Lionhead on life after Peter Molyneux

Lionhead on life after Peter Molyneux

Gary Carr describes himself as the “quiet one” among Lionhead’s management team. In fairness, just about anyone in the presence of UK development legend Peter Molyneux might as well be talking with their volume turned down. Now that Molyneux has moved on to experimental start-up 22 Cans, you can expect Lionhead’s many other talents to make a great deal more noise – and, if Carr’s presentation at this year’s Develop Conference in Brighton is anything to go by, they are very keen to redress the signal-to-noise ratio on its latest project, the upcoming Kinect game Fable: The Journey

Gratifyingly frank, Carr described how Lionhead has shed its more stifling production practices, ditching in-house engine development for off-the-shelf Unreal middleware, before taking an excoriating look at the development bumps in The Journey thus far. The critical thing Lionhead has learnt, it seems, is that action speaks louder than words – and so the best way to address misconceptions is simply to put a game in people’s hands. To whit, Carr ran through the game’s live demo seen at E3 2012 – a comprehensive showcase of how The Journey wields Kinect to great and innovative effect.

Later, as an almighty rainstorm tried its best to wash the Develop conference out to sea, we found a forgotten alcove in Brighton’s warren-like Hilton Hotel to discuss how Lionhead has adapted to the departure of its iconic main man, Milo’s mysterious vanishing act, and how to turn around its unfairly maligned Kinect project.

Lionhead’s had a lot of staff changes recently – Molyneux being the biggest named departure. Have you had to restructure the company significantly? Are you hiring in a lot of new blood?
There’s a bit of new blood coming in, for sure. We certainly wanted to strengthen the management team. It’s still got Mark Webley and myself. Mark co-founded Lionhead – he’s Peter Molyneux’s brother in law. And we’ve still got Louise Murray. So Louise, Mark and myself are the management team, but there are a couple of other senior roles we need to bring in. That said, there are still the same types of characters that have been around for many, many years. You always get attrition in companies – it’s a cycle. Every so often people look out and want to try something new. It’s a nice mix of old and new but I don’t think it’s been a huge disruption to us at all.

I know Peter well enough – because I’ve seen him do this before – he was ready to shed his skin and go and do something new. Once a company is up and running and functioning, as Bullfrog was before, he feels he has to move on. I went through that whole cycle with Bullfrog with Peter, so I knew he was ready to move on. We all knew he was ready, and it was imminent. It wasn’t a surprise to anybody that he wanted to do something different. So Lionhead’s in good shape – Peter was very much in a promotional role. He had a lot of responsibilities to his Microsoft commitments, and had to attend high-level meetings, and all these things that really interested him I imagine. Day-to-day running of the studio has been down to the management team anyway. So it’s business as usual for us.

You described yourself in the talk as the quiet one – now that Peter’s gone will you have to become a bit louder?
I think there’s a number of people who can speak and represent the company. When you’ve got someone like Peter, people want to speak to him – and I understand that. But at new Lionhead there are a number of people who’ve been around in the industry for a lot of years, who know what they’re doing, who will push forward and represent Lionhead. You’ll see more than a replacement Peter Molyneux. Plus, you can’t replace Peter. He’s irreplaceable! No one does it like him. But I think you’ll see four or five new people come through who’ve got different strengths and who can give you their view. And it won’t necessarily be a consistent view, because I think we’ve got very diverse people.

So you’re willing to let people go off-message?
Yeah. I think so. [Legendary Lionhead PR] Cathy Campos won’t be! Peter’s not off-messge or on-message. He has a message and that’s one voice. What I don’t want to do is tell people what to say. These people are fairly media savvy people who’ve run their own studios or been at Lionhead a long time. But I think if you ask a question you deserve an honest answer. And if we’re not allowed to say it then the honest answer is: “We’re not allowed to say it.” So you’re going to get different points of view.

So how is your stewardship of Lionhead going to be different from Peter’s.
Well, nothing’s going to change that much because we were stewarding it anyway. Peter’s not a line-management type. Louise ran a studio and I ran a studio, and those two studios were Lionhead. The difference is Mark Webley – he’s stepping up as CEO and that’s a challenge. He’s now the very top person in our organisation. So for him, he’ll feel the change more than me. My disappointment is that I’ve always focussed on one particular project and now I’m focussing on multiple ideas that may be happening… I can’t go into detail. Stepping back that much will be a shame because I really like being at the coal-face on a project. I like making games day-in, day-out. That’s what I enjoy doing.

When you recruit people, are you looking to gain skills for a Kinect company?
We’re not a Kinect company. Why this close association, or stigma, when we’re making a game? Whatever the input device is, we’re making a game and we should be judged on that. We were early adopters of Kinect because it was new and shiny and something to play with. We’ve done that throughout the 27 plus years I’ve been working in games – playing with new input devices has the opportunity to change the industry. You can come up with something you couldn’t have done before. So we’ve played around in this space since 2008 but if we do it again… the game’s got to be right for it.

Talking of technology, we were very interested in what you were saying about ditching the engine development side. That’s got to be a big change to the way you work.
Over the years we’ve always built our on technology. And our lead animator used to get so frustrated that he couldn’t see his animations in game because we were writing an engine. Oh yeah it’ll be coming soon. Next spring. And we were rushing the last phase of development to tidy up the glitches. The lighting now works properly but we don’t like the way we’ve lit the models, all the animations loop properly but we realise they aren’t foot planting – whatever. I’m making this shit up. But the point is that’s ridiculous. Why are we only seeing the thing we are designing at the very end of development? And then you take something like Unreal, which has probably shipped a couple of hundred games at least – that’s a couple of hundred full game-development beta-tests. They are constantly improving it. We only make an engine for one game and then we bin it – it only ever gets one test. So it’s clearly going to have issues and problems. So why do that? It doesn’t make sense.

Why have you had that policy for so long? Presumably there are advantages to being able to make such a bespoke thing?
Because I think there are brilliant technology people who’d be turned off by companies that use third party engines. But there’s a balance to be made. We have great artists and animators and we owe them as much time as possible to craft a great game. And as good as it is to write a game engine, if it’s not working until the very last phase of development the game is suffering. Full stop. The decision was Peter’s. I didn’t know how it would go down – I’d never worked on anything we hadn’t built ourself. But it was the right thing to do. It doesn’t mean we can’t develop an engine – that could be a project for the future. We build upon it and build upon it until it becomes almost a game in itself, and then you can start applying it to a concept – that game will have a full two year cycle where you’re going to see AI working, navigation working, a high frame-rate and great visuals from day one. That’s the dream, whether that’s our engine or someone else’s. We want top give our team the best chance to make a great game.

You’ve taken technology from Milo for The Journey, were there other things that survived that project that you’ve taken on.
Yeah, we call it “incubation”. We have a lot of people who have earned these grey granite cubes for patenting new ideas. Microsoft award them when your idea gets patented. So there were a lot of things we brought into The Journey from Milo, but also things that were just knocking around from our smart guys. One of them is Virtual Desktop – it [assesses] your reach positions and the way your arm comes across your body allowing you to basically paint in this virtual world in front of the screen and project it onto the screen. It calculates the straight line you are trying to draw from that convex screen determined by your reach. It actually makes a massive difference when you apply that in the game. So if people were brushing their hands through water, we make sure their hand in the world changes so that your hand is moving across a flat surface. That’s an important technology for magic. The machine learns from what they are doing and recalibrates.