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Peter Molyneux: The Fable of a Fellow

The Lionhead boss recalls his career lows and highs following his BAFTA triumph......

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BEAN THERE, DONE THAT
Peter Molyneux was born in Guildford, Surrey back in 1959 - a time when "video games industry" was a nonsensical collection of words. The location of his arrival is significant: it's also where his two greatest empires, Bullfrog and Lionhead, set up shop.

As he candidly revealed at GDC just weeks ago, his ascent into the games industry was propelled by a simple admin error. Having left college, Molyneux was, by the sounds of things, part-encouraged, part-cajoled into launching an import/export business by the father of his then girlfriend. It was a "hand to mouth existence" recalls Molyneux, whether sending boxes of baked beans to the Middle East or delivering coin drops for arcade machines to Switzerland.

But then, the happiest of accidents: Commodore confused his Del Boy-lite operation, Taurus, with legit software company Torus. They called him in and asked him to create a database programme for the Amiga 1000 - then the unreleased height of technology. Molyneux, long since a gadget obsessive, gladly agreed. Bizarrely, it was the most serendipitous job interview of his life.

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"The first computer game I ever wrote was actually at college - it was Mastermind or something on the Commodore Pet," he explains.

"I couldn't wait to test out what I could create on the latest technology back then. I'm exactly the same now. Whenever that kind of new technology comes about, I'm so ultra-fascinated about it. I find myself loading up a page of iPad 2 information online and just stroking it."

(Molyneux never did go through with pilfering his college's Apple 2E, by the way, but admits that it became an unhealthy obsession: "They only let us trial it. It simply wasn't enough.")

At Commodore - as he has done so many times since - Molyneux beat the odds, building a serviceable piece of software which the company happily adopted. Soon after, he joined forces with fellow Guildfordian Les Edgar and renamed Taurus to Bullfrog Productions. The pair began work on a top-down strategy sim called Populous in 1987. Like that was ever going to go anywhere.

Molyneux's enthusiasm carried him through a turbulent programming period fraught with errors and obstacles. Yet again, luck was on his side. His inability to employ the 'Wall Hug' - a standard games programming practice of the day - meant he had to find a workable alternative. He figured out how to raise and lower the landscape with a mouse button instead, and this became Populous' core mechanic. The game hit shelves in 1989, going on to sell four million copies.

"A lot more sensible people start a lot more sensible companies these days in the games industry," he notes, "with a much better idea of how they're going to run things. We didn't even have a business plan".

'FROG CHORUS
A Populous sequel followed in 1991 before work began on the next big hitter - 1993's isometric sci-fi classic Syndicate. Both sold well, but 1994 very much represented Bullfrog's purple patch, with both Magic Carpet and Theme Park wowing gamers and the specialist press alike.

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"I'm incredibly proud of the decision we took back then," recalls Molyneux. "After Populous, it was so tempting to cash in, but we didn't. We could have said: 'We've got enough money now. Let's just spend it on stuff.' Instead we took that money, put it into the company and continued to expand. None of those games would have been made if we took the easy way out."

It wasn't long before Bullfrog's pedigree attracted the acquisitive attention of one of those "sensible companies". Electronic Arts swooped for the studio and all of its IP in January 1995. The American giant ended up funding one of Molyneux's most celebrated projects, 1997's Dungeon Keeper - but its involvement is remembered in industry circles for less celebratory reasons.

Over the next five years, the frequency of titles coming out of Bullfrog escalated on EA's command, along with the sweat and tears behind the scenes; but the hit rate dried up. EA CEO John Riccitiello has since acknowledged that EA "blew it" strategically, and that the "command and conquer" approach the company took merely served to "bury and stifle" Bullfrog's creative talent. The studio was closed in 2004.

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