The Game On Interview with Peter Molyneux, Part Two

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In our "15 Coolest Games of Fall 2008" slideshow, we describe Lionhead's Fable 2 as "a colonial-era fantasy" in which you can have sex (safe or not), get hitched, raise kids, train pet dogs, battle eldritch critters, follow bread-crumb trails if you're ever lost, and -- depending on whether you're naughty or nice -- exhibit "good" or "evil" physical traits while grappling with the long term repercussions of even the most innocuous actions.

Turns out that's hardly scratching the surface.

Peter Molyneux is one of the industry's most respected figures, the creative force behind genre-defining games like Populous, Dungeon Keeper, andBlack & White. He was inducted into the AIAS Hall of Fame in 2004, and holds an OBE (Order of the British Empire). His first Fable game debuted in 2004, eventually winning more than fifty awards and going on to sell over 2.5 million copies worldwide.

We caught up with Molyneux to talk about Fable 2 at his Guildford, Surrey, UK studio recently. (This is Part Two -- Part One, Part Three, Part Four.)

Game On: How would you pitch Fable 2 to someone who's never heard of it and doesn't play games regularly?

Peter Molyneux: Yeah, you know, that's very easy and very tough, because I think it's hard to describe the detail but it's easy to generalize. And by generalize, I mean imagine playing a game where you could be whoever you wanted to be, and this is a story of you becoming a hero. Now what you're going to do when you're a hero and whether you're good or evil, or pure or corrupt, or cruel or kind is up to you, but there are consequences to everything you do. I find that is the easiest way to describe it, rather than go into the details of, you know, one-button combat, and the dog, and the emotional stuff. The easiest way is to say this is a game where you can be whoever you want to be, and sure enough there's a great story there, and some terrific mechanics too.

GO: One of the things you can't help but notice right away is that you can save anywhere, but you can't reload from within the game itself. You have to actually quit and restart if you want to reload, which is, clearly it's a design decision to say "We want you to live with the consequences of your actions."

PM: Yes, that's absolutely right, and in fact, I mean it was trivially simple for us to do a multi-slotted save and load system, and this is one of the debates, because a lot of the time, you know, when you're designing games you kind of say "This is what we're going to do," and you stick a flag out there, and hopefully if you're convincing enough, people will follow it. At other times, you put an idea on the table and you discuss it. This was one of those discussion ones, and this debate raged for hours and days and weeks -- whether we should allow or give people lots of slots to play around with to save -- and we spoke about it in terms of "Imagine someone saved a good hero at this point, or an evil hero at this point," and the final decision came down to "How did it make you feel?" How did it make you feel that you had the power to jump forwards and backwards in time? And we realized after a little while that it actually makes you feel less involved in the world.

There was a game that I played a long, long, long time ago called The Bard's Tale, and Bard's Tale had, I think it was more of a technical restriction than a design decision, though I could be wrong there -- when you were down in a dungeon, you couldn't save. And when you were out of a dungeon, you could save, and that system...I remembered that. I remembered how it made me feel at the time. It made me feel a lot more tense. And they did it just right, so the dungeons weren't too big that you felt like you were locked into playing for, you know, 50 hours. And I kind of remembered that, and as we carried on debating, we said "Right, let's just take the whole notion of saving and loading away, and just imagine that you're just playing." And as you said, every choice was a consequence, and you didn't feel like there weren't consequences or choices because you could always reload, and to reload, we would just force you to turn the Xbox off. The fact that you'd have to turn the Xbox off and start it again means that far, far fewer people were going to do that.

GO: So I'm going along and making these choices and I haven't really died yet, but it seems like the game has been carefully structured to allow failure without turning it into a repetitive obstacle or ceiling.

PM: Yeah, you're going to come out to a place called [spoiler] and that's where I want you to experience death, and I want it to be part of the experience, not a statement of failure. I mean, you may be uber-fantastic and you could have been one of those players that hold back getting a hero all ready for whatever challenge it is, and kind of grind away. If you're like that, you may not experience death in [spoiler], but it is kind of an experience, and it's all tied to the powers that you're unlocking when you spend your experience.

What you're going to notice as you go up through the levels, is that very soon you're going to hit on a ceiling where the next threshold up, it gets a lot more expensive. That dovetails with the moment in the game where you're just starting, where there's just one too many bad guys that you're facing, and the health bar's getting smaller and smaller, and so when you die, then you get the drama of losing that lovely experience that's on the ground. And it's not just 10 experience anymore, you're losing 10,000 experience, and you're thinking to yourself "Jesus, I can afford that, I can afford level four fireball now," that's the drama I want. I want you to experience that level of excitement, not the tedium of what we had in the original Fable, and what a lot of games have, is that when you die, you're actually going back in time and having to repeat the things that you did before. I didn't find that dramatic, I just find that tedious, in some games to such an extent that I just stop playing in the end.

So experiencing death is all part of the mechanic. Don't think of it as necessarily a failure, think of it as a gamble. You know, you can always withdraw from a fight, you can always step back, you can always run away. If you have a companion traveling with you, don't expect the the companion to forget that, by the way, the fact that you ran away. Running away, getting somewhere safe, collecting all that experience off of the ground is fine. It's a little bit more cowardly, but it is part of the experience. Again, it's your choice to do that.

GO: Speaking of companions, cooperative play with others on Xbox LIVE won't be available until after the game comes out. Can you talk a little about how that works?

PM: Well there's a couple of things about that. Firstly, of course, there's no one in the world to coop with right now. It's not that the LIVE coop stuff doesn't work. It does work, it's just that we need to patch it to fix a few deep bugs in there, and we're almost certain it's going to be a day one patch on [October] 21st, so don't worry about that.

The funny thing about that is, for me, that coop stuff change Fable 2 radically, in a way that almost no other game feature does. I don't think it's going to affect our review score at all, by the way, but what it does do, it allows you to see other peoples' worlds and allows you to show off your world. It's only then that you really appreciate what Fable 2's doing.

You don't appreciate how unique you're slowly becoming, because a lot of the uniqueness is far more subtle. It's only when you meet someone else's wife that you realize your wife's actually really nice, and their wife's really bitchy, and that actually turns out to be a really important thing. We wanted to give you a unique experience, but of course a unique experience is only unique when you can compare it with other people's unique experiences, and that's what this coop stuff allows you to do.

It allows you, and this is for me a fantastic moment, let's say you've just come through a tough cave, and you come out, and you see this beautiful farmland, and there, standing in the middle of the field, is one of these things called an "ambient orb" [the game represents other online players as glowing orbs in coop mode] and it's one of your friends that you've known that's on your friends list, or it could be somebody that lives close to you down the street, or it could be someone who is like you in Fable 2's world. You're able to walk up to that person, and firstly you can talk to them. And just the very fact that you can talk and say "Oh you made it through as well," or "Did you kill the creature in the cave?" or "Are you married yet?" The very fact that you can do that is powerful.

What's even more powerful is just to say "Come on, let's go and find some hero strength together." And just doing that for even a few minutes is wonderfully addictive. It gives a slight MMO feel to the game, and I think certainly for the Fable world, it makes Fable 2's world far, far richer than the single-player game ever would.

GO: You can also go back and see things that you didn't do, by watching what others are up to, and sort of say "Here's what might have happened had I done that."

PM: This is the emergent thing that's happened. I didn't realize, I didn't design it for this. A lot of these things you kind of realize, they're "Oh gosh, of course!" moments. What I watched the testers do, because we had two sorts of testers, the ones that test for bugs and then we had people who'd come in and play for gameplay, and what I found fascinating was that people would hang around certain spots in the game, and what they were doing is actually going and waiting for somebody else to come across who hadn't completed a particular challenge, going into their world and saying "Okay, let's do this challenge together," and then experiencing the challenge again. It was kind of like they were jumping backwards and forwards in time.

Now there's a fantastic opportunity in doing that, which you've already passed, and this is one of the sticky places that this happens... [Cut crosstalk spoilers about gameplay, in which Peter details what happens if you go back and perform certain tasks during your character's childhood in different ways] ...every one of those sweet, cute little childhood challenges has some sort of consequence in the world.

Next: Man's best friend in black and white, hopping off the beaten path, auto-mapping neuroses, seeing differences in the world, barking in tongues, and the meaning of "life, love, and death."

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