Death of a Salesman

19 Feb
February 19, 2015

Well, the big controversy this week in game development was that RPS interview with Peter Molyneux.

RPS: Do you think that you’re a pathological liar?

Yowch. That’s probably the hardest punch I’ve ever seen thrown by gaming’s enthusiast press. Predictably, reactions were sharply divided.

Some folks said good, it’s about time Molyneux got the screws put to him, what with his history of grandiose claims and unfulfilled promises.

“There was always this sort of joke between everyone—’the bullshit in the press again,'” said Sean Cooper, one of the first employees at Molyneux’s first game company, Bullfrog. “But it wasn’t really bullshit—it was more stretching the truth.”

“I’ve never really understood if Peter is a genius visionary who intends to make his claims come true, is a compulsive liar, just fantastically eager to please or perhaps even a crazy megalomaniac who believes his own hyperbole,” said ex-Bullfrog employee Mike Diskett. “I suspect it’s a little of all of the above.”

And, of course, the cycle of hype and self-flagellation has long since stopped looking like anything other than theater. There’s only so many times you can let a grown man with decades of experience off with an indulgent “oh, that scamp, he just let his enthusiasm get away with him again.”

Others, gamers and devs alike, recoiled, horrified. Molyneux makes wild claims, sure, to the extent that there’s even a famous satirical twitter account dedicated to spoofing his characteristic bombast. But the man’s a game developer, not a war criminal, and one responsible for some of the most beloved titles in all gaming. Did he really deserve that?

Now, personally I’m not sure how much of the magic of those titles was Peter and how much was the team behind him, but it’s a fair point. That interview came across as, well, vicious.

For an industry used to questions like “on a scale of 8-10, how awesome would you say your next generic warshooter is going to be?” questions like “are you a a pathological liar?” are far beyond the pale. Many who have muttered about Molyneux being a con in the past recoiled in disgust at his treatment. Developers, in particular, closed ranks, widely declaring their desire to have nothing more to do with RPS, or how this kind of thing would doom any hope of an open development process.

It wasn’t the kind of article that wins you friends, no.

But maybe that’s the point. Maybe someone at RPS felt that the press has been a little too indulgent with some of its “friends” in the game industry, a little bit too willing to look the other way. That it had forgotten its role as consumer watchdog.

It comes back to Kickstarter, you see. Kickstarter is an amazing thing, potentially revolutionary, if it can survive as a busines model in the long term. But it also presents more than enough rope for developers to hang themselves with. For Molyneux, in particular, it may have proven a poison pill.

Over-promising and under-delivering is one thing when it’s publisher money, it’s another thing completely when you’re appealing to your customers directly to fund you. And when rumors start that you’re shrinking the team that has yet to deliver the game you promised to the fans who supported you in order to work on another title instead, well…that’s strike one.

Strike two is all-but admitting you were willing to flat-out lie to meet the Kickstarter target.

“There’s this overwhelming urge to over-promise because it’s such a harsh rule: if you’re one penny short of your target then you don’t get it. And of course in this instance, the behavior is incredibly destructive, which is ‘Christ, we’ve only got 10 days to go and we’ve got to make £100,000, for fuck’s sake, let’s just say anything.’ So I’m not sure I would do that again.”

Hastily assembled stretch goals always run the risk of being poorly thought-out, of course. But “just say anything” suggests a willingness to ignore ethical concerns, to not just overestimate your capabilities but to just plain ignore them entirely.

Perhaps it was simply a poor choice of words on Molyneux’s part. But given the man’s track record, and the dismal state that Godus is currently in, it doesn’t look good in retrospect. Strike two.

And strike three is the casual disregard for the winner of 22Cans’ Curiosity Cube, Bryan Henderson, after the Cube and its winner had served their purpose as a marketing gimmick to build hype for Molyneux’s new game’s Kickstarter campaign.

I don’t think I’d have opened with pathological liar. But I can understand being furious at this apparent betrayal, furious at this man everyone respects and his naked willingness to do anything for PR.

for fuck’s sake, let’s just say anything.

It’s remarkable, if you think about it, for a developer to say something like that, such a bald and damning statement, and still have most of the industry treat him indulgently, like an impish uncle. Instead of being raked over the coals. The real scandal here, according to the zeitgeist, is what John Walker said. Not Molyneux. Not the legendary designer who practically admitted that he was willing to promise the moon to his fans to get their money, and who is now skipping off to his new project, leaving an amateur from the community to take over lead designer duties (and presumably responsibility for future failures) on Godus.

Truly remarkable.

I called this piece “Death of a Salesman” because it’s catchy, because I think Molyneux is a consummate salesman, and because there’s been a lot of talk (by him and by others) of whether he’s “finished” in the industry or not.

But honestly, I don’t believe he’s done. It’s not criticism or dislike that kills your PR story, it’s apathy. Disinterest. It doesn’t matter how much they hate Phil Fish, the hatred is itself a form of interest and will generate hits if he does anything the press can pick up on in the future.

And if Molyneux’s self-flagellating act had grown stale, well, no one is questioning the authenticity of his raking over the coals this time. If he comes back in a few years, somber and repentant, saying he’s learned his lesson and hopes to redeem himself with this new game he’s working on, well…who doesn’t like a good redemption story?

Whatever the truth is, amoungst all the controversy, one fact remains – Molyneux’s legacy will live on in his inheritors.

2 replies
  1. Kris says:

    Call me “chaotic evil” (rolls eyes), but I was psyched when I heard the story. I’m quite sick of his BS.

  2. Berry says:

    I feel sorry for him. Sure he made mistakes but that’s what it means to be a creator. You make stuff, people like it or hate it but at the end, it’s your soul on display. Peter is not a programmer. He depends on other people to create his fantastic stories. For the developers, it be problematic is your’re the one who has to make good on promices when you are not the one making them.

    I blame him for being ignorant but I can’t blame him for being a dreamer. The real issue is the people, who are just as ignorant as he is, who buys into his fantacy and then cries wolf when they feel “lied” too.

    I hope he keeps trying. Maybe one day, his developers (poor souls) will be able to match his expectations and in doing so, match ours.

    Eventually, everyone must sit down to a banquette of consequences. Our legacy will be determined by our actions and not our words. Keep talking Peter. Keep talking.


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