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An Honest Con Artist – A Game Dev’s Take on Peter Molyneux

February 22, 2015
Molyneux - Not on Rails

I’m pretty sure that everyone who follows the games industry has noticed the controversy that’s developed over the past few weeks around Peter Molyneux, his company 22 Cans, and the Kickstarter-funded game Godus. I’m not going to bother to recap the whole chain of events, but I think it’s fair to say that the culmination of it all was this RockPaperShotgun interview. Anyone who’s heard anything about this story has probably heard of this piece in particular.

For my part, I’m not really interested in discussing the interview itself too much. It doesn’t really concern me how it was conducted, or how Molyneux came across (if anything, it pisses me off how belated the reaction is, seeing as none of this stuff is really new when it comes to Peter).

No, for my part I’m mostly interested in the assertions about how game development is conducted, what it takes to make a great game and the nature of making predictions and estimates. Because even if we were to accept the premise that Peter is completely honest in defending his past statements and actions, he is still quite unforgivably and amateurishly incorrect about a lot of things. At the very least, he needs to be cognizant of, and responsible for, his voluntarily and stubbornly viewing the game development process as impossibly chaotic and unpredictable. Even more so, he should be ashamed of trying to pretend that his own inadequacies are in any way inherent in the game development process. Perpetuating that kind naiveté might be a great way to whitewash one’s own incompetence, but it also does great harm to both gamers’ understanding of games and the game development community itself.

Black Box Game Development

When you hear someone talk about a “Black Box” in science or engineering contexts, they are generally talking about opaque systems where you can’t, or simply don’t, know the inner workings. You may know what goes into the black box, and what comes out of it – but you don’t really know how or why something works. A White (or “Clear” or “Glass”) Box, by contrast, is one where you know exactly what’s going on inside the system.

As the complexity of a product increases, more and more specialists are generally added to its development or maintenance. There’s a half-true saying in circulation that “nobody knows how to build a car anymore”. That’s because there are so many different systems inside a car, from multiple motors to chassis to computers and so on, that there is generally no one person on the development team who has a perfect detailed understanding of every system that makes up the vehicle, and could build it on his or her own.

The same is mostly true of game development – though that of course depends on the game. Generally though, there is a lot of Black Box development going on, regardless of the perspective. Much of it comes down to the bandwidth of the people involved, as much as specialization. Even if a programmer could understand exactly what everyone else is doing in detail, they generally do not have the time to both do that and also be effective at their job. At a higher level, if you’re a publisher-side stakeholder working with an external development team, a degree of black-boxing is to be expected, because you are not able to both provide direction to the team in terms of input (money, time and resources) and output (quality and speed of development) and at the same time enforce full transparency.

For the unitiated, black-boxing the development of a game might seem like a bad thing, but that’s not necessarily the case. There are almost as many development methodologies as there are development teams, and if one of these methodologies works, it’s in the external parties’ best interest to leave the team alone to do their job in the most efficient way they know how. The same is true within the team itself; if the programming department keeps delivering the right features on time, does it really matter if their working methodology is somewhat unorthodox from your point of view? Not to mention how much overhead is involved in turning the black box into a white one – and keeping it that way. Or for that matter how much resentment people will feel towards you for trying. It really isn’t trivial to constantly produce the materials required to keep someone informed who has no subject matter knowledge to speak of. It’s like having to write War and Peace in the language appropriate for a 5-year old. Without summarizing or leaving anything out. Oh, and everything needs to be communicated with pictures and diagrams.

The Dangers of Black Box Game Development

Ultimately, there are pitfalls that will make a mess of any way of working. One of my sayings is that “there’s no development methodology that’ll save us from having to properly do our jobs”. And even though I’m always happy to be allowed to work in a Black Box setting when everyone is willing to play ball and be honest with each other, I’ve seen some horrific scenarios pop up that simply never happen in correctly enforced White Box situations where transparency and accountability are priorities.

One of the biggest problems of working in a Black Box environment is that it opens up for a whole slew of employee misconduct that masquerades as empowering and progressive, but is in fact cowardly and irresponsible. For example, the classical fallacy known as the Argument from Ignorance is amazingly easy to pull off in this kind of environment (as is its cousin, the Argument from Incredulity). I’ve been in situations where I’ve been told that someone couldn’t get “[their] head around how that’s supposed to work” and then had the direction of the product changed to an inferior one because of it. The idea being that if the person couldn’t understand it, then that had to mean it was impossible. This is something that both team members and managers can do, but I’m sure we can all agree that the amount of damage done is directly proportional to the amount of power the person has.

Another fallacy that frequently shows up in Black Box situations is the Argument from Experience. A common phrasing of this argument is to state that “from my experience, this kind of problem should be very easy to fix, so I won’t take no for an answer”. The argument is closely tied to the Argument from Authority – “my job title has ‘Senior’ in it, so my position has to be the right one”.

Yet another common fallacy is the Argument from Common Practice: “everyone else seems to be able to pull this off in their own games, so we should also be able to”. So is the Argument from Tradition: “this is how we’ve always done it, so it must have merit”. Then there’s the application of Anecdotal Evidence over systematic information gathering and the Perfectionist Fallacy (“unless it’s perfect, it can’t work at all”).

The reason these problems are all so much more likely to happen in a Black Box situation is that it makes it so much easier to be wilfully ignorant about the details of the game’s development. Thus, lying to other people and even to yourself about what can and what can’t be done – be it the development of specific features or indeed making accurate estimates about delivery schedules, is more likely to go unchallenged. A properly enforced White Box scenario makes this much harder, as the onus is on everyone to stay informed about the product you are making, and to make properly informed development decisions. The statement “I don’t care how it’s done, just get it done” is almost impossible to utter when the development team is entitled and even expected to show you a blueprint or a design spec, and have you explain exactly what you would change and how.

And so, we return to Peter Molyneux.

An Honest Con Artist?

Even though the bad faith toward Peter Molyneux has arguably reached something of an apex over the last few weeks, he’s been a polarizing figure for much longer. Lots and lots of theories of what’s actually going on inside the man’s head have been floated over the years, and most of them haven’t been very nice. So I’d thought I’d put my own hypothesis together. It’s not meant as an attempt to whitewash Peter’s somewhat spotty reputation, but I do believe in the idea that one probably shouldn’t attribute to malice what might as well be basic incompetence or something similar. So I’m going to try to be generous for a second. Here goes:

I believe that Peter Molyneux’ behaviour might largely be the result of a wilful, self-imposed and stubborn Black Box view of the games he’s involved with. I believe that as he’s risen through the ranks, he’s come to know and care less and less about what’s actually going on inside the development teams, and become worse, not better, at making predictions. Finally, I believe that he’s bought into his own bullshit and image as a genius creator. Thus, he routinely engages in the kinds of thinking/arguing fallacies listed above, and also believes that just because he cannot do better, it is impossible for anyone else to do so either.

There’s no malice implied in this hypothesis. It’s just an unfortunate consequence of Peter gravitating more and more towards an increasingly hands-off involvement with his games. In his early years (and we have to remember and respect the fact that Peter has been in this industry for very long indeed), Peter had few other people to rely on. It was a financial necessity for him to be hands-on in the development of his games, and since his own personal economy was so often directly implicated in the development process, he was kept “straight” by the threat of bankruptcy and indeed even poverty.

As his career developed and he became more and more of an “overseer”, it allowed him to take on a more high-level, and black-boxed view of things. He would start making promises that other people would have to deliver on, and reduce extremely complex problems to caricatures. “If you just have the right attitude and work ethic, you can do anything” is, according to people I know who have worked with the man, not an unfair representation of his attitude towards highly complex and in some cases unsolvable problems. It certainly hasn’t helped that the industry press and fans have for so long praised Peter’s “innovative” thinking above all else. How couldn’t he latch on to that, and want to keep feeding that perception of him?

Molyneux - Milo

It’s a shame for the people working with him, though. I was actually working at a company indirectly managed by Peter Molyneux, and our team would cringe at the thought and suggestions of him talking about our game to the press, because we knew that if he did, a new list of completely unrealistic tasks would materialize on our desks the next morning. For companies like Lionhead, this wasn’t just something to worry about – it was simply the way of things around the office. From what I’ve learned by talking with the people working with and around Peter during his stint at Microsoft, I’ve come to believe that his time with that company represented the apex of his path toward the worst possible combination between high authority and low accountability.

This latest Kickstarter debacle serves to educate, somewhat painfully, otherwise wilfully ignorant consumers. But Peter has always been extremely quick to being less-than-perfectly-honest and quite risk-prone with other people’s money – it’s just that the likes of Microsoft or EA won’t tell you about all of his botched experiments that quickly turned into cash-sinkholes and caused staff burnouts. Such stories wouldn’t do their own images any good. But if you still need more evidence of the man’s degree of professionalism, one of the very earliest stories on his Wikipedia article talks about exactly that kind of situation. To quote:  “I thought, ‘If this guy finds out, there go my free computers down the drain.’ So I just shook his hand and ran out of that office”.”

So yeah… maybe it really is all that simple. The guy is a superficially likable, PR-trained (and PR-talented) ideas man, who for far too long has not had to actually take responsibility for his own promises, and who’s been way too comfy in his high-level perspective of his products. All in all, it’s not the worst review of a manager ever.

Where my generosity stops, however, is when the guy starts getting arrogant in spite of his repeated failures. One of the statements he made in the RockPaperShotgun interview was, quote: “…why are you beating me up on these dates things [sic]? You sound like a publisher.” Several other statements alluded to the idea that games are inherently impossible to make budgets and timelines for – and that, by extension, the rest of us are just lucky when we succeed.

If this really was Peter’s view of game development, then maybe that:

  • Explains why most publishers in the games industry won’t work with him any more
  • Explains why he got backed up by Tim Schafer of all people (it should be obvious to most people why that’s funny)
  • Should have compelled Peter to throw a lot more caveats into the Godus Kickstarter campaign promises than, say, zero

That last point is especially important. I mean, throughout the interview, Peter repeatedly said that he wasn’t lying about dates or backer rewards or anything – he was being honest, but it just proved impossible to deliver on the promises. That would be fine if the man didn’t have such an amazing track record of failing to deliver. What factual, scientific basis does he have to trust in his own ability to deliver? And what gall to pretend that this is all because of the nature of the business, rather than the nature of his way of doing business. I know many, many people in the industry who don’t make promises they can’t keep. Meanwhile, that seems to be the only kind of promise Peter makes.

Curiosity

Ultimately, it all comes back to the Black Box. Peter has gradually adopted an increasingly caricature-ish view of game development, and since he refuses to look at the details he doesn’t accept any evidence that contradicts it. This is something that’s been harming his fans, team members, employers and partners for a long time. And now, finally, it seems to have caught up with him in a way he cannot back away from. I really think he seemed sad after the last round of anger directed at him. Maybe he actually wants to do better in the future.

Well, Peter, I’m writing this directly to you. If you want to improve, then all you need to do is to get off your pedestal and put yourself in a position where you are actually accountable and responsible for the delivery of your own games. Also, don’t talk about features before they have been proven to work… in fact, maybe don’t mention your games until you’ve reached Alpha or something. Lastly, maybe look around at what everyone else in the industry is doing for a minute. You’ll find that the rest of us manage to make very good and even innovative games, often on a set schedule. Maybe a bit of humility and desire to learn from those younger than you might teach you something.

Ultimately, I think that what you need to do is to take the Black Box… or perhaps Cube in your case, and pick away at it, little by little, until you get what’s inside. Because what’s inside (spoiler: knowing what the hell you’re talking about, and owning it) is life-changingly awesome by any definition.

Molyneux - Black Cube

From → All Posts, Games, Other

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