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A business simulator that’s also a business
Game developer Peter Molyneux is known for his groundbreaking “god games” Populous and Black And White, for the classic roleplaying series Fable, and for a chaotic crowdfunding campaign that involved asking people to tap a mysterious cube that might make them a god inside a game that has now been in Steam Early Access for eight years. As of this weekend, you can add one more item to the list: NFT game developer.
On Saturday in Las Vegas, Molyneux announced a partnership with cryptocurrency gaming platform Gala Games. Gala and Molyneux’s development company 22Cans will work together to launch Legacy, a management game that Molyneux first announced in 2019. As explained in a blog post, Legacy will incorporate a new digital currency called LegacyCoin (on the Ethereum blockchain) and players will join the game by buying a non-fungible token, or NFT, called “Land.” Once they join, they can form a business in the game, build a town around that business, and compete or cooperate with other players to increase their LegacyCoin funds. It’s supposed to sit in the same broad “play to earn” genre as the better-known Axie Infinity but with the kinds of moral choices and management systems for which Molyneux is known.
Molyneux is probably the most accomplished developer to make a serious foray into crypto gaming, although publishers like Ubisoft have launched NFT sales for cosmetic items. But over the past decade, he also became known for making huge undelivered promises around the crowdfunded title Godus, retreating briefly from the public eye in 2015 after a Rock Paper Shotgun interviewer suggested he was a “pathological liar.” (Among other things, Godus was supposed to share its profits with a player who was declared its god — something that didn’t happen.) He’s either an odd fit or the perfect fit for NFT gaming, a sector that’s often described as overhyped.
Just before Gala announced it would be launching Legacy, I spoke with Molyneux via Zoom about his new effort. I was curious how a developer known for fine-tuned fantasy worlds would apply his ethos to a game that people would be playing for real money or possibly even as a full-time real-world job. I was curious what the game was about, since the description seemed to promise a complicated fusion of business sim and city management. And above all, I was curious what a blockchain actually added to the experience. The answers were intriguing — if not always illuminating.
Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I watched a trailer, and I wanted to make sure I understood the parts of the game. It seems like there’s a city building component, then there’s also a section where you have a business and you’re trying to make things for that. And then you’re also selling those things in auctions or contests against the other players.
You’ve just done the whole job for me! When I first thought of Legacy, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to do a game which made everyone feel creative? But the problem with creativity, I always find, is that I am totally incompetent when it comes to drawing or painting or singing or writing music or gardening or almost anything. And so what we would need is a game that really helps you be creative.
What I came up with is, wouldn’t it be a great idea to have a game which is about starting your own little business? And there was this tradition that still exists in today’s world, which is that manufacturing businesses used to be centered around little towns and those towns used to grow into cities because of the manufacturing. And that’s where the city building comes in, because you are responsible for designing all the products that you and your business is going to sell. You’re responsible for getting all the commodities that those design products need, and you’re responsible for winning the design competitions that go on between you and the other players.
But really, I don’t think that’s enough. You know, it’s not enough just to have a city builder. It’s not enough just to have this amazing design table where you can design any product, where you can design any building that your city builder is going to use. What we also need is a fantastic narrative. So through all of this is this amazing narrative story which adapts itself to what you’re doing in your town, what’s going on in the bigger ecosystem, and you know, the tragedies or successes that your business has.
An item creation table in Legacy.
We’ve got these things we’re calling events where you win something called LegacyCoin. We’ve got these events that pit you against those other players, and we’ve got the most advanced simulation that I have ever been involved with. There are moral choices and the narrative storyline really picks at those moral choices.
So you know, what sort of business are you going to run? Are you going to be a really nice boss, or you’re going to worry about the environment? You’re going to worry about your workers? That’s fine, do that, absolutely. But are you going to make as much money as the evil bastard that’s going to push the workers and, you know, perhaps not give them free time, that doesn’t really care about pollution? What we’ve got is a game that encompasses all of that within blockchain gaming. And for me, you know, I think it’s those sort of big steps forward that blockchain gaming needs.
What does blockchain do and LegacyCoin do for the kind of narrative and moral choices you’re talking about and the feeling of creativity you want to capture?
Well, the first thing to mention is that because you are competing against other players and those other players are using blockchain that they are using everything that blockchain gives us, it enables us to compare those players in a really interesting way. And you know, are you going to be someone that gives back, or are you going to be someone who just cashes out? And that’s what’s so fascinating about having a living world.
And I think as a living world, it’s totally unique. You know, every building you design, every product you design, every worker that you’ve got. So we’ve got this unbelievable simulation, this incredible narrative we weave through the game. We’ve got moral choices in there and competing against each other, all within this totally new world, which is, of course, exactly what blockchain is all about.
You could do all the things you were describing with just a normal game database. Why is blockchain specifically important?
The first thing is that — you have to earn the right — but you can create your own blockchain items from within Legacy. Let’s say you create a factory where your product is going to be made, and that building can look as crazy as you want it to look. All depending on the blocks that you unlock. But the cool thing is, that building, those workers, your whole world is gaining unique experience depending on how your game is progressing. And that is embedded into the item. So you could make this factory, you could use it for 100 hours or however long it is, and then you could put that building up on the blockchain itself. I mean, that’s pretty incredible.
Is the idea of a real-money economy supposed to be playing into the game’s theme? It seems like it adds an interesting dimension to the moral choices — like, it will actually cost you money in the real world if you want to be a moral boss.
This is a real incentive, of course — if you’re playing the game, if you’re doing well, if you’re earning points, that can be converted into real-world money.
The blockchain gaming experiences that I’ve had so far — and I won’t name any names — just seem to forget about the game entirely, and it just becomes far more of a mechanic about making money and less about your game. I think we have to have, you know, signature unique titles just like any revolution that has happened within the games industry.
And it is, yes, it is absolutely about ownership, but it’s also about consequences — because when you’re playing the game, we are measuring those moral consequences within the narrative.
Say that people start playing your game and they start making enough money that it becomes like Axie Infinity, where it’s people’s full-time job. But there is some kind of decision you have to make with gameplay that’s going to make something drastically less profitable and change the economy. How do you balance the fact that that’s going to affect people’s real livelihoods?
Well, that’s exactly what we’re working on at the moment — when you’ve got a complex simulation, what you’ve got to do is, you’ve got to get the balance and refinements absolutely right. We’ve got all the features in the game, and what we now are doing is balancing the simulation so that it doesn’t ever tilt to one side in extreme.
What happens if, say, players find some kind of workaround that lets them make a bunch of money and are essentially scamming the game — and they need that money because this is their job now, but it makes the whole game less fun. What do you do in that circumstance?
Careful monitoring and, you know, self-balancing mechanics. We’re going to have to see how the world reacts to little changes. It would be amazing for me — I mean, I’ve worked on so many designs and I’ve worked on so many games, but to think that someone could be playing my game and earning money, what an incredible honor that would be to have. But we’re going to have to be super careful.
How much is your design based on a sort of understanding of real-life economics and how much of it is, for lack of a better word, creative?
Well, you know, I learned this lesson when I did a game called Theme Park and another game called Theme Hospital, and the temptation is to be inspired by what happens in the real world. The economics of running a theme park. The economics of running a hospital. That is the temptation. But the whole core of those games is: if the logic of what you’re doing gets in the way of the game, I think you should resist the temptation. I mean, I wouldn’t like to ever go to a hospital that was inspired by Theme Hospital, and I definitely wouldn’t want to go to a theme park that was designed by Theme Park.
I want people to imagine, not the reality of running a business, but more the reality of playing a business.
Is it fair to describe Legacy as a game where you are building and running a company town?
Yeah, that is. If you want to see a perfect example of this, if you look at Bournville, there’s this company called Bournville Chocolate. And when they founded the company, they founded it and paid people in Bournville Chocolate tokens. They built all the houses for the people to live in, they built all the schools. So everybody in Bournville was employed by the chocolate factory, and that is the real inspiration. If you look at something like China, I know a lot of the Chinese companies, the owners of the companies design the houses for the workers to live in. So even in today’s modern world, there are examples of it.
Especially in America, “company town” has a pretty negative connotation. It’s seen as being synonymous with companies controlling the lives of their workers and making it hard for them to leave. Is that intentional?
Well, I’m not saying that my monthly trips to Redmond up at [former employer] Microsoft were any inspiration. You’re never quite sure where inspiration comes from, but it certainly felt a little bit like that. You know, everyone, you went to the gym and everyone in the gym, you know, worked for Microsoft. And you know, I’m English, so going into the changing room and then being naked in front of any human being is just a deep, terrifying thing. And that was even more terrifying when you realize there’s [former Microsoft CEO] Steve Ballmer over in the corner and there’s someone else over there and you know, you realize that, “Oh my god, I’m part of this family.”
It’s one thing if you’re Steve Ballmer, but I think that it’s just a term that if I mention it, a lot of people are going to think: this game is really dystopian. And I’m wondering if that’s a fair read of it or if that’s not the way that you mean for it to be interpreted.
I want to give you the absolute ability to make the perfect town, to make sure all the workers are completely happy, that they’ve got, you know, cafes and cinemas and schools. All of this happens within the game, you know, people get married and they have kids and they need to go to school. I want you to have the power to do that.
But I want you to also realize that with that power, there are consequences to that. Your business may not be as successful as my business. Because it’s a simulation, I can approach this in a completely different way. I can say, “No, I don’t want to build cafes and cinemas. I want to build another factory.” There’s a full pollution simulation in the game, so if you build lots of factories close together, you’ll notice all the trees around it will start withdrawing, that more workers will have really bad coughs. There’s a whole range and that’s what’s so fascinating.
I’ve been obsessed with that for almost two decades now — I have been obsessed with giving people the freedom to make that choice. What I’ve been working on for years now is to tempt you to be good or to tempt you to be bad, but not to force you down any of those dystopian ways. What’s going to be fascinating about this, especially because it’s in the blockchain world, is to see actually what people do.
One of the promises of blockchain gaming is that people’s items can “live” outside the game. Say someone creates a thing and mints it as an NFT, and for whatever reason you decide to shut down the game and it’s not playable anymore. Is there something that happens so it’s still available in some fashion?
That’s a really good question. I have no idea of the answer, to be completely frank.
But what I am immensely proud of is if you make something in your world and you then trade it to someone else, that item that you make, whether it be a building, whether it be a worker, will carry with it all the benefits that you imbued in it. And I think that’s what’s really exciting for me is that the things you acquire on the blockchain will make your world a better place. If you take a worker and you put that worker to work in a mine, over time, that worker will become an expert miner. And then if you take the worker and put him to work in the pub as a landlord, he’ll become an expert landlord / miner. And that sort of experience flows through the whole of Legacy. It’s an all-connected system.
I’m still just kind of trying to figure out what blockchain does for this beyond the real-money economy, because all the stuff you’re describing, you could just make a central database and you could just fill that database with the items. Like, there’s no reason it seems like it needs to use a decentralized cryptocurrency ledger.
Except for the fact that what you don’t want to happen is what happened in Diablo, because they had exactly that. They had a central database. People could craft things and put them up and what ended up happening was you had this tidal wave of complete… well, I’m not going to say dross, but I just did. Which totally unbalanced what should have been at its heart a really delightful system.
The great thing about blockchain is it gives it a certain sense of — I’m going to use honesty, because I think it’s the best thing. To put something up is going to cost you LegacyCoin, and that LegacyCoin means that this marketplace won’t be spammed. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is just to go back to remember what I first said, that Legacy is a game that makes you feel creative. Now, the fact that you feel creative is great. You know, I love spaghetti Bolognese or a beautiful picture. But if no one ever sees it, if no one ever buys it, then you know, you might as well not have done it.
The fact that your design has gone on to be seen and appreciated by other people that make money is, I think, the big thing. That’s in addition to the fact that this is blockchain gaming and people can make money while playing a business simulation.
Are Godus and Godus Wars ever coming out of Steam Early Access?
I’d love to bring them out of Early Access, I’d love for there to be a happy ending to the Godus story. I mean, we have got a team that’s dedicated to Godus working at 22Cans. They’re super excited. Before Christmas, we are announcing our first new set of features for Godus in almost two years and that should be coming out before Christmas. I just hope that I’m not going to be killed to death for saying that, but that is coming out. So I’d love, you know — in a perfect world, yes, I’d love that.