The saga of Lionhead Studios is certainly an interesting one, in particular the near 20 year history of the company to contend with. Recently, Eurogamer did an exclusive article on Lionhead Studios, which was recently shut down by Microsoft. The article itself is fantastically written by journalist Wesley Yin-Poole, and covers the history of Lionhead Studios dating back to Black & White, all the way to Fable Legends.
The article itself is a rare look inside Lionhead Studios, co-founded by british developers Peter Molyneux, Tim Rance, Mark Webley and Steve Jackson, in 1997, going through the growing pains of development on their most successful and ambitious titles, and ultimately, discussing the recent closure of the studio. Of particular note, however, are many of the details pertaining to Fable Legends, the last title Lionhead was working on before the studios shutdown.
It was revealed in the piece that Fable 4, and around 2012, was pitched to Microsoft by developer John McCormack. The original pitch had Fable 4 using the Unreal Engine 4, and ushering in a futuristic Industrial Age to the Fable Universe; one that McCormack describes as “late Victorian proper far out Jules Verne shit.” One example given would be the city of Bowerstone, which would rival Victorian London in size and density, and include nods to British mythology and literature, such as taking Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and dropping them into Fable.
“And that was going to be Fable 4, and it would be darker and grittier,” stated McCormack. “And because it was R-rated it would have the prostitutes and the humour. I was like, man, this is going to be fucking brilliant, and everybody was really into it.”
Microsoft executives, however, rejected the proposal. Later, they would tell McComack that Lionhead would have to switch to a gaming as a service model. Yin-Poole notes that three separate sources collaborate this shift in tone, stating that a single-player focused RPG wouldn’t be allowed or even succeed in development, along with the implied ultimatum of shutting down the studio if they didn’t comply.
Much of the games as a service model is attributed to late 2000’s successes such as Valves work on Steam, League of Legends, and mobile gaming. Many companies have followed suit with service models since 2012, all with mixed results.
Prior to the pitch, several major studio heads walked out on Lionhead in an event dubbed by the team as “Black Monday.” Molyneux himself, quite angry at the walkout, would join them soon after, although the reasons for doing so are a bit murky. Nevertheless, Microsoft, at the time under a new direction with their Games Division COO Don Mattrick, pushed the entire Xbox One division to focus on a service model in the hopes of connecting to a more casual audience.
Lionhead at the time was working on another game, codenamed Project Opal, that was a village simulation title that some sources likened to Minecraft. Other sources claimed that Project Opal could have been easily set in the Fable universe without being a Fable game, but for whatever reason the title would slowly be abandoned as work as Fable Legends became the major project for the company throughout 2012.
The origin of Fable Legends is also questionable; Yin-Poole notes that the game may have came from Project Opal itself, or came from a game jam session and was titled F-Versus, which was described by a source as “Fable Team Fortress.” A third citation is just a pitch was given on the idea there.
Ultimately, Fable Legends would be conceived as a 4 V 1 game, but 1 cost a staggering $75 million to make to date. Lionhead struggled with the design of Fable Legends well into 2014; namely making an overabundance of concept art and levels for the game over a four year period, in hopes that some of it can be reused in a hypothetical Fable 4. Microsoft also changed course mid-way through development by switching the game to be cross-play compatible with Windows 10, when the original PC release was going to be on Steam. One anonymous source summed up the entire ordeal as being about the tech for Microsoft over the game’s release:
“Legends should have been dirt cheap to produce, that’s the whole point of a free-to-play game. If people don’t like the game, you take a small cut. If they do, you build more of what the people want. Legends cost a large amount of money, and was delayed countless times so we could show off some other piece of Microsoft tech.”
“The aim with free-to-play games it to get something out early and iterate on that and build up the community and build up your userbase,” said a source.
“But because this was being set up as a flagship title, there was a strive to make it bigger and more polished before it came out. So the scale of the game was way beyond what it should have been to be a success as a free-to-play title.”
Ultimately, Lionhead Studios would be shut down in a meeting with Microsoft in early March of 2016, after working four years on Fable Legends and being reportedly very close to open beta. It has been reported that some studios were apparently lined up to purchase Lionhead, but the deals fell through according to some sources due to Microsoft not wishing to sell the Fable IP with the studio. There are conflicting reports as to why Lionhead was shut down, all of them speculating too much ambition with Fable Legends, Microsoft not seeing a profit for the game, to even being a Fable game no one wanted; fans wanted to see Fable 4 instead.
“It’s a business decision,” one source says in the story by Yin-Poole. “They wanted to save money. It’s nothing personal to Lionhead. They shut Press Play at the same time. Someone somewhere looked at a balance sheet and wanted to save some money.”
A team at Lionhead also tried to salvage Fable Legends. Dubbed Project Phoenix, the plan was to finish the game, ship it and continue development as a new studio under Microsoft license. While more potential buyers were close to making a deal, Project Phoenix would ultimately fail to secure a buyer. Interestingly enough, members of Lionhead attempting to save Fable Legends found out about the closure of Evolution studios by Sony, and their subsequent acquisition by Codemasters. Many of the developers were confused by this turn of events; as their negotiations were going too long; “We were like, what the fuck? How did that happen so quickly? And it turned out the management team at Evolution had been given a heads-up months before as to Sony’s intentions. Maybe if Microsoft had done similar it would have been a different story. Shit happens, unfortunately.” States one source.
Ultimately, no deals could be made in time, leaving Fable Legends on the killing floor. It is still unknown what will happen to the Fable franchise, but for the developers and Lionhead, many of them have already moved on, finding jobs or continuing the search for new employment. As Yin-Poole puts it, “Everyone went to the pub – The Stoke, to be exact – to give the studio a proper send off. Lionhead developers past and present turned up to pay their respects.”
So what do you think about all of this information? Did you read the Eurogamer Article? I highly encourage that you do. Leave your comments below.