X10 Interview: Peter Molyneux - The Man of a Million Words - Talks Fable 3
Written Friday, February 19, 2010 By Dan WebbView author's profile
Say what you want about Peter Molyneux, Microsoft’s European Head of MGS and father of the Fable franchise, the man knows his stuff. He may get carried away sometimes and oversell his franchises, but you don’t last in this industry for 20 years without knowing a thing or two about games. Molyneux, the passionate maestro himself, was demoing the latest addition to the Fable 3 franchise at X10 this year and was on hand to answer a few questions.
Tracking Fable 1 through Fable 3, what kind of design curve did you follow?
You know - and I’m only talking about me... What you have to remember is the team is an amazing team, it’s always been cutting edge and they’ve always squeezed Fable into the Xbox and into the 360. They’ve done a brilliant job. Let’s just talk about me as a director, me as a designer and the ideas that I’ve pushed and bullied through in this thing.
I think the first mistake in Fable 1 is that I really mistook the idea of game features as goodness. I just stuffed it full of game features. I didn’t think about the mechanics of those game features or how to explain them to people or how to exploit them in the story. It was just full of more and more stuff. I can remember going into meetings up to 3 months before the game was on the shelves and saying, “I’ve just had this brilliant idea, why don’t we do this?” That was just insane man, it is insane.
Then Fable 2 was the dawn of the realisation that it’s not the number of features you’ve got... you know, you go into a shop nowadays and if you pick up a box and turn it over, if there’s just small 6 point writing of all the features and its gadgets, you know it’s not going to be a pleasant experience. You go into a shop and there are other products, for example, Apple do this... it’s a phone and it’s beautiful, that’s it... “Oh right, that’s what I want.” The thing with Fable 2, it’s not the number of features, it’s how we exploit them... how we exploit them in the gameplay. What they mean to the player, how easy people understand it and then there was this amazing moment when this piece of research came back and it was... more than half the people that played Fable 2 understood and used less than half the features of the game. And as soon as you say that, you think, “oh my god, what a talentless bastard I really am,” because how can I have made a game that people understand less than half of his mechanics. It’s like making a film where people are like, “that was cool... I don’t know what the hell was going on, but it was quite cool.”
You know, that seems wrong, so I think Fable 3 is all about using mechanics, exploiting mechanics, giving gameplay reasons for things... you know expressions were cool in Fable 2, but they were a way of just doing a fart joke over and over again. Let’s be honest about it. That’s what they were. There was no real meaning to them. There was no real emotional connection, so they needed to have an overhaul, and the way you overhaul them is to make them simpler, so that more people can use them. You know, this striving for simplicity and accessibility in giving true depth. You want 100 percent of the people to understand 100 percent of the game.
That was a much longer answer than you thought it was going to be, right?
Do you think it’s a brave move making Fable more accessible, do you think it will alienate fans of the franchise who loves its intricacies?
No, I think what it just comes down to is – you can design a game around ten percent of your audience if you want to, but you’re probably being a bit lazy about it, and you know what? The world moves on, man. There’s a great analogy I realised from another question earlier on – there’s a fantastic television series; one of the most successful television series of all time that doesn’t seem like it’s changed, but it has, and it’s Coronation Street.
You know, Coronation Street has continually reinvented itself over and over again. You watch one episode of Coronation Street today and you compare it to an episode of Coronation Street from ten years ago and it’s totally different, man. That’s the genius of what makes that programme so unbelievably successful. It’s a format that’s got a life of its own, and why should Fable not be the same?
I love the idea of surprising people and getting people to do everything the game is capable of, and that’s all down to what they understand and the accessibility of what’s there. You know, I like “expressions” and I like the ability to be able to emote myself, but there’s just no reason for me to do that, and then you start to introduce the “touch” system and the “follower” system and you’re like “of course!” Now it fits in, now it’s part of the game, now there’s a reason for me to do that. There’s a consequence to me doing that and it all adds up.
So the news that will “piss gamers off” was simply the removing of a couple of features, can you talk a little bit more about that and why you said that?
What I’ve come to realise is this conversation I had in a taxi rank in Copenhagen when it was minus fifteen and snowing, has turned into what seems like a brilliant PR line: “Peter Molyneux says he’s going to piss everyone off then he comes to America and reveals all and doesn’t piss anyone off.”
It genuinely was me standing in the snow, minus fifteen, waiting for a cab; we were talking about game design and Fable III and I said “you know what? I’m really worried; I’ve changed so much in Fable III. I’m worried about pissing people off.” Suddenly, with the power of Twitter that became a PR line; it wasn’t that at all.
I think what I was really getting at is just because you as a designer feel that – God, if I remove experience and health bars and put levelling up from a 2D interface to a 3D interface, some people are going to get really upset, but that’s not a reason not to do it, man. It’s actually a reason to do it.
That’s what I was really, really talking about because I know some people are going to miss health bars and going to miss experience, but that’s not a reason not to do it, especially if those people – their total number is getting smaller and smaller.
Would it be fair to say that you’ve taken the RPG out of Fable then?
I’m not sure I personally call Fable an RPG. I mean it’s certainly not a 1990s RPG, for sure. In a way you could look at it as an action-adventure, you know – there’s a lot of drama, there’s a lot of story, there’s a lot of emotion in there, but we’re levelling up. And you know, I love that levelling up mechanic. I’m not the kind of person who likes being given a pre-canned character and saying “this is you, no matter what,” but that’s just me, and that’s not to say it’s not okay to make games with Master Chiefs and all that – they’re brilliant, brilliant games.
What was the point at which you realised you wanted to get rid of experience?
The absolute main reason is that most people didn’t understand it. We had red experience, green experience, blue experience… These went into pools… You’d ask people “how do you get red experience” and they’d say “I don’t know, sometimes it’s red, sometimes it’s green, sometimes it’s blue.” You know, that’s wrong; it’s just wrong. I really thought about why you just get experience for combat; it seemed wrong. This game is about expressions and getting married, and doing things in the world should be as important as fighting. As soon as we said the world “followers,” what people think of you meant more of the entirety of the game.
Same with the health bar. Here’s the thing about removing the health bar – we haven’t removed anything; we’ve just copied other games. First person shooters – the health bar’s in the world. When your health gets low, the corners of the screen go red, sometimes it gets black and white, sometimes it gets fuzzy – that’s a health bar, man. It’s the same as having a little bar except people actually see it.
In Fable II we were making that bar smaller and smaller and last year when we were working on Fable III that bar was one pixel high. Nobody was seeing it and nobody had the first idea that they were about to die because it’s up there and you’re looking down here! Why not just do what everybody else is doing and just put it in the world? It just seemed like these were legacy things where you’re making a transition from where you were to where you should be.
What legacy things are you left with then?
I still love the idea of levelling up and I love the idea of power. I love seeing myself and my hero grow and get more powerful – I love that. That to me is what role-playing is all about and I still love RPGs, but a lot of the levelling up is just a number at the end of the day. Your levelling up is usually just spending that experience in the equivalent of a DOS screen. Levelling up is going nowhere – you absolutely level up.
I love the idea of being able to choose - that’s the thing about RPGs; it’s about having choices. It’s not a linear corridor. I love that I can choose to shoot, I can choose to use magic, I can choose to use weapons – and it’s all about making sure that’s all really clearly defined. For example, one of the problems with Fable and Fable II was the whole morphing system. It just didn’t work because the morphing system was based on experience spending; all those thousands of hours we put into the morphing system was all dependent on people spending experience – which they didn’t understand in the first place – in a 2D screen.
Our fatal schoolboy… MY fatal schoolboy error, was to put essential gameplay features locked in that experience screen. Everybody wanted to block, so everybody had to spend experience on strength, so that means there was one whole morph no-one ever saw. It was stupid me being stupid.
What would you say the difference between a gimmick and a feature was?
Let’s use Fable as an example. As it turns out I think expressions in Fable II and Fable were more of a gimmick than a gameplay feature. You know, we didn’t really exploit them in the game; they were more about making people laugh because of the fart joke in many and various ways. There weren’t any real rewards… okay we did this thing where you got a little gift if you did expressions in the right way, but after a while that gift was so meaningless because you had so much money and wealth... That’s a gimmick.
A game feature is something that is woven into the drama of the experience; there are real gameplay reasons to do it; we encourage you to do it, we give you the rewards to do it, and it’s something you can do over and over again. So for example, in Fable II what really worked as a gameplay feature which could have easily been a gimmick, was the jobs. They were very, very simple but they really worked – you really felt like you were a blacksmith or whatever. That’s more of a game feature, woven into the game.
What’s so brilliant about “touch” is that for me, it really does change everything because in Fable and Fable II and a lot of other games, you’re presented with choices – whether you’re going to save someone or not save someone – but now you have to physically drag someone to their fate, it really does emotionally change it. It’s especially true when we can give you – and this is telling you more than I should be telling you anyway – if you’re going to execute someone, we make sure there’s enough space between where you’re going to execute them and where you are now, that they have time to make you feel just a little bit guilty about doing it. That tramp you take into the factory in the demo says, “if you take me in here I will die in two weeks. My friend was killed by one of these machines!” And you’re dragging him to it. I’m going to pull on your heart strings a little bit and that’s why it’s so different from pressing A and B because you’re physically doing that stuff.
It’s the same with romance. When you first meet somebody in Fable and Fable II, getting married was three button presses. There was no courtship; there were no successes there; now marriage is a real, proper courtship that you go through. There’s a point in the game where you can marry the daughter of the mayor of this village called Brightwood; if you marry her she comes with a whole load of followers because you’re married into the family of the mayor. There’s a reason to do that, because these followers are really, really important. I would love to tell you another reason why they’re really important but I can’t.
How conscious are you of good and bad choices. Players always tend to side with the good choices... How do you make the bad choices rewarding?
Almost all players take the good choices. That’s what’s so interesting when you’re coming to something like Fable III – if you approach it by saying “okay we’ve got to come up with twenty more moral choices about good and evil,” you’re going to struggle. Now we say “it’s all about power and corruption and with great power comes great responsibility”… I can guarantee you Gordon Brown has choices every day which to you and me seem like moral choices. Should we pull out of Afghanistan? Should we stay in Afghanistan? Should we spend this huge wodge of money on the health service or should we spend it on the troops? Those are moral choices but they’re all about power. You may not think of them as pure good/evil choices – and I’m not saying those kinds of choices won’t be in the game – but the real thing you’re going to think about after you stop playing will make you wonder “was that the right thing to do?” Those are the kinds of choices kings and rulers and rebels and revolutionaries really are faced with.
It’s really interesting – and this may be politically incorrect but – Obama is a great inspiration to me because for me, this guy before he was even president, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s the first person ever to with the Nobel Peace Prize without doing anything; he won it on a promise. Now, he guaranteed to close Guantanamo Bay in a year. To me, that’s as simple as picking up a phone and saying “close the place. I’m the president.” One year later and it’s still open. What went wrong, man? To me that’s a simple one! And that’s what makes – and this is a PR line, I’m not going to apologise for it – the story of Fable so relevant today, because you’re going to be idealistic by the time you get on that throne. You’ll be an idealist and most people will want to close those workhouses and turn them all into schools, they’ll want to get the beggars off the street, they’ll want to empty the coffers of their treasury and put it out there with the people, but man… I’m not going to make it that simple. There must be a reason why Guantanamo Bay is still open and that’s going to be a great story to tell, but I promised not to say anything more than that!