Peter Molyneux: Guildford's gaming guru from small start-ups to Populous, Theme Park and Fable
PUBLISHED: 18:09 12 September 2012 | UPDATED: 14:20 28 April 2015
A legend in gaming circles, Peter Molyneux has been responsible for some of the world's best-sellers, from his early days with Populous to the likes of Theme Park and Fable. Having been based in Guildford for his entire career, he is at the heart of a thriving industry in Surrey
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine August 2012
For someone who in the 1980s was running a small import/export business out of a room in Bridge Street, Guildford, computer games designer Peter Molyneux has always dreamt big – and had the entrepreneurial spirit to fulfil those dreams.
“My first company was in Farnham, where I got my sister to cut the neighbours’ grass and pocketed the proceeds – I’m not sure she’s ever forgiven me,” laughs Peter, speaking from the Guildford base of his latest gaming company, 22 Cans.
Having made his name as a gaming legend, with a series of start-up companies that created best selling computer games and were then bought by global giants, it all started in less than auspicious circumstances.
“My full history is a long and complicated one but basically I got into the industry semi by accident really and was in it pretty much from the start,” says the 53-year-old, who lives with his family in Guildford .
“At the time, I was incredibly poor with massive debts and trying to sell baked beans to the Far East. Then I stumbled on the home computer Commodore Amiga and like any, erm, good businessman, my focus started switching from my company to my passion for programming and playing games.”
In 1987, Peter founded Bullfrog Productions with Les Edgar, and while ‘messing around’ they created ‘just a weird little game’ named Populous, which Electronic Arts eventually agreed to publish in 1989. It became a worldwide success and launched a whole new genre, the so called ‘god games’, where players control the lives of their characters, which is pretty much the norm now but in its day was groundbreaking.
“One moment I was only able to afford jacket potatoes for dinner, the next we had a hit on our hands,” says Peter. “Eventually, we sold Bullfrog to Electronic Arts and I started Lionhead Studios, which was then in turn sold to Microsoft. It’s been an adventure along the way.”
In March this year, Molyneux left Lionhead and Microsoft, after the completion of the much anticipated Fable: The Journey, to head back to his roots once again and found 22 Cans, a small start-up in Guildford. You get the impression he prefers the independence offered by being his own boss.
“When I set up a big idea, I get really passionate about it,” he says. “Servicing the idea is everything and sometimes, when you’re involved as part of a
bigger machine, it’s harder to focus on those ideas.”
And those ideas aren’t necessarily the preserve of some mad genius but often click into place with the most normal of everyday activities: “My son playing a game, me listening to music… or sometimes just recovering from a really bad hangover,” he says. “It can be a tiny piece of a game, or a full concept. My games often start with a feeling that becomes a question. What would it feel like to play God? To have the choice to be good or evil?”
Having already been honoured with an OBE from the Queen, he received the Guildford Roll of Honour in May, which is an annual award that recognises and celebrates people who have made a real difference to Guildford and the surrounding area. He says he’s just fortunate to be surrounded by smart, inventive people who do a lot of the hard work to transform his ideas into a reality.
“Once you’re at this point of your career, you have to keep topping what you’ve done in the past and I find that gives me a real drive,” he adds.
Game on in Guildford
Home to a surprisingly large number of gaming companies, Guildford has become something of a hub for the industry in recent years.
“When we started Bullfrog, we were the only company like it in the area,” says Peter. “Now it’s like a mini-industry with EA, Codemasters, Media Molecule etc all in the area. It’s a great place to be based, with the links to London.”
It’s not just in Guildford where the changes come apace, however, and Peter admits that the speed at which things move can be breathtaking.
“Every year, there are huge changes,” he says. “The technology is moving at an incredible rate. In just a few years really we’ve gone from the main gaming system being floppy disks in home computers to consoles etc and we’re already at mobile phones in the pocket. Smart phones will only continue to get more powerful and it won’t be long until you’re wearing your computer: sunglasses that project the image into your retina, that sort of thing.”
With the number of people playing games growing just as rapidly as the technology changes, we’ve gone from a world where parents’ main concern was the content of the computer games their children were playing to one where the parents themselves are just as likely to be discussing Angry Birds or the latest app game they’ve been tackling outside the school gates. So where next?
Peter feels that the current trend towards ‘clouds’, multi-device gaming and such is still far too messy and nonsensical to those not necessarily already embedded in the technology, but that it’s only a matter of time before these interactions and connections become smoother. He also believes it’s about time the UK took control of its own destiny and began to make the most of its potential.
“Britain has creativity in its DNA,” he says. “We’ve always been incredible at innovating and creating. I blame the weather, which means that this year should be a great one! The chief creative officer behind Apple’s iPhone is British and that really doesn’t surprise me.
“As a people, we have a tendency to think, ‘wow, I wonder how I could make that work’, rather than ‘it will never happen’. The only thing as a culture we need to improve on is exploiting our ideas. You see it all the time, with the Americans, Germans, Japanese and Chinese coming in to take over something that had its grass roots in Britain.”
He uses the example of a friend who has moved over to San Francisco. Chatting with some mates one day, apparently he mentioned a business idea he’d had. The friends liked the idea and suggested they start a company together. A couple of months later, the business was worth millions.
We’ve all been there but how often has another bottle of wine just been cracked open and the idea forgotten? Perhaps it’s time to hide that bottle opener…
- For more details on Peter Molyneux’s latest projects, visit www.22cans.com
How to move forward in the computer gaming industry...
Peter Molyneux shares his thoughts
- Get good grades at college or university. Go for something specific – i.e. be a programmer, artist etc rather than taking something generic – and try and couple this with work experience or creating your own ideas outside the course.
- Launch your own ideas. It’s easier now than when I launched Bullfrog to devise your own product and get it out there with something like a phone app or social media like Facebook.
- Alternatively, join a small start-up company like mine at 22 Cans and learn as you go. Being in a small creative environment can mean that you are thrown in the deep end sometimes, but that can often be the best place to learn.