30 Years of God Game History Part 9

Clumsy Kinect motion controls aside, it wasn’t a disaster in itself, but it was the last straw in a series of missteps, and an epitaph to what the company had become: an unimaginative product factory, not the bold innovators they once were. With the “father” of the god game free from the shackles of Microsoft, Peter Molyneux soon co-founded a new studio, 22cans. In just a handful of months they released Curiosity, a free-to-play game where players would tap away on their phones and tablets to dig away blocks, like a massive, worldwide excavation effort to find the answer to the simple question, “what’s inside the cube?” With the promise that whoever gets to the center of the cube first will get a “life-changing” reward. Manually digging away 69 billion micro-cubes was just as repetitive as it sounds, but attracted a lot of buzz and millions of players during its 7-month run. This sort of friendly competition hearkened back to the more quaint days of video gaming, like when Bullfrog Productions hosted Populous tournaments to crown the world’s best player, or when they held a game design contest, and awarded the winner a real job at their company. The “winner” of Curiosity decided to share the news with the world: a video with Peter Molyneux himself announcing that 22cans were working on Godus, an ambitious return to the Populous formula, but also that this lucky player would become the “God of Gods”, who was able to influence major design decisions in Godus’s development, and would receive a small portion of the profits during his six-month term.

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A crowdfunding campaign for additional funding for Godus launched in November, 2012, and was a meteoric hit. Fans clamored at the prospect of playing a true god game again, crafted by none other than its inventor. The Kickstarter exceeded its goal and raised over 800 thousand dollars toward the development of this new and exciting PC game, with a free-to-play mobile port planned down the road. Godus had incredible promise. 22cans planned to host the game on a dedicated server, with a single planet-sized world where every player starts out as a burgeoning god with a small plot of land, eventually growing out and having to interact with other gods either as a friendly neighbor or a devious enemy. It replaced the tile-based elevation system of Populous with a layered minimalist landscape you can smoothly sculpt with your mouse or touchscreen.

It seemed to be an ideal hybrid of the simplicity of the god games of old, and the production values and presentation of the new. Molyneux planned for the game to feature progression through each era of civilization, from primitive tribes to the Space Age, and you would influence them through wielding divine powers. An Early Access build released on Steam in late 2013, to some skepticism by backers and early adopters. Featuring a narrower scope compared to the open, unshackled freedom of something like Populous, and more suspicions were fueled by Molyneux playing, and stating the game played best, on a tablet rather than a computer. Despite these concerns, Godus had a lot going for it: a gorgeous, abstract graphic style with colorful layers of terrain, and you could harness fun godly powers like meteors, swamps, rain and holy forests.

Or you could squash enemies with your almighty finger. The world sculpting was pleasant and relaxing, and the kinetic controls felt like you were carving at your own “arts and crafts” project. Making adequate trails and clearings for your followers was addictive, using powers to condense your buildings into specialized complexes, the promise of having your people advance through the ages, learn new buildings and technologies, and eventually butt heads with other civilizations, had a ton of potential. But red flags popped up as 22cans tried to mimic the successful tactics used by the mobile gaming industry. After a few hours of enjoyment, you realize that Godus is hand-crafted to stop, inhibit and limit players so as to drive them to buy shortcuts, and would receive denser and more enjoyable experiences by doing so.

You have to constantly click or tap hundreds of little spheres to collect faith currency, and there’s a button in the corner that opens a gem-spending store, despite 22cans assuring us that there wouldn’t be microtransactions in the PC version. One of the most frustrating aspects were the regular stops a player would experience, due to lack of resources in the form of “stickers”. You had to either find stickers through hidden treasure chests, or buy them in randomized packs when you earned enough gems, which constantly halted your progress.

It felt like the antithesis of Molyneux’s earlier work. Godus has a sphere of influence, from which you cannot affect anything outside that boundary, but unlike previous games like Black & White, it doesn’t expand gradually as your belief grows. Instead, you have to complete a lot of busywork and menial tasks to gain access to distant totems and unlock new lands. Game development has always been a business, but when your business model directly degrades your entertainment experience, your product becomes less enjoyable, or at its worst, economically manipulative. Months after the Early Access release, the game changed regularly, but was still missing many promised, fundamental features.

The planned seamless multiplayer was implemented, but later removed. Months became years, and the growing tensions between paid customers, backers and 22cans grew more and more. The numerous broken promises, delays and “freemium”-like design elements began to make sense when it was discovered that 22cans, originally promising that there would be no publisher influence, after burning through the Kickstarter funding, later courted DeNA, a Japanese mobile game publisher, to pick up the check for Android and iOS development. As unwanted changes and alterations to the original concept reached boiling point, consumer outrage and bad reviews stacked higher than the mountains you carved in the game. This culminated in a 2015 talk between Peter Molyneux and John Walker, senior editor of Rock Paper Shotgun, in what is easily the most brutal interview I’ve ever read, starting out guns-blazing with the opening line… “Do you think that you’re a pathological liar?” It was an hour and a half of listing grievances and biting commentary on Molyneux’s false or misleading statements he’s made to the public.

This marked a change in the technology and availability of information. We no longer half-remembered a promise or claim from last year’s magazine, the internet age documents every word, feature and claim you’ve ever made, serving as the public’s collective memory. Peter might have made false promises in the past but were often forgotten or only heard by a few. Now the man had become infamous for promising mountains, but delivering molehills instead. Perceiving a clear favoritism toward mobile development infuriated fans even more, and as PC updates stagnated, the mobile version continued to improve and ran quite smoothly. It would have been the superior version had it not contained speed boosts and gems locked behind advertisements and microtransactions ranging as high as $100 each, and of course, deliberately slower progression.

It didn’t end there, however, in a seemingly genuine attempt to make things right, Molyneux and 22cans hired Konrad Nazynski, a fervent fan, programmer and Kickstarter backer to help fix and finish the project. The result was splitting the game into two separately sold packages. Godus Wars was a more combat-focused version of the game which put you in control of small skirmishes against AI opponents or other players. It introduced military buildings and infantry, which was a feature promised in Godus’ original Kickstarter.

Combat is a new touch to the game, but it primarily involves growing your population as fast as possible, then converting them to military units, and sending them to their deaths, or to victory, depending on your numbers. Simplistic even by the most casual strategy game standards. These features would be welcome as supplemental to the core game, but a second price tag for what would become ANOTHER unfinished game — which regularly requires keys to unlock new maps, as well as introducing consumable cards that granted you powers or bonuses in each match. It reeked of future monetization opportunities. To make things worse, hidden away in the single player campaign was a prompt to pay another 5 dollars to unlock the rest of the maps. Molyneux explained that funding dried up, development cost three times what it raised on Kickstarter, and that Godus Wars was a way to reignite the project and garner funding for Godus to continue.

But after the legendarily poor handling of the game’s development, double-dipping your most loyal customers, despite every reason for them to give up on you, felt like a slap in the face. When Konrad’s contract to work on Godus expired, it left nobody at 22cans to work on the project, as they were all making the developer’s next game. And due to the original plans being abandoned, Bryan Henderson, the winner of the Curiosity contest, only got a tour of the 22cans office, but never received compensation or a chance to act as “God of Gods,” like he was promised.

22cans eventually released Godus Wars for free to all owners of Godus, and the mid-game paywall was removed due to overwhelmingly negative feedback. A nice gesture, but the damage had already been done. At the time of this video’s release, the PC version of the core game was last estimated to be about 50% complete, and despite still being available to purchase, no updates to the PC versions of Godus or Godus Wars have been posted for years.

If a game fails, nobody wins. Consumers don’t get to enjoy what they were looking forward to, and developers don’t get to reap the rewards of success. Nobody won with Godus. Peter Molyneux pinned his name and reputation on Godus, and its fallout virtually destroyed any credibility he had left with core audiences. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gt4-tBFIcsI

Would Peter have wanted everything he’s ever boasted, claimed or misled us to believe about his games to be true? Of course he would. But there’s a fine line between naive optimism and knowingly misleading audiences about your product — a line often crossed by Peter Molyneux.

Once one of the greatest game designers ever to walk the Earth, now the besmirched snake oil salesman of the industry. If he came out with a genuinely great game tomorrow, fans would probably forgive him in an instant. That’s just how passionate this community is, but will he ever return to make games for his core audience, or will he continue to pursue the easy-to-please, less discerning mobile market? Only time will tell.

But hope was not lost. Inspired independent developers have sprouted and have attempted to revive the god game concept all around. And today, it’s never been a better time to strike out on your own and self-publish, with modern development tools and engines at your disposal, a solo creator or a small team can make a competent and attractive game with a much smaller budget than ever before. Reus is a very different take on the god sim.

This 2013 indie title by Abbey Games places you in control of powerful titans aligned to unique elements. You can order them to move along a side-scrolling spherical world. The core mechanic of the game is to terraform a grey, dead planet to create unique minerals and life.