The Making Of: Populous
“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 8×8 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.”