Thursday, December 02, 2010

Video Game History - Populous & Powermonger

I've decided to start excerpting bits and pieces of my book on the history of video gaming in the 1990's on this blog. Today, part of the genesis of real-time strategy games: Populous, Populous II, and Powermonger.

One major source of creative tension within the real-time strategy genre is the amount of control that you have over your in-game minions. On one side, the RTS games focus on micromanagement of each individual person (or alien, or robot, or what-have-you). They are usually intelligent enough to respond when provoked, and in some games they can be ordered to do work automatically. But by-and-large, every individual unit has to be told exactly what to do. On the other side of the spectrum are so-called “God games,” in which you exercise indirect control over your minions.

Peter Molyneaux, founder of Bullfrog Productions and later Lionhead Studios, was one of the driving forces behind the God Games of the 1990's. Starting with 1989's Populous and continuing with Powermonger (1990), Populous II (1991), Theme Park (1994), Magic Carpet (1996), Dungeon Keeper I & II (1997, 1999) and finally Black & White (2001), Molyneux and his companies released a series of games with significant similarities. All used a form of indirect control over the characters in the game; most were strategy games (Magic Carpet, an action game with strategic components being the exception); most put you in the role of a god or godlike entity who depended on worship, morale, or happiness; and most involved the altering of terrain as an important aspect of the game. They also all sounded more exciting to pitch than to play. Given the wild ambition behind them, is to be expected – they're never bad games, just perhaps disappointing after you hear the concept behind them.

Populous' concept is one of the purest in game history. You play a god with worshipers, and you have an opponent with worshipers, and your goal is to make sure that your worshipers overwhelm your opposition. You do this via two mechanisms – spells (or perhaps miracles?) and influence. You can influence your people to get stronger, to try and go to a specific point on the map, to try and expand peacefully, or to attack the enemy when they can. Your spells are more direct – you can set things on fire, create volcanoes which ruin opposing terrain, or turn your leader into a more powerful Knight.

Oddly, the single more important thing that you do in Populous is to flatten the terrain. In fact, this is what you'll spend the most amount of time doing. The more flat terrain that surrounds a building, the stronger the people who live in the building. So, click-by-click, you smooth our your land and encourage your people to expand into your opposition's land. It's a strangely mundane way of playing a god, but it's not without its charms. It allows you to constantly have something to do, instead of just waiting for the big decisions. There is an odd dichotomy between the lack of control you have over your minions and the complete, precise control you exercise over the terrain.

Populous II, released in 1991, is almost identical, but it adds a Greek mythology presentation instead of the generic setting of the original game. It also cleans up the interface slightly, as well as adding a spell that significantly sped up the endgame of a scenario.

Between the two Populous games, Bullfrog released another real-time strategy game, Powermonger. Powermonger was inspired by Populous, and looks a lot like its sibling at first glance. However, Powermonger is a more military-oriented game, and offers direct control of small armies. The game world also seems much more detailed, with various villages and behaviors for those villagers. In practice, however, Powermonger consists primarily of attacking villages, regrouping, then attacking the next one. Although it was an award-winning game in its time, its clunky interface and repetitive gameplay make it difficult to grasp today.

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