Molyneux: Microsoft Scared of Innovation

Originally published in Exeposé

Fable creator opens up about ‘Curiosity’, ‘Co-operation’ and ‘Milo’

Curiosity can be dangerous. For Peter Molyneux, his curiosity at Microsoft lead to the rise and fall of one of the most groundbreaking interactive experiences of the current generation.

In a small office in Guildford technology centre, a few hundred yards from his previous studio Lionhead, Molyneux’s startup 22Cans is hard at work testing Curiosity: What’s Inside The Cube. The iOS game features a giant black cube made from millions of ‘cubelets’ which, after 64 billions taps, will reveal a secret so profound it will “make world news” according to Molyneux.

Don’t be surprised if this sounds far-fetched, Molyneux is well known in the industry for making promises about his game that don’t end up being strictly truthful. He’s well aware of this, as the game is currently a month behind the previously announced launch date .“It was my stupid mouth that shot off and gave the date in the first place,” he says. “That was a bit silly.”

Curiosity is the first of 22 experiments the studio hopes to produce, that will eventually culminate a final game. The studio is divided into two halves, one working on these experiments and one has a wall covered with concept art and populated with designers working on the final game. “Not every single one of those experiments is going to be a different app,” says Molyneux. “The gameplay [of Curiosity] is simplistic now, but by experiment 6, see how much the gameplay evolves.”

The final game will draw on all previous experiments, but Molyneux explains “it’s something that’s very different.. We’re experimenting with a different approach to entertainment can still motivate.” Such experimental and alternative gameplay is something that Molyneux explored with Microsoft before his departure in March.

“The thing about Microsoft, and the thing about any big corporation, is that they’re scared of innovation,” says Molyneux, recognising the practical reason for this fear of new ideas. “You can’t have 300,000 people going off to follow their own ideas.

“What would Curiosity say about Microsoft? Maybe the press will write that Microsoft are experimenting and don’t know what they’re doing,” Molyneux hypothesizes. “It makes a new idea very very hard to execute in these big companies.” He mentions Google and their call for ‘Ideas to Change the world’ in their 10^100 project as a company that embraces new ideas.

Molyneux last and ill-fated project at Microsoft was a Kinect-based titled called Milo. “Imagine if you could create something that felt alive,” he recalls. “People could experience the joy of inspiring something.” The project was unveiled during E3 2009 alongside Kinect (then named Natal. Featuring a 10 year old boy named Milo reacting to the player’s voice, actions, and – according to Molyneux – emotions, the industry was amazed (if a little sceptical) and this groundbreaking project.

“It was amazing,” says Molyneux. “It was incredible. I showed it to people and they cried.” The whole experience was design to remind the player of their own childhood, he says. Molyneux explains how people love going back to their roots. “Everyone has these common threads [in their childhood] .. and when you read a book, watch a film, or play a computer game, it reminds you emotionally.”

As an example, Molyneux describes how in one version of the game, you could hear Milo’s parents arguing. As you interacted with Milo, you would hear how this affected him emotionally. “It reminded you about your parents,” he says. “And that pulled the emotion out of people.”

After sparce appearances at trade shows, in 2010 Microsoft sathat Project Milo was “never a product” and was “never announced as a game”. Molyneux seems disgruntled at the lack of faith in the project, describing how insanely difficult it was to get through Microsoft. While they had experience in marketing shoot ‘em ups and Fable games, they had no clue how to market this new product.

“You can’t sell it at a gamestop or game,” he explains. Could this product actually be sold at all? “I believe this simple thing,” says Molyneux. “If it was an amazing and incredible experience, there are enough people in the world who would buy it.” He pauses to reflect on the now-defunct project. “In the end, marketing doesn’t matter. Marketing lays the seeds of things, but it’s all about word of mouth.”

With the Milo as good as cancelled, and none of the voice and facial recognition carried over to Lionhead’s next game (an on rails Fable spinoff).  “‘I can stay here at Microsoft for the rest of my life’” he recalls thinking “or I could start out with a small developer and do this brave stuff.”

After Curiosity – and the 6 subsequent experiments inside the app – 22Cans will be working a game called Co-operation. While Molyneux isn’t revealing any details about the upcoming app, he reveals to Exeposé that involves “Co-operation mixed with morality. It’s what is right and what is wrong. It’s about which side of the fence you come down on.” He explains that if you imagine Curiosity as the world’s biggest game of pass the parcel, Co-operation is the world’s biggest tug of war. “It’s a crazy thing to do,” he jokes. “We should have just made a game.”

As he shows us the way out, Molyneux points out where the (now 20-strong) team is relocating to. It’s back down the road toward Lionhead studios. “When you look out the window, we’re actually overlooking Lionhead,” he tells me. “It’ll interesting to see how that works out.”

image credit Jean Frédérik

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