Q&A: Peter Molyneux on Fable

Peter Molyneux in Lionhead Studios on 2004.09

We venture into the Lionhead's den to ask the game guru about console games, development cycles, and finishing his long-awaited RPG.

By Tor Thorsen, GameSpot, uk.gamespot.com
Posted Sep 2, 2004 12:49 pm PT

LONDON -- Despite the notorious reputation of British Rail, it didn't take long to get from London to Guilford, the sleepy Surrey town that is home to Lionhead Studios. However, finding the studios themselves would've been next to impossible without the help of a local cabbie who was equal parts streetwise and surly.

Ten minutes, six pounds ($12), and several dozen hairpin turns after arriving at the train station, this reporter found himself in a verdant office park that resembled a cross between Silicon Valley and Hobbiton. Tucked away at the back of a building in a remote corner of the park was the front door to Lionhead Studios, the innovative developer run by game-design guru Peter Molyneux.

For the past several years, Lionhead (which is reportedly named after a dead hamster) has been the home of several projects, including the Hollywood sim The Movies and the god-game sequel Black & White 2. Higher profile still was Fable, an Xbox-exclusive title that Molyneux promised would be "the greatest role-playing game of all time" when he announced it in 2001.

Nearly four years later, a developer at Lionhead let the world know Fable was done by holding the gold master up to one of the numerous webcams that dot the office. While such cheekiness would infuriate many studio heads, Molyneux was typically unfazed when he sat down with GameSpot to talk about Fable and hold forth on a variety of other game topics.

GameSpot: So Fable is finally done. What's it been, four years?

Peter Molyneux: It must be. 2001, yeah, that's when we first announced it. And it's 2004 -- before that it was a different titled game on the PC. If I wanted to be impressive I'd say three years. But it's probably a little bit more than that. You know, the seeds of the idea started before the Xbox. But to justify it a little bit, there are 70 people on Fable now, and it started with basically two. And in that time, to go from two people to 70 people with a game like Fable is an amazing achievement, really. You know, to invent everything from scratch as it is, is a pretty amazing achievement. But it is done, yes. We had the official getting-enormously-drunk [party] last Wednesday. Gold time, yes.

GS: Yeah, it was kind of funny how word of that leaked out. Basically somebody held out the gold master in front of a webcam inside the studio. Was that intentionally done?

PM: Well, I think that [Microsoft] wanted it to be a proper announcement. But I mean, we've got webcams pointing into the studio the whole time. There were just so many people looking at the webcams, and they could see that this game had gone gold because there were people running through the office waving their arms about. It was just a fantastic feeling.

GS: Yeah, it's kind of funny how many cameras are in this place.

PM: I really love the idea of giving the ability to the communities to look in on the development process. We've got someone here called Sam who tries to expose as much stuff as he can to the communities. And it would seem pretty strange to me that we didn't announce to the communities as soon as we possibly could that the game was gold. We should have probably held off and got an official announcement from Microsoft, but it was an irresistible urge...

GS: I can imagine. When you first announced Fable you said you wanted to make "the greatest role-playing game of all time."

PM: That was the ambition, yes.

GS: Do you feel like you've succeeded?

PM: That sort of press line is the most dangerous statement that you can possibly make. I didn't really think that people would take me seriously when I said that. Being a little British company, we had never done a role-playing game before, never done a console game before. Who the hell are we to say such an ambitious thing? That was the ambition, and I'm all about when you actually start making a game there is no point in turning and saying, "I'm going to make quite a good role-playing game." I mean what's the point? You might as well just have a license. You've got to go out there and you've got to say: "This will be the greatest game that we can possibly make; this will be the greatest role-playing game."

Is it the greatest role-playing game ever? Could I have made more changes, could there be more polish, could there be a few things in there which shouldn't be in there? There are things I could certainly think about, but I think I'm incredibly proud of the achievement. Firstly, I think what we've done is we've made a game that people absolutely enjoy playing, and they're playing over and over again. Secondly, what we ended up making was an action role-playing game. Now, action role-playing games are different from role-playing games and I think we should have said that, and we sort of merged an action game and a role-playing game in a pretty unique way. There is so much love and passion in that game, and so much hard work, I can't help but be anything but enormously proud of what we've done.

Now, I know you're averse to putting a timetable on a game's development. But do you think that the three-and-a-half or four years that it took to make Fable could become standard with games?

PM: I think there's one guiding factor that really limits the amount of time that we can do a game for. Obviously, there's money, and obviously, people get tired of hearing the same idea. But the one important factor is the team. A team of people working on the same game for four to five years is just not going to work. I mean, if we can make a game from the first spark of that idea--the first page of the concept to actually be in the shops--if that can be under three years, then I think that is the ideal time. But going to four years...if you look at the number of babies that have been born during the creation of Fable, it's over 20 babies.

GS: Wow.

PM: And you know, nowadays this industry is different than what it was. We all used to sit in a room and we used to just drink Coke, eat pizzas, and work until five in the morning. But we've all got partners, and families, and you just can't do that, it's just not possible to do that anymore. And it's also not possible to sit down with someone and say, "Look, this will take four years." If someone works 40 years of their life, this one game will represent 10 percent of their total entire working life. Maybe even more. People just lose the enthusiasm and the spark. So, really, again going back, if we could make games and finish games in three years, I think that would be the ideal thing. That's how long it takes to make a movie, from that first spark to finding the people to getting it all together to doing the locations. That's the sort of length of time I think we should be able to do a game in.

One of the reasons that Fable is getting so much attention is that it basically allows you to do just about anything, no matter how morally reprehensible. What's the worst thing you could possibly do?

PM: Oh, there was some pretty terrible, awful, atrocious things that you could do, which we had to take out.

GS: You had to remove some things?

PM: We had to definitely remove some things. I was really passionate about the idea of having children in the game. You know, here we are, we're trying to create a realistic world, and I couldn't understand why not many games had children. So I said, "Right, in this town, there are going to be children. They would go to school and they would get up in the morning, they would go home, and that's it." Within a day of releasing Fable to testing, the most horrendous, nightmarish scenes of carnage within the school had been played out. I just thought, "My God, this can never be seen by humankind. This is going to be, you know, on the front page of [British tabloid] The Sun, and the computer game is going to be banned." So that freedom needed to be curbed a little bit, because it was horrendous. That's the sort of things that you could do.

And it was fascinating the way people pushed the limits. Some people turned into the most vicious, evil, property developer you could possibly imagine just by going into a town and killing all the people off, which would make all the house prices go down. They would buy up all of the houses and then rent them all out! I mean, that's pretty evil, you know. If you did that in the real world you would get told off severely, at least. So, there is a lot of stuff that pushes the boundaries. The fascinating thing is, I still play the game and I still find little things that surprise me.

GS: So you feel like you've pushed the boundaries enough then?

PM: I really would love to take that further and you know, I just think, God, you can just see that the door has been opened a little way and you know, what we can hopefully carry on doing is keep continuing to push it open. And this idea of making you be a hero, feeling like you're a hero, feeling like you're inside the world, feeling like you can explore that world and not only explore it geographically, but explore it emotionally and seeing how the world changes and how the world reacts to you...I think that is an amazing area for growth.

GS: One of the early concerns some people are having with Fable is that you can actually finish it really quickly. Now, was that a conscious decision?

PM: The absolute design decision was this: If you want to go through the game quickly, you should be able to. I mean you can get through the whole of the first Half-Life, if you really know what you're doing, in 50 minutes. Personally, when I played Half-Life, I don't know how many hours it took me because I investigated every nook and cranny. If you want to investigate every nook and cranny in Fable, it's going to take you an unbelievable amount of time. For example, there's these things called Demon Doors that you go through and there's a little side quest in each one. There's lots of optional quests and there's lots of what we call vignettes, where people walk up to you and ask for your help. If you ignore all of those you can go through it pretty quickly, but you're not going to be the hero that you could be.

GS: Right.

PM: And you're not going to experience the whole game as you should do, if you chose to go straight through. Fable's got very, very high replayability. Most people I've spoken to will play it once, and they'll play it as an evil character and they'll go back and play it as a good character. It's a different sort of experience and you've got different sorts of challenges, different sorts of weapons, different sorts of fighting and combat. But, when I am playing through for the second time, you know, I wanted it to be fairly punchy. The first time I don't mind it being normal. I don't mind meandering through it. The second time I want it to be very punchy. And again, when you're finished the story you can still play in the world. If you let the credits run, you just find yourself a world and you can go out and do things like find the Singing Sword. There are lots of things you can still do with it.

Fable is the first game you developed for a console. Now that you've done both console and PC, what's your reaction to both of them?

PM: The interesting thing is I would have predicted that I would have hated the construction of the console game. On the PC, you don't talk about what frame rates are now. By the time you've finished the game, they're going to be dead fast, so don't worry about it. That's the way that you'd approach it. Well, of course you've got the console and you know exactly, precisely, that this is the machine that the game's going to be coming out on. You know every single byte that you use up -- it's something that you can't use anywhere else and that's a very different way of thinking. That's one side of it, but that is nothing compared to the real thought, and this is a real guiding light for Fable -- people will play this for 15 minutes and then they'll move onto the next level. They don't play games on consoles in the same way. Some people do, I mean a real gamer will play it through from start to finish, however long it takes. But the mass market, I suspect, doesn't play it like that. They'll play it for you know, 20 minutes, half hour, an hour, put it down, go back to the pub or watch a video or whatever, and then play a bit more.

GS: Do youth think console gamers need more guidance through a world as vast as Fable's?

PM: If you're off going around the world and doing all the things you want to do, getting married and buying things and doing whatever, and then you sort of think, "Well, what should I do now?" When the player thinks that, that's the most dangerous time, because at that point that's when you want to turn the machine off and go away. And if you didn't know what to do when you turned the machine off you're not going to know what to do when you turn the machine back on again. So, you know, I really struggled with that, and tinkered with all sorts of elaborate things of having, you know, having a dog that followed you that constantly kept pulling you away to the right direction, and having people walk up to you and telling you where to go next, and having text come up. In the end, the idea is really, really simple -- it's just this gold disc that shows you.

Wherever you see the gold disc, that is where the next piece of story quest comes from. So, wherever you are in the world, you just walk toward the gold disc on the minimap and that will take you directly to where you should be to come into the story. I wouldn't have done that on the PC, because I could rely upon the fact that people would sit down and do a whole big section and then move onto the next whole big section. They don't do that on a console so much.

GS: That's a good point. Do you have a preference now for PC or console development?

PM: The level of polish on console games is just way beyond the PC games, way, way, way beyond PC. You know, and that's everything from the title screen to cinemas to in-game innovations to gameplay -- the whole lot. In most part, the world's greatest talent exists on console and that's what you've got to bring your level up to. And I thought there was some areas in Fable that were on the border of being acceptable, but you know, if we approached it again we probably would have to definitely raise it way up, and that's going to affect our PC development. It certainly affected some stuff on Black & White II. When you next see Black & White II, you want it to be almost a religious experience for people who see it the first time. And it's already looking amazing. I mean I really want it to be miraculous, and I think it can be.

GS: Well, it is a God game.

PM: I suppose that's true.

Speaking of your next project, what has the Fable team moved onto?

PM: Well, it was last Wednesday when we finished, so it's a real touch on the early side to say, "Hey guys, let's start on Fable 2!" If I said that, my life expectancy would be measured in seconds.

GS: Do you have any new next-generation projects on the slate?

PM: [Nods] Mmm-hmm.

GS: And, can you tell me what they are?

PM: No, you know, the way to get that out of me is just to put, just that amount [measures several inches] of alcohol in a glass and I'll probably begin...

GS: [Laughs]

PM: But it's just far too early to say anything on those. What I've realized is that when we go out, especially me, when I go out, very, very, very early in an idea and I mention it to people in the press. Take the movies, for example. I thought of the idea in January 2002, and I mentioned it at GDC 2002. That game seemed to be around for ages, and it's only been two years. And I've realized that I can't do that anymore, I can't be this irresponsible [person] that just speaks ideas and always get myself into trouble. I did it with Fable, and I got myself into incredible trouble.

You know, I used to sit down with journalists and say, "Well we're trying this idea out at the moment and trees grow, and everybody in the world can do whatever they like." What I should say at the end of each one of those sentences is, "But if it doesn't work we're not going to keep the feature in." What ends up happening is that people believe that those are the features that are going to definitely be in the game. So, I've really got to start thinking about being more precise about ideas and maybe not talking about things that I'm just playing creatively around with, but only talk about things that are actually going to be certain.

One thing I do want to ask you though: Are we ever going to see a Syndicate remake?

PM: I wish I could do. I mean I don't have the rights of property for doing Syndicate, but I would love to do a Syndicate remake. I would love, absolutely love to do a Populous remake. That is the one. If I had one wish it would probably be Populous first and Syndicate second. Definitely.