I meet the man trying to fix 22cans in the bar of the Hilton Brighton Metropole. The Develop conference is happening all around us, although at a slower pace this morning, because last night everyone went out for a drink.
Well, not everyone. Simon Phillips, the new CEO of 22cans, didn’t. Simon is alert and ready to talk in detail about 22cans. Immediately I sense he’ll be up for what’s to come, which is great, because there’s a lot to work through.
22cans is perhaps the most controversial game developer in the UK. Ever since Godus, which Peter Molyneux Kickstarted to the tune of half a million pounds, launched on Steam as an Early Access title in September 2013, 22cans has faced criticism. We’d hoped Godus would rekindle the god game genre. What we got was a PC port of a middling free-to-download mobile game. We felt duped.
Throughout 2014 the negative Steam reviews poured in and anger at Peter Molyneux grew. As development on Godus seemingly slowed, tougher questions were asked. What the hell was going on with Godus?
Things came to a head in early 2015, soon after Molyneux had “announced” he’d shifted over to work on a new project, called The Trail, and Godus designer Konrad Naszynski told players he didn’t think 22cans would make good on many of its promises.
But it wasn’t until February 2015 that the shit really hit the fan for 22cans and Peter Molyneux. After Rock, Paper Shotgun raised questions about the status of Godus, Eurogamer reported on the story of Bryan Henderson, the young Scot who won Curiosity: What’s Inside the Cube, the precursor to Godus. Molyneux had promised Henderson he would receive a small percentage of revenue made by Godus while he was God of Gods. In other words, Henderson would make money while playing a Godus feature that had yet to be developed. And before the week was up, Rock, Paper Shotgun published an interview with Peter Molyneux in which the website asked the developer: “Do you think that you’re a pathological liar?”
It was around this time that Simon Phillips dropped Peter Molyneux a line, simply to say he was available if Peter wanted to talk about what was happening. Phillips, who’s worked in the game industry for 20 years, felt he could offer some guidance.
Molyneux called a day later, asking for Phillips to come down to 22cans’ Guildford office. The pair spent three days talking about how 22cans had got into so much trouble. Phillips was candid, telling Molyneux exactly what he thought he’d done wrong. By the end of it, Molyneux had decided 22cans should have a CEO, someone who would work to fix the studio, repair its image and get Godus back on track.
“I drove home that night thinking, this is an interesting proposition,” Phillips tells me. At the time he was CEO of FairPlay Media, a company that specialises in bringing mobile games to the Chinese market. Before that Phillips ran Oxfordshire developer Gusto Games, best known for porting work on Xbox versions of the Championship Manager series. Going back further, in the 1990s Phillips worked at Anco Software on the likes of Kick Off and Player Manager.
“By the time I got up to the M40, I was so excited. It was a good opportunity to work with someone who was so passionate about games and so clever with design, which is the thing I’d been missing for so many years. I love the business side of games, but I found myself being excited in a way I hadn’t felt in 20 years.”
Phillips agreed to run 22cans as CEO, but with assurances. The deal is Molyneux focuses on game design, and Phillips focuses on running the business.
“He started 22cans to get away from business and corporate and to go and make games again, and suddenly he’d kind of slipped into this, so I’m running the business, I’m doing the CEO thing, I’m trying to be a designer, I’ve just taken on absolutely everything – and you can’t do that. It just doesn’t work.”
I’ve heard from various sources that morale at 22cans had dipped dangerously low even before the events of February 2015. Some key staff had given up hope on Godus and had either left or planned to leave. Things went from bad to worse in the aftermath of February. Many staff were left reeling, questioning their roles at the company. And Peter, I’d heard, had become distant, depressed and was, essentially, done with Godus.
No-one would mention the “G-word”, Phillips remembers. “He was literally like, oh my god, what’s happened to my life? It looked like he’d had the life kicked out of him, to be quite honest. It was a sad moment.”
Many will say Peter only has himself to blame for many of his company’s failings. Phillips agrees, and told Peter so. But he insisted all was not lost. “All that stuff you’ve done wrong is quite easy stuff to fix and should have been done, and yes, you f***ed up and should have done all this stuff, but we can sort that out,” he told the designer.
“But you need to get back into designing games. Don’t try and do everything. Don’t try and glue it all back together because it’s just going to crumble down. You need to make games. That’s what you enjoy. I quite like business. I’ll do the business. And it seems to be working quite well so far.”
Phillips calls Molyneux’s plan to give money to the winner of Curiosity through play in Godus “a genius concept”, but criticises how it was handled.
“What a simple thing to f*** up,” he laments. “But Peter’s already out here somewhere thinking about this and thinking about this, and no-one was doing this stuff in the middle. It’s really basic stuff, but there was no-one in the studio to do that. It’s a highly design-led studio that didn’t have the structure it needed to deal with this kind of stuff.”
Phillips asked Molyneux, directly, “Why did you fuck up?”
“It was like, ‘Well, I really don’t know. It just happened. It just f***ed up.’
“Right, someone needs to deal with this stuff. Genius concept – keep them coming. Let’s just make sure we can actually do it. It’s quite straightforward.”
Phillips says he’s already had an email exchange with Bryan Henderson, sending him an early version of a documentary about the studio in which Bryan plays a part. But the fact remains: Bryan has not received what he had expected. Simon wants to help, but has yet to work out how.
“It would be so easy for us to go, let’s just sort Bryan out,” Phillips says. “That’s a bit of a cop-out. I’ve made it my goal to talk to him and say, ‘Look, we know we f***ed up with this, let’s try and do something.’ I’m in contact with him now. It’s my remit to talk to him.”
Phillips’ problem is the original plan relies on the God of Gods feature coming to Godus. The contract signed by both 22cans and Bryan states that he is entitled to a small percentage of the money made by Godus while he is God of Gods. But God of Gods isn’t in the game – and 22cans are not contractually obliged to release it.
God of Gods depends on multiplayer being in Godus, and multiplayer depends on combat being in the game, and both rely on network technology working. None of this is in the game yet.
“That could be f***ing years of development,” Phillips admits. “Actually, I’d rather just keep talking to Bryan and say, ‘Let’s do something based around this. How cool is that?’ Or, ‘Let’s try and do something based around this.'”
There is no timeframe for God of Gods’ arrival in Godus, I put to Phillips.
“No, there isn’t, being completely frank,” he replies. “I’d be a bit of a c**t to say look, we’re going to do this on this day and you’re going to get this much money, because we don’t know when that’s going to happen and we don’t know how much money it’s going to be.”
Phillips’ comment may come as a shock to some, but for many Godus players it will come as little surprise. Most had already lost hope God of Gods would ever make it into Godus, despite it being a key part of the game’s pitch – another Molyneux promise seemingly dead in the water.
What Phillips is doing here, though, is coming clean. He’s holding his hands up. He’s come into the company and realised much of what was planned is unrealistic, and so a more realistic plan is required. This will upset many. For some it will be the final nail in the coffin.
At least Phillips remains committed to bringing combat to Godus, and tells me there’s a plan to launch it late summer. Beyond that, though, he won’t be budged.
“What I don’t want to be is that guy who day one goes right, we’re going to do all this! I’ve made games for a long time. That might not happen. Let’s get it right, deliver it and just keep talking to people, rather than having these firm deadlines.”
Reports had indicated 22cans had put aside money for Bryan in the expectation God of Gods would one day launch, but we can confirm no money has ever been put aside.
“There’s no physical pot of cash that’s been put aside for Bryan, because the feature doesn’t exist,” Phillips admits.
“There’s nothing to calculate it on. You can’t say, let’s put a pound a day away for Bryan, or ten pounds. There’s no financial concept of what this God of Gods thing is, and that’s what we need to sort out.
“That’s not to say there isn’t an idea of what maybe it should be. But I categorically don’t want to just buy Bryan off. I don’t want to go, we’re really sorry, here you go, and we really mean it. No actually, let’s try do the right thing. It’s so difficult to try and convey I just want to do the right thing.”
While Phillips tries to work out how to do the right thing by Bryan, he’s also trying to re-engage the Godus community – what’s left of it, anyway, in the hope he can rekindle some sliver of trust in a company that long ago lost its way.
“There’s a lot of people there who feel very angry about what’s happened. They don’t like the way the PC version turned out. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s bollocks. But we’ve got a wave of things to try and fix before we can get to the point where we can get constructive feedback.”
To his credit, Phillips appears to be under no illusion about the task he faces.
“If we released combat now: one star, it’s shit. It could be the best thing in the world, but it’s going to be shit because everyone’s ready to call it shit. So we want to make sure it’s good. And when we think it’s good we can go, look, we think this is good now and by the way, we’ve been talking to you about what we’re doing so you’re aware of what’s going to come out and it’s good.
“After that we’ll do something else. After that we’ll do something else. And we’ll try and revisit all the things we wanted to do in Godus. But let’s just get one thing right. That’s the goal, rather than go, we’re going to do a billion things, and then not do them.”
The trust issue, though, is one that sticks. How will Simon regain players’ trust? Here’s his reply in full:
- It’s impossible for me to go out and say, we’re going to just fix all this stuff because I’d look like a c**t. It is what it is. Let’s work out how we can fix that and be practical about it.
- We’ve got a lot of work to do to get through the general barrier of distrust. We can go out and say, this is what we think we’re going to do. So let’s try to deliver it. We had updates going out because someone at some point was told to do updates, and they were a bit boring and a bit patronising and just basically a bit shit.
- So let’s stop putting this stuff out because we think we should. Let’s put some meaningful updates out. Let’s show what we’ve been working on, because it’s pretty cool. 100 per cent of people are going to say it’s shit. We know that because we’ve got this trust problem. But occasionally we’ll get a couple of positive things. Let’s engage with the positive feedback and start going, that’s cool. We are actually working on this stuff. We know you think we’re not. That’s our problem. We created this problem. But let’s keep doing this and make the game right, and keep talking to the community.
- Slowly we’ll feel there’s this, ‘Deliver me something good, and then we’ll talk as customers.’ Okay, fine. I can do that. That’s a fair trade in my opinion. It’s small steps to build trust. All we can do is deliver a good game at the end of it. That’s the ultimate goal. It’s going to take a lot of time. We’re still getting a high percentage of people just going, ‘That’s really shit.’ It’s like, have you looked at it? It’s quite cool, actually. ‘Oh yeah, it’s quite cool.’ We’re slowly trying to build that level of trust.
- The first release is combat, into Steam opt-in. We know it’s going to get slated, even if it’s the best thing in the world. So let’s just make it as good as we can and then just be prepared for that.
- If someone says to me, ‘That’s just shit,’ f*** off. I’m not going to talk to you because I don’t have the time to listen to everyone saying it’s shit. We know you think it’s shit. Tell me something I don’t know. Give me some feedback I can do something about, rather than us just going down a blind alley and everyone just throwing shit at us all of the time. It’s not going to work. At that point you think, f*** it, let’s just not bother.
- We know what’s wrong with the product. We want to get the next update right, and we want to engage the community with it. We don’t know how to do that other than just try and be honest with these guys.
Phillips says 22cans still plans for Godus to leave Early Access, but has no idea when that’s going to be. “It’s not going to be any time soon because we’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’ll get through it. And that’s it. We’ve gone past that point of no return. We are going to finish it.” This sounds disappointing for a game that’s been in Early Access for nearly two years.
Phillips also says six people are working full-time on Godus, including lead designer Konrad Naszynski, and others within the company chip in. More people work on Godus now than earlier in 2015, then, but the fact is the majority of 22cans’ 25-strong staff are working on The Trail, 22cans’ next game, which the company doesn’t want to talk too much about yet, despite Molyneux mentioning it during talks at conferences.
Skepticism again kicks in. The mobile version of Godus, the version players seem to like, the version that initially, at least, made quite a bit of money, is surely the priority, not the lambasted PC version. Not so, Phillips says. No-one is working exclusively on the mobile version, he says, although features that come to the PC version may make it to the mobile version, memory restrictions permitting. “We want to do the PC version because that’s what we think we should be doing, and that’s how we’re going to help build this community back up,” Phillips says.
Earlier this year I heard worrying rumblings about the financial state of 22cans. Sources indicated money would run out in around six months, and The Trail was under pressure to launch sooner rather than later. But now, in July 2015, 22cans are still here and Simon Phillips and the other 20-something staff are being paid.
Godus, Phillips says, “is doing all right”, and he should know – as CEO, he’s 22cans’ new money man. But money’s not all he’s in charge of. Phillips worries about everything from cash flow to making sure there’s enough toilet roll so Peter doesn’t have to. “When Peter Molyneux’s ordering the toilet rolls for the studio, you know it’s gone wrong,” he says. When Phillips arrived at 22cans, the company toilets were roasting at 40 degrees because the air conditioning wasn’t working properly. No-one had fixed the problem. “Who knew there was another switch panel round the back blowing hot air into the toilets?” Phillips laughs.
The PC version of Godus isn’t making much money, but the mobile version is doing “mid-well”, based on what Phillips knows of the market. As for the financial state of 22cans, again, “it’s all right”. “It’s all right to do what we want to do and get to the points we want to get to. We’re not swimming in cash. We’re not about to go out of business. It’s just all right.”
Amid the February furore, Molyneux vowed to never again speak to press. Most doubted the claim, but he’s so far stuck to his guns. When it comes time to hype The Trail, though, he’ll need to step back into the limelight. And of course, he’ll face questions over what went wrong with Godus. Phillips knows this, and so he’s, well, had a word.
“If he wants to talk to press, that’s absolutely fine,” Phillips says. “No-one’s got a problem with you talking to the press, but make sure you’re comfortable with what you’re saying. Everyone loves the fact you wear your heart on your sleeve, but just make sure what you’re saying is right. He gets that. We talk about it a lot.”
Most who’ve worked for Molyneux will tell you he has a habit of telling press about features that exist only in his head. This, Phillips says, must stop: “If you’d asked him two months ago what the plan was for Godus, he probably would have given you his idea of a plan, but it wouldn’t have necessarily been the plan, because there wasn’t a plan.
“Let’s make sure we all understand what the plan is – properly understand it – not like, one guy thought about it this morning when he’s cleaning his teeth and he’s gone and told the press. Let’s make sure production know the plan, QA know the plan, the coders know the plan, the artists know the plan, everybody knows this f***ing plan.”
Molyneux reminds Phillips of the chap in the Skittles advert, he says. You know the one: everything the guy touches turns into Skittles.
“In my mind that’s Peter in a lot of ways,” Phillips says. “It’s very easy for him to say something and everyone just naturally go, yeah, that’s the right thing to do, let’s do that. Actually sometimes you need people to sit there and go, hang on a minute! Have we thought about how much this is going to cost and when this is going to happen?
“And he’s like, oh right, cool. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. Let’s try something else. That’s exactly my job. And you know what? That just never existed at 22cans. Completely bizarrely, that just never existed.”
Phillips is the fixer. He must reel Peter Molyneux in. He must project manage him. He must raise morale. He must repair the boiler and keep the toilet cool. 22cans spent eight months working on multiplayer that didn’t work. Phillips must prevent that kind of thing from happening ever again.
The commercial reality of the situation is that the developer cannot work on Godus forever, so there will come a time when it will have to stop. When this happens, many will demand a refund. Many already have. When The Trail comes out, who will buy it? Who now will trust 22cans to deliver? This is a situation Phillips has inherited, but I get the impression he’s going to face it head on.
22cans’ reputation was left in tatters and Godus labelled a disaster. Surely, I think, Phillips must have thought 22cans a poisoned chalice.
“Oh f*** yeah,” he replies. “Absolutely. But I like Peter. I thought, actually, f*** it, I’ve been doing this a long time. Is it a poisoned chalice? Maybe. But I know I can deliver. I know my level of integrity and I know what I’m going to do, so you know what? If it all blows up, I can walk away going look, we tried the best we possibly could. It’s as simple as that really. I’m not the sort of person who would ever pass a buck or slope my shoulders.
“I’m going to come in here and say, this is what we’re going to do, and we will try and deliver this stuff. If we can’t we’ll just be honest about it and say, look, this is not going to happen here. We can either do it. Or we can’t do it. Or we don’t know. It falls into one of those categories.”