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Peter Molyneux’s long trail back to PC games

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Peter Molyneux is a legendary game designer, creator of the first “god game” and maker of hits such as Populous, Black & White, and Fable. He took a lot criticism from Internet haters a few years ago for over-hyping games that hadn’t shipped yet. So he dropped out of sight.

But he didn’t stop making games. Now his 22cans studio in the United Kingdom is about to ship The Trail: Frontier Challenge for the PC. Kongregate will publish it August 16 on Steam for $15. It’s a beefed-up version of The Trail, a mobile game that 22cans released last fall. And Molyneux is back to talking with press because he said his former pledge to stop doing interviews was “childish.”

The important thing, he said, is that he doesn’t want to hype games that are a long way from shipping. But he agreed to talk to us about The Trail: Frontier Challenge because it’s ready. Molyneux said he is proud Trail and his team and how Kongregate pushed his developers to be more ambitious about the kind of game that they were going to launch for the PC.

I found that Molyneux is still full of good stories to tell, like how he picked up a book at the San Francisco airport. Dubbed The Oregon Trail, he started reading it, and it inspired his new game.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: The Trail: Frontier Challenge has a lot more content than the mobile version.

Image Credit: Kongregate

GamesBeat: What’s the story behind The Trail and the new version for the PC?

Peter Molyneux: The history of The Trail is that we started it specifically for mobile, back about three years ago now. I had this idea. What would it be like to give you a game where you felt like you wanted to travel along and see what was over the next hill, around the next corner, what’s over this vast landscape? We built this thing for iOS and Android.

In the crazy way I work, the game evolved, and we started implementing some interesting mechanics, most notably around how it would feel if we centered the experience with you collecting things and finding things and making things and trading things. You did that not with the game characters, but instead with other people simultaneously, so everyone you met on The Trail was based on a real human being.

We liked that experience, but then we realized that as a player, you needed a destination. We did a good job of enabling you to explore the landscape and collect stuff and trade stuff, but you needed a destination. That’s when we realized that giving you the ability to set up and customize your own home and be part of a town – again, where the neighbors are other players, not game characters – and that town became the center focus of your gameplay, improving your town together with other players and making your town the best town there possibly could be.

That’s what The Trail ended up being, this delightful way of exploring and managing your backpack and crafting and collecting and trading with other players, doing all that in this really delicious way. When we finished that and released it on iOS and Android, tens of millions of people loved and enjoyed it. Lots of people still play it today.

Then I asked myself the question: what would it take to release this on PC? I realized two things almost immediately. The first was, there was this strangeness about The Trail. If you’re a gamer it may cause you to furrow your brow, because you didn’t have full control of your character. You couldn’t walk forward, choose to walk backward, turn around, go into the bushes. I wondered about that side of it. I also wondered whether the PC version needed more of a challenge, more ways of controlling and unlocking things in the game.

We went away, and on the PC version we implemented this enormous skill tree, which allows you to craft and become a specialist hunter or lumberjack or tailor. We’ve allowed you to unlock all these different skills. But at the heart of it you’re still managing your backpack, collecting things, crafting things. You’re still finding your town and customizing your town and going in on it like a clan in your town.

What we’ve ended up with is a game, I feel, is more like a PC game than a mobile game. It’s not a simple conversion. Almost every aspect of the game has changed to appeal to an audience that perhaps enjoys just paying once, rather than paying over time.

GamesBeat: Did you choose to move to the PC rather than try to keep updating the mobile game?

Molyneux: We’re still actively updating the mobile version. We’ll be releasing a mobile update in the next couple of weeks. It’s just that — I feel we could have released something on the PC much more quickly if we hadn’t made so many changes, but I think those changes have been worthwhile.

That’s how I feel about taking an experience from mobile to PC, and from PC to mobile. You do need to deeply think about what that audience would enjoy. The Trail on PC is far more challenging by nature. The flow of the game is completely changed, because I think that’s what the audience enjoys. It’s still very unique. When people get into the flow of collecting and traveling along this enormous trail and meeting other people, I think they’re going to enjoy it.

Above: The Trail has a retro art style, but it still aims to impress you with majestic vistas.

Image Credit: Kongregate

GamesBeat: What about even before this, the transition from Godus to The Trail? Back in 2015, Godus was successful, but it got you into a lot of arguments with the press and others in the industry. It seems like it was a difficult experience.

Molyneux: It was a difficult time, and it’s probably not a good idea to go into it in too much detail, but—at that time, and this is where it’s a slightly complex answer, we experimented with using Kickstarter, and we found that very challenging indeed. There were a lot of expectations from people just because of who I am. That led people to a lot of expectations, and there was a lot of naivete on our side as well.

When all the dust settled on that, I asked myself a simple question. Really, should I continue to be—I’d become a sort of spokesperson for the industry at that time. Every time something happened in the industry, the press would ask me for comment, and I think I realized that those days had to come to a close. I had to focus all my attention and ability on the job of running a studio, being a designer, and nowadays being a coder as well. That has been a real force for good in the end.

When you’re doing five different jobs, which I was then, it doesn’t let you focus on the important things. The important thing is authoring a game for an audience that will enjoy the experience. That’s a tough thing to do. It was a tough time back then, absolutely, and it took a lot of effort and stamina to get through that. But I’m super proud of The Trail and the people I work with here. We’ve worked hard together to—I wouldn’t say we’ve put Godus behind us, because it’s still ongoing even today. But I do think there was a time before Godus and a time after Godus, and those are two totally different worlds.

GamesBeat: Did you have to go through reassembling the team, or did you convince a lot of people to stay at the studio?

Molyneux: To be honest, I think there were some people that found it a very challenging time. There was a lot of focus on here. But I would say more than half the team stuck through and is still here today. I’m a fan of refreshing the team. We’re going through a process now of recruiting people for a new project we’re working on. I like the idea of having fresh blood in there. That’s no bad thing.

But when that all happened it was a very distressing time for everyone who worked here. A few other studios have gone through a similar sort of thing. People like Hello Games. What people don’t realize is that people put their heart and soul into things, and they’re just human. It was definitely a time that I wouldn’t choose to have again. But that being said, like a baptism of fire, you learn a lot about yourself and about the people you work with.

Above: 22cans has adapted its mobile game The Trail to Steam.

Image Credit: Kongregate

GamesBeat: This experience now seems a bit more multidimensional. It’s not just a straight path.

Molyneux: Definitely not. Some games work well as straight patches, but The Trail wasn’t one of those. For me it’s all about the audience and what the audience would enjoy. If you’re releasing on Steam, or more gamer-focused consoles, you have to think of re-crafting the experience for that audience. Nowadays, the conversion could have been done in two days. It’s all written in Unity. You press a button and you have it on the PC. That’s not the problem. The problem was, how can you take a gamer who’s used to playing first-person shooters or highly narrative-driven games and give them something they haven’t played before?

My answer was — it’s kind of a brave, kind of a slightly insane answer – is you have to take some things away from them so they can focus on something different. What we’ve taken is the need to — this was an absolute design choice. I could send you a version of The Trail where you can walk absolutely anywhere. But we chose — if we want people to focus on collecting and surviving and traveling, going forward, let’s just see what it would be like if we don’t allow them to walk backwards, but focus on the forward motion of the game.

In a way, focusing the game on picking things up and collecting the right things–there’s this backpack, a physics-based backpack, which I don’t think any game has done before, which is where a lot of the fun is. It was so tempting to have the PC game let you travel anywhere, but we decided to leave that out of the game, and instead layer in a lot of new mechanics like the skill tree, which didn’t exist in the mobile version. Every single campsite you come to in the game, every 10 minutes of gameplay, there’s a new challenge. A lot of those challenges are versus other players. It really comes across when you play it as something very different.

GamesBeat: How did you try to contain the project into something you could pull off?

Molyneux: That’s exactly the thing. It’s such a tempting problem for someone like me, to go and say, “Well, let’s model the whole of North America and allow people to travel anywhere.” That’s why the other people on the team are so incredibly important. They quite often reel back my very insane ambitions. But normally I’m not that crazy.

A lot of people on the team can cost your design. We have someone who started here about two years ago, Jennifer Clixby. She worked with me at Lionhead. She’s fantastic at costing out all these features. A lot of our processes, we have these unbridled brainstorm sessions – I just walked out of one on the project we’re working on now. You can suggest everything from cows jumping over the moon to modeling entire universes.

From those brainstorming sessions, those are then stripped. The coders and the artists turn around and say, “Lovely idea, but it’s going to take more time than we have left in our lives to do this.” Hopefully that doesn’t happen too often, but it’s such an important thing. When you have an ideas guy like me, you don’t just need the ideas guy. You need a team around you that’s used to these incredible ideas, and used to giving the consequences of them.

Above: Peter Molyneux’s The Trail: Frontier Challenge is coming to Steam.

Image Credit: Kongregate

GamesBeat: Why did you choose The Trail’s Western theme?

Molyneux: The whole idea for the game came to me when I was in San Francisco airport. The flight was late and there was a book in the Virgin lounge called The Oregon Trail. I don’t normally read books, but I started reading this book, about this incredible historic event and how hundreds of thousands people set off to try and find a route from the east coast to the west coast. They weren’t really quite sure what there was in the middle of America. And they survived by doing exactly what you do in The Trail. They survived by picking up what was around them, by making things to be able to progress forward.

I found that incredibly inspiring. I thought, “Maybe there’s a game idea there, where we could allow people to leave with nothing and end up settled somewhere and have that sense of pride of having gone on this fabulous journey, learned to craft and trade and build a house, and work together in this town.” What a fantastic idea for a game. And that was just because my flight was late in San Francisco airport.

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