Well, as you recall, last year I did a Sierra retrospective and apparently you all loved it. So, this year I decided to do something different: I did a pool for which retro studio closed by EA (just to remind everyone that EA now stands for Eldritch Abomination) would you like to see a retrospective from, and you all chose Bullfrog. So, this year’s Retro Developer Month is dedicated to British iconic developer studio Bullfrog.
A very ingenious tadpole.
Bullfrog was originally founded as Taurus Impact Systems (AKA Taurus Software) around 1982 by Peter Molyneux and Les Edgar. They’ve met each other at a software shop that year and Molyneux (who was selling baked beans to the Middle East back then), jumped at the opportunity to make computer software.
But some time later, Taurus was contacted by Commodore Europe, who wanted to hire Molyneux and Edgar to make a database program and they would provide as many Amiga computers as needed for the task. Molyneux noticed that Commodore mistook them for another company called Torus but accepted the task anyway, confident on his own programming abilities (and because he really wanted those Amiga computers).
Struggling, Molyneux was able to finish his database (called Acquisition) and presented it at a software show in Germany, where it ended winning the “Product of the Year” award. The success of Acquisition (along with another program called X-CAD) provided enough money for Taurus to keep their doors open, but Molyneux, after seeing the Amiga’s potential for gaming, approached his partner for a change in direction for Taurus.
The froglet starts leaping.
So in 1987, Bullfrog Productions began its existence as a computer game developer when a friend of Molyneux asked him to port Druid II: Enlightenment to the Amiga and Molyneux (who renamed his company after a frog statuette in his office), along with the new staff he hired, did so. He would also develop Fusion, a shoot’em’up, again for the Amiga. But these two games weren’t enough to keep Bullfrog from eminent bankruptcy, so Molyneux pitched a last idea to his partner for a new concept that, according to his own words, would revolutionise all the gaming industry. A new genre which he called “the god game”!
So, Molyneux, along with Glenn Corpes, Kevin Donkin, Andy Jones, Sean Cooper and Dave Hanlon, started working in this new concept, which he initially called “Project K”, in which the player acted as god and influenced his or her followers against other gods and their followers. “Project K”, now called Populous, was released in 1989 by Electronic Arts (who became Bullfrog’s main distributor and publisher) and it became such an instant critical and commercial success, that it put Bullfrog on the map as a serious gaming developer.
At the apex of the highest jump.
Populous had such a great success, that Molyneux and Edgar were forced to scout universities for new talents to hire and moved their company to Surrey Research Park. Meanwhile, Electronic Arts started to pressure Bullfrog for a sequel to Populous and Bullfrog released Powermonger (that uses a very similar interface to Populous) in 1990 and a year later, released Populous 2.
These two games gave Bullfrog the necessary breathing space to make new IPs and dedicate themselves to new projects, which later turn out as Syndicate, Theme Park and Magic Carpet, among others. Bullfrog even worked with researchers from the University of Surrey in studying underwater life’s behaviour, in order to apply it to a very ambitious project called Creation, but it would be later on cancelled.
Bullfrog was also developing Artificial Intelligence and even came up with two new techniques that are still used nowadays: Personality Mapping and Skeletal Mapping.
The downward fall.
In 1993, merger talks with Electronic Arts began, but Bullfrog also contacted Sony, Virgin and Phillips about the same matter. But due to their profitable relationship throughout the years, Molyneux and Edgar ultimately decided to merge with Electronic Arts in January 1995. Molyneux became Electronic Arts’ vice-president and responsible for their European studio, with Edgar as vice-president of the latter while maintaining chairmanship of Bullfrog.
Bullfrog, who after the acquisition by EA, grew in size exponentially and was able to maintain their independence initially. Around this time, they had seven projects in hand: Magic Carpet 2, Theme Hospital, The Indestructibles, Syndicate Wars, Gene Wars, Creation and Dungeon Keeper. But unfortunately, Electronic Arts demanded Molyneux to release either Magic Carpet 2 or Dungeon Keeper in the following six months, so Hi-Octane was made and released just to appease Electronic Arts.
But Electronic Arts wasn’t happy. They wanted their games to be made as fast as possible, with little time for QA and beta testing, so Bullfrog was forced to reduce their quality standards and cancelled both The Indestructibles and Creation in order to be able to complete the other projects on schedule.
Everything must come to an end
In July 1997, Molyneux quitted as Electronic Arts’ vice-president to focus exclusively on Bullfrog, but the real reason was that he and other Bullfrog’s employees were growing more and more stressed over Electronic Arts’ managerial approach, that according to Molyneux and others, was becoming more dictatorial each passing day. And shortly before Dungeon Keeper‘s release, Molyneux left Bullfrog to found Lionhead Studios with Tim Rance (Bullfrog’s technical director) and Mark Webley (Theme Hospital‘s project leader).
Also around this time, other disgruntled Bullfrog employees also left the company to either join Molyneux in Lionhead or fund their own studios, like Mucky Foot Productions.
In the two following years, Bullfrog released four games: Theme Aquarium, Populous: The Beginning, Theme Park World and Dungeon Keeper 2 with some modest success, which prompted Edgar stepping down as Bullfrog’s chairman in mid-1999 and more veteran employees (like Glenn Corpes) also leaving for other endeavours.
Due to most of the talent leaving, Electronic Arts was forced to bring in employees from other studios (like Mindscape) and even brought Ernest Adams to initially design Genesis: The Hand of God, which would be the fourth instalment in the Populous series. But it was cancelled due to being too similar to Lionhead’s Black & White. Adams was then put in charge of developing Dungeon Keeper 3, but that too was cancelled due to Electronic Arts negotiating the film licences of Harry Potter and The Lord of The Rings and wanting for Bullfrog to focus on the videogame adaptations of these.
In 2002, Bullfrog released his final title, Theme Park Inc. But during its development, Bullfrog was absorbed into EA UK, effectively ending the legendary studio once and for all.
Bullfrog was one of those studios that, although it didn’t have a very long career or a lot of titles under its belt, it did undoubtedly left its mark in the industry, mostly due to its dedication and Molyneux’s vision. Its influence in modern games is undeniable and a lot of the developers that worked there are still currently working in the industry.
Links of interest:
- Bullfrog’s old website in the Wayback machine archive.
- ST News interview to Peter Molyneux and Les Edgar, 1989.
- Bullfrog and Populous article at The One Magazine, 1989.
So, I hope you’ve enjoyed this retrospective. Stay tuned for Bullfrog game reviews during the reminder of the month. Until then, keep on playing.