Game on

Peter Molyneux Computer games are no longer the sole reserve of children; they are a huge industry worth millions of pounds annually.

Peter Molyneux managing director at Lionhead Studios is one of the UK's leading games producers and he spoke to BCS assistant editor Henry Tucker about how the industry is changing.

BCS is pursuing professionalism in IT - what are your thoughts on this?

What's fascinating about the games industry is that we had our roots in bedroom coders and it's only really in the last five years probably that we are seeking professionalism on the same level as the BCS is.

The games industry is going up to the level of really professional coders that approach a problem in a professional way. And also you have to remember that the challenge of making a computer game isn't that much different from any other programming challenge nowadays.

Project failure is a big subject in the UK and you've been involved in huge ongoing IT projects - what have you learned from it that could benefit our members?

Project failure is incredibly expensive. What is different for us is that quite often we are announcing the products we're developing way before they are completed. For example, I'm over in San Francisco at the moment at the games' developers conference, and I'm talking about a project that's perhaps only part way completed and that means that project failure is not an option.

So what we have to do is try and find what works as early as possible, testing takes a huge part of that, and also looking at the problems. In computer games, there are a huge number of problems, all the graphical problems, there's the problem with speed, there's a problem with memory, those are maybe unique to the computer games industry.

The way our approach seems to avoid failure is through prototyping and going through a very focused cycle to pinpoint where our failures are going to be before they happen, certainly before we announce them.

Looking back, is there anything you would do differently given the chance?

Actually, every single game that we've ever completed. When we look and do a post mortem of what went wrong, at the top of those post mortems is always 'next time we'll do it properly'.

Quite a lot of the time you come to the end of the project and think, 'I wish I'd planned better' and 'how did we get such a terrible crunch period?'

We have these things called crunch periods that go on for an extended period and as you track down the final bugs and as you polish the code you try and minimise that. Pretty much on every single game I've thought that. But I would say, for the large games like Black and White and Fable, it is making fewer changes at the end and more at the start.

Part of the problem is that you have all these systems working together, and when you actually put them together, three-quarters of the way through the development cycle, that's when disastrous things can happen.

You think 'We've put all this stuff together and it's not the exciting game that we thought it would be. We're going to have to rip out this bit and put that bit in and that's always messy.'

BCS is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. What developments in computer games industry do you think were the most exciting, ground-breaking or memorable in the last 50 years?

I think for me it's probably the fact that we're now working as teams. Now that doesn't sound exciting, but you've got to remember it's only 15 years ago when there were an average of five programmers on a project. You didn't have huge teams working together, you just had five friends working hard and working late and when you had a problem you stuck up your hand and everyone saw you had a problem.

The real revolution now is going from that to a hundred plus team members working together. And having systems that enable us to drive those teams forward in large-scale development has been a real revolution for us.

I think that the real revolution now is that you can go in and you can have an idea for a game and you can kind of say 'well that's going to take two to three years'. Whereas previously you would go in, and I was really guilty of this, and you would say 'We've got an idea and we have no idea of how long it's going to take'.

You work in an area perceived as cool, but what should the industry be doing to improve its image?

I do a fair amount of talking at universities. I find the way I motivate them for the games industry is pretty simple and is pretty effective. And that is the joy of creating something that didn't exist before, it is a wonderful experience. And that joy, you could be working on a relatively deterministic problem, but it's you that is creating that code, so that's one motivator.

The other motivator, which is perhaps unique to the computer games industry, and that's to say, look you work on a computer game, OK it's for two years, but then, when it's released you can walk down a high street and you can walk into a shop and you can say I worked on that, and that stays with you for the whole of your life. And that for the computer games industry is a wonderful motivator.

And then lastly, giving people a clear idea of the career path. There is a real career path now, going from coder to technical designer to the production side and finally into management. I can point at a lot of people now, in the computer games industry who have started at a very junior level and ended up at a very senior level.

And of course they are not in small independent companies anymore there in very large corporations, like Microsoft and Sony for example and Electronic Arts. These are big organisations and you can rise through these organisations whilst having a really rewarding time at work.

How do you feel about the media's approach to computer games?

Well I feel that you've got to accept it. Anything that goes out there and says that it's going to entertain people is going to come in for criticism, whether it's a child's programme or a computer game.

I think you have to realise as a developer the responsibility that you've got, you also have to know the audience that you're aiming for. The guidelines that I always give are that, just like films and books, games are about exciting people but you shouldn't be gratuitous about that and that means you have a responsibility.

What I love doing is facing the media and saying, look there's nothing different about computer games in terms of entertainment, if you look at films and books and TV, they’re just as obsessive, they're just as influential. It's just that computer games are new and are evolving much faster than those other more traditional forms of entertainment.

I take that criticism and I accept it and I accept our responsibility for it. And at the end of the day you can see some wonderful examples of computer games and the media does, as it's their job, focus on the more negative side of computer games rather than the positive.

It's not been picked up much in the media but people are beginning to form communities via computer games. You only need to look at massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft to realise that there's a lot of socialising going on. This is now broad enough that people are meeting up outside of the games that they play to socialise.

And then of course you've got very interesting things like Second Life, which is not a computer game, but it is a computer game. It's somewhere in between and it’s wonderfully enriching for people to have this ability to show and create and do things they wouldn't normally be able to do to a very wide audience.

What are the biggest challenges games face now and in the near future?

Well there's a very long list of what the challenges are, there's the growing team size, the growing cost - you're looking at tens of millions of dollars to make a computer game now. That means risk, and that's a real problem.

You're also seeing this quite upsetting next generation revolution that spins round every five years and that puts us all into turmoil and gives us huge challenges. What we're finding in this next generation hardware is that we're having to be very adaptive with the way that we approach programming problems.

You're talking about multi-threaded coding, which is a very big challenge for us to squeeze the maximum we can out of the hardware. Our problem is that by the time we've really squeezed as much as we can out of a machine, it's replaced by a new one.

Lastly the ambition of the games industry isn't just to entertain 25 million people, it's to entertain hundreds of millions of people and that means we have to invent games that have never been seen or played before and that's a problem in itself.

What do you think the future holds for computer games?

Well you're kind of asking the wrong person to give you an objective view on that. I would say that you've got an audience out there who want to play computer games, who are fascinated by computer games, who are excited by the evolution of computer games and our challenge, and absolutely we're going to meet that challenge, to make that as mass and broad market as possible without watering down that entertainment experience.

I would say what I think the future is: firstly there's going to be some very interesting hardware that's going to be coming out in the next ten years. With the Nintendo Wii you're already seeing what a computer game is and the thing that you hold is changing. You're seeing some very powerful machines with the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. You're seeing computer games connected constantly online the whole time.

This is fuelling the inventiveness you're going to be seeing in the next couple of years. And really that inventiveness is there to get as many people as possible to play computer games. And what you think of as a computer game, who you think of that plays a computer game, and when and where they play it is going to change radically in the next five years because people want to do it. 

Open source or proprietary?

I love the idea of open source, but in our industry it's going to be proprietary. Open-source is useful, but when you're dealing with costs of millions of pounds, then proprietary is more likely in the short term.

Apple or PC?

PC for functionality, Apple for style.

Wii or PlayStation?

I'd say Wii for party, PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 for games.

Geek or nerd?

Both.

Blackberry or smartphone?

Smartphone definitely.

This article first appeared in the May issue of ITNOW

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