The time has finally come, as of April 29, 2016 Lionhead Studios has officially been shut down. For those of you who are surprised by this news, don’t be. Ever since the release of Fable III back in 2010, this studio has been like an animal that kept getting sicker and sicker until somebody did the humane thing and put it out of its misery. But how did we get here? I feel like we need to chart this path to what became inevitable demise.
When Lionhead first came onto the scene with Black and White in 2001, it definitely flew under my radar a bit until one of my best friends picked it up, and he had a blast with it. I remember watching him play as a god with his own creature to command while building followers and basically doing whatever he wanted to them, which seemed pretty cool. Though he also hit his creature a good bit…going through puberty can cause some issues. It was a fun game, but it didn’t quite set the gaming world on fire either.
It wasn’t until the release of Fable in 2004 on the Xbox that I began to appreciate this company. This was a game I immediately fell in love with. The combat was fun, I enjoyed the characters, but this was also one of the first games I can remember playing that had choices that could affect your character directly in both good and bad ways. I’m sure this wasn’t the first game that did something in this area, but this is the earliest experience I can remember with it. And keep in mind; this was almost an entire decade before we got games from people like Telltale Games such as Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and Tales From the Borderlands where choices play such a huge impact on your story, so this experience was pretty surreal to me at the time. It’s why I was more than ok with Fable Anniversary being released in 2014. I did as much as I could figure out to do in this game, and that includes hanging my trophies in whatever house I could buy at the time. It also had one of my favorite cover arts of all time.
So after this we got another Black & White game that I honestly don’t remember even hearing about being released, then again I have never been a part of the PC Master Race. However, all I cared about was Lionhead’s next console release, Fable II. Released in 2008 and set well after the first one, various gameplay mechanics were improved; we had a new story, we now had guns, and we got a dog!! In a lot of ways this sequel felt like a natural progression from the previous title and I adored it just as much as the first. Heck, I even enjoyed the DLC, especially Knothole Island. However, this is where a couple of cracks began to show. First off, there were small glitches here and there that were slightly annoying. For instance, there were certain Demon Doors that just couldn’t be opened, even when all of the requirements were met. It seems small, but it’s a problem that would continue on. There was also the included option for online only Co-Op, an idea that sounded good on paper, but was definitely a headache when it came to execution. It’s a feature that felt very forced and last-minute in the game, the main reason is that you were required to do specific Co-Op actions in order to get all of the Achievements in the game, and considering how much of an Achievement Whore I used to be back then, this drove me nuts because I had to wait until a friend also got a copy of the game so that I could get 100% completion, which I did! And sure, it led to some funny moments with my friends, like marrying them, making a baby, killing my online spouse and then having social services come and take my baby…you know normal real life comedy situations. Ultimately it was just not that necessary to overall experience, though thankfully it didn’t ruin the experience either. I still greatly enjoyed the game and I honestly couldn’t wait for the third one. Oh if I only knew the things I know now…
Before we get into the infamous wreck that was Fable III, it is very important that we take this time to talk about someone who was an undeniable cause of the beginning of the end times for Lionhead studios. I am of course talking about the ultimate hype man of complete B.S. himself, Peter Molyneux. Good lord this man. He was the founder and head of Lionhead until 2012. He was a man who known for over hyping all of his games and pretty much everything he says being absolute crap. I work in sales and I can tell that one of the key tactics I learned is that you always under promise and over deliver, expectations are lower and when exceed them you are viewed as a hero. Molyneux is the absolute antitheses of this. He could show you a dog farting and try to talk about how it’s the most immersive and surreal dog fart you have ever seen and it truly feels like it happened right in your face, and he would try to do this for at least 20 minutes. And some of you may think I am exaggerating about this, and to that I say “Not that much”. I can think of two great examples of this. The first one was how he tried so freaking hard to sell us on how important it was that one of the newest additions to Fable III was, I crap you not, holding hands. Seriously it’s on YouTube. He talked about how forcing someone to walk with you by grabbing their hand and dragging them around everywhere somehow helped you to build a deeper a connection with a character and it was basically some kind of revolutionary feature for the game. How!?!? And sadly that was nowhere near the biggest issue with Fable III, but we will get to that. No, we need to talk about the most infamous example of Molyneux being Molyneux.
Back in 2009, one of the most useless peripherals was introduced into the world: The Kinect (Then known as “Project Natal”). Meant to be some kind of game changer in the industry due to controller-less motion controls with voice commands, this product was brought into the world and the world’s reaction was “Meh”, and that’s how it stayed. However, they believed there was only one man who was capable of selling Microsoft’s latest gift to mankind, you guessed it, Peter Molyneux. Not only did he sit and talk about how great the Kinect was and tried to tell how it would just change how we do everything, he made a gawd dang demo for it. This demo was called Project Milo, and its whole intent was meant to show just how much potential the Kinect really had, and full disclosure, at the time I actually was impressed. It did seem interactive and something more than just “woo, motion controls”. Again this full video is available on YouTube, and I suggest you take a moment to watch it. Like I said when I was impressed when I first saw it, at the time. Remember how I said everything Molyneux pushes is basically a load of crap? Well this is the epitome of that. Not only was nothing even remotely close to what shown ever developed for the Kinect, at least on a character interaction level, but not long after showing Project Milo, Molyneux was accused of showing something that was preprogrammed and scripted as opposed to being interactive. Granted that last part is more of a rumor, but it honestly wouldn’t surprise me. It’s at this point that the wheels began to fall off the wagon and Molyneux was driving that wagon right into a wall. In fact, not long after Fable III, his B.S. hype level had become so well-known, that he became the punchline to the joke that sold me on Video Game High School (It’s in the Season One Finale. I’m still waiting to tell someone “That’s a load of Molyneux” in conversation that I know will understand the reference).
Alright, I’ve put it off enough. Let’s talk about Fable III or as I like to call it “The Destroyer of Worlds”. Released in 2010, this was a title that I had worries about but was interested by the initial premise of. The idea that you had to dethrone your brother, an evil king, and then be king yourself actually sounded kind of cool…until you actually played the story. Your brother has taxed the living crap out of everyone in Albion, and you overthrow him. Except you find out he was doing to raise funds so that he could fight off an incoming invasion of evil from a neighboring country. So here’s the first problem, why the hell wouldn’t your brother tell you something like that?!?! Even if he kept it quiet so that there wouldn’t be panic in his kingdom, that is a really stupid thing to keep so quiet since it caused him to be overthrown. And after you overthrow him and become King, you apparently have to raise a crap ton of money in order to save all of your people from the upcoming Invasion. This causes 2 extremely screwy issues. The first one being that you need to raise at least 6 million (I don’t remember the exact number and I refuse to Google it) dollars in order to save literally every citizen in Albion. No seriously, the ratio is $1 per person. Because there are apparently at least 6 million people in your kingdom when I can account for about 50 of them tops. What makes this so much worse is that you have king meetings to attend that will force you to make good or bad king decisions. Good decisions make your people happy, but costs your kingdom money and bad decisions piss of your people but raise your overall funds. And again, it sounds good on paper, but the execution is just bad. The main reason for this is because that big bad invasion I mentioned earlier, is coming within a year and every time you do one of these king meetings, you lose time to raise your funds. And I don’t mean lose time as in one day every time. No no, you lose roughly 30-60 days every time. The cardinal sin however is that they don’t basically surprise with the invasion after one of the king meetings. Seriously, I had maybe $600,000 raised and was told I had another king meeting with, and this part is important, over 120 days left until the invasion. That is four freaking months away. So naturally, I assumed I had some time left and did the meeting. I went to sleep in the game afterwards, woke up the next day, and guess what? HEY KIDS!! IT’S TIME FOR WAR, GET YER GUNZ!!….WHAT? Why did this happen so suddenly with no real-time for prep? I needed so much more time to raise money for my kingdom and I was only 10% done with it. This is easily my biggest grievance with the game. Mainly because not only was there such piss poor warning before the war started without any time. But since I genuinely was going to try to save everyone, I had to basically redo my entire play through because of this stupid loop. And how do you raise enough money to accomplish this feat? By doing menial and tedious crap of course! No seriously, you build up money by playing the lute or blacksmithing, buy houses and businesses and just slowly wait for money to come in. And then you have to go into your personal vault and deposit all of your money as it comes in. Gee, some one catch me when I faint from all of this excitement. This made the entire game feel like they had a concept for a beginning of the game, and then had no idea what to do with the rest of it and just gave up on it after being maybe 2/3 done with it. It all just felt so freaking lazy. They even had John Freaking Cleese in this game, voicing your butler, and I don’t even think he wanted to be there, especially since all of his lines felt forced and were so devoid of charm that they could have probably been done by just about any British sounding person. And that isn’t a knock on Cleese, oh no, that’s against the people who wrote his script and directed him, because they apparently believed that his voice alone would get the job done. Nope. Even freaking Molyneux was disappointed by how the game turned out! Yea, the Paul Heyman of hyping bull crap said it was terrible. Ugh, let’s move on, I’m getting angrier as I think about it….. freaking idiot king brother.
So what happened at Lionhead in between this disaster and the shut down? Well, a few things. First, they tried somewhat to keep the Fable franchise afloat by releasing Fable Heroes in 2012. A “family friendly” version that pretty much nobody liked, I didn’t even bother to play it. Next, they released Fable: The Journey in the same year, which required the Kinect…Do I even need to say much more about it? I will at least say this, while the consensus seems to be that Lionhead put a fair amount of effort into it, it just wasn’t good. It was like some weird on-rails, Fable, motion controller sensor. And this is the point where Peter Molyneux officially left the company. He is now with a company called 22cans and I have heard of literally none of their games. In 2014 we got Fable Anniversary, which included the Lost Chapters. It was an admittedly solid effort at keeping the franchise alive. Finally, in 2013 Fable Legends was announced, which was based around a Co-Op concept of four heroes and one villain. Think of it as a watered down Fable version of Dungeons and Dragons since a human could be the villain and control the level layout. Yet again this was another idea that sounded great on paper, but once I saw the gameplay for it, I couldn’t help but think how boring it looked. Nothing about it appeared new or even remotely interesting to me. Sure you could say I was still very salty about Fable III, except I don’t sit around with grudges at companies because of one game, no matter how bad it is. Instead, I try to be the type of person that is rooting for companies in that position to find the best path to redemption. Unfortunately, this never game to fruition as the game was cancelled shortly before the studio was closed down.
As of now, Lionhead Studios is officially shut down and it seems Fable is gone forever. And yes I actually am somewhat sad about this. As mad as I was about Fable III and Peter Captain B.S. Molyneux, this studio gave me a franchise that I overall really enjoyed and treasured. I would have loved to have seen a true Fable IV that wasn’t just some weird reinvention like Legends was meant to be or just grasping at straws like Fable III turned out to be. And maybe it was simply that both the franchise and the creativity behind the studio had simply run their course. I don’t know for sure, I’m merely a spectator with an outsider’s opinion. But what I do know is that it is a shame what ultimately happened to both, and the slow bleed definitely did not help. There is the slimmest of chances that this property could be brought back one day since Microsoft now owns all of the rights to their Intellectual Property and Licenses, but after seeing what happened to Rare that is about as likely as the new Ghostbusters actually being funny (Yea, I went there!). But for now, I will treasure the good memories that I was given and take a moment of silence for another fallen studio.