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Godus preview: Believe in Molyneux

By Rob Crossley on Friday 30th Aug 2013 at 6:30 PM UTC

Peter Molyneux has pulled it off. His team at 22 Cans is crafting a god-game that seems so naturally enjoyable and ambitious that perhaps it's best you forget the past twelve months ever happened.

Wipe those memories of the curious and calamitous cube from your mind, switch off the debate on whether a decorated developer like Molyneux deserves to dig around on Kickstarter. You're here because you love interesting and brilliant games, and when you evaluate Godus on these elemental merits, it undoubtedly has potential to make you a believer.

(As an aside, whatever your views on Curiosity, there is one major aspect of that experiment which has carried over to Godus in a most ingenious manner. We'll get to that a bit later.)

Firstly, and most reassuringly, Godus does not make extravagant attempts to elevate itself beyond a computer game. In fact the opposite is true; Molyneux and his team are worshipping the age-old conventions of the god-game genre. It may have new ideas and tricks, but the underpinning ideology is intact: create and cultivate, develop and defend.

Day one on Godus begins with a few furlongs of land and those two genesitic urges which have secured human survival for thousands of years: Have sex, avoid death.

Getting down to business is enviably straightforward. Build a big enough house, with enough space and privacy, to ensure your beloved subjects can romp freely. To construct those love shacks, players will need to sculpt and stretch a patch of dirt big enough to support the foundations of a house. Land mass can be manipulated with a few clicks and drags of the mouse, and once a patch is the required size or shape, a delightful harp will chime, signalling that a structure can be built on it.

"If you want, you can become a master sculptor," Molyneux says.

"There are different kinds of sculptors, we've noticed. I'm a cleaner - I don't like mess and I just want flat land for lots of people - but there are creative sculptors who create amazing elaborate lands and caves.

"If a person comes to the plot, they'll build a cottage. If you expand a house they'll build a keep. If I'm anal, I can move things around. Americans like to do that, I've found. They like building everything straight.

"Spreading people out and making sure they have enough room to breed is the core mechanic of this stage of the game."

"It's been a dream of mine to reinvent this god game genre that I stumbled on twenty years ago"

Godus' planet is roughly the size of Jupiter, and you most certainly will not see much of it. According to Molyneux (please equip your anti-exaggeration goggles if you have not done so already) a full circumvention of the globe via scrolling would take "an entire lifetime". Why so vast? We'll get to that in just a moment.

The god gauge

Initially, there are two units that players must concern themselves with. The first is belief, the second is population. The latter is straightforward enough to control (remember: have sex, avoid death), but belief is more nuanced.

Molyneux explains: "At this stage in the game, belief is developed by clicking on people's houses. Tiny houses will give small belief, big houses give bigger numbers."

Zoom

As time progresses, the ways in which players gain and lose belief will become more complex. Without going into too much detail, Molyneux summarises: "People you treat well will believe in you more, people who fear you will believe in you more, people you ignore will believe in you less."

Belief is the ever persistent progress meter - and at certain milestones it allows for the creation of items like statues, totems and temples. A statue of speed will ramp up production, while a statue of fertility will make everyone distractingly horny.

"You can use your belief to beautify your land, which makes you more popular," Molyneux adds, "or you can spend your belief points on more conventional things like swamps, earthquakes, tidal waves and meteor strikes.

"Those more destructive god powers you'll want to use more in multiplayer, but you are free to use it in singleplayer too."

I am, by the way, resolutely aware of the notorious "Molyneux Effect" as I fall further into Godus. Peter's famous abracadabra on game journalists is, I'm told, like being put into a lucid dream; critics unknowingly flutter and float through an unreal utopian world where bugs disappear, problems fade away, and only the pleasures and promises remain.

There is a chance that I am disposed to such magic tricks, but I still distinctly remember the strain etched on Molyneux's face when he tried to talk up those later Fable games (which he hadn't really worked on, incidentally) and I see no such pressures anymore. I watch him quietly tinker with his world and I know he's enjoying it - spying on his people from afar, building houses, accidentally starting forests fires.

I might be wrong, but I could have sworn I saw the ghost of Bullfrog lurking within the code. That spirited, slightly lewd and dark humour pervades these lands. Put it this way, when Molyneux accidentally set a wolf on fire, all I could do was laugh.

He says this game has been "twenty years in the making". Another possible exaggeration, perhaps, but I've not seen Molyneux speak and behave with this degree of conviction and emotional investment for many years.

Do the evolution

As primitive hamlets expand into villages, as paths link towns and players create the blueprint of their own city, Godus pulls its next trick: a new age will open, with a multitude of further opportunities and challenges.

"In the primitive age, all you're going to worry about is people," Molyneux says.

"When you enter the bronze age, all you worry about is tools. As you go into the industrial age all you need to worry about is technology. When you go into the information age, all you worry about is information, and so on."

Bookended between the primitive and space ages are about a dozen separate eras of time. Molyneux says it would take (keep those goggles on) about two solid weeks of playtime to advance through everything.

"I'll be honest about it - I nicked the idea from Civilization. I really like the sense of time and scale it gives you."

Close Close

Molyneux explains that his team at 22 Cans has deliberated on what he calls "long-motivators". God-games and turn-based strategies tend to hit a wall at a certain point later in the game. There is simply less and less to do. So, in anticipation of this, 22 Cans has built in various mechanics to occupy players later down the line.

Evolving through different eras is one part of that - there is expected to be a sense of pride and ownership when progressing your world from its dusty roots into an intricate metropolitan complex - but this is just one of many long motivators, Molyneux says.

Players can also find cards which, gradually, are collected into a virtual scrapbook. Cards you earn (or discover) achieve certain milestones like building items, land expansion or new god powers.

"I'll be honest about it - I nicked the idea from Civilization. I really like the sense of time and scale it gives you"

While these cards are essential for progress, they are also the victor's prize in multiplayer battles. This is where Godus flaunts its diversity and ambition, and where so many of its mechanics conflate so wonderfully.

For multiplayer, two players connect online, are teleported to a virtual battleground (a random space outside of the planet) and fight in a speedier, RTS-style battle. This is the moment when population becomes crucial - competing gods will decide how many of their people they will risk in order to obliterate each other's army. However, what's also important is the era that each player belongs in; if primitive fighters go up against bronze fighters, it'll be fists versus swords.

Gods will need to take a hands-on approach to battles; sculpting pathways for soldiers and erecting bases to acquire munitions. But the belief gauge also comes into effect, with the option to spend a costly sum on meteor strikes and tornados (Molyneux accidentally pulverised his own tribe with a meteor strike).

There's a balance here: Exhausting belief points may win the battle, but it'll leave players with fewer resources once the fight is over. There's strategy too: if players build castles in battle zones, they can acquire a significant sum of belief, but this will require human resources and open up vulnerabilities during construction.

Beta fights have already spilled into "belief battles", Molyneux has noted, with both factions rushing to erect structures which give them an advantage on the battlefield.

There's more: the victor of each battle has the chance to steal a follower card, which means they can take an opponent's follower and integrate them into their own tribe. We're back to sex again - in Godus, races and types differ in their abilities, and cross-breeding can create an ideal balance.

"Red haired people, for example, are much better at breeding, but they're rubbish at working," Molyneux says, before demonstrating his own enthusiasm for multiculturalism.

"And if you manage to find a red-haired... oh here he comes actually. Let me show you."

Polytheism

So, why the size of Jupiter? Molyneux's answer is simple and striking: There is only one planet in Godus, and every single player will populate it.

"So when you start the game, 100 miles away in every direction there is another player working on their world," Molyneux says.

"After a few weeks or so, your two people will have expanded to the point where they meet. When that happens, you have a choice. You can either ignore each other, or form a united religion with two gods, or you can go to war. In a year's time, it's going to be fascinating to see what happens to the entire world."

But there is one more trick left in the box - Godus has the potential to be a fascinating simulator of politics, and even elections. Why? Essentially it's the same reason behind most political conflicts in the real world; there can only be one leader.

In Godus, one player is deemed the God of Gods (you may remember the first person to take on this responsibility is Curiosity winner Bryan Henderson).

"You can either ignore each other, or form a united religion with two gods, or you can go to war"

For six months, this player will receive a possibly life-changing slice of the game's revenues (Molyneux doesn't specify, but insists it's certainly more than one per cent). As well as receiving this sum of real money, the God of Gods can also enact certain laws and affect certain living standards on this Jupiter-sized planet.

"Brian is the first of the God of Gods, but every six months a new one will challenge him, and they will play a multiplayer game of Godus - which will be televised - to determine who holds the power," Molyneux says.

"The popularity of each god equates to the size of their army, so if Brian becomes a bit of a berk, he's not going to have that much power when he's challenged on the sixth month. If he loses that match then there is a new God of Gods who will sit on the throne and decide certain aspects of that game.

"But this is where it gets interesting. To challenge the God of Gods, you need to form a clan - which we call religions - and build a base of support from there. If your clan does well, then it becomes nominated to challenge the God of Gods. But the clan must decide for themselves who is chosen to run for the election."

It begs fascinating questions: Who among a clan will become the leader? Will it be the most skilful player? The most likable? The person who needs the money the most? How will a leader be decided? Will they receive united support? Will the election form cracks of division within each clan?

What's so inspiring about Godus is its sheer ambition. Over the past forty years, games developers have constructed meticulously shaped sports cars, simulated entire cities and have crated complex artificial intelligences. These are gargantuan achievements, but the potential for the future is even bigger: Molyneux wants to simulate a living democracy, with leaders and villains and international conflicts.

His Curiosity experiment may have become a source of ire among some games enthusiasts, but that core ideology lives on. Godus is a connected single world, but this time the interactions between its players will define it.

The irony is not lost on me: To breathe new life into the god-game genre, 22 Cans is focusing on the human condition.

"It's been a dream of mine to reinvent this god game genre that I stumbled on twenty years ago," Molyneux says.

"To redefine the genre, it now needs to have a human element at its heart".

Godus is available via Early Access on Steam from September 13. An iPad edition is expected in October.

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