Seeing next-gen games in black and white

Black and White, a new computer game created by Lionhead Studios in London and published by Electronic Arts in Redwood City, California, tests the ethics and morality of gamers by allowing them to play god.

Usually when game makers talk about "the soul of the customer," what they really mean is the pocketbook of the customer. Legendary game veteran Peter Molyneux is different. His new role-playing game, Black and White, requires players to do some real introspection and decide which side their souls are on. Malevolent or benevolent? Will they perform the blackest evils or the whitest miracles?


Of course, if a game can engage the soul of the customer, the pocketbook is sure to follow, and this equation has not been lost on Black and White's various backers. "Black and White will be a staggering, monumental release for the games business," says Ed Fries, vice president of game publishing at Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), which has struck a deal to do future console games with Mr. Molyneux. "It's going to bring us mainstream attention."

Black and White, created by Mr. Molyneux's Lionhead Studios in London and published by Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: ERTS) in Redwood City, California, has a lot riding on it. The gaming press -- who expected the release 12 months ago -- has had high expectations for more than a year. But it's also eagerly anticipated as one of the rare titles that's so creatively different that it's expected to attract a mass market of mainstream consumers who wouldn't otherwise consider themselves gamers.

THE ALLURE OF POWER The scenarios are seductive. A player may hear a prayer from a woman in tears, beseeching the player to find her sick brother in the forest and bring him back to the village. The player can save the brother and bring him back the sister. Or he can kill the sister, take her body to the brother, and watch him die of a broken heart.

Mr. Molyneux says he wanted to make a game that "hard-core gamers adore but that doesn't alienate casual gamers." To accomplish that, he populated his development team with smart people from outside the gaming industry. Of Lionhead Studios's 25 employees, only 6 have worked at a game company, and only 4 of them ever finished a game. They designed Black and White with a simple interface, whereas most games are so complicated that they confuse neophyte players.

The game screen has no icons, and players don't need to learn complex keyboard commands -- they maneuver by mouse-clicks. The player is portrayed as a godlike hand that reaches into the world. Instructions are presented by two characters that represent the two sides of a player's conscience, one an angelic figure, the other a horned devil.

After about 20 minutes of instruction, players are free to explore an elaborate 3D world filled with worshipers. A player can grow more powerful by performing miracles that sustain the belief of the population, and embark on missions by tapping on "story scrolls" hidden around the world. All of it is very simple, meant to draw in players who are computer-shy.

IT'S NOT EASY BEING BAD But the story gains sophistication when a player discovers that the 400 story scrolls are all linked to the same overarching narrative. Each story forces players to make moral choices, complete with consequences.

"Say you want your god to be a killing machine -- then you have to do mean and vicious things," says Mr. Molyneux. "Of the 1,000 people who tested the game, none of them had the evil in them to continuously sustain the evil character. It's a fascinating insight into human psychology. Hopefully, this is a lesson that people learn, and not one that we preach."

Black and White tries to do what no game has ever done: draw an emotional response from the player without resorting to excessive violence or slapstick comedy. If it succeeds, it could significantly broaden the gaming audience.

Mr. Molyneux has created seven No. 1 games in his career. His first, Entrepreneur, about running a startup, was a failure. After taking a hiatus for a few years, he returned to gaming in 1987 and started Bullfrog Productions with partner Les Edgar.

In 1989 he had a hit, Populous, the first game that allowed players to act like gods. The title sold more than 4 million units, and helped make Bullfrog Productions one of the largest game studios in Europe. More successes followed, including Syndicate and Theme Park, and Bullfrog was bought by Electronic Arts in 1995. Mr. Molyneux stayed on, but he found it impossible to remain creative while running a large team. He quit in July 1997.

Mr. Molyneux started Lionhead Studios with his own money in 1997, and inked a deal for EA to publish Lionhead's first title, Black and White. His team missed its Black and White finish date, but Mr. Molyneux had plenty of capital and plowed ahead, working on the game for more than three years. The cost of the game is an estimated $4 million to $5 million.

Black and White is now nearly finished, and Electronic Arts is looking forward to the revenues. A similarly creative EA title, the Sims, has sold more than 3 million units in the past year, generating $150 million in revenue for the world's largest independent maker of game software. Still, EA would have benefited from Black and White in the past year, since it reported losses in both its first and second fiscal quarters of 2000.

When Black and White is published for the PC, Lionhead will focus on derivative titles for the PlayStation 2. Mr. Molyneux has also signed on to produce a major game for Microsoft's Xbox console, planned for launch in fall 2001. He has funded two satellite game developers, Big Blue Box and Intrepid, which will produce games funded by Mr. Molyneux. He says he's most excited about the Xbox because he thinks the technology will allow him to execute his artistic vision without compromise.

"We're working on games that have been in my head for a long time, waiting for a decade for a piece of hardware that could run them," he says.

The 41-year-old Mr. Molyneux views his latest title as the culmination of a lifetime of ambition. If Black and White takes off, the gaming industry will find that its newest god is also one of its oldest.