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

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What did your friends at university think of your success?

Demis Hassabis: At first they thought I was kidding, but I managed to get hold of a copy and they saw my name on there - although they did suspect I'd hacked it or something! Eventually they believed my story (laughs).

After graduating, did you make up your mind to start making videogames as a career?

Demis Hassabis: Yeah, I mean ever since I can remember I've always loved games and particularly computer games and programming. I've always played games from a very young age - I was four years old when I started playing chess, and played for England and stuff. So videogames seemed like the perfect marriage of games and programming. I never really thought about any other career, even though I could have done all sorts of things.

So after graduating, did you always have an idea of setting up your own company?

Demis Hassabis: Oh yeah, I always had a dream of doing that, but it was working out the logistics of setting it up and so on. I was going to do it straight after university, but at that point Peter Molyneux had sold Bullfrog to EA and was looking to start something new. So it seemed like the timing was perfect to go back with him and help set up something new.

Lionhead had just started with five or six people, and basically it was a chance to see how a company was set up and work with a bunch of guys I'd had a lot of fun with at Bullfrog. I guess also it was less daunting than setting up a new games company straight away! Also, Black & White - although still an embryonic concept - already sounded pretty cool in terms of the AI needed and it was something that I was interested in working on.

What was the philosophy behind Lionhead? Did you and Peter have similar ideas about creating original games?

Demis Hassabis: Peter and I have very similar ambitions in terms of trying to do things different from what other people are doing and to always push the envelope a bit. I guess we have slightly different tastes on some things, which often works well when you have two people with different takes on things.

Peter quite likes the fantastical element, whereas I like a more strategic element I suppose. B&W could have been taken in very different ways, and what turned out was very cool, but it could've been a more strategic game too. We worked together as a really good team at Bullfrog and Lionhead, but it was Peter and his vision that was driving the company.

You've never been scared of taking risks?

Demis Hassabis: No, I don't know why that is, but it's something I've never worried about. I'm actually more worried about not taking risks and playing safe. Not pushing myself enough. It's a bit perverse I suppose, and asking for trouble! I've always been prepared to jump in at the deep end and see if I can swim or not.

After Lionhead, you set up Elixir...

Demis Hassabis: Yeah, I basically wanted to take a lot of the great things I'd seen at Bullfrog and Lionhead, the culture, and nurture that more and take it to the next level. Also there was a lot of talented friends of mine from university who were looking at setting up a company, so it was a good window of opportunity.

Plus I had some investment from some friends in the city - a small amount, but enough to set up a company, and an idea for the game Republic, which I really wanted to do. Lionhead were busy with B&W, so it would've been a few years before I could've got started on it if I'd have stayed there.

Republic: The Revolution was an ambitious game - why did it take so long to develop?

Demis Hassabis: I can look at Republic now with hindsight and I think it's clear that we bit off more than we could chew at the time. We tried to build this incredibly ambitious graphics engine, plus create some fairly insane AI technology, for living breathing cities, as well as - the thing I underestimated the most - boiling down a topic as massive as politics into a game.

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