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Eulogy for the last honest man in games

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Depending on where you stand on Peter Molyneux, February 2015 will be remembered as the month when either the devil or angel on his shoulder finally told the game developer to stop speaking to the press.

For a man whose true talents lay in self-expression, this is a dark fate. But Molyneux's public condemnation comes as no surprise to the fans who've become familiar with his characteristic enthusiasm and the wavering reliability that results from it.,

Earlier this month, the game developer was taken to task by both the public and the media alike when he released an excruciating video explaining why his studio's latest project Godus, which raised more than $813,000 on Kickstarter, has failed to meet the targets its backers were promised. This was quickly followed by an article by Eurogamer's Wesley Yin-Poole that interviewed Bryan Henderson, the 21-year-old chap who won 22Cans' much-publicized Curiosity mobile game challenge, which Molyneux promised would feature a "life-changing" prize. Henderson, it would turn out, has yet to receive his prize.

Is silencing the industry's most flamboyant orator actually a win for PR culture in the games industry?

Molyneux's career is punctuated by wild statements. Since the earliest projects of his career, he's cultivated a reputation for over-enthusiastic declarations of games under development, which are often found to be less ambitious once released. His role in the media has triggered a closer analysis of the developer/consumer relationship. What does it mean to lose trust in a public figure? Are game developers beholden to gamers or art? Is Molyneux a pathological liar or a pathological optimist?

Perhaps the most important question is whether silencing the industry's most flamboyant orator is in fact a win for PR culture in the games industry.

Since his early days, Peter Molyneux has been the antithesis, the hemlock in the cup, of PR. Now silenced, this Mad Developer is likely the last of his kind. The gaming elite of 2015 are inherently connected to the economic vitality of their product, and the need for centralized control of their public image has become apparent.

In all other entertainment fields, this is old news, its origins nearly as old as Hollywood itself. In the 1920s, celebrity scandals threatened to rock the economic viability of film studios, resulting in the creation of a first line of defense made up of publicists and public relations firms. The studios quickly developed an industry-wide regulatory agency known as the MPPDA to counter any potentially damaging rhetoric.

This heavily controlled system saw the development of star personalities through public testing. Through event promotions and public appearances, they disseminated those personalities. Using press agents, publicity departments and contracts, they controlled these images.

The Rules of the Game

The careful orchestration of image is important to any public-facing figure in entertainment. Central to this is the aim to ensure writers never have unmediated access to these names, and as a result the industry effectively regains its control over the flow of information, and by extension, the meaning of these star figures.

While personal publicists aren't endemic to the games industry yet, today PR is endemic to mainstream British journalism and can manipulate image in its own right. In a 2008 study by Cardiff University, content of domestic news stories across The Guardian, The Independent, The Times, The Telegraph and others was shown to be largely based on "pre-packaged news" from PR material or wire services.

"Indeed, 30 percent of the stories in our press sample replicated wire service copy almost directly," the study reads, "and a further 19 percent were largely dependent on wire copy. In other words, nearly half of all press stories appeared to come wholly or mainly from wire services."

Molyneux's character has been impervious to the idea of a controlled public image. But as the games industry increases in economic value, as household names emerge in the realm of celebrity, the need for control over a developer's public image will only increase.

February 2015 will be the month Molyneux begins his self-imposed exile from the media. He leaves as perhaps the last honest man in games.