The Making Of: Populous

With Populous, tiny startup Bullfrog created not just a memorable game but, in essence, an entire genre.

"We insisted that we would only fly over if we could go first class – it seemed worth a try – but we were amazed when they agreed,” recalls Les Edgar, co-founder of Bullfrog. “It seemed so opulent. I can remember Peter and I saying on the flight that we’d never in our lives be able to travel like that again. When we arrived in Japan, there were TV cameras at the airport and, with no forewarning whatsoever, they were waiting for us. We just couldn’t believe it.”

Rewind through weeks, months, seasons, and the story of Populous begins with a simple misunderstanding. Commodore, fostering industry support for its fledgling Amiga during the mid-1980s, sought to contact Torus: a firm specialising in network solutions. An auspicious error led to an unexpected call for Taurus: a minor startup, barely founded, with a plan for a database program. Judicious use of language by Peter Molyneux during a subsequent visit to Commodore led to the not inconsiderable bonus of free Amiga hardware for his tiny company.

More fortuity was to follow. Offered the opportunity to write an Amiga port of Druid 2 for Telecomsoft, Peter bluffed his way into a princely £8,000 contract and hired Glenn Corpes, initially to fulfil an art role. “I didn’t think I would be able to cut it as an artist for much longer, because of the higher standards required with new hardware,” Corpes candidly admits – but he could also perform coding duties. This handy, incidental ability became a catalyst when, apropos of something or other and, he says, inspired in part by Spindizzy’s screens of 8x8 isometric cells, Corpes created a 3D landscape with variable terrain levels. Les Edgar and Peter found this immediately intriguing. With no end result in mind, no blueprint, but with palpable enthusiasm, they began to experiment.

“Over a week, we got a landscape you could move around,” says Molyneux, “but we didn’t really know what to do with it. I said, ‘Let’s put some little people on it.’ Me being me, I think I actually said something like, ‘Let’s have a thousand little people run around on it.’”

Of course, key to Populous is the ability to alter the level of its terrain, and what was originally a novel trick soon became an integral gameplay element – but only after one issue was addressed. “All you could do at first was raise the landscape up and down,” remembers Corpes. “This was going to be controlled with a joystick, but it was Peter who said we should use the mouse. It was a nasty bit of coding to coordinate landscape and mouse pointer.”

“We were very primitive at that point,” explains Molyneux. “It seemed a daunting task, although it seems laughably simple now. It was all a bit soulless, though. The next step was realising that it was pointless just having the people milling around, so why not let them have little houses? Little people would look for blank area of land, then build a house. The more houses, the more people, and the game evolved through that.”

“We didn’t talk about gods for a second – it really didn’t occur to us. We said: let’s have a red team, and a blue team, and they’re both trying to expand to fill the most territory. The next thing we did was the most amazing revelation. We linked up machines with serial cable, which led to early multiplayer games. Multiplayer Populous came way before the singleplayer game. It was far more strategic and quicker than we thought it could be, flattening the landscape for your team. We even coined special terms for what we would do, like ‘sprogging’ and ‘nippling’. There was still something lacking, though. The games we played took hours and hours – the only way to win was to stop the other person’s people settling down.”

“We got the multiplayer mode working from pretty much day one, and it was really good fun,” agrees Corpes, who produced the distinctive ‘book’ border artwork within days of beginning work, “but games did last too long. We used to work on it until six, play it till ten, then go to the pub and talk about it for an hour.”

With Molyneux and Corpes looking to add layers to their simple, engaging brief, Les Edgar attempted, for a worrying time in vain, to find a publisher. “We couldn’t sell it to anyone,” Edgar recalls with a laugh. “I even rang up Lego, and tried to explain the idea to them. They didn’t like the good versus evil idea for some strange reason, so they weren’t interested – which is funny, when you consider all the Lego sets with laser guns, cowboys and Indians, and so forth. We tried everybody. While [the team] were in the office, I went off with disks to, I suppose, over a dozen publishers – even the B-, C-, D- and E-list companies. We didn’t go to EA even though we knew them through Fusion [an early, almost entirely forgotten Bullfrog shoot ’em up] because we honestly thought they wouldn’t be interested. Eventually, we put it past Joss Ellis at EA and – to our amazement – he gave us the green light.”

Glenn Corpes thinks that Ellis, having worked as producer on Geoff Crammond’s The Sentinel earlier in his career, may have suggested Populous’ (very similar) level progression system. He also remembers Molyneux suffering disastrous hard drive failure; with no back-up of his source code, Molyneux was forced to work tirelessly for three weeks to rewrite it. Without a discernible trace of schadenfreude, Corpes remarks that it was probably a blessing in disguise: the code was much better the second time around.