Populous to The Sims: a history of playing god

Book of revelation

While Maxis dominated all of creation, Bullfrog went to war. All but a couple of its games led on naturally from the ideas first introduced by Populous – a character meddling from afar in the affairs of a world you couldn't wait to screw around with.

It wasn't always the case, of course. Syndicate, for instance, had you as a sinister corporate type, guiding assassins round futuristic cities from the safety of a blimp. Magic Carpet and the underwhelming Populous: The Beginning had the character as a presence on the map, whose ability to summon volcanoes and harness the elements didn't mean his enemies couldn't hit him in the face.

Unlike the Maxis games, Bullfrog's titles were clearly games rather than software toys or creation kits. They had levels, plots, and in most cases, difficulty curves. It didn't matter. The fun came from playing with them rather than completing them, not least because that's how they'd been designed in the first place – technology tests twisting into full games (isometric landscapes for Populous, gouraud shaded landscapes for Magic Carpet), with things like Magic Carpet's summonable castles stemming as much from someone saying "Hey, we can make castles with this..." as a fantastic idea for a new game mechanic.

The result was that Bullfrog's games rarely had the staying power of the more sober Sim titles, but that was actually okay. They usually burned out fast, but not without grabbing you by the throat with the sheer wish-fulfilment of the basic idea. Be the Dungeon Keeper, not the hero! Create your own Theme Park! Fly a Magic Carpet! Uninstall Gene Wars and play something easier, like Syndicate: American Revolt! Or Russian Roulette with a Gatling gun! Yes! Still bitter! Sorry!

Book of numbers

The odd thing is that beyond the companies mentioned, few have made much of a mark on the god game genre. It's not always down to the games themselves either.

Interplay's Sacrifice is a great example of this, with its action strategy mix and some terrific characterisation from the bickering gods your character spent the game sucking up to. Mucky Foot's Startopia, a comedy space station building game, created by several ex-Bullfroggers, had a cult following, but died on the shelves.

Even Lucasarts couldn't crack the genre when it launched Afterlife in 1996 – a SimCity knockoff that put you in charge of heaven and hell, with the seven deadly sins/heavenly virtues taking over from residential and commercial zoning. It was a micro-management nightmare, albeit with a fun sense of humour.

Two problems in particular presented roadblocks. The first was that creating a god game with the kind of flexibility and satisfaction required to stand up against the classics (both as games in their own right, and as experiences gamers remembered through rose-tinted monitors) was no short order, especially in the days of small teams and much more limited technology. The second was finding a theme capable of getting the old magic fl owing... something offering both a great basic idea, and the scope to build a satisfying game around.

To see the scale of the challenge, you need look no further than The Sims and Civilization. Even now, with The Sims selling more copies of its most half-arsed expansions than most games can even dream of, note how few competitors it has. There's Singles, which is a cut down version that adds nudity and virtual bonking, and Singles 2, which is basically the same thing with the chance for a threesome… and that's about it.

As for Civilization, we've seen several spin-offs, but the apple never fell too far from the tree. Call to Power, Alpha Centauri, Colonization and the later sequels often came from different developers and dev teams, but still form its basic extended family. To get the same kind of scope, you've got to head into space, with intergalactic scale action in games such as, Galactic Civilizations 2, or of course, Spore.

Book of lamentations

There are advantages to this. The lack of a modern successor to games like Populous and Syndicate helps keep our memories of them intact. After all, when was the last time you heard someone refer to a shooter as having Wolfenstein 3D-like gameplay?

However, a scan through the big releases since the early 1990s tells its own story. There just aren't that many god games out, and precious few developers have ever been in much of a position to crack the whip. The genre as a whole largely shifted to more focused games, from The Settlers switching to a straight Age of Empires template instead of its original village building roots, to Peter Molyneux's interest in world simulation moving from Black and White to the light-RPG charms of Fable and its critically acclaimed Xbox 360 only sequel.

This doesn't mean that we'll never see any others, simply that they're a tough sell at the moment, no matter how good your pedigree. Designing on-the-fly isn't the kind of thing most publishers want to hear their superstar teams doing in the era of multimillion dollar budgets, especially when smaller games like Viva Piñata can borrow much of what made the original games work in a more controlled, easier to package form. The appeal of playing god may never get old, but in another few years, it'll still be Populous, SimCity and The Sims we'll be thinking of.