MS February Showcase: Fable III Interview – Josh Atkins, Lead Game Director
Written Wednesday, March 02, 2011 By Dan WebbView author's profile
Along with Halo and Gears of War, Fable completes a killer trifecta of plaform-exclusive titles for Microsoft, giving the Xbox 360 a significant edge over the years. But with Lionhead's Fable franchise moving increasingly towards action adventure territory and less RPG in the name of accessibility, there are a lot of questions to be asked regarding the status of the series.
We caught up with Josh Atkins, Fable III's Lead Game Designer, at Microsoft's February Showcase, to ask him a few questions regarding the latest DLC to hit the game, Traitor's Keep. Apparently, it's something of a departure for Fable, taking the idea of inventors and mechanical devices, and running with it to create an add-on that aims to further Fable III's epic story.
Is extending a game's story the way forward for DLC though? Or is it better to provide something that neatly slots into the existing game, whether a player has finished the narrative or not? That's just one thing we aimed to discuss with Atkins, who it transpires has a lot to say about Fable III, its critical reception and its future, from downloadable add-ons and beyond. Read on...
Can you fill us in on what players can expect from the new Fable III: Traitor's Keep DLC?
It's something that we're really excited about, because it's the first instalment of Fable III that actually takes the place after you've actually finished the core quest. We sat in a back room and asked ourselves, what are we going to do? And one of the interesting things we came up with, is what would you do if you found out – without giving too much away - that there was the possibility of a rebellion against you. So, Traitor's Keep actually begins with an assassin bursting through the throne room door trying to kill you. That's the first moment in it and from that moment it's a rollercoaster as you discover that Logan had imprisoned the worst offenders in Albion, either justly or unjustly, and the prison is the keep just off the coast of Albion.
You journey over to the coast and discover that there are some really key baddies that have escaped, and you're job is to track those key ones down, and you learn in the process that there could be a rebellion against you. There are three new, different places to visit that you've never seen before including the keep, which is a brand new region. You'll also go to Clockwork Island, which is a brand new place, where we'd been exploring this idea of inventors in Fable, which is something we haven't really done before although we had a little touch of that in Understone. So, we've taken the idea and we've got robots, which is a really weird word to use, but they're essentially a new creature type that has its basis in technology. You can actually get a little robot dog as part of the pack, and you end up fighting these huge robotic creatures.
The arch-villain of that area also has a gigantic mechanical suit that he's in, and after that point you go on and discover that there's an alchemist who's been experimenting on traditional Fable creatures, so we use those in a whole new way and then there's the big surprise at the end, which I'm not going to tell you.
What's your philosophy when it comes to developing DLC? Is there a particular approach that you take with it?
I think when it comes to DLC, there's a lot of choices and a lot of the answers to those choices or the solutions depends on the time and budget that inform the ways we want to handle that. I'd prefer the story to continue as a consumer, I think that's cooler and that's part of the reason we chose to take that tack with Traitor's Keep, because we felt like exploring what comes next. My suspicion – and it's yet to be proven or not – is that the future of gaming is along the lines of episodes, but I think that'll take a lot of time and us figuring out how we're going to do that and not so much whether it's a good idea.
Isn't there a danger that if you make DLC that continues the story, you're pigeon-holing the number of people who can pick up the add-on? People yet to complete Fable III won't be able to buy it, essentially.
I think that's a good counterpoint reason not to do it. The real thing you have to look at, is who's your audience. I can't remember the exact numbers, but if you look at the Fable II data, of the people who bought our DLCs, the percentage of people who had already finished Fable II was ridiculously high. So when it comes to DLC, you do have an audience that is already your core fanbase; the consumers who really like the franchise, so they're likely to have finished the game. But there is that counterpoint that we think a lot about and it really comes down to what kind of choice you want to make.
Whenever a Fable game comes out, Lionhead or rather Peter Molyneux says that there's some gameplay aspect or mechanic that didn't quite work. Which parts of Fable III would you say missed the mark?
I'm will not even wager a guess! Every developer in this room would give you the same kind of answer, but the thing with Peter is that he's quite forthright, which is clearly a nice thing for all of us in the business. But I'm not going to guess what he would say. There's always something you look back at and go, “I wish we'd done X instead of Y, or I wish we'd said X instead of Y,” and sometimes part of it is not what you did, but the impression you gave people and the expectations you set. I would say to give you a really specific answer... We have a really great set of fans and they give us the opportunity to make Fable, to make Albion, and that's an opportunity that we have to relish. Bugs are just an unfortunate thing that happen in all games, but that can put the fans off and that's something we don't want to do.
What was the general mood when the reviews and sales figures started filtering through for Fable III?
No matter what, you always want to do better and commercially Fable III has been very successful, so we have to say a big thank-you to all the fans. We're really lucky that we're able to make a game that people enjoy and go out and buy, and I think that's something that we'll never tire of, because it's a great privilege. In terms of reviews, there were some that were lower than expected, but as a whole, we weren't hanging our head in complete shame.
Do you agree with any of the reasons as to why it scored lower?
It's so subjective, you know? In certain cases, yes, but in other cases, no. Certainly the process we go through is never easy no matter what score you get and it's never easy to be criticised. Here's an interesting example though: we made the decision in the PC version to have a difficulty level, so you can play what we call 'hardcore mode' and you can change it at any time during the game to make it more or less challenging. We then went through and made minor changes to the enemies, the health, damage and all those are good things. We did that because we thought PC players have certain expectations and there may be more hardcore players on PC. We also did it because some people said that they really loved the game, but found it a little too easy. But we never want to move away from the fact that Fable can be completed by any player and that is an absolute tenet of the franchise, as accessibility is a huge deal for us. We'll never not make an accessible game, but at the same time we have to acknowledge that some players may find it a little too easy.
Where do you see the Fable franchise heading in the future?
We're not announcing anything really specific, but I think the really nice thing about Fable that's special, is the universe is really broad. It's really only limited by our imaginations, so I think there's a lot that we can still do. You guys must know that we sit around and talk about it. While we're not announcing anything today, there's definitely an opportunity (for more).
Like, Fable: Coin Golf is a really weird idea. It's a really basic game and the thing I like about it is, it works in the way that you can just play something that's a comfortable, fun, straightforward game, but you can earn items or gold that you can take into the Xbox 360 or PC game. That as an experience is something that's really of value. We did a little bit before with Kingmaker and Fable II's Pub Games, but we're really only scratching the surface of what it means to appreciate it like a franchise and what we can do for players. There's no reason why there shouldn't be more than one way for people to play the game in more than one experience. We're learning that from this game, and it's simple. You just drag your finger back and shoot the puck across, collect the coins and put them into your Xbox or PC bank account to earn some items for your Traitor's Keep quest. There's nothing that's technically hugely challenging, but it works really well with Xbox Live and it's the fact that it means you can experience Fable at any time, which feels like the future that I'm certainly most interested in.
Fable III Traitor's Keep DLC is available now from the Xbox Live Marketplace for 560 Microsoft Points. You can grab it here.