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LionFrog: The Making Of Molyneux

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I’m currently recovering from what East Coast Rail laughably calls a train journey from Newcastle to London, but is in fact three hours of sweatbox hell on a locomotive where they’ve taken the time to install wifi but felt air conditioning was an obscene luxury. I was in Newcastle for the GameHorizon conference, which is very much a business thing, but was also attended by the likes of Mark Rein, Charles Cecil and, the man I’m about to quote at length, Peter Molyneux. Here’s what he thinks of his own back catalogue.

P-Mol was there ostensibly to talk up Microsoft’s Kinect motion wotsit for Xbox (which he cutely kept calling ‘Kinext’) and Fable 3, but he also took the audience on a whistlestop tour of Lionhead and Bullfrog’s achievements to date in order to explain how his thinking’s shifted over the years. In an nutshell – the man’s all about accessiblity now, having been down the road of over-complication several times. He had a lot of interesting things to say about genesis of some of 90s PC gaming’s best-loved titles – and also some stuff that kinda hurts. And, this after all being Peter Molyneux, some stuff you may well dispute.

My notes are little incomplete due to hand-based exhaustion as a result of two days of wall-to-wall typing, so forgive the sometimes staccato turns of phrase. Here’s the bulk of it, though.

Populous

“The thing about Populous, it was a complete and utter accident, born out of my own incompetence as a programmer. I couldn’t do wallhugging so I get the user to build the land for me.
The industry in 1989 was very similar to what the social space is now. A lot of calls for innovation but a lot of titles looked the same, a lot of me-too licenses. It was only when you threw something very different into the mix like Populous that you realised that, even though these huge gold rushes are going on, people still want change and innovation. Populous kind of came out of nowhere for me and everyone, and I think that changed things a little bit.

At one point in 1989 Populous accounted for a third of EA’s revenue. They were a lot smaller then, admittedly.”

Powermonger

“Not such a successful product, because I took innovation down this route where introduced too much complexity to what was going on. People wanted the simplicity of Populous. I blame the complexity on Jez San and David Braben. We met down the pub during an interview, and we talking about programming. Everything they wrote was in machine code. I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about because I wrote Populous in c. They said “c’s not a proper language, you’re not a proper games indusry person, you should write in assembly language.” So I wrote Powermonger in assembly code, and it was too complicated.”

Populous 2

“I really didn’t dedicate myself to it. It’s very interesting how in those days doing sequels was really really frowned upon. Back in the 1990s, you had to stand up to the press and say “I’m doing a sequel”, and they’d say it was just cashing in. How different that it is today, where you have to totally embrace your sequels and franchises. You have to love them and see them blossom and grow.”

Syndicate

With Populous 2, I felt slightly ashamed that I was doing a sequel, so immediately after doing Populous 2 there came Syndicate. People still ask me about Syndicate today, I think it was one of the first free-roaming games, and again it was us turning round saying ‘hey, why don’t we be innovational?” Actually I think the reason people liked Syndicate was it was one of the first games with a minigun, certainly the first game with a minigun where you can kill innocent people. I think people really loved that idea of just destroying things. It was reasonably successful.”

Magic Carpet
Full of innovation, but the interesting one was…

Theme Park

“On all formats back in the day, it sold about 15m copies which is a huge amount. But here’s the funny thing about it, what ‘s so interesting about it today. Everybody hated developing Theme Park. EA tried to close down it, they said “why you don’t you do another game with miniguns, can’t you shoot babies this time?” Most importantly the team who was making it loathed it – we had one day of strikes where people were refusing to work on it. “Can’t we have a sniper on top of the rollercoaster that takes out the people in the theme park?”

So I said why are we tring to make a game for boys who want to kill things? Can’t we make something softer? Can’t we try something different?”

HiOctane

[only sold 300,000 copies – it was made in six and half weeks when Bullfrog realised they couldn’t meet their original deadline for Dungeon Keeper, but still had to get a game out]

Dungeon Keeper

“I look at that and again a little bit too complex I think, but I think the spirit of it was right. I loved the idea of turning things on their head; it’s interesting when we come back to where things are today, turning things on their head, I think there’s a huge opportunity.”

Black & White

“Hugely contentious. In those days there was a huge appetite for new stuff, something that hadn’t existed before. B&W became this pr and hype monster, one of the first games to have fansites. We didn’t have communities as we do now. This terrible disastrous thing happened because of that. In my normal idiotic way, I had gone out to E3 with just 3 bits of paper and spoken to journalists. So Fansites took the design of B&W and started inventing it for themselves. One site would say wouldn’t it be great if one of the monsters was a giant blueberry, then another site would say they’d actually seen the giant blueberry. This terrifying wave of hype built up around it.

It was overcooked on innovation. Not only was it trying to be an iconless interface which was ahead of its time, it combed your PC to find who you are, so if you were playing after midnight it would whisper your name on the speakers. “Peeeeeeter…” Why did we put that in, man? That was just craaazy.” [Also says something about the game being hooked up to 300 global weather stations so that the in-game weather would reflect what it was like where you lived] – “which kinda meant for 60% of our playing population, it was just grey all the time. It was this mad idea, why we did [the weather thing] I don’t know.”

Fable

“We made the transition then. We were smart at spotting the end of the PC, I could just see it tailing off, so we made the transition to Fable. It was reasonably smart idea to take a complex genre like rpg and try and make it more accessible.”

Black and White 2, The Movies

“We then had a little bit of a disaster with Black & White [2], sold a million but it was, y’know, that PC was really going downhill. The same with The Movies: nice idea, overcomplicated. Then this huge success that was Fable 2.”

Ow. Also: hmmm. The end of the PC? The vast bulk of the GameHorizon conference focused on how consoles were living on borrowed time, and social network games and MMOs were taking over. He’s trying to make that kind of stuff work on console, but I can’t help but feel it’s closing the stable door after the megabucks horse has bolted. Bolted all over our browsers. And of course there’s Steam. This old box really isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Retail game sales may be down, but as a barometer of technological and gaming progress, and an opportunity for forward-looking devs to make vast sums of money that don’t depend on the wobbly fortunes and noose-tight licensing of Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, it’s evergreen.

And so he went to console, and console alone. He’s turned his attention to Kinect, and to the new wave of social games and microtransactions. Fable 3, rather surprisingly also due on PC, will be available as episodes, and feature purchasable in-game items, and, well, most of the buzzwords you can imagine. He describes it as now being an action-adventure rather than an RPG, which I suspect will get more than a few back ups. I’ve largely enjoyed the Fable series to date – though I know many don’t – so I’m happy to reserve judgement. Kinect, well, we’ll see. Not really feeling it myself, I have to say. I’m curious to see what Lionhead do manage to wring out of it however as, at the very least, Molyneux’s studios have always been interesting even when they’re getting it wrong.

Coming back to PC now though aren’t you, you splitters? Etc.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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