30 Years of God Game History Part 4

Bullfrog re-hired their favorite composer, Russell Shaw, and his eerie sound design coupled with the game’s stirring visual spectacle of exploring massive caves and hallways are an unforgettable experience. The delight of slaying those pesky knights, archers and do-gooders who dare disturb your subterranean kingdom, results in a game for the ages. Each creature type was designed with their own personality, requirements, quirks, likes and dislikes. Beetles would fight and try to eat flies.

Some creatures, like dragons, are greedy and leave your dungeon quickly if unpaid, or might steal money if unhappy. The game often becomes a balancing act of getting prima-donna creatures to play nice with others, and trying not to drain all of your resources in the process. With a full multiplayer mode, and an expansion pack with plenty of skirmish maps, Dungeon Keeper was an addictive, atmospheric god game, with enough strategy and business management thrown in to make it grounded and competitive. Dungeon Keeper’s influence is so far-reaching, its engine and block-based digging mechanics directly inspired the creation of one of the most successful and imitated games ever made, Minecraft. Selling nearly a million copies by the end of the decade, it still fell short of Populous and Theme Park’s numbers.

Frustrated by the corporate constriction of his new position at EA, Molyneux turned in his resignation mid-Dungeon Keeper, though he personally saw the game through to its completion. EA reacted to this departure by hiring more managers at Bullfrog, causing this small but brilliant developer to begin to buckle under this added pressure to churn out more surefire hits. Fast. Employees compared the long-term effects of the acquisition to becoming a lifeless factory, or being taken over by the Borg from Star Trek. Further evolving the engine that began with Magic Carpet, and was later revised for Dungeon Keeper, Bullfrog set out to make their first god game since Molyneux’s departure.

Bringing Populous to a new generation after a lengthy 7-year hiatus, the third and final entry to the series made sweeping changes, both lauded and controversial. Populous: The Beginning is a real-time strategy game with god game elements. This time around, you no longer soar over the world using miracles wherever you see fit, instead you channel your abilities through the Shaman.

She is both your most powerful asset in the game and the thing you must protect most. You can now select units and order them around directly, and though some units hint at autonomy, you’ll need to micromanage here, even down to manually placing buildings — a first for the series. The freeform terrain deformation from Magic Carpet is on full display here, but it is deeper and even smoother than ever before. A fully manipulable grid of water, sand, grass, dirt, rock and snow let you craft the earth from the ground up, just like in the original Populous. Though due to the 3D presentation, and your more limited power, the environment feels a lot more fleshed out and has more of a permanence to it. Villagers will stomp and flatten land before building a structure, tactical terrain crafting can create natural walls and bottlenecks for enemies, and higher elevation grants you a longer reach for throwing projectiles and casting spells.

You can create land bridges. Summon volcanoes and watch magma roll down and engulf anything in its path. Suck up villages bit by bit with powerful tornadoes. Set fire to buildings and trees, igniting those around it.

Conjure a swarm of locusts to chase away invaders. Convert godless wildmen to your cause. Toss enemy units into the drink with a fun and responsive physics system.

Summon angels of death to wreak havoc from the skies, and rain fire and fury upon your enemies. It was all-out war over land, sea and air, with flexible vehicles and buildings such as watchtowers, which increase attack and spell range, and boats and air balloons, to aid in traversing the world. The map is a seamless globe you can zoom all the way out and look at from the stars. This allowed for interesting and unpredictable strategies, where you could attack from the opposite side of the world, instead of only head-on.

There’s just something so satisfying about watching your muscly little braves trade punches with their enemies, while tribal drums thump in the background, showing heathens the true word with your preachers, or raining biblical destruction down on a rival Shaman’s town and watching its inhabitants run around and scream their heads off. Populous 3 brought some newcomers to the series, due to its more mainstream appeal, but divided oldschool Populous fans. It was liked by most for its impressive physics and charismatic and interactive world, but it strayed from the god game formula, preferring more of a standard RTS approach, with sometimes weak AI.

It’s still an amazing achievement and an engaging but less unique experience. This entry does however maintain a loyal fan base who still play it both offline and online together, and modify it to this day, and is much more active than the community of its predecessors. A successor to the Populous series was in development for several months called Genesis: The Hand of God. Red flags sprung up however, when Peter Molyneux’s new startup company, Lionhead Studios, was making their new game, ironically, also with EA as the publisher. Marketing saw the conflict of interest, and decided to axe Bullfrog’s game, despite pleads by employees about the originality between the two. The inevitable sequel, Dungeon Keeper 2 added many new features and mechanics to the series, and moved to fully 3D models for characters.

Every wall, building and object are deliberately bent and malformed, making it unique-looking, twisted and timeless. The sequel’s tone is a bit lighter, but Richard Ridings’ deliciously evil voicework returns as both narration and vocal notifications. Many creature types went by the wayside, including ghosts, beetles, demon spawn, tentacles, dragons and such. And they changed the game’s most iconic creature, the Horned Reaper, from the most brutal and moody of all the creatures in your dungeon, to a limited summon spell you could cast. There are new additions though, such as the lovable salamander, the spidery maiden, dark knights, dark angels and such. One big change introduced mana as a new resource.

No longer having to drain your gold reserves to cast spells, you now regenerate mana and can use magic even if you’re broke. You can now also summon a small sum of gold with magic, acting as a band-aid for bankrupt keepers. New rooms abound, such as the Casino, where you can improve the happiness of your minions at the cost of your precious coin, or you can secretly rig the gambling tables, to rob your minions of their money, and their good mood. Dungeon Keeper 2 was slicker, ran smoother, and was much more scalable due to its new Windows-based engine and 3D acceleration support.

A notable addition was My Pet Dungeon, a casual sandbox mode where you could craft your own personal dungeon over time without a specified overarching goal — like an infernal terrarium of sorts. In this “Sim-Dungeon” mode, you could manually request attacks from enemies to test your defenses, or simply chill out and manage your lair at your own pace, without limitations. Despite being a solid upgrade to the original Dungeon Keeper in most respects, the market was changing and mainstream RTS games were taking the world by storm. So something off-kilter and patently different like Dungeon Keeper 2 didn’t succeed.

It sold about a tenth of its predecessor. Co-founder Les Edgar left Bullfrog shortly before Dungeon Keeper 2’s release, and while helping fund fellow Bullfrog veteran Glenn Corpes’s new development company, Lost Toys, Edgar left the gaming industry entirely, while later resurfacing in the automotive industry. He’s now a luminary in the field of British sports cars. Dungeon Keeper 2’s critical and consumer praise, despite disappointing sales, led to developing a sequel, though they planned for major mechanical changes. A trailer on the game disc teased the idea that the fans’ next frontier was to take on lands outside the dungeons, and fight heroes on their own turf. War for the Overworld was a spiritual successor in development for months by a small team at Bullfrog.

It was an attempt at retaining the originality of Dungeon Keeper, but attracting a more mainstream audience. This new game was to have more real-time strategy elements, and shifted from excavating the underworld to building castles and fighting heroes in the overworld. A small development team planned supply line mechanics, a more direct control method, and multiple playable races with asymmetric abilities — likely inspired by the proven design of the megahit Starcraft. This sounded promising, as most of the company was working on money-driven strategy games and theme park sims at the time, but before the project came to full stride, Electronic Arts secured video game rights to both The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movie franchises.

With the keys to these gargantuan money-makers in their hands, EA decided to scrap any in-development projects Bullfrog was working on, and disbanded it as a company in 2001, later to shuffle remaining staff to licensed games. As much ire EA receives for running this inspirational studio into the ground (and some of it well-deserved), Bullfrog’s structural integrity had died years before. Molyneux and Edgar were the founders of the company, but also their protectors. Without that shield between publisher interference and their development teams, they didn’t stand a chance against the ever-expanding and competitive gaming industry, and EA’s increasingly aggressive handling of their subsidiaries. GLENN CORPES: “When EA first bought Bullfrog, they left us alone for about three years.

They bought Bullfrog for a reason. They didn’t buy Bullfrog to turn it into some generic EA thing, and what what did happen, was that, because of that, Peter found himself in the States a lot, or in Canada, on the worldwide steering committee — and that’s kind of why he wasn’t involved with the initial version of Dungeon Keeper so much, which is why when he came back it was all sort of like, ‘throw it all away, and start again!’ “They didn’t really interfere at first you know, at all, it was only later on, when Peter left. They didn’t realize that he only really worked on one game at a time, totally focused on it. “But things like Syndicate and Magic Carpet, he was barely involved with, because he was too distracted with Populous 2, Theme Park and Dungeon Keeper, while those games were in development. “And, you know that worked. But of course, when he left, you know EA perceived all kinds of gaps and started bringing in people.