I’ll give you an analogy of what Populous is in my mind. Imagine if I had a blank canvas. Some people that are true artists will take a palette of paint and mix them together and carefully handcraft each and every single brushstroke until they have some beautiful and amazing picture. And then there’s me. I had the blank canvas, accidentally knocked a can of paint over, and it went splat. And an art dealer has seen it and said, “That’s brilliant.” Well, I know all I’ve done is kick a can of paint. And that’s what I believe really happened with Populous.
— Peter Molyneux
When we last met Peter Molyneux and his little database-developer-turned-games-studio Bullfrog Software, they had just made Populous and watched in disbelief as it blew up huge. The radically innovative game joined Will Wright’s SimCity as one of the progenitors of a hazily delineated new genre which the media labelled the “god game” for the way it gave you direct control over an environment but only indirect control over the people therein. As Populous became a hit on three continents and sold in the hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of copies, Bullfrog struggled to reckon with the cognitive dissonances of their changed circumstances. In a matter of months, they went from a handful of poverty-stricken dreamers pissing in the sink of their miserable, toilet-less hovel of an office to Britain’s single most successful and respected games studio of all.
The trappings of their success tended to trail behind their sales figures: when a group of Japanese executives stopped by the Bullfrog hole-in-the-wall to discuss plans for publishing Populous in their country, the senile pensioner who lived below met them at the bottom of the stairs with a mop and proceeded to beat them off the premises. “We had to get out of there as soon as possible,” says Molyneux. They wound up in a more conventional business park, whose more conventional tenants complained endlessly about their penchant for racing skateboards through the hallways and shooting BB guns out the windows. (“We were brats,” admits Molyneux today. “Horrible, horrible brats.”)
While certainly preferable to failure, success could be its own kind of mixed blessing. Expectations of Bullfrog, which had previously been nonexistent, were suddenly sky high. After a quickie add-on disk that brought additional levels and environments to Populous, they made a rather shockingly unambitious little platformer called Flood, a project of Bullfrog programmer Sean Cooper. Released only in Europe for the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST by Bullfrog’s publisher Electronic Arts, it garnered a collective shrug from the magazines; the market was already flooded with platformers much like this one, often with more compelling level designs. This sort of derivative work wasn’t at all what people had come to expect from Bullfrog after Populous.
Luckily, they had something else in the works. Released in late 1990, some eighteen months after Populous, the real-time war game Powermonger evinced a lot of innovation on its own terms even as it clearly drew from the same set of techniques and approaches that had yielded Bullfrog’s first hit. Instead of casting you as a god able to alter the very landscape of the world on behalf of your mortal followers, Powermonger cast you as an ordinary human on a mission to conquer the world — all 195 regional cross-sections of it, one region at a time. The ethos of indirect control that had made Populous so unique remained: you had to convince the people to rally to your cause, and had to work constantly to keep them loyal to you. Ditto a focus on large-scale environmental effects: you had to worry about the ecology of the land in order to feed, water, house, and equip your people. (After all, it’s hard to build much of anything if you’ve already clear-cut all of the forests…) While Computer Gaming World‘s Johnny L. Wilson, who was always eager to read meaning into games, may have been overstating the case when he called Powermonger “a dynamic treatise on the human capacity for aggrandizement and the potential consequences therein,” the same magazine’s description of it as the “thinking person’s Populous” was a good deal more tenable.
Unfortunately, it suffered from many of the same flaws as its predecessor — flaws which would become consistent hallmarks of Molyneux’s work in general. He obviously wanted to give players a lot of game by providing 195 levels, but, being all procedurally generated, they didn’t really build upon one another or force the player to reevaluate the tools at her disposal in interesting new ways. Powermonger was great fun at first — thus all the glowing reviews in the magazines — but it started to feel a little bit rote a little bit too quickly.
Molyneux originally conceived of Powermonger not so much as a standalone game as an engine for running a variety of them. After the first game with its vaguely Medieval theme, he talked of making a World War I version, a high-fantasy version, an Asian version for the Japanese market, and a version focusing on the American Civil War for the punters in the United States. But Powermonger, while moderately successful, never became the sensation that Populous was, and most of those plans were abandoned; only the World War I data disk ever appeared. Powermonger “appeals to a lot of people who like very, very high strategic games, but it needed that extra element that would appeal to everybody and it didn’t have that,” said Molyneux after the dust had settled. He blamed the lack largely on the pressure Bullfrog was under from Electronic Arts to complete and release the game in time for Christmas, which meant that it didn’t get played prior to release to anywhere near the extent of Populous.
Still searching for that elusive second million-selling hit, Bullfrog opted to drink even deeper from the old Populous well next time around. Their game for the Christmas of 1991 was Populous II, which mated the improved interface and graphics of Powermonger to the literal god-game theme of Populous I. There was slightly more semblance of a plot this time out: you played a minor deity who must fight her way through a pantheon of some 35 Greek gods, culminating in Zeus himself. Your powers too were more varied than last time out; no longer could people scoff that the game was nothing more than an elaborate topography simulator, not with your ability to spawn tidal waves, whirlwinds, and lightning strikes. Yet one only had to glance at the screen, or read about its more than 1000 (!) anonymous, procedurally-generated levels to know that this was still very much Populous, for both good and bad. It sold well to the committed faithful and spawned the by-now standard expansion pack; in a sop to the Japanese market, where the first Populous had become so popular as to spawn graphic novels and symphony concerts recreating the game’s soundtrack, the expansion was set in ancient Japan rather than Greece. But even so, Populous II made relatively few new converts to the cause at home or abroad.
Although their latest games hadn’t sold quite as well as the original world-beating Populous, Bullfrog remained the preeminent British games studio in the minds of many. Their status was rivaled only by that of DMA Design, whose Lemmings had become upon its release in early 1991 the most successful single British game since Populous. But DMA was located way off in Dundee, Scotland, a country away from the press on Fleet Street, and when an intrepid journalist did make the trek out to those hinterlands its founder David Jones didn’t provide as many choice quotes as the gregarious Peter Molyneux, then as now one of his industry’s greatest raconteurs. The press loved him not least because he was so willing to go against the official industry position on many subjects, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. Asked about the effects of piracy — a subject guaranteed to produce predictions of an imminent gaming apocalypse from any other prominent industry figure — Molyneux shocked his interviewer by replying mildly that “to be honest, I don’t think that piracy hurts.” Likewise, he never hesitated to air his real feelings about competing products: “If you’ve got a crappy shoot’em-up style game, then that’s going to be pirated to hell — and it should be because it’s not even worth using this planet’s resources to produce the game.”
The chain-smoking, perpetually hyperactive Molyneux got on particularly splendidly with the laddish British Amiga magazines of the time. He was up for pretty much anything when they came calling — as when he agreed to be interviewed about a recent trip to Japan while sitting on the toilet. From here he regaled his interlocutors with anecdotes about geisha girls, and told them that “Peter Molyneux” meant “wooden tit” in Japanese: “If I wanted to break the ice anywhere I just said ‘Molyneux’ and the whole room would break up.” He cultivated the persona in such interviews of a slightly befuddled ordinary bloke who liked to spend his time down at the pub when he wasn’t making games, who had no idea how he had stumbled into this charmed career of his. Substitute playing games for making them, and remove the charmed career, and he seemed of a piece with most of the people reading the interviews. He never missed an opportunity to run down his programming skills. “When we wrote Populous,” he said, “we barely knew how to put a sprite onto the screen.” In the end, he claimed, “programming isn’t really that skillful. Anybody can learn to program, anybody, within a week.” Asked to describe Bullfrog in a single sentence, he did so in three words: “Disorganized but keen.” Or, as he put it on another occasion: “We write computer games. We’re not businessmen.”
In keeping with this everyman persona, Molyneux evinced no interest whatsoever in professional credentials. Recruitment at Bullfrog operated on the principle of “show us what you got,” via little classified advertisements placed in the nether reaches of the same magazines that were featuring Molyneux and his games on their covers. Bullfrog endeared themselves even more by running tutorials in said magazines, teaching graphics and programming tricks; at least one series of tutorials concluded with a contest for those who had been following along diligently, the prize a potential job with Bullfrog. “You too can make games!” was the message. And people loved Molyneux for it.
But there was also another side to Molyneux: the side that was a real businessman, whatever his claims to the contrary — a businessman who was watching his industry with eagle eyes. When someone deigned to ask him a serious question, he could deliver a cogent, sometimes even prescient response. For example, when asked whether personal computers would ultimately win out over consoles as game-playing devices, he had this to say:
Definitely not. PCs are too much bother, even with CDs. You’ve got to configure one of the 30 trillion sound cards’ 30 trillion settings. I don’t understand all these DMAs and IRQs and all that crap. I just fiddle around until I get it right. Until they sort that out, the machine is just going to terrify people.
About the general state of games in the early 1990s, he had this to say:
The current trend in games like simulations, adventures, and some sports sims is that they are getting progressively harder, cleverer, and more challenging. But that doesn’t necessarily make them better games. The trouble is that a lot of games are getting so hard that only the very best gamers can play them. The first rule of game design is that you mustn’t produce games that are too complex for people to play. Being overly complex for the sake of being complex is not a good idea. Complexity is good as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the game.
We’re into a new thing called interactive drama. Everybody’s doing interactive drama with interactive plots and interactive characters. But I think it’s going to be a tough, tough thing to do. Hollywood spends millions of pounds on scripts. They have hundreds and hundreds of scriptwriters and they get it right once or twice a year. And little game designers like us are coming along and we’re going to write this script which is going to have infinite variations, is going to be as entertaining as any Hollywood film, is going to have cinematic sequences in it, and we’re going to sell it for four times more than you can buy a video for. There’s something wrong there. Either we’re very, very clever chaps and Hollywood has been doing it wrong for the last 100 years, or perhaps we’re talking out of our arses.
Quotes like these made Molyneux into something of a spokesman for the British games industry, in the mainstream as well as the specialty press. Whatever the intrinsic merits of claims like those above, they had the advantage of poking holes in exactly the sorts of games which British studios tended to lack the resources to do as well as the Americans.
During this period, British games still largely meant Amiga games. Thus it was tough for Molyneux, both in his role as spokesman for his industry and as a proud Briton, to admit that Bullfrog just couldn’t continue to develop their games on the Amiga first and remain competitive in the international market; the latest MS-DOS machines were pulling too rapidly ahead of Commodore’s trusty old platform. Bullfrog’s next big project after Populous II would be developed first on MS-DOS and then ported to the Amiga in slightly downgraded form — the opposite of the studio’s earlier approach. For, as Molyneux put it, “you can let your imagination run wild” on an MS-DOS machine.
The same project would be a welcome, much-needed departure in both form and content from the games Bullfrog had spent the last few years making. It would be a much grittier, more down-to-earth affair of rival corporations doing battle with one another in an oligarchic worldwide dystopia of the near future. As such, it was of a piece with many of the print fictions which young men like the Bullfrog crew were reading in the early 1990s — think Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and, reaching just a little further back, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the original popularizer of cyberpunk cool. (Self-effacing as ever, Molyneux claimed that “I read the first three chapters of Neuromancer, but it all went a bit above my head.”) Still, Bullfrog did add their own sprinkling of dark British humor to the mountain of cyberpunk clichés. For many months, they called the game simply Bob, after the infamously ruthless British media mogul Robert Maxwell, whose suspicious death aboard his luxury yacht and the subsequent revelation of financial malfeasance throughout his empire dominated tabloid headlines during the period.
In the end, though, Bob became known as Syndicate. Bullfrog spent a full two years working on it, marking the longest gap between games in their entire history as a studio. They claimed the end result to contain as much code and graphics as every one of their previous games combined.
Whereas Populous and its descendants were played entirely from a single interface, Syndicate was a more disparate affair. As the owner of a tiny upstart corporation bent, naturally enough, on taking over the world, you had to allocate research funds for equipment and cybernetic enhancements for your army of operatives, whilst choosing missions to send them on from a Risk-like strategic map. But it was in the missions themselves, which played out in real time from an isometric perspective, that you spent the vast majority of your time. Here you had more direct control over your operatives than you did in Populous, but they still had minds of their own, which could cause them to react with a spontaneous burst of gunfire if, for example, an enemy agent popped up in their path; it might also cause them to refuse to obey an obviously dangerous command. The missions took place in living city streets replete with civilians as well as combatants, presenting ample opportunities for mayhem. Syndicate has been called a proto-Grand Theft Auto, what with the way it tempts its player to indulge in random violence and acts of destruction for their own sake.
Indeed, when it finally appeared in late 1993, just weeks before id Software’s landmark DOOM, Syndicate struck many as the natural British companion to that American game, another avatar of a movement toward ever more visceral forms of violence in games. As in DOOM, blood splashed everywhere in Syndicate with gleeful abandon, and much of the appeal of acquiring new weapons was in the visible carnage they created. This prompted a brief-lived round of nervous stock-taking in the magazines of both countries — until the same magazines, seeing that hordes of players loved the violence, learned to defer to the readers who buttered their bread.
Extreme though it was by contemporary standards, the violence in the finished Syndicate was reportedly toned down from earlier versions, where you had been allowed to kill babies and pets. Play testers “told us we were going too far,” mused Molyneux. “Funnily enough, they objected most to killing the puppies…” Yet he remained unapologetic on the whole:
We made Syndicate high in gore to be more realistic. I know this sounds like a cop-out, but it’s the player who’s violent, not us. All we’ve done is give a loaded weapon to the player and it’s up to them how to use it. I’ve always hated games that gloss over violence. Surely showing the realism of a violent act is better than disguising it? It’s not that Syndicate had done anything new with violence, it’s just that it shows it like it is.
For all the changes it evinced over what had come before, Syndicate was a typical Bullfrog game in other ways. It started out thoroughly entrancing, but went on way too long, with only a handful of fixed mission types on offer as you slowly — very slowly — took over the world. By the mid-game, you had discovered most of the cool gear and cybernetic enhancements, and what had started out fresh and exciting had begun to turn into a bit of a grind. Thus Syndicate became another Molyneux game that far more players started than finished. Nevertheless, its initial appeal was enough to make it Bullfrog’s biggest hit since the original Populous, and the game and its 1994 expansion pack are still fondly remembered by many today.
By this point, Bullfrog had grown from just a few employees to about forty, enough to have multiple projects on the boil at one time, all receiving varying degrees of attention from the hardworking and endlessly enthusiastic Peter Molyneux. Thus the next game arrived barely six months after Syndicate. It would prove to be one of Molyneux’s most influential creations of all.
The project had its genesis in the first game he ever made, a text-only business simulation called Entrepreneur, of which he had sold exactly two copies — one of them quite possibly to his mother — in 1983. That failure had continued to rankle even amidst all the success he enjoyed in later years, as did the urge to make another, less dry business simulation that would appeal to more people. “Then one day the perfect idea hit me,” Molyneux says. “I’d create a game where you control a theme park.” Molyneux:
I love theme parks, and it was a great excuse to do some really good research. It’s also something where you often go back and think, “If I’d been given the chance to design this place I wouldn’t have put this here, or that there, etc.” And it’s also something that people can immediately associate themselves with. If I tell you that this game enables you to design theme parks, then you immediately know what I’m talking about.
It was indeed a brilliant stroke, one with natural appeal well beyond the typical gamer demographic who enjoyed the likes of Syndicate. Visually at least, Theme Park would be the polar opposite of that game, cheerful and bright where it had been gritty and dark.
Released in mid-1994, Theme Park became a monster hit — bigger than Syndicate, even bigger than Populous after it was ported to every viable or semi-viable game-playing gadget in the world. Its bright and bouncy visual aesthetic presaged the Casual Revolution in games that was still some years away, while its impact on the themes and mechanics of games to come would prove even more pronounced. In particular, Rollercoaster Tycoon, a direct heir to Theme Park which was released by MicroProse in 1999, sold even better than Bullfrog’s take on the concept — in fact, became one of the best-selling computer games in history. Today amusement parks and roller coasters remain a staple of gaming, from the more elaborate examples of the breed available at online stores like Steam to more easygoing affairs that you can play right in your browser. Almost all of them owe not just a thematic (hah!) debt to Theme Park but a direct mechanical and visual one as well, from the thought bubbles that appear over the heads of the guests wandering through the park to their whimsically cartoony graphical style.
It thus pains even more than usual to note how horribly Theme Park itself has aged, even in comparison to most of the other early Bullfrog games. Few games evidence as profound a mismatch between their surface aesthetics and their underlying gameplay as this one does. The cutesy nature of the former can confuse you for a long time, disguising the fact that the latter really doesn’t represent as great a departure from the worldview of Syndicate as it seems to let on. At bottom, Theme Park is a nasty, cynical little game, amoral if not actively immoral — a game where your concern isn’t with the happiness of your guests at all, but strictly with the amount of money you can extract from them; a profitable theme park with miserable patrons is not only possible but the only practical road to success. This is the kind of game where you over-salt the patrons’ fries to get them to buy more soda, which cups you stuff to the brim with ice to… well, you get the picture. If you come to this game wanting to build a beautiful amusement park and show everybody who visits it a great time, as the Molyneux quote above would imply you can, you’ll wind up bankrupt and disillusioned in extremely short order.
Even if you’re willing to play the game on its own cynical terms, it has all sorts of other problems. There’s a paucity of useful feedback on both a global and granular level, which often puts you in the supremely frustrating position of failing for reasons you can’t determine. The interface in general is inscrutable in too many places, the level of micromanagement required is exhausting, and, because this is a Peter Molyneux game, winning is a task so herculean that virtually no one has ever done so: after building your first successful park in Britain, you’re expected to choose another location elsewhere in the world and do so again, ad nauseum. None of these later parks are different in any fundamental way from the first — you have the exact same rides and shops and food stands at your disposal throughout — and so the whole exercise becomes absurdly repetitive.
Theme Park was a hugely innovative and massively influential game, but it just wasn’t a very good one, even in its heyday. Its appeal was always rooted more in what it purported to be than what it actually managed to be. Because everybody loves a theme park, right?
Bullfrog’s second game of 1994 — also the last one which we’ll be visiting as part of this little survey today — might have appeared at the time to be an attempt to jump onto the 3D-action bandwagon unleashed by Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM. In reality, though, Bullfrog had been experimenting with first-person 3D in-house for years. Those experiments finally led, after many detours and false starts, to Magic Carpet, whose namesake you got to fly — because, as Molyneux wryly put it, every other possible form of flight had already been exhaustively simulated by that point. As one of several wizards, your goal was to build up your arsenal of spells and mana in order to conquer all of the opposing wizards and take over the world. And then — remember, this was a Bullfrog game — you were expected to do the same thing in fifty or so more worlds.
The first Bullfrog game not to be ported at all to lower-powered platforms like the Amiga, Magic Carpet was a stunning technical achievement in its time. While other 3D action games segmented themselves into discrete levels made up of interior spaces only, it gave you a complete open-ended world to explore. It was a forthrightly artsy game, something DOOM and the rash of similar games which followed it certainly never aspired to be. In that spirit, it contained no words during actual gameplay, nothing to distract from the evocative wonder of its world. Bullfrog’s staffers talked in interviews about the joy they got just from drifting around above its landscapes before they’d put any enemies in — playing as they did so, they said only half facetiously, their Enya albums. Magic Carpet even had a special stereoscopic 3D mode, for those able to buy or make 3D glasses to suit.
By the time you got four or five levels into it, however, it revealed itself to suffer from the standard set of Bullfrog problems. Each of its worlds was superficially different from the one before, but not in a way that really challenged you or introduced a sense of progression beyond the increasing level number on your status screen. The game shot its bolt at the beginning, then just kept giving you more of the same. Peter Molyneux spoke often in interviews about his desire to give gamers lots of value for their money by making big games. Yet, like songwriters with a knack for melody who have no clue how to take it to the bridge, he and his mates consistently struggled to find ways of varying their formulas so that their games weren’t just more of the same for hours on end. As it was, what you saw in the first hour of a Bullfrog game was what you would continue to see for the next hundred hours.
And for once, this Bullfrog game’s presentation and theme alone weren’t enough to save it on store shelves. Its abstracted and almost aggressively artsy personality combined with its high production costs and high system requirements to make it Bullfrog’s first outright money loser since Flood.
How, then, should we sum up these five busy years in the life of Peter Molyneux and his first company? We can feel certain that anything we do say must apply almost equally to his career since 1994; whether you love or hate his work, its strengths and weaknesses haven’t changed very much over the decades. An unkind assessment — of which there have been many in the last ten years in particular, as Molyneux’s real or perceived penchant for over-hyping and under-delivering has come home to roost — might peg him as a bit of a dilettante, an ideas man unwilling to do the hard work to turn his ideas into balanced games that remain playable and interesting over the long term. But the reality is, as usual, more complex than any single pejorative — or compliment, for that matter — can encompass.
Some keys to the puzzle of Peter Molyneux can undoubtedly be found in the scene from which he sprang. His design aesthetic, like that of so many British game developers, was to a large extent forged by the limited resources — in terms of both target hardware and finances — which they had at their disposal. Bullfrog’s stubborn reliance on procedurally-generated rather than handcrafted levels, often to their games’ detriment, can be traced back at least to Ian Bell and David Braben’s Elite and the vast eight-galaxy universe it packed into a 32 K BBC Micro via the magic of the Fibonacci sequence. When one didn’t have much space to store handcrafted levels and didn’t have many people to hand to make them, procedural generation seemed the only practical way forward. But Bullfrog stuck with it to the exclusion of other approaches for too long — long after other approaches became viable.
Other pieces of the puzzle are more idiosyncratic to Molyneux himself, a fellow whose own personality was always all but inseparable from that of his company. Already by the mid-1990s, his tendency to stretch himself in too many directions at once was starting to become an issue. During the period of Theme Park and Magic Carpet, Bullfrog also worked on something called Creation, where you would breed predatory fish in an underwater base to attack your rivals on the ocean floor. Molyneux even mooted linking Creation with Magic Carpet: “If you’re playing Magic Carpet, you will be able to jump off the carpet and into the ocean. The computer will then sense whether you have Creation on your hard disk and plunge you straight into that, based totally on the world you were just flying around [in].” Another work in progress, with the highly inadvisable title of MIST (My Incredible Superhero Team), would let you build and control your own superhero: “If you want to make him strong and give him rubber wings and death vision, then you can do that. But of course, they’ve all got their Achilles heel.” And then there was Biosphere, featuring a more elaborate, planet-wide take on genetic engineering along with a fictional context shamelessly ripped off from Douglas Adams, where you would “run a team of genetic and planet engineers who modify planets for shiploads of colonists. Unfortunately for you, the colonists are generally hairdressers and telephone engineers, so when they get there they’re pretty useless — and they’ll probably be eaten by dinosaurs. So you have to protect them.” None of these games were ever completed, despite a substantial amount of time and resources being devoted to each of them. Indeed, as the resources available to him increased, Molyneux’s proclivity for rushing enthusiastically down such blind alleys increased in equal measure.
Molyneux’s passionate prioritization of experimentation over the nuts and bolts of game design made him a less complete designer than, say, a Sid Meier. And yet he, along with other designers of a similar bent, have been scarcely less necessary for the evolution of their medium. Few if any designers have dared to put more new stuff out there than Molyneux, even if often in imperfect form. Such experiments can become the building blocks for more grounded designers to build upon, as the example of the badly flawed Theme Park begetting the absolutely brilliant Rollercoaster Tycoon proves in spades.
Another component of Molyneux’s claim to the status of gaming visionary is more generalized: his complete conviction during the early 1990s that, as he put it, “multiplayer games are the future of gaming.” With the exception only of Theme Park, every Molyneux game from Populous on not only supported multiplayer sessions between players on separate computersMultiplayer Syndicate was made available to the public only in the expansion pack. but was literally designed for it first and foremost. That is to say that a serial or network link-up went into Populous, Powermonger, Populous II, Syndicate, and Magic Carpet long before anyone even began to think about adding a computer opponent. One might even call this fact the perfect riposte to all of my complaints about these Bullfrog games. If you played them alone, you were, in Molyneux’s mind anyway, playing them wrong in some fundamental sense. Complaints about the sameness of a game from level to level no longer carry much weight when you’re playing against that ultimate agent of unpredictability, a fellow human. While the nature of the times dictated that most people played them solo, there are nevertheless all sorts of anecdotes about the sharing of those early Bullfrog games among friends; my favorite might be the teenage next-door neighbors who made a 25-meter cable to run between their bedroom windows so that they could play Populous together every night to their hearts’ content. Stories like these, soon to be joined by tales of multiplayer DOOM, were clear signposts in their day to where much of gaming was heading, just as soon as the world’s telecommunications infrastructure caught up to the designers’ vision.
Bullfrog and Peter Molyneux have ironically suffered the opposite fate from that of the standard clichés about pioneers. Greatly appreciated in their own time for all of the bold new things they attempted to do and be, their games’ practical deficiencies seem all too obvious to our more jaded eyes of today. But, even if we can’t quite praise any one of them as a standalone masterpiece, we can recognize the purpose they served in opening up so much virgin territory for exploration by later, often better games. And if Molyneux himself has sinned by promising too much too often, it should be recognized as well that his transgressions have never had their roots in greed or guile. He just wants to make really, really amazing games — wants to make lots of them, thereby to make lots and lots of people happy. There are worse character flaws to have.
(Sources: Retro Gamer 39, 40, 43, 69, and 71; New Computer Express of January 20 1990, October 27 1990, and May 11 1991; CU Amiga of October 1990, February 1991, December 1991, December 1992, November 1993, January 1994, and February 1994; Computer Gaming World of January 1991, April 1991, and December 1994; The One of April 1990, July 1990, December 1990, May 1991, July 1991, December 1991, May 1992, May 1993, June 1993, December 1993, October 1994, and March 1995; Amiga Format of February 1992, October 1992, 1992 annual, June 1994, and May 1995; Zero of December 1991; Edge of January 1994, June 1994, November 1994, March 1995, May 1995, July 1995, and November 1995; PC Zone of June 1993 and November 1994; PC Review of July 1992; Next Generation premier issue. Video sources include the documentary From Bedrooms to Billions and series 3 episode 3 of Bad Influence.
Populous II, Syndicate, Theme Park, and Magic Carpet are all available as digital purchases from GOG.com.)
|↑1||Multiplayer Syndicate was made available to the public only in the expansion pack.|
September 4, 2020 at 5:11 pm
So Peter Molyneux is basically Walt Disney?
September 6, 2020 at 3:10 pm
Awesome… I barely had time to swallow my coffee dude!
September 4, 2020 at 5:38 pm
I was wondering when Bullfrog were going to pop up here again. Certainly, given the coverage from the UK PC gaming press circa 94/95 they did appear to be _the_ main development force in the country…
Slightly surprised that Magic Carpet lost money, given that they did go on to do a sequel a year later. The other interesting thing about it is that it was used to promote the Pentium; it even plays the ‘Intel Inside’ jingle if you run it on an original Pentium system.
Minor correction, Rollercoaster Tycoon was released by Hasbro after they bought out MicroProse.
September 4, 2020 at 7:13 pm
It’s my understanding that the sequel to Magic Carpet was already in the works when the original shipped. It was decided that it made more financial sense to release it as-is than to cancel it. This accounts for the the poor fit and finish of the game.
Rollercoaster Tycoon did go out with the MicroProse name on the box in the United States at least.
September 4, 2020 at 6:02 pm
Quick thought on Theme Park – did it retain the Midland Bank sponsorship outside the UK? That plus the manual (titled “New Business Portfolio”) does kind of give away what kind of game it is.
Having said that, if the cynicism doesn’t appeal (I personally think it’s fantastic), you can turn most of the business elements off and play it as something closer to a sandbox.
Alianora La Canta
February 25, 2021 at 11:47 pm
No – the Midland Bank sponsorship was UK and PC-only; as far as I can tell, neither the ports nor the non-UK versions had the sponsorship. The latter is logical due to Midland Bank having only ever been a UK bank, but why the sponsorship was not extended to the many other platforms Theme Park appeared on is a mystery.
Yes, Theme Park was definitely a business simulator, if not a particularly involved one in “Sandbox” mode. The gentler mode worked better for me than the business side, and that applied as much to the later iterations of Bullfrog’s theme park games as the original.
September 4, 2020 at 6:11 pm
Brilliant article, as always. I’m familiar with most of the games here, but never quite realised they all followed the same pattern of having engaging intros followed by tediously drawn-out endgames – that seems like quite a solid insight into Molyneux and Bullfrog’s design philosophy.
One point I would raise – was Cyberassault 556 ever anything other than an April fool? I’ve never seen anything that indicated they’d actually worked on the game – it seems too insanely ambitious to be real, although I guess the April fool they printed in The One might have been inspired by a real project they’d been toying with.
September 4, 2020 at 7:15 pm
Hmm, I’ll have to take a look when I get a chance. It’s possible I got sucked in by an April Fools gag. (In my defense, Molyneux’s descriptions are often so over-the-top that’s hard to tell…)
September 4, 2020 at 7:47 pm
It’s definitely an April fool – I got taken in at the time, and can still remember the crushing disappointment next month when the magazine fessed up. I just wondered if it was based on anything Bullfrog were actually working on. As a prank, it was pretty well executed, and surprisingly believable given that it was an era when truly giant leaps in what was possible in games came along every so often, like Elite. If you could get 8 whole galaxies into a BBC Micro with 32k of memory, why couldn’t you do something even more expansive with all the resources available on an Amiga?
I can well imagine that Cyberassault 556 was a game that Molyneux actually wanted to make, it’s lovingly described in that piece in The One, and sounds like something he would try to do if let off the leash.
September 4, 2020 at 8:18 pm
Fair enough. Thanks! Must be some sort of record for an April Fool’s joke to bite someone thirty years later…
September 5, 2020 at 3:26 pm
That Bullfrog had managed the Amiga “to perform at almost FIVE TIMES its normal processing speed” is definitely a giveaway. That the game would include 50 billion planets, quite less so …
September 4, 2020 at 6:50 pm
Nice article! Thanks!
Two minor typos:
Greeks gods -> Greek gods
unpredictably -> unpredictabillty?
September 4, 2020 at 7:16 pm
September 4, 2020 at 7:05 pm
Great article, as always.
I can’t really agree with the thesis statement at the end. Your article points out that Molyneux was always a great raconteur and a savvy businessman. Maybe in the 1990s, he might have had a kind of joy for the gaming… but by 2010, he had become one of the most cynical and mercenary developers.
In 2012, Molyneux had a new company, 22 Cans, and they released, “Curiosity: What’s Inside the Cube?”
While Wikipedia’s writing charitably calls the game an “experiment”, it’s worth noting that the game had extremely mercenary pay-to-win features.
… And the eventual “surprise” was to simply be an unpaid spokes-person for 22 Cans’ next game, “Godus”. (A new height to the concept “paid in exposure”.)
That’s still not the end to the story. Godus was crowd-funding during a boom period but still failed to be completed on time, despite numerous influxes and yet another in-game cash shop. Molyneux would later respond to an interview, in ways common throughout his career.
From this interview, two quotes stand out:
“I have no idea how much money it costs to make a game and anyone that tells you how much it’s going to cost to make a game which is completely a new experience is a fool or a genius.”
This quote is very typical of Molyneux, because it leaves uswondering if Molyneux thinks himself to be a fool or a genius. The statement might sound self-effacing but it’s not.
“You have an idea, you think you need this much, but as most people will say with Kickstarter, if you ask for too much money up front because of the rules of Kickstarter, it’s very, very hard to ask for the complete development budget.”
This statement, unchallenged by the interview, is blatantly false. The “rules of Kickstarter” state specifically the opposite to be true. Here, Molyneux is throwing the crowd-funding model under the bus to blame for the failure of his own ambition. As your article points out, Molyneux was no stranger to these kinds of development problems and (by 2013) should have known better.
This later Molyneux had clearly evolved from the “games should be multiplayer” to “games should be multiplayer, online, and monetized.” Again, he was ahead of the curve, as a few years later gaming would be rampant with gacha-boxes, cash-shop DLC, and other monetizing incentives. Moyneux has a long career of predicting the future, but it was all too often as a mercenary, first.
September 4, 2020 at 7:33 pm
Yeah… I think there are many valid criticisms to be raised against Molyneux: that he’s naive, impractical, careless with other people’s money, and a far better generator of ideas for great games than he is a designer of great games. But he’s just never struck me as in it strictly for the money. I think he rather tends to dig himself into a hole with the best of intentions, and then has to find a way to dig himself out — or rather his financial people do. He’s the kind of guy that you send out to buy lunch for the office, only to have him come back with a new radio for the break room because “there was this great sale!” I don’t blame the colleagues of such a character for being pissed off, but there’s something more complicated there than simple greed…
September 4, 2020 at 7:54 pm
I think it’s easy to look at Molyneux with your view clouded by his more cynical recent output, but I don’t think he’s as mercenary as he’s made out to be. Even stuff like Godus and Curiosity I suspect were means to an end that spiralled out of control rather than exercises in making money; I always thought he had grander plans that were stymied by some poor choices he made.
From what I’ve heard from people who worked for Lionhead, he put shedloads of his own money into the company to keep it going, and absolutely worked his nuts off.
September 5, 2020 at 7:52 am
Also, I’d point out that John Walker’s interview (which was more character assassination as performance art) has rather written history’s final verdict on Molyneux, as a liar and a fraud, in stone. Unfortunate for anyone who remembers how earnest and pioneering much of his work was and what it contributed to the medium (including, doubtless, Walker himself).
September 7, 2020 at 7:07 pm
It was a character assassination, no doubt about that, and I cringed all the way through it the first time I read it. But it seemed like something that needed to be done: to point out that the Emperor had no clothes. His early years were marked by flawed but inspiring and groundbreaking games, but by the time of that interview, his career had descended into “guy who promises you the moon, then presents you with a small rock with “MOON” carved into it.” Someone had to destroy the “eccentric genius” myth he’d built around himself.
I think the problem is one of scale. In the early 1990s, you could get a lot further with a good idea and a small team. Games were easier to develop, budgets were smaller, and people expected less from them. All those qualities are ideal for someone like Molyneux, who’s full of ideas and inspiration but apparently terrible at planning and execution. Now, when games cost astounding sums and require hundreds-strong workforces, ideas are a dime a dozen but good planning and execution are critical.
September 5, 2020 at 11:39 am
Just a note on Molyneaux’s comments about the “rules of Kickstarter”. I don’t believe he’s referring to official rules, but rather the ruling strategy employed but many of the most successful Kickstarters in order to take best advantage of the site’s internal mechanisms for promoting campaigns.
September 4, 2020 at 7:07 pm
I have fond memories of Syndicate, but it was indeed a grind after you gear all your agents up. It also has one of my favorite pieces of equipment, the Persuadertron. There’s nothing like having nearly off the civilians in the city following you around like the Pied Piper.
Also, minor spelling error:
after building you’re first successful park
you’re -> your
September 4, 2020 at 7:09 pm
Looks like I had a spelling error of my own! Bleh.
“off the civilians” -> “all the civilians”
September 4, 2020 at 7:16 pm
September 5, 2020 at 8:47 am
I disagree a bit about the characterisation of Syndicate… for me, the original one got the game length just about right – the game style did change from the early fun of trying to avoid combat for as long as possible and creating hordes of persuaded civilians, to the latter maps being all about drugged-to-the-gills cyborgs lasering enemy hordes to ashes in 5 seconds – but it never got so tough to be a grind. I believe that was the only Molyneux game I actually finished.
I did buy the 1996 sequel, Syndicate Wars, but the magic was gone. I recall that I had a lot of trouble with getting it running well on my old 486 (or Pentium?) PC. Also, since it was one of the last MS-DOS games (from 1996), it was difficult to run under Windows in the late 90s.
September 4, 2020 at 7:08 pm
I loved Syndicate as a kid but I have wondered for the past 25 years why it didn’t get as much heat as Doom. I guess it comes down to popularity, because the amount and narure of needless killing in Syndicate far overshadow Doom.
Don’t know much about Peter but I did “play” his Curiosity game about 10 years ago. I think it was a brilliant experiment in how far you can take a game
(And found a typo “you’re first”)
September 4, 2020 at 7:11 pm
I love this sentence:
“Molyneux’s proclivity for rushing enthusiastically down such blind allies increased in equal measure.”
But you probably meant “blind alleys”.
September 4, 2020 at 7:17 pm
September 4, 2020 at 8:41 pm
Correct me if I’m wrong — I very well might be, it’s been 20 years — but I want to make some counterpoints on Theme Park.
The article presents the new locations as something of a drag, but on the other hand the screenshots included have parks that could never be done as the first park. You needed a park to do well, which then gave you the resources and unlocks to just go all-out on a new place. Want to make a park where the only attraction is a water float that takes two years to complete? Go for it! Maybe build a half-park roller coaster on top? Feel free!
BUT if you wanted to do all that fun stuff, you had to have a moneymaker and find the unlocks first.
I find it absolutely fascinating that I’m picking up vibes that a lot of the criticisms presented are lifted from magazines of that era. The reviewers of which would have used cheat codes to get their park to work and do all the fun stuff in one park or at most two, so it’s natural they would have absolutely not understood the allure of a new, empty canvas for your megalomaniac projects. I remember going to a friend’s house and just scrolling through their list of parks, in awe at the massive setups they had. That’s something you would use multiple saves today for, probably.
Then there’s the game’s employees who all wanted money, the buggers. Their pay rise negotiation minigame was absolutely _inspired_ in that you had to factor in time: If you held your hand further back the workers’ hand would approach you faster, but if you waited too long you couldn’t reach them in time because the movement rate was limited.
I remember one time I felt victorious when I had given them the ABSOLUTE SMALLEST raise possible, after a longish strike, and then watching the news as people were striking for real and talking about not being able to feed their families and the triumphant feeling changing to somewhat subdued.
Yes, Hans. In Theme Park you are, indeed, the baddie.
September 4, 2020 at 10:02 pm
Fantastic article. I’m a long-time reader, and adore your work; I just wanted to say that you articulated issues I’ve had with Bullfrog/Molyneux’s oeuvre that I had never quite put into words. I love the first hour and tire quickly afterwards… but I also see the seeds of important, actually-fun games that come out later. Thanks for that. (_The Future was Here_ is my second-favorite Platform Studies book, after _Racing the Beam_.)
September 4, 2020 at 10:33 pm
While it struck a chord with me too, is it not true of an awful lot of PC games of the era that they massively outstayed their welcome? I was bored of the Settlers after the first level, Wolfenstein 3D after three, even Command and Conquer after the first half-dozen. The developer with the reputation for having fresh and new ideas in the tank for a title’s duration would have been the real novelty. I can’t even think of any off the top of my head.
September 4, 2020 at 10:41 pm
My friend pointed me at the parody Twitter account Peter Molydeux. He just tweets Molyneux-like game pitches. Some of them are pretty great.
September 5, 2020 at 7:32 am
:) That’s great.
September 5, 2020 at 5:11 pm
There was a game jam based on it–you had to make a game based on a Molydeux (or Molyneux) tweet. Unfortunately the site seems to be down (or I can’t access it in my browser) but the “what if your only weapon was the pause button” game was brilliant. And apparently Molyneux himself gave an opening speech at the jam!
September 4, 2020 at 11:06 pm
Biosphere did eventually release, as 1996’s “Gene Wars”: https://www.mobygames.com/game/dos/genewars
“…Syndicate was a typical Peter Molyneux game in other ways.”
I’d be a bit wary of Famous Guy Credit Creep here, Molyneux was certainly involved with its development but multiple stories I’ve read about it over the years put Sean Cooper as the primary programmer and designer, along with a team of at least a dozen others. Molyneux was busy with other projects throughout its development.
September 5, 2020 at 7:32 am
Fair enough. Thanks!
September 5, 2020 at 1:04 am
The cynicism in Theme Park is still kind of a hallmark of its successors like Rollercoaster Tycoon and Theme Hospital (and the jillions of games that are either directly or indirectly inspired by them). Making petty greed into a mordant joke seems like a very British thing to do. Later games must just have slapped on on a bit more comedy. Even the SimCity sequels took on a bit of that when they added comedy to the mix, some of which is pretty cynical about the value of the things you build or the decisions you make as mayor.
The pinnacle of this might be LucasArts’ AfterLife, which is a heaven-and-hell simulator that by definition is about finding the way to most efficiently reward/torment souls, heavily spackled with zany ’90s humor.
September 5, 2020 at 7:37 am
I think the cynicism in Rollercoaster Tycoon is different in quantity if perhaps not entirely in quality. The core joy of that game is in the laying out of efficient, creative, and beautiful parks; the money is just a means to this end. Theme Park initially appears to be the same type of game, but it’s really not. There are only a few approaches to park layout which turn out to be financially viable. It’s actually a fairly brutal zero-sum affair, despite it’s bright and cheerful surface aesthetics. This creates a lot of cognitive dissonance, especially for the modern player who comes to it with expectations spawned by later games with similar themes.
September 5, 2020 at 1:19 am
Huh. I played the heck out of Populous, but had never heard of Theme Park before this post. When you said “Then one day the perfect idea hit me,” Molyneux says. “I’d create a game where you control a theme park.” I thought you were going to say Rollercoaster Tycoon (which I had not known the release year of, I suppose), right up until you didn’t.
September 5, 2020 at 8:05 am
“after building you’re first successful park in Britain” – typo for “your”.
September 5, 2020 at 8:20 am
After reloading the article I see I was much too slow! :)
September 5, 2020 at 8:07 am
Best was the Sinister Theme Park mode (anyone remember how to unlock it?), where clowns would infiltrate your park then reveal themselves as Syndicate agents with Persuadatron and Minigun…
September 5, 2020 at 1:54 pm
It’s funny, but as time has gone by, there’s a certain fondness that many of us have for those days when you had to labor intensively to get a game up and running. Magic Carpet was one such game, and I can still remember sitting with my Dad as we tried to get it to boot up, and when we finally did… well, it was magic in it’s own way. I havent played it in years, but do seem to remember it actually had some “bullet hell” elements to it which did eventually become too great to overcome, a bit of irony considering his quotes about PC games being designed so only the very best gamers could beat them. Anyways, great work as always, and look forward to coming back to Bullfrog and Molyneux for Dungeon Keeper (if he was still there by that point, I can’t remember.)
September 5, 2020 at 3:16 pm
Thanks Jimmy for another outstanding article! I I really appreciate all the research that shows through the writing .
I don’t really understand how this lenghty discussion about the player’s role and moral (inmoral) a tions, and the satirization thereof in theme park’s case, all the talk about the inherent “grindiness” of Bullfrog’s games, and only one other commenter has mentioned Dungeon Keeper ? C’mon , really ?
I sincerely hope you have a piece on Dungeon Keeper planned, because that’s the one game, IMHO, where all of Bullfrog’s “design sensibilities” finally came to fruition in a coherent whole.
Do you think arming and training cyborgs who eventually kill bystanders is cuestionable ? What if you played the Werdna, the Mangar, the Dark Queen or the Tyrantnraxus of the game ?
Do you feel unusure about mistreating and under-paying Theme Park employees ? What if they were foul creatures of the dungeon instead ?
See what i’m getting at ? It was really with Keeper that Bullfrog’s style started to make sense. I still have my original copy close at hand to fire it up whenever I get frustrated with NWN or other RPG’s , or with The Sims or MMORPG’s fod that matter. EVIL IS GOOD !
September 6, 2020 at 12:24 am
The first Bullfrog game not to be ported at all to lower-powered platforms like the Amiga,
Makes me so sad. when I first got my Amiga all my friends were jealous of its capabilities. Over the years they stayed essentially the same while the MS-DOS and consoles I proved exponentially.
September 6, 2020 at 7:15 am
Great article! I have a sudden urge to take another run at Syndicate…
September 9, 2020 at 10:41 pm
Managed to win Syndicate yesterday (something young me wasn’t able to do), really fits the MO here.
The economy breaks after the first couple of missions. The “tech-tree research” aspect is completed half-way through, making the next two-dozen levels pretty-much identical as your overpowered cyborgs machinegun everything that moves, and after getting all the way through, your prize is getting dumped directly to the credits. (Not even a “congratulations” message)
I wonder if they actually intended for anyone to play through the whole thing!
September 6, 2020 at 8:25 pm
If nothing else, I think Molyneux is proof that people are complicated. He can say something incredibly arrogant and then in the next breath something incredibly humble. He’s weirdly prescient in broad strokes, yet fails to read the room on every game. The consensus seems to have settled on “mild sociopathy” to describe him. People say he’s fundamentally arrogant, but has learned how to say humble things to offset it. I don’t know if that’s fair, never having met him.
I think of him as a one-hit wonder. Populous was, as far as I can tell, the only successful (and good) game he ever actually made. The other amazing stuff that came out of Bullfrog (Syndicate & Dungeon Keeper), he was not involved with beyond giving all the press interviews about them. The vast majority of Bullfrog’s output, contrary to popular perception, was mediocre sequels. Everything Molyneux personally did after Populous were basically bad games with some good ideas in them, like Fable and Black And White. His reputation for over promising and under delivering is very well deserved, if you read his press leading up to both those releases.
Overall I think the gaming world is better off with Molyneux in it, and as Jimmy says, the press is probably a little too hard on him, but I do think he’s also kind of a tool. People are messy.
September 6, 2020 at 11:41 pm
> Magic Carpet even had a special stereoscopic 3D mode, for those able to buy or make 3D glasses to suit.
Not just a glasses mode! It had a random-dot stereogram mode as well, capitalizing on the “Magic Eye” book fad from the same time period. It was difficult to actually use for any period of time, but I remember playing a few levels this way just for the novelty value of it.
September 7, 2020 at 2:50 am
He’s a fascinating guy. I saw him speak at GDC in 2001 (?) and he is obviously a big thinker. I remember buying his masterpiece Black & White but just not getting into it. Maybe it was me ;-)
September 8, 2020 at 2:23 pm
“better than discussing it”
Is that meant to say “disguising”?
September 8, 2020 at 2:32 pm
November 7, 2020 at 11:41 pm
I think this article doesn’t put Populous II in the proper context. Yes, I perfectly know that Molyneux downplayed It in several interviews: “I hated It with passion” “just more of the same” and such… And so what? Or, to rephrase, what better proof of the game’s greatness could you Imagine?
Reviews back then were absolutely beaming and assessed the game more correctly than today: with the new powers variety, the different strategies increased tenfold; the quicker pace you could have at the game by skipping levels according to performance, and the overall better rythm due to the sequence of deities to fight, this stands as a definitive improvement over the original and the only Bullfrog title to escape all the criticism found in the article (the grinding, the lack of direction, the shooting all the best bullets in the first hour of gameplay)… I repeat, Molyneux isn’t convinced by It, what better proof that we’re in front of Bullfrog’s very best. Because he was frontman and spokeperson, but It’s quite clear that after the initial Populous lucky strike, the creative team worked the best the farthest removed he was from a project.
September 1, 2021 at 1:01 pm
It’s also worth noting that the lead programmer and co-designer of Theme Park was none other than Demis Hassabis, CEO of Deep Mind.
November 1, 2022 at 7:27 am
“even if we can’t quite praise any one them as a standalone masterpiece”
You’re missing a word in that sentence.
November 2, 2022 at 10:08 am