In April, one of the UK’s most iconic developers closed its doors for the last time. After almost 20 years and the creation of beloved series including Fable, Black & White and The Movies, Lionhead was no more. Four months on, we catch up with some of the studio's ex-employees
What have you been up to since Lionhead closed?
Mike McCarthy, ex-lead concept artist for Fable (pictured, furthest right): I’ve been lucky enough to have been asked by a few groups of people to do some concepting for them. I’ve literally been hopping from one little piece of freelance work to another.
Charlton Edwards, former level designer for the Fable series (pictured, second from left): I’ve been working on a Kickstarter campaign which we haven’t launched yet. A lot of the time’s been spent spending my redundancy money on virtual reality games and escaping actual reality. Eventually we’ll get round to launching a Kickstarter and if that fails, it’s back to proper job time.
Jonny Hopper, ex-lead creative engineer on the incubation team (pictured, third from left): I actually left before Lionhead was closed, about a year ago. So it’s not off the back of this. But we’re still very much based in Guildford and we have some ex-Lionhead people working for us.
Mike Green, former designer (pictured, third from right): I left sort of two years before the studio was sunsetted – that’s the correct word, isn’t it? I’ve done a few things; I worked with Jonny at another company called Ambient, then went to work at a company called Improbable, and now I’m back with Jonny and other friends, which is great, in Guildford again, which is cool.
Stuart Whyte, ex-studio director (pictured, second from right): I’ve been building pitches for two separate games, I’ve been talking with lots of publishers, even some agents. Just basically talking with lots of people and exploring new opportunities whether it’s been around start-ups or a potential big new role at another company.
Craig Oman, former senior producer (pictured, furthest on the left): I’m now CEO at Flaming Fowl Studios. We’re trying to make Fable Fortune, which is also a title that was in development at Lionhead. Thankfully, we’re still doing it now.
"Lionhead was seen as a big, almost indestructible thing."
The closure of Lionhead wasn’t just a shock to the British development community, but to the industry around the globe. What does the studio’s demise signal about the current health of the UK development sector?
Hopper: It certainly brought to light how small and tight-knit the Guildford community is, because Guildford isn’t a big town and Lionhead was one of the, if not the, biggest games studios here. It was just a very weird thing to suddenly realise that there’s a whole bunch of people, many of your mates, suddenly just done and looking for work. That’s kind of scary and quite brutal.
McCarthy: I was there the whole time since I joined, but there were people who had come to Lionhead and gone away again, come back again... Lionhead was seen as a big, almost indestructible thing. Like, no matter what, there would always be a Lionhead, whether it contracts or expands. That was certainly the big surprise within the studio – that it didn’t just contract or change course.
Oman: We’ve always been used to, especially in the UK, a big studio closing down and then lots of other studios forming up around them. That seemed to happen constantly, but Lionhead was the one still going, that was always there.
Whyte: It’s just a reflection of the industry being very much a hit-driven business. Certainly, the console market changes and investment gets moved around all the time. Lionhead was just a reflection of Microsoft changing its focus, unfortunately.
Most, if not all, of you have moved from the world of big-budget triple-A to indie studios and smaller teams following Lionhead’s closure. What has that shift been like for you?
Edwards: I was at Lionhead for the 17 years since I started, 14 full-time. It was like home – in fact, I lived there for nine days in a row once and nobody knew it...
Various: We did. (They all laugh.)
Edwards: ...so when it closed there was the initial shock, then a mourning period where I just couldn’t believe it. Then, the realisation that I’ve got to try and do something now. We always wanted to do our own little thing but we feel almost lost – we’ve never done it before, such a small-scale thing, and not had huge teams to rely on and people organising us and people buying us toilet rolls and biscuits and whatever. Now we’ve got to wipe our own bums and buy our own biscuits.
Hopper: No-one wiped my bum.
Oman: You were on the wrong floor.
Hopper: The way you interact with the wider community is very different when you’re at somewhere that’s owned by Microsoft and somewhere that’s owned by you. Microsoft understandably want to control the message; they don’t necessarily automatically trust everybody to have everything in their best interests so you have to jump through hoops. When it’s your own thing you basically just say what you want – that’s kind of refreshing and quite nice.
Oman: As we’ve gone through the Kickstarter recently, we took the decision to launch a build out, and that was something we did within a matter of hours. We sat down as a group, talked about it, agreed and did it. I just can’t imagine us ever being able to do something that monumental that quickly within an organisation such as Microsoft.
"It was always just that we were making computer games, we’re not saving lives or making babies. You can’t take it too seriously – it should be fun."
As a developer known for innovation, but also for ambitious mechanics and gameplay elements that didn’t always pan out, do you feel that investing in innovation has become rarer among publisher-owned studios?
McCarthy: You’re getting a lot of innovation now because you’ve had a lot of people who have been with big companies and been through places like Lionhead. The natural thing is that it’s great being in a big corporation like that, but there is always stuff you want to do. There’s always stuff where you think: ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great if we could do that instead?’ But it’s because it’s a juggernaut moving forward, you can’t get that in, so that gets chucked out the window and sits in people’s brains. There’s a lot of people around now who are leading studios who have been through that experience, so they bring that innovation and want for innovation to their own projects.
Edwards: Because there’s more games than ever and Steam’s tight and is just snowballing the great platform for indies and there’s more people wanting to get into games, the tools are a lot better these days and things can be turned around quicker, you’re seeing more innovation because there’s more stuff coming out. Back when I was younger, there wasn’t the tools, the education or the companies to go to, there was nothing, but now everybody’s got the opportunity. So you find there’s just more innovation because of the sheer amount of people and ability to do it.
Hopper: Steam and the App Store are both really hard to make a splash on now because everything is so much ‘better’. There are more people and more products to compete against. The publishers can shout the loudest so their games might not necessarily be the best, but they’re the ones that everyone buys because they’re the ones everyone knows about.
Oman: It’s just marketing. I think that’s the big thing we’re all going to miss: the marketing support that someone like Microsoft can bring to the table. As a completely independent studio, if you don’t get on the main carousel or you don’t break into the top sellers, it’s so hard to actually get any sort of visibility. That’s a big challenge, but you also require less success when you’re a smaller studio.
Do you feel that being associated with Lionhead comes with baggage as well as benefits when building a new studio or project?
Green: When I left, I thought being a developer from Lionhead would really help. But there’s so many games and talented developers that it’s difficult. I sort of feel, over the last couple of years, that actually it’s not that I worked at Lionhead for eight years – I no longer feel like that’s where I’ve come from. I’ve got other things I need to prove now.
Hopper: One’s pedigree is always good for proving you’re not total crap. You don’t generally get hired at somewhere like Lionhead unless you’re really good at what you do, so it’s an immediate barrier down when you’re trying to speak to publishers or investors or whatever. Sometimes I go with ‘I worked at Microsoft’ because they don’t necessary know what Lionhead is but they know what Microsoft is. It’s always a positive because it’s a big name and they’re most likely heard of the products so to be associated with those things always helps.
Whyte: If you just look at the reaction when Lionhead closed, it was very well respected. The majority of the studio felt very proud to work there and be part of it. But who knows? For some of the people in this room or whatever it might just be a small... like Notch, his previous company before he went on to do Minecraft.
Edwards: We went blatantly for the people who were mourning Fable and Lionhead. Our Kickstarter campaign was essentially: ‘From the makers of Fable: more Fable. Have you missed Fable? There’s more Fable coming.’ Then we were discussing whether that was a poisoned chalice or not. Maybe we’ll take a lot of the Fable words out and be ex-Lionhead and that’s it and we don’t mention Fable again.
McCarthy: Getting to work on all the Fable games has been a gift to me. It’s been superb, I’ve loved it and people always want to ask me about it and are very kind about the work we did. On the other hand, in certain circumstances when you’re interviewing for other jobs or other companies, basically before they’ve even looked at my work they’re like: ‘Yeah, you’re the guy that draws wonky medieval stuff, aren’t you? Yeah, we’re not doing a wonky medieval game.’ Literally, that’s it. It’s almost you’re dropped before you get anywhere.
Hopper: We live inside our little game developer bubble. There’s not that many games that have reached the cultural zeitgeist. There’s obvious ones, but for some reason Fable didn’t quite break out of that. It didn’t become Minecraft, Gears of War, Call of Duty – it was sort of just inside that, just below. You can say ‘I worked on The Movies’ and people are like ‘Huh?’
"I remember my first or second week at Lionhead working on Black & White 2. I told my wife: ‘I made a giant creature eat a man and then poop him out again.’ I’d never said that before on any previous game I’d worked on."
If up-and-coming devs were to look at the life of Lionhead, what would you want them to take away from the studio’s legacy?
Edwards: Just put some personality into what you’re doing. Don’t copy everything else. That’s what Lionhead’s games had: a personality that was unlike anything else.
Hopper: There was always some humour, it was never super serious, which was good.
Green: I still remember my first or second week at Lionhead working on Black & White 2, and just being super pleased when I got home and my wife said: ‘What did you do today at work?’ I was like: ‘I made a giant creature eat a man and then poop him out again.’ I’d never said that before on any previous game I’d worked on.
Oman: The piss-taking in general. I remember doing achievements for Fable Anniversary and there was one that was ‘Not On Rails’, taking the piss out of Fable: The Journey and the stuff that had gone on. That’s one of the things; the in-jokes and things like that. It was always just that we were making computer games, we’re not saving lives or making babies. You can’t take it too seriously – it should be fun.
McCarthy: What I really valued about Lionhead is the idea that anybody could make a suggestion and come up with an idea for something. It wasn’t like the designers design, the artists draw and the animators animate: it really was a collaborative atmosphere. We did some great stuff doing that.
Whyte: It sounds amazing, but at the end of the day making video games and making good video games is fucking hard work. There were some amazing bits, but it was hard work as well. There was a lot of shit that went on. It was a great place.