Peter Molyneux is nervous. He’s shown off new games for the first time before, of course. Indeed, he’s often done it in the same way, picking up a journalist from Guildford station in his black Nissan GT-R, then taking them to the studio for a personal tour. But it’s been a long time since he’s felt so personally exposed, and had so much to prove.
“A lot of people are sick of me talking about stuff and never really delivering on promises,” he says, pulling into Surrey Technology Centre. Less than a minute’s walk from Lionhead, the studio he co-founded 15 years ago, this business centre on the town’s outskirts is home to 109 small companies. From March, that group has included his new studio, 22Cans. Because, at 53 years old, Molyneux has left mainstream development to do again what he did several times as a younger man: create a startup.
He’s quite aware that this time we get to see what his ideas are really worth, since he no longer has a large team and the kind of swollen budget that Microsoft can amass behind him. And let’s not forget the additional pressure that @petermolydeux, the spoof Twitter account that has spawned a game jam based on Molyneux-esque highfalutin game design ideas, has piled upon him.
“This @petermolydeux character is fantastic, and incredibly funny, and I’m very appreciative of his attention,” Molyneux says. But expectation is high and he knows many are waiting for him to fall. “How can I solve this problem? I love excitedly talking through features of games and I can show demos to the press, but how much of that is real and true? So I thought, ‘We’ll do these experiments.’ They’re things I’ll talk about: why they’re important, how exciting they are. Maybe I won’t talk about how we’ll use them, because they’ll give too much away about the final product – but then maybe I’ll earn people’s trust, because it’s talking about something everyone can touch and feel.”
On the basis of what we see and Molyneux tells us, what he’s doing with his team at 22Cans is genuinely exciting, and an entirely novel way of developing videogames. Over the next 34 months, 22Cans will be releasing a series of simple and elegantly presented experiments on various platforms, from iOS to the browser, probably numbering 22 in total. Each will explore different facets of gaming – such as technology or player psychology – which will then be built into a final full product. And the first experiment is Curiosity.
Oh, and the studio also has a remarkable mission statement: to draw in 100 million simultaneous players in those 34 months. “Does that sound insane, 100 million? Maybe it does,” Molyneux says. Nervous or not, he hasn’t lost any of his ambition to impress.
But the key to understanding 22Cans’ plans is that it’s about the scale of the Internet, not simply traditional gaming. “When Sony came into the race, the thought of them having 100 million consoles, as it was for PS2 – we would have laughed them out of court. When you’ve got somewhere like 200 million people a month playing some kind of Zynga title, does it sound so crazy now? When you got the explosive growth of these devices,” he holds up his iPhone, “does it sound so insane?”
Curiosity is an experiment based on the study of just that, as well as a whole lot of other things besides. Players are greeted by a black cube hanging in a white room, inspired by the final scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Resonating with a hum, its surface moves almost imperceptibly. “It’s the most intriguing black cube,” says Molyneux. Touching it causes your view to move towards it, and words fade onto its surface: “Curiosity,” and then, “What’s inside the black cube?”
From left: Chief architect Paul Knight, director of art Paul Mclaughlin, programmer Dimitri Mavrikakis, CTO Tim Rance and 22Cans co-founder Peter Molyneux
What indeed? How will we find out? And when? The experiment hinges around how compelling these questions will be to players, but at its centre lies a secret that Molyneux assures us (well, he would) is very much worth the wait. But what about the work of getting to it? Well, the cube – of which there is only one in the world – is actually made up of millions of smaller cubes. It won’t take players long to realise that they can tap on these ‘micro cubes’ and cause hairline cracks to appear. After a number of taps the micro cube will break apart, and the secret will be revealed when players have mined down to the main cube’s centre.
“Is the single power of curiosity, nothing else, is that enough for the world to solve this problem?” says Molyneux, writing down the frankly giddying number of taps he is currently planning the experiment to require before it reveals all. It really is an awfully large number. And here’s the kicker: Molyneux wants only the player who taps that final time to see the secret, although he does concede that it may be made more public if enough players feel like it’s unfair for only one person to be rewarded for everyone’s efforts.
“Personally, I love the idea that only one person sees what’s in the cube,” he says, picturing the secret being dependent on whether that person decides to share it. “Maybe they lie about what’s inside. And that is incredibly powerful. In a way, this is a story being told, a story about how our social revolution fosters that word of mouth.”
So, yes, Curiosity is absolutely a Molyneux product. Maybe there’s a bit of Molydeux in there, too. And it seems more personal to its creator than the recent big-budget games he’s made, being both smaller and more open-ended. Shorn of the responsibility of fronting a large company, with all the associated expectations and the slings and arrows of development fortune, he seems more relaxed and comfortable describing it. And most importantly of all, it’s deliverable. Rather than whether it will ever be released, the questions over the cube relate to the nature and scale of player reactions to it.
Curiosity is a simple idea, but if the game takes off you can imagine it inspiring many complex behaviours. Players may band together over the cube’s huge surface area and mine out pixel art or messages. Others will surely seek out such efforts and destroy them. At least initially, it will only be possible to mine the cube layer by layer, so the game will be more than simply Minecraft set inside a Skinner box. The strata below the black exterior will initially be cubes of different primary colours, but by the fourth layer they’ll start showing images (taken from players’ public Facebook photo collections) or QR codes. Perhaps the pictures in one part of the cube will be the most-liked photos from a location’s most active player: the ‘top tapper’ of Guildford, Molyneux suggests. “If, as you chip away, you see underneath a picture of you, how would that make you feel? I wonder how much that motivates people. Is it better to have one huge photograph or tiny icon photos, but lots of them?”
As you may have gleaned, many of these details aren’t set in stone. And since the game is networked, 22Cans can tweak many of its parameters live, from the number of taps it takes to destroy a micro cube to whether players can mine more than one layer into the structure, which would open up the possibility of collective sculpting. Perhaps players will be able to display how many times they’ve tapped on their Facebook profile. “How long is it before you say to yourself, ‘I wish I knew how many times I’ve tapped?’ That’s an interesting time, because there comes a time [when you’ll] want something to show for days of tapping, even if it’s just a number. I predict that some people will start lying: ‘You have to see what happens when you get to 10,000 taps!’ But we probably won’t do anything.”
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