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POPULOUS RETROSPECTIVE
May 15, 2010, 1:28 am
Filed under: Retrospectives | Tags: , , ,

1986, Surrey, England. Peter Molyneux, failed games designer and founder of Taurus Impact Systems, sits before a Commodore executive. It has just occurred to him that there’s been a terrible misunderstanding.

Commodore, keen to foster industry support for their new Amiga system, have reached out for networking solution specialists TORUS. They haven’t realised it yet, but in Molyneux and his fledgling database firm Taurus they’ve got the wrong man. It leaves Molyneux in an impossible situation. Should he deceive them to secure the eight free Amigas he desperately needs, or confess and risk walking away with nothing?

He can’t afford to fail this time. Just two years earlier, Molyneux invested everything he had into developing a videogame, Entrepreneur. It was a disaster, selling just two copies. Scolded, Molyneux turned to database design where he now finds himself. He can’t screw this up too. Those Amigas could be the difference between success and failure.

As he sees it, he doesn’t really have a choice. So Molyneux chooses his words wisely, shakes hands with the exec and flees the office. The Amigas are his.

Molyneux’s measured deception would inadvertently lead to a videogame revolution. With the TORUS confusion cleared up the database was released to modest success. Molyneux used the the profits to co-found the legendary Bullfrog Productions. Their first game would change the landscape of games forever. It was called Populous.

1990, Buckinghamshire, England. Lee Bradley (that’s me), 11 years old, sits beneath a Christmas tree surrounded by wrapping paper and bored relatives. As is the Bradley tradition, we must open all of our gifts before we’re allowed to open our “main” present.

I politely peel the wrapping paper from shower gel and socks, pencil cases and pyjamas, but my mind is on the thick rectangular package I know lurks further beneath the tree. A Megadrive game, I hope. But which one?

The object of this mild pre-teen angst was, of course, Populous. It had all the magazines frothing with excitement. While most other games charge you with guiding a cartoon character from left to right, Populous gave you control of an entire world. The first ever god game, it was a revelation.

I had played it before, in unsatisfying snippets at friend’s houses. But it wasn’t enough. Populous was a game that demanded you lose yourself in its world, to envelop yourself in its intricacies. It certainly wasn’t a controller-swapper. Once you’ve had a taste of divine power, it’s hard to let go. I had to have it.

I needn’t have worried. The mysterious game beneath the tree was indeed Bullfrog’s debut. Populous was mine and after sitting through a seemingly endless Christmas dinner, I left my snoozing relatives downstairs and dissapeared to my room. I don’t think I came out until June.

The beauty of Populous was that you could use or abuse your celestial authority as you saw fit. Tasked with defeating an opposing god by destroying his followers, you are offered what was then an unparalleled amount of choice. You could be an altruistic almighty dedicated to the prosperity of your people, a dastardly diety who terrorises the world, or a balanced leader embracing holy harmony.

My 11 year-old self was unrepentantly evil.

At the core of the game is the ability to flatten the land, making it hospitable to your underlings, or inhospitable to your enemies. Create enough and your people can multiply and prosper. As they do so, your godly powers will increase, allowing you access to devastating old testament destruction. Volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, swamps, all are available to smite your foe. Unleashing a volcano in the middle of the opposing god’s civilisation was the most satisfying act I had ever experienced in a videogame.

It was the best Christmas I ever had.

2009, BAFTA Headquarters, London. The man that made Christmas 1990 so memorable is stood 10 feet away from me, delivering the annual videogame lecture.

In the 20 years since the publication of Populous, Molyneux has risen to the very pinnacle of the industry. A relentless innovator, the founder of Lionhead and creative director of Microsoft Game Studios, Europe has a string of honours to his name, including one from the Queen herself. Peter Molyneux OBE is a legend.

On stage Molyneux is speaking with his usual disarming honesty. Revisiting his early career and the genesis of Populous, he seems intent on systematically destroying the mystique of his revolutionary title. “I am actually a pretty poor programmer, well a very poor programmer and a pretty poor designer,” he says.

“You know the raising and lowering of land? Do you know that wasn’t a game design idea I had, that was actually because I couldn’t work out how to do something called wall hugging. Wall hugging is when little people go up against a wall and supposed to navigate left and right, I couldn’t do it, I wasn’t a smart enough programmer so I though ‘Oh damn it, I will just get the player to do it.’ Hence that whole genre was born.”

So despite its divinity, Populous’ birth was an entirely human affair, a theme that continues into Molyneux’s marketing of the game. Gesturing towards an image of the game projected against the back wall, he says. “I want you to have a look at that. That’s 320 by 200 pixels. the little men on there, the faces of the little men were made up out of four by four pixels. I was saying in the press at that time, ‘Look at the emotion in that face, look at those little eyes wink, look at the curiosity of the people, they have real free will.’”

Even at this early stage of his career, Molyneux’s sense of hyperbole was fully formed.

So in many ways, while being his first game of note, Populous set the blueprint for the entirety of Molyneux’s career. A game of choices and blurred morality, born of a judicious choice of words, marketed with typically overzealous hyperbole, yet massively inovative and hugely influential – it bears all the hallmarks of its creator. You could just as easily apply those words to Dungeon Keeper, Black and White or Fable. Surely Milo and Kate and Fable 3 will be no different.

Yet Populous is also an achievement that Molyneux has never topped. Fable 2, his last game, was released in 2008 and quickly became the Xbox 360’s biggest-selling RPG, shifting 4 million copies. A great achievement. Although perhaps not when you consider that 4 million copies is exactly what Populous sold. Molyneux sees this commercial innertia as his major shortcoming.

Regardless, for this perenial 11 year-old, even if Fable 3 or Milo and Kate goes on to sell 20 million copies, Molyneux will never achieve more than he did with Populous. It’s a truly devine accomplishment. Not bad for a failed game designer with poor programming skills.

[This article originally appeared on the awesome, yet short-lived, B4HD]

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