Curiosity was, for a few weeks, a sensation. At its peak, Peter Molyneux tells us there were 800,000 people logged into 22cans’ comically overloaded servers, tap-tap-tapping away cubelets to uncover the next layer. Tumblrs were created in its honour and the games press were captivated – it arrived right in the middle of blockbuster console game season and felt new. It barely even registers as a videogame, but Curiosity is a neat bundling together of all of the disprate elements turning the game industry on its head right now – a mobile, social, free, accessible plaything released digitally from an independent studio. The mystery at its core was Molyneux’s extra, headline-grabbing flourish.
Then, interest faded. Without any discernable end in sight, removing layer after layer after layer began to feel a little futile. “It’s dropped off quite dramatically,” says Molyneux. “We’re down to, you know, the low hundred thousands now.” That it still attracts that healthy number is still more than Molyneux ever expected, he says.
This week, 22cans set an endpoint. On May 1, it was announced that there were 50 layers remaining on the Curiosity cube. “The reason we’re doing it now is because I felt that this had gone on long enough,” explains Molyneux. “Understandably and justifiably some people were saying ‘well… we’ll never get to the centre of the cube, we’re never going to find out what it was – another one of those hollow promises from Peter Molyneux’”.
That central mystery is “even more fascinating and life-changing than it was when we first started,” says Molyneux. Of course, he wouldn’t reveal what it was, but he could elaborate on what his studio has learned from the experiment – besides some harsh lessons around launching a piece of software without sufficient server support. “What we learned was that some people will do unbelievable things with a tiny amount of tools, and this is incredibly useful for us [to know] for Godus,” he says. “You know, there were five marriage proposals on the cube, and there was this realtime drawing that went on – someone drew the twin towers… someone else drew an aeroplane crashing into the twin towers… someone else tried to draw people parachuting out of the twin towers and there was this sort of ongoing user narrative.”
22cans has been collecting data through the Curiosity experiment, feeding that knowledge into its next game, Godus. It’s a project that has generated a little controversy by way of its Kickstarter; why should anyone give their money to a wealthy gentleman like Peter Molyneux to make a game at his well-funded studio? Molyneux can understand the backlash to some extent, but feels that concentrating on the finances involved is missing the point.
“We’ve got this crowd-funding model which allows us to refine and polish it using thousands of people who you know are going to be fascinated enough to care that you are doing that, and that is a huge advantage to us,” he says. “I think that is where crowdfunding’s massive strength is. How much money we’ve all got in our bank accounts, I think, is less significant. I don’t see crowd-sourcing as a way of begging for money, I see it as a way of involving people in the development process.”
In Godus, Molyneux insists that he is developing more than a Populous update. “It’s about creativity, it’s about discovery, it’s about things we’ve kind of forgotten about in gaming a little bit,” he says. “That’s what Godus is: it’s a game about pure discovery and the joy of discovery, experimentation, creativity and the joy of, you know, “if I did this, I wonder what would happen?” All of those things it nails completely.”
Molyneux is always an enthusiastic interviewee. More than ever, there seems to be a renewed vigour to his proclamations. It’s been over a year since he left Microsoft and the company he co-founded in 1997, Lionhead. “I’ve remembered who I am,” he tells us. “I know that sounds a bit airy-fairy but I really have. I’ve remembered who I am, and I think I’d engineered or been pushed or whatever it is into a place where I’d forgotten who I really was. And who I am is someone who is passionate about innovation and ideas and trying to make something which the best it can possibly be. I wouldn’t trade it for all the tea in China or all the new… Xboxes in the Xbox cupboard.”