Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Why We Owe the iPhone to Peter Molyneux

Of all the James Burke-y connections in this world, here's one that I had completely overlooked until recently. We owe almost every interface action we do on our smart phone to the most disappointing game of 2001. 

Allow me to elucidate.

In those heady, pre-9/11 days we gamed. Oh, how we gamed. We played Warcraft before there was a World thereof. We Commanded and we Conquered. We Duned too. We fought any number of AI and human opponents on a screen that represented only a small portion of the world map. And how did we move our little window to the world around? We either used shortcut keys, we clicked a mini-map or we maxed the mouse cursor against a screen edge and the view would magically shift to reveal more in that direction. 

This was completely normal.

Okay, quick. How do you move everything to the left (revealing things hidden to the right) on a smart phone screen? Answer: you hold and swipe left. Sooooooo.... how did that ever become a thing? When did the world start sticking to your finger? Personally, I think it started in March of 2001.

Here, take a sec and watch this video, starting at 6'17". This scene comes from the beginning of Black & White, a god simulator from Peter Molyneux's studio Lionhead.

Did you catch that? Drag the landscape around with the mouse to move. Anyone who grew up using a modern handheld device is saying "I know, right? Big deal." (Actually, nobody who grew up using a modern handheld device is reading a blog so I can probably be as demeaning to that demographic as I want.) Dragging to move is ubiquitous now but back in 2001 it actually took some getting used to. It was new. 

Okay, who cares, right? Well, I do. I have maligned this game since I realized that I blew $50 on a box full of empty promises, but this may actually have been the single more important interface design change of the decade. The iPhone wasn't released until June of 2007. I honestly cannot think of a game that did click and drag to move before Black & White and the whole iPhone experience is predicated on that action.

Okay, so P.Moly did something great. It isn't like he hadn't before. His former studio Bullfrog released Populous, Powermonger, Syndicate, Theme Park, Dungeon Keeper... he has been responsible for some amazing games. These are some of my favorites. 


In Black & White the execution just couldn't keep up with the vision.

You basically play a god in this game, but your primary presence on the earth is a giant monster that you train to be good or evil. They start out small and cute. 
You have to play quite a while before you even get to this
As you train them one way or another they start to take on the appearance of their training. Here, enjoy a picture of a good turtle.
I don't even remember how to get a turtle in the game
Likewise, an evil goat.
I don't remember how to get a goat either

The only problem is that the AI in this game was stooopid. I desperately wanted to think there was a complex system that I just couldn't understand, but in the end I gave that theory up with the realization that this was just a big disappointment.

Granted, it's easy to read intention into observations when you assume there is more depth than there actually is. It's like Eliza with violence.

Go read this:
I'm really hoping your reaction to that was, "Ummm. What?" because that's what a healthy adult should be thinking. That's because you realize that a video game tiger from 2001 does not have sacrificially altruistic motivation. It just has bad AI.

Now go back and read the rest of that entire site, Old Man Murray. The authors are the guys who wrote the script for Portal. I know you won't read it, but I had to try. 

There were other problems with the game.... infuriating design decisions like making you play through an excruciatingly long intro sequence if you want to restart the game with a different monster thingy. Oh, and it got boring fast once the novelty of watching the monster wore off or you chucked all the villagers with names from your Outlook address book into the ocean. (Yes, it read your Outlook address book and names villagers after your contacts. Funny, but a little creepy.)

In the years after abandoning actually playing the game, it has lived on. For years, my coworkers hid the B&W game CD / manual / box in each other's desks/cars/etc. I also have enjoyed torturing my children with the sailor song from B&W. Look it up.

Hyperbolic design claims are what got us the @PeterMolydeux twitter account, which is spot on satire.

On the plus side, B&W gave us the phrase "the fuzzy leash of compassion." I can't say I've ever said it in conversation.

You read the whole thing! Here's a bonus pic of Mr. Molyneux himself.
I can reduce all of human existence to three signed doubles and handful of bools.

And now here's a double bonus pic of John McCain watching a video of someone paying $50 at a Babbage's in the mall for a copy of Black & White in 2001. It might have been me.

Ouch. Right in the funds.