Meet the superfans still playing Populous: The Beginning

In 1998, Bullfrog released Populous: The Beginning, a quirky RTS sequel to the legendary Populous series of god games, to middling reviews. It ‘[wa]sn’t really Populous’ (Ron Dulin, GameSpot). It was ‘incredibly entertaining for about two weeks’ (Trent Ward, IGN). EA absorbed Bullfrog in 2001, and shut down the game’s multiplayer server in 2004. And that was that.

So how come there’s still an active group of Populous players keeping the flame alive nearly twenty years later? I got in touch with some of the community’s longest-standing members to find out.

“It’s a small community, and quickly becomes like a family,” said Pedro Faria, who has been playing online since 2005. “After you get some weeks on the lobby, you get to know pretty much everyone, and even become good friends with some.” Nearly everybody I spoke to emphasised that social aspect, mediated through the ‘Populous Reincarnated’ (PopRe) forums and fan-made matchmaker software. Another player, [Rw]Fury, pointed out that some players will turn on the matchmaker and leave it running all day, dropping in and out of the chat channel and keeping it lively, without actually playing any games. The Populous population is steady: according to the players I spoke to, the number of players in the lobby has always bottomed out around 20, and hung around 40-70 during peak hours. “It was pretty much always like this, even 10 years ago,” said Faria.

The matchmaker is the real key to Populous’ long-term survival. Initially created in 2003 by a player called ALACN to make installing homebrew map packs easier, it quickly displaced the EA matchmaker. IncaWarrior (real name Keilin) took over its development after ALACN departed the scene in 2008.

“To give you a sense of how bad the EA one was, it used “MSJVM” which was Microsoft’s alternative to Java until MS was forced to discontinue it – so even installing the EA MM was a hassle,” he told me. “It had no moderation, no private messages, no flood control (people would sometimes plop a cup on their [Enter] key and make the chat unusable), and it only had space for two 4-player games per lobby. There were times you would join and it would be entirely empty.

“The new Matchmaker solved all of those issues and more (such as installing mods). Most importantly it connected to the EA MM server and when the EA MM shut down at the start of 2004, the Populous Reincarnated MM was able to seamlessly switch servers without any disruption to our players. Around then, PopRe really took over as the hub of the community.”

That community is not without its problems. As you might expect in a community that has been playing the same game for nineteen years, the skill level of the average player is intimidating. (I got thrashed every game I played.) Over time, “the skill level of the players has improved as a whole,” volunteered Craig Gale, a.k.a. Sub_Zero, one of the community’s longest-standing active players. Once people began watching streams of the best players’ matches, said [Rw]Fury, the game sped right up: “people were like, ‘Wow, we didn’t realise you could play this fast!’”

There are also the usual issues that plague internet communities: one player, who asked not to be named, said a minority of its members could be ‘narcissistic’ and unwelcoming. On top of that, the matchmaker’s player rankings use the ELO system, which penalises players for playing with lower-ranked players. “You earn your right to play in the highest-quality games,” the player said, as high-ranked players are loath to jeopardise their position, but at the same time, “you rely on volume of games to keep the community alive.” Still, they told me, that tension hasn’t destroyed the system yet: “everyone says every year that the community’s on its last legs, but every year it seems to persist somehow.”

That ‘somehow’ may have something to do with the game itself. “It was way ahead of its time,” [Rw]Fury told me, comparing it to Riot Games’ League of Legends, in terms of both design and the marathon play sessions it lends itself to. The Shaman – the game’s key unit, capable of casting the wide array of devastating spells that are central to the game’s economy – acts as a sort of MOBA character avant la lettre, capable of venturing out of the player’s base and conducting raids alone in the early game, and leading the charge in the late game while the lesser troops mop up.

Playing the game now, it’s a little startling how fresh it feels. On the left-hand side of the screen, one of the tabs is a unit manager of the sort that would garner Ironclad’s Sins of a Solar Empire lavish praise a full decade later, telling you exactly how many of each unit you have and what they’re up to, and allowing you to select and zoom to them remotely. The autonomous behaviour of your tribesmen puts many modern games to shame: they will automatically gather wood, assign themselves to tasks, and when in combat they break off into little duels, rush into buildings to tear them down or eject intruders from them, and get blown through the air á la Dawn of War. Even when they’re just standing around, they congregate into small groups as though conversing, abjectly kowtowing like Wayne and Garth to the Shaman when she passes by. And dropping a volcano in the middle of your opponent’s base is still one of the most epic moments in strategy gaming, even at 640×480 pixels.

Gale is upbeat about the community’s future: “The Populous Reincarnated team have started working on a brand new update to the game, something which hasn’t happened since Bullfrog patched the game many, many years ago. It will fix a lot of lingering bugs and make the game feel more modern. It’s currently in beta but when it is released it will be the perfect opportunity for new and old players to come and join the action.”

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23 Comments

  1. Tiax says:

    Still have to read the article, but having spent hours on the game as a child (while being absolutely terrible at it), I can definitely understand people still enjoying it.

    • Abacus says:

      When I played this growing up I remember using cheats to spam Angels of Death in every mission which would always result in a win.

      Until I got to that mission where your shaman is imprisoned so you can’t use any spells. Hit a bit of a wall there.

  2. IaIaFhtagn says:

    I was a huge fan of this – picked it up cheap as a kid and, for years, it was one of the few games I had. Must have put at least a hundred hours in, although I wouldn’t last 2 minutes against these guys. Nice to see it’s still going!

  3. jezcentral says:

    It’s amazing to keep that kind of player involvement, when the increased skill level stops new players joining. I have the same problem with Frozen Synapse (not quite as old, I know). I took some time out and now I just can’t get back in.

  4. Landiss says:

    I really love RPS for writing articles like that. Good job!

  5. Ghostwise says:

    Entirely correct use of avant la lettre. This should be acknowledged.

    Mr. Milne you win ten brown points, all your weapons are reloaded and your character can now carry an extra pair of mauve rubber flippers in their inventory.

  6. Ninja Dodo says:

    I played the demo of this when it was new and thought it was a fun game. Neat to see it still going.

  7. Arathain says:

    I played a lot of this game growing up. I have no idea why it didn’t have a bigger impact- it really is excellent.

    One of the things I remember is it had rather good mission design. It made careful decisions about where you started and what you were up against, and about what spells you had and how you could access more. It fully and smartly incorporated your ability to alter the map. Powerful spells like volcanoes and tornadoes were amazing. I liked the tornadoes especially- they would throw your little folk around and rip boards off buildings.

    Favourite small touch: priests could convert enemies by lecturing them for a while. Enemies would gather round to listen to the nonsense simlish. Your priests had deep, sonorous voices. Enemy priests sounded sneaky and deceitful.

    • Fede says:

      Oh yeah, the priests were so much fun!

      I remember playing it on and off for years with a friend, first trying to get further along the campaign, then winning specific levels with limitations on the shaman’s abilities. It was great fun and I remember the game fondly.

  8. Bull0 says:

    Still love PopTB, much better game than Black and White (and Godus, lol)

  9. KDR_11k says:

    It was a fun game, the versions of Populous I’ve played (some clones and the DS one IIRC, all of them decades after the initial release) made the original seem rather crap, like you’re just flattening land and then occasionally nuking the enemy population with the flattening being most of the gameplay. PTB seemed like the deeper game. Maybe I played Pop 1 wrong but it didn’t seem very interesting… Kinda like Perimeter 2, flatten land to make more units, overwhelm the enemy with it.

    • bouchacha says:

      I feel exactly the same way. I tried to give Pop1 and Pop2 a shot but I also noticed that all I’m basically doing is flattening land and watching the ants crawl over the landscape. I never understood it.

      PopTB on the other hand completely took over my imagination. I was absolutely amazed by the absurd amount of detail (conga lines during the victory screen) and the robust engine (100% malleable 3d landscape in 1998). I fucking love this game and still replay it through the whole way every few years.

  10. Koozer says:

    Wait wait wait, there are people who don’t like Populous: The Beginning? And you’re telling me it’s a weak point in the series? I’ve only ever played this and the one on the original Gameboy.

    My brother and I spent hours on this (with cheats, remember those?), raising volcanoes all over the place and watching where the lava flowed, spawning dozens of angels of death at a time and watching the little buggers run in terror. Ah good times.

  11. PoundTheClown says:

    Such a genius game, I’ve always been suprised it didn’t inspire a zillion clones.

  12. forwardirektion says:

    Mortaza!

  13. BlueTemplar says:

    Playing the game now, it’s a little startling how fresh it feels.[…]
    Good. Now play Dungeon Keeper 1. And marvel at the Ancient Keeper fan-made campaign, where each level is designed to teach you a weird quirk (one might say exploit) of the game, but in a fun and constructive manner!
    link to keeper.lubiki.pl

  14. PaulV says:

    I loved this game and it was the first game I owned after we went to a pentium after being stuck on a 486 for way too long. I played the shit out of this.

    And I’m not sure why it got such a bad rep. It was a better game than its predecessors then and the difference is even more staggering now as the other games aged horribly and this one aged pretty well.

  15. bikkebakke says:

    Does anyone know how to get this working on windows 10?

    I got it from GOG but I just get a bunch of multicolor flickerin instead of a lot of graphics in the game. I so wanna play this again but I haven’t seen a fix that could make it work yet :(

  16. Premium User Badge

    chilimambo says:

    Loved it back in the day, love it still. Great article!

  17. poliovaccine says:

    See, I used to love RTS games til I started playing Populous The Beginning with my cousin. After that, nothing else was quite good enough. I was momentarily entangled with Empire Earth, but frankly I thought PTB was gonna be the next evolutionary step in strategy games, and after that no RTS game would dare release itself without fully malleable 3D terrain again… I’ve been wrong other times, too.

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