Peter Molyneux
Image: ACMI

Peter Molyneux has been called a lot of things during a career which has now spanned four decades, and as we sit down for our chat it's easy to tell he's keenly aware of his reputation. "This is the first press thing I’ve done in quite a long time, I think," he says, before thanking us for our patience and interest. Despite all the games he's been involved in and the level of fame he possesses, you often get the feeling that he still can't quite believe how lucky he has been.

Molyneux started his career in the early '80s distributing games on floppy discs before dreaming up The Entrepreneur, a 1984 text-based adventure which sold just two copies – one of which, he believes, was purchased by his mother. Fed up with games, he would go on to establish Taurus Impex Limited alongside his friend Les Edgar; exporting baked beans to the Middle East was one of the company's commercial activities. However, thanks to a case of mistaken identity, Molyneux was pulled back into the games industry when Commodore muddled up the company name with that of Torus, a networking firm it wanted to bring its software over to the Amiga. 10 free (and powerful) Amiga systems were offered to assist with the 'conversion' process, which Molyneux and Edgar accepted without correcting Commodore. "That got our foot on the ladder," he recalls, still clearly bewildered by his good fortune. "That was incredibly lucky at the time. A very happy accident."

Created on the Amiga and cited with establishing the 'God Sim' genre, 1989's Populous was Molyneux's breakthrough. His new firm, Bullfrog, would sire a selection of million-selling hits, including Magic Carpet, Theme Park and Dungeon Keeper, and was eventually purchased by Electronic Arts, Bullfrog's longstanding publishing partner. Molyneux left to form Lionhead in 1997 and produced the likes of Black & White and Fable; the company was subsequently gobbled up by Microsoft in 2006 and was sadly shuttered a decade later. Fast-forward to the present, and he's now responsible for a much smaller team at 22cans, which released its first Switch game, The Trail: Frontier Challenge, last year.

Those of you who are long-time readers of Nintendo Life may well recall that during the dark days of the Wii U, Molyneux was quoted as saying some stuff about Nintendo which could have been seen as disparaging; however, the legendary designer goes to great lengths during our interview to point out that not only were those comments a few years ago – and his perception of the industry has changed somewhat – he made them from the stance of a committed fan of the firm, rather than a 'hater'.

The Trail: Frontier Challenge

"I’ve got a massive amount of respect for Nintendo," he tells us earnestly. "It makes me laugh that people underestimate them time and time again; I can so clearly remember being part of Microsoft when the Wii was announced, and the Microsoft execs literally laughing at it, and we all know how that turned out. I think Nintendo has produced the most iconic games that the games industry has ever seen, and I actually think they’re aligned with me; my fascination is designing games for everyone, not just for a small audience, and that’s what’s always been at their heart, in the games that they make. A lot of the franchises they’ve done have brought countless millions of people into gaming, and how couldn’t you be absolutely fascinated with that? I have nothing but absolute admiration for pretty much everything that they’ve done, and the iconic people that have worked with Nintendo."

He's also blown away by the Switch, too – something that isn't all that surprising when you recall his dissatisfaction with the Wii U and its confused and often clumsy two-screen setup, something that many players and developers struggled to adapt to. But sitting here now in 2019, even Molyneux can see how Nintendo's hardware has evolved, and why Wii U was an important step.

"This is the genius of Nintendo," he says. "Because time and time again, they go down an avenue and you think 'Oh my god, what’s happening?' I mean, I still love the GameCube, but you could argue that the GameCube wasn’t as strong as perhaps it should have been. Then they did the Wii, and then they come out with the Wii U and you think, 'Nintendo’s lost it again'. But then they come out with something which really defines a platform, and that’s what the Switch is. I’m an enormous fan of the Switch because it so cleverly allows me to play games how I want to play games; I love the whole thing of being able to slap it down in its cradle and then being able to pick it up and take it with you when you're done."

Previously befuddled by Nintendo's marketing for the Wii U – as many of us were – Molyneux says that he recognised the core appeal of Switch from the very first commercial he saw. "The first advert I saw of the Switch, there was this BBQ going on and they were all playing together," he recounts. "That drills down to the core of what the real opportunity is – people these days don’t want to be tied to one location and they don’t want to set up their games room, they want to be able to move around with it, and that’s what the Switch does brilliantly and superbly. It really is a console for the 21st century. Whilst I love the PlayStation and Xbox, they still feel a little bit trapped in the 20th century because they are still consoles; they're still big black boxes and they’ve still got controllers on them, and those controllers are still designed for gaming enthusiasts. I think Nintendo has done it again, and I’m sure they’ll continue making these huge strides forward for the industry."

Even so, Molyneux isn't alone in believing that the console sector's obsession with dedicated hardware could be coming to an end, and the appeal of Switch – its portability, its freedom, its refusal to be tied down in one location – dovetails neatly with that impending shift. "The world’s fascination with hardware that really fuelled the growth in mobile, it’s wavering a little bit these days," he comments. "Do I get as excited about the next iPhone release? I’m not sure I do. What that means is people just want their entertainment to be everywhere. It’s like Netflix; now, I’ve never done this, but I like the idea of watching a film on a big screen and then taking my mobile into the toilet and carrying on watching it. There's this cultural idea of taking your entertainment anywhere – on the train, on the bus, to your friend’s house – it's definitely going to be part of the future. And if that’s true of TV programmes and films and music and audio books, why the hell shouldn’t it be true of computer games?"

What could potentially hold this back, Molyneux believes, is the interface. "The only snag to that otherwise pure idea is tedious touch control," he says. "Touch is beautiful and lovely and I love designing games for touch, but it is very tedious that you’ve got this big fat finger that keeps on getting in the way of the game. Physical controllers are so refined for precision play, and it's very hard to take someone who’s used to playing on a controller over to something like touch. Some games have started to do it, such as Fortnite and Minecraft, but they're few and far between."

Ultimately though, Molyneux sees a future where the name on the casing of the device you're using means less than the game you're playing on it; after all, this is the man who once said he would put Mario on the iPad – a reality that has since come to pass. "I think with all of our devices, we’re becoming less obsessed about the hardware and more obsessed about what the hardware enables us to do – and playing anywhere, at any time, with anyone, is something that the games industry almost has to play catch up with when compared to the film industry, which is ironic, because for a long time the film industry had been trying to catch up with us."

But that's the future, and right now, Molyneux remains transfixed at the possibilities offered by Switch – so much so that he's even contemplating bringing 22cans' next game – currently called Legacy – to it, once it is finished. A designer who, in the past, has perhaps allowed himself to get carried away when it comes to promoting the groundbreaking features of his games, Molyneux has so far remained largely tip-lipped on his next venture, outside of revealing its name and its epic scope.

"Legacy is certainly a big departure from what I’ve done before," he explains. "And more so than ever before, you need to think a little bit more agnostically about platforms. I would absolutely say that there is a really strong chance of it going onto Switch, but there are two gates that can stop that happening. The first is you have to get permission from Nintendo, that’s one gate. And the other gate is, are we, as a company, passionate about putting it on Switch? I would absolutely say yes to that, because Nintendo – of all three consoles – it appeals to the audience that I find most fascinating. Those are the people that perhaps haven’t been gaming for decades – although I love those people as well – they’re people who would love to play computer games but find them inaccessible, and I find that absolutely fascinating. So yes, absolutely."