Video: 30 Years of God Game History | Populous, Dungeon Keeper, Black & White
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!.