Molyneux on building Populous

GDC 2011: Peter Molyneux talks about the building of god game Populous and how he's adapting it into a 256-player multiplayer version as a hobby.

Who was there: Peter Molyneux, who created Populous from his Guildford, UK, office and released it in 1989 on the PC. Since then, Populous has been ported to consoles and handhelds, including the Nintendo DS, while Molyneux himself has gone on to form development studio Lionhead and is now creative director of Microsoft Game Studios, Europe.

Peter Molyneux.

What he talked about: "The memory of those days are slightly hazy," Molyneux apologised, blaming substance abuse as he introduced his Populous postmortem. "I had a girlfriend who had a father who suggested I get into business. It was called Taurus Impex, and I shipped baked beans to the Middle East. I received a call from Commodore, who said, 'Would you come up and be our guest for the day?' There was another Taurus who had a networking business, but I chose to lie and took a shipment of 10 Amiga 1000s."

Despite his dishonesty, Molyneux put the computers to good use and created Acquisition, which he described as the ultimate database for the Amiga. "My press persona of overpromising was already blossoming," he joked. After that came a port of Druid 2 for which he got paid £4,000, the renaming of his company to Bullfrog Productions, and the start of production on his first game, which would ultimately become Populous.

"It was about a month into development of the game and all I had was a landscape," said Molyneux. He had the ability for his little people to move round the map, but he was unable to figure out how to make his tiny people hug the walls and therefore perform pathfinding properly. His response was to create a control scheme whereby the player could left-click to raise the land, while right-clicking would lower it. This technique, or "nippling" as Molyneux called it, was a workaround to a problem that he couldn't solve, but it would come to be one of the most memorable features of the game.

Alongside the development of the game, Molyneux invented the Populous Lego board game (which was "rubbish" but still earned the interest of the plastic brick manufacturer) and started seeking publisher deals. Most publishers wouldn't touch the game as there wasn't enough shooting in it, according to Molyneux. However, Bullfrog caught the eye of European publisher Electronic Arts. "I met up with Mark Lewis and David Gardner. I was in no way a contract negotiator, and my weakness was cigarettes. They only had to wait an hour and 40 minutes to get a [favourable] royalty rate of 10 percent, raising to 12 percent after 1m units [sold], and pretty much no investment up front." Despite these unfavourable terms, Molyneux agreed, if only to get outside and have a smoke. The game was completed and submitted for testing, but EA asked for a cheat code so they could skip to the end of the game. "We'd forgotten to put in an end game sequence!" said Molyneux, panicked at the fact that it was supposed to be mere days from completion.

With the game submitted to EA and sent out to reviewers, Molyneux was interested to get an outside opinion. "I'm a great fan of the press--I've always admired them," he said. "One of the magazines that I loved the most was called Ace. Before a journalist gave his final score, he wanted to meet [me]. I became insanely nervous--I didn't have the courage to ask him what he thought. We went down the pub at 10 a.m. and by 4 p.m. I'd thrown up in the toilets. I was going to ask [the reviewer] what the score was. He said, 'I think it's the greatest game I've ever played.' He must never see Populous ever again!" joked Molyneux, fearing the reviewer would reassess the game in the cold light of day.

Populous was a critical success overall and accounted for a third of EA's revenue in the year that it launched. Molyneux went on to release a semi-sequel to the game in the shape of Powermonger the following year, and then a full sequel to Populous the year after. "One of my hobbies at the moment--I am making a 256-player version of Populous," he exclaimed, before going on to show a buggy and unoptimised demo of the game in action.

Quote: "Baked beans are not the most popular choice of food in the Middle East," concluded Molyneux on his first, failed business venture. However, Commodore's confusion over the company's name did give him his break into the games industry. Molyneux also admitted to a fair share of misdemeanours during his GDC session, saying, "I have a cheat in Populous that I used at the national Populous championship in Japan."

Takeaway: Peter Molyneux realised a lot during the making of his first game--the importance of talking to the press, solving programming problems such as pathfinding, and contract negotiation. "Sometimes, games are born out of playing them and tweaking them and finding out what works and what doesn't," he concluded.

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Discussion

61 comments
Neyowolf
Neyowolf

You've ripped me off so many times Peter Molydouche

shanethewolf
shanethewolf

@Wookiemaster Good old days, when you could speak to game developers directly and anyone with an Amiga was automatically considered your mate. :)

shanethewolf
shanethewolf

I never got into Populous, but Syndicate was great and Black & White was one of the best games I've ever played. I'd love to see a next gen remake or a sequel one day!

WookieMaster
WookieMaster

I remember phoning Bullfrog with some questions regarding their 'ADRUM' programme for the Amiga. I was running a recording studio at the time and remember speaking to Peter about it. I remember him being very talkative and enthusiastic about their little sequencing software. He even offered me some work writing game music, but at the time I refused, citing too much work! Another bad decision from me!!

DitchyJ
DitchyJ

@yeebsey See i think its every publisher who over hype there games, not just molyneux...but at the same time, its everyone elses fault for thinking outside the box so to speak. Generally when he made fable 3, I got what I was expecting...a decent game that improves on the previous games..even if other people considered it slight.

DitchyJ
DitchyJ

Peter is a decent bloke, honast and has a real gamers vision. I would love to actually have a pint with him and just listen to his ideas about games etc. He knows how to make games.

yeebsey
yeebsey

as much as i like populous i get annoyed at molyneux. with every release the man promises too much and gets everyones hopes up for the greatest game ever. then when it comes to release the games never have even half of what he promised and every time ive fell for it like a sucker damn my faith in humanity

latetender
latetender

Populous and syndicate. Maybe my two all-time favorite games. :)

lolman360
lolman360

The fable series is their best gaming series, the rest are pretty bad.

NukeKnight
NukeKnight

Populous was fun but I still would like to see Dungeon Keeper 3. Watching imps run around doing what ever they think they should do. Tossing goblins in a combat pit with a dark knight and watching him own them. Capturing heroes and imprisoning them until they become skeleton warriors. Having vampires rise from the grave as the imps deliver fresh bodies of the fallen to the grave yard. Who can forget Horney the demon looking for the gems to give him access to the surface. Oh Dungeon Keeper was such a fun game.

Dragdar
Dragdar

J_I_B_B_E_R Posted Mar 8, 2011 10:09 am GMT Peter Molyneux is a melodramatic ass that talks to much" signed. these days he's living on old glory.

Bepedos
Bepedos

Lionhead make sh*t games, but you have to admit that Bullfrog was pure awesome. Dungeon Keeper made it incredibly fun to be evil, overheating in Theme Hospital to make sick people thirsty for soda was a blast, and Syndicate was nice too. The man has good ideas, just bad realization recently : Fable looks great on paper, the problem is it's a cakewalk and thus not intense enough for an action RPG. Black & White is dull but had potential. Give him some credit.

2pac_makaveli
2pac_makaveli

re-develop BC and finish it for the 360 please game looked like it had soo much potential

DrunkGrizzly
DrunkGrizzly

No one remembers the sadistic fun that was Dungeon Keeper? I'm going to slap you like an imp.

Neyowolf
Neyowolf

You're just a liar Molyneux. A complete shameless liar.

J_I_B_B_E_R
J_I_B_B_E_R

Peter Molyneux is a melodramatic ass that talks to much

Lawrencevanrijn
Lawrencevanrijn

Like some others I do not understand the anti-Molyneux feelings. Nearly every game had a flaw, but beyond that I truly enjoyed playing these games. That comedown to 22 years of gaming. Through the decades Molyneux, Garriot, Meijer, Bioware, Rare and 2K brought the moving games. What Molyneux, Garriot and Sid Meijer started with only the power of a CBM64, Bioware and 2K continued, with Molyneux still in the field. No matter how much some gamers nag. Many gamers would be rightfully proud to produce 10% of what Molyneux has achieved. From CBM to XBox360. It is an amazing goal to have reached. And he is not finished yet. Fable 3 could still become bigger. B&W could become more.and I haven't even mentioned the new ideas he could bring.

iowastate
iowastate

for the time Populous was great but Black and White was a let down - great promise but hour after hour of micromanaging the same thing over and over ....so damn boring after a little while. Fable....at least was short

chaldoboy14
chaldoboy14

Lol Molyneux. Not that his games are bad, but talk about overhype. I find it funny that people STILL listen to him and go "oh man I can't wait for that feature". Again, makes great games, but needs to calm down in terms of talking about features since they're mostly lies, and truthfully those lies aren't even needed. If he talked about B&W or Fable 1 or 2 without fluffing them up with make believe features, they'd still sound amazing, so why Molyneux? Why?

peetowser
peetowser

Ah Bullfrog... If only designers ripped off more Bullfrog & Microprose games instead of trying to squeeze themselves into whatever trend is going on (motion gaming, casual games or FPS), maybe we'd be closer to curing Slack Tongue or kicking alien asses...

mightEone
mightEone

I'd like him to work on B&W3 but unfortunately he gave the rights away to EA back when they were a corrupt and evil publisher. Well maybe a new populous game would be cool. I like God Games.

lolman360
lolman360

Nobody knows how to hype games up like Peter Molyneux, it's funny seeing people so annoyed you should know every feature promised isn't going to get in the game, here's an idea stop listening to them.

Smoothus
Smoothus

A lot of hate for Molyneux over here and i must admit the man has made tons of unkept promises from Black and White and all the Fables. But.. its also the guy who gave us Syndicate and Themepark and Dungeon Keeper. A huge contribution to gaming history and for that i salute Peter Molyneux.

73X
73X

Silly Molyneux. Should have stayed in the baked bean biz.

BILLNYE6983
BILLNYE6983

I love how he talks like every little feature he puts into his games are groundbreaking and innovative. I remember watching him talking about the hand holding feature or something in Fable III. Why can't we just have cool honest people in charge instead.

Neyowolf
Neyowolf

You're a piece of crap Molyneux

Bozanimal
Bozanimal

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

CrouchingWeasel
CrouchingWeasel

Shutup Pete. After 3 Fables that spectacularly failed to live up to your claims your word means about as much to me as something I'd scrape off my shoe. Lionhead will never see 1 more cent of my money. Thank god for Bioware & Bethesda.

RECON64bit
RECON64bit

The man is a liar. I don't trust him or his games. They are nice on paper and in theory, but they always do not deliver what is promised.

j0abell
j0abell

I'd love to see a modern graphically AAA adaptation of Populous. The original Populous, where you control the land, and your people have an AI of their own. I thought it was very innovative, and still unique to this day.

hyttenhoof
hyttenhoof

I don't really get why molyneux is highly respected, he has NEVER innovated, he has not really invented anything, just worded old ideas differently and hyped it up. this isn't just a new thing. Black And White was ok, but it wasn't innovative by any stretch of the imagination

Neyowolf
Neyowolf

You're still garbage Molyneux

HuSSaR83
HuSSaR83

Peter Molyneux please give us Dungeon Keeper 3!!! Only u can do this!

jer_1
jer_1

Syndicate is the one and only game that I think about this guy and really respect him for. Everything else he has released has basically been garbage or total kiddie games.

Khatjal
Khatjal

I loved Populous... but I don't get why everyone is so bonkers for Molyneux? What has he done thats so revolutionary than other people in the business? Every 'game changing' mechanic he has ever introduced has been underwhelming at best.

JimmyJimJim
JimmyJimJim

Sooo tired of this credulous man. He's just a big hype machine and time after time he never delivers, He's stooped so low to realize he can't make a deep and ingaging game that he dumbed down fable so much they just started calling it an action fighter. Hey peter go take a look at bioware or bethesda if you want to learn how to make a RPG.

koospetoors
koospetoors

I kinda miss the golden days when Moleneux was still part of Bullfrog, I still play some of his old games from time to time. Might actually try getting Syndicate to work again.

Krinnium
Krinnium

if he thinks this interview helped his public image hes got more problems than chronic over promising -.-

Neyowolf
Neyowolf

You never deliver on your goddamn promises!

Neyowolf
Neyowolf

Peter Molyneux is over inflated garbage

Ahtchin
Ahtchin

I bet you can have a family in game

gideonkain
gideonkain

Not a fan of the man, but I really liked Populous and Black & White 1 - BW2 and the Fable series on the other hand...and where the hell is "A Boy named Milo?"

DP1130
DP1130

Ah! Populous. I was soooo addicted to that game back in the day. Same with Dungeon Keeper 1 and 2. Kinda wished we would see 2011 version of these games.

Frost259
Frost259

@Entropy730 Amen brother, I rushed to the store and bought B&W2 and so true the back of the box was all about the broken features of the game. Stop buying this douchers games.

Entropy730
Entropy730

well this entire article was pretty damming... smoker, drinker, liar, and even cheater at his own game's championship in Japan! no wonder this guy hypes his games until the real thing's nothing like what he said it would be. this guy is a compulsive liar.. i remember B&W2 was hyped beyond belief... and the graphics made the game look so good... with the little roman legionnaires and the japanese samurai battling it out. then the game came out and it sucked except that you could make really pretty towns. the entire back of the game's box had its features written all over it and every single one of them were either broken, or non-existent but mostly non-existent. stop offering this scumbag interviews and players, STOP BUYING HIS GAMES so we can be rid of this charlatan.

Kastigador
Kastigador

I think the gaming industry has outgrown Molyneaux. Yeah, he's an eccentric guy that has a hard time telling the truth, but I think he had some truly cool ideas in a lot of his games early on. Due to the market size increasing over time, the cost and complexity of doing games has increased so much that being innovative/ground breaking/mind blowing is a lot tougher these days. If his ego allowed it, I think he'd be better served stepping back and dreaming up titles that have truly creative concepts and perhaps a certain niche appeal. Leave the big graphics, realism, cinematics to the big dogs and put their studio's passion behind a title that resembles an innovative Indie release.

SpikeJones767
SpikeJones767

I know not to believe anything this guy says... Just look at all the features he said would be in his fable game but once the game was shipped it doesn't come close to his hype...

Mairusz69
Mairusz69

Peter Molyneux is so sexy, in a gaming kind of way when they use the word "sexy" in an ironic way.

wexorian
wexorian

@Gelugon_baat "dust" project ubisoft same story same style but This guy works in microsoft and not ubisoft.