Peter Molyneux’s studio 22 Cans is independent, but doesn’t feel indie. It’s relatively small and free to do whatever it wishes creatively, but it’s also very well funded and led by a game design legend; its first real game, following its briefly thrilling experiment Curiosity, is also a cross platform, persistent world simulation, one whose scope requires the kind of investment most indies only could dream of.
Godus is a pet project for Molyneux, and it shows. He speaks about the game as if he were its father, full of a slightly nervy kind of excitement for what he’s aiming to do with it, flitting from bold praise one moment to crushing self-doubt in another. He’s a little greyer than the old press photos we’re all so used to seeing, but he’s lost none of his verve as an interviewee; he begins by stating that Godus is the culmination of his life’s work, a new game entirely of his own creation whose ideas have evolved in his mind throughout his 25 years in the games business.
“That’s where I’ve been shit,” says Molyneux. “I’ve had all of these ideas but they’ve been sprinkled all across other games – this is the one game that brings all of those together.”
That Molyneux had to leave Microsoft in order to make Godus is no surprise. Ditching a proven property to create a brand new one in a moribund genre doesn’t represent good business sense.
“I did talk about it – this idea of giving people a world and a very simple thing to do, but they really wanted me to do another Fable,” he explains. “If every time they release a new Fable they made 100 million, what are they going to do? They’re not going to say: ‘Ok go off and do your black cube thing and we’ll just shelve that 100 million’. It was Fable 1,2 and 3 and then it was ‘oh, we need a Fable Kinect’ and then it was ‘we’re releasing a new console, you should be thinking about a new Fable.’ I just thought – you know what? This dream of reinventing this genre and taking these ideas and putting them into one place is just not going to happen because I’m going to end up doing Fable in a wheelchair.”
Now that Peter Molyneux’s latest creation is playable through Steam Early Access, he’s hopeful that people will realise it’s more than just a remake of Populous. In its final form Godus will be a colossal, persistent, cross-platform connected world, upon which players will build and evolve their own personal civilization. And with its full release Molyneux wants to claw back a little of the credibility God games once had.
“What we’re going for here is the reinvention of an entire genre. For me that started when games like Farmville and Cityville started to be called God games,” he says with mock disgust. Those games, and their appropriation of the genre was part of why 22 Cans exists today. “I had a bit of a tantrum [over that]… it resulted in me leaving Microsoft and starting an entire studio. I just feel that there hasn’t been a God game for quite a long time, it is a viable format and it’s a format that should be reinvented to bring it up to the 21st century.”
Godus has all of the things we’ve come to associate with its creator. Firstly, it’s got scale – Godus’ homeworld is the size of Jupiter, and it’s that specific for good reason. “I’ll be completely honest with you, we didn’t actually need the size of Jupiter – it’s just that Markus Persson announced that Minecraft was the size of Neptune. So childishly I had to say we’re going to be the size of the biggest planet in the solar system.”
Just as Molyneuxesque are the surfeit of cute little ideas; each click of the mouse plays a note of Mozart’s second concerto – you’d need to click for 45 minutes to hear the whole thing. Its creator’s enthusiasm for detailed, robust simulated worlds is obvious, too – the environmental cause and effect in sculpting the Godus’ land influences how water flows in and around the landscape’s peaks and troughs, and it always flows down gullies toward the sea; tides influence the way the wind blows and later, coastal erosion and wind direction affects where settlements might thrive in the game.
Poking around a medieval-looking settlement, Molyneux clicks above several wooden huts to collect the magenta gloop floating above it; it’s more than a little reminiscent of Clash Of Clans’ currency. Like Supercell’s iOS smash, Godus will be free-to-play, but Molyneux acknowledges that that phrase has become a little poisonous. He’d rather call Godus a ‘free to invest’ game.
“The word invest is different,” he explains. “My premise for this is that Godus should be more than just a game, it should be a hobby. My hobby is cooking, and I’ve got every conceivable cooking gadget – I’ve got a victorian apple peeler, it’s a work of genius. And I love spending money on my hobby and showing my hobby off. That’s what we want to get people to think like when they’re playing Godus. I don’t ever want there to be a gate with a big padlock on the front and say: ‘unless you give me a load of money you won’t get any further’. I much prefer for you to explore ways of getting around the gate.”
Players can both earn and buy currency in Godus, and can spend it on special items for their world. There are thousands of them, and they each have properties which go on to influence how your fledgling society evolves. Some might even be found just lying in the ground, and they can also be won from neighbouring civilizations to augment your own tribe’s abilities.
Godus’ people have unique abilities, too, meaning that introducing a particularly strong or virile human into your gene pool will enrich it with those same qualities. You can also place a doppelganger into the game, who can be snatched away by an opponent. “So if you play me in multiplayer you can win a little Peter Molyneux,” says the (real) Molyneux. “The unique thing is that he’s got my name over the top of his head and that name is a link to my social network – a link to my Twitter – so when you’re playing the game you’ll see my tweets come up and you’ll be able to reply.”
Death is permanent, unless you spend currency to resurrect an avatar you are particularly fond of. Molyneux is aiming for a different kind of investment here – like any good free game, the idea is to make players want to spend gems rather than need to. Not far into the game you earn God powers, too – that eliminates the need to go around harvesting currency, and later can allow you to direct meteor strikes at rivals’ settlements, or your own in order to uncover something buried beneath the surface.
As societies evolve, the land they occupy inches ever outwards. “Eventually all of these lands will meet up and that is an incredible event,” says Molyneux with typical bombast. “It’ll take people weeks and weeks and weeks to gradually edge towards each other. What happens when all of the worlds link up is as much of an experiment as Curiosity was. My prediction is that the world will be disappointingly nice.”
The winner of 22 Cans’ strange debut experiment, Bryan Henderson, is the first God of Gods, and will be given “significant royalties” from any money spent on Godus. He also gets to toy with the world a little, from changing the weather to ordering a flurry of meteor strikes. “We will also set him simple moral questions,” says Molyneux. “Should contraception be introduced into people worlds which would lower the birth rate but increase people’s happiness, for example.”
This’ll lead to a kind of metagame in which Godus players can canvass the God of Gods through the in-game chat system or over Twitter. At the end of a six month reign, they go into battle. Players earn the right to challenge the God of Gods by starting religions themselves, and during that skirmish, the God of Gods’ power is dictated by the number of people who support him relative to his challenger. The intention for these, says Molyneux, is to give these battles an almost eSports-like appeal.
There are countless other little details designed to surprise and enrich Molyneux’s brave new world. With Godus, he’s free to indulge every creative whim he couldn’t at Microsoft, and over the course of an hour’s conversation, we find a new serenity to Molyneux’s patter – as if he’s broken free of the many tensions accumulated during his years working within industry giants. His role as creator-in-chief at 22 Cans is far more natural; in his boundless enthusiasm for the new, Molyneux’s sensibilities couldn’t be any more indie.