By the end of Fable III, Albion had lost its magic.
This most quintessentially British of game worlds was no longer such a green and pleasant land. The Industrial Revolution had transformed Bowerstone into a factory town, all belching chimneys, filthy slums and open sewers – grim with one ‘m’ instead of two. While Lionhead’s reluctant to admit it, when it talks about trying to recapture the magic of Albion, it’s not just referring to taking Legends back to a time when Will users were more prevalent either. “It’s an opportunity to reset things, and try a new direction,” says studio director Stuart Whyte.
It’s a good time for a change. The studio’s figurehead, Peter Molyneux, left upon completion of Kinect spin-off Fable: The Journey in 2012, by which time Lionhead had already begun prototyping its next game. There is a sense in the studio of one chapter having coming to a close, and a new one about to begin. “The Fable storyline had naturally ended with Theresa dying off,” says executive producer Geoff Smith, “so it made sense to go back beforehand. But we did also want those beautiful British fairytale environments. We wanted to go rural.”
“The idea of going hundreds of years prior to [ The Journey], back to the start of the formation of the Guild, and this land where there’s loads of magic and it’s actually really dangerous out there, seemed like a super-exciting place to be,” says Whyte.
Indeed, there’s an element of danger at the core of Fable Legends, because it represents a bold step outside of Lionhead’s comfort zone. This may still be a roleplaying game, and it still takes place in Albion, but it sees a traditionally singleplayer-focused series move firmly into the multiplayer arena. No one’s calling it a MOBA (studio head John Needham comes closest, branding it a “multiplayer online quest ad adventure”), but we hear League Of Legends m mentioned more than once during our visit. Is this sh shift, then, partly dictated by industry trends? “T “That’s definitely fair to say,” Whyte replies. “There’s a load of gamers at Lionhead, so yeah, some of those [t [trends] are kind of built into the DNA of what ha happens at the studio.” And if the game’s asymmetric approach to multiplayer, which sees four heroes battling a lone villain, doesn’t seem radical now, it was certainly unconventional when development began. “There are number of games now talking about four-versus-one modes,” Whyte says. “None of them were out there when we started this process.”
It’s a more logical step for the series than it initially seems to be. Lionhead did, after all, tentatively explore the idea of cooperative adventuring as early as Fable II, even if Smith admits it “hadn’t really done a good job with it”. The studio knew Albion was a good fit for a multiplayer game, it just needed to find the right formula, something that was more than simply an iterative improvement on the existing Fable template. One day, the idea of a dungeon-master-style fifth character was mooted, and quickly that character was conceived as the villain of the piece. Prototyping began, and immediately Lionhead knew it was onto something.
To direct the new game, this British team turned to an American. David Eckelberry has a background in both Dungeons & Dragons at US game maker Wizards Of The Coast and MMOGs with Lord Of The Rings Online developer Turbine. By October 2012, Lionhead had secured its ideal dungeon master. Eckelberry is modest about his expertise, though he recognises that his experience with the technical demands of online multiplayer games allowed him to help the studio solve the kind of challenges it hadn’t previously encountered. “Also, dealing with multiplayer dynamics is a very different kind of problem,” he says. “Whether it’s multiplayer balancing or fairness, I’ve had to deal with that a lot in my past, because RPGs are a unique thing to balance. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the people who have to balance shooters at Treyarch and Activision and [343 Industries], but I still think it’s an easier job – you’re balancing apples and apples.”
Which isn’t to say that Lionhead would decline to benefit from someone with the knowledge of what it takes to build a multiplayer-focused shooter:
“We still have worldbuilding aspects, but each level has to flow like a deathmatch”
one of 343’s level designers spent a week at the studio playing the maps the team created in the game’s original Unreal Engine 3 prototype – which used an adapted version of the Fable: The Journey toolset – and advising the Lionhead team accordingly. A team accustomed to building worlds for lone heroes (all but two of the current level designers have worked on every Fable game in some capacity) suddenly had to learn a new skill, and this meant an intensive course in map design.
“We still have worldbuilding and storytelling aspects, but also each level has to flow like a replayable deathmatch arena,” explains lead content designer Ben Brooks. “So there was a big learning process for us in adapting to that.” Over six weeks or so, each of the level design team built a new arena every day. At the end of the day, everyone would play one another’s levels, which were then thrown away so that new ones could be built the following day. “The idea was that people wouldn’t get stuck spinning on one thing. We’d [encourage people to] try something mad, because it’s only going to be there for a day, and then ask, ‘Did it work?’ We generated so many maps, and it helped build an instinctive understanding of what worked and what didn’t.” Indeed, the last hour and a half of every working day still involves play sessions for the level design team, though now it is scrutinising more permanent designs.
Meanwhile, the studio’s artists and tech team were busy refining the game’s look. Working on more powerful hardware was an obvious boon for art director Kelvin Tuite, though he was keen to maintain visual consistency with previous series entries, which meant following hard rules that have been in place since day one. “Broken circles, calligraphic lines, sweeps and strokes, and no straight lines,” he says. “Everything is twisted in one way or another. Those are the main outline cues, but the other main thing is that colours tend to be dirty colours. There’s no pure red or pure blue – they tend to be darker rather than saturates, because the lighting will saturate them.” Indeed, such was the importance of lighting that the studio developed its own global illumination system, which it proudly says has been incorporated into Unreal Engine 4 by Epic. “It’s got to look like a standout new-gen game, so a lot of the effort is about that,” says lead engine programmer Ben Woodhouse.
And yet Lionhead’s not aiming for absolute realism to push the hardware. “For me, it’s more that the tools at our
disposal – because of the power of this machine – are the kind of things that Pixar use to make a fantastic film,” says Tuite. It’s more about consistency, character and beautiful lighting, he explains, and Xbox One simply allows his team to realise their vision more effectively than before. “If you look at the first Fable,” Tuite says, “they wanted that lush woodland feel to it, but the original Xbox could only deliver so much. What we’re doing now is [creating] what they would have killed for back then.”
It’s certainly true that Legends retains the same distinctive visual hallmarks as previous Fables; this is a handsome game, yet one that’s rough-hewn in the best possible way. It can be seen in everything from the hunched, bow-legged stance of necromancer-cum-healer Leech to the houses in the game’s hub town of Brightlodge, which are constructed so haphazardly on top of one another that some end up teetering precariously over sheer precipices, anchored only by other structures. Tuite is particularly keen to retain the game’s inherently British feel, which has been inspired by illustrators such as Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud. “This chunky, wonky kind of style is part of what Fable is,” he says. “It’s a world of people who don’t know how to build stuff and rely on magic to hold it all up.”
Legends presents a world that will feel instantly familiar to fans, then, and Lionhead is keen to ensure that feeling extends beyond the way Albion looks. Brightlodge, from which you set off on quests, is described by Eckelberry as “our new Oakvale”, for instance, a welcoming, rustic community with which you can interact using gestures and expressions from a very similar radial menu to that of Fable II. Your quest doesn’t require any human company, either, though you will need partners even for the tutorial mission: you’re no longer the chosen one, after all, but a single hero among many. Three AI allies will join you, and all four of you will face off against a lone AI villain. Indeed, you can play through the entire game without other people if you so choose. “You’ll be able to progress through the story in the way that you would playing through a [regular] Fable game,” says Brooks. “There’s no ‘OK, I’m going to jump to this deathmatch’ option. While it’s always a four-versus-one experience, everyone else can be AI. Essentially, we want people who want to play this through as a traditional Fable game to be able to do so.”
Which isn’t to say what follows is Fable as we currently know it. There are swords and crossbows and magic, sure, but this is a world of area-of-effect attackers, marksmen, snipers, tanks and healers. And yet the cadence of play is more Left 4 Dead than League Of Legends; Valve’s shooter is alluded to throughout our day at Lionhead, and not simply because Legends is about a team of four battling an evil puppet master. There are storytelling interludes that allow for some downtime, holding-room equivalents that give the villain a little time to prepare and position the next wave of enemies while the heroes regroup. And the final arena in each 30-minute stage brings with it a natural escalation, inviting the heroes to complete an objective while the villain attempts to stop them, the latter spawning fresh units as existing ones fall. “It’s the get-to-the-chopper moment,” senior designer Lewis Brundish tells us, and it’s not as unlikely a comparison as it may seem.
“While it’s always a four-versus-one experience, everyone else can be AI”
Designs for Albion’s higgledy-piggledy houses
Studio director Stuart Whyte (top) and FableLegends producer Geoff Smith
Ogres are best used by the villain as a distraction, keeping heroes such as Evienne too busy to spot a surprise attack
The UI has been tweaked for the PC version, so that villains can use mouse and keyboard to guide their minions
Team makeups aren’t arbitrarily constrained; you can do without healers, though you’ll need watch your potion supply