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Interviews

Demis Hassabis, part 1

In part one of our two-part interview, the ex-Bullfrog and Elixir genius peers back into history and discusses his eventful videogame past

Demis Hassabis, ex-Bullfrog and Elixir gaming genius and the AI guru behind titles like Theme Park, Republic: The Revolution and Evil Genius, has been a bit quiet recently. The man with a brain rumoured to be larger than a planet has dipped below the videogame horizon to embark on new AI research.

However, when CVG recently caught up with him, Hassabis revealed during an extensive interview that he's turned his mind to a new game that's already underway, and that some of his work on artificial intelligence will feed back into what is currently a top secret project. But what else did the man have to say for himself and his colourful videogame career? Well, read on to find out. Part one of the two-part interview is published below. We'll be bringing you the second and concluding part soon...

How did you get into the games industry?

Demis Hassabis: Professionally, I got into the industry when I was 15. My foot in the door was a competition run by Amiga Power where you had to write a Space Invaders clone. So during my school summer holidays I thought I'd give it a go, and my game actually came in second to a guy called Mike Diskette who went on to do a lot of things in the industry.

The first prize was a job at developer Bullfrog, an amazing prize, so as I came second I decided to phone up anyway and they found out how young I was. I think Peter Molyneux was intrigued to know "who is this kid!" So I went there for two summer holidays, play-tested Populous and designed a few levels for Syndicate. I then took a year off before going to Cambridge University, co-wrote Theme Park with Peter and it kind of blossomed from there.

With Theme Park, who came up with the idea and how did you develop the ideas into a full game?

Demis Hassabis: Peter's idea was already there when I got there after finishing my A-levels and I was a wide-eyed 16-year-old. There was all this cool stuff going on at Bullfrog, which at the time, only had about 25 people working there - before the big EA expansion of it. We were in a little, fairly run-down office in a Surrey research park, and it was a really great time.

Development of Theme Park had just kicked off - they were about two months into it and remember seeing Populous graphics to show off what the game idea might be, and it seemed like a really cool project to get involved with. The original idea was Peter's, but as with any project, there are thousands of ideas along the way that everybody contributes until it's finished.

What are you most proud of with Theme Park?

Demis Hassabis: My responsibility in TP was the simulation bit, and having never really written anything like that before, or anything of that size or complexity, I was pleased that when I was thrown in at the deep end I managed to cope and do a reasonably good job. It turned out really well. I wrote all the computer players and how the technology progression should go plus other game mechanics that I can't remember now! But I had a brilliant time helping Peter with the design.

When the game was released, it had a great reaction. How did that go down with yourself and the Bullfrog team?

Demis Hassabis: It got amazing reviews and sold really well - especially in Germany and Japan. But at that time I'd already left to go to college. I don't regret college, as they were some of the best days of my life, but I kinda missed out on the excitement of seeing the game's success as I was away from it by then. Of course I kept in touch with everyone, and it was exciting to see it on the shelves while I was at college - it was a bit surreal actually!

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