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Fixing Fable: Can Lionhead Win Gamers Back for Microsoft?

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One thing that is in short supply so far in the upcoming console generation is the all-important system-selling exclusives. This is particularly important for Microsoft, whose Xbox One is a hundred dollars more expensive than its primary competitor with no clear advantages for gamers who are indifferent to the Kinect features. Sony has developed an impressive stable of exclusive original titles in recent years while Xbox standards like Gears of War have worn out their welcome.
Since undertaking the Fable series, it has become a running joke that Molyneux’ mouth has consistently written checks that his company can’t cash.
One particularly devastating blow was Fable 3, a game from an acclaimed Microsoft-exclusive franchise that has received almost universal derision and single-handedly shattered gamers’ faith in Lionhead Studios. Lionhead and their founder Peter Molyneux have long been fixtures in the gaming industry known for their ambitious innovations. But since undertaking the Fable series, it has become a running joke that Molyneux’ mouth has consistently written checks that his company can’t cash.

While people have mocked Molyneux’s public vision for Fable as promising the stars, most of them can agree he at least reached the sky. The first game was a unique action-adventure RPG that featured a hero who visibly aged over the course of the game in addition to changing appearance based on his behavior, fighting style, and even eating habits. NPC interaction was also revolutionized with the player able to communicate using emote actions, which drew various reactions from the residents of Albion. Add in a healthy dose of British humor and few people could claim they did not have a good time playing Fable.

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The sequel was, in my opinion, a massive success that gave players more of the same with extra customization, superior combat, a canine companion, and pushed ahead the timeframe into a new era while providing an epic story to boot. It was pretty close to perfect.

Naturally, everyone was excited for the third installment, which promised to make you the acting ruler of the ever-changing kingdom with streamlined gameplay and plenty of other knick-knacks. “Streamlined” apparently being the code-word for Molyneux’s war on menu screens.
Assuming that the untapped illiterate demographic is just dying to get into the RPG genre, Lionhead eliminated the usual easy-access menus.
Assuming that the untapped illiterate demographic is just dying to get into the RPG genre, Lionhead eliminated the usual easy-access menus where one normally equips and levels up with some weird mechanic where you teleport instantly to a location where you physically wander around selecting which weapon or whatever you want to use or select abilities based on pictures and colors before teleporting back to where you were. So if you were in, say Kindergarten, it was easier for you then reading words. For everyone else, it was just lame and unwieldy.

In addition to the metaphorical hand-holding, there was actual hand-holding replacing the simple and handy “follow” command from previous games, which was poorly executed. The massive wheel of interactions that the player could choose from when interacting with NPC’s was now replaced with a two-option system. For example, when greeting a man on the street you could either dance romantically with him or belch in his face. Don’t want to play a character who does either of those things, and would rather use one of the dozens of other emotes you unlocked? Tough. Two choices. Any more might risk confusing you, you silly dopey baby gamer, you.

The magic was dumbed down and overpowered to a ridiculous degree, and I had no problem collecting the achievement for beating Fable 3 without getting beaten once. By anything. In the entire game. The challenge was nonexistent. And I’m not even going to get into the bugs. Dear lord, the bugs. Congratulations, Lionhead, you took a home-run franchise and casualized it to the extent that there was barely a point in even playing it, unless getting multiple STD’s in a video game or farting on somebody until they vomited happened to be on your bucket list (and in my case, they were).

This was literally my favorite moment in the entire game.

So just like that, one of Microsoft’s best franchises became a pariah among gamers. People just stopped caring about the series. Remember all the buzz about the Kinect game Fable: The Journey? Neither does anyone else. It came and went and nobody even cared if it was good or bad. However, everybody noticed when Molyneux announced he was leaving Lionhead, and few people didn’t assume the failure of his last games were the reason.

Remember all the buzz about the Kinect game Fable: The Journey? Neither does anyone else.
But was Fable 3 really so bad that the next game can’t be awesome? Of course not. The first two produced some our favorite Xbox memories of spontaneous gaming and there’s no good reason the fourth game can’t improve on what made those two work. We may still get that “greatest roleplaying game of all time” Molyneux promised, but will it be the upcoming online-oriented Fable Legends?

I really like the idea of a party-oriented Fable game, and online co-op is a natural fit for that, but to me Fable is a single-player experience and I’d like to see Fable 4 happen. Here are my ideas for how future games can restore faith in Lionhead, return the franchise to system seller status, and give Microsoft something other than Halo to fight back against Sony with.

 Focus on what worked…

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Fable had several features that set it apart from anything we’d seen before. The system of NPC interaction was chief among them and allowed for a lot of potentially hilarious and surprising moments orchestrated by the player. One of my favorite moments from the first game was trolling my in-game wife by gathering every woman in the village and leading them past her before flexing my character’s muscles, causing the ladies to collectively swoon, which my wife responded to by shaking her fist and snarling “you stay away from my man!”

Lionhead needs to recapture that creativity. In Fable 3 you could only interact with one NPC at a time and could only choose one of the two options presented to you. I think that there should be different sets of interactions for individuals and for groups and they need to all be available as a wheel again.

They should also bring back the trophy runs where you slay a monster, claim a trophy from it, and can then run around the village thrusting it in the air while the residents cheer your glorious victory and grow your fame. That was really cool.

Even the third game had a feature worth expanding on. There were weapons in the game that would actually morph and evolve according to your gameplay style. For instance, if you specialize in killing balverines, the pommel would be adorned with a carved balverine head or if you excelled at making money you’d get gilded ornamentation. No old school RPG player is going to run around with the weakest weapon. But in true Fable 3 fashion, they flubbed this concept by making these weapons much weaker than almost any other weapon in the game, and no old school RPG player is going to run around with the weakest weapon after years of being ambushed by overpowered enemies when they least expect it. They need to stop chucking stronger and stronger weapons at the player and instead focus on different types of weapons to suit different combat styles and upgrading the one you choose.

…But don’t be afraid to evolve.

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Fable’s simple but deep combat system has always been one of its strong points. With a base that strong it is tempting to leave it alone entirely, but at this point exceptional improvements need to be made. Falling back on the strength of the first games isn’t going to be good enough after all of the fail that followed.

My first thought would be to expand on the combat styles. While leaving the basics of combat intact, different animations for different weapons could be great.  Instead of just hammer or sword there should be different styles for single sword, sword/shield, dual wielding, spear, katana, hammer, daggers, axe, staff, etc.

Add a little more romance.

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Everybody has their stories of amorous conquests in the Fable series, of cheating wives who give birth to babies of a different ethnicity, group sex with hookers, and catfights in the streets when heroes have multiple marriages. But do we really care about our lovers in Albion or are they just there for our amusement as a shallow game mechanic?

A recurring dragon that the series needs to slay is repetitive character models. I know this is a bitch for developers, but it’s really hard to get into the social aspect of a video game when every person you meet has five more exactly like them around the corner. Even if most of the villagers have to be generic models, each section of each community at least needs several individuals to stand out.  Nobody is going to form a legit attachment to a villager that is just one of dozens of identical clones. Grand Theft Auto 5 seems to have managed to create enough NPC diversity to convincingly populate their world, and I would expect no less from Fable 4.

A recurring dragon that the series needs to slay is repetitive character models.
A recurring dragon that the series needs to slay is repetitive character models.
Another related issue is the lack of the option to interact with important characters. Some of them just show up in the story and then vanish when there’s no cutscene to be watched. If BioWare has taught us anything, it’s that for some of us getting to know the characters outside of the main story can be as rewarding as the story itself and further invests us in the game as a whole.

Romance and sex is a big part of the Fable experience, but it needs to grow past what it’s been in the past if the series wants to get back into the RPG big leagues. Better and more diverse characters is the simple answer.

 

Squash those bugs!

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I know there are always going to be some bugs in a complex game, but some are so bad they can ruin a game for you. I spent a lot of time in Fable 3 putting off marriage, hoping that at some point a unique NPC I would become available.

It. Never. Happened.

So I eventually had to settle for the unique villager I got to create as a preorder bonus late in the game. Within a few quests of her moving into my palace, she vanished. For good. Thanks, Lionhead!

Another issue that has given me headaches is the golden trail that leads you to your current objective and the fact that it occasionally leads you in the wrong direction before changing its mind and leading you off elsewhere, occasionally doing this several times. I know an old school gamer doesn’t need such things, but when it’s onscreen it’s a habit to follow it. If you are going to have this hand-holding device in the game, at least make sure it goddamn works!

Live up to promises from days past.

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Peter Molyneux famously claimed that Fable would allow you to plant an acorn and watch it gradually grow into a tree over the course of the game. While your hero aged over the course of the game, the individual tree mechanic never really happened. But what if it did? I’m not a programmer so I don’t know much about how close to making that happen they were, but with next-gen horsepower I wonder if a world that genuinely grew and evolved with your character could be delivered. It’s something Molyneux seemed to think was possible two generations previous, after all.

Another claim from the outset of the series was that there would be other heroes occupying your world and gathering fame for themselves as rivals to the player character. The first game technically had this, but it was entirely scripted whereas Molyneux had painted a picture of an AI working independently towards its own goals while the game keeps track. I still want to see this happen.

Perhaps if you let a quest go unfinished for too long, another hero could snatch it up and claim the rewards as his/her own and random encounters could end in anything from duels to romance depending on how the player interacts with their fellow adventurers. It’d be pretty fun to mug another adventurer and get some serious loot only to have them come back later with friends to return the favor. It would definitely add more tension to the game.

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Like I said, Microsoft is sorely in need of franchises good enough to sell the Xbox One on. Fable has always had the potential to be one of those franchises. The base is there, the fans are there; all they need is a game good enough to make them forget how disappointed they were with Fable 3. Fable Legends could unlock bold new aspects to the franchise for sure, but there are some things that just work best in a single-player game. I reject the developer’s claim that that the one game will last us for a decade. It’s like Molyneux never left.
Fable Legends could unlock bold new aspects to the franchise.
Even if the next game turns out awesome, I’m going to want my classic Fable single player experience back at some point. I don’t see Lionhead being able to generate the World of Warcraft level of success they appear to be shooting for with Legends, especially considering the loss of faith with the brand.

Fable 4 is almost certainly going to happen before the end of the Xbox One’s life cycle and they really need to get it right when it does. By then it may be too late to change the console war tide, but if my recent return to PlayStation after a decade as an Xbox-faithful gamer has taught me anything, it’s that if the quality is there it’s never too late to get a new customer… or regain an old one.

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About Nick Verboon

I am a guy on the internet who writes stuff sometimes. Try and keep up. I used to write reviews Amazon and other sites under the moniker trashcanman before semi-retiring from my unpaid career for a while. But now I'm back in action writing columns for Unreality and Gamemoir. Enjoy. I

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