With Fable 4 somewhere in the not-so-distant future, hopefully. I wanted to take a look back on the franchise’s roots, examine where it all went wrong, and finally what I hope to see from Fable 4. In this article I will put some focus into Lionhead Studios other projects, but only in as much detail so as to provide some context around the Fable franchise. My video has been put together using multiple different sources, so I’ll list the main articles within the description, which I’d recommend if you really want to dive down the rabbit hole. If you’re a newcomer to the franchise, I’ll also give a brief synopsis of the Fable games, so you can decide if it’s something you fancy getting into. But if you want my opinion, just play Fable 2. I did so without any prior knowledge of 1 and it didn’t hinder my enjoyment at all. So let’s start with an extremely brief overview of the world of Albion and Fables 1-3 before we delve into their history and development.

Fable Synopsis

Total Wipeout just doesn’t have the same chaotic energy without the red balls

The Fable games all take place in the fictional world of Albion, with each of the 3 games taking place in a different time period, following the story of a different Hero. Morality is a key theme of the series, with your choices having real consequences.

During the first game, a young boy’s village is attacked by bandits, killing his entire family. An old hero rescues the boy and trains him to become a hero in the Hero’s Guild. Years pass and the Hero hears of a blind seeress living among a bandit camp near his old village, who is actually his older sister Theresa. Throughout the game, the Hero learns of the Sword of Aeons, which is said to be a very powerful weapon of destruction and can only be wielded if it receives the blood of Archon. The Hero and Theresa are the only two remaining descendants of Archon, and if the antagonist Jack of Blades destroys them both the sword will be even more powerful. The end of the game leaves the Hero with a difficult choice to make.

Fable 2 follows a young child known as Sparrow, who lives in poverty within a city’s poorer district alongside their older sister Rose. One day, the pair witness a travelling seller offering ‘magical’ wares to people, amongst them a musical box that can grant anyone who uses it a wish. Upon buying the box, Rose uses it to make their dream come true of living in Lord Lucien’s castle. Obviously the dream isn’t quite what they hoped for and young Sparrow inadvertently becomes recruited to train as a Hero, to defeat Lord Lucien. Again, at the game’s conclusion, the player is faced with a difficult choice. 

And finally we have Fable 3. The youngest child of the Hero from the previous game lives within the capital’s palace alongside their love interest, and their older brother Logan, the new king of Albion. Unfortunately their brother is a tyrant and part of the game involves the Hero needing to overthrow them. The game then switches tone part way through and you are now in charge of Albion and it’s defences.

So, now that you’re up to speed with an abridged version of the plot, let’s dive into the convoluted tale that is the history of Fable and Lionhead Studios, and where it all went wrong.

Establishment of Lionhead

To look at the history of the Fable franchise, we need to look at the history of Lionhead Studios. Most of its history and ultimate demise is synonymous with Peter Molyneux, the idiosyncratic game designer who co-founded Guildford-based studio Bullfrog in 1987. Whilst there he oversaw a number of successful game releases such as Populous, Powermonger, Syndicate and Theme Park, before selling the studio to EA in 1995. EA being EA mishandled the studio, causing it to close in 2001 and provided a cautionary tale for what can happen when a smaller creative studio meets a behemoth focused more on output. It was during this tumultuous period that Bullfrog employees Peter Molyneux, Mark Webley, Steve Jackson and Paul McLaughlin decided to form Lionhead Studios in 1997, just 2 years after EA acquired Bullfrog Studios.

Black and White

Hench lion stomps army, that’s it, that’s the headline

The direction for Lionhead Studios was that it would focus on making high quality games, as Bullfrog had, but avoid falling into the trap of growing too large. As part of Molyneux’s and Webley’s severance deal with EA, they had agreed to give them first refusal to publish their first game under Lionhead, which turned out to be a god-game called Black and White, which began development in 1998. The vision for Black and White was to develop a unique game where players felt they inhabited a world where they could do anything. Molyneux was interested in the concept of good and evil, and how a player’s actions could influence the game’s atmosphere. He wanted the game to be ‘more flexible, more open, and more attractive’ than anything he’d ever played. He also wanted to remove on-screen options and panels of icons to make the game feel more immersive. All of this is on top of the AI, in which players could turn into a huge, intelligent being which could learn, operate independently, and do a player’s bidding when they wanted. This would require an artificial intelligence structure like nothing ever written before.

Due to Molyneux wanting to assemble the right team that fitted in well with the culture of the studio, the game began development with just 6 people. In 1998 Black and White was shown at E3 in Atlanta, with Molyneux estimating a September 2000 release. At E3 2000, Molyneux gave a precise release date: 23 September 2000. The game was supposed to reach the alpha stage by 18 June, but by summer, it became clear that development was behind schedule, and the release date was pushed back to 10 November. In September, it was pushed back again into 2001, angering fans who were eagerly awaiting its release. This sound familiar to anyone? By October, Lionhead employees were operating around the clock to reach alpha. Alpha was finally reached in December 2000 and with it came a slew of bugs found by the EA testers. Finally, Black and White was released in March 2001 and was a huge success, and enjoyed critical and commercial success. For Lionhead Studios the pain was worth it, and the game lived up to its hype.

While discussing Black and White might seem like a deviation from the topic of the Fable franchise, Molyneux’s ambition and promises for his games were key to the demise of the Studio, as I will go on to discuss.  Some of the concepts introduced during Black and White, such as your decisions influencing the world around you, would also become a key feature of the Fable games.

Fable

The lead up to Fable’s release saw a few changes at Lionhead Studios. Following the success of Black and White, Lionhead Studios made the decision to set up Satellite companies where it would work with other independent developers to help them sign deals with publishers in exchange for equity in the company. The two studios Lionhead signed up were Big Blue Box, which at the time was making an ambitious open world role-playing game codenamed Project Ego, and Intrepid, which was making a caveman survival game called B.C. At the same time, Lionhead was working on The Movies and Black & White 2. Over the course of a year, Lionhead Studios grew from around 30 employees to over 100. Peter Molyneux received financial advice that the company would basically die if they didn’t float on the stock market, so the decision was made to go for the public listing. In order to appear more attractive to investors, Lionhead needed to grow their employee base and work on more than just 1 project, which is why The Movies came into being. So what is happening here is that Lionhead is taking on multiple projects, rather than putting all their creative focus into just one, which kinda goes against their original ethos.

Project Ego turned out to be Fable, which Big Blue Box spent four years mostly independently working on. Although Lionhead is best known for the Fable franchise, it actually began with this small developer they signed on as part of their satellite program. Incidentally, Big Blue Box was formed by another group of ex-Bullfrog employees. Co-founder Dene Carter said “It was the result of a desire to leave EA and the sadly ravaged corpse of Bullfrog it had left behind. My brother Simon, Ian Lovett and I were desperate to do something by ourselves, away from a big corporate structure, and hopefully recreate some of the magic we’d seen dissipated by the takeover.”. During those 4 years, Microsoft, itself planning to launch a video game console called Xbox, fell in love with the game. Microsoft needed an RPG game and with the name of Peter Molyneux behind it, was a huge draw for them. 

Fable was teased by Peter Molyneux back in 2001 who promised ‘an experience like none other’ that would ‘revoulutise the RPG’. A bold claim to be making, much like we saw during the development of Black and White. Developers Dene and Simon Carter said in a blog post:

“The world would be a breathtakingly beautiful place filled with waterfalls, mountains, dense forests, populated with compelling and convincing characters with real personality, people who actually reacted to what you did. We wanted to give the player control of a hero who would adapt to the way they played, who would age, become scarred in battle, who could get tattoos, wear dreadlocks and a dress if the player was so inclined. We wanted each and every person who played our game to have a unique experience, to have their own stories to tell.” 

Yeah no mate, this isn’t ominous at all

Statements like this obviously got the hype train well and truly rolling for Fable. Peter Molyneux himself also heavily promoted it, at one point claiming that it would be the best game ever.

Fable was finally released on Xbox in September 2004 and initially was criticised by critics and gamers alike for failing to live up to Molyneux’s promises, prompting him to release a statement which read 

There is something I have to say. And I have to say it because I love making games. When a game is in development, myself and the development teams I work with constantly encourage each other to think of the best features and the most ground-breaking design possible.

However, what happens is that we strive to include absolutely everything we’ve ever dreamt of and, in my enthusiasm, I talk about it to anyone who’ll listen, mainly in press interviews. When I tell people about what we’re planning, I’m telling the truth, and people, of course, expect to see all the features I’ve mentioned. And when some of the most ambitious ideas get altered, redesigned or even dropped, people rightly want to know what happened to them.

If I have mentioned any feature in the past which, for whatever reason, didn’t make it as I described into Fable, I apologise. Every feature I have ever talked about WAS in development, but not all made it. Often the reason is that the feature did not make sense. For example, three years ago I talked about trees growing as time past. The team did code this but it took so much processor time (15%) that the feature was not worth leaving in. That 15 % was much better spent on effects and combat. So nothing I said was groundless hype, but people expecting specific features which couldn’t be included were of course disappointed. If that’s you, I apologise. All I can say is that Fable is the best game we could possibly make, and that people really seem to love it.

I have come to realise that I should not talk about features too early so I am considering not talking about games as early as I do. This will mean that the Lionhead games will not be known about as early as they are, but I think this is the more industry standard.

Our job as the Lionhead family of studios is to be as ambitious as we possibly can. But although we jump up and down in glee about the fabulous concepts and features we’re working on, I will not mention them to the outside world until we’ve implemented and tested them, and they are a reality.”

This is now beginning to show a trend of Molyneux over-promising, building up significant hype for the game, then under-delivering. Some of the promises made included that Fable would let you have children; that the game would span your hero’s whole lifetime; that you could knock an acorn off a tree and slowly, over the course of the game, watch it grow into a tree of its own. None of those things happened. So you can understand people’s disappointment.

Fable was then expanded and re-released as Fable: The Lost Chapters for Xbox and Windows PC platforms in September 2005. This contained all the content from the original Fable release but with significant enhancements such as new monsters, weapons, alignment-based spells, items, armour, towns, buildings, and expressions, as well as the ability to give children objects. The game also had nine new areas and 16 additional quests. This expanded version was a commercial success and has sold around 3 million copies worldwide. Once again, with a minor trip-up, Lionhead Studios managed to replicate the success found with Black and White. 

Acquisition by Microsoft

In 2005 Lionhead also released 2 of the other previously mentioned projects: Black and White 2 and The Movies. Neither of these were particularly successful commercially, and Peter Molyneux described The Movies as a disaster due to lack of playtesting. It also failed to meet the sales expectations of publisher Activision, although it did win a BAFTA award for simulation in 2006. Black and White 2 also fell short of publisher EA’s sales expectations. Neither of the games were considered bad, but were just rushed, with Peter Molyneux saying ‘We should have done one game at a time rather than several games.’ Ya don’t say. But at least by acknowledging this they can learn from their mistakes, right?

The lack of success for these games did lead to some financial difficulties at Lionhead, especially trying to maintain the inflated wage overheads from taking on so many employees. What became obvious was that Lionhead was too bloated and its wage bill too high to be an attractive purchase for any potential investor. So, Lionhead made nearly 90 people redundant, in part to help secure an acquisition. Fortunately for Lionhead there were 2 offers on the table. One from Microsoft, who they already had a working relationship with, and another from Ubisoft. Microsoft were determined to secure the deal though, as Fable had done so well on Xbox. A deal with Ubisoft would mean that a sequel to Fable would end up exclusively on their rival, the Playstation 3. 

In April 2006 Microsoft announced that it had purchased Lionhead Studios for an undisclosed amount of money, and the studio would now be developing games exclusively for the Xbox 360 and Windows platforms. Some interesting allegations were made in one of the articles I used to research this video though, the link of which is in the description. Apparently some people at Lionhead weren’t happy with the Microsoft deal, which was based on earnout. Basically this is where a portion of the money is paid upfront, with the rest following if and when the Studio achieved certain goals, one of which being the release of Fable 2. Even more interesting is that allegedly Fable 3’s release date was also locked into the deal, which will become relevant soon. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we’ve covered the acquisition of Lionhead by Microsoft, which leads us nicely into the next section.

Fable 2

Hi MTV welcome to my crib

The first game Lionhead made as a Microsoft first-party studio is what many, myself included, consider to be Lionhead studio’s finest work. Despite this, the game was subject to a lot of criticism before it was even released due to the innovations in gameplay being introduced. The game was set to introduce a one-button combat system and eliminate player death from the game entirely. This criticism came to nothing though and the world of Fable 2 is simply a joy to play in. The game has sold approximately 3.5 million copies as of 11 March 2010 and it is a best-selling RPG title for Xbox 360. Later, Lionhead won a BAFTA for best action adventure game. Fable – and Lionhead – had survived the Microsoft buyout and thrived. The music is also amazing and really adds to the magical feel of the game. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the genius of Danny Elfman is behind the main theme. If you’re curious you may have heard it playing in the background of my video already.

Despite this success it is relevant to point out that up until 6 months before it’s 2008 release, it was in a rather unfinished state, much like a lot of triple-A releases nowadays. Fortunately the team at Lionhead managed to pull it off, and the game came together in its final push. According to a Eurogamer article, the people working on the game claimed that until this push to get the game over the line, the plot was basically non-existent and some of the features resembled prototypes. Molyneux himself was also said to be heavily involved in the development of Fable 2. He championed the inclusion of the breadcrumb mechanic which led players to their destination, the dog companion to the player, and the one-button combat style. Microsoft also largely left Lionhead to their own devices during development as well, though there were some clashes along  the way. One that I found particularly amusing was friction caused over the dog digging up condoms. The first artwork for the item was accurate to the era it was set in, but Microsoft asked Lionhead to change it to an image of a modern day condom. I did find it a bit odd at the time, but just put it down to the game’s style of humour.

Did Peter Molyneux also hype this game as much as he did with Black and White and Fable? Of course he did. He made the addition of a dog sound like an industry-changing revelation. If you need some further proof, take a look at the Fable 2 E3 demo from 2007 linked in the description. Watching him though, you can’t deny that Peter Molyneux isn’t a passionate speaker, and it’s easy to get sucked into the claims he’s making. Fable 2 was in development for 4 years and it really shows in both it’s critical success, and the fact people like me keep going back for more all these years later. The next game however, had a mere 18 months in which to be developed and released…

Fable 3

Oh no we didn’t touch the brightness, he’s just that pale

Given how much I love Fable 2, I was so excited for 3. But I had no idea until now about the tight turnaround for it to be made. When researching the game’s development I came across this headline, which probably sums things up pretty well

(IGN Article) https://www.ign.com/articles/2014/02/26/peter-molyneux-calls-fable-3-a-trainwreck

Fable 3 was the first game to really disappoint me. It just felt so flat after the rich story and world Lionhead had built with Fable 2. Reflecting on Fable 3, Peter Molyneux said “It was built to be much bigger than what it was constrained to be and eventually ended up as. If I had my time again, I’d take the advances we made from Fable 1 to Fable 2, I’d make the same advances from Fable 2 to Fable 3 and spend another entire year working on Fable 3.” 

But in their attempt to build upon Fable 2, rather than replicate it, Fable 3 switched partway through from adventuring to ruling, which is where it lost me and many others. This change in tone is far from the end of gripes with the game, but the overall feeling among fans like myself is it was just lazy, poorly executed and rushed. Some examples off the top of my head are the combat system being ridiculously unbalanced, with magic being incredibly overpowered; navigation and fast-travel was far too convoluted and two-dimensional NPC’s. A lot of the reviews mention a slew of bugs with the game too, but I honestly can’t really remember this being an issue. I guess my general disappointment with the plot and conclusion was my main takeaway. I also paid for the special edition too, which I might still have on a shelf somewhere, which further added salt to the wound.

But aside from having practically no time to develop this game, I did wonder if there was more going on in the background at Lionhead that led to such an epic disappointment, which ruined the reputation of the studio. I’ve seen from a couple of different sources that Peter Molyneux developed something of an obsession with incorporating Xbox Kinect during the development of Fable 3. The plan was to include mini games and the ability to create your own expression at an in-game shop. All of this was cut though because there simply wasn’t enough time. Not that it would have made the game any better anyway. He was putting so much attention into incorporating Kinect that he was absent for much of Fable 3’s development, and it shows.

The End of Lionhead Studios

Following Fable 3, Lionhead was working on an Xbox Kinect based game called Milo and Kate, which is probably their most high-profile failure. The concept of the game was that you were playing as the imaginary friend of a young boy, who dreamt you up as his parents were constantly fighting. This is what Peter Molyneux was primarily focussing on instead of Fable 3. Proving again that the studio was spreading themselves too thin over multiple projects. I personally don’t remember this at all, but apparently it was going to be the next big thing and would revolutionise the way we play games. Sound familiar?

The demo for Milo and Kate was incredibly well-received at Microsoft’s E3 2009’s stage show, where it showed the boy recognising a human player, ‘taking’ a drawing from her through the Kinect scanner before commenting upon it, and holding a plausible conversation. To be fair, if you showed me that today in 2021, I’d be pretty impressed, let alone back in 2009. But was this genuine? I mean, I don’t even need to ask really, do I? There were suspicions at the time that this demo was just smoke and mirrors.

As you can probably guess, Milo and Kate was cancelled. When trying to research the reasons behind this, I ended up going down a bit of a rabbit-hole, so I’ll try and conclude the main reasons I found. What is consistent is that Peter Molyneux was putting far more of his attention into this, than he was with Fable 3. Molyneux himself blames the cancellation on the technology behind Kinect and Microsoft’s attitude toward the market it was aiming at. He is quoted as saying 

 “The specs of the Kinect went lower and lower and lower and lower and lower, until eventually it was a fraction of what Milo & Kate had been designed for.

Failure, thou hast physical form

“The other thing that happened is Microsoft thought, you know what, Kinect is a party game. It’s about sports. It’s about people sitting on the couch and playing together. It’s not going to be about this emotional connection, this interactive experience which had never been seen before.

“So Milo & Kate started to fall by the wayside. At that time I was helping Rare with Kinect Sports. Kinect Sports was generating more excitement. Eventually they said, well, Kinect’s a bit more about party games than it is about the Milo & Kate experience. And we don’t think we want to take the project any further. I could see the writing on the wall anyway. I could see that was going to happen.”

From Microsoft’s point of view, it seems that they were struggling to understand what it was and see how it was going to happen, and they just ran out of patience and ultimately pulled the plug

In early 2012 Lionhead Studios experienced what came to be known as ‘Black Monday’, in which a number of Lionhead veterans who were unhappy with the direction the studio was heading, all quit on the same day. Not long after this, Molyneux himself left and founded the indie studio 22cans. 

During this period the development team tried to salvage some of Milo and Kate by working on Fable: The Journey. The game was released in late 2012 and was generally poorly received. With the creative genius behind the franchise gone, it seemed that it was on a downward trajectory. Fable Anniversary was later released in 2014 and was warmly received. This would also be the last full release of the studio. 

Microsoft were pushing for more of a game as a service model for the next installment of the franchise: Fable Legends. This was meant to be a free-to-play online multiplayer game, reflecting Microsoft’s wish to not make another single-player Fable game. To be honest, I’m glad this was cancelled. There were co-op elements to the other Fable games, but for me this would have taken the franchise too far away from its roots. 

Microsoft finally cancelled the game in 2016 because it was too expensive, and nobody really wanted to make it. They also announced the closure of Lionhead Studios in the same year. Other companies were interested in purchasing Lionhead, but Microsoft refused to sell the rights to the Fable license.  The much-loved but troubled Fable franchise was finally dead, or was it?

Fable 4

Bit more training and you might just be able to lift it

Ever since the closure of Lionhead Studios, rumours have been circulating on whether we will ever see another Fable game. That question was finally answered in the Xbox Games Showcase of 2020 with the release of the teaser for Fable. 

There is some information out there for the game, but not much. What we do know, is that it is being developed by Playground Games, the studio behind the Forza Horizon series. It is currently just called Fable, so it isn’t certain yet this will be Fable 4, but the teaser indicates that it will still have the tongue in cheek humour of the original games. When I first heard the same people who made Forza were developing this, I was a bit confused. Forza is a racing game right? But with that being said, they are known for creating beautiful landscapes, so perhaps they are a good choice for bringing the magic back to Albion. A fresh start might not be such a bad thing either. The game is no longer under the immense pressure of Peter Molyneux claiming it will be the best game ever. In fact, there’s been no hype generated at all. So at least Microsoft and Playground have perhaps learned some lessons on where things went wrong before. There does seem to be a rumour floating around though that this game will not return to the RPG format, instead opting for a MMO set within the Fable universe. I’m all for keeping an open mind, but I do hope this isn’t true. I would love to see another fleshed-out single player experience like we got from Fable 2. The news came courtesy of French journalist @CronoTK on Twitter, who accurately predicted the entire Xbox Games Showcase lineup ahead of the stream, so seems to have some serious insider knowledge.

Another rumour comes from a Fable 4 E3 2019 leak, which hinted at the world the game would be set in. It details that Albion was destroyed by an asteroid that was wished into existence by a Mad King who took control of the Tattered Spire that featured in Fable 2. Theresa and the guild are said to be hiding on another planet that can be accessed using a demon door. But if you want you can ignore the entirety of the main quest and choose not to become a hero at all. A bit like ignoring the dragon storyline in Skyrim and just doing all the side quests. This rumour puts the game more in the open-world RPG format that includes being able to build your own towns. This more closely resembles the previous Fable games so I hope Playground takes the game in this direction.  As for the release date, at the time this video was made, there is still no news. For me personally, I will not be hyping this game up in my mind at all, despite being a long-time fan of Fable. I just hope with this fresh start, a new developer can breathe some life into this beloved franchise. 

Conclusion

So what do I want? Honestly I’d like to see something along the same vein as Fable 2, which the latter of the 2 rumours I discussed would potentially fulfill. I would just like an immersive open-world experience, rich with lore and side quests. I don’t want my expectations to be built up so high they can never be fulfilled and I just want the studio to deliver whatever they promise. I just wanna immerse myself in some fun escapism with a wicked sense of humour.  Is that really too much to ask?

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