Behind The Scenes: Theme Park
Peter Molyneux may be one of the busiest men in the games industry, with the serious job of running both Lionhead and Rare for Microsot, but back in 1994 he was all about the fun as his studio, Bullfrog Productions reinvented the business sim with Theme Park. Now Molyneux looks back at one of his most popular games to date.
Although the software world – specifically that of the PC – is crammed with business titles and simulation games these days, back in the early-Nineties Theme Park was something of a revelation. Combining cute visuals with an assortment of rides, intelligent park visitors and a full management mode, Theme Park was original but still had enough accessibility to appeal to novice gamers as well as those looking for something to test their business acumen. Strategy games existed, but few evoked the fun and personality that was exploding from every pore of Theme Park’s colourful exterior.
A fixation with Pong led to Peter Molyneux’s lifelong obsession with all things computer orientated and proved an effective way of unleashing his creative urges. “I got it home, took it apart and never got it to work again but from that moment on I was hooked on everything to do with computers. If you don’t count Pong as my first computer then it was a Commodore PET. The other reason why I got into programming is that I’m dyslexic so programming was a far easier way for me to express myself.”
If it weren’t for a business error, Bullfrog, as a creator of games, would never have existed. “I had set up a company called Taurus with my business partner, Les Edgar, and we were working on making databases,” begins Molyneux. “One day I got a call from Commodore who were very keen to meet with us as they wanted our product on their new machine, the Amiga. When I got to the meeting I quickly realised that they had called the wrong company; they thought I was from company called Torus. However, just as I was about to fess up, they offered ten free machines so I didn’t say anything. Around the same time, I was approached by a friend to convert Druid 2 from the Atari ST to the Amiga which was rapidly becoming more of a games machine, so we decided to forget about databases and start making games and that is how Bullfrog was born.”
The concept of a business simulator was something that originated in the early-Eighties and although a game was created in 1983, the arrival of only two orders meant it never took off. However, the idea of a business game remained with him and some considerable years later the seeds of Theme Park would fully blossom. “My inspiration came from going to a theme park and wondering how it all worked and also wishing that roller coasters were a bit more scary,” explains Molyneux. “Then the thought came to me that it would be very cool to be able to design my own theme park and that’s where the idea was born. Because it was a very different idea for a game at that time, I programmed the first version myself so that I then had something concrete to show everyone at Bullfrog and so go on to convince them that it was a good idea for a game.”
Once the team had taken on the project, it was time to research the game by visiting as many theme parks as possible around the world, sampling the rides and making notes of the atmosphere for different areas. “In Britain Alton Towers is pretty good but Great Americas in LA is also very cool,” notes Molyneux.
“There was plenty of arduous research which meant I had to go and visit as many theme parks as I could,” he recalls, clearly having enjoyed the entire experience. “ I also managed to speak to quite a few theme park managers. The conclusion was, as you’d expect, that they are all very carefully designed to ensure that visitors spend as much time and money at them as possible.”
With the ‘research’ undertaken and the ideas formed, it was time to start designing. From the outset, Theme Park was to have a simple cartoon-like style which stood out from other games of a similar nature. “It was designed to be simple to use and generally bold, bright and inviting as opposed to being intricate, complex and dull, which was the case with many of the strategy games at that time.” Although Theme Park started off in 2D using a refinement of the Populous game engine, the introduction of 3D during the Nineties meant that Bullfrog used art package 3D Studio to construct the shops and rides while giving them a cartoon makeover to suit the style of the rest of the game.
Sound effects were used with library CDS and Bullfrog created an, “ambient backdrop loop from a ‘children in playground’ sample.” The events on screen determined the sounds heard; there are vomiting noises if snack bars are too close to rides, while you’ll hear screams as people hurtle down a rollercoaster. Building a park is a process that really couldn’t be simpler. With the use of icons that can be selected with the touch of a mouse button, rides, shops, paths and trees can be positioned with very little difficulty. Staff could be hired such as handymen for the upkeep of the park, mechanics for ride maintenance, guards kept the area secure and there were even costume characters to entertain the visitors. “I always found those characters in costumes at theme parks very scary and it was this feeling I wanted to recreate in the game,” comments Molyneux regarding their origin. “They are not meant to be cuddly and friendly but more – as I remember them – a bit sinister and spooky.”