A panel of developers from famed British studios Bullfrog and Lionhead recount the moments that lead to their inevitable closure on stage at EGX Rezzed today.
Need some quirky indie gems to get over the Lionhead closure? Here’s the best indie games on PC.
The panel, hosted by Eurogamer editor Oli Welsh, consisted of developers brought into the Guildford, Surrey-based studios at various stages of their lifecycle – from the initial founding by Peter Molyneux, through EA buyouts, mergers and eventual closure.
Glenn Corpes, one of the first employees of Bullfrog after it span out of Molyneux and co-founder Les Edgar’s previous venture Taurus Impact Systems, recalled much of the early state of the company’s workflow. However, he noted that problems began for the rockstar studio behind Populous well before EA stepped in to take over the company in 2001.
“Peter found himself in the states a lot, so he wasn’t involved a lot in the initial version of dungeon keeper so much,” Corpes said. “Which is why when he came back he was like ‘throw it away and start again!’ Which is a story not a lot of people remember, but it did happen.”
EA began to take a more controlling interest in the company around Molyneux’s departure, after the publishing of Dungeon Keeper in 1997, and found that a vast number of staff were needed to replace him due to his unique project management approach.
“They didn’t really realise that Peter only worked on one game at a time, totally focused on it,” said Corpes. “So, he’ll hate me for saying this if he ever finds out, but things like Syndicate or Magic Carpet he was barely involved in. He was too distracted by things like Theme Park and Dungeon Keeper, while those games were in development, and that worked! But when he left, EA perceived all kinds of gaps and started bringing in people like John [McCormack]. And it wasn’t that there was particularly anything wrong with it, but that’s the point where it changed and it stopped being the same Bullfrog.”
John McCormack switched from EA to the Bullfrog team when they were moved into the same offices around the time of Molyneux’s departure, and spoke of how there was an immediate disparency between Bullfrog employees and EA employees.
“There was a bit of tension between EA and Bullfrog because of the different cultures,” McCormack said. “In one room you had experimental bullfrogy stuff and in the other Formula 1 and FIFA, and all the solid franchisey stuff that Bullfrog weren’t really about. There was a bit of tension there but I was dogged with it so I kept going.”
After the full merge of Bullfrog into EA, Adam Langridge joined Bullfrog as part of his university internship excited to work on one of the franchises the studio was best known for, but was placed on the F1 2000 Championship Edition team instead. He did, however, end up on the Lionhead Studios team that fulfilled the dream ideal he had of the height of British development, as did programmer Ben Board who had previously spent his early career implementing straight lines in helicopter navigation software.
“That anarchic spirit was really tangible,” said Board, clearly relieved to not be reliving his career before Bullfrog. “I only heard about the kind of Bullfrog from a few years previously from the older hands but I felt like a lot of the components of that spirit were there from my time at Lionhead later on.”
Most of the panel saw Lionhead, or satellite studio Big Blue Box, as a way to move on from the sort of drudgery the EA buyout had imposed on a lot of their work, and went on to develop Fable and Black and White.
“The Microsoft thing was interesting,” said McCormack who stayed on the Fable team at Lionhead for 12 years, eventually becoming art director. “At that early stage they were completely naive about the games industry. We’d all worked on PlayStation and things before so we were all seen as the experts, so what they said was ‘what we’re going to do is we’re going to help fund Fable but we’re not going to have anything to do with development.’ And they stuck with it, and it was a pretty good experience because Lionhead were in complete control of the first Fable and Microsoft just stood back and took notes.”
Langridge’s experience at Lionhead in the R&D department had a similar amount of free rein, working on bizarre tech-demo-slash-game-prototype Milo and Kate. When asked why the game never made it past the demo stage of development, he said: “I still don’t really know, I think some of the ideas were a bit ahead of their time, and to be honest with the indie scene now if you pitched something like Milo and Kate now, it would be ‘yeah, sure, you’re someone’s imaginary friend, brilliant!’ That’ll find a market these days, but I think it was to be honest just a bit too far ahead.”
Langridge had several other canned ideas from the R&D department to speak of, including a post-apocalyptic decision-making narrative game similar to The Walking Dead or The Last of Us but around a decade before the arrival of either.
For most of the panelists, Lionhead’s seemingly inevitable demise at the end of this month is sad, but also an exciting prospect given their experience of the same circumstances at Bullfrog.
The positive side is that when Bullfrog went down, you had all the satellites come off it like Big Blue Box,” McCormack said. “And when Lionhead was bought out, it spawned Media Molecule, and those guys. So I’d be pretty excited about what happens if Lionhead goes down because you’ll see all that craziness and innovation spin out and populate the indie scene.”
And Board himself, having been at the Rezzed expo all day, has already seen enough to convince him that Bullfrog and Lionhead aren’t the death of British games. “Walking around here I’ve absolutely seen the spirit of Bullfrog still alive,” he said. “Some of these games are exactly what we would have been making back in the day.”