“Something, somewhere is being worked on today by us or someone else that is going to end up being played by a hundred million people, together.”
Say what you will about Peter Molyneux, he doesn’t think small. Here in a tiny office on the outskirts of Guildford, the former creative director for Microsoft Games Studios in Europe is dreaming up what he calls the “ultimate game”, one where a huge chunk of all the people in the world can play together at the same time.
That number sounds vast - it’s about 1.4 per cent of the world’s entire population, or the entire population of Mexico. But it’s not that hard to believe: Angry Birds has already had a billion downloads, after all.
The challenge is to get them all playing at exactly the same time. And that’s where his new studio 22Cans’ first game, Curiosity, comes in. Launched just this week on Android and iPhone, it’s a surreal cooperative game where players have to all work together to tap away the tiles on a giant cube. Perhaps “epic” would be a better word to describe it: there are about 64 billion little cubes you’ll need to remove in all, and over 100 million on the outer layer alone.
Why would you go to the trouble of removing all those tiles? That’s exactly what Molyneux hopes to find out. Buried deep within, at an unspecified layer inside the cube, is a tile with what Molyneux says is a life-changing secret.
And it is a serious this-message-will-self-destruct secret. Even Molyneux’s wife doesn’t know what’s inside. Just one other 22Cans staffer knows what the secret is, and that’s only because Molyneux needed to tell someone in order to actually execute it.
What kind of prize could be that amazing, yet kept so secret? “Well, the answer to that is a clue in itself so I don’t want to say,” he tells Red Bull UK. “It’s certainly unique and it will change someone’s life.”
All he’ll say is what it’s not: “It’s not a big pile of cash, it’s not an expensive car and it’s not the next game from 22Cans.”
“I think I’ve said it’s not Half-Life 3,” he jokes. Whatever it is (our best guess is a spot in his will), it’s a prize he’s hoped to give away for years. Ever since he read the book Masquerade as a young man, in fact. Author Kit Williams had “written about this golden rabbit which they’d hidden, and if you read the book you could find out where it was hidden,” he says.
“I remember that feeling of fascination and curiosity, and what was so bizarre about it is that it wasn’t that I wanted the rabbit, I just wanted to find out where the rabbit was...I remembered that, and I wondered, if you were going to have the biggest treasure hunt, what thing could you give away in the middle?”
“What thing that after it was revealed would be significant enough and important enough to justify people tapping thousands and thousands of times on this cube? I’ve been thinking about that for years and years and years so what is in the cube is truly amazing, and truly life changing.”
To boldly go again
Of course, Molyneux’s known for making big promises, and then failing to live up to them. “My big mouth notoriously shoots itself off every five minutes,” he says. He’s even got a spoof Twitter account that mocks his visionary game ideas every day (“Imagine a game where you instantly die if you see yourself? The enemy is reflection”).
Molyneux is famed for his games at Bullfrog in the 1990s, including Theme Park
Once upon a time, he did deliver. Molyneux created some of Britain’s best loved games of the 1980s and 1990s, including Populous, Theme Park and Dungeon Keeper. And in his role at Microsoft, he was without a doubt the most important man in gaming on the entire continent.
But until he quit earlier this year, Molyneux had been in a bit of a rut. The games he made at his studio in the 2000s, Lionhead, never quite lived up to his claims. The Fable series was supposed to bring a new level of immersion to adventure games; in reality they were just bizarre tours through all the different regional accents of Britain.
And then there was Milo, the stunning Kinect tech demo he stunned the world with in 2009. Milo was a real digital boy: he understood what you said and did, no controller required. But Microsoft never bought into the concept as a game, and it was never released.
Unsurprisingly, Molyneux has cooled on Kinect’s promise since: “I think there are bits of motion control gaming that I find exciting. Where I get very confused is to think that motion control gaming is the replacement of gaming...I won’t say anything bad against Kinect. Is it the ultimate device? No, it’s not, but you’ve got to take your hat off to Microsoft, it was a brave attempt for sure.”
So, Molyneux popped across the road to his new startup - in the very same business park - and got to work with his team of 20 on Curiosity. Molyneux actually dreamed up the concept walking between the two offices, and the cube is simply the shape and colour it is because it was the easiest thing for Molyneux to program.
Now it’s no longer about consoles (“Consumers don’t care about platforms anymore...consoles are struggling to be relevant now. They just care about access points.”) It just comes down to one thing: not what do we play, but why do we play?
“Fundamentally it’s about this one single point. What is the psychology of motivation?” And if he can crack that with Curiosity, he’ll be one step closer to his goal, and making his “ultimate game”.
Molyneux hopes that the Curiosity experiment will last for months, but he says the team is already “working on the next experiment now”.
“The next experiment we do will look more and more like a piece of entertainment, and you’ll see aspects of Curiosity in it...but we’re definitely saying it’s still an experiment.” And expect plenty more bizarre projects to come before Molyneux’s ultimate game: he’s just getting started.
“Imagine being a person who’s responsible for a hundred million engaging in an experience in a single day,” he says before we leave. “It would be unbelievably awesome. And then imagine just what it would be like to be a designer who can change any aspect of that game, at any time - that is truly like being a digital god. It really is.”
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