With their master gone, it's time for young Lionhead talent to demonstrate their creative clout
It’s inevitable that Lionhead will, at least in the near future, be synonymous with its co-founder Peter Molyneux, the man who has departed to pursue a new chapter in his career.
But in his resignation interview with Develop, Molyneux said his position at Lionhead created “this glass ceiling”.
“Now that’s broken, great people will emerge. I love them and hope they do,” he said. “My leaving is the best thing for them.”
There couldn’t be a more appropriate time, then, to meet Jennifer Clixby and Ted Timmins, two promising Lionhead staff who spearheaded development on the upcoming XBLA game Fable Heroes.
In the interview below they discuss how Microsoft gave the Fable Heroes team – of about 15 people – the freedom to build their action game however they wanted.
Let’s go back to Lionhead’s Creative Day last year, where the studio switched off for a couple of days and allowed developers to work on personal projects.
Ted Timmins: Sure. The main thing we wanted to create was a four-player hack-and-slash game. And as you saw it went down very well on Creative Day, and in fact a few weeks prior, we had actually shown the idea to Louise [Murray, head of the Fable franchise], and she actually put it into production.
So with the Creative Day, which officially lasts two days, we decided to work on the prototype and when we pitched it to Peter [Molyneux, former Xbox European development head] and Louise, after which they signed it off as a full XBLA project.
So suddenly, this team of six is working on something else? Did you all have to stop what you were doing?
Timmins: Well, originally we were just working on it during weekends and evenings, because we had other duties in our full-time employment, but when we were signed off Jennifer came in and got the team going.
Jennifer Clixby: Yeah after Creative Day some of the original members got involved in the full project. The art director took on the job of transforming the art style from more realistic characters to cartoony visuals and the use of puppets, so some of the core team was retained.
How did it feel when you knew this pet project of yours was turning into a fully funded, Microsoft-backed production?
Timmins: Went straight to the pub and got hammered! [Laughs]
Clixby: Actually I remember you popping champagne in the office. In the middle of a meeting wasn’t it?
Timmins: [Laughs] Oh yeah! Seriously though, it was the greatest feeling ever.
Clixby: And I think it was awesome that Microsoft took a chance on a creative idea like this from a small team. The fact they let us be autonomous in our own office shows a lot of faith in the talent at Lionhead.
Timmins: Yeah the only direction I got was to go away and make a 9/10 XBLA game. It’s not very often you get that sort of freedom in how you approach it. This was much more a labour of love than anything I’ve worked on in recent times.
And key to that was having a small team, which means everyone has a bigger part of themselves to put in the game. And we were more open to ideas; I mean, a programmer emailed us and said ‘this game needs lots of balloons’, and so we added balloons!
Clixby: Yeah because XBLA games aren’t usually as serious, we felt we could add more stuff in the game without fearing it wouldn’t fit with the narrative.
And I take it the small team allowed people to mix disciplines a bit too?
Timmins: Well yeah Jennifer is our project manager and I’ve never seen a project manager in my life get involved in editing levels and getting hands-on with everything. On small-team projects everyone has to stick together.
Clixby: Yeah when you have a bigger team there’s usually a junior staff member you can export a lot of the in-between stuff to. We of course didn’t have that so everyone had to work together on everything.
Fable Heroes appears to make nods to a number of classic games. Is that accurate?
Timmins: Yes absolutely. When this whole game started we were talking about all the games we played growing up, like Super Mario World, Gauntlet, Streets of Rage..
Clixby: Turtles in Time!
Timmins: Yeah Turtles in Time, and I think there’s lots of references to those classic games that we loved when growing up.
What’s interesting is it doesn’t look like a Fable game. Was that intended?
Clixby: Well, it was definitely always approached as being a Fable game. Sure it’s a scrolling hack 'n slash, but we did try to play off of the strengths of the past Fable games. Each of the characters are based on Fable histories, and we’ve tried to add in the morality choices as well.
Well please take this as a complement, but if the game was called Heroes, I don’t think it would be seen as a Fable game.
Timmins: When we were first talking about the style of the game, we realized we wanted it to look a bit different, but would have a closer resemblance when people played it hands-on.
Clixby: Yeah and we mixed the old and new with the music as well. It was inspired from music in different Fable regions, but we got Robin Beanland [famous composer for Rare, now freelance] to do the music for us, which was amazing.
Timmins: Yeah when I first heard Robin Beanland and Steve [Burke] were doing the soundtrack, I phoned them and explained they had composed the soundtrack to my childhood! [Laughs]
Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye – those magical games I played growing up – and now they’re making the music for my project. That’s definitely one of the best things for me about developing this game, and for me the music adds that old-school feel to Fable Heroes.
One commercial advantage is that Fable Heroes will be packaged in the upcoming Arcade Next promotion.
Clixby: Yeah and we couldn’t have asked for more support from the Xbox Live team.
Timmins: They saw it quite late too but they saw it and said ‘oh my god this is awesome!’ [Laughs]
Clixby: Throughout the whole of the Heroes development I had a Trials HD poster above my desk. I’m huge fan and it’s an amazingly successful Xbox Live title, so I’d say it was the game that inspired me during the whole process.
To be part of the same promotion as Trials Evolution and Minecraft is just amazing for us.
Timmins: And they [Microsoft] were cool with us asking this game to cost 800 Microsoft Points, which is a bit of an unfamiliar price-point, but we said we wanted this game to be inexpensive and they were cool with that.
Now the whole process is behind you, do you know if Lionhead will undertake another Creative Day at the studio?
Timmins: Yeah, we’re going to do it again later this year. Fingers crossed for next year, hopefully another game will come out of the process.
What would you say to other Lionhead staff preparing for the next Creative Day?
Timmins: Well this might go down too well with production…
Clixby: Oh hang on…
Timmins: I would say don’t wait until Creative Day. Why not spend a weekend building something you love and show it to the amazingly creative people you work with. That’s what we did. We had an idea, we started working on it, we had a great time.