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Broken Promises: Peter Molyneux, Godus, and the Pitfalls of Crowd-Funding

Giving your money to a developer early isn't always the best idea.

Editorial by Mike Williams, .

People are pretty mad at Peter Molyneux today.

It started a few days ago when Rock, Paper, Shotgun's John Walker noted that the development of Godus wasn't heading in the right direction. The game was promised as a spiritual successor to Populous, a game Molyneux himself had designed long ago. Godus was Kickstarted at the end of 2012 and at the time, developer 22Cans stated that the game would require "seven to nine months to complete." Fans pushed the total funding to £526,563, just above the original goal of £450,000.

A current look at Godus, via the Steam Community page.

Fast-forward to 2015 and Godus is still on Steam Early Access. There are 4,275 reviews of the Early Access version and only 38 percent are positive. Key developers have left the Godus team and the game is now in the hands of designer Konrad Naszynski, who slowly worked his way onto the 22Cans team simply to fix Godus. In Naszynski's frank estimation, many of the features promised on the Kickstarter page, like multiplayer mode or the persistent Hubworld, may not ever come to pass.

In an article today, our sister site Eurogamer talked to the player for whom Godus was supposed to be life changing, the winner of Molyneux' Curiosity. That young man has seen nothing from the game and 22Cans stopped contacting him only a few months into Godus' development. To cap everything off, Molyneux has already turned his attention to another game, The Trail. The veteran designer admitted recently that he wouldn't do Kickstarter at the beginning of the development process again.

A community update with the new designer of Godus.

"What I've learned is that doing Kickstarter and Steam Early Access, before you've got something which is defined and playable, is a hugely risky undertaking that can be very destructive to the final quality of the game," Molyneux told TechRadar. "There's this overwhelming urge to over-promise because it's such a harsh rule: if you're one penny short of your target then you don't get it. And of course in this instance, the behaviour is incredibly destructive, which is 'Christ, we've only got 10 days to go and we've got to make £100,000, for f**k's sake, lets just say anything'. So I'm not sure I would do that again."

Business As Usual

Project Ego didn't deliver what was promised.

What that statement doesn't cover is this is pretty standard for Molyneux. Back when Fable was Project Ego, Molyneux and Big Blue Box promised a sprawling game in which every choice mattered and was reflected on your character and the world. With other heroes are also vying to complete the quests you were undertaking and the ability to carve your name on any tree and come back years later to find your ancient writing. What we got was ultimately a great little action RPG, but it was far from what Molyneux promised. He acknowledged that himself when the game launched.

He's made similar promises with Theme Park, Theme Hospital, Syndicate Wars, and The Movies; pretty much everything he's worked on. That's Molyneux' standard operating procedure. Why? One theory put forward in a Kotaku interview with Molyneux and former co-workers is he simply dreams bigger than he can build.

The difference with Godus is Molyneux made those promises using the money of potential players.

Their Vision, Your Money

Crowdfunding, whether through Steam Early Access, KickStarter, IndieGogo, or direct funding, is a risk. Game development is a crazy risk and in the past, that risk has been borne by large publishers or the developers themselves. This is why EA, Ubisoft, and Activision stick to sequels and established names. They're safer than jumping into the deep end with a brand-new project.

Kickstarter and Early Access can deliver.

Crowdfunding has been a plus for game development, allowing smaller projects and lost genres a seat at the table. Pillars of Eternity is Obsidian's love letter to the old Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale games; it's releasing in March. Larian's Divinity: Original Sin is already out and aims at a similar niche. InXile's Wasteland 2, Hardbrained Schemes' Shadowrun, Yacht Club Games' Shovel Knight, Subset's FTL, and Failbetter's recently-released Sunless Sea are all a testament to the power of the Kickstarter and Early Access. The Oculus Rift wouldn't exist without Kickstarter. Crowdfunding connects developers with fervent fans, sometimes to the tune of millions in cases like Chris Roberts' Star Citizen.

The problem is using backer funding doesn't change the reality of game development. It takes time, ideas fall by the wayside, and some projects simply don't cross the finish line. Here's the cold, hard truth: only one in three Kickstarter games and one in four Steam Early Access games are delivered as promised. That's the gamble publishers have had to deal with for years, passed on to the player. Making a working game and fulfilling the promise of a specific vision can take years; not every developer is cut out to make it happen.

Yogventures, the Kickstarted title based on the popular Yogscast, was cancelled last year. Clang, a sword-fighting game made with input from author Neal Stephenson, never materialized. One Early Access title, Under the Ocean, was removed from Steam after the only programmer left the project.

Double Fine has left Spacebase behind.

Even solid developers can trip up. Double Fine released Act 1 of Broken Age, the resulting game from its Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter, as promised, but Act 2 was delayed until early this year. The studio launched SpaceBase DF-9 on Steam Early Access with big plans behind it, but a year later it moved the game to full release. Fans were angry about the game moving from alpha to release without promised features, and in response, Double Fine's Tim Schafer simply stated that, "Spacebase spends more money than it brings in, and that's just not something we can afford to do any more."

Protect Yourself

In response to high-profile failures, Kickstarter updated its Terms of Use and Valve updated the developer guidelines for Steam Early Access. Even with these changes, you're still gambling with your money when you back a project on either platform. You're stating that you have enough faith in a developer or idea to potentially see that money burned away in a puff of smoke. This is the same judgment call you make when you pre-order a game.

When you pony up that $5, $10, $20, or $60, make sure you're ready to take a chance that the final product may disappoint. Until you've read a review, seen a Twitch stream of the final product, or watched a YouTube look, you have very little idea of what you're getting into. A developer will say things during development that they may not deliver on. Sometimes development gets ahead of them, sometimes they embellish features, and sometimes they're simply lying. We here are USgamer will do our best to prevent you spending your money on tilting windmills, but you need to protect yourself as well.

Before you click that button, ask yourself if you're willing to part with that money for good. If not, you might be better off waiting.

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Comments 20

  • Avatar for Ralek #1 Ralek 2 years ago
    "Broken Promises: Peter Molyneux [...]"

    That much we already knew, it's just what he does. Do not take him at his word ever, he may not intentionally mislead people all the time, but clearly - at the very least - his ability to manage his own expectations is as highly developed as his ability to not always speak his mind. In that regard he seems to be about 6 or 7 year old.
    In a way it is endearing to see him getting excited for something, he himself might very well believe will come to pass, but we have to take everything he says with an ocean of salt, because historically it's just good sense to do so.
    Support any of his ideas or projects with upfront money is just nothing short of complete lunacy. There is no reason to assume anything he ever says has any basis in reality whatsoever.

    Other than that, I certainly agree that anyone putting money down on KS, EA or whatever should take a moment of weighing risk vs reward, before making a final decision. Being prepared to loose that money, meaning not getting what you were promised (and really expecting, because noone on KS is buying just into someone else idea, but always also their own), should be common sense. Spare yourself the grief you might otherwise suffer, and spend your money on something more tangible!
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #2 CK20XX 2 years ago
    I wonder if this will be the nadir of Peter's career. I mean, I never thought his showmanship and overambition would end in him cheesing off an actual god. I'm kinda wondering when a flash game will show up on Newgrounds or Kongregate that allows Bryan Henderson to smite Peter with lightning.
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  • Avatar for touchofkiel #3 touchofkiel 2 years ago
    @Ralek Agreed, Ralek. The idea of Kickstarter for a Molyneaux game sounds idiotic, and people should just know better. Obviously WHO you're backing is just as important as the game itself.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #4 metalangel 2 years ago
    Molyneux's a complete charlatan who has been coasting on his reputation, somehow, given he's been doing so longer than he was actually producing the good games that built it. Nothing post-Bullfrog has ever lived up to the ludicrous promises and lofty goals he's boasted about. Unfortunately, the UK games press loves a homegrown hero and keeps giving him column inches whenever he opens his mouth.

    Remember Milo & Kate? And how he insisted it was all real and AI driven, and certainly not nothing more than an elaborate cinematic sequence controlled by a large team of technicians to ensure the on-screen character responded appropriately to the human player?

    Even leaving him aside, we have other crowdfunded guff like Elite: Dangerous which still feels like a tech demo rather than a finished product, or Project Zomboid which has been in development for over half a decade and sells for only slightly less than the far more finished, nicer looking State of Decay.
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  • Avatar for nickn #5 nickn 2 years ago
    It's disappointing that he has never really delivered on his dreams. I played Dungeon Keeper, Black and White and Fable. I enjoyed all of them and have supported Molyneux for years. Sure he didn't accomplish what he promised but he dreamed big. If enough developers dream big, some will manage to innovate in ways that push the industry forward.

    I think there are worse things in the industry than Peter Molyneux falling short.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #6 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    I would never pay for anything designed by Molyneux until I'd seen reviews. But I wouldn't say he's a charlatan, he simply over-promises. Seems foolish to give money to him or any other developer when you have no guarantee of getting anything back.

    But as@nickn says, its all important that we have people with big dreams. Without them we'll just be stuck shooting zombies forever.
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  • Avatar for Ohoni #7 Ohoni 2 years ago
    If nothing else, this will hopefully make gamers more appreciative of the role publishers play. "Why did they make this game?" "Why did they cancel development on this game?" Well the answer is because they thought it made sense. Publishers are making the same gambles that Kickstarter backers are making, only instead of mostly $30 or less investments, they are investing millions based on claims of what the game will eventually be, and they have to decide whether those claims will pan out. I contribute to the occasional Kickstarter, but I rarely commit more than a few bucks, certainly not a full advance game purchase, because it's just way too early to judge whether the game will eventually be worth it.
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  • Avatar for monketo #8 monketo 2 years ago
    @nickn I agree, I never thought Molyneux to be the snake oil salesman some people make him out to be. I've logged many hours in some of his games, he's a good developer who aims high. It just seems to always exceed his grasp somehow.
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  • Avatar for Mikki-Saturn #9 Mikki-Saturn 2 years ago
    The way I look at Kickstarter, and the way I would encourage others to look at Kickstarter, is as a system for patronizing the arts. Your Kickstarter donation (and mine) is exactly what it says - a donation. A gift. Not a purchase or a preorder.

    It's like donating to the local art museum - I probably have some idea what the planned exhibits are for the next year, but I don't really know how they will turn out. But that's not the point - the point is that I want an art museum in my city so I'm giving them money any way.

    Similarly, games have reached a point where the official industry fails to deliver what is needed, so the ordinary consumer (in addition to wealthy investors) has to fill that gap. Although certainly I choose projects to back based on how interesting the pitch is, at the end of the day what I really ask myself is "Do the people making this game seem legit?" Are they qualified and passionate and are they the sort of people I want to see more of in this industry? Because no matter what the intentions and plans are for a developer things can happen, and it's basically impossible to know if the project will turn out exactly as planned, on time, on budget, etc. In fact, you can probably assume that it definitely WON'T. But as long as you as a donor recognize that your money is providing a specific group of people with an opportunity, then it's impossible for the donation to be wasted.
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  • Avatar for Spectreman #10 Spectreman 2 years ago
    I think Godus is okish. Don't reach all the objectives but is something that would occur too if the game was not crowd funding. Is part of risk.
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  • Avatar for duvjones #11 duvjones 2 years ago
    Peter aside (because as I stated else where, the entire situation that Peter himself as cased is just gross feeling)... That is something that needs to be stated more and more.

    I get the feeling that unless you have been watching games rise and fall with kickstarter (or have experience with crowd funding), quite a few people go into KS (and other sites like it) like some do Gamestop/EB games...
    That is to say that they think something on Kickstarter amounts to a game pre-order (which is another practise in the industry that I don't like). Which it doesn't, there are risks involved... you might never see the money that you invested into a game return to you (or the game itself).

    With that kind of reality missing for the minds of most backers, something like this happens. And for every time that this happens, kickstarter looks all the worse for it. And as noted, a similar poisoning has been happening around Steam's Early Access...
    It is why the two services updated the Terms of Use a few months back, they got caught holding the bag of discontent one too many times. Still, the fact remains that this reality, the fact that even when offered... you are NOT promised a game, not as described or maybe not at all, needs to be said more.Edited February 2015 by duvjones
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  • Avatar for hal9k #12 hal9k 2 years ago
    It's an interesting issue, and the "buyer beware" advice from many posters seems prudent. Obviously I'm in no position to pass moral judgement on Molyneux, but I would question his commitment to the project. I don't think I've played one of his games since Populous so I don't have any stake in this discussion. However, I'd argue that when you donate to something like a museum, the people managing the museum are obligated to put in their best effort to keep the place running and not leave the exhibition space half empty.

    I think the worst part of this story is that Molyneux has already moved on to a new game when it seems that Godus is far from finished. It reminds me of an uncle of mine who was always tinkering with new home improvement projects without finishing the previous work. He ended up with scaffolding around his house for 2 years, irate neighbors, and an unhappy family. It's just not a responsible way to conduct a venture.
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  • Avatar for Nazo #13 Nazo 2 years ago
    I think in a lot of cases Kickstarters are well-intentioned and ultimately fail for honest reasons but from following the Godus debacle it seems pretty clear that wasn't the case at all.

    I don't believe they ever had any intention of making the game they promised. They mislead people in order to get funding to make a game that was the polar opposite of what people wanted and thought they were getting.

    I wish gaming sites would stop perpetuating this myth of the over-ambitious dreamer. Perhaps that was true once but I think he's now become something much more sinister.
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  • Avatar for docexe #14 docexe 2 years ago
    Mmmm… I think some people are too quick to vilify Peter Molyneux these days. It’s understandable given how many times he has overpromised and under-delivered, but I’m still unwilling to go the length of calling him a charlatan or something along those lines.

    Over-ambitious dreamers do exist, I have worked with one. Based on that experience (which for a control freak like me was genuinely maddening), it seems to me that there is not so much genuine malice in Molyneux actions, but rather, that he suffers from a severe lack of discipline. It’s something that seems to happen a lot with some types of creative people: Some of them genuinely need someone to keep tabs on them (name it an editor, a publisher, a manager, a business partner, etc.) to prevent them from burning the house while they pursue their next crazy creative scheme.

    In any case, this was a good read and great advice at the end. Crowdfunding has pros and cons, and these platforms do have delivered some great games. But like anything else related to game development, they are a gamble. The audience needs to be cognizant that just like they can end with something big, they can also end empty-handed.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #15 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    Giving ANY money to Molyneux is a bad idea.

    Give it to like, any other dev. Any of them instead.
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  • Avatar for Ohoni #16 Ohoni 2 years ago
    Well look, it's not a black or white issue. On the one hand, yes, Molyneux always overprices and never delivers on more than 75% or so of what he promised. That's pretty lame. On the other hand though, that 75% is still better than most similar games on the market. I mean the Fables games were all short of what they possibly could be, but were fantastic games worth playing and replaying.

    So yeah, it's not a good idea to invest in his work until you can touch and taste it, but he isn't a complete fraud, he does produce great games.
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #17 CK20XX 2 years ago
    I wouldn't call Peter a liar as the recent Rock Paper Shotgun interview did, but I'm hard-pressed to defend any of his recent work, including the Fable series. One of his main problems is that he doesn't have a mind for engineering, or at least he doesn't anymore. Fable could have been a respectable series instead of earning a reputation as an empty and pointless one if only development had been spent more on ironing out game balance issues and whatnot. Instead it tried to give us choice, and in doing that it tried to do too much and ultimately collapsed under its own weight. Games like Minecraft and Animal Crossing seem to capture the living world aesthetic much more effectively than anything Peter Molyneux has produced, and I don't think he's tried to learn from them or even other relative failures like Spore.

    The problem isn't so much that Peter is a liar, but that he hasn't a shred of practicality about him. He's kinda like George Broussard, the infamous producer of Duke Nukem Forever; he needs other people to establish limits on what he can do so his projects don't go down in flames. What's his obsession with gods and god games, anyway? Why doesn't he try making a normal game for once?
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  • Avatar for clearancesticker17 #18 clearancesticker17 2 years ago
    @Ralek I give you a plus and "agree."
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  • Avatar for docexe #19 docexe 2 years ago
    @CK20XX Yep. That’s the way I see it as well: It's not that these over ambitious dreamers are charlatans, is that they shouldn’t be allowed to run their own studios. Somebody else should do the managerial part for them and put limits in place. As much as creative people dislike having a bean counter looking over their shoulders, sometimes the level of structure they provide is necessary.
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  • Avatar for pennybags #20 pennybags 2 years ago
    If you want to know what you're getting, buy finished products, and don't invest in Kickstarters. These people have only themselves to blame.
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