Who is Peter Molyneux?
Peter Molyneux is one of gaming’s biggest personalities and has been working in the industry for over 30 years. Starting off as a founder of Bullfrog Productions, he has worked with Electronic Arts, formed Lionhead Studios and has had close ties with Microsoft in recent years. Theme Park, Dungeon Keeper, Populous, Magic Carpet, Black & White and Fable are just a few of the games that have received his magic touch, and he’s gained a reputation for being a showman and being extremely passionate about games. Sometimes that passion causes him to promise a little too much, but he remains one of gaming’s most interesting figureheads and remains a prominent and important part of the industry.
Well I was a pretty untalented school kid. I think my school report said that I was cheerfully disinterested in pretty much everything. I was dyslexic before they really had dyslexia – before it was officially categorised – and that meant I was in the bottom stream for pretty much everything. I used to just kick around and kind of be in my own world more than the real one.
Did you enjoy your time at school?
I thought I didn’t but actually, looking back, I think I did. I was famous in school for one thing: I was the least achieving student they ever had. The careers advisor once said to me that I might as well go into the Forestry Commission or the army as I’d be somewhere where they don’t require you to have any writing skills. There was a big long list of where people were and I was at the bottom of everything.
That’s surprising. So what did you do after you left school?
PM: Part of me thinks that I might have been abducted by aliens and something happened to this completely talentless kid, because the only passion I had was this bizarre belief that I was going to be successful and run my own business. I don’t know where that came from. I left school and suddenly became uber-ambitious and very driven. I began using computers for the first time and finally found something I could do reasonably well and really enjoyed. The first time I used a computer was the first time the world really went dim – the outside world, that is – and it was just me and the computer.
Can you tell us about your first job and how you got into programming?
After I left school I went to Farnborough Technical College where I got a few O Levels and later I took a degree in computer science. When I left I decided I was going to take a gap year, but it turned out to be a gap weekend because when I went down to sign on I was asked to interview for a job. The guy who interviewed me owned one of the biggest sport mail-order retailers in the world, which probably wasn’t really saying much because there were probably only about three of them back then, and offered me the job straight away. Well, the funny thing was this guy wanted to computerise his business, and so went over to America and brought back a whole load of computer equipment. And because he was such an entrepreneur he also bought himself a book on how to program. But he had only read the first ten chapters, and this was very important because chapter 11 was about something called array programming, and arrays are ways of holding lots of information. Because he hadn’t read that chapter he had this massive thick pile of listings on his computer. Had he read that section he would have realised that the whole of that much of programming – like 10,000 lines of code – could have been done in five lines. When I told him this he thought I was a genius and handed all the computer stuff over to me. I stayed there for about two years and when I left he set me up in business selling floppy disks to schools, and on these floppy disks would be games that I had written. Well, it just goes to show how stupid you are when you’ve got no experience because it was obvious that the schools didn’t want the floppy disks; they wanted the games.
What kind of games were these?
They were really kind of rubbish, educational games. There was one game that I wrote called The Composer, and this was my first officially published game ever. I’d written it as this little application, and any programmer could do it in an afternoon. I took it to this company in Alton and they said they would order 2,000 copies of this game from me, but asked if they could have them in a week’s time. Well, I didn’t do the sensible thing of phoning up a tape manufacturer; I went down to my local electronics store, bought two tape decks, some wire and did it all manually. And you can imagine how long that took. I had this huge, massive stack of tapes before thinking I’d better test a few. When I did, I discovered that I’d plugged the lead into the wrong socket and had to redo them all again.
What happened? Did you make the order in time?
I did and the company took the tapes, but after waiting for payment for over a month and having spent every single penny I had on these blank tapes, they brought me in and said they weren’t going to pay me because they were in financial problems. And I think I did actually cry, rather embarrassingly. But the funny thing was, eight years later, after I had released Populous and had some money, I went round to look at these lovely houses and one of the properties I looked at was this guy’s house who owned this company in Alton. I walked in and he didn’t recognise me. And when I asked him why he was selling the house he told me he had gone bankrupt. ‘It took you eight years, then, to go bankrupt, did it?’ I said. ‘Well you owe me money for these tapes!’
You didn’t buy his house, then?
No, I didn’t.
Can you tell us about how you met Les Edgar, whom you set up Bullfrog with?
Well this company who I was employed at used a shop called PJ Hi-Fi to get their computer supplies, and this is where Les worked. When I eventually left the company, Les suggested we start a company up. I had met this girl at a wedding – a previous girlfriend – and her father was this enormously wealthy bloke who lived in Switzerland. Well, one day I met this girl’s father and he asked me if I’d be interested in a business proposition. The business was exporting money systems – the things that go in slot machines – to Switzerland and baked beans to the Middle East. Of course, being the entrepreneur I was, I accepted. But – and this is where it all starts coming together – this one event happened. One day the phone rang and it was the head of Commodore Europe on the other line. He said that he would really like to talk to us about the future of the Amiga, and could we write a commercial piece of software, like a database or spreadsheet, for the machine? He brought us up to his main head office and gave us this fantastic demonstration of the Amiga, six or seven free Amigas, plus space and a stand at this expo show in Germany. It became very obvious that he’d actually got the wrong company. Our company was called Taurus and there was another company that made networking products named Torus, and he’d phoned the wrong one. So we kind of bluffed it out, all these Amigas arrived, and it started this whole process off where they were really actively supporting us and I started writing this database called Acquisition.
Did Commodore ever twig and come asking for its computers back?
Well they kept on threatening to shut us down and asking if they could see this product, so I was frantically writing this database while putting them off with excuse after excuse. Eventually I’d finished enough of this database package and we showed it at this show in Germany. I had approached this database package in the way that you approach a game; it was full of unique features. You could store pictures in it, store documents and there weren’t any field size restrictions. And I had all these other database firms queuing up to see it. In the end we won product of the show and sold 2,000 copies to this company in America, which gave us enough money to keep going for a while. But we knew our dream of making millions from these database packages wasn’t going to happen because the Amiga was fast becoming a games machine. But that’s when another bit of good luck happened. I had this friend who had made this game called Druid II: Enlightenment, and one day he came to me and asked if I could convert it from the Commodore 64 to the Amiga, which I did, and that got me into the ethos of how games are written. After Druid II, though, we were really running out of money by that point, and Les came to me and said, ‘This is not working. We might as well close the company down.’ And I said, ‘Look, let’s give it a few months. I’ve got this idea for a game.’ And this was Populous.
Notable PETER MOLYNEUX Games
You can read the rest of our interview with Peter Molyneux in issue 71. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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