Bullfrog Productions: A History Of The Legendary UK Developer
Populous, Syndicate, Magic Carpet and Theme Park: all from Bullfrog and recognised around the globe. Former employees inform Kim Wild how a mistake by Commodore resulted in the creation of classic software for a multitude of formats.
To look at a full history of Bullfrog, we need to go back to 1982 when Les Edgar first met Peter Molyneux. Les had just opened a computer retail outlet in Guildford, focusing on the sales of Tandy machines (later BBC, Apple and Olivetti), when Peter arrived looking for a computer that would use the database software he had been writing for his employers.
It was a meeting that formed a long-standing friendship. “I guess we just hit it off from that point on – we were almost the same age and shared a lot of interests, one of which was to succeed in business,” recalls Les.
“We had very much the same sense of humour and the unfaltering belief that one day we would be successful.” However, the retail side of the industry lacked challenge or excitement for Les (a qualified electronics engineer) so the two joined forces, opening their own software company, Taurus, responsible for creating bespoke databases for commercial clients.
Bulfrog’s Syndicate has stood the test of time as a iconic classic.
After some time, Commodore contacted the firm, mistaking it for another company named Torus and sent it several prototype Amiga machines. Within the world of databases, Les and Peter developed
a relational programmable database called Acquisition. It would prove to be a colossal mistake. “It makes me shudder to think about it now – even the name was a disaster,” says Les.
“The Americans didn’t associate the word ‘acquisition’ with data collection and thought we were selling some sort of company mergers software. Nevertheless, we managed to sign a distribution deal with a US company and sold them the first 1,000 units.
“Life was good, the bank was happy, we were drunk – at least until the first 200-page fax containing bugs and problems arrived on our desk. Turns out that in real life (as against our simplistic testing), real people tried to use the software with real data in commercial situations and it didn’t work.
“So, after spending all of our money fixing bugs and issuing a 50-page amendment to the manual, we had to question our future as commercial software developers.”
With the Amiga becoming increasingly used for game development, it occurred to Les that they could write games themselves. There was just one snag: they didn’t know how. The opportunity arose from a friend who had just finished Druid II for the Atari ST and needed someone to convert the game to the Amiga.
Bullfrog Productions was a huge creative force in the UK industry.
“We lied about our abilities and got the project,” says Les. “Although we didn’t make any money from this, we learnt how to move sprites on the screen and developed our own basic routines for animation. Turns out that games are just a big database – that was handy.”
“While this was going on, Peter was desperately fixing the Acquisition bugs while we were sorting out Druid II. In 1985 I founded Bullfrog in preparation for the time when Acquisition was out of our hair and we could concentrate on games.”
Around that time, Glenn Corpes was employed as an artist, although his role changed throughout his time at Bullfrog.
“I was interviewed for a programming job and spoke to Peter for a few hours only to be told they had all the programmers they needed. Luckily, I could draw a bit so I managed to get a job as an artist,” recalls Glenn. His first job involved porting
Druid II. “I basically copied the graphics and maps from the C64 version and its editor. I also did a little design work on the collision system as, even though I’d been hired as an artist, I was the only person with experience of that stuff in the company.”
Bullfrog also created Fusion, a futuristic shoot-’em-up game with some puzzles thrown in, which was ported by Glenn to the Atari ST. Its average quality, however, was soon forgotten with the advent of Bullfrog’s next project: Populous.
Populous was, and still is, rather special. Seek it out.
Populous (originally called ‘Creation’) was the game that put Bullfrog on the map, inventing a new genre, the ‘God game’. Designed by Peter and Glenn in seven months, the title saw you playing a god, competing against another for territorial rights.
At the time, Populous was original, being one of the first games to use an aerial perspective and having godlike powers to influence the followers. It was also one of the few titles to take advantage of a modem for network play.
To begin with, very little interest was shown in the game by publishers, but it was Electronic Arts that took the gamble on a new concept. It proved to be a sound investment – the game sold over 4 million copies.
“We knew it was an original concept but everyone who saw it ‘got’ it straight away. Obviously, we never knew how much of a hit it would be and in how many countries, but we knew it was pretty special,” recalls Glenn.
“Once we achieved success with Populous life was truly great,” says Les.
“We were able to move from our old, dingy third-floor office into a shiny building on the Surrey Research Park. They had nice carpet and people that cleaned the windows without being asked. They hated us, though. Skateboarding down corridors, vomiting in the urinals, swimming in the ornamental pond, late night comings and goings.”
Peter Molyneux may have been the most profilic member of Bullfrog, but the team as a whole delivered some stunning games in its time.
“By this time we were about 20 people. This, to those that don’t know yet or those that have already been there, is the perfect size. You know everybody, what they like on their pizza, what they drink, the names of their girlfriends and personal information that you can blackmail them with when it’s their round.”
Electronic Arts wanted a follow-up, so Power Monger was released to bridge a gap before the impending sequel. Power Monger was a success, around a million copies were sold, but it lacked the immediacy of Populous.
Glenn never really took to the game, “It always seemed like Populous with less to do. The funny thing is that I’ve met loads of huge fans since, who regard it as an important proto- RTS.” At the same time, Flood (developed by Sean Cooper with input from Peter), an underrated platformer starring Quiffy trying to save his world from being submerged under water, was released (see Retro Gamer 40).
Populous II was released in 1991, with more spells, enhanced AI and placing it in the world of Olympian Gods. Although refined, the concept never changed, meaning that Populous II remained a good game, rather than a classic.
Personal preference or not, Populous II would sell over a million copies. It seemed that whatever the company touched, it transformed into a magic formula for success.
Starbreeze’s Syndicate remake might not be the same kind of game as Bullfrog’s, but the world stays true to the original.
This run of prosperity continued with the next project, Syndicate, Sean Cooper’s creation. “My main contribution to Syndicate was achieving some pretty good contracts with publishers,” says Les.
“It was around this time that I renegotiated the terms of the original EA contract. We were in a strong position by now and we were able to improve our royalty rates and advances. I did spend a lot of time playing Syndicate, which still ranks as one of my favourites.”
Its sequel, Syndicate Wars improved on the original, although, understandably, it didn’t have the same appeal to those who worked on its predecessor.
“The game was pretty good but it looked messy, the original had been hi-res even on old VGA cards in 386 machines. I also had more involvement with the original, having designed the graphics engine and several of the levels, so I’m not the most impartial person to ask,” remarks Glenn.
Andy Robson joined the company full time after stints on Syndicate (3DO) and Theme Park. “My main role at Bullfrog was to oversee internal testing of all the games in development,” he says.
“It was also to help with feedback on the game mechanics, which was the best part. They would give us 50 levels to test and provide feedback for. We would rip the levels apart and give them pages and pages of constructive feedback.
It was a pretty hectic place to be at times but I loved every minute of it.” Testing console games is different to that of the computer incarnations.
Theme Park put a fun spin on the stragey templates laid down by Populous.
“Obviously you didn’t have as much memory so everything always had to be squeezed down to fit,” Andy explains. “Control methods had to be changed to compensate the console user. The one good thing about consoles was that you didn’t have all the compatibility issues PCs had.”
Magic Carpet was a technically impressive title that unfortunately was a commercial failure. Glenn explains a little of its conception, “I had been playing with the underlying 3D and texturing code for a couple of years, pausing only to design a few levels for Syndicate for light relief.
The version that was released was finished in about nine months after ditching all but my graphics engine and landscape generation code.” The sequel proved to be a source of contention for Bullfrog, it eventually shipped with some nasty bugs as a result of pressure from EA to get the game finished as quickly as possible.
Theme Park was the brainchild of Peter and Demi Habassis and was also the first game for Mark Healey. Having made something of an impact on his first day (“I remember smacking into one of the lead coders cars while trying to park. I was really worried, but the guy [Mike Diskette] was really cool about it.”).
Mark became the artist for the console versions. “For the SNES and Mega Drive, memory was much more limited than the PC version, but my C64 background made me an expert in using character-based graphics, so I managed to squeeze most things in. I really enjoyed doing those.”
Hi-Octane was a departure from Bullfrog’s previous games, but was no less enjoyable.
Despite a string of hits, Bullfrog was becoming uncertain about its future. Les explains, “We started talking to EA around 1993 about a possible ‘merger’. I decided we should also talk to other major publishers (Sony, Virgin, BMG and so on) to make sure we got the best deal.
EA were an easy choice as we had a good relationship with them already, knew most of the people and they offered us the best deal – not just in monetary terms, but great packages for the staff and a large degree of autonomy. In early 1995 we signed the merger document and moved into a new era of corporate confusion.”
The first game to be released under the EA banner was Hi-Octane and was impressive given its short development time. “We were sitting at one of the quarterly management meetings when it transpired that one of EA’s studios would not be able to release their game on time.
In corporate land, this means lots of screaming, wailing and gnashing of teeth, so we (somewhat foolishly) stepped into the breach and said we could deliver a game in six weeks from concept to finish,” remembers Les.
Subsequent releases included the predominately overlooked Gene Wars and the quirky Theme Hospital, a creation that saw gamers having to manage a hospital burdened with comedic illnesses.
Theme Hospital is still ace, and still proves popular today.
Dungeon Keeper went on to have the most troublesome development time, lasting three years due to a shock departure. “It was quite mad – about halfway through the project, Peter announced he was leaving Bullfrog (EA), but was obliged to finish the game.”
“He was banned from coming into the office, so me, Simon and Dean Carter went and worked in Peter’s house – I have fond memories of that time,” recalls Mark. Andy had a memorable time with Peter, commenting, “He was good fun; we always played tricks on each other, things like, me killing his Tamogotchi in a cup of tea.”
“It took me days to get it as he always had the thing round his neck on a string, but unfortunately for him, he left it unattended and you know the rest. He was a good motivator and could turn things around when a game looked like it wasn’t going anywhere.”
The long wait was worth it, the press loved it despite the huge delay and it sold over a million copies. Many gamers remember the title for the horned reaper character and its tongue-in-cheek sense of humour.
“One thing I can say is that running a dungeon was scarily similar to the way Bullfrog worked,” comments Mark. “Once I was involved, thinking of stuff around that theme was easy, the main horned reaper character (or ‘horny’ as I liked to call him) was my design. He is based on an ex-girlfriend of mine, she had a very similar grin. And a similar temperament.”
Dungeon Keeper 2 was the first game to be developed after Peter’s departure and its commercial success matched the scolding reviews it received.
Although subsequent Populous and Theme Park games were released, many of the original team felt ill at ease with EA. “By the time EA bought Bullfrog, the company had grown too big for my liking. It tends to make people feel like small cogs, and you get lots of people who are good at talking, but really quite talentless.”
Dungeon Keeper was also brilliant, but a re-release is no where to be seen.
“Strange managers started appearing and suddenly what the shareholders think is more important than anything else. I hated it,” says Mark.
Andy has the same view, “It just became very corporate. Having to attend more meetings, write more reports and the old ‘bullfroggers’ didn’t really want to work on EA titles. It became a job in the end and not the cool, innovative Bullfrog it was in the early days.”
Peter’s departure also had a big affect on those left behind. “I felt the heart of the place was missing – Bullfrog was no longer a creative haven for me, it felt more like a chicken factory,” says Mark.
Concept work, by different developers, began on Dungeon Keeper 3 in 1999, but EA was more concerned with the movie licences so the project was shelved. In 2001, the remains of Bullfrog were absorbed into EA and ceased to exist, ending a legacy spanning 15 years.
These days, Mark is working on LittleBigPlanet, Glenn has set up Weirdwood, a company distributing electronic titles, and Andy has his own testing outsource company, Testology.
Les is no longer in the industry, having worked on racing cars, “I was instrumental in getting Aston Martin back into racing”, and is doing what he loves most: building things. “Populous got me into being a megalomaniac and I haven’t stopped since.”