30 Years of God Game History Part 5

It wasn’t that there was anything particularly wrong with it, it’s just that’s the point where it changed, and stopped being the same Bullfrog, I think. Yeah.” At the turn of the century, we saw more experimentation in real-time strategy games and city builders. One such example was Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim.

Like other RTSes, in Majesty, you can build all sorts of buildings, combat unit trainers and towers to establish and defend your kingdom. But there are two changes it makes which have resounding effects on the way you play the game. First is the removal of direct orders to your combat units.

Instead, they wander around on their own, seeking fame and fortune. Hireable heroes have names, classes and can level up and equip a myriad of upgrades and items, which dabbles into RPG territory. You can only influence heroes through setting bounties: paying out a specified amount of gold to them for exploring an area, killing a monster, or destroying a monster den. Once you pledge the money, you can’t take it back, so it’s a risk/reward system you have to consider carefully. And the AI is just sophisticated enough for heroes to weigh your proposed gold versus the imminent danger at hand.

Majesty also innovates through its unique economy. Tax collection is your primary revenue source, but if you’re strapped for cash, you can extort some buildings for a quick buck, though everything has repercussions. Economic buildings like blacksmiths, marketplaces, inns and others attract heroes, who will purchase weapons, armor, potions and items to better survive their adventures — which leads to more income for you.

A fascinating symbiosis. You can wield an impressive arsenal of spells, anything from healing, lightning, buffs, fire spells, necromancy, earthquakes, and even resurrection. Though technically you play a king, the reliance on incentivizing heroes to do your bidding rather than giving them direct orders, and your ability to cast powerful spells from a bird’s-eye view, puts this game squarely in god game territory. Finding that sweet spot between building defenses, increasing revenue through economic investment, and putting up bounties on dangerous monsters and the dens they spawn from is challenging.

Keeping your kingdom in order along the game’s campaign, customizable skirmishes and multiplayer, is endlessly entertaining. There was an exodus from Bullfrog around the end of Dungeon Keeper’s development. Among those who left, Mike Diskett, Gary Carr and others formed a new company, Mucky Foot Productions.

Including veteran developers who designed Populous, Theme Hospital and the Syndicate series. After releasing the action game, Urban Chaos, under Eidos Interactive, their next project was a hybrid of sorts, equal parts business management game (such as Bullfrog’s famous Theme series), and part-Dungeon Keeper successor. A “Star Trek Tycoon” of sorts, with a dash of wackiness and humor. Instead of a Dungeon Keeper-like tunneling mechanic, Startopia instead offers large open space station compartments, where you can place rooms and decorations anywhere there’s open floor. To grow further, you must purchase new compartments over the three levels of the station. There’s the Bio Deck, which you can terraform to recreate the home planet environment of different species, the Engineering Deck, where machinery, storage, ports, and other utilitarian rooms would go, and the Pleasure Deck, where diners, commercial buildings, bars and other recreational activities take place.

Your creatures can get into scuffles, but this time with laser guns instead of claws, swords and arrows. The game barely squeezes into god game territory, with all the tropes and mechanics of a business simulator at the forefront, but I feel it qualifies based on a few points: your god-like “indirect control” perspective, your need to manage creatures, their personalities and conflicts, and your innate ability to teleport, hold on to, and re-materialize anything in the game world on command. You may not get lightning bolts, possession, or other magic, but in many ways, it is a successor to Dungeon Keeper. And a good one to boot! I think the general public didn’t know what to make of Startopia, as the early 2000s were a molding point, where genres like real-time strategy, city builders, and other categories were getting solidified.

Other genre-bending games such as Giants: Citizen Kabuto also fell through the cracks, while straight-shooting genre-definers like Starcraft and Diablo sold millions. StarTopia became a cult classic since its release in 2001, but its minor ripple in the gaming industry, along with a commercially unsuccessful movie tie-in game based on Blade 2, Mucky Foot never saw the success they needed to stay afloat. Despite having six other games in the works, they ended their short but bright run in 2003. Shortly after leaving, several ex-Bullfrog directors and employees went on to start up a new game development studio. Among them were co-founder Peter Molyneux, designer and programmer Mark Webley, technical director Tim Rance, artist Mark Healey, as well as bringing on the tabletop game legend and co-founder of Games Workshop, Steve Jackson. Using several million dollars of his own personal money to initially fund the venture, Molyneux led the development of some of the most inspired projects in gaming history.

Following the habit of naming companies after intentionally stupid things, like naming Bullfrog Productions after a desk ornament, Lionhead Studios was named after Mark Webley’s hamster — who tragically died soon after. As a retort to the all-directions-at-once corporate culture now pervasive in the industry, the studio was deliberately founded to be a driven, professional, small-scale developer that worked on one game at a time until completion. Lionhead worked tirelessly for nearly four long, passionate years to create a giant among god games: Black & White. Peter Molyneux had been getting a reputation in the industry as not only an idea man, but one of the few game designers most gamers knew by name, a programmer, and a persuasive gaming personality.

Perhaps this was how he was able to garner EA’s attention so handily, leaving a studio he sold them, only to turn around and have them publish his next game under a new studio. Despite Molyneux’s later notoriety by failing to actually deliver promised features, Black & White was one of his few titles that lived up to the hype. Few games have fused so many aspects from different genres so cleverly and organically.

Black & White touts village life simulation that keeps track of individual people, names, jobs and families. You can wield godlike magical powers, with impressive fire, water, weather and gravity physics. It’s all backed up by real-time strategy and city building elements, and a morphable AI creature you can tame, train and teach right from wrong. It’s all so broad, yet so cohesive, and arguably stands as the most impressive example of a god game to date. Black & White shifted the core mechanic away from Populous’ terrain manipulation, toward your godly hand itself. Your mouse cursor is now a 3D object, directly moving around the game space, and Lionhead’s innovative and intuitive design shines brightest here.

You can control anything in the game, from camera movement, complex spell casting, training and building, all with a two-button mouse only, with a minimalist user interface, and few popups to break that immersion. Molyneux wanted as little as possible to get in the way of the player’s interactions with their virtual realm. You can throw boulders, uproot trees, pluck schools of fish straight out of the water, toss villagers like they were soccer balls or countless other actions one might want to do in this sandbox world.

Few live dealer online casino games approach the level of tinkering and innovation that Black & White begs you to experiment with. As you might suspect from the game’s title, you have the option for a good or evil decision in every scenario. Angel and devil-like advisers personify your conscience, and guide you through the story. One adviser might tell you that the best way to convince villages to believe in you, is to impress them.

You can summon flocks of birds, fulfill their desires for food or wood, or wow them with your towering pet, as your good conscience suggests. Your evil conscience will delight in the suffering of people as you squash, burn or starve them, and both consciences will offer you choices in each quest you take on. For example, in an early quest, you can kindly fulfill a villager’s prayer to save her brother, or if you like, smash open her house to find hidden spoils. Each quest is personal, quirky or endearing.

Whether it’s satisfying the needs of entitled missionaries who will sing about their beggary, or solving the mystery of magical stones you must locate and place in a puzzle-like sequence. Your good and evil actions physically transform your temple to a bright and shiny paradise, or to a spiny, crooked spire. Your landscape will become brighter if you’re benevolent and grimmer if you turn to evil. And even the game’s soundtrack will morph into a more happy tune or a desolate one depending on your alignment. But the scene stealer in Black & White is your godly “creature”. Early prototypes of the game featured human “titans” you could teach and grow to become your avatar.

But the moral dilemma of slapping children to teach them right from wrong led to changing this human “pet” into an animal, as the human version made people uncomfortable. Early in the game you get to pick from a handful of large animals as your titan-like avatar in the game world. They start out timid and infant-like.

A blank slate, from which you can teach skills and instill morals into. They will become towering powerhouses as they grow up. Rub your tiger’s belly while he’s holding a citizen and he’ll develop a taste for man-flesh. Take him for a walk and cast miracles, and the creature will learn them organically, and try to mimic you to earn your approval, whether for doing nice things or cruel things.

Creatures are fully autonomous, and can interact with just about anything. Tossing villagers, drinking from lakes, relieving themselves all over town, and breakdancing are things you’ll catch your creature doing to keep themselves busy. It’s fascinating to watch. In my most recent playthrough, I accidentally tossed a pig instead of dropping it.

My tiger thought it was hilarious, so his favorite pastime became pig-tossing! That’s just how impressive this AI is. It feels a little like raising a pet or a child, encouraging them when they do things you like, and punishing them when they cause trouble, or if you’re going the evil route, when they’re not causing ENOUGH trouble.

You’ll gradually become attached to your creature, and want to help them grow, expand and succeed, and there’s a sense of pride when they do something on their own and it’s a hit with the villagers. It’s this surprisingly personal focus that makes Black & White stand out. In the introduction, you see the creation of a newly formed god, summoned out of the ether due to a dire plead to a higher power. Neglectful parents let their young boy swim out into the ocean and is about to be eaten by sharks. They pray for you to save their child, and thus the core tenets of the god game was explained in an emotional way here: a perfect world needs no gods. Only a world filled with prayers to solve its many problems is a world where your presence is necessary.

Thus begins your quest to gain power and influence through harnessing the belief of the common people. You only have powers over those who believe in you. In gameplay terms, this addresses a long-standing issue with the Populous series. In classic Populous, you could create powerful effects right in the middle of an enemy city with no restrictions. In Black & White, a ring of influence is visible around your believers.

You cannot pick up anything or create miracles outside of that ring, but if you’re crafty, you do have a small window of opportunity just outside your reach. As long as you build up its momentum, you can toss a boulder and sometimes hit distant targets. You can try to flick a fireball at a nearby village, or quickly snag a tree or two just outside your influence.

It’s this ebb and flow of power that makes interacting with your world so fascinating. You’re constantly trying to impress your followers and non-followers alike in order to gain an edge. You can ordain any citizen to make them into a disciple, who fervently performs the task relevant to where you placed them. Drop a lady next to a man and she will repopulate the village, drop a man next to a forest and he’ll begin logging, place someone next to an unfinished building and they’ll become a disciple builder, and so on. This is the most direct way you can control your followers, but has its own drawbacks if you strip your population of its basic jobs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gt4-tBFIcsI