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Populous Postmortem: How Peter Molyneux Went From Selling Beans to Changing Games Forever

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Posted March 4, 2011 - By Guest Writer


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By Dennis Scimeca

Peter Molyneux

Sometimes video games are the products of design documents, planning, and development crunches. Other times, they’re the product of happenstance and alcohol. At least according to Peter Molyneux. “Memories of 20 years ago are slightly hazy,” he said, but told the tale of the development of Populous, a game “born out of confidence and good luck.”

Molyneux had a tiny office in Guildford, England, “which looked a bit like the Amityville horror building.” He had that office because the father of his girlfriend at the time had wanted Molyneux to set up a business for him, named “Taurus Implex Ltd.” The company shipped baked beans to the Middle East. “That’s how I started off in the games industry,” Molyneux said, "Making one cent per can of beans shipped. I dipped into my supply of baked beans myself.” For more beanerific info on Molyneux, keep reading.

Then Molyneux received a phone call from the Commodore computer company. He was a fan of computer games at that time, and so was astounded by the call. “We’ve heard about your company, would you come up and be our guest for the day, and we’ll show you around Commodore, and we’ll talk about this new piece of hardware, the Amiga 1000,” Molyneux related the Commodore representative as saying.

Of course he accepted, and it wasn’t until he was seated in their big boardroom, and told that Commodore was going to send him ten Amiga 1000 computers because they wanted to see his products on their machine, that Molyneux realized there was another company called Taurus that produced network solutions. Molyneux chose to keep his revelation to himself, and a shipment of Amigas arrived at the offices of Taurus Implex Ltd. shortly thereafter. Molyneux created a database program called Acquisition, but it only sold enough copies to provide a hand-to-mouth existence, and his company was running short on money.

Pubs were apparently very important to games development in England in the 1980’s.

“It was a place to go when you were bored,” Molyneux said. It was during one of these pub excursions that Molyneux met someone with a friend named Simon Dean Carter who had designed a game called Enlightenment Druid II, and was looking for someone to convert it. The project took Molyneux six months, paid him 4,000 pounds Sterling, and began his fascination with writing games. Taurus Implex Ltd. was renamed “Bullfrog Productions,” and they began developing Populous.

Some of the key design elements of the game were also happenstance. When Molyneux didn’t like that his little people would collide with water and stop, he coded the ability to raise or lower the land to get them moving again. His solution for a lack of programming knowledge, which could have allowed him to otherwise write a wall-hugging routine, turned into one of the key gameplay mechanics in Populous.

As the game developed, Molyneux felt it was missing something, and experimented with natural disasters like volcanoes and earthquakes, but the endless ability to create these calamities was boring, and hence the mana system was born to provide a currency to put a limit on their creation. There was no endgame, so the Knight unit and Armageddon spell were born. This organic design process gave Molyneux and his company a very unique, original game which was difficult to sell to publishers when video games were mostly about shooting mechanics at the time. “Originality is not what the public wants at the moment,” is how Molyneux put the reaction he would get from developers to Populous demos. “They don’t want something new.”

Then Molyneux took the game to a new publishing company named Electronic Arts, which just happened to have a hole in their spring schedule. They decided to give Populous a try, and in the year it was released, Populous was responsible for a third of EA’s income, and the rest is history.

Molyneux’s self-efficacy is very disarming, and charming, but he stopped just shy of selling himself short by reflecting on the fact that the insanely-popular indie title Minecraft has been developed in a very similar, organic fashion as brought Populous to life.

Populous Postmortem: How Peter Molyneux Went From Selling Beans to Changing Games Forever
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