The official announcement of a new Fable game has been met with some intrigue in our offices. Though it was perhaps the worst kept secret in gaming (rumours of the project date back more than two years), now that it is official, we couldn't help but reminisce about the brilliant but flawed franchise.
Before Fable existed, Peter Molyneux was already a successful industry veteran. In 1997 he left Bullfrog Productions, a studio he had founded 10 years prior and sold to EA, to start a new venture. He had a reputation for creativity and had found success in creating innovative simulation games such as Populous, Theme Park, and Dungeon Keeper.
Keen to develop a new project on his own terms, Molyneux invested $6 million of his own money to create the development studio to make it. That studio was Lionhead and that game was Black & White. It released for Windows in 2001 and was praised for the originality it brought to the god game genre. Not only were graphics impressive for the time, but a design decision to keep the user interface as minimalistic as possible meant screens were not cluttered and controlling the game was simple and intuitive.
Players could assign jobs to their followers, interact with and reshape the environment, and cast a variety of miracles entirely via mouse controls. Black & White also featured a 'creature' that learned from player behaviour. The player-controlled god-hand, the creature, and the environments would take an evil or heavenly appearance depending on player actions. These design choices proved so popular that they would echo in many of Lionhead's future releases.
Fable was a barely conceived idea about warring wizards when initially being worked on by Lionhead satellite studio Big Blue Box. However, the team led by former Bullfrog Productions employees Dene and Simon Carter had big ambitions. They wanted to create a role-playing game that would be different from any other. It had to have humour but also had to include features unlike anything seen previously. The hero's appearance would change over time, non-player characters would react depending on how the player behaved, the game would span the player-character's entire lifetime, and environments would be so interactive that a dropped acorn would slowly grow into a tree.
Such an ambitious project required money and resources. A deal was made that involved Microsoft Studios obtaining publishing rights and a team from Lionhead joining Big Blue Box to complete the game.
Fable was released in 2004, which happened to be a fantastic year for games and a difficult time to establish a new IP. Counterstrike Source, Half-Life 2, Far Cry and Halo 2 ushered in the latest wave of first-person shooters, GTA: San Andreas smashed best-selling game records, and World of Warcraft had just begun its journey to becoming the definitive MMORPG. Despite such heavy competition, Fable had modestly high sales of about 3 million. Although this was half of what Halo 2 achieved, and about 10% of GTA: San Andreas, the game was a hit.
On the surface, Fable told a conventional fantasy story about a young boy struck by tragedy who gains incredible power, quests for revenge, and defeats a threat to the world. Players can wield magic, swords, hammers, and bows to defeat enemies. Also, players would find hidden collectables and items tucked away in various corners of the environments.
Despite similarities with other games, Fable distinguished itself by taking place in a bright and vivid world that was packed with humorous characters and bizarre situations. The player character was stronger than almost anything in the game, and players were free to experiment with how they used their abilities and how they interacted with the fantasy world. Uncovering little moments of hilarity were common, like earning the nickname "Chicken Chaser" after kicking a chicken, being swarmed by monsters after suggesting a rude word is the solution to a puzzle, or being exposed to the hero's Union Jack underwear when he is imprisoned.
Even with so much in-game enjoyment to be had, some criticisms were aimed at Lionhead Studios. Perhaps it was enthusiasm, perhaps exaggeration, but many players felt that features they had been told to expect were lacking. For example, apart from cosmetic changes, the morality system was mostly inconsequential, players had expected their characters to age during gameplay but player ageing only happened at story intervals, players were told they could have offspring that would grow to be playable characters but that was not included in the game, and at no point did a tree grow from a fallen acorn.
The criticisms did little do harm Fable's success, with the game's sales possibly saving Lionhead Studios. Two other projects, Black & White 2 and The Movies, had both failed to sell well. A buyout was considered the safest way to secure the studio's future, so Lionhead absorbed Big Blue Box and was sold to Microsoft.
Fable 2, an Xbox 360-exclusive, was released in 2008 to positive critical reception. Considered closer to the original promises about Fable, many critics praised the variety of gameplay features and charming presentation but did criticise it for lacking challenge and because stat and item management had little importance.
It was a good action-RPG, the combat was enjoyable, map regions were packed with secrets, and the story was full of whimsy and humour. The morality system was better implemented than in the original, with the good and evil choices more carefully constructed to suggest the ramifications of player actions, families and children were possible, players could customise their avatar using a decent range of clothes, haircuts and tattoos. A tree even grows from an acorn, albeit off-screen.
However, the entire adventure can be beaten quickly and easily. The player cannot die or lose in Fable 2, instead, they are knocked down and marked with a scar. Magic is so overpowered that combinations of slow-time, raise dead and any other spell makes the player untouchable. Puzzles are simple cases of hitting a switch with the correct weapon, and quest objectives are lit-up by a golden trail. Famously, the final enemy in the story is defeated with one single hit, not even by the player in many cases.
It can be argued that Fable 2 is not about being challenging but about the enjoyment taken from the experience, and sales of 3.5 million suggest that may be true. With good sales, Fable 3 went straight into production and met its 2010 release date.
In true Lionhead style, Fable 3 was packed with innovation. Unfortunately, many of the new features didn't work very well. The judicial system was touted as letting players interact in ways that had far-reaching in-game consequences but were actually pressing a button after watching in-game characters arguing for five minutes. That players could now 'touch' was a fiddly and unnecessary mechanic that involved pressing RT when standing near an NPC, taking their hand and slowly moving towards an objective. Weapons morphing and gaining new abilities depending on how players used them was a great idea, but by the time a weapon was fully upgraded players had few remaining reasons to use it. Instead of a pause menu, the entire GUI was a magical sanctuary, so going through menus was visual and interactive, but also slow and clunky.
It may have been the lowest-scoring Fable game in review terms, but Fable 3 managed to shift 5 million copies, meeting expectations and allowing Lionhead to move onto new projects. A couple of Fable games released in the following years. Namely, a family-friendly Xbox Live Arcade beat 'em up called Fable Heroes, and the Kinect exclusive, Fable: The Journey. Both achieved mediocre reviews and neither sold well.
Fable: The Journey was particularly disappointing for Lionhead Studios. Impressed by early Kinect demonstrations, Lionhead had willingly dedicated time and resources in developing for the Xbox 360 accessory, however, the Kinect that launched to consumers was much less impressive than the technology Lionhead had previewed. The result was that Lionhead's early Kinect tech demo, Milo and Kate, was considered unfeasible and the project cancelled, and Fable: The Journey, an on-rails shooter, was hampered by the limitations of the Kinect technology.
Lionhead was seemingly heading in the wrong direction, and several of the studio's top staff resigned in protest of how the company was being run. Not long after, studio founder Peter Molyneux also decided to leave.
Despite having lost many leaders, the developers at Lionhead started work on Fable 4. However, Microsoft Studios did not want a fourth instalment. Instead, Lionhead was instructed to create an online PVP multiplayer game set in the Fable universe. It would be free-to-play and would generate money through microtransactions. Specialists in monetisation and competitive game design were added to the Lionhead team and the new project, Fable Legends, went into production.
Officially announced in 2013, and with regular updates coming for the next two years, all seemed on-track for Fable Legends. The PVP genre was crowded and most Fable fans wanted another single-player adventure, but most people were excited about a new Fable game.
Then, in March 2016, the project was unexpectedly cancelled. Not only would the nearly finished game never get released, but rumours circulated that Microsoft had grown concerned that Lionhead Studios could not meet the standards expected of a major developer. Lionhead Studios was closed. It had survived for less than 10 years.
Recently, a new dawn has come for the Fable franchise. After more than two years of rumours, the worst kept secret in gaming was officially announced at the July 2020 Xbox Games Showcase: Fable will return.
Playground Games, the developer behind Forza Horizon, has been tasked with bringing Albion back from the dead. On paper, Playground seems a strange choice given that their only releases have been racing simulations but significant investment from Microsoft has seen professionals from studios such as Kojima Productions and Rockstar North joining, a new office has opened, and Playground's team has swollen to more than 200 people.
Nobody really knows what to expect from the new Fable game. To date, there has only been one cinematic teaser trailer released. Of course, there are plenty of rumours, such as the game featuring a first-person perspective, that entire towns can be built in-game, that time-travel will be a key mechanic, that the game will involve travelling between different planets. All of these are unverified rumours, though. All we can tell from the trailer are that fairies are a thing and that the fantasy world of Albion looks less industrial than it did in Fable 3.
Many fans are crying out for a Fable game that has more involving combat, maybe something rhythm-based or soulslike, or something that meets somewhere in between? Most fans want a game set in Albion, the rich and colourful world they fell in love with whilst playing the Lionhead originals, only they will want it even more detailed and to feel more lived-in. The morality system should remain but be evolved to have complex problems with unclear solutions and consequences that affect the world in unexpected ways. What about navigation though? Should the player be able to climb buildings and ride mounts? Will areas be vast and open, or smaller but very detailed and packed with life?
Regardless of what decisions are made, Lionhead games always had a few important elements going all the way back to Black & White, elements that Playground would be wise not to disregard. A game should have humour throughout, a player should not be challenged to become powerful but should be challenged in how they wield the power they receive, and the player should be free to choose good or bad behaviour, with consequences impacting the player experience in interesting and entertaining ways. If they can do that, then the skies the limit.
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