|The God Designer|
For the past three years, gamers the world over have been anticipating Black & White, beginning the day in 1997 when Peter Molyneux left Bullfrog to found a new studio.
Molyneux, as father of the “god-game”, is widely considered a gaming-god himself. His first game, Populus, created the god-game genre and sold in excess of four million copies. Along with Powermonger, Syndicate, Magic Carpet, Dungeon Keeper and Theme Park; Bullfrog, co-founded in 1987 by Molyneux and Les Edgar, established itself firmly as one of gaming's premier development studios. A feat that did not escape the notice of Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who wrote an article in the Guardian in July 1997 naming Bullfrog as one of the companies epitomising British characteristics of innovation and originality.
In 1995, Bullfrog was acquired by its long-time publisher Electronic Arts for, to quote Molyneux himself, “a ridiculous amount of money”. The money placed Molyneux in the Sunday Times' 1997 Rich List, at 755th, along with actors Roger Moore and Joan Collins and Discworld author Terry Pratchett. The acquisition team, amusingly, was headed by Robert Garriott, wearing the cap of VP of Business Development at EA. While Garriott himself is little known, he does share the distinction of co-founding Origin Systems and, a month ago, Destination Games, along with his brother, Richard “Lord British” Garriott.
EA's acquisition of Bullfrog, however, did not sit well with Molyneux. He found himself spending too much time on management duties and enervating trips to EA's offices in California instead of on his passion, designing games. Bullfrog had grown under EA from a twenty-person team to a hundred-person mini-corporation. After finishing Dungeon Keeper by bringing the entire team to work at his home, Molyneux pulled out of Bullfrog in 1997, a loss obvious to the most casual observer, as Bullfrog has only released sequels since then, and no longer has any projects under development.
As a free agent, Molyneux was approached by, well, practically everyone, including Sega, Nintendo and Eidos. He chose instead to found a new company.
Lionhead Studios started off with Molyneux, Mark Webley, Tim Rance and Steve Jackson as her Directors.
Rance had programmed the multi-player version of Populus, one of the first games to offer network play. Webley, who is also Molyneux's brother-in-law, was rather high up the ladder at Bullfrog, with some predicting that he would be offered Molyneux's position when the founder left. Lionhead itself was named after Webley's hamster, which tragically died soon after the event.
Steve Jackson is a gaming-god in his own right, though not, as it were, in the same medium as Molyneux. With Ian Livingstone, he had co-authored the Fighting Fantasy series of “interactive game books”, which were hugely popular in the 80s, when some of us couldn't afford computers and had no one to play D&D with. Also with Livingstone, Jackson is co-founder of Games Workshop, which owns the popular Warhammer 40,000 property of tabletop war games. He's not the other Steve Jackson, though, who's American and does table-top RPGs - though the other Jackson did write three Fighting Fantasy books, he's more known for his GURPs role-playing system and the Illuminati: New World Order trading card game. Livingstone is currently Chairman and Director of Eidos, as well as the host of “Games Night”, a fortnightly event for Livingstone, Jackson, Molyneux and three other industry friends.
In addition to the four Directors, an early addition to the team was Demis Hassabis, who had, at the age of 14, joined a “design-a-game” competition and ended up co-designing Theme Park with Molyneux. Hassabis later left Lionhead to found Elixir Studios, which recently showed off its first game, Republic: The Revolution, at this year's E3.
Suffice it to say that Lionhead's team has undeniable credentials, and after three years of development, along with an ever-escalating hype, they recently released their first game, Black & White.
|Black & White|
In spite of its numerous delays and a buggy final release, Black & White is, in fact, truly revolutionary. Its graphics engine is gorgeous, allowing you to zoom in on to a worshipper's face and zoom out to a full view of the entire map without breaking stride. The AI for the Creature and the villagers is said by those more knowledgeable than I to break new ground, though your computer opponents, as expected, remain singularly dim-witted. As a godgame and an RTS, Black & White's gameplay is different enough from anything already available and most games still in development. A bunch of novelties - TouchSense support, Gesture recognition, an icon-free screen - makes the interface unique in its own right. Throw in an arcane save-game system that forces continuity - reload a past save game or enter and exit a Net game, and you will find your alignment and your Creature is not restored with your save, instead you have an older, though not necessarily wiser, Creature, and your temple show off that many more spikes for the villagers you cheerfully torched.
Revolutionary, yes, but does Black & White live up to the hype?
“The best forms of entertainment ask us to question social norms and the way we think about things - it's about time Black & White came along,” said Will Wright, creator of SimCity and The Sims, while one of the many ads proclaims “Find out who you really are.”
Judged by most people who judge such things as one of the “Most Anticipated Games” at at least two of the three E3s that Black & White was shown at, coupled with Molyneux's status as a designer and his natural enthusiasm for talking about his current project, the hype following Black & White, naturally, became quite a Creature in its own right.
What was Black & White made out to be? Three things, mainly - a world where every action would have a resulting, visible consequence, a Creature that functions as your avatar as well as your pet and a Rorschach test cleverly disguised as a game.
In each case, Black & White delivered brilliantly, even as it failed miserably.
Does the world - the game engine - deliver? In addition to the aforementioned graphics, yes, the world does indeed change to reflect your “alignment”, recording each action you perform as witnessed through the eyes of your worshippers. Yes, you can interact with any and all objects in the world, a planted tree can grow into a forest, and rocks can be broken, picked up and thrown. But one cannot avoid the thought of “Is that all?” - trees, rocks, a few buildings and a bunch of villagers, a larger temple as you gather more followers, dark spikes on your temple if you happen to be evil? “Surely, there's more,” you think, but you just can't seem to find it.
The Creature is revolutionary, true. Molyneux was inspired both by the Tamagochi fad as well as the epiphany, while playing an RTS, that really what you were trying to do by building all those little units was to combine them into one giant unit, so why not cut to the chase and start off with the giant unit? Having your uber-unit independent of your direct control does make for interesting gameplay, but having to teach your Creature every little thing over and over again until he “gets it” very quickly got on the nerves of everyone who didn't own a Tamagochi in the first place.
Personally, I had hopes that Black & White's Creature could be the thing that would appeal to the feminine demographic, that Holy Grail of gaming. And maybe it would have, except the other aspects of gameplay appeal directly to those who would play a godgame or an RTS - in other words, the traditional male gamer.
Finally, does Black & White “ask us to question social norms and the way we think about things”? It could, but it doesn't. Running a Black & White fansite, I get a lot of questions regarding the “good” solution to that problem, or the “evil” solution to another. The simple fact of the matter is, the gamer does not want to play the game as he is, he wants to play the game as he wants to play the game, being the supreme good or the penultimate evil.
The final verdict? Black & White is, in truth, everything the hype made it out to be, it really is the Next Level of Gaming. But (and you saw the incoming “but”), the game is so good that it's subtlety cannot be appreciated without playing it through multiple times, constantly experimenting with different playstyles. And very few people are going to do that because there isn't an obvious enough reason to do so. As an example, if you pamper your villagers they will grow lazy and expect you to pamper them more - a lot of players complain of the necessity of micro-management without realising that the villagers will fend for themselves if left alone.
It takes a certain dedicated, obsessive personality to discover all the nuances of the game mechanics. While most hardcore gamers tend toward the type, the game's single-player storyline is not geared toward replayability beyond “I played Good, now let's try Evil”. Even as the average score given by reviews is 90%, I think it's fair to say that at least half the people who bought the game because of the hype is disappointed, or, at least, will not be playing it a month from now. Like the common metaphor of an iceberg, Black & White is huge, but once you have seen the little white bit on top you don't really believe there's anything else to it.