30 Years of God Game History | Populous, Dungeon Keeper, Black & White, Spore and more
30 Years of God Game History | Populous, Dungeon Keeper, Black & White, Spore and more

Have you ever dreamed of being a god? Whether keeping fish in an aquarium, watching
little civilizations grow and interact, playing with figurines, or tending to an ant farm. We’ve fallen in love with the prospect of
reigning over miniature worlds. With the technological boom of the 20th century,
it’s no surprise this would find its way into video games. It grew into a niche and often misunderstood
genre, but one that inspired some of the most empowering and creative games ever made. But for us to discuss them, we must first
break down what a god game really is, and whether it’s technically even a genre. The definition is vague, but I’d argue “god
games” are more like a set of loose design elements, limitations and rules that a variety
of titles share. I’ll try my best to lay down the rules I
am following for this video here, based on dozens of studied examples. The more a particular game has these elements,
the more they approach a “pure” god game. Autonomous people or creatures
Growing power through gaining believers Supernatural abilities and world-sculpting
And most of all, the focus on influence, rather than direct control Most “proper” strategy games let you select
units and give orders. Conversely, a god sim lets you influence rather
than micromanage. This means that god games often overlap with
city builders and life simulators. But I’d argue the focus on belief as a resource
and wielding supernatural powers helps differentiate a god game from the more realistic activities
of a pure simulation. Because of these more conceptual and less
tangible design goals, the god sim has always been a treat to play, as each attempt at the
formula is like an experiment in itself, a freeform sandbox you tinker with and discover
more about over time. And for that reason, it has become one of
my very favorite types of games to play. So let’s explore the decades-long history
of our obsession with playing god. In the earliest days of electronic entertainment,
if a game wasn’t mindless action and reaction, it was a foreign idea. Arcade games and basic platformers dominated
the 1970s and early 80s. Graphics and controls needed to mature enough
for deliberate strategy titles to even exist. After home consoles became more than simple
Pong-machines, the first strategy game with real-time elements was born. The 1981 Intellivision title, Utopia, pitted
two players against each other. Each trying to bring their own island to prosperity,
sometimes at the expense of the other island. It’s a hybrid of turn-based commands: like
constructing buildings, farms and boats, or ordering rebels to sabotage the enemy. But real-time elements like changing weather,
boats harvesting seafood, migrating fish and moving storms kept things dynamic. This was a seed, that sprouted the roots of
city builders, 4X strategy, real-time strategy, and god games. Will Wright’s 1989 smash hit, SimCity, popularized
the city builder. Here you don’t control your citizens directly,
instead you influence them via taxes, construction and city planning. Other developers imitated this style, creating
a rich library of city builders set in Rome, Egypt, Heaven itself, or just about any setting
you could think of. These share similarities to god games like
having an autonomous population. But mundanely building and managing excludes
them from being true “god games”. Sid Meier’s hallmark classic, Civilization,
inspired its own genre, now known now as the “4X Strategy” (EXplore, EXpand, EXploit,
and EXterminate). It is likewise involved in leading people
to flourish, and spread commerce and religious influence. Yet the direct control of units and cities,
and the lack of supernatural powers solidifies it as separate evolution of strategy games. Real-time strategy games which focused on
creating buildings and battling armies to the death rose to popularity in the 1990s. Westwood Studios’ Dune II paved the road
that so many games followed. Being controlled by the player through direct
orders, and their focus on micromanagement and tactical combat, RTS games are not god
games. But as we’ll prove later, the god game and
RTS do cross over sometimes. To describe the history of the god game, you
have to start with the story of one ambitious man and his love for video games. Guildford, England. Early 1980s. Entrepreneur and programmer, Peter Molyneux,
started a small company selling Amiga and Commodore game disks. The first video game he designed himself was
in a way, ironic: a simple text adventure called Entrepreneur, a game about starting
a business. Molyneux’s first game sold very few copies,
but he remained undeterred. Accidentally landing a programming contract,
after his company was mistaken with a more established one which had a similar name. They nailed the job. Peter Molyneux and his friend, fellow entrepreneur
Les Edgar forwarded this success into founding a game development studio together: Bullfrog
Productions. The concept behind their first big hit was
accidental. In-house artist and programmer, Glenn Corpes,
created some isometric tile art which inspired Molyneux to dabble with in a prototype. It featured a landscape of varying elevation. Then they added people, who wandered around
until reaching an obstacle or a body of water. Next came raising and lowering land, from
the oceans to mountains, for the people to traverse easier. It was a neat little distraction, until the
idea sparked that these denizens should create buildings and homes on suitable terrain. And so formed what would become the core element
of god games: influence over creatures or people, rather than direct control. The design philosophy that defined Populous
was that the player alters the WORLD, not its people or their buildings. Populous, as the title suggests, was all about
increasing the population and prosperity of your people. To ease expansion and remove obstacles, with
the end goal of defeating your rival god‘s followers. You start out with limited land manipulation,
but if you gather enough followers, you gain access to more biblical powers. Summoning volcanoes, floods, earthquakes and
pestilent swamps, and the ability to rally your people via a divine banner. Most of the gameplay involves helping your
followers settle land, then “sprogging” them out of a building to found another settlement. To win a match, you can kill off the enemy’s
flock with divine sabotage, you can rally enough followers and create a path to defeat
them in hand-to-hand combat, or you can reach the level required to cast Armageddon, which
immediately converts every person in the world into fighters, who duke it out til only one
side is left standing. Peter Molyneux helmed the game studio, but
was also hands-on in design, direction and even programming. There wasn’t room for ivory-tower “directors”
back then, everyone got their hands dirty in raw software development, every step of
the way. Populous’s simple but addictive concept offered
500 maps in the base game alone. A player-vs-player mode was available, and
an expansion allowed for even more challenges to complete. There was simply no other game like this at
the time. After a few dozen plays, you pretty much get
the concept, and the simple charm of the game loses a bit of its luster. Though groundbreaking for 1989, the AI was
simplistic. Predictable. But fussing about with these little buggers
in a world you could sculpt and influence from above was, in a word: captivating. Populous was a smash hit and it’s estimated
to have sold 4 million copies to date across a dozen platforms. And it’s this innovation that catapulted
Bullfrog into the limelight as one of the most unique and creative game developers of
all time. After the success of Populous, other developers
tried their hand at the god game. Conflating god simulators and games about
evolution may seem antithetical, but they are in fact, close relatives. After all, how better would you help your
tribe or species than influencing changes in their DNA? An early example of a game where you evolved
species over time was the seminal Maxis title, SimEarth in 1990. It allowed for manipulating a planetary sandbox,
adjusting the climate, geology and influencing life. Raising your creatures to sentience before
the sun dies out, was the unspoken goal of the game. This began a trend of more experimental sim
games which often dipped into god game territory — with the ability to use cosmic powers like
comets and natural disasters to test your creatures’ survivability, and their reactions
to new stimuli. Though the Maxis simulation titles bordered
on being “toys” rather than actual games, self-imposed goals still made them challenging
experiences. From simulating entire worlds, creating and
evolving lifeforms, and seeing how species interact with each other, these were life
simulators on a massive and almost scientific scale. Bullfrog’s next evolution of the Populous
formula, Powermonger, is more down-to-earth, becoming one of the very first real-time strategy
games, even before the creator of Dune II coined the term itself. Its true 3D polygonal world is both rotatable
and zoomable, groundbreaking for the time. There are so many details and environmental
interactions implemented into the game. There are four full seasons, summer sees the
growth of food and trees, drought and deforestation influence rain cycles, and the winter snows
threaten your food stocks. The game eschews the iconic ability to morph
terrain at will, but you can now give direct orders to followers, a small but pervasive
change over Populous. Though it still dabbles with the ideas of
its god game predecessor, influence and autonomous civilization is less integral to the game’s
mechanics. You can win through peaceful diplomacy with
other villages, to get them to join your side. Or you can take your kingdom with the pointy
end of a sword. Much of this was cutting-edge at the time,
but the game’s ambitious technology suffered under its less intuitive controls and user
interface. Despite its shortcomings though, Powermonger’s
environmental depth would influence many future god games. Though not forgotten, the game remains more
of a stepping stone in the history books of the god sim, due to its looser adherence to
the genre. In 1991, the Japanese developer, Quintet,
released a surprise addition to the genre, the Super Nintendo title, ActRaiser. Part action-platformer a la Castlevania, part
god game. In ActRaiser, you switch back and forth between
“god mode” and “avatar mode” — god mode sees you flying over your world as a
cherub, shooting at monsters who rampage and massacre your followers, and guiding your
flock to seal off the gates which spawn these cursed beasts. You can also use miracles like lightning,
rain and sunshine to aid followers in times of need, put out fires, accelerate crop growth,
lead your followers to new lands, or listen to and answer prayers via quests. Between each god sequence, you incarnate as
a walking hero, sword in hand. Platformer sequences are simplistic jump and
attack fare, with the occasional magic powerup. Enemies and bosses have predictable AI, and
there are some cheap player deaths, but it’s fun to alternate between these minigames,
nonetheless. Separately, the god and platformer modes don’t
quite measure up to dedicated games of their ilk. But together, they somehow exceed the sum
of their parts, and mesh into a unique experience you can’t find anywhere else. Its 1993 sequel had improved visuals and added
more advanced movement and level design into its action sequences, but sheds any semblance
of god game elements. It’s a shame, taking a unique spin on the
genre and turning it into a forgettable action title, likely as an attempt to make the game
more marketable. After its massive success with Populous, Bullfrog
attempted to strike gold again with more experimental games, meanwhile working on its anticipated
sequel. In 1991, Populous II: Trials of the Olympian
Gods launched to a positive reception, despite making less of an impact than its predecessor
did. Sporting a Greek Mythology theme this time
around, it retains its core gameplay loop, but simply adds more of everything. The sequel introduces an RPG-like progression
system, granting experience after each mission which you’ll use to unlock a much broader
arsenal of godly abilities. New and exciting powers include pillars of
fire, lightning storms, whirlwinds and tidal waves, among others; as well as the ability
to summon from a myriad of heroes, such as Adonis, Heracles, Perseus or Odysseus — each
with their own strategies, pros and cons. The result was a much deeper and dynamic experience. A longer and more rewarding progression kept
you engaged during its gigantic collection of 900 levels. And there was a “matchmaking” system of
sorts which decided which demigod you battled next, based on the outcome of your previous
match — a little extra depth to the campaign, rather than a linear sequence of challenges. Selling about a third of its predecessor,
it was still a big success, though it wasn’t quite the sleeper megahit Populous was. In early magazine articles and screenshots,
Peter Molyneux boasted wild claims and drummed up massive hype leading up to its release,
talking about numerous modes, orchestral music, and huge, sprawling cities with interconnected
walls and roads, expanding on the original’s individualized buildings. Artist and programmer, Glenn Corpes mentioned
that around this time, media coverage and interviews were starting to affect Bullfrog’s
development process. During Populous II’s cycle, an interviewer
asked Molyneux about specific features, and in order to impress and generate buzz about
the upcoming title, he confirmed that those would be in the final game. Only later would he talk to his designers
and programmers about actually planning or implementing these ideas. On one hand, it’s a beautiful example of
open game development, which embraces feedback and ideas with open arms, on the other: the
prospect of publicly promising gameplay mechanics before they’re actually researched or planned,
is a dangerous one — and it’s a habit Molyneux would become notorious for in later years. Populous II wasn’t the revolutionary experience
promised in pre-release coverage, but with many more fun and deadly powers to use in
this battleground of the gods, it’s a much more replayable and enjoyable game. In 1994, Bullfrog developed a brand new engine
for a fresh spin on the god game genre. Dropping the 2D presentation of Populous,
their new project pushed the limits of what was possible in computer gaming. The first time you boot up Magic Carpet, you’ll
immediately soak in its thick atmosphere. Howling winds soar around you, with a mysterious
desert world below. Encounters with magic and fantastic creatures
punctuate your travels, evoking the charm and style of Arabian Nights. You control a wizard atop the titular flying
rug, where you must bolster your power to face off against monsters, armies and even
other wizards. Claiming settlements and mana spheres allows
for greater spells, as well as summoning and upgrading your very own castle, which doubles
as a respawn point and mana storage. You learn a myriad of spells, ranging from
fireballs, lightning, teleportation, land deformation, to even summoning volcanoes. It’s this versatility and power over the
environment that makes Magic Carpet such a dynamic experience. The ground will swell or deform chunk by chunk
when you let loose a powerful ability. Townspeople will run around and battle monsters
to defend themselves. Occasional scripted events can turn things
on their head, leading to some surprising and challenging moments. Teleporting you to an unknown destination,
or summoning a group of monsters, to stop you in your tracks. Magic Carpet was less of a hands-on project
for Molyneux, who did not work on the programming or design side of things this time around. The game’s revolutionary technology was
what made it stand out from the pack. A programmer’s game, like Populous before
it. Glenn Corpes, one of the technical pillars
of Bullfrog since Populous, built the powerful engine at the game’s foundation, which is
a marvel of its time. Corpes was so influential to early god games,
you can see his initials he snuck into the user interface of Populous. The game was way ahead of its competition
in graphics tech, which may have hindered its adoption rate. It featured 3D vision options, VR headset
support, an optional SVGA resolution, real-time water reflections, completely deformable 3D
terrain, and even anti-aliasing! Unheard of in a 1994 game. Mis-marketing Magic Carpet as ONLY a first-person
shooter seemed to sell it short, competing against the ever-popular DOOM II that same
year. And so the cult classic undersold, despite
its ports to the Playstation and Sega Saturn consoles. Perhaps it was the game’s obtuse objectives,
whimsical and dizzying combat and spectacle, the loose control scheme, or its complexity
that turned people away. It nevertheless remains one of the most original
and atmospheric games of the 1990s, and would influence future titles for years. Magic Carpet 2 wasn’t as revolutionary,
in fact it retains all the features of the original, but just adds more. More spells, more levels, and more interesting
scenario design. Bullfrog added some nice environmental variety,
though. Stark nighttime levels, and underground worlds,
which have impassable walls you can’t soar over. This was a clever technical trick, where they
mirrored the terrain map to create a cavernous floor and ceiling. The game shows off more nuanced level design,
with frequent scripted events to keep the players on their toes. They also added excellent voiceover by Hugo
Myatt, famous for playing the dungeon master Treguard in the 1980s TV show, Knightmare. This storybook-like narration helps guide
players through each level, and makes the game’s story
more engaging. Like Populous’s sequel before it, Magic
Carpet 2 adds a layer of progression to the game, with the player gaining experience from
using magic, which unlocks three tiers of each spell. So what starts out as a single fireball ends
up as rapid-fire attacks. Lightning bolts become lightning storms, and
you can even upgrade your castle with magic turrets to better defend your mana trove. Magic Carpet 2 didn’t release on consoles
like its predecessor did. Despite its cult status with a dedicated but
niche fanbase, continued lack of mainstream interest eventually led to the promising franchise’s
demise. During the development of Magic Carpet and
other Bullfrog games, Peter Molyneux was in talks about an acquisition. After courting other big publishers who had
expressed interest, Bullfrog and Electronic Arts inked a merger in 1995, which propelled
Molyneux and co-founder Les Edgar to vice-presidents at EA, while simultaneously managing their
own studio from above. Bullfrog Productions was still small around
that time, but with this acquisition, EA put the studio to work and demanded a steady assembly
line of hits, like a mechanized factory. At one point, seven whole games were being
developed at the same time. Bullfrog even slapped together an entire racing
game in just seven short weeks to appease their new owners, in-between tirelessly worked
on their next triple-A release behind the scenes. While change was amok in Guildford, fellow
brits in Cambridge released Creatures in 1996. The game made a big splash in the world of
life simulators, featuring a complex artificial intelligence system in the form of Norns,
cute little aliens who are naive, trusting and fun-loving to a fault. Playing the game and trying to make your Norns
smarter, more mature and more sentient over generations was the crux of the game and its
sequels. Even teaching them language and deeper thought
patterns through association and repetition. Though more of a life sim than a god game,
it still featured a host of ways to influence and evolve the little critters into a more
successful species. Acting more as a “spark of enlightenment”
rather than a Zeus-like god with heavenly powers at your fingertips. After making several games in the Creatures
series, computer scientist Steve Grand would go on to make real-life robots with machine-learning
AI that would start with human baby-like intelligence and attempt to learn new concepts organically
like a real person would. This was during a trend where life and pet
simulation games were all the rage during the mid-1990s. More games would explore the idea of evolution. And more complex and interactive takes on
the SimLife and SimEarth formula would follow suit. These tended to be traditional simulations,
as they didn’t include supernatural influence or abilities. Thus losing the “god game” classification. As Peter Molyneux’s next pet project loomed,
Glenn Corpes re-tooled the powerful Magic Carpet engine for more strategy-oriented gameplay. They shifted to a bird’s-eye view and moved
from the open outdoors to the claustrophobic underground. The game retained the developer’s quirky
look and sense of humor, as well as their iconic feature: terrain manipulation. Part-business manager, part-god game, 1997
brought us one of the most celebrated PC games of all time: Dungeon Keeper. This time around, Bullfrog puts you in the
role of a dark overlord, not a god per se, but its inspirations are obvious. The lack of direct control over your dungeon’s
inhabitants, and your detached hand which can pick up and move minions, slap them or
cast powerful spells make it stand apart from the slew of RTS games at the time. The game replaces the elevation of terrain
in Populous or Magic Carpet with marking the earth for excavation. Your loyal imps will dig out the plan set
before them. They also claim land in your name, and reinforce
the walls of your dungeon to keep out unwanted guests. After a fight, they will do your dirty work
for you, snagging loose coin, dragging corpses to your graveyard, or captives to your prison. The beauty of Dungeon Keeper is that you must
keep your own house in order before fighting your enemies. The game starts out simple, with the basic
goal of making a habitable dungeon with food, shelter and money to satiate your minions. You must claim a portal, which in turn summons
creatures, depending on their individual needs. A library attracts knowledge-hungry warlocks,
a large hatchery entices bile demons, and gold-filled coffers lure dragons to your lair. The whimsical discovery of finding new monsters
to house is one of Keeper’s most enjoyable aspects. Starve heroes in a prison to reanimate them
as skeletons, or bury the slain in a graveyard, and watch powerful vampires arise from the
dead. Not all your minions get along with each other,
so breaking up fights and keeping them orderly, fed, housed and paid is all part of the joy
of being a lord of evil. On top of designing your dungeon, you must
face off against goodly heroes that venture to the depths, hungry for glory and riches
— and you will eventually face an even greater foe later on: other keepers. You can wield powerful spells to influence
those inside or sometimes outside your dungeon. Cause a cave-in to stop some pesky heroes
in their tracks. Reveal a faraway location before digging to
it, summon more imps, speed creatures up, zap them with bolts of lightning, and more. Most mind-blowing of all spells is the ability
to control any one of your creatures directly through first-person possession, with all
their attacks and abilities. Perhaps dig out some gold or claim territory
as an imp, fight heroes as a vampire, or fly over lava as a dragon. Few developers would be so crazy to put this
much work into a single feature, but Bullfrog did just that. The pursuit of those fascinating “wow”
moments was part of Bullfrog’s DNA at this point, and the desire to innovate overruled
proven, common design choices in the games industry. Putting your erudite creatures to work at
the library, leads to researching new types of rooms and spells. Building a subterranean maze, which is not
only efficient, but tactical, keeps your treasure and softer minions safe. Fortifying your dungeon against rivals by
way of doors, traps, guard posts and well-trained minions is a must. But all these require time, patience and gold,
so planning and creature management are key to survival. 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. 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 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. Villages will expand on their own, and will
build more homes as needed, but you can always speed that process up by providing them the
materials they need, and by using the workshop to craft scaffolding for more advanced buildings. Villages are composed of a simple set of structures,
farms, civic buildings, and potentially, your civilization’s wonder. Black & White toes the line so as to not demand
too much micromanagement — emulating the more elevated influence a god would have,
rather than a more hands-on mayor or king. And for the most part, I think the game aces
that balance, it never becomes a SimCity clone, but you still have ways to direct your sometimes
wayward followers. The core activity of the game is harnessing
belief. Worshippers at your temple fuel your miracles
through prayer. You can demand more prayer (and thus more
power) through raising or lowering your godly totem, with the drawback of taking villagers
away from their day-to-day jobs. Miracles have a wide variety of uses, for
good or evil. Summon rainstorms to replenish farms and forestry,
throw fireballs to smite nonbelievers, summon doves or wolves to impress or threaten other
cities, or replenish your wood or food stocks. Belief is also crucial when capturing other
towns. Even randomly tossing a giant stone over a
village will impress the inhabitants somewhat, but they will grow tired of seeing the same
trick again and again. So you’re constantly having to find new ways
to wow outsiders into believing in you. Either peacefully, or aggressively. Once they have gained enough belief, the village
will turn to your side, and your influence range will expand further. The
satisfying and sometimes kinetic feedback of simple actions in the world feels so empowering. A deft hand and flick of the mouse can fling
entire trees toward your storage facility, which get ground up into reusable wood. Villagers witnessing your feats of dexterity
will also be impressed and gain belief. But if you slip while showing off, that rock
you tossed may crush a few of them before you notice. There are a few shortcomings to the game,
most notably its long and tedious runway. Lionhead made the game intuitive and natural
to control. Though it has a few more obfuscated mechanics,
none of them justify the hours you’ll spend as the games’ narrators hold your hand through
every step. Even getting used to movement and shifting
your viewpoint takes several minutes to burn through, whereas they could have explained
this with a single prompt. The game features a multiplayer and skirmish
mode which pits 2, 3 or 4 gods against one another. You can play solo against AI enemies, or with
other humans online or over networks. It’s fascinating watching other gods move
around and tend to their civilizations in real time, and these modes were incredibly
enjoyable additions to the game. Your creature would even grow and learn throughout
your skirmishes and multiplayer matches, and those changes would be retained when you came
back to the single player campaign, creating a sort of persistent progression. Black & White was so ambitious that during
the game’s alpha phase, multiplayer was almost removed entirely. And it seemed like Lionhead cut their post-launch
support of the game short. A more ambitious online mode, where a large
number of players would battle it out in a last-man-standing arena was planned, but later
cancelled. So all we got were three official maps outside
of the campaign, a step down from the large set of maps available in Dungeon Keeper and
Populous. And the small and unrevolutionary expansion
pack was set on a single map with no multiplayer support. Though Black & White saw great success on
the PC, selling two and a half million copies, plans for a set of console releases were cancelled
one by one in a cascading series of failed projects. A Sega Dreamcast port was reportedly nearly
finished when the system saw a sudden drastic decline in the wake of the Playstation 2’s
release. Lionhead planned ports to the Playstation,
Playstation 2 and Xbox, but quietly cancelled them, with no announcement or reason given. Even Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS versions
were in development, until EA’s lack of interest killed them. Black & White was clearly a passion project,
something that Peter Molyneux and the other talented and inspired creators at Lionhead
had wanted to make for years. And the result shows in every corner. These are the game developers that would even
sneak interactivity into their logo reveals, after all. Though more narrative-driven and linear than
the god games before it, and almost serving as a big, fantastic tech demo rather than
a game, in a world of tightly crafted corridors, and minutely tailor-made cutscenes and scripted
sequences, a great big sandbox which lets you make it your own, without any one right
way to play it, is about as unique and memorable as a game could be. After Black & White’s success, Lionhead
quickly grew out of its original one-game-at-time routine. They started multiple projects, most notably
the open-world caveman action-adventure game, B.C., and an experimental fantasy RPG known
then as Project Ego. Both were to be published by Microsoft and
intended as exclusive system-sellers for what would be their most successful foray into
console games: the Xbox. Due to the monumental effort put into these
games, their E3 and trade show demos and the ever-expanding hunger for resources needed
to make Project Ego, now famously known as Fable, a reality; the cost was the cancellation
of B.C., and undivided attention toward Fable. Lionhead’s rapid growth put Molyneux in
more of an executive role than he had ever been previously, less hands-on in programming
and day-to-day design, but holding more of a detached director’s role from above. Daily costs of employment and running the
shop were reaching sky-high levels for an independent developer, and resources were
being spread thin. Despite mounting tensions, a sequel to Black
& White was released in 2005, but Lionhead Studios had become a very different company
in the four years between these games. The first game’s artist and creative director
Mark Healey had left, to later go on to make the smash hit, LittleBigPlanet at Media Molecule,
and Lionhead experienced growing pains from developing multiple games at the same time,
especially following the 2001 economic crash. Fans must have spoken, as Lionhead listened. The glacier-paced tutorial in the original
game has been hastened in the sequel. Basic controls are in an optional segment,
and in fact the first two entire worlds you visit are skippable. But I immediately felt something was off about
this game when I first played it. Maybe it was the obvious re-use of the first
game’s intro animation, or the lifeless and unenthused way you’re thrust into the
story. It just didn’t have the heart or soul of
Black & White, which immediately hit you with an emotional bond as to why and how you became
a god, with the theme of personal story and tragedy echoed through its quests. For example, one of the earliest quests in
Black & White was a desperate woman crying out for help in the rain, as her sick brother
wandered into the woods. One
of the first quests in Black & White 2 features
a man with an inconvenient boulder in his front yard. It’s the same type of tutorial: picking
up and moving objects, but a far cry in terms of emotional investment. There is also an incessant flow of trivial
objectives sent your way this time around, like collecting a specific quantity of ore,
or achieving a population milestone. It’s the most barebones method of engaging
the player with a game, an odd design choice since Black & White naturally has so many
interesting abilities, objects and worlds to discover and interact with. Four years of technological advances were
kind to Black & White 2, which featured much improved graphics: higher definition models,
and landscapes and miracle effects that still look stunning even today. The aim for a minimalist interface was discarded,
instead replaced with a tacked-on objective window, and a clunky building and upgrade
menu that clashed with the rest of the game. Much of this stays on your screen at all times. This sequel offers a wide swath of new buildings,
with many favorites plucked straight out of a city-builder. Multiple types of houses, baths, amphitheatres,
pottery markets and even old folks’ homes, among many others. There’s a lot more micromanagement this
time around, requiring explicit placement of roads, buildings and farms. Most notably, you can now force your creature
to build buildings, or you can hold down a button when carrying materials to construct
buildings directly, without any villagers at all. The game introduces a third resource, metal
ore. This is most used in constructing higher-end
buildings, and is a key requirement to build armories and siege shops, and equipping an
army. This is a new focus for the game: military
tactics, and has a strong effect on the tone and style of gameplay. The first game was more about swaying belief
through godlike means, whether aggressively or peacefully, but this sequel often suggests
or demands that you conquer enemy towns by building up a platoon of soldiers and taking
land by force. Your creature can also fight in battles, which
can be amazing to watch. Seeing a towering lion kick dozens of foot
soldiers into the sky never gets old, and some new miracles can be devastating and beautiful
to watch. Summoning a meteor swarm and seeing death
rain from the skies is oh so satisfying, but it seems the focus has switched toward a more
aggressive (or evil) playstyle, rather than the more balanced set of options the original
game touted. This emphasis on city building and battle
strategy is empowering, but now it seems like you have to do all this busywork, and less
divine activity. Black & White 2 sees you constantly building
out your town, spending currency to unlock more buildings and abilities, and planning
wars, rather than influencing and guiding a more autonomous civilization. One of the sequel’s bright spots is the
inclusion of Epic Miracles, which are like the more powerful abilities from Populous
— on steroids! Firstly, the Siren converts enemy soldiers
to your cause. There’s the Hurricane, a devastating whirlwind
that sweeps up entire buildings and towns. The Earthquake, which rips giant fissures
through the ground, destroying everything around it. And finally, the Volcano, which summons a
huge peak of magma, leveling an entire settlement or army in an avalanche of fiery death. These require a ton of resources to construct
its requisite buildings, and then you must gather a slew of worshippers to pray for it
to happen. These Epic Miracles are incredibly satisfying
to pull off, but aren’t a great tactic for all but the most turtle-like defensive players. Miracles were demystified and slimmed down
greatly. Water is just a big splash, rather than rain. Many other miracles are simply removed. Now unlocking miracles and buildings are just
purchases from the upgrade screen using belief as a currency, rather than acquiring them
through story quests or from winning over towns of other tribes. With more limited playthrough options, the
game feels more like an action strategy game. The new conquest and army systems are at the
forefront, rather than belief and influence. The original game emphasized that aggression
and fighting was only an option, rather than a necessity. To me, it seemed like Lionhead were trying
to reshape Black & White into more of a standard strategy game, but in doing so, strayed from
what made it such a captivating and original experience to begin with. The most egregious omission in this sequel
is the complete lack of skirmish and multiplayer modes. Both of which were not only present in Black
& White, but also Dungeon Keeper, Magic Carpet and most god games dating all the way back
to the original Populous. Black & White 2 is purely a single-player
campaign only. The lack of additional content greatly diminishes
its replayability. It’s this gamey, streamlined attitude that
makes Black & White 2 an uneven upgrade. For every new feature added, they removed
another or added a shortcut to bypass another core tenet of god game mechanics. The focus on building military power and ordering
them around almost feels like a simplistic Total War game, where you see mighty armies
clash at your command, though with much fewer tactical options than games of that particular
genre. I won’t lie, watching a hundred-foot-tall
wolf monster stomp on hordes of samurai is a sight to behold, and summoning a raging
volcano in the middle of an enemy city is breathtaking. But I can’t shake the feeling that Molyneux
and Lionhead Studios tried to walk back their original vision. And in the end, Black & White 2, while being
eminently enjoyable, feels hollower than the groundbreaking game that preceded it. Black & White 2 garnered positive reviews,
though the game wasn‘t as worshipped as its predecessor, and like the original, they
made no ports to consoles or other platforms. I think its limited reach squelched Black
& White’s longevity. Failing to port the game or reach a larger
market during the decline of the PC game in the mid 2000s, despite its initial success,
they sadly doomed a franchise with so much ambition and high production values behind
it, to disappear from the public eye. It sold a fraction of the copies the original
did. Lionhead Studios was approaching critical
mass in 2005, nearing 300 employees. They released three major titles within a
short 3-week period: Fable: The Lost Chapters, Black & White 2, and a movie mogul simulator,
The Movies. This was burning a hole in their pocketbook,
and it led to Molyneux selling his company to Microsoft in 2006, who they had a strong
publishing relationship with, during Fable’s development. The back-to-back misses of Black & White 2
and The Movies likely led to laying off over 80 employees shortly before the merger. PC-exclusive games were not a priority for
Microsoft at the time, so PC-oriented games like Black & White were shelved for more console-friendly
releases. In other words, future entries to the Fable
series. Games have often explored life and its survival
across numerous planets, organisms both human and otherwise. But none were more ambitious than the “universe
simulator” conceived by Will Wright as early as 1994, originally codenamed, “SimEverything”. The game promised to grant you full control
of a species’ survival over millions of years. Evolving and tailoring your own unique creatures
from microscopic amoebas, all the way up through sentience and intergalactic exploration. Designed by the creator of The Sims, the best-selling
PC game series of all time. The scope and hype surrounding this game was
palpable, and caught the attention of a huge online following for years. Spore was set to become Will Wright’s magnum
opus, the pinnacle of his decades-long game design career. Spore landed in 2008 to a strong critical
reception, but a lukewarm consumer reaction. Despite Maxis and Will Wright’s incredibly
complex and science-based simulations of life as seen in their earlier games like SimEarth
and SimLife, Spore was anything but. It showcased major improvements over those
older games in terms of presentation, and featured the ability to mutate and customize
your creatures at every step of their evolution, both from a cosmetic and gameplay standpoint. Adding sharp jaws to your creatures would
turn them into carnivores, you could add frills, wings and more legs to make them run faster,
or arms to let them reach fruit on tall trees, among many other customizations. It was all simple to understand and fun to
do, a lesson learned from the ever-popular Sims series. But instead of focusing design and depth into
one game, Maxis had to split their efforts into five stages of evolution, which play
like simplistic imitations of other games. The first mode, the Cell Stage, is akin to
an arcade game like Asteroids. Set during the origin of life itself, you
guide your tiny microbial creatures through the primordial soup — attacking weaker species,
avoiding big ones, and eating flesh if you’re a carnivore, or plant fibers if you’re an
herbivore. This is a great microcosm of the “survival
of the fittest” concept Wright was going for, and is one of the more enjoyable minigames
in Spore. Your species then evolves into land dwellers,
entering the Creature Stage — searching for evolutionary upgrades, and either impressing
other species through repetitive social interactions, with a handful of button prompts, or attacking
other herds as predators, with simplistic combat that plays like a run-of-the-mill MMO
game. Once your creatures gain sentience, you enter
the Tribe Stage, which introduces limited base-building with only a few slots for construction. You can try to make peace or war with other
tribes, through simple song and dance or basic combat. You can also tame animals or just explore
the frontier, but this is really just a stepping stone to the next era. The Civilization Stage plays like a streamlined
RTS like Starcraft or Age of Empires, but with minimal strategic depth or versatility. You can design buildings, tanks, boats and
mechs using the same interface you use to evolve your creatures. Your goal is to take over the world through
razing other cities or converting them to your cause through propaganda. Though fun for a while, it ultimately fails
when compared to the dozens of RTS games that nail this formula better, with more depth
and challenge. Spore’s customization is charming and impressive,
but minor bonuses and cosmetic differences are all that truly differentiate one playthrough
from any other, and few of your evolutionary choices carry over from one stage to the next. You can then take off in a shuttle and explore
new worlds in the Space Stage, abducting life and fighting off planetary threats with lasers
and other weapons. This stage is actually where Spore plays most
like a god game, raining life or death from the heavens, building settlements, affecting
civilizations and eco-systems below you, but not directly controlling them. The eventual goal of the game is to reach
the center of the galaxy, which is composed of hundreds of thousands of planets and stars. You can speed this process up by jumping through
black holes as shortcuts. There is no multiplayer in Spore, but there
is optional online content sharing, which other players around the world can view and
download. If this sounds strikingly familiar, it’s
because this is nearly identical to the concept Hello Games tried to tackle 8 years later,
with No Man’s Sky. Based on early builds and insider reports,
a lot of work was discarded and entire sections of the game were cancelled during its seven-year
development. Originally planned to have nine full stages,
instead of the final five, there was going to be cellular, aquatic and terraforming stages,
and the ability to evolve flying creatures was in the works as well. Another development problem occurred internally. Will Wright started the project with the idea
to be as physically and scientifically accurate as possible. Longer limbs would reach taller trees and
sport wider strides, weight distribution would affect your creature’s gait and moves, and
every evolutionary factor would affect their interactions with the world in a dynamic way. The development team later splintered into
what was known as the “science” team, headed by Will Wright, and the “cute”
team, started by designer Chris Hecker and others, who believed that Wright’s preference
for cold, hard science would turn off mainstream audiences. Over the years, we saw the game evolve from
a universal life simulator that could actually be used in academia, to a cutesy, basic strategy
game with transparent and simplistic bonus stats you can add to your species. Scientists brought on to consult the game
criticized its accuracy, as the game’s focus continued to change. Attempting to meet in the middle between the
“science” team and the “cute” team’s vision, while trying to appeal to everyone,
they ended up appealing to no one. “If you’ve got really bad eyes, we do
this sort of distortion, so everything gets really blurry and vignetted around the corners.” “But at the same time, the player’s always
going to start with low level parts in their creature, which means they’re always going
to start with horrible vision. Most people think their graphics card’s
broken.” “If they see this?” “Yeah.” Spore’s sheer ambition was inspiring, but
its strained focus, and emphasis on cosmetic creature, building and vehicle customization
took precedence over deep life simulation. An interactive petri dish may not have been
a massive hit, but it would have been something unique and would probably have gained a cult
following over time — something memorable, not something many players tried to forget. Selling over two million copies, Spore wasn’t
a failure, but it’s clear Maxis and the community wanted it to be so much more than
“just another quarter 3 hit”. It fell short of its astronomical potential. The disappointment of seven years working
on Spore only to have it descend into obscurity seemed to lead to Will Wright quitting Maxis,
the company he founded, and game design entirely for nearly a decade to pursue other industries. And so, with two mighty god game creators
both failing to meet their visions with success, we witnessed the end of the triple-A god game
era. Homages and successors of various god games
emerged after Bullfrog’s closing in 2001, mimicking many of the features of this niche
of games: excavation, terrain manipulation, and the influence of autonomous inhabitants. Nine years after the sleeper hit, Majesty:
The Fantasy Kingdom Sim, a sequel released, though no longer developed by Massachusetts-based
Cyberlore, now taken on by Russian software developer, 1C Company. The clear boost in graphics and tech is palpable,
and it’s quite a looker even today. Majesty 2 attempts to capture the spirit of
the original game, influencing heroes with bounties, rather than directing them with
orders. Disappointingly, the popular sandbox mode
of the original was strangely omitted. The ability to start a customizable standalone
map right out of the gate was a fun and replayable way to play, and was my personal favorite
mode in any strategy game. They implemented skirmishes into an expansion
pack a year later, and with two more expansions after that, the game was fun and modestly
successful. But something fundamental seemed to be missing
from the original, and the game’s delicate balance and AI felt “off”. Many of the quests were carbon copies from
the original game. The AI was weaker than its predecessor. Random difficulty spikes and imbalances were
common, and enemy dens would spawn out of nowhere and destroy your town without warning. The game introduced a party system where you
could group up multiple heroes, but its usefulness was debatable. With enough patches and expansion fixes, however,
Majesty 2 is a technically superior, though contentious sequel to the amazing concept
that was the original, despite the series experiencing many years of dormancy, before
and since. This game most importantly proves that there
are still promising and original ideas in the genre that could be revived and experimented
with, outside of the well-tread ground of common strategy games. And that not every game has to be simply “Starcraft,
but X”, in an ever-descending spiral of derivative game design. The sporadic but revered French game designer,
Eric Chahi, noted for his highly influential Another World and Heart of Darkness games,
emerged after years away from the industry. He was inspired by his studies into actual
volcanology, the raw fury of nature he saw in Mount Yasur, in the Pacific Ocean off the
coast of Australia. He pitched a concept to Ubisoft as early as
2006, eventually getting a small team together and developing an unexpected god game, finally
releasing in 2011. From Dust takes the core mechanic of Populous
(land formation), and brings it to a new generation. With state-of-the-art 3D graphics and a modern
physics engine, you no longer magically create or eliminate land like its forebears, instead
you control a cursor that can suck up a sphere of any one of three materials: sand, water
or lava. Then you can float it around and drop that
material somewhere else. It’s an incredibly simple concept, but the
delicate and smooth way the physics and game world work is intuitive and addictive. For me, the game peaks at level 4, where you
must use your abilities to shape water, sand and lava to not only expand your people, but
to mold a rock wall to protect them from tsunamis. There are many other notable scenarios, and
although the game’s mechanics remain simplistic, the new dangers the game throws at you keeps
you challenged. Though later on, some of these hazards become
annoying, such as the fire plants which ignite terrain regularly. From Dust was a brilliant experiment in terrain
interactivity and puzzle game-like problem solving with a sandbox toolset. It was well received by players and critics. Over a half a million people bought the game
on PC and consoles, outperforming any other digital title released by Ubisoft by nearly
50%. But despite this success, Eric and Ubisoft
didn’t opt for the possible expansion which was going to add a level editor and multiplayer,
nor a proper sequel — perhaps due burn out after the five-year development cycle. A web-based fan-made game designed as a spiritual
successor to Populous surfaced in 2012. Its cult popularity prompted indie dev Electrolyte
to redevelop it as a standalone desktop game called Reprisal Universe, two years later. It enjoyed quiet success, and was praised
for staying true to the Populous formula, though it made some of the interface and controls
less straining. The game adopted a stylized, geometric graphic
style and some sleek post-processing effects to make it attractive to a newer audience. It retains the focus on world sculpting, but
also brings back many of the fun and devastating powers from Populous 1 & 2. Reprisal is an approachable remake of those
classic games, and though a few purists criticize the so-called “dated” mechanics or some
of the minor changes the game made, it’s a great reminder that these classic ideas
are still popular and fun, two decades on. After a 15-year dirt nap, Electronic Arts
unceremoniously revived the Dungeon Keeper series… as a mobile game. Despite putting the competent Mythic Entertainment
behind the wheel (who had developed multiple successful MMOs), all was not well. Playing more like a disguised clone of Clash
of Clans than its namesake, there were frustrating stops at every corner, whether it was blocks
of earth that could take up to 24 real-life hours to excavate, or upgrades requiring gem
packs which costed up to a hundred dollars each! Dungeon Keeper mobile may have worn the skin
of a much better game, but was immediately despised by the core gaming community for
it. Even Peter Molyneux, the original game’s
project lead, fiercely criticized how crazy it was that these mobile games indoctrinate
you into spending gems and speeding up the deliberately designed drudgery present in
these games. Poignantly pointing out that “Asking people
for money is not a right. You have to justify it,” a quote that I
enthusiastically agree with, but would later become hypocritical with his own foray into
mobile gaming. Dungeon Keeper mobile features dully-lit,
limited corridors, without the freedom to explore into the dark unknown, with generic,
cartoony graphics that could be mistaken for any other mobile game. It was missing the thick and immersive atmosphere,
the addictive gameplay you couldn’t put down, and the heart of a classic god game that we
knew and loved. You can even pluck an excavated room from
one spot and place it down somewhere else without digging or rebuilding it. One of many examples of how little reverence
this poor imitation had for the originals. Gamers and journalists alike tore this misguided
product apart. Only dedicated mobile game critics gave the
game a pass. A sad commentary on the rock-bottom expectations
many mobile gamers have. And like clockwork, Electronic Arts shut down
the Mythic offices just months after Dungeon Keeper launched and, unsurprisingly, failed
to garner a viable audience. A particularly sour end, as Dungeon Keeper
2 was one of the last games Bullfrog released before, too, getting the axe. There were several more genuine attempts over
the years to revive the magic of Dungeon Keeper. Though instead of looking at what worked in
these games and improving upon them, they often imitated the theme and style, but drastically
changed the core gameplay. Vying for simplified real-time strategy game
mechanics, and lack of gameplay polish and nuance led to them being poor imitations of
RTS games and god games alike. The dungeon sim, Impire, showed a lot of promise
as a spiritual successor to Dungeon Keeper, but its clunky interface and confounding design
choices led this imaginative spark to fizzle. These kinds of games looked great in trailers
and screenshots but in actuality were deeply flawed, with little of the charm, intuitiveness
or fun factor of the games that inspired them. Despite their original attempt receiving poor
reviews, to everyone’s surprise, Kalypso’s Dungeons II actually came out of the gate
swinging with vastly improved gameplay, interactivity and polish. And most notably, featured an underworld map
AND an overworld map running simultaneously, meaning your demonic denizens could reach
the surface, wander and fight enemies outside, then enter other dungeons and locations. This seemed to be a nod to the ideas espoused
by the cancelled successor to Dungeon Keeper 2 by Bullfrog. So it’s worthy of praise that Realmforge Studios
managed to turn a poor imitation into a competent successor with even some neat features of
its own. With the unique take on the “Dungeon Keeper”
formula though, you could see their own voice emerge: evolving the “dungeon life sim”
approach into a more traditional real-time strategy game — with the ability to order
units around through direct control in the overworld. It was a jarring shift from god game to real-time
strategy game when traveling to and from your dungeon. Though a welcome addition to spice things
up, rather than mundanely imitating a classic, it felt like two loosely-connected games at
times. As the Dungeons series found their footing,
they even strayed further from the formula, eschewing the influence-over-direct-control
design pillars. In Dungeons 3, you hire creatures directly
with money. Many other mechanics and design choices were
changed or removed, and overall, the experience is enjoyable, but feels less interesting. Your dungeon is no longer a mysterious abyss
to explore and traverse through, as the area you can work with is small and limited. It’s now more like a base to build up as
quickly as you can. Mana is now a mineable resource, the creature
limit is always cripplingly low, and tech tree paths become dominant to your strategy,
as the game forces you to go into the overworld to gain “Evilness”, the currency needed
to unlock research. Perhaps this was an effort for the developers
to come into their own, outside of the long shadow Dungeon Keeper casted, and which all
similar games inevitably get compared to. But is nevertheless a welcome if stylistically
different take on the formula. Probably the most true-to-form recreation
of the Dungeon Keeper concept since Bullfrog shut down was an indie project started in
2009 by Brightrock Games, which included some of Dungeon Keeper’s most talented modders. The new game was named War for the Overworld
— after the cancelled Dungeon Keeper 3 project. It quickly grew from a labor of love to a
successful crowdfunded Kickstarter project, raising over 300 thousand dollars. Longtime advocates of the franchise promoted
the project, and they hired the always-enjoyable Richard Ridings as the game’s narrator,
whose voicework for the Dungeon Keeper games was a fan favorite. This was proof that there was a dedicated
fanbase for these ideas, that were itching to get more games of this style. The game was released on the Steam Early Access
program in 2013, and though production went through several hiccups, including a botched
launch in 2015, which temporarily broke several maps and the multiplayer mode, strong post-launch
support and free add-ons brought it to a much better state as time went on. It’s one thing to nail the feel of a classic,
but to come up with new, original ideas that mesh with the original formula so well is
inspiring. Featuring more creature types, spells and
rooms than either of the Dungeon Keeper games, the game isn’t content on just imitating
its inspiration, it tries to innovate on every level. Introducing an expansive skill tree, that
allows for more diverse playstyles, with the branches of Sloth, Greed and Wrath. Sloth skills focus on defense and traps, a
more hands-off and defensive playstyle. Greed is all about mining and amassing wealth
and resources. And Wrath is the hardline offensive strategy,
with rooms, spells and powers focused on making your creatures strong and your enemies weaker. With new mechanics like rituals, which act
like more powerful spells you must invest time and resources into, and new obstacles
such as brimstone, which can only be broken through with explosive underminers, fragile
ice, hardened permafrost, and sacred ground, tiles that cannot be claimed by Keepers. War for the Overworld manages to capture that
magic sensation of governing your evil empire from above perhaps better than any other game,
save for the original Bullfrog titles. My only disappointment is its limited campaign,
which plays more like an extended tutorial, rather than a story-driven set of challenging
missions. But after years of content patches, free additions
such as new maps, a survival mode, and expansion packs like My Pet Dungeon, in some ways, the
game even eclipses its predecessors in terms of depth and variety. Especially with plug-and-play Steam mod support. War for the Overworld skillfully dovetails
classic gameplay and brand new ideas, and in doing so, stands strong as arguably the
most adept successor to the Dungeon Keeper franchise to date. After the decline of big-budget god games,
the genre fell into the hands of smaller, often independent studios to carry the torch. Many of these were more casual, social affairs,
gravitating toward the Facebook and mobile phone platforms. The obvious drawback is the all-too-common
adoption of the budding “free-to-play” model attached to such games, where your progress
is deliberately slowed or outright halted, to incentivize the purchase of premium currency. But there were some bright spots here and
there. In 2012, Lionhead Studios co-founder, Peter
Molyneux left his own company, at the completion of Fable: The Journey, a mostly panned spinoff
of their most popular franchise. Clumsy Kinect motion controls aside, it wasn’t
a disaster in itself, but it was the last straw in a series of missteps, and an epitaph
to what the company had become: an unimaginative product factory, not the bold innovators they
once were. With the “father” of the god game free
from the shackles of Microsoft, Peter Molyneux soon co-founded a new studio, 22cans. In just a handful of months they released
Curiosity, a free-to-play game where players would tap away on their phones and tablets
to dig away blocks, like a massive, worldwide excavation effort to find the answer to the
simple question, “what’s inside the cube?” With the promise that whoever gets to the
center of the cube first will get a “life-changing” reward. Manually digging away 69 billion micro-cubes
was just as repetitive as it sounds, but attracted a lot of buzz and millions of players during
its 7-month run. This sort of friendly competition hearkened
back to the more quaint days of video gaming, like when Bullfrog Productions hosted Populous
tournaments to crown the world’s best player, or when they held a game design contest, and
awarded the winner a real job at their company. The “winner” of Curiosity decided to share
the news with the world: a video with Peter Molyneux himself announcing that 22cans were
working on Godus, an ambitious return to the Populous formula, but also that this lucky
player would become the “God of Gods”, who was able to influence major design decisions
in Godus’s development, and would receive a small portion of the profits during his
six-month term. A crowdfunding campaign for additional funding
for Godus launched in November, 2012, and was a meteoric hit. Fans clamored at the prospect of playing a
true god game again, crafted by none other than its inventor. The Kickstarter exceeded its goal and raised
over 800 thousand dollars toward the development of this new and exciting PC game, with a free-to-play
mobile port planned down the road. Godus had incredible promise. 22cans planned to host the game on a dedicated
server, with a single planet-sized world where every player starts out as a burgeoning god
with a small plot of land, eventually growing out and having to interact with other gods
either as a friendly neighbor or a devious enemy. It replaced the tile-based elevation system
of Populous with a layered minimalist landscape you can smoothly sculpt with your mouse or
touchscreen. It seemed to be an ideal hybrid of the simplicity
of the god games of old, and the production values and presentation of the new. Molyneux planned for the game to feature progression
through each era of civilization, from primitive tribes to the Space Age, and you would influence
them through wielding divine powers. An Early Access build released on Steam in
late 2013, to some skepticism by backers and early adopters. Featuring a narrower scope compared to the
open, unshackled freedom of something like Populous, and more suspicions were fueled
by Molyneux playing, and stating the game played best, on a tablet rather than a computer. Despite these concerns, Godus had a lot going
for it: a gorgeous, abstract graphic style with colorful layers of terrain, and you could
harness fun godly powers like meteors, swamps, rain and holy forests. Or you could squash enemies with your almighty
finger. The world sculpting was pleasant and relaxing,
and the kinetic controls felt like you were carving at your own “arts and crafts”
project. Making adequate trails and clearings for your
followers was addictive, using powers to condense your buildings into specialized complexes,
the promise of having your people advance through the ages, learn new buildings and
technologies, and eventually butt heads with other civilizations, had a ton of potential. But red flags popped up as 22cans tried to
mimic the successful tactics used by the mobile gaming industry. After a few hours of enjoyment, you realize
that Godus is hand-crafted to stop, inhibit and limit players so as to drive them to buy
shortcuts, and would receive denser and more enjoyable experiences by doing so. You have to constantly click or tap hundreds
of little spheres to collect faith currency, and there’s a button in the corner that
opens a gem-spending store, despite 22cans assuring us that there wouldn’t be microtransactions
in the PC version. One of the most frustrating aspects were the
regular stops a player would experience, due to lack of resources in the form of “stickers”. You had to either find stickers through hidden
treasure chests, or buy them in randomized packs when you earned enough gems, which constantly
halted your progress. It felt like the antithesis of Molyneux’s
earlier work. Godus has a sphere of influence, from which
you cannot affect anything outside that boundary, but unlike previous games like Black & White,
it doesn’t expand gradually as your belief grows. Instead, you have to complete a lot of busywork
and menial tasks to gain access to distant totems and unlock new lands. Game development has always been a business,
but when your business model directly degrades your entertainment experience, your product
becomes less enjoyable, or at its worst, economically manipulative. Months after the Early Access release, the
game changed regularly, but was still missing many promised, fundamental features. The planned seamless multiplayer was implemented,
but later removed. Months became years, and the growing tensions
between paid customers, backers and 22cans grew more and more. The numerous broken promises, delays and “freemium”-like
design elements began to make sense when it was discovered that 22cans, originally promising
that there would be no publisher influence, after burning through the Kickstarter funding,
later courted DeNA, a Japanese mobile game publisher, to pick up the check for Android
and iOS development. As unwanted changes and alterations to the
original concept reached boiling point, consumer outrage and bad reviews stacked higher than
the mountains you carved in the game. This culminated in a 2015 talk between Peter
Molyneux and John Walker, senior editor of Rock Paper Shotgun, in what is easily the
most brutal interview I’ve ever read, starting out guns-blazing with the opening line… “Do you think that you’re a pathological
liar?” It was an hour and a half of listing grievances
and biting commentary on Molyneux’s false or misleading statements he’s made to the
public. This marked a change in the technology and
availability of information. We no longer half-remembered a promise or
claim from last year’s magazine, the internet age documents every word, feature and claim
you’ve ever made, serving as the public’s collective memory. Peter might have made false promises in the
past but were often forgotten or only heard by a few. Now the man had become infamous for promising
mountains, but delivering molehills instead. Perceiving a clear favoritism toward mobile
development infuriated fans even more, and as PC updates stagnated, the mobile version
continued to improve and ran quite smoothly. It would have been the superior version had
it not contained speed boosts and gems locked behind advertisements and microtransactions
ranging as high as $100 each, and of course, deliberately slower progression. It didn’t end there, however, in a seemingly
genuine attempt to make things right, Molyneux and 22cans hired Konrad Nazynski, a fervent
fan, programmer and Kickstarter backer to help fix and finish the project. The result was splitting the game into two
separately sold packages. Godus Wars was a more combat-focused version
of the game which put you in control of small skirmishes against AI opponents or other players. It introduced military buildings and infantry,
which was a feature promised in Godus’ original Kickstarter. Combat is a new touch to the game, but it
primarily involves growing your population as fast as possible, then converting them
to military units, and sending them to their deaths, or to victory, depending on your numbers. Simplistic even by the most casual strategy
game standards. These features would be welcome as supplemental
to the core game, but a second price tag for what would become ANOTHER unfinished game
— which regularly requires keys to unlock new maps, as well as introducing consumable
cards that granted you powers or bonuses in each match. It reeked of future monetization opportunities. To make things worse, hidden away in the single
player campaign was a prompt to pay another 5 dollars to unlock the rest of the maps. Molyneux explained that funding dried up,
development cost three times what it raised on Kickstarter, and that Godus Wars was a
way to reignite the project and garner funding for Godus to continue. But after the legendarily poor handling of
the game’s development, double-dipping your most loyal customers, despite every reason
for them to give up on you, felt like a slap in the face. When Konrad’s contract to work on Godus
expired, it left nobody at 22cans to work on the project, as they were all making the
developer’s next game. And due to the original plans being abandoned,
Bryan Henderson, the winner of the Curiosity contest, only got a tour of the 22cans office,
but never received compensation or a chance to act as “God of Gods,” like he was promised. 22cans eventually released Godus Wars for
free to all owners of Godus, and the mid-game paywall was removed due to overwhelmingly
negative feedback. A nice gesture, but the damage had already
been done. At the time of this video’s release, the
PC version of the core game was last estimated to be about 50% complete, and despite still
being available to purchase, no updates to the PC versions of Godus or Godus Wars have
been posted for years. If a game fails, nobody wins. Consumers don’t get to enjoy what they were
looking forward to, and developers don’t get to reap the rewards of success. Nobody won with Godus. Peter Molyneux pinned his name and reputation
on Godus, and its fallout virtually destroyed any credibility he had left with core audiences. Would Peter have wanted everything he’s
ever boasted, claimed or misled us to believe about his games to be true? Of course he would. But there’s a fine line between naive optimism
and knowingly misleading audiences about your product — a line often crossed by Peter Molyneux. Once one of the greatest game designers ever
to walk the Earth, now the besmirched snake oil salesman of the industry. If he came out with a genuinely great game
tomorrow, fans would probably forgive him in an instant. That’s just how passionate this community
is, but will he ever return to make games for his core audience, or will he continue
to pursue the easy-to-please, less discerning mobile market? Only time will tell. But hope was not lost. Inspired independent developers have sprouted
and have attempted to revive the god game concept all around. And today, it’s never been a better time
to strike out on your own and self-publish, with modern development tools and engines
at your disposal, a solo creator or a small team can make a competent and attractive game
with a much smaller budget than ever before. Reus is a very different take on the god sim. This 2013 indie title by Abbey Games places
you in control of powerful titans aligned to unique elements. You can order them to move along a side-scrolling
spherical world. The core mechanic of the game is to terraform
a grey, dead planet to create unique minerals and life. Terraforming land into water, and placing
greenery nearby creates a forest. Place a mountain next to that, and you get
a desert, and so on. Experimenting with different biomes, then
populating them with minerals, plants and creatures is where the meat of the game is. Getting your petri dish world to work and
function as you want it to can be challenging and rewarding. Reus may not be a traditional god game, but
shows that there are tons of ways to take on that concept, and that the well of ideas
for new games is far from dry. Another example of this growing independent
movement is the inspired retro-styled city-builder survival game, Rise to Ruins. What makes this stand out from the trove of
indie city builders, is its influence-based controls, tower defense elements and godlike
powers. You can determine where buildings will be
placed, and suggest where your followers will mine or harvest, but your civilization is
autonomous. The game comprises mostly of economic and
structural city building. Placing houses, organizing supply lines, and
gathering materials, ensuring you have enough to eat, clean water and the like. But there is an element of external danger
as well when the Corrupted attack, monsters and the undead who will try to destroy all
that you’ve built. You can defend against these attacks with
walls and towers, but what really differentiates Rise to Ruins from games like Dwarf Fortress,
of which it was heavily inspired, is its faster pace, RTS-like combat and the inclusion of
godlike powers. Throughout the game, when resources are harvested
or when creatures die, Essence is released, which can be used to cast spells. These range from grabbing items or creatures
and moving them around, summoning golems, healing, earthquakes, fire, frost, lightning
or even meteors. Like Dwarf Fortress, the game has been in
open development for years, and may continue to grow indefinitely like many other games
of its ilk. But its small budget and big heart is sure
to interest even the most jaded fans of god games and city builders. The attachment you’ll have with your villages,
helping them survive through hardships, famine, monster attacks and disease make playing Rise
to Ruins so enjoyable. And with tons of maps, difficulty modes and
sandbox options, the game offers a thoroughly engaging god game experience. The god sim found a new niche in Virtual Reality,
since VR’s recent renaissance with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. It’s a great fit, where you place divine
power literally at your fingertips for even deeper immersion. Deisim spawned in 2016, which has the player
placing tiles of different terrain types into a 2-dimensional grid while in 3D virtual space. You essentially forge the world you want your
people to settle and explore, square by square. As your population increases, so does your
power, unlocking more types of tiles, as well as powerful miracles, both for helping or
harming the little denizens below. You can place water tiles for your people
to fish in, or forests to hunt for food or gather wood. Mountains can divide people to keep them from
becoming aggressive toward one another, and you can later introduce dangers such as deserts,
swamps and volcanoes to your people, either for reasons of just being cruel, or to separate
warring factions or to eliminate heretics. It’s a fascinating sandbox, though it barely
qualifies as a game, by the strictest definitions. Deisim makes for an offbeat but engaging romp,
nonetheless. Another VR god game wisely opened their doors
post-release to the wider audience of non-VR setups as well. Tethered is sort of an amalgamation of Dungeon
Keeper and Black & White. Though perhaps a bit more on the simple side,
it has a charming and intuitive presentation that begs to be tinkered with. The game’s name comes from its core mechanic,
tying or “tethering” a magic rope from one thing to another. This basically translates to a command, but
you don’t directly control the so-called Peeps below you, they will often get into
fights and other activities against your will. In a dark turn of events, if they become too
depressed, they’ll even fling themselves off a cliff. You can tether a Peep to collect food, mine
ore or stone, cut down trees or attack enemies. After gaining the knowledge to do so, Peeps
can train in specialty roles which perform a given task even better. Hatching eggs for more followers, then keeping
them happy, fed, and safe from monsters at night is fun and engaging. Creating new buildings and upgrades proves
to be a challenge while juggling everything else as well. You don’t get to summon miracles like in
the games that inspired it, instead there are clouds of different types: snow, rain,
sunlight, wind and rainbows, which you can tether to objects or Peeps. Like Black & White, these interactions are
logical: soak trees in rain to grow them faster, wind will rush a Peep towards his destination,
sun makes farms more bountiful, and a rainbow will convince a sad Peep not to end it all. Tethered isn’t terribly complicated, instead
focusing on basic mechanics and scoring your effectiveness in an advanced ranking system. In this way it’s almost like a puzzle game. But it kept me glued to the screen, trying
my best to solve and succeed at each new level. Hopping between different camera angles is
a little clunky when playing the game outside of its intended VR environment, and the game
does require more micromanagement than most god games, as the Peeps are mostly useless
without your guidance. It’s still a prime example of the sandbox
fun and interactivity god games excel in, and gives us hope that this genre has a beautiful
future ahead of it. Townsmen VR is a complete re-imagining of
the charming 2D city builder, Townsmen. But in bringing the game into 3D with virtual
reality visuals and controls, the gameplay pivots strongly towards a god game. You are a floating entity above a small town,
and can grow or shrink yourself to giant or human-size. This lets you act upon tiny things like fish
or cats, or placing whole buildings, all while feeling like you’re right there in the game
world! Townsmen VR borrows the idea of disciples
from Black & White, where dropping a villager next to a building or activity specializes
them as a fisherman, a hunter, a miner or a farmer, for example. You can also poke and prod at just about anything
in the game world, scoop fish out of the water with your actual hands, ring bells with your
fingers, or toss birds like they were boomerangs. You can even have fisticuffs with other god-like
beings, and help your people recruit soldiers to fend off the invading black knights. It may just be a prototype for something greater
down the road, as the quantity of content is limited, but Townsmen VR is an exciting
peek into what god games could become in the future. In what is possibly the most indirect god
game to exist, 2018’s indie game, Crest, shows that we’re only scratching the surface
in how versatile and unique these games can be. Like most games of the genre, Crest places
you in indirect control of a people, but here’s the interesting part: you don’t have any
special powers, you can’t pluck boulders from the earth, or rain fires from the heavens. The only thing you have control over is your
holy commandments. Your people may be struggling with hunger
in the desert, suffer from diminishing childbirth, or dangerous creatures in the savannah or
jungle, so it’s up to you, their god, to guide them to salvation. You essentially learn how to order them to
do things by formulating simple commandments through combining actions and ideas from a
growing palette of words. For example, let’s say you have a huge antelope
population, combining the words, “antelope,” “produce,” and “antelope”, you can
ordain that people who live near antelope should hunt them. Or if your jungle city is dwindling, you can
demand that people of the jungle should reproduce more, or migrate to greener pastures. But each commandment can have dire consequences,
your power is limited, and creating new commandments or getting rid of outdated ones costs time
and influence points. Followers occasionally misinterpret your commandments
too, if things weren’t chaotic enough. The kinds of trouble you get into with outdated
ones are funny, frustrating and compelling. You can enact cannibalism, wage wars, exterminate
entire species, or extinguish entire resources due to Crest’s in-depth ecosystem. Perhaps after you hunted antelope, lions began
eating your people instead. So you might counter that problem by telling
them that savannah peoples should migrate to the jungle. Or maybe your berry bushes are running out,
so you ban the eating of berries, and demand that your people plant more. You progress through completing objectives
(called “teachings”) which will grant you points to spend on the game’s tech tree
to unlock bonuses and new words to use, so you can weave more complex commandments and
foster a more successful people. A storyteller even tells the tale of your
people once your game ends, an entertaining touch. Crest’s stylized graphics were made to look
like abstract African tribal art, and its inspired spin on the genre is a joy to tinker
with. Previously unknown indie devs Crytivo launched
a Kickstarter project in 2014. The Universim was defined as a hybrid of a
city sim and a god game, borrowing ideas from both genres. Universim pitched the idea of a spherical
world you could soar over and influence its inhabitants, similar to that of Populous:
The Beginning, and guide them through several ages that your people could progress through,
even landing in the space age with galactic exploration. Fears about similarities to the failings of
Godus and Spore aside, many were hopeful that this time, things would be different. You can build civic buildings and watch named
followers and families grow through the ages. Always wary of famine, disrepair and pestilence,
while trying to research new technologies and better ways to harvest resources. There’s a ton of potential here. Universim feels a lot like a Maxis game, due
to its interface, but unlike their games, it features godly abilities at your disposal. You slowly amass “Creator Points” which
you can spend to pick up trees, resources or people to move them around or help them
out. You can make people work faster, fall in love,
or you can plant trees, call in a rainstorm or other natural disasters. There’s regular personal quests your followers
ask of you, similar to those found in Black & White. Universim has a simplistic beauty about it,
and the little details make it quite enjoyable. Flying through a cloud forms droplets on your
screen, you can see bioluminescent creatures at night, and its impressive astronomy system
actually has one side of the globe in daylight and the other in nighttime, ever shifting
throughout each day. Entering Early Access in late 2018, Universim
is far from complete, but its grand plans place it as the probably the most ambitious
god game since Black & White. And that is inspiring! Some might say “god games are dead,” others
explain that the god game genre was always hazy, ill-defined and unevenly executed. It doesn’t seem likely we’ll see another
blockbuster megahit any time soon, but with generations of people craving fresh, innovative
ideas like these return, we’re reminded that there are so many ways you could approach
these concepts. Like the prime movers we play as in these
titles, the possibilities are limitless! We could spend countless hours doting over
our followers, hand-crafting our own worlds, and building them up to greatness or destroying
them with divine impunity. God games weren’t just a flavor-of-the-week
trend we saw come and go, they’re a beautiful idea, devised to inspire creativity in their
players, to stimulate out-of-the-box thinking, and have been innovated upon and reimagined
for over 30 years. I believe there are many amateur and veteran
developers out there, itching to revitalize the god sim. We could have another “Populous,” “Dungeon
Keeper” or “Black & White” just around the corner. If only we just believe. I’m glad you stuck around for the whole
video, this was a colossal project that took several months to put together, so I’d very
much appreciate it if you share “Playing God” with your friends and colleagues, and
let me know what you think about god games and the industry in the comments. My undying admiration goes out to my growing
base of Patrons who give their hard-earned support to help make these videos a reality. Check out my Patreon page at the end of this
video to unlock exclusive videos, and get your name listed here. And last but not least, thank you for watching!

100 thoughts on “30 Years of God Game History | Populous, Dungeon Keeper, Black & White, Spore and more”

  1. Indigo Gaming says:

    Thanks so much for watching my latest vid! This was nearly six months in the making, so I'd be eternally grateful if you shared this with your friends and family.
    Vote for Black & White 1 & 2's rerelease on GOG ► https://www.gog.com/wishlist/games/black_and_white_1_2_1
    If you'd like to support my work, PATREON ► https://www.patreon.com/IndigoGaming | KO-FI ► https://ko-fi.com/IndigoGaming

  2. Kumail Changezi says:

    This deserves to be on Netflix!

  3. MrWalalaa says:

    black and white 1 is one of my favorite games of all time. such deep immersion with the soundtrack and weight of your choices in that game.

  4. Kaine Skeptic says:

    I liked Black and White two much more than the first. Universim was OK, but it's too much like the Anno style of resource farming which I hated.

  5. Xamael Zalmat says:

    Populous 2… the game where Peter Molyneux started his "career" of overpromising and overhyping his games… and he still does it till this day. He does this for almost 30 years now and he never delivered what he has promised… And still for some reason people believe him that this time he is not lying and overpromising, this time it is real…

  6. ASDAY says:


    I hope John Bain (TotalBiscuit) is resting comfortable 🙁

  7. Baleur says:


  8. Baleur says:

    28:02 it is now 2019 and ive still never seen any other game do this as impressively… wow

  9. Baleur says:

    Universim is the most slowly developed game ive ever played, counting all other indie games ive ever bought or backed on kickstarter. Its like, a whole year passes and Universim gets 1 minor bugfix update. It's a complete waste of money at this point.

  10. TheCoper COper says:

    Thank you for the great work. This was interesting and fun to watch!

  11. jeremy debraccio says:

    Powermonger. My dad used to tell me that those 4 guys wouldnt let me play because I was too young

  12. SteelBerserkChannel says:

    You made me remember that many years ago I watched a documental about games and it was on there where I learnt of Black & White years after release. But this, this is even better! Almost 2 hours worth of bliss. Thank you ever so much.

  13. SwGuru says:

    I found the lack of multiplayer in Black and White 2 a big disappointment. The expansion (Battle of The Gods) hinted towards the addition of it but failed to deliver.

  14. Sean Baney says:

    I've been trying to remember the name of that game star topia

  15. russian bot says:

    when I am bored in stellaris I just use cheats and whatch entire planets burn or even solar systems

  16. Son69 says:

    I played godus for 16 hours straight before the pay to play was added, I burned myself out after a while just playing the early early access. I came back to it one night after having a nostalgia trip and came back to see the sticker system, haven't played it since

    I was going to post the last time played from steam but its been too long

  17. Revengeful Lobster says:

    I played almost all the early god games up to Dungeon Keeper 2 and have been waiting for a modern Populous to return, so it's sad to see a lot of promising titles go the way of 'short attention span theatre' by assuming that by making a game complex or in depth, players won't want to spend the time to learn it. Only thing worse than that is the pay to win 'free' games or the micro transactions that have become so prevalent. Help us indie gaming, you're our only hope.

  18. H MR says:

    I hate Molyneux, he lied the genre to death.

  19. Bu Commissar says:

    Black&White is one of my all time favorite game, really love it

  20. DylValentine says:

    Black and White 2 is still a very fun game to play

  21. Jacob hu says:

    Yes…. yeees…

  22. Kaosine says:

    Man…it's funny to see someone mention Majesty. I had my mom buy it for me on a whim at a goodwill and I loved every second of it. 2 was crap tho

  23. Destynnee Realta says:

    Dungeon Keeper 1&2 are my MFer jam!!! I love those games. Got them on GOG, and I play them weekly. Also, found Dune and play it as well.

  24. Gabriel H says:

    being a god must be lonely, seeing all the people around you die and leave you there all alone…

  25. 0gmo says:

    Why is your intonation like that? It sounds deliberate, but it is very unpleasant to listen to. Like a computer is talking to me.

  26. Zack Amor says:

    You don't understand the meaning of God

  27. Legend says:

    Awesome Video!

  28. Xavier Lucky says:

    Honestly your evulation of Black and White 2 is so opposite of me. It was a good game, and I liked it more than the first. It seems like its just your own nostalgia getting in the way of a more objective view. Black and White 2 still retained the hippy pacificist way of playing and even expanded on it with buildings. The same with the agressive way of playing.

  29. Abilawa andamari says:

    Black & White looks so fun. I miss games like that, games nowadays are too serious.

  30. Michael Burke says:

    Excellent video. Really took me back to one of my favourite genres. Populous was the granddaddy of them all and the best IMHO.

  31. Akram Safirul says:

    Whoa man you did an inspiring job, this is some tv documentary stuff! Can't imagine how much work you put in this single video

  32. Jan Sitkowski says:

    If you could make a God Game on scale of UNIVERSE…

  33. Fat2Mad says:

    Black and White would be an awesome VR title today. Just imagine.

  34. SomeDude says:

    This video is also a masterpiece.

  35. Rix Gaming says:

    Godus still has the "early access" label on steam. Lol, it was never officially finished.

  36. Meats A says:

    lil sad birthdays the beginnings didnt end up on this list

  37. excited box says:

    Now I want to play Black and White again. That game was so amazing at the time. I remember the huge 4GB download on Limewire. The AI was revolutionary and second to none.

    I am also glad that creatures was mentioned. I really wish that game didn´t die after the expansion to creatures 3. I spent so much time expanding and modding both creatures 1 and 3. The modding community for those games was huge and I gathered additional items until the game could hold no more

  38. excited box says:

    Man I loved Godus on mobile. So sad that it ended up failing.

  39. MegaDave8520 says:

    Is that music from Heroes of Might and Magic 4 at 59:29? 😀

  40. joby645 says:

    As a long time fan of God games without really realizing they were a genre until now, I was getting so excited when were describing Godus and wondering how I had never heard of it. I dont think I've ever had my hopes raised and immediately dashed that fast before lol. Shame to see how it turned out

  41. dddmemaybe says:

    So Dungeon Keeper is like a mixture of a farming game like Animal Crossing and a Tower Defense game LOL. It looks fairly good lol.

  42. ghazt master says:

    We need a new spore!

  43. FluffyKittyMusic says:

    58:03 You can make water rain if you hold down the mouse instead of clicking it, and its significantly more efficient too.

  44. Grugs says:

    I remember how much fun I had with dungeon keeper, EA really messed it up

  45. Revz8bit says:

    10:20 I remember being so hyped for Actraiser 2 back when I was a kid… until I found out the God elements were removed 🙁

  46. Seten and The Ahnold says:

    The Godus Segment made me Really sad… it's unfortunate, that Peter has never produced a game that lived up to his Hype

  47. TheFlanker47 says:

    Great video! you deserve 1 million subscribers.

  48. BubbaSteve Garcia says:

    Holy shit man.

  49. Fucked Gplus says:

    Sill hooing for b and w 3

  50. Fucked Gplus says:

    If i could control the wold like dust amd play like b and w i would cum to my ceiling

  51. Fucked Gplus says:

    I remember playing on the jap island… I build a supercity and the japs just died down from lack of birth…. Just had to get a small platoon in the city…..

  52. Fucked Gplus says:

    Ea should be split they are awfull… A shadows for smaller tree to grow

  53. Fucked Gplus says:

    Ea should just dead ass sell thier killed studio games rigth

  54. Assiman says:

    I remember how a large portion of the gaming media defended Peter Molyneux after the Godus fiasco and claimed that the gamers were entitled bullies.

    The fucker lied to the consumers for over 20 years. It was about time somebody gave him some shit back.

  55. Grandmastergav86 says:

    Ever since watching this, I've only really played God games 😂 Excellent job Indigo, the God game sub-genre has always been one of my favourites.

  56. killgaz motron says:

    There needs to be a spore 2. with NO cute team.

  57. Rainy Days says:

    love dungeon keeper 2, but majesty is my absolute most favorite game ever. played the demo so many times until i got the full game too

    wonderful video! and i was looking for more games like majesty so this is very informative

  58. Paracelso 9411 says:

    Dungeon Keeper * O *! 😍

  59. Warped Tales says:

    It makes me so nostalgic watching these games. Populous was what inspired me to make a god game trilogy @ https://store.steampowered.com/app/1117340/Gods_of_Havoc_Into_the_Void/

  60. James Brincefield says:

    This is extremely well done. It must have taken months.

    Thank you for bringing up Majesty! I’ve always had a soft spot for that game. It’s a lot of fun and still holds up pretty well. I remember the lead-up to Black and White’s release. It was hyped up so much in every magazine and actually kind of lived up to it from what I remember. I fell in love with that game and probably put a solid hour or two a day into it for at least six months. I’ve wanted to revisit it for years but I feel like it’s better off as a memory.

  61. VisInvis says:

    I loved both Black and White games. Always quietly hoped for a third one.

  62. werlox says:

    Random reccomendation can sometimes be the best. Subbed 🙂

  63. Zyrus Smith says:

    You never mentioned the best little-known god game. Megaton Rainfall.

  64. Zero deconduite says:

    Your knowledge and access to gaming footage, that's actively playing; is astonishing. Thank you.

  65. TheItzal11 says:

    Talks up Black and White 1, fails to mention the game was literally unbeatable due to a game breaking bug in act 5

  66. mondzi says:

    Hats off to you sir, great video. Reminded me of how good Black & White was. How could that level of design elegance and craftsmanship degrade to total incompetence and exploitative money grabbing tactics in Godus? 🙁

  67. Wyatt Garner says:

    Dwarf Fortress?

  68. ShiroAisu10 says:

    Imagine being a part of a "cute team". How could those people even sleep at night?

  69. TheDeadCobra says:

    Dungeon Keeper 2 was and still the best dungeon keeper like game

  70. Mike Rycc says:

    Great video!!!!

  71. GonTar TC says:

    Would sell my kingdom, give all my money to any studio working on a B&W 1 Remake.

    But not an "only for win10" thing pls..

    Let people who still have a soul of it's own, to play the game they love please! We need Mercy!

    pd: just subscribed after finding this video, it's a master piece <3

  72. Michael says:

    Great documentary. Even if you have missed out many other great God sims.

  73. daithifleming says:

    How does this guy have less than 100k subs?

  74. Jonah Falcon says:

    God, I hated Black & White. Me and the staff at Computer Games Magazine were the first to give it mediocre reviews (3 stars by Steve Bauman). It was clunky and frustrating.

  75. Just Monika says:

    I really loved the Black and White games (although i enjoyed the first one more where it was less focused on micro management via armys). Shame that there hasnt really been anything like it since 🙁 rip lionhead

  76. daniel hulson says:

    fantastic look at the history of the god game,Im sure Amiga ST and PC gamers of the 80s and 90s will love it

  77. Atlas 51232 says:

    1:31:44 come on, you cant deny that game is purely based on a portion of hercules- the gospel truth videoclip 🙌🏼

  78. CueBall909 says:

    The Magic Carpet games are terribly underrated. These games are still playable today, and still rank among my top games of all time. I honestly can't believe they haven't been remade for modern hardware. Imagine playing these games in VR with modern graphics and high resolution.

  79. Blackenedification says:

    when mobile gaming is trying to replace pc games

  80. Tucher97 says:

    I miss black and white, 2 is good but battle of the gods had some great functions and ideas but the first game had some good functions like different cultural temples having different benefits

  81. Raalylen says:

    B&W2 was sorely misrepresented in a multitude of ways, it's like you barely played it. Don't even know where to start, pretty disappointed.

  82. Gunold Dump says:

    Minecraft creative mode is the best god game

  83. Péter Soponyai says:

    I feel like game development became a routine, just like other forms of entertainment. With enough money, they end up as factories churning out games every year. In the old days, it required visionaries. Perhaps one of the remaining ones is Chris Roberts. We desperately need more people like him, who are not afraid to dream big and take risks. Great videos, by the way.

  84. ablationer says:

    I still play Black & White 1 from time to time, and seem to be only one in my friends list who even knows about the game. I gave 2 a fair shot, but it just wasn't the same, and seemed way too focused on the military strategy aspect over the creative and free-form problem solving that 1 let you get away with. Been trying to find a proper successor to 1 for years, but so far no such luck.

  85. 1Uhrlund1 says:

    I miss Black & White so much, I wish they did make a HD Version or a Remaster of it.

  86. Matteo Caforio says:

    This is just… perfect,the best video gaming video i have ever seen

  87. Earl of Doncaster says:

    How did Molyneux go from genre inventing game god of Populous to mendacious dirtbag of Godus?

  88. Wdf1987 says:

    Man, those Populous games and their tiny field of view would ruin the game completely for me.

  89. Wdf1987 says:

    Lol at how this slowly turns into a video about how big of an asshole Peter Molyneux is. Glad someone is saying it

  90. JohannesMP says:

    59:59 Regarding B&W 1 and 2 "And like the original, they made no ports to consoles or other platforms" I'm aware that this is being pedantic, but both Black & White and Black & White 2 were indeed ported to Mac OS by Feral Interactive. I would argue Mac OS counts as a different platform than the original Windows-only releases.

  91. Vítězslav Ureš says:

    Does anyone else has a problem with Populous I later in the game when computer just spams vulcanos so fast you don't even have time to clear them?

  92. Kiryuusai says:

    This video is approved by the Lord of Lies himself, as any advertisement of his product is welcome.

  93. Malentar says:

    I just want more dungeon keeper style games

  94. RealTalk says:

    OMG I didn't even know about "War for the Overworld" and I was a huge fan of Dungeon keeper games.
    This was a really great video! Glad I found it 🙂

  95. Val Tranquil says:

    mmmmmmbrb just gonna go download B&W 1 and 2

  96. Disthron says:

    Black and White
    …I could never figure out how to get another village onto my side no matter what I did.

  97. Sadôg says:

    Black & White 2 was beloved, I still think about playing it again, I think it still has a bit of a modding community. Can somebody please tell me where the art of the wolf creature on the left of the thumbnail image is from?

  98. clapointe151 says:

    Dongeon keeper 1&2
    Majesty 1&2
    Black and white 1&2
    Dungeon 1,2,3
    War for the overworld
    Universe sim

    Boy that i will buy these game

  99. Aunty Red says:


    RIP Lionhead the hamster.

  100. spinnerboyz says:

    I'm watching this while I work 😀 Very interesting information. Many of these games I didn't know about… I used to love playing Black and White 2, such good memories!

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