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Bullfrog after Populous

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.

The graphics in Powermonger got a dramatic upgrade over those in Populous, yielding not only aesthetic but also practical benefits: it was now possible to rotate your view of the landscape and zoom it in and out as needed, while the variety of landscape features was dramatically greater. “In Populous,” noted Molyneux, “we had hills, houses, and rivers. Thanks to this new system, we’re able to generate waterfalls, cliffs, valleys, mountains, proper towns, road networks, forests… it’s a real world!”

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.

Populous II. Molyneux admits to feeling “ashamed” at the time to be doing a sequel at all, but he felt obligated to deliver a direct follow-up to such a massive hit. He considers Populous II a reasonable but somewhat unimaginative sequel, which in rather typical industry fashion added a lot more stuff to the template of its predecessor in the form of new godly powers, but failed to drill down on what actually made the original fun. A fair assessment, I think.

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.”

The Peter Molyneux toilet interview for Zero magazine in December of 1991. Molyneux had by then perfected the art of press relations, which in the case of the gaming magazines often came down to the simple expedient of taking the youthful journalists down to the pub and getting them blind drunk.

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.

And this:

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.

Syndicate

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.

Theme Park

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.

It’s really hard to know what parts of Theme Park to attribute to intentional subversiveness and what parts to simple tone-deafness. The intro video is a perfect case in point. Was Bullfrog aware of just how weird and creepy this thing is? The dog has the right idea: “Hell, no, leave me at home!”

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?

A ride goes haywire and a kid goes flying. I’m pretty sure this part is deliberately subversive…

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.

The graphics in Magic Carpet remain strikingly beautiful to this day.

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 computers1 but was literally designed for it first and foremost. That is to say that a serial or network link-up went into PopulousPowermongerPopulous 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 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. 

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2020 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Peter Molyneux’s Kingdom in a Box

Peter Molyneux, circa 1990

Peter Molyneux, circa 1990.

I have this idea of a living world, which I have never achieved. It’s based upon this picture in my head, and I can see what it’s like to play that game. Every time I do it, then it maybe gets closer to that ideal. But it’s an ambitious thing.

— Peter Molyneux

One day as a young boy, Peter Molyneux stumbled upon an ant hill. He promptly did what young boys do in such situations: he poked it with a stick, watching the inhabitants scramble around as destruction rained down from above. But then, Molyneux did something that set him apart from most young boys. Feeling curious and maybe a little guilty, he gave the ants some sugar for energy and watched quietly as they methodically undid the damage to their home. Just like that, he woke up to the the idea of little living worlds with lots of little living inhabitants — and to the idea of he himself, the outsider, being able to affect the lives of those inhabitants. The blueprint had been laid for one of the most prominent and influential careers in the history of game design. “I have always found this an interesting mechanic, the idea that you influence the game as opposed to controlling the game,” he would say years later. “Also, the idea that the game can continue without you.” When Molyneux finally grew bored and walked away from the ant hill on that summer day in his childhood, it presumably did just that, the acts of God that had nearly destroyed it quickly forgotten. Earth — and ants — abide.

Peter Molyneux was born in the Surrey town of Guildford (also hometown of, read into it what you will, Ford Prefect) in 1959, the son of an oil-company executive and a toy-shop proprietor. To hear him tell it, he was qualified for a career in computer programming largely by virtue of being so hopeless at everything else. Being dyslexic, he found reading and writing extremely difficult, a handicap that played havoc with his marks at Bearwood College, the boarding school in the English county of Berkshire to which his family sent him for most of his teenage years. Meanwhile his less than imposing physique boded ill for a career in the military or manual labor. Thankfully, near the end of his time at Bearwood the mathematics department acquired a Commodore PET,  while the student union almost simultaneously installed a Space Invaders machine. Seeing a correspondence between these two pieces of technology that eluded his fellow students, Molyneux set about trying to program his own Space Invaders on the PET, using crude character glyphs to represent the graphics that the PET, being a text-only machine, couldn’t actually draw. No matter. A programmer had been born.

These events, followed shortly by Molyneux’s departure from Bearwood to face the daunting prospect of the adult world, were happening at the tail end of the 1970s. Like so many of the people I’ve profiled on this blog, Molyneux was thus fortunate enough to be born not only into a place and circumstances that would permit a career in games, but at seemingly the perfect instant to get in on the ground floor as well. But, surprisingly for a fellow who would come to wear his huge passion for the medium on his sleeve — often almost as much to the detriment as to the benefit of his games and his professional life — Molyneux took a meandering path filling fully another decade to rise to prominence in the field. Or, to put it less kindly: he failed, repeatedly and comprehensively, at every venture he tried for most of the 1980s before he finally found the one that clicked.

Perhaps inspired by his mother’s toy shop, his original dream was to be not so much a game designer as a computer entrepreneur. After earning a degree in computer science from Southampton University, he found himself a job working days as a systems analyst for a big company. By night, he formed a very small company called Vulcan in his hometown of Guildford to implement a novel scheme for selling blank disks. He wrote several simple programs: a music creator, some mathematics drills, a business simulator, a spelling quiz. (The last, having been created by a dyslexic and terrible speller in general, was a bit of a disaster.) For every ten disks you bought for £10, you would get one of the programs for free along with your blank disks. After placing his tiny advertisement in a single magazine, Molyneux was so confident of the results that he told his local post office to prepare for a deluge of mail, and bought a bigger mailbox for his house to hold it all. He got five orders in the first ten days, less than fifty in the scheme’s total lifespan — along with about fifty more inquiries from people who had no interest in the blank disks but just wanted to buy his software.

Taking their interest to heart, Molyneux embarked on Scheme #2. He improved the music creator and the business simulator and tried to sell them as products in their own right. Even years later he would remain proud of the latter in particular — his first original game, which he named Entrepreneur: “I really put loads of features into it. You ran a business and you could produce anything you liked. You had to do things like keep the manufacturing line going, set the price for your product, decide what advertising you wanted, and these random events would happen.” With contests all the rage in British games at the time, he offered £100 to the first person to make £1 million in Entrepreneur. The prize went unclaimed; the game sold exactly two copies despite being released near the zenith of the early-1980s British mania for home computers. “Everybody around me was making an absolute fortune,” Molyneux remembers. “You had to be a complete imbecile in those days not to make a fortune. Yet here I was with Entrepreneur and Composer, making nothing.” He wasn’t, it appeared, very good at playing his own game of entrepreneurship; his own £1 million remained far out of reach. Nevertheless, he moved on to the next scheme.

Scheme #3 was to crack the business and personal-productivity markets via a new venture called Taurus, initiated by Molyneux and his friend Les Edgar, who were later joined by one Kevin Donkin. Molyneux having studied accounting at one time in preparation for a possible career in the field (“the figures would look so messy that no one would ever employ me”), it was decided that Taurus would initially specialize in financial software with exciting names like Taurus Accounts, Taurus Invoicing, and Taurus Stock Control. Those products, like all the others Molyneux had created, went nowhere. But now came a bizarre story of mistaken identity that… well, it wouldn’t make Molyneux a prominent game designer just yet, but it would move him further down the road to that destination.

Commodore was about to launch the Amiga in Britain, and, this being early on when they still saw it as potential competition for the IBMs of the world, was looking to convince makers of productivity software to write for the machine.  They called up insignificant little Taurus of all people to request a meeting to discuss porting the “new software” the latter had in the works to the Amiga. Molyneux and Edgar assumed Commodore must have somehow gotten wind of a database program they were working on. In a state of no small excitement, they showed up at Commodore UK’s headquarters on the big day and met a representative. Molyneux:

He kept talking about “the product,” and I thought they were talking about the database. At the end of the meeting, they say, “We’re really looking forward to getting your network running on the Amiga.” And it suddenly dawned on me that this guy didn’t know who we were. Now, we were called Taurus, as in the star sign. He thought we were Torus, a company that produced networking systems. I suddenly had this crisis of conscience. I thought, “If this guy finds out, there go my free computers down the drain.” So I just shook his hand and ran out of that office.

An appropriately businesslike advertisement for Taurus's database manager gives no hint of what lies in the company's futures.

An appropriately businesslike advertisement for Taurus’s database manager gives no hint of what actually lies in the company’s future…

By the time Commodore figured out they had made a terrible mistake, Taurus had already been signed as official Amiga developers and given five free Amigas. They parlayed those things into a two-year career as makers of somewhat higher-profile but still less than financially successful productivity software for the Amiga. After the database, which they named Acquisition and declared “the most complete database system conceived on any microcomputer” — Peter Molyneux’s habit of over-promising, which gamers would come to know all too well, was already in evidence — they started on a computer-aided-design package called X-CAD Designer. Selling in the United States for the optimistic prices of $300 and $500 respectively, both programs got lukewarm reviews; they were judged powerful but kind of incomprehensible to actually use. But even had the reviews been better, high-priced productivity software was always going to be a hard sell on the Amiga. There were just three places to really make money in Amiga software: in personal-creativity software like paint programs, in video-production tools, and, most of all, in games. In spite of all of Commodore’s earnest efforts to the contrary, the Amiga had by now become known first and foremost as the world’s greatest gaming computer.

The inspiration for the name of Bullfrog Software.

The inspiration for Bullfrog Software.

Molyneux and his colleagues therefore began to wind down their efforts in productivity software in favor of a new identity. They renamed their company Bullfrog after a ceramic figurine they had lying around in the “squalor” of what Molyneux describes as their “absolutely shite” office in a Guildford pensioner’s attic. Under the new name, they planned to specialize in games — Scheme #4 for Peter Molyneux. “We had a simple choice of hitting our head against a brick wall with business software,” he remembers, “or doing what I really wanted to do with my life anyway, which was write games.” Having made the choice to make Bullfrog a game developer, their first actual product was not a game but a simple drum sequencer for the Amiga called A-Drum. Hobgoblins and little minds and all the rest. When A-Drum duly flopped, they finally got around to games.

A friend of Molyneux’s had written a budget-priced action-adventure for the Commodore 64 called Druid II: Enlightenment, and was looking for someone to do an Amiga conversion. Bullfrog jumped at the chance, even though Molyneux, who would always persist in describing himself as a “rubbish” programmer, had very little idea how to program an action game. When asked by Enlightenment‘s publisher Firebird whether he could do the game in one frame — i.e., whether he could update everything onscreen within a single pass of the electron gun painting the screen to maintain the impression of smooth, fluid movement — an overeager Molyneux replied, “Are you kidding me? I can do it in ten frames!” It wasn’t quite the answer Firebird was looking for. But in spite of it all, Bullfrog somehow got the job, producing what Molyneux describes as a “technically rather poor” port of what had been a rather middling game in the first place. (Molyneux’s technique for getting everything drawn in one frame was to simply keep shrinking the size of the display until even his inefficient routines could do the job.) And then, as usual for everything Molyneux touched, it flopped. But Bullfrog did get two important things out of the project: they learned much about game programming, and they recruited as artist for the project one Glenn Corpes, who was not only a talented pixel pusher but also a talented programmer and fount of ideas almost the equal of Molyneux.

Despite the promising addition of Corpes, the first original game conjured up by the slowly expanding Bullfrog fared little better than Enlightenment. Corpes and Kevin Donkin turned out a very of-its-time top-down shoot-em-up called Fusion, which Electronic Arts agreed to release. Dismissed as “a mixture of old ideas presented in a very unexciting manner” by reviewers, Fusion was even less impressive technically than had been the Enlightenment port, being plagued by clashing colors and jittery scrolling — not at all the sort of thing to impress the notoriously audiovisually-obsessed Amiga market. Thus Fusion flopped as well, keeping Molyneux’s long record of futility intact. But then, unexpectedly from this group who’d shown so little sign of ever rising above mediocrity, came genius.

To describe Populous as a stroke of genius would be a misnomer. It was rather a game that grew slowly into its genius over a considerable period of time, a game that Molyneux himself considers more an exercise in evolution than conscious design. “It wasn’t an idea that suddenly went ‘Bang!'” he says. “It was an idea that grew and grew.” And its genesis had as much to do with Glenn Corpes as it did with Peter Molyneux.

Every Populous world is built out of combinations of just 16 blocks.

Every Populous world is built out of combinations of just 56 blocks.

It all began when Corpes started showing off a routine he had written which let him build isometric landscapes out of three-dimensional blocks, like a virtual Lego set. You could move the viewpoint about the landscape, raising and lowering the land by left-clicking to add new blocks, right-clicking to remove them. Molyneux was immediately sure there was a game in there somewhere. His childhood memory of the ant farm leaping to mind, he said, “Let’s have a thousand people running around on it.”

Populous thus began with those little people in lieu of ants, wandering independently over Corpes’s isometric landscapes in real time. When they found a patch they liked, they would settle down, building little huts. Since, this being a computer game, the player would obviously need something to do as well, Molyneux started adding ways for you, as a sort of God on high, to influence the people’s behavior in indirect ways. He added something he called a “Papal Magnet,” a huge ankh you could place in the world to draw your people toward a given spot. But there would come a problem if the way to the Ankh happened to be blocked by, say, a lake. Molyneux claims he added Populous‘s most basic mechanic, the thing you spend by far the most time doing when playing the game, as a response to his “incompetence” as a coder and resulting inability to write a proper path-finding algorithm: when your people get stuck somewhere, you can, subject to your mana reserves — even gods have limits — raise or lower the land to help them out. With that innovation, Populous from the player’s perspective became largely an exercise in terraforming, creating smooth, even landscapes on which your people can build their huts, villages, and eventually castles. As your people become fruitful and multiply, their prayers fuel your mana reserves.

Next, Molyneux added warfare to the picture. Now you would be erecting mountains and lakes to protect your people from their enemies, who start out walking about independently on the other side of the world. The ultimate goal of the game, of course, is to use your people to wipe out your enemy’s people before they do the same to you; this is a very Old Testament sort of religious experience. To aid in that goal, Molyneux gradually added lots of other godly powers to your arsenal, more impressive than the mere raising and lowering of land if also far more expensive in terms of precious mana: flash floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc. You know, all your standard acts of God, as found in the Bible and insurance claims.

Lego Populous. Bullfrog had so much fun with this implementation of the idea that they seriously discussed trying to turn it into a commercial board game.

Lego Populous. Bullfrog had so much fun with this implementation of the idea that they seriously discussed trying to turn it into a commercial board game.

Parts of Populous were prototyped on the tabletop. Bullfrog used Lego bricks to represent the landscapes, a handy way of implementing the raising-and-lowering mechanic in a physical space. They went so far as to discuss a license with Lego, only to be told that Lego didn’t support “violent games.” Molyneux admits that the board game, while playable, was very different from the computerized Populous, playing out as a slow-moving, chess-like exercise in strategy. The computer Populous, by contrast, can get as frantic as any action game, especially in the final phase when all the early- and mid-game maneuvering and feinting comes down to the inevitable final genocidal struggle between Good and Evil.

Bullfrog. From left: Glenn Corpes (artist), Shaun Cooper (tester), Peter Molyneux (designer and programmer), Kevin Donkin (designer and programmer), Les Edgar (office manager), Andy Jones (artist and tester).

Bullfrog. From left: Glenn Corpes (artist and programmer), Shaun Cooper (artist and tester), Peter Molyneux (designer and programmer), Kevin Donkin (designer and programmer), Les Edgar (office manager), Andy Jones (artist and tester).

Ultimately far more important to the finished product than Bullfrog’s Lego Populous were the countless matches Molyneux played on the computer against Glenn Corpes. Apart from all of its other innovations in helping to invent the god-game and real-time-strategy genres, Populous was also a pioneering effort in online gaming. Multi-player games — the only way to play Populous for many months — took place between two people seated at two separate Amigas, connected together via modem or, if together in the same room as Molyneux and Corpes were, via a cable. Vanishingly few other designers were working in this space at the time, for understandable reasons: even leaving aside the fact that the majority of computer owners didn’t own modems, running a multi-player game in real-time over a connection as slow as 1200 baud was hardly a programming challenge for the faint-hearted. The fact that it works at all in Populous rather puts the lie to Molyneux’s self-deprecating description of himself as a “rubbish” coder.

You draw your people toward different parts of the map by placing the Papal Magnet. The first one to touch it becomes the leader. There are very few words in the game, which made it much easier to localize and popularize across Europe. Everything is done using the initially incomprehensible suite of icons you near the bottom of the screen.

You draw your people toward different parts of the map by placing the Papal Magnet. The first one to touch it becomes the leader. There are very few words in the game, which only made it that much easier for Electronic Arts to localize and popularize across Europe. Everything is instead done using the initially incomprehensible suite of icons you near the bottom of the screen. Populous does become intuitive in time, but it’s not without a learning curve.

Development of Populous fell into a comfortable pattern. Molyneux and Corpes would play together for several hours every evening, then nip off to the pub to talk about their experiences. Next day, they’d tweak the game, then they’d go at it again. It’s here that we come to the beating heart of Molyneux’s description of Populous as a game evolved rather than designed. Almost everything in the finished game beyond the basic concept was added in response to Molyneux and Corpes’s daily wars. For instance, Molyneux initially added knights, super-powered individuals who can rampage through enemy territory and cause a great deal of havoc in a very short period of time, to prevent their games from devolving into endless stalemates. “A game could get to the point where both players had massive populations,” he says, “and there was just no way to win.” With knights, the stronger player “could go and massacre the other side and end the game at a stroke.”

A constant theme of all the tweaking was to make a more viscerally exciting game that played more quickly. For commercial as well as artistic reasons — Amiga owners weren’t particularly noted for their patience with slow-paced, cerebral games — this was considered a priority. Over the course of development, the length of the typical game Molyneux played with Corpes shrank from several hours to well under one.

Give them time, and your people will turn their primitive villages into castles -- and no, the drawing isn't quite done to scale.

Give them time, and your people will turn their primitive huts into castles.

Even tweaked to play quickly and violently, Populous was quite a departure from the tried-and-true Amiga fare of shoot-em-ups, platformers, and action-adventures. The unenviable task of trying to sell the thing to a publisher was given to Les Edgar. After visiting about a dozen publishers, he convinced Electronic Arts take a chance on it. Bullfrog promised EA a finished Populous in time for Christmas 1988. By the time that deadline arrived, however, it was still an online multiplayer-only game, a prospect EA knew to be commercially untenable. Molyneux and his colleagues thus spent the next few months creating Populous‘s single-player “Conquest Mode.”

In addition to the green and pleasant land of the early levels, there are also worlds of snow and ice, desert worlds, and even worlds of fire and lava to conquer.

In addition to the green and pleasant land of the early levels, there are also worlds of snow and ice, desert worlds, and even worlds of fire and lava to conquer.

Perilously close to being an afterthought to the multi-player experience though it was, Conquest Mode would be the side of the game that the vast majority of its eventual players would come to know best if not exclusively. Rather than design a bunch of scenarios by hand, Bullfrog wrote an algorithm to procedurally generate 500 different “worlds” for play against a computer opponent whose artificial intelligence also had to be created from scratch during this period. This method of content creation, used most famously by Ian Bell and David Braben in Elite, was something of a specialty and signpost of British game designers, who, plagued by hardware limitations far more stringent than their counterparts in the United States, often used it as a way to minimize the space their games consumed in memory and on disk. Most recently, Geoff Crammond’s hit game The Sentinel, published by Firebird, had used a similar scheme. Glenn Corpes believes it may have been an EA executive named Joss Ellis who first suggested it to Bullfrog.

Populous‘s implementation is fairly typical of the form. Each of the 500 worlds except the first is protected by a password that is, like everything else, itself procedurally generated. When you win at a given level, you’re given the password to a higher, harder level; whether and how many levels you get to skip is determined by how resounding a victory you’ve just managed. It’s a clever scheme, packing a hell of a lot of potential gameplay onto a single floppy disk and even making an effort to avoid boring the good player — and all without forcing Bullfrog to deal with the complications of actually storing any state whatsoever onto disk.

It inevitably all comes down to a frantic final free-for-all between your people and those of your enemy.

It inevitably all comes down to a frantic final free-for-all between your people and those of your enemy.

Given their previous failures, Bullfrog understandably wasn’t the most confident group when a well-known British games journalist named Bob Wade, who had already played a pre-release version of the game, came by for a visit. For hours, Molyneux remained too insecure to actually ask Wade the all-important question of what he thought of the game. At last, after Wade had joined the gang for “God knows how many” pints at their local, Molyneux worked up the courage to pop the question. Wade replied that it was the best game he’d ever played, and he couldn’t wait to get back to it — prompting Molyneux to think he must have made some sort of mistake, and that under no circumstances should he be allowed to play another minute of it in case his opinion should change. It was Wade and the magazine he was writing for at the time, ACE (Advanced Computer Entertainment), who coined the term “god game” in the glowing review that followed, the first trickle of a deluge of praise from the gaming press in Britain and, soon enough, much of the world.

Bullfrog’s first royalty check for Populous was for a modest £13,000. Their next was for £250,000, prompting a naive Les Edgar to call Electronic Arts about it, sure it was a mistake. It was no mistake; Populous alone reportedly accounted for one-third of EA’s revenue during its first year on the market. That Bullfrog wasn’t getting even bigger checks was a sign only of the extremely unfavorable deal they’d signed with EA from their position of weakness. Populous finally and definitively ended the now 30-year-old Peter Molyneux’s long run of obscurity and failure at everything he attempted. In his words, he went overnight from “urinating in the sink” and “owing more money than I could ever imagine paying back” to “an incredible life” in games. Port after port came out for the next couple of years, each of them becoming a bestseller on its platform. Populous was selected to become one of the launch titles for the Super Nintendo console in Japan, spawning a full-blown fad there that came to encompass comic books, tee-shirts, collectibles, and even a symphony concert. When they visited Japan for the first time on a promotional tour, Molyneux and Les Edgar were treated like… well, appropriately enough, like gods. Populous sold 3 million copies in all according to some reports, an almost inconceivable figure for a game during this period.

Amidst all its other achievements, Populous was also something of a pioneer in the realm of e-sports. The One magazine and Electronic Arts hosted a tournament to find the best player in Britain.

The One magazine and Electronic Arts hosted a tournament to find the best Populous player in Britain.

While a relatively small percentage of Populous players played online, those who did became pioneers of sorts in their own right. Some bulletin-board systems set up matchmaking services to pair up players looking for a game, any time, day or night; the resulting connections sometimes spanned national borders or even oceans. The matchmakers were aided greatly by Bullfrog’s forward-thinking decision to make all versions of Populous compatible with one another in terms of online play. In making it so quick and easy to find an online opponent, these services prefigured the modern world of Internet-enabled online gaming. Molyneux pronounced them “pretty amazing,” and at the time they really were. In 1992, he spoke excitedly of a recent trip to Japan, where’d he seen a town “with 10,000 homes all linked together. You can play games with anybody in the place. It’s enormous, really enormous, and it’s growing.” If only he’d known what online gaming would grow into in the next decade or two…

A youngster named Andrew Reader wound up winning the tournament, only to get trounced in an exhibitio match by the master, Peter Molyneux himself. There was talk of televising a follow-up tournament on Sky TV, but it doesn't appear to have happened.

A youngster named Andrew Reader wound up winning the tournament, only to get trounced in an exhibition match by the master, Peter Molyneux himself. There was talk of televising a follow-up tournament on Sky TV, but it doesn’t appear to have happened.

The original Amiga version of Populous had been released all but simultaneously with the Amiga version of SimCity. Press and public alike immediately linked the two games together; AmigaWorld magazine, for instance, went so far as to review them jointly in a single article. Both Will Wright of SimCity fame and Peter Molyneux were repeatedly asked in interviews whether they’d played the other’s game. Wright was polite but, one senses, a little disinterested in Populous, saying he “liked the idea of playing God and having a population follow you,” but “sort of wish they’d gone for a slightly more educational angle.” Molyneux was much more enthusiastic about his American counterpart’s work, repeatedly floating a scheme to somehow link the two games together in more literal fashion for online play.  He claimed at one point that Maxis (developers of SimCity) and his own Bullfrog had agreed on a liaison “to go backwards and forwards” between their two companies to work on linking their games. The liaison, he claimed, had “the Populous landscape moving to and from SimCity,” and a finished product would be out sometime in 1992. Like quite a number of the more unbelievable schemes Molyneux has floated over the years, it never happened.

The idea of a linkage between SimCity and Populous, whether taking place online or in the minds of press and public, can seem on the face of it an exceedingly strange one today. How would the online linkage actually work anyway? Would the little Medieval warriors from Populous suddenly start attacking SimCity‘s peaceful modern utopias? Or would Wright’s Sims plop themselves down in the middle of Molyneux’s apocalyptic battles and start building stadiums and power plants? These were very different games: Wright’s a noncompetitive, peaceful exercise in urban planning with strong overtones of edutainment; Molyneux’s a zero-sum game of genocidal warfare that aspired to nothing beyond entertainment. Knowing as we do today the future paths of these two designers — i.e., ever further in the directions laid down by these their first significant works — only heightens the seeming dichotomy.

That said, there actually were and are good reasons to think of SimCity and Populous as two sides of the same coin. For us today, the list includes first of all the reasons of simple historical concordance. Each marks the coming-out party of one of the most important game designers of all time, occurring within bare weeks of one another.

But of course the long-term importance of these two designers to their field wasn’t yet evident in 1989; obviously players were responding to something else in associating their games with one another. Once you stripped away their very different surface trappings and personalities, the very similar set of innovations at the heart of each was laid bare. AmigaWorld said it very well in that joint review: “The real joy of these programs is the interlocking relationships. Sure, you’re a creator, but even more a facilitator, influencer, and stage-setter for little computer people who act on your wishes in their own time and fashion.” It’s no coincidence that, just as Peter Molyneux was partly inspired by an ant hill to create Populous, one of Will Wright’s projects of the near future would be the virtual ant farm SimAnt. In creating the first two god games, the two were indeed implementing a very similar core idea, albeit each in his own very different way.

Joel Billings of the king of American strategy games SSI had founded his company back in 1979 with the explicit goal of making computerized versions of the board games he loved. SimCity and Populous can be seen as the point when computer strategy games transcended that traditional approach. The real-time nature of these games makes them impossible to conceive of as anything other than computer-based works, while their emergent complexity makes them objects of endless fascination for their designers as much or more so for than their players.

In winning so many awards and entrancing so many players for so long, SimCity and Populous undoubtedly benefited hugely from their sheer novelty. Their flaws stand out more clearly today. With its low-resolution graphics and without the aid of modern niceties like tool tips and graphical overlays, SimCity struggles to find ways to communicate vital information about what your city is really doing and why, making the game into something of an unsatisfying black box unless and until you devote a lot of time and effort to understanding what affects what. Populous has many of the same interface frustrations, along with other problems that feel still more fundamental and intractable, especially if you, like the vast majority of players back in its day, experience it through its single-player Conquest Mode. Clever as they are, the procedurally generated levels combined with the fairly rudimentary artificial intelligence of your computer opponent introduce a lot of infelicities. Eventually you begin to realize that one level is pretty much the same as any other; you just need to execute the same set of strategies and tactics more efficiently to have success at the higher levels.

Both Will Wright and Peter Molyneux are firm adherents to the experimental, boundary-pushing school of game design — an approach that yields innovative games but not necessarily holistically good games every time out. And indeed, throughout his long career each of them has produced at least as many misses as hits, even if we dismiss the complaints of curmudgeons like me and lump SimCity and Populous into the category of the hits. Both designers have often fallen into the trap, if trap it be, of making games that are more interesting for creators and commentators than they are fun for actual players. And certainly both have, like all of us, their own blind spots: in relying so heavily on scientific literature to inform his games, Wright has often produced end results with something of the feel of a textbook, while Molyneux has often lacked the discipline and gravitas to fully deliver on his most grandiose schemes.

But you know what? It really doesn’t matter. We need our innovative experimentalists to blaze new trails, just as we need our more sober, holistically-minded designers to exploit the terrain they discover. SimCity and Populous would be followed by decades of games that built on the possibilities they revealed — many of which I’d frankly prefer to play today than these two original ground-breakers. But, again, that reality doesn’t mean we should celebrate SimCity and Populous one iota less, for both resoundingly pass the test of historical significance. The world of gaming would be a much poorer place without Will Wright and Peter Molyneux and their first living worlds inside a box.

(Sources: The Official Strategy Guide for Populous and Populous II by Laurence Scotford; Master Populous: Blueprints for World Power by Clayton Walnum; Amazing Computing of October 1989; Next Generation of November 1998; PC Review of July 1992; The One of April 1989, September 1989, and May 1991; Retro Gamer 44; AmigaWorld of December 1987, June 1989, and November 1989; The Games Machine of November 1988; ACE of April 1989; the bonus content to the film From Bedrooms to Billions. Archived online sources include features on Peter Molyneux and Bullfrog for Wired Online, GameSpot, and Edge Online. Finally, Molyneux’s postmortem on Populous at the 2011 Game Developers Conference.

Populous is available for purchase from GOG.com.)

 

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