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 640x480 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.”