Fable Legends: The New Republic Of Lionhead - Games Weekly

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Fable Legends: The New Republic Of Lionhead

Even the sceptical people are won over by our execution and just how much fun they are having,” insists Lionhead’s product manager and monetisation director Ian Griffiths as we sit down with the team behind Fable Legends and discuss the recently announced decision to release as free-to-play and across Xbox One and PC with cross-play. It’s part of a series of bold moves the Guildford developer has made as it looks to set down a marker for a new era for the studio. And there’s no shortage of scepticism around Fable Legends for a raft of reasons.

First, it’s not an RPG. Second, it’s a multiplayer game not entirely unlike a MOBA. Third, it’s an asymmetric multiplayer game (very much in vogue at the moment). Fourth, it’s also releasing as a free-to-play game. Just about every hurdle you could throw in front of this game is there and Lionhead has chosen this route. “Of course fans still want us to someday make a single-player game and maybe we will some day but that’s part of the concern,” admits David Eckelberry, game director. “The other part is, free-to-play can be great, but it can also be done quite poorly, in a way that is player-unfriendly, if you will. Done by a company that is more of an app-game company than a game company, that it’s just doing this more for financial reasons. Obviously I don’t think that’s the case with us, with everything we’ve said, with our commitments and everything else I think ultimately we can offer a very fair and very cool proposition to our players and invite them into a new way to play this game.”


It’s good to know that Lionhead understands the battle it has on its hands and the reality of how we feel as gamers about such issues. Legends has the potential to not only alienate Fable fans, but put off everyone else too, and yet as Griffiths pointed out at the beginning, when you play Fable Legends all of that appears to fall away. “We’re running a closed beta right now in which we are really talking with the players and we really do take forward a lot of their suggestions,” he adds. “Recently I was at GDC and I had lots of people who weren’t sure on the title, and I was just like ‘Just play the game.’ And when people play it, they just love it.”
WE ARE GAMERS, WE'VE SEEN SOME OF THE NOT SO WELL IMPLEMENTED VERSIONS OF FREE TO PLAY
Speaking from first-hand experience, it’s hard to disagree. While there are risks to releasing a Fable game in this fashion, it’s still a lot of fun. The team combat feels balanced, the villain gameplay that’s similar to playing as a sadistic dungeon master works well and the setting feels familiar and comfortable, as Albion should. But what’s refreshing is that this feels like a game made by a team with its shackles off, ready to take on a new challenge and push boundaries regardless of where that might lead them, including free-to-play.

“When we started designing the game, we knew we were doing something pretty different with this Fable title compared to previous ones,” says Eckelberry. “We knew it was a possibility. We started thinking about how we would do it if we went in that direction, and eventually when the opportunity came to align with Windows 10 and reach a much wider audience then it really started to make sense for us and we committed to the ideal.”

The most important question then once Lionhead had committed to this direction was how fair is it going to be? The key reason why we bristle when we hear the term free-to-play is because we know there’s no such thing as really free. There’s a catch somewhere along the way and the worst examples are really pay to win. Lionhead seems to appreciate our concern. “Our commitments are being open, fair and generous,” Emmi Kuusikko, business and strategy director for Lionhead, tells us. “So ‘open’ meaning there will be no gated areas. You’ll have access to all the areas of the game for free. ‘Fair’ meaning everything that affects gameplay is earn-able so there is no way to buy a winning power, as that would unbalance the game you are playing in. And then ‘generous’; we want to value the player’s time and make sure that it doesn’t take an unreasonable amount of time to obtain the items and things that are earnable in the game whether it be Heroes or something similar.”

“We are gamers; we’ve seen some of the not so well implemented versions of free to play,” adds Griffiths. “It was very important to us we sat down for many months, we went through many different passes of ‘what can we do that makes this reasonable? That makes this good for us and good for the player?’” And it’s not as if Fable Legends would be the first game to have gotten it right. As much as free-to-play can be seen as a dirty phrase in the industry right now, we also have to acknowledge that some of the most popular titles around right now are free. Whether it’s League Of Legends, Dota 2, World Of Tanks or Hearthstone, free games are attracting audiences and doing things in the right way. “For me, Dota 2 has had a big impact,” Griffiths revealed, explaining he’s a big fan of the game. “I’ve played like 800 hours in the last 18 months. Valve do it in a really nice way, and that’s the kind of position we want to be in. Where our players really like what we do and it’s fair, and everybody does well.”

The key to this will be rotating rosters of content, similar to the approach taken with the Killer Instinct reboot that launched with the Xbox One. But unlike the two characters and single stage of that fighter, Fable Legends will likely have at least four heroes to select from, the villain to play as and variations in setting as you progress. In other words it will be limited, but there will still be plenty to explore. Then, after a couple of weeks, everything will switch around and you’ll get to try out something else.

“This all comes back to our attitude to F2P,” explains Griffiths. “We're not out there for any cynical reason. We’re making the game as open to as many people as possible. We wanted to do free to play the right way.”

We asked Eckelberry to break it all down for us. “All the quests are going to be free, period, end of story,” he clarifies. “You can download and play all of those quests and the only restriction is a narrative, logical one. If you wanted to play Season One, quest seven, well you first need to play quest six. There are some exceptions with branching, but for simplicity’s sake, the first time you play through the quest, you play through it in an order. And you can start Season Two after that, etc. The only real exception to that is that you’ll always be able to play with your friends.

“So, if you’ve been playing for a while and sign up for the first time, I can join your quest even though it may leap me ahead in continuity. The story won’t make perfect sense but that’s like starting a TV show half way through.”

And its good to know that while Legends may be moving Fable away from some of its established ideas, it won’t be losing its identity completely. While custom heroes will not be an option, the variety (nine revealed so far with at least three more on the horizon) looks strong and you will be able to add some vanity items, not unlike in a MOBA.

“We want to offer a huge spectrum of different characters that offer you those sorts of choices to start with,” says Eckelberry. “If you want to play a cunning rogue or a brave heroine, all of those options will be immediately apparent for a casual fan just by looking at the characters. After that, we still want to make it like previous Fable games. Where the magical barbers in town can do things like change your skin tone, change your hair or eye colour, maybe put on different masks for a character like Breach. Visual customisation is definitely there. And then there’s gameplay customisation. Heroes level, they acquire loot, they can buy different weapons and armour and outfits. That’s stuff we are already building into our demo build now.”
MICROSOFT STARTED TO SUPPORT US MORE AS IT LOOKED LIKE WE WOULD BE ONE OF THE FIRST DX12 GAMES
So, many of the trappings and most of the personality of what has always made Albion such a rich and welcoming world to explore will remain, even if some of the structures are a little different. But this remains a big experiment for Lionhead, putting so much weight and effort behind a ‘spin-off’ Fable title. What’s more, even if the game proves to be popular, there’s no guarantee it will make any money. We were surprised to find that the team seems pretty comfortable with that possibility.

“We know that in most free to play universes 80 to 90 per cent of users are playing for free,” admits Eckelberry. “We very much know that, and we don’t expect or want to break that rule and start forcing players to spend in some way, right? The advantage of us being part of Microsoft is that we will be there on Windows, we will be there on Xbox, we will get some good advertising because we’re a first-party platform that way and so we expect to be able to get several million players through that.

What those exact numbers are, it really doesn’t matter. Microsoft is in this to create a great community and to make gaming on Xbox One, and on PC, and on cross-platform be amazing. Because it really shows third-party developers and to other first-party developers that this is a great thing to do. Microsoft isn’t out for us to break the bank with untold riches.”

And we could sense that unpressured atmosphere from the Lionhead team. It knows that it has a tough challenge ahead getting over the scepticism and doubt around this multiplayer game, but it’s not feeling anything other than a drive to make something they can be proud of from behind them. After Killer Instinct attempted a similar model, Fable Legends is buildin on the idea. But is this something that Microsoft could be looking to spread even further? Will it be long before we see a free-to-play Halo game on Xbox One (not including the Russian-only Halo Online)?

“It made sense for us to do Fable Legends free to play, but I’m not going to presume to judge other studios or how other games should be,” is Eckelberry’s analysis. “We think this is one model that can work, and if other studios can take some inspiration from it, wonderful. But we really built this to be appropriate for our game.”

But importantly, the technology and the infrastructure is there to support this model according to Griffiths. “A lot of the Microsoft platform changes with Xbox One and Windows 10 have allowed us to deliver this game in a better way than we would have been able to in previous generations. There’s a lot more we can do, services-wise, as well as tech obviously with the power, which has been really useful for us. As David said, we’re not trying to tell other people that they definitely should go F2P, but we are showing it’s a viable option on the platform.”

The technology was really the last piece in the puzzle. Running under the same principle of getting the game out to as many people as possible, giving them to chance to make up their own minds about Fable Legends, making the game available on PC, using DirectX 12 and making it cross-platform compatible went hand in hand with being free-to-play. It’s all about bringing down the barriers to entry and being as welcoming and open as possible.

“We knew we wanted to be servicing PC in addition to Xbox, but then being inside of Microsoft and getting an early look at DX12 and the amazing things it could do really aligned us up pretty well,” Eckelberry tells us. “Microsoft started to support us more as it looked like we would be one of the first DX12 games. So, they were totally on board with that and helping us along in that way. And giving us the support using servers on the backend to be cross-platform was fantastic. We want as many players as possible and not to have to divide them. If you’re playing on PC and I’m playing on Xbox that doesn’t mean we’ve made a choice that splits us up; we are still able to play with each other whenever we want.”

The final stage of this experimental and challenging new direction for Lionhead is launching the game, but even that has been handled in a incremental and thoughtful way. There have been beta tests taking place with the public since late 2014, gradually increasing numbers and functionality to stress test the service and the ideas Lionhead has implemented. Ultimately, it appears Lionhead doesn’t want to be just another studio that botches its online multiplayer launch, especially with a title that’s already got plenty of doubt hanging over it.

“All the different servers that we utilise on the back end does complicate things, so we’ve seen a number of launches that struggle in their early days,” Eckelberry explains. “For us, the critical thing for getting that right was basically launching to a small audience very early. That’s why we started our closed beta as early as October of last year. We’ve been in it now for about six months and we’ve kept it small because we are encountering all sorts of issues. We are basically still in production, but that audience is critical for us identifying issues technical, design, balance and they are going to continue being critical to us for several months as we iron out these issues. It’s so that, when we do embrace a very large audience, that they don’t run into all the bugs we run into during the natural course of development.”

“It’s allowing us to see problems early and scale to them over time, so we don’t have that initial drop in and panic of servers might be going down,” adds Griffiths. “We are taking it very seriously. Stability and quality are very important to us.”

And so now, Lionhead is rolling out the testing even further. Xbox One and Windows 10 gamers should be keeping their eyes peeled for the release of a much wider public beta that should really show off what Lionhead has created thus far. You can still sign up on the Fable Legends site to express your interest and in the coming weeks you may well be able to join the team online.

“Over the next several months and into the summer, we are going to be adding new users at a pretty good clip,” reveals Eckelberry. “If you’re a fan and you’re wondering why you haven’t gotten included, the reason isn’t because we don’t want you in! It’s just because we’ve had hundreds and thousands of users apply, and because we wanted to keep it small, it kind of means it was like winning a lottery ticket.”

And with gambling analogies hanging in the air, we’re left to reflect on the wholehearted way this newly arranged and refreshed Lionhead Studios has taken risks with its latest title. Fable Legends isn’t the single-player RPG experience we would have expected, but it’s not a safe spin-off either. It’s trying out something new within the universe and it’s embracing the change. We remain optimistic that a deeper adventure in Albion will emerge down the line, but for now we’re happy to say that Fable Legends feels like a lot more than a stepping stone. If it all comes together, it could be a phenomenal new experience.

WHY IS DIRECTX 12 EXCITING?
FABLE LEGENDS COULD BE THE FIRST TO USE IT FOR X BOX ONE, BUT WHY DOES THAT MATTER?

DirectX 12 is launching with Windows 10 and it’s getting a lot of gamers very excited, but unless you keep up with game programming news we’ll forgive you for not knowing what it’s all about. DirectX is a collection of application programming interfaces (API) for handling multimedia development. Essentially, it’s a tool for making games and this 10th iteration promises to gives developers much greater access to the raw power of PCs and the Xbox One. What does that mean for you? Well, on PCs we could be looking at much smoother frame-rates and more detail on the screen. On Xbox One, Microsoft has played down the possibility it will help with frame-rates, but it should make development easier by using less of the CPU or GPU of the console and by extension it should allow game-makers more room to stretch and test the hardware in new ways to get a little more from it.

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