegal then it’s buyer beware. If people believe what’s happened in a given case has broken any specific laws then they have the option to follow the relevant legal remedies. A few successful civil suits or even criminal prosecutions might focus developers minds a lot more effectively than any number of after-the-fact public roastings by self-appointed inquisitors.

    1. This is the overarching and important question for me: do we actually want this kind of serious journalism for games or not? Because this was also at the core of last years discussions; some people clearly want to see videogames taken as seriously as any other medium and art form that’s critically received by the press. They’d probably congratulate Walker on this one.

      On the other hand we have lots of players who are tired of this kind of rabid journalism for a subject matter such as games. Two fundamentally opposed views on what games should be treated as.

      1. I’m content to see games treated seriously, since the medium has a lot to offer, but the GamerGate kerfluffle on ethics is a different animal. Calling for ethics isn’t the same thing as asking for hardball interviews.

        That said, I don’t mind softball interviews that are effectively PR sessions, so long as there are opportunities for accountability and honesty as well. There’s also room for analysis of game design and narrative, but then, there’s a ton of room for games to be better at both. Too often the industry settles for lazy design and writing.

        I have little interest in Molyneux these days, but then, he lost me in the Fable days. The man is clearly a dreamer, which isn’t all bad, but dreams need to be tempered with reality, and he doesn’t seem all that interested in reality. The thing is… I just ignore the guy. I don’t particularly care to grill him. I don’t mind that such interviews exist, but they don’t hold much value for me.

        …but yes, the “are you a liar” angle is dumb. Aggressive, antagonistic interviewing isn’t some pinnacle of journalism to aspire to. It’s pretty low-tier in my book.

      2. I think there’s a false dilemma here, where either we have “serious journalism” that essentially harasses a developer with argumentative questions, or we have softball interviews that are glorified PR exercises. I think there’s plenty of room in the middle, where we have journalists that ask legitimately hard questions while still treating the developer like a person.

        As I’ve said other places, I would personally love to know what actually went wrong with Godus. Was it a problem with tech not coming together? Poor hiring decisions? Lack of team chemistry? But, when the very first question is abusive, I doubt we’re going to get much honesty.

        The real shame here is that for all his faults, Molyneux has always been fairly approachable. A good interviewer could have gotten to the core of the matter and gotten real information out of him. Instead, we got what is essentially a clickbait article.

      3. That’s the underlying problem with software development, let alone game development. Promises are made without consulting with the boots on the ground, resources are over-committed, and little or no adjustments are made to the ultimate requirements, timeline, or deliverables to account for what is discovered in the journey from conception to release. Doesn’t matter if it’s a game or not, the same bullshit occurs on every level.

        However, I offer this: UNLESS YOU ADMIT THERE IS A PROBLEM, YOU CAN’T FIX IT. When an ego is given free reign to trample over every reasonable objection that arises, you lose any chance you ever had to fix the problem. PETER F!CKING MOLYNEUX HATH SPOKEN and woe betide anyone that stands up and says, “Maybe we should adjust expectations or alter the timeline.” That person, I guarantee, IS WORKING ELSEWHERE. Even the ones in QA that won’t buy in to the usual “working as intended” crap.

        To the question of whether “game journalism” should hit hard, I offer this: these jackasses are asking upwards of 60 clams for a hit on their particular blend of meth, NON REFUNDABLE AND GOD DAMMIT WE WILL RESTRICT HOW YOU USE IT IN ALL WAYS. As long as they extort such extravegant prices for such mundane crap, then, yes, A THOUSAND TIMES YES, these wannabee rock stars deserve to be held AT LEAST as accountable as the average rock star. And when they go to Kickstarter and its ilk for “donations” that allow them to avoid the usual checks and balances against their snake oil sales pitch, make that A MILLION TIMES YES.

        Yes, I realize that rock stars are essentially held completely uncountable. But it seems that game development “personalities” have even more leeway than that.

  3. Regardless of your opinion on Molyneux personally, or his work in general, the opening interview question was simply bad journalism.

    I don’t care if you are after a hard-hitting, critical interview, asking that question in that way is unnecessary, irrelevant, and counterproductive. A smart journalist would ease into the interview with a few softer questions to get their interviewee more relaxed and open, then hit them with the tough questions. Doing it this way simply guarantees that Molyneux will be more closed, less cooperative, and generally more hostile.

    If the goal of the interview was not information, but to basically drag Molyneux over the coals and get a reaction out of him so the gaming public can point and laugh, then it makes more sense but it is still bad journalism.

    You can do a tough interview while still being respectful of the person you are grilling.

    1. Well yeah, if the goal was to show Molyneux is rather full of it, then the interview certainly succeeded. I still think it managed to show that instead of calculating liar, PM really is a bit of a dreamer out of touch with how things work. Which is not the worst thing to accomplish.

  4. I’m really torn on the situation after that Molyneux interview. I even wrote an article about Godus on my own blog, noting the frustration of the gaming community and the sad state the game is in. I thought it was a positive thing that this has finally been brought to light.

    But my thoughts changed when I saw Molyneux start to “dissolve” as you put it in this interview. I’m not 100% sympathetic to what he’s done. But the more I read it (and I read it all) the more I felt I was seeing a man so wrapped up in his own thoughts and fantasies that he doesn’t have the capability to separate them from truth and the reality of what one can do with gaming technology.

    Do I think he really believes everything he says when he says it? Absolutely. But that’s also very concerning that he can get so worked up with his vision of creativity that he can’t ground himself long enough to question the possibility of what may or may not come to pass.

    If I feel bad for him, it’s because I feel like he “knows not what he does”… or rather says… He can’t seem to keep it straight, not even within the space of one interview here. That doesn’t mean he should be let off the hook by any means, or that I have any faith or interest in his future endeavors.

    It was an interesting (and sad) psychological glimpse into what makes Molyneux tick. And somewhat disturbing.

    1. I agree completely; after reading the interview, it got clearer for me why things with Godus happened the way they have. He really seems to believe in everything he’s promised and he’s out of touch with both the community today and the business side of things. That’s why he should really just do what he does best, develop and not talk to the press or lead marketing campaigns. I have a friend who’s an artistic genius himself with near-zero clue about anything required around the actual process of creation and this interview reminded me of him a lot.

  5. “Do you think that you’re a pathological liar?”

    I am fine with some tough questions, or not letting devs give vague or obviously hollow answer without a follow up to press them on it, but when I saw that this who interviewed opened with that question, I pretty much had to stop.

    If this were accounting and finance and he said that his company had made X million dollars and then, upon there being an audit, it was found to be significantly less, an accusation of lying would stand.

    But this is entertainment, and programming is more art than science, and doubly so when it is being used to create entertainment. Meanwhile, lying implies intent to deceive at the time of the statement, which I do not in any way believe was the case.

    If the opening had pressed hard on his credibility give his now long history of being unable to match the expectations he has set, that would have been one thing. I have long since discarded any belief in what Molyneux says. Who could fully buy into his statements at this late date? But do I believe he actively said those things, knowing full well they were incorrect or would never come to pass. No.

    If we are going to string up people in the entertainment industry for “lying” because the vision they described doesn’t match the end result, the line is going to be very long, and it will have to start with everybody at Atari who every approved box art for a 2600 game.

    1. LOL yep…..I agree we can rule out the intent to deceive; if anything got clear through the interview, it’s that PM himself passionately believes.

      The question of whether this degree of aggressive critical investigation within an entertainment industry is indeed appropriate or not, seems to be front and center in all the discussions I’ve read on the interview so far. Some would see srs journalism like this in gaming for it to become more widely acknowledged, others do not.

  6. Molyneux has been out of his element post-Populous, really. As a game designer, he’s top notch. Games he has designed and seen developed by a professional development team have done well. But post Populous, his ego started believing in the what the press was saying, and so he ceased to be a game designer, and become … A BRAND.

    The game is not what is being sold. Molyneux is the product being sold. It’s right there on the tin. “Sid Meirs’ RAILS”, and so forth. Game studios hope that a solid game is being delivered under that brand, but, if not, they hope you don’t notice that the emperor has no clothes.

    I applaud Walker’s work here, and to those that say he was being too tough on the poor helpless ego-on-display, let me just say that Molyneux’ attempt to deflect his poor performance back on the press with his churlish mumblings about maybe not doing any more interviews is telling.

    I love Molyneux’ work when he actually does it. Populous will be always on the top of my all time favorites. But when your best work is over 30 years ago on a platform that went belly at the turn of the century, that’s telling.

    1. He has certainly ridden that wave of old glory for a very long time. I think you’re right to point out how he’s become more and more about himself and his ‘brand’, and that’s what’s getting him lynched now. People cult is rarely a good thing for a product, see movies riding on a big name that never delivered. It looks alright when it succeeds but god help you if it doesn’t.

    2. Come, now. I know it’s fashionable to bash on Molyneux, but he’s had several hits since Populous. Syndicate, Theme Park, Magic Carpet, Dungeon Keeper, and Fable are all tremendous games. Yes, he oversold the original Fable, but it was still a fun game in its own right that did a lot more than other games at the time did. Even Black & White was pretty interesting for its time for its use of AI, even if for some people it never did seem to gel as a game.

      As I’ve said elsewhere, nobody looks at the disappointing Star Fox Assault and says Miyamoto hasn’t done a good game since Super Mario Bros.

      The problem here is that innovation is risk, as I wrote in an older blog entry. If you want to do something nobody has ever seen, then there’s some chance that you will fail to deliver. While Molyneux’s games might not have every single feature in them, they do push limits and try bold things. That means sometimes he won’t deliver exactly what he talks about his vision being. I’d rather that he push the envelope and sometimes fail than create the same boring game again and again.

      But, this doesn’t excuse him from the problems with Godus. As I said, I’d like to know more about what went wrong. I think Molyneux absolutely dropped the ball, particularly with how he and his company treated the guy who won the Curiosity game. But, I think we can stick to the facts here and still have something interesting to talk about.

      1. I was under the impression that Dungeon Keeper came before Populous. And, for the record, I hated it. Relied too much on gimmicks and not enough on intelligence and cleverness to make it onto my Amiga (well, into my disk collection, since it wasn’t HD installable – remember those days, kids? Wasn’t that FUN?).

        B&W didn’t strike me as interesting in any way at all, and I think I had plenty of company. Most of the buzz associated with B&W had P.M. associated with it in some way, though I won’t be so bold as to spell out “Astroturfing” without a staff lawyer standing by.

        I’m not singling Molyneux out. I’m going to bash on anyone that is selling themselves as the product. When their name appears in the title of the game itself (e.g. “Sig Miers’ Astro Gentauri Tycoon” and delivers a flaccid piece of meat that has less flavor than a McNugget without the breading, then they DESERVE to be held accountable for the sheer hubris of the act.

        Tastes differ. Aside from DM, I haven’t seen Molyneux produce anything that lived up to the potential of Populous. There are exactly two titles, so far, on his resume that will be topics of discussion 50 years from now, and none have occurred in the last 20 years. I’d love to see him beat that streak. I’d play the shit outta that.

        None of this, of course, excuses any shabby behavior in the benighted pursuit of this game, or the apparent expectation of a softball PR interview that quickly disintegrated. If one could prove that he was mislead into thinking that this WAS going to be the usual ass-kissing enterprise by RPS, then, sure, he has a case, in the same way that a crack junkie has when sold Drano instead of Heisenberg’s Finest. I guess.

      2. Oops, a minor correction. I saw “Dungeon Keeper” and read “Dungeon Master”, which was a totally different game that predated Populous. I hated DM with a passion. I absolutely ADORED DK, on the other hand.

        I can only blame my astigmatism, and copious quantities of very cheap gin.

  7. The article was really painful to read at several points.
    I hope John Walker got more out of it than a T-shirt saying “I was wrong but I don’t think I lied ~ Peter Molyneux”
    I’ve long felt that Molyneux is a kind of idiot savant-ish games designer. The classical case of a briliant engineer who should under no circumstances be allowed to run the business side. And then some.
    But to be honest, what I came away with from that interview was that it took Peter Molyneux an hour and a half to answer that first question with “Yes, I am”.

    Of course, if he’d just said that at the beginning, you’d have had a paradox.
    A paradox by the dictionary definition, not Hollywood’s mangle of it: A statement that apparently contradicts itself and yet might be true. A pathological liar occasionallly tells the truth after all.
    Molyneux honestly doesn’t see his own lies an ommissions and will subconciously use sophistry or whatever helm of grass he can grab while hanging over the precipice to correct any errors. This is different from the spin we’ve become used to in that he’s not consciously aware of it.
    I really wish he could find a friend wit the clout to call him down from his clouds and the business accumen to run a business that Molyneux misses. Then maybe he’d be able to make brilliant games again.

    1. Well that remains questionable, doesn’t it – is he indeed lying and deceiving to some degree or not? Is he simply unable not to and incapable of admitting defeat/error? Or is he completely out of touch and still believes in what he’s saying, by some miraculous mix of naive optimism and cognitive dissonance?
      It’s hard to tell but after reading the interview, I am inclined to believe the latter.

  8. I’ve never heard of Molyneux or Walker before today and I don’t usually read RPS. I get that Godus is a train wreck, but that interview was “gotcha journalism” at best and “tabloid journalism” at worst and I generally try to filter those kinds of things out from my streams of legitimate sources of information. Sometimes there’s a fine line between journalism and activism but to me that pretty clearly went over the line.

    1. If you had heard of him, you might feel differently. Molyneux has a very long history of doing exactly what he did with Godus – promise the moon and deliver a rock.

      What changed this time is that he no longer has a publisher like Microsoft to crack the whip and force things to get done, which is why for all their undelivered promises, the Fable games were at least playable and usually reasonably fun.

      This time he didn’t have anybody else to steer the ship, and he crashed it directly into a reef. With his track record, there was no question the response was going to be ugly. Hell, with his track record, the only surprising thing is why anyone gave him money at all.

    2. One can certainly ask if it’s Walker’s job to rake the role of disgruntled consumer advocate. He was clearly taking sides on this one, which personally doesn’t bother me.

  9. I always appreciate it when a good journalist skewers a politician, especially if it’s done without hyperbole and driven by facts and logic. However politicians are very different to games developers. One has the power to mess up your life, while the other can at most impact upon your leisure time negatively.

    Mr. Molyneux should not do interviews without supervision because he obviously doesn’t understand the etiquette of marketing and PR, as Syl has said. Mr. Walker although broadly pursuing a legitimate line or enquiry was clearly showboating and simply swapped quality journalism with that of the tabloid. So neither party comes out of this looking good.

    Although gaming is a legitimate pastime as well as a major business, too many participants, be they developers, writers or fans have lost all sense of proportion. This is a leisure industry and those involved are not rock stars, saints or agents for social change. If you backed Godus and think you’ve been rooked, then that’s a measured and reasonable view. You demonstrably have been. But it is nothing more than that.

    Gaming journalism not only needs to address the matter of ethics, it also needs to reconsider its sense of perspective and possibly let some of the air out of its ego.

    1. Hehe I don’t disagree. The interview must have been incredibly exhausting for both parties involved and neither looked brilliant afterwards.
      As for the discussion of how srs business games journalism should be indeed, see my reply to Wilhelm further up. The gamers jury is split on that one, maybe more than ever.

  10. I am all over the place on the matter. The Interview was perhaps too strong, but game journalism needs at least some of that. Molyneux couldn’t of been more ‘Molyneux’ in the course of it, yet I came out with a lot more sympathy for him.

    And in the end, Kickstarter, Early Access, and selling games based on promises continues to be business as usual.

    1. I agree it needs some of that; very personally the interview didn’t shock me as much but it was certainly a big cringe to read through.

  11. Man, I had no idea about any of this; I still associated Peter Molyneux’ name with good things from the Dungeon Keeper days.

    Most of the interview was alright, but after that opening question he honestly should have said “Let’s try that again” or end it right then and there. There was just no way anything good was going to come out of it for him and his company after that opener.

    It’s sad to see how the mighty have fallen.

  12. The poor guy comes across as being delusional and incompetent, barely remembering the names and details of the people in his small company. Or barely remembering what he just said from moment to moment either.

    What he needs is some good people that are strong in the areas he’s weak in, management (of human resource and project management, keeping deadlines and keeping track of loose ends, etc.) and community relations / PR.

    As for Kickstarter money, if it’s paid, it’s paid. Backers were funding someone to create/follow a dream, and hopefully result in something tangible and resembling what was promised, but that’s in no way guaranteed.

    Should he offer refunds? If he cares about his reputation and trustyworthiness, then yeah, he should.

    But it’s evident that he doesn’t. He’s got all his hopes set on the next big wonder, the next great game that will live up to or exceed his prior successes, and thus shut his detractors up that way. And he will cling onto his funding money as a result. I mean, he’s already screwing up his emotional relationships and all, just to work on this great dream, so yeah, that’s the lens from which he’s operating on.

    More than a little dysfunctional? Yeah, but then many other organizations or people exist like this too.

  13. this is business. he made promises he hasn’t kept. he has sold stuff without delivering. he’s accountable.
    AND it’s not the first time.
    he deserved this particular interview a long time ago.

    1. And the problem is that crowdfunding is not selling stuff, it’s asking for donations towards a project and might offer some goodies (such as free product) if the project succeeds. We’ve got a problem with people going into these things thinking that they’re making a pre-order for a game… and, to be fair, we’ve got a problem with KS pitches that make it look that way. It’s not a purchase, it’s a gamble.
      In the case of a Peter Molyneux project – it’s even more of a gamble. The downside is greater because he has this track record of over-promising. On the other hand, he has also delivered some ground-breaking games in the past so the potential upside is good too. He’s a high volatility asset.
      Disclaimer: I did a week long work trial at Bullfrog way back just after I graduated from university, and a friend of mine went to work there for several months (and hated it). Any personal opinion of PM as a human being has been kept divorced as possible from the comments above.

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