Lion­head: Game Over

For­mer staffer Tadhg Kelly pays trib­ute to the charis­matic stu­dio

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In this guest edi­to­rial, for­mer Lion­head staffer Tadhg Kelly looks at the pass­ing of one of gam­ing’s most charis­matic stu­dios Lion­head may have had its wild years, but at least in those days it had a lot of siz­zle to sell

As a band of knights ap­proach Camelot in Monty Python And The Holy Grail, we see their leader change his mind. “On se­cond thought,” King Arthur says, “let’s not go to Camelot. ’Tis a silly place.” It’s a de­scrip­tion that fits many of the older UK stu­dios. You know the ones I mean: the Fron­tiers, the Re­bel­lions, the Code­mas­terses. They are silly places, amus­ing places, in­spir­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally ag­gra­vat­ing places. They’re places caught be­tween the past and the fu­ture, places whose sig­na­ture games we re­mem­ber fondly and whose trans­gres­sions we of­ten for­give.

Why? Be­cause they’re the places with spirit in a mod­ern in­dus­try that of­ten lacks it. Mod­ern stu­dios are fac­to­ries, mea­sur­ing ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion and math­e­mat­i­cally tun­ing their games like a Ve­gas casino might. Many have for­got­ten (or never learned) the virtues of charm, hu­mour, story, cu­rios­ity and more that make up a rounded game. And so, with a heavy heart, we must speak of the pass­ing of one of the few that didn’t for­get those virtues: Lion­head Stu­dios.

Lion­head be­gan life in 1996 as the suc­ces­sor of Bull­frog Pro­duc­tions, which had en­joyed suc­cess with ti­tles such as Pop­u­lous, Syn­di­cate and Theme Park be­fore be­ing bought by Elec­tronic Arts. At first, EA’s ac­qui­si­tion bore fruit, no­tably with Dun­geon Keeper, but even­tu­ally it stalled. And so Bull­frog’s founders left and got the band back to­gether un­der a new name, but that story of suc­cess wasn’t the same. Be­tween the time of Bull­frog and that of Lion­head the eco­nom­ics of the in­dus­try had changed and put huge strain on de­vel­op­ers. And for Lion­head that meant fall­ing into two con­sis­tent pat­terns: over-promis­ing and un­der-de­liv­er­ing.

“Black & White com­bines the best el­e­ments of a strat­egy game, a role­play­ing game, along with all the el­e­ments of a story-based game in which the player can choose to do al­most any­thing,” said Peter Molyneux in an Au­gust 2000 in­ter­view. This kind of state­ment was typ­i­cal for the de­signer, gee­ing up the press to write op­ti­mistic sto­ries about what was to come. But the ac­tual prod­ucts rarely matched up. Lion­head’s first ti­tle, Black & White spoke of a mar­riage of the game­play of Pop­u­lous with the crea­ture-car­ing pop­u­larised by devices such as Bandai’s Ta­m­agotchi. The prom­ise of the ti­tle was grand, but the ac­tual game proved to be thin. It was a pat­tern the stu­dio would of­ten re­peat.

An­other Lion­head ti­tle, BC, dragged on for years and never saw re­lease. The Movies had a great pitch but was very frag­mented to play. Fa­ble be­came an in­dus­try leg­end for its tall prom­ises, and then a deep dis­ap­point­ment on re­lease. 2005’s Black & White 2 sim­ply came and went, sell­ingelling dis­ap­point­ingly to mid­dling re­views, de­spite high in­ter­nal ex­pec­ta­tions. To hear Molyneux tell it, at reg­u­lar Fri­day y af­ter­noon gath­er­ings, each of th­ese games was go­ing to rev­o­lu­tionise the e uni­verse. But of­ten the re­cep­tion be­yond ond the walls of Lion­head HQ at Oc­cam Court was mute, even an­gry. Yet it wasn’t all a story of frus­tra­tion. on. Af­ter Fa­ble the stu­dio hit a high note with Fa­ble II, the game for which it will prob­a­bly be most fondly re­mem­bered.d.

Edge In many ways Fa­ble II was a bless­ing, a re­peat­able fran­chise for a com­pany of­ten at odds with it­self. The game also po­si­tioned Lion­head well when it needed a pa­tron, which it found in a Mi­crosoft un­do­ing the con­sole dom­i­nance of Sony. But the part­ner­ship did lit­tle to fix the mis­match be­tween dreams and ex­e­cu­tion.

I had left Lion­head by the time of Milo & Kate, a ti­tle that was part of Mi­crosoft’s Kinect am­bi­tions in 2008. It was shown at the Game De­vel­op­ers Con­fer­ence and TED, and re­port­edly in­volved a huge amount of tech­ni­cal work and cre­ative strug­gle. But it went nowhere, and was ul­ti­mately can­celled. In its wake, Molyneux was pro­moted to over­see cre­ative across all of Mi­crosoft’s Euro­pean stu­dios, but soon left the com­pany to form a new stu­dio that be­came syn­ony­mous with con­tro­versy. For Lion­head, the story was no bet­ter.

When a stu­dio is bought by a pub­lisher, it usu­ally evolves into a sin­gleti­tle op­er­a­tion, which even­tu­ally dooms it. Lion­head may have had its wild years, but at least in those days it had a lot of siz­zle to sell. But when it be­came the Fa­ble stu­dio, its days were prob­a­bly num­bered. Fa­ble was a wor­thy fran­chise but never a break­out hit. It was quirky and very Bri­tish – a silly place, you might say – but never a must-have. And, af­ter the luke­warm re­cep­tion of Fa­ble III, the fran­chise started to wane.

An at­tempt to make Fa­ble work via Kinect flopped, as did a fam­ily-friendly edi­tion, Fa­ble He­roes. Then Fa­ble Leg­ends promised to re-en­er­gise the brand with co-op­er­a­tive mul­ti­player and a new hero/vil­lain dy­namic. But by that point it seems that Lion­head had be­come ad­versely af­fected by the sit­u­a­tion in which Mi­crosoft found it­self. Un­like its pre­de­ces­sor, Xbox One was

Game de­sign con­sul­tant and for­mer colum­nist Tadhg Kelly is cur­rently work­ing on a new book, en­ti­tled Core Game De­sign. He worked on The Movies at Lion­head from 2004–2006

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