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The Game Designer Who Promised to Make a Man God

It's not going so well.
February 12, 2015, 4:15pm
Peter Molyneux has a history of making and breaking promises. ​​Photo via Hot Grills/Flickr

Peter Molyneux has a history of making and breaking promises—and boy oh boy, barely into 2015, he's done it again. The seminal game developer's latest controversy concerns Godus, a product of ​his new studio 22Cans, and an awaited return to Molyneux's god-game roots.

​Godus was successfully Kickstarted in 2012, off little else other than Molyneux's name being attached, and the promises he brought with it. In Godus, you are a god, not unlike the gods in Molyneux's earlier games Populous and Black & White. You lord over a civilization that worships you and your incredible powers. Its tagline, "The Regenesis of the God Game," seemed to imply that somewhere between The Sims and The Simpsons: Tapped Out the genre had lost its way.

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The game launched in beta on the computer gaming service Steam in 2013, followed by a version for iOS and Android devices the following year. Then word came that M​olyneux would be departing the project to pursue something called "The Trial," leaving a skeleton crew behind to wrap up Godus. From the sound of things, many of the highly touted aspects—such as a rich god versus god multiplayer dynamic and an expansive universe—are going to end up on the cutting room floor, for a more finite, manageable experience.

The story, of course, gets weirder, due entirely to theatrics. Not only is Molyneux abandoning once-promised features, but also the promises he made to a young Scottish man by the name of Bryan Henderson. Molyneux promised that Godus would be "life-changing" for Henderson, a claim that collapsed as many others had before.

These promises started with another game, "Curiosity – What's Inside the Cube." It sounded like a concept dreamed up by a popular Peter Molyneux parody account, P​eter Molydeux. But no, Curiosity was real. It was a multiplayer game, in the loosest sense of the world, in which players communally tapped on a single, shared cube made up of billions of smaller cubes. The point was to get to the center of this cube by chipping away at the tinier cubes, like an interactive Toots​ie Pop.

It could literally be played by a rob​ot.

Molyneux egged people on Willy Wonka-style, promising the reward was "life-changingly amazing by any definition." Only one could win. As revealed in this delicio​us article on Eurogamer, Molyneux's snake oil caravan came to Bryan Henderson when he tapped that last block away. The prize was godhood, and more importantly money.

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In a video where Peter appears as some kind of Silico​n Valley ghost doll, he explained the pitch behind Godus, and that the winner would be the god of all gods—that Henderson and Henderson alone could soon manipulate elements that meddle with other players. Oh, and that Henderson would receive a cut of the money Godus made, for as long as he remained its deity.

None of this came to pass.

"Since I won and a year after, I would email them as a ritual thing, every month, just to get some kind of update," Henderson told Eurogamer. "Eventually I was like, they're not being professional at all. Communication is non-existent, so I'm not even going to try any more… So I was like fuck it, I'm not going to try if you're not going to try. You're the one who's supposed to be professional. I'm just this kid who won this thing."

In the end, the only rewards Henderson's received was a trip to the studio and some Jägerbombs— pleasant, but far from godhood.

This act is only the most recent in Molyneux's circus of a career. Few will forget Mi​lo, an experimental game concept featuring a precocious 10-year-old boy. Players could use Microsoft's motion-sensing Xbox Kinect to interact with—and according to Molyneux—emotionally connect with Milo. That creeped out audiences more than inspired. Milo never saw the light of day, and the most popular title on Kinect remains the one where you get drunk with your friends and try to dance to Bell Biv Da​voe.

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For the most part, Peter Molyneux's games aren't that ridiculous. Theme Park, Dungeon Keeper, Black & White, all solid. His problem stems more from being unable to deliver the ludicrous things he promises—a problem rampant enough on Kickstarter without an industry-inflated ego.

Fable, for example, his longest-running franchise, is only a bad game compared to what Peter says it would have been. From its inception, Fable was a series that felt like a decent love letter to ​fantasy author Terry Pratchett—but according to Molyneux, is actually this emotional roller coaster, one of such nuance and grace that it will bring you to tears. Right. He promised that having an in-game dog would create an emotional bond unlike any other. In reality, the dog just sniffed for treasures and barked at looters.

By Fable III, Molyneux was still suggesting players would be wrought with conflict over saving their kingdom, while also ensuring their peasants' wellbeing—both easily accomplished with some property flipping. We were told we'd develop a character of detailed scruples, but the dynamics between good and evil were reduced to blunt choices throughout. As The Elder Scrolls series rose in popularity, developer Bethesda Game Studios seemed to deliver the game Peter Molyneux kept suggesting he was working on, with much less bragging.

In an open letter, apologizing for many of the elements left out of Fable, Molyneux promised, "I have come to realise that I should not talk about features too early so I am considering not talking about games as early as I do… although we jump up and down in glee about the fabulous concepts and features we're working on, I will not mention them to the outside world until we've implemented and tested them, and they are a reality."

This was written in 2​002. History has a funny way of repeating itself. Good luck with The Trial, Peter!