The Making Of: Populous
. The firm had finished the unsuccessful database program ‘Acquisition’ and its foray into the world of games programming consisted of the Druid II port. All seemed lost, until Les Edgar, one of Bullfrog’s co-founders, came across the first seed for a world simulation.
“I came into the office one morning and noticed that our recently-employed-to-draw-stuff graphic artist Glenn Corpes was messing about with a cool 3D landscape which he could modify in real-time. We put it on ice, however, as we had still to finish Druid and sort the never-ending torrent of Acquisition problems,” says Les. Glenn Corpes recalls that this landscape generator came about as a result of uncertain job security.
“After the first two games hadn’t even brought in enough money to pay the wages, it seemed to me like Bullfrog was going nowhere,” says Glenn. “Everyone else was back working on the business software and I was wondering what to do with myself while waiting to lose my job, so I brought my Atari ST in and played with porting Fusion from the Amiga. I got distracted by the idea of isometric blocks and got so engrossed in this that I worked all weekend on it. I quickly ran into the problem that although I had a set of blocks I could draw in random positions on the screen, I couldn’t really see if they looked any good or not without some test-level data.”
“If I was less of a lazy bastard I’d have written a level editor, but being more into instant gratification, I wrote a really dodgy landscape generator instead,” continues Glenn.
“This worked by raising a point of the landscape, moving to another random point nearby and doing it again a few thousand times. The results were too spiky to be called a landscape, so I made it possible to raise and lower the land with the mouse in the hope that it would look more like a landscape. It didn’t, but when the rest of the guys came in on Monday morning, you could scroll around, raising and lowering the land.”
However, there needed to be more to Populous, and it was at this point that some kind of game needed to be introduced. This is where Peter Molyneux, Bullfrog’s other co-founder, played a crucial role. “At this point I had no idea of what game might go with this system, but Peter was inspired and after just a few days of playing with it, he had people building settlements and fighting,” explains Glenn.
There were severe limitations to the amount of flat land my generator created and the tools to modify the landscape were cool for creating more. The way Peter’s settlement code exploited this resource was a work of genius. I am a firm believer in the idea that technical limitations are often a good thing rather than a problem.”
The close partnership between the two would result in a working relationship that would span years and prove a source of inspiration. “He’s one of the few people that ever taught me anything about programming and he really believes in what he’s doing,” admits Glenn. “By the time Populous was in development we were both living and breathing it. At one point Peter had a hard drive failure, there was no backup of his code and he rewrote two months of game logic in a week or so.”
Throughout the seven months of development (which cost £20,000, including the add-on pack, according to Les) Glenn and Peter would spend countless days playing the game against each other to iron out any bugs and to create the network mode. Populous was one of the earliest to have multiplayer over a network, although the frame rate and slow internet access meant it was slow to play. Its serial link-up was superb, though, allowing Amiga and Atari ST gamers to compete against each other with the correct cable.
Les saw the potential for the game to make use of a popular licence. “I contacted Lego as I thought the ‘block building’ approach would suit a Lego licence. They weren’t interested as they said they wouldn’t support ‘violent’ games!” he remembers. “After a few months, however, it transpired that to make a true world simulator, you would need a database bigger than Acquisition and that with too many options the gamer would get frustrated and confused. We decided to keep it simple – less is more and all that. In the essence of truly great games such as chess, there are a limited number of pieces and a limit to what you can do with them. We applied this to Populous.”
Anyone who has played Populous will contest that it is a bewildering experience to start with, with a multitude of icons at the bottom of the screen and very little indication of what the objective is. It’s only after a few hours of play that things start to click and conquering your rival becomes second nature.
The isometric view that generated interest was inspired by Paul Shirley’s wonderful Spindizzy on the Amstrad CPC. “If you look at the placement of the main isometric view on screen in Populous, it’s in exactly the same place,” explains Glenn. “The palette was stolen from FTL’s Dungeon Master as it was an inspired use of 16 colours, so much so that several Amiga reviews said ‘it’s nice to see a game that isn’t just using ported ST graphics’, even though it was.”
For all its features and originality, Glenn concedes that many aspects came about due to laziness rather than grand design. “The computer opponent was designed specifically to beat me and is, in fact, very simple,” he says. “It basically looks for settled buildings and tries to expand them into bigger settlements using the same ‘raise point’ method a human player would. It also randomly decides to save up for an effect, then simply attacks the leader, or the oldest building. The only thing you could do to the people was tell them to either walk to the leader, look for enemies to fight or look for friends to join with and people would always settle if they could. This was shoddy programming masquerading as subtleties of AI, a technique used by a million game coders before and since.”
Yet despite the fact that Populous was a joint effort between Peter and Glenn, there were also notable contributions from other members of the team. “I recall that some specific contributions by me were the addition of the heartbeat sound to give a sense of urgency to proceedings,” comments Les on his role as designer. “Also the general sound effects to give atmospheric feel to the game – this was one of the first games to do this in this way.”
“A major gameplay problem we encountered was how to finish a game,” admits Les. “Where you have a game that is indirectly controlled, you can only influence gameplay rather than directly determine it. The issue is that you cannot force the two opposing factions to fight very easily. I came up with the idea of the Papal Magnet. This enabled you to direct your followers to specific destinations in the world. Once they arrived, the AI took over and if there was an opposing faction nearby, they would fight. You used this to colonise the map and to engage the opposite side when you felt you had sufficient followers to overcome the others and when your ‘mana’ was sufficiently high enough to give power to use your special effects. This way, the game could be brought to a conclusion.”
Populous proved to be the making of Bullfrog. Aside from receiving glowing reviews, (Zzap!64, CU Amiga, The One and many others scored the game in the mid-90s) it was commercially popular. Such unexpected success enabled Bullfrog to move offices to the Surrey Research Park, a building with plenty of facilities to house an ever-expanding company. Noticing the popularity of the game, Les used his business acumen to licence the game out to other developers including Imagineer, a Japanese developer working with Nintendo. Bullfrog was one of the few Western companies to achieve commercial success in Japan, a feat that has only been repeated by a few developers since.
All in all, Populous was converted to PC-Engine, Game Boy, SNES, Mega Drive, Master System, Sharp X68000 and FM Town; all varied in quality but proved to be good sellers, with sales topping 3 million across all formats. Peter programmed the PC release alone, while Glenn wrote some routines to make the game work with different video modes including CGA, VGA and EGA.
The Game Boy edition was a favourite of Glenn’s, based on a screen he created on what the game should look like, while the SNES game was excellent, with plenty of button shortcuts to be playable with a joypad. The Mega Drive release was a decent game, but suffered from major slowdown and control difficulties.
Populous II carried on the concept, placing the world under the rule of the Olympian Gods with improved visuals, extra powers and more strategic levels to conquer. Understandably, Glenn favoured the original game that he had worked very hard on.
“I prefer Populous,” he admits. “I think Pop II was over complicated, I never knew if I was saving up for the best effect for the job and that was just confusing. I also think the graphics in the original were better as Populous II only had two extremely talented graphic artists working on it for a year while the original was almost entirely done by me in a few months of breaks from programming.” Despite its similarity, Populous II sold over a million copies, leading to several expansion packs and a third game some years later.
After the string of Populous games, Glenn worked on many Bullfrog titles, such as Powermonger, Flood and Magic Carpet, while Les remained at the business helm, carrying out many of the behind-the-scenes decisions. Glenn remained at Bullfrog for some time after the EA takeover, but eventually left to set up his own development team. “Four years after [the takeover], the place had changed, teams were getting huge, managers had been brought in from outside, most of the people that had made Bullfrog had left for Mucky Foot and Lionhead,” he recalls. “It seemed like the time was ripe for more original games developed by a tight, enthusiastic team so we set up Lost Toys. We lasted nearly five years and one of our games, Battle Engine Aquila, was, I think, the best I’ve ever worked on.” After Lost Toys closed, Glenn formed Weirdwood, concentrating on online-distributed games. Les was vice president of EA for a while, where he helped build a campus facility to enable the Bullfrog development team to merge with EA, but he left soon after its completion to invest in other opportunities.
As a final tribute to the company that brought them so much success, which game remains most memorable? “I loved Populous, but probably my favourite was Theme Park,” remarks Les. Glenn admits, “Magic Carpet for the technology, Syndicate for the gameplay, but, for all round pride in just being involved, Populous.”