Molyneux, God of Gods Part 1: Populous / 19th of February 2015
The Peter Molyneux story stretches back thirty years, to when Guildford was a name that bore no connection whatsoever to the home computing and gaming boom that was taking over the rest of the country, in fact, it was a town with just one solitary specialist computer shop, Guildford Computer Centre. It was here that the young Molyneux would frequent and meet the man with whom he would venture towards gaming greatness, yet it was not his first foray in development. In 1984, the budding coder released his first attempt at a creating a game, it was a text based business simulator, and it failed to shift the kind of quantities that he had expected it to, yet it would have a massive impact on Molyneux’s career. The Guildford Computer Centre was owned by man called Les Edgar, who got chatting to his regular customer, and upon learning of the many traits that the two had in common, the two decided to start their own business developing bespoke databases for businesses.
They called their venture Taurus Impex and moved into the space above the computer shop. Reliant upon an influx of contract work from businesses, Taurus didn’t prove to be too profitable for them, yet their fortunes changed greatly when they were suddenly contacted by Commodore, who were on the verge of launching the Amiga. The pair were taken to the company’s headquarters to see the new computer in action, as it turns out, Commodore had actually confused them with a drain inspection company, yet the pair rolled with it in the hopes of acquiring some brand new Amiga computers, and Commodore happily obliged. By the time the mistake was realised, Edgar and Molyneux were already developing a fantastic piece of database software known as Acquisition, and given that Commodore were set to target businesses as the primary customer base for their powerful device, the pair seemed to be a good fit. Commodore continued to send the pair equipment up until the launch of the software, after which, both Molyneux and Edgar fielded an inordinate number of support calls from customers unable to properly utilise Taurus Impex’s highly complex work. Yet this, strangely, was the beginning of Molyneux’s involvement in the gaming industry.
Taurus Impex were quickly running out of money, they were spending all of their time debugging their software ad taking calls rather than developing any new products, yet at this time, they met a man named Andrew Bailey, he was part of a small development team that had created a shooter called Enlightenment: Druid II for the Commodore 64, the lucky break though, was that they were looking for a team to convert it to the Amiga. Taurus bluffed their way into the job, though they certainly had experience in working with the platform in question, they had never creating moving objects on it before. The secured £4,000 for the deal and promptly set to work. The pair brought in a third programmer, Glen Corpes, and the team rebranded themselves to something more suitable for the games industry, they called themselves Bullfrog Productions.
In 1988, the new team released their first original title, Fusion, yet the team soon found themselves in a dire financial position. Whilst Corpes was a programmer by trade, the team had hired him as an artist, working with the Atari ST to familiarise himself with the hardware – and with coding once more – he discovered something that would dictate the style of the team’s next game. Taking the isometric viewpoint of many of the 8-bit era’s greatest releases, Corpes quickly created a demonstration to show the rest of the team, it was landscape composed of many simple blocks, yet with the addition of a routine that had written, he had developed a means of coaxing randomly generated landscapes out of the hardware. Molyneux took Corpes’ code and set to work on it, disappearing for as much as four days, before finally emerging with the next evolution of Corpes’ technology, he had transformed the simple, angular environment into a living world complete with people and houses. The inhabitants seemed to clamber their way around the world of their own free will, yet he had created a method that would encourage them to set out to discover pastures new, and it was his apparent lack of coding ability that actually created one of the game’s defining features. Unable to correctly dictate the populace’s behaviour, he instead found a way of deterring them from moving in a certain direction by raising the land to prevent their progress. From this, the people would automatically start to search out flat sections of the area to build homes and establish communities upon, and it would therefore be the player’s role to manipulate the land to create enough flatland for the population to swell.
The team moved development across from the Atari ST to the Amiga, before adding in a two player option, this facilitated the addition of spells that the team added in, these being comprised of natural catastrophes that each player could unleash upon each other in a bid to set back their development. Initially, these were freely available, but sessions quickly descended into tit for tat tactics that quickly destroyed the tense atmosphere that the developer had previously attained so easily. To bring it back in without the need to sacrifice the spells, Peter Molyneux dreamed up the concept of mana, if players were limited by what actions they could pull off, they would obviously use them more sparingly. AI routines were developed to dictate the actions of a virtual player for solo play, and Molyneux introduced a few more interesting ideas that put the finishing touches on the game, such as the Papal Magnate ability and Armageddon spell. They had finally finished what the team had dubbed, Creation.
Bullfrog were now singularly responsible for creating the God game genre with Creation, and had honed it to the point of perfection through many hours of development and play, and yet surprisingly, they initially struggled to find a publisher for the game, most of whom still believed that the bulk of games should be kept to ten minute long arcade experiences. Strangely, despite having published Fusion for the team, Electronic Arts was not their first port of call in their search for a publisher on this occasion, yet it would be their last. EA immediately fell in love with the title and offered the developer an advance of £20,000 on it, and having discovered that the name Creation was in use elsewhere, it was EA that proposed the name that the world would come to know this ground-breaking release as, Populous. The praise from the gaming press was unanimous, many described it as being the greatest game ever made, and the consumer seemed to agree with them, having secured a ten percent royalty clause in their agreement, a cheque for an additional £13,000 turned up, followed by one for more than £200,000, and they simply kept rolling in after that, Bullfrog had hit the big time. From two men bluffing their way into a contract with Commodore to one of the most inventive and highly regarded videogame studios on the planet, Bullfrog’s rise was truly meteoric, yet it would be Peter Molyneux that most would remember long after the demise of the studio, his reputation as an industry great cemented with each subsequent release including Powermonger, Magic Carpet and Dungeon Keeper to name but a few. Bullfrog was acquired fully by EA in 1995, Molyneux remained there as a director for a further four years before leaving to establish a new development studio in the Guildford area, Lionhead, where he would again continue to produce some truly fascinating software, as is his forte.