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Playing God

Molyneux Finds Inspiration in Man's Relationship With God

April 12, 2001

Peter Molyneux cranks out quirky games that defy conventional labels. Molyneux made a name for himself in 1989 with "Populous," a genre-defining game that allowed players to rule an empire. "Populous" has sold 4 million copies, making it one of the 10 best-selling titles of all time.

Molyneux recently released "Black & White," a game that took more than three years to make. Published by Electronic Arts Inc., "Black & White" lets each player assume the role of a god in the world of Eden. The player controls a creature that, through advanced artificial intelligence programming, "learns" from the player. The creature either strikes terror throughout Eden or protects its population, depending on whether the player chooses to be a benevolent deity or an evil one.

Molyneux recently discussed his approach to making "Black & White."

Q: How did the idea for Black & White come about?

Four years ago, we set up our company, Lionhead Studios. There were four of us in a room, asking: Why are we doing this? The reason was to do the best we could possibly do. The ambition scared everyone to death. Our main objective was to create something that hasn't been created before. We had a clean slate--a new company, a new team. There were no legacies to live up to. We came up with a mix of top-notch [artificial intelligence] and game play. It was the idea that there is something alive inside your computer, and combining it with drop-dead-gorgeous graphics in a way that anyone can play.

Q: Your games tend to have religious overtones. Why is that?

I find mankind's whole system of belief to be a fascinating thing. What people do in the name of God is both incredible and frightening. The fact that religion has been a central part of man since the dawn of time, I find fascinating. There was a religious festival in India where people bathed themselves in the Ganges River. There was one chap who spent years standing on one leg. He decided that wasn't good enough, so he spent the next three years holding a sign up at the same time without putting his arms down for one second. It's the way that man can interpret fairly simple rules in the most bizarre ways that I find so fascinating.

Q: How did you incorporate religion into Black & White?

Because you play the role of a god, you must get people to believe in you. If no one believes in you, you don't exist. The thing in the game that is judging whether you are being good or evil, kind or cruel isn't an [artificial intelligence] routine. It's what the little people in the game see that determines your standing in their world.

Q: How did you engineer guilt into the game?

You can't evoke guilt without forming a relationship there in the first place. So the first thing in the game is to make sure you have a relationship with the world so that you care about the things you come into contact with. Most of the guilt is focused around the creature. At one point, your creature is kidnapped. It happened because you wanted to move on, so you've engineered the situation. It was fairly easy to think those things up. There are times the creature felt like a pet. Other times, it felt like a child, so you'd feel guilty for disciplining it.

Q: The original game was designed to have human creatures, as opposed to the animals that are in the final game. Why did you abandon the idea of having human creatures?

When we got our first human in the game, I knew within five minutes we couldn't have humans. Rewarding and punishing an animal creature is one thing. But doing it to a human is another thing entirely. It brings up all kinds of connotations. We couldn't allow stroking, for example. You can imagine people straightaway would totally read the wrong things into it. Another reason was technological. With a human, I wanted to talk to them and have them talk back to me. They would seem so dumb if they couldn't talk. But we don't have the ability to make them converse intelligently.

Q: The game is slated to have an open architecture, allowing players to create their own worlds and creatures. How will you prevent people from creating human creatures?

With any tools you put in the public domain, you run the risk of people abusing those tools. The only thing we can do is have an approval process before players can have access to those tools. Any content will need approval. That's about the only way we can guard against it. On the other hand, it's almost impossible to stop.

Q: You had the idea of selling some games in white boxes and others in black boxes. The white boxes would sell for $5 more, and the difference would go to charity. Why was that plan scrapped?

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