Fable: The Journey Interview - Horsing Around With Lionhead
Written Monday, October 01, 2012 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
With a disastrous E3 unveiling, top talent walking out and the suggestion that Kinect could never hope to sustain a core experience, Fable: The Journey hasn't had the easiest of births. Yet despite all this, when we visited Lionhead's studios in Guildford a few weeks ago we found Lead Designer Ted Timmins in surprisingly good form.
Far from beaten by a troublesome development spell, Timmins is enthusiastic about Fable: The Journey and super-excited about Lionhead's future. Read on for the full transcription of our chat, which includes asides on socks, Pikachu and why after 25 years working with Peter Molyneux you'd probably want to kill yourself.
Before we start, we loved the names of the Fable: The Journey achievements. There were some great ones in there.
Well we’re massive achievement fans ourselves. So if you spoke to anyone here and asked them if they would like to design achievements, they’d all go “yes!” So there’s always a bit of an argument as to who gets to do it.
But yeah we enjoyed it. We had “Don’t Stop Believing,” which is the final achievement for completing the game and a nod to Journey the band. Plus there’s a load based on memes, stuff like “Trololol.” We really tried to push the boat out.
Wait, you’re not wearing any shoes!
Yeah sorry, everyone comments on that. Y’know what? *turns to PR rep, laughing* Can we have a few minutes longer please?
This is... I always feel the most creative when I’m don’t feel like I’m in an office. Does that make sense?
Yes. This is great stuff, I’m keeping all this in.
We did an interview for Fable 3, or it may have been a developer diary, and I was wearing no shoes. And we read the comments, expecting people to comment on the game, and it was all, “That guy’s not wearing socks!” and “Why’s he not wearing shoes!” This YouTube comments thread was all about my lack of shoes.
Just to be clear though, I do wear them shoes when I’m outside the office.
Excellent *laughing*, well I’m glad we cleared that up. I should probably ask some proper questions now...
So when you set out to make Fable: The Journey, where did you start? Is it based on tech, did you look at what Kinect can do and go from there, or is it a story thing? What’s the starting point?
So I wasn’t here on day one for Fable: The Journey because I was helping finish Fable 3 and kicking off Fable Heroes, but Gary Carr our Creative Director - he headed up Milo and Kate - learned and passed on the pros and cons of Kinect. Because if you’re being honest every piece of hardware in history has pros and cons.
So Gary and his team developed seated technology [which allows you to use Kinect sitting down], which I think if you had written Fable: The Journey on a whiteboard 18 months or two years ago, seated would have been on that list.
Whenever we start a game, in many of our rooms the walls are whiteboards, and we just put the name of the game at the top and we just brainstorm underneath. If you were to rewind in time to when Fable: The Journey was at that stage it was “horse and cart to travel around the world,” it was “seated technology,” it was “magic” and “story.” And it was “Fable” - so we wanted creatures like trolls, hobbes and we wanted add new ones to the franchise as well.
In particular, I know that the horse and the cart along with the magic were the first two prototypes, because as designers we ask ourselves the question, “How do we travel around the world?” And we chose a horse and cart because we knew that it would work really well with Kinect because it would actually feel like you’re on the horse and cart.
I played the early prototype of that and straight away you could see that it was going to work.
Next up was magic. That needed a lot more work, because the magic is all down to gestures. And at the time the gestures weren’t quite right. So we’ve been through a lot of iterations of the gestures and our design team has done an incredible job at looking at usability feedback and seeing how people actually react.
So, when you play the game - when a rock is thrown at you, you shield yourself in the way that you would naturally, by bringing your arm across your front. So massive kudus to those guys because the magic exists because they managed to come up with a gesture set that works and that was a tough job for them. They’ve really excelled at it.
It seems like developers have learned to harness what Kinect can do a little better since that first generation of software. is this as good as it gets?
I mean, is anything as good as it gets? We’re in a good place for gaming, because it’s evolving so quickly. The competitive nature of the games industry at the moment means that everyone is wanting to one-up everyone else, but we’re all striving to make the best games that we can.
We were at the advantage of actually being able to play wave one and wave two of Kinect titles and see what worked and what potentially didn’t work and I’m sure that there will be other studios that play Fable: The Journey and say, “Ah, they’ve got some really good technology here. Imagine if we created a superhero game and built on this tech,” and then another developer comes along and builds off that....
Game development in the last thirty years has been so much about all spawning off of each other. We’ve got so many games like Mario which created the 2D platformer - and if you had asked me if Super Mario World is as good as it gets, I might have said yes. And then mario 64 comes out and blows everyone’s minds.
So, we’ve definitely got a long way to go with Kinect, I’m sure.
You touched on this earlier, but when you first devised Fable: The Journey you had to decide what elements of the series to include and which to overlook. How did that process work?
So the process was really asking ourselves, “What is Fable?” And the tough part is, you could ask that question to all four million people that played Fable II and Fable III and get a different answer. So we have to make decisions and kind of hope that ultimately what they play, they enjoy and feel immersed and that they love the story.
Story is so key to Fable. Yes, we haven’t pushed choices and morality as far as we have in previous Fable games, but the story is so massive compared to those that we’ve really tried to tell the backstory of Theresa, we’ve got Gabriel the new hero and he has a name, he talks, he has a lot of history, he has a past and a present and a future - these are all the areas that we’ve tried to expand upon.
So we’ve reigned it in, in some areas (to use a terrible Fable: The Journey pun), and we’ve pushed it in others.
You mention Theresa there. It hadn’t really occurred to me before I sat down to play Fable: The Journey, but Theresa is arguably the main character of the series. She’s certainly a constant throughout. Is it safe to say that we’re going to learn a little more about here?
Oh definitely. At the end of Fable III we really felt that there was so much left to say in her story and we really want to go deeper with that than we have in the past. It is a tale of two stories, if you will. You’ve got Gabriel and you’ve got Theresa and there’s a really fun journey learning about both of them as you go along.
So that would suggest that this is the end of a chapter in the Fable series?
Yeah, we’ll see. I mean really, at the moment we’re not focused on closing chapters or opening chapters, we’re just trying to tell what we feel is one of the best stories we’ve ever created. And also deliver tonnes of fan service. I’m not sure if you’ve seen any of our fresco sequences yet?
Nope, but I did notice a few fan service nods amongst the collectibles.
Yeah in the collectibles there’s nods here and there... and we have some awesome fans and they’re always willing to tell us when we haven’t done something well and when we have done something well. So we really wanted to give back to them.
And obviously with the connectivity between Fable: Heroes and Fable: The Journey we’re really hoping that the people that liked Heroes (which was all fan service pretty much) will then go on take advantage of these things.
You can unlock two new heroes for Fable: Heroes by playing Fable: The Journey and you can dangle your Fable: Heroes puppets in your cart in Fable: The Journey. That was just inspired by the fact that I’ve got a Pikachu hanging in my car. I was just driving along and I realised. I came in and said to the guys, we really should try and do this!
*laughing* Microsoft don’t stamp Nintendo fanboyism out of their employees, then?
Ha! Yeah they said it can’t be Pikachu... Master Chief would have been a really fun one actually.
So now you’ve finish, you’ve gone gold. What’s the overriding emotion? Is it relief? Do you wish you had six more months? How do you feel?
It’s a million emotions. It’s relief that I can now go home on time, it’s joy because it’s always great to ship a game, it’s damn I wish we had more time. I think you could pretty much ask any developer at the end of a project how they feel and you’d hear a lot of similar words.
Also, happiness. Given that we had a really tough E3 last year I think we’ve really turned it around and I think the team should be really proud of what they’ve achieved. We’ve really made something different. It’s a core game, it’s on Kinect, it’s Fable - there is no other experience like it.
We had a funny interview at PAX a while back where the journalist just said, ‘Sony hasn’t got anything like this, Nintendo hasn’t got anything like this, Microsoft doesn’t currently have anything like this - this is really different.
So what we’re really hoping is that other developers might look at this and see that Kinect can do more than sport and dance games. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy Dance Central and all the embarrassing photos in my Facebook timeline prove that, but there's also a time when I want to get home from work and just immerse myself in something and Kinect helps to do that.
You alluded to the troubles the game has gone through. What was it like to lose talent to Another Place and then Molyneux to his new venture?
Dene and Simon Carter who set up Another Place with John McCormack, Guillaume Portes, Jeremie Texier... I love those guys, but they wanted to do something new. They’ve taken Fable to an incredible place. Fable wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for them. They’ve defined the art style, the story, the technology and we have lots to thank them for.
But there’s also a lot of people in the company that have worked with them for the past 10 years. You’ve got a tonne of new people that are here because they’re fans of Fable and I think that they will be missed, there’s no question.
There’s not one person to fill those shoes. There’s not a new Peter Molyneux, he’s totally irreplaceable. In terms of his stature, everyone knows who he is. People like that are a rare breed. But really we’re trying to get across that Peter leaving - he’ll go on to new things that he’ll massively enjoy - but we’ve worked with him for so long that we’ve all learned from him.
I’ve worked with him for nine years, there’s people that have worked with him for 25 years. How they haven’t killed themselves yet I don’t know... *starts laughing*
[At this point both Ted and I are laughing and the the PR rep has his head in his hands]
There ya go, there’s my headline!
*still laughing* Y’know Pete was a great guy when it comes to that kind of stuff and he’ll be the first person to joke about it.
But in all seriousness we’re at a turning point for sure, we have incredibly talented people here. I have a lot of faith in the new Lionhead. It’s a new chapter in our very big book.
And the thing that I’m most looking forward to is Creative Day*. It was established by Peter last year it’s in November this year. That’s going to be the day when everyone in this studio can stand up and say I’m a creator, I’m innovative and this is what I’ve made.
Honestly, I’m so passionate about it I can’t wait.
*For more on Lionhead's Creative Day, and how it lead to the development of Fable: Heroes, check out our story here.
Fable: The Journey is out on October 9th in North America and October 12th in Europe. Our latest preview can be found here.