Last week, we spent some time with Lionhead chief Peter Molyneux at the UK launch event for his latest game, Fable 2. In our chat, he reflects on the creation of the game and offers a frank (and at times sweary) appraisal of his talents as a games design visionaryâ?¦So Fable 2 is now done. Looking back from the moment the first Fable finished, are you happy with how the development of the sequel has gone?
It’s been an interesting time – and this journey has been packed with surprises. The first surprise is that there is a sequel in the first place – and that the first game sold three million copies – no one expected that.
But it was a much-hyped Xbox exclusive. Why were the sales and the creation of a sequel that much a surprise to you?
Well… now I’m not knocking the forecasters, they are our friends at the moment, but let’s look at our pedigree at that point: we were Lionhead Studios, an independent that had recently finished Black and White. Our pedigree was PC. We had no console experience, never done a role playing game before. And we also had Peter Molyneux’s notoriously loud, shouty mouth going on about this being ‘the greatest RPG of all time’. And we had some initial reviews that were pretty harsh. So the forecasters rightly said ‘Well, sounds interesting but we’ll play it safe.’ When the game sold so well, it blew those forecasts out of the water.
When we got to the point where we said ‘let’s talk about a sequel’, Lionhead was at a point where it wasn’t set up to make a sequel. Lionhead was founded to innovate and make cutting edge IP.
At the same time, the launch of Fable had sparked a huge outrage amongst the fans on the web – there were a lot of people shouting at us, shouting at me, for over-promising on Fable. They were shouting at me for talking about features that didn’t exist in the game. So I took this very seriously. I wrote a letter and it was one of those letters that said ‘Sorry I did this, here is what I will do to gain your trust back.”
I promised that I would only show or talk about games when the features were definite and ready to show, and I’m going to be as honest and truthful as I can be – all of that stuff.
We also had a long list of complaints about what was wrong with Fable. So when it came to the sequel we went down that list and said we can definitely solve that, fix this, more of this, and so on. That’s things like demands for more weapons, and a world that’s three times bigger – all of those kind of requests. We ended up with a feature-set that would make a pretty good sequel.
So from that list was Fable 2’s development more focused, then?
Well, I say we had a good list of things to make a sequel - but that’s not what Lionhead was established to create. We were ambitious, and I couldn’t help myself. One afternoon I walked out into the studio, and on a whiteboard wrote a sentence I wanted to sum up and drive the game development. The line was ‘I want to make a game that the player will never forget.’
So my thinking is that if you only have space in your mind for five great cultural things – one of them being Lord of the Rings, another being Pulp Fiction – then Fable 2 has to stand alongside them or even replace one of them, thanks to the gameplay and the story.
This is totally my style, I like thinking big and trying to inspire people – because if you can generate that kind of excitement and get people thinking, if they only get half way to the goal you’ve been successful. Otherwise you get nothing at all.
That’s still a very high aspiration, though – how do you turn that into actual process?
We first looked at our capabilities and worked out what our strengths and weaknesses were. One of the weaknesses was writing, so we hired scripters, stagers, scriptwriters, screenwriters from Hollywood, and we acted out the entirety of the game and story – this was all before we had any tech. We let them rewrite and improvise it, all in order to get it right. That was done entirely at Shepperton Studios. It was a real learning process for us.
And… at that point, I realised how terribly I had approached game design at that point. I realised that a fundamental error I made was mistakenly believing that if you added more and more features into a game it would make a game great.
A lot of designers do that and think it’s perfectly acceptable, though…
True. But look right back at Dungeon Keeper and then through all of my games, you’ll see me do it and talk that kind of thing up.
Classic example: in Black & White 1, I said that while you were playing it the weather in the game would be the same as it was outside. Now… who really gives a fucking shit about that? What should have been important was how the player felt when playing the game.
So throughout Fable 2 we – and that’s myself and the designers at Lionhead – became obsessed with that. What does it feel like to be incredibly wealthy? How can we get those moments into the game? There seemed to be something missing to help relay that, and that’s when we created the dog. The dog proves that less means more – we’ve taken all the great technology from Black and White and packed it into the dog character. Not a giant bipedal monster that you can make shit at whim or drag around on a leash – just a dog. Then we took that and placed it in the context of the most complicated genre this industry knows – the RPG – and make it so that any body could play it, whether or not they had played hundreds of games before.
But how do you go about creating something that non-gamers can play on a machine that is often thought of as a ‘gamers console’?
Good point. To be honest with you, the real challenge isn’t anything on screen, it’s this little puppy [waves 360 controller]. It makes most people run a mile. We did test the game on many people that haven’t played many games, if any at all, and found a classic moment that proves the point about people’s reaction to a game controller. I was doing some PR in the US about the game and I proudly said to the bloke I was demonstrating the game to that ‘anyone can play’.
I boasted: ‘My dream is that you can hand this controller to anyone and they can play within five seconds. Here, take the controller.’ Of course, he mashed every button at once, brought up the 360 dashboard GUI and I was dismayed – and learnt a cruel lesson.
So Fable 2 has designed it so that you could play at a minimum with just three of the coloured buttons, and a shoulder button – you can use the others, but novices only have to use these four. We’ve done the same in a number of other places throughout the game.
What other ways have you implemented that?
The HUD is one area where we have streamlined things. So there’s no intimidating icons, and no mini-map, for instance. A mini-map is fine for us, those of us who really know games, but for everyone else its frustrating – think about it, you have to transfer that information from 2D to 3D in your head, that kind of demand on a player is unfair. That’s why we’ve the breadcrumb trail [an on-screen golden line which shows players where they have to go].
The GUI and interface should only be there for when you need it. Why does the industry insist on slapping all this detail on screen? We don’t need to be in players’ faces all the times.
That thinking has informed other parts of the game too, such as the length of the story. If I said to you – and I know other developers have said this about their game – that this game has 200 hours of story, well, that’s like telling someone to read a 20,000 page novel. And I’m never going to read something that long.
Of course you have to be careful about that kind of thing as Fable 2 isn’t just for casual games, its for core gamers too, but the game is flexible for quickly going through it, or taking your time. It’s about putting the option there – and giving people choice.
You’ve been very reflective in this chat. It sounds like Lionhead has had to rethink a lot of things, and you are even now quite critical of past thinking when it comes to game design. How have you taken that on board without totally demoralising yourself and the team?
Firstly, you have to come back to yourself and say ‘why am I doing this?’ We’ve spent a lot of time asking ourselves: why is Lionhead doing this? We worked out that Lionhead should stand for invention, that we should accept our limitations and then try and better ourselves.
At the start of Fable 2 we admitted we didn’t know how to do the dramatic element. So we split the process in a totally different way, as I have explained.
And firstly, we took away the madman that is Peter Molyneux, who would walk into the studio and say the craziest things, like ‘I had a dream last night so why don’t we add in a feature or this new mechanic’. He has been tamed. I now understand that you cannot have that creative whirlwind. When games cost so much – millions of dollars to make a game – you can’t have that creative whirlwind blowing in like that, otherwise you end up spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a game.
For Fable 2 we sat down and said ‘we only have so much experimental time’ – after that we’d have the main ingredients for the game. And that way I can have my ideas but not suggest half way through development ‘hey, let’s have a parrot as well as a dog’.
Half way through development of course you became a MGS team – did that change anything? I’d have thought that being internal at Microsoft would give you a bigger chance to be a ‘creative whirlwind’…
Well… and this might sound sycophantic in a way – and I think there is a bigger issue to talk about. There was a realisation amongst the senior management that we can’t do all of this stuff. The senior people at Lionhead are the same senior people from Bullfrog, and that failed – not because EA was this terrible evil mongers poking us with hot pokers, but because in part we did things wrong.
With that all in mind we went to Microsoft and said we wanted to be ‘the most professional studio in Microsoft’. The reason we put it like that was that we wanted the freedom to do the things we want. We were super-passionate about being professional – only because we wanted more of that safety you mention and the development dollars. And you don’t get more development dollars, or allowed to be a creative whirlwind without that professionalism. I’ve very proud of how we’ve handled it, I think Fable 2 proves it. You’d have to ask Phil Spencer and Don Mattrick of course, but I hope they’d be highly complimentary of us.
And certainly Fable 2 would not have been possible without that support – I don't think the game would exist if we were an independent studio. Not just in terms of being so close to the Xbox Live team, but the level of details we’ve been afforded when it came to that extra talent we brought on board for the story and so forth – all that is because of Microsoft Game Studios.