As first questions in a press interview go, “Do you think that you’re a pathological liar?” takes some beating.
Yet that was the opening salvo in a recent interview with veteran games developer Peter Molyneux by the Rock, Paper, Shotgun website. Molyneux has the kind of reputation that should set him above this kind of question – and the just-as-hard interrogation that followed.
In the 1980s and 1990s, games like Populous, Powermonger, Theme Park and Dungeon Keeper made his name, while the 2000s brought titles like the Black & White and Fable series that set out his stall as a creatively-ambitious auteur of the games industry.
What went wrong for Molyneux? In a word: Kickstarter. And his fate is a lesson for creators of all kinds – musicians included – rather than just his fellow games developers.
In 2012, Molyneux’s studio 22cans raised just over £526k on Kickstarter for a game called Godus – “a delightful reinvention” of the god games that brought him his original fame.
Players would oversee a pocket-sized world, sculpting the landscape for their tribe, and waging war on other gods and their followers. It would be available for Mac, PC and mobile devices – a stretch goal later added Linux – with the promise of a multiplayer mode to go alongside its rich solo campaign.
Meanwhile, the ‘winner’ of Molyneux’s previous mobile game Curiosity – 18 year-old gamer Bryan Henderson – would be anointed “God of Gods” in Godus, including getting a share of the game’s revenues during their reign.
Fast forward to 2015. The PC and Mac version of Godus was only released in early-access form; the Linux version is missing in action, as is the multiplayer mode; and Henderson hasn’t seen a penny from his prize.
Appropriately enough given the site’s name, Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s journalist John Walker gave Molyneux both barrels in the interview over his string of broken promises to the gamers who backed 22cans on Kickstarter.
“Why are you beating me up on these dates things? You sound like a publisher,” said Molyneux at one point in the interview, which was published as a verbatim Q&A.
“It’s three years later! People gave you half a million pounds and you’ve taken their money,” replied Walker, before returning to the theme later: “Do you not see the difference between being late for a publisher and being late for half a million pounds that gamers gave you?”
And there’s the lesson. Think of the traditional dynamic of a band pushing back against a label’s demands that they finish their album; an author railing against a publisher’s desire to cut their flights of verbal fancy; or, indeed, a game developer wildly underestimating the time and overestimating the cost of a project, and asking a publisher to indulge them.
Traditionally, many fans’ sympathies would be with the creator in those situations. Yet when those creators go direct to fans through something like Kickstarter, those fans find themselves in the traditionally-exasperated role of the publisher.
Removing the middleman seems like a marvellous idea for many creators, but bringing down the barriers to your audience – as Peter Molyneux has found – can backfire considerably.