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Fable III

Platform(s): PC, Xbox 360
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Lionhead Studios
Release Date: Oct. 26, 2010

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'Fable III' (X360) Developer Interview with Josh Atkins

by Adam Pavlacka on Oct. 26, 2010 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Since its inception, the Fable franchise has offered players the opportunity to choose their own destinies as a hero, villain or someone between, where the possibilities are limitless and the consequences can weigh heavily on the path to greatness.

WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank and occupation!

I'm Josh Atkins, and I'm the lead game developer on Fable III.

WP: Let's talk about story progression. The Fable games are set in the same world, so why did you decide to make the characters the children of the hero in Fable II? Doesn't that imply that there is one proper ending to Fable II? Why didn't you just make Fable III a completely new set of characters rather than tying it in?

JA: At the start of Fable III, we had a long discussion about how it would fit into the Fable universe. We made a couple of decisions. We knew we wanted, from a story standpoint — partially for our own enjoyment, partially because we felt it was a cool thing to do — we wanted the stories to link up somehow, but we didn't want players who had not played Fable II to feel that they were at a massive disadvantage.

We ended up saying that there's a loose connection between the two games. There's not actually a lot of huge story caught in the middle, and we don't force you to remember Fable II in order to play Fable III. Basically, we say you're the child of the hero if you played Fable II. We give you a connection back to the Fable II world, and you're generally continuing the story, but the narrative structure is slightly different in Fable III depending on whether you were a man or woman in Fable II and the decisions you made in Fable II. Players will reference what you did in Fable II, but there won't be massive, huge story changes based on your Fable II gameplay.

WP: If you have a Fable II save game, will Fable III reference that and properly reference your prior character?

JA: If you have a Fable II save [game], Fable III will reference the gender of your Fable II hero and will also reference a few of the decisions you made, in particular your last decision. It isn't a huge story arc changer; it's more of making the world feel like it's continuing.

WP: The decision tree has always been a big deal in the Fable series. There seems to be a tendency to guide you toward the "good" path. In one particular mission that we played, we tried picking the "bad" decision, and rather than just failing, we got the option to pick the good decision and move forward. Can you decide to play Fable III as an evil badass, or because your brother, the king, is already evil, does it kind of push you toward leading the "good" life, so to speak?

JA: Morality is still very much at work in Fable III. The way the systems work is that you can choose to be quite harsh. For example, in the case of being a revolutionary, sometimes revolutions can be loved or they can be feared. You can go through a town and scare them all into following you and get progress that way. The evil path isn't necessarily "locked" as a way of progressing. What we've found, though, is that most people tend to play the game wanting to be good. That's just the statistical analysis about people who played the last game. That doesn't influence our overall decision of what we've put in the game, but we've never decided to stop letting people play evil. In the case of the quest that you're talking about, what makes it interesting is that if you keep doing it, there's no failure, but it will progress the quest as you being the more evil or silly kind of player versus the player who tries to do exactly what the characters in the game want you to do.

WP: Mission-wise, the game starts out feeling fairly linear. Does it open up as you get into the later game, or is the main story pretty much a tightly focused, A to B, B to C, with the optional side-quests (jobs, raising a family, etc.) comprising the open-ended part of the game?

JA: What we've done with Fable III is tell a much stronger, well-crafted story. Stories have a certain structure, so it's very difficult to resolve a well-paced story with compelling, interesting characters against completely open-ended gameplay.

When it comes to the Fable III story structure and narrative arcs, we did make decisions to say, "OK, this is a part of the game that we call the roller coaster." We want you to do A, B, C. Then generally what we do is slow it down and give you the freedom to get jobs and do side-quests and do whatever you want to do, so long as you can get back on the roller coaster.

The game has really been built for those who are interested in more of an action-oriented, faster-paced experience, but not at the detriment of players who are interested in exploring the world, building up a family and becoming the economic leader of Albion.

WP: In terms of combat, you've got melee, swords, gun and magic. This could just be the first few hours of the game, but it seems to encourage you to use each of them equally. As you progress, can you specialize in a particular combat discipline?

JA: One of the things that we looked at when it comes to combat in Fable III is you look at the convention of specialization, and specialization in games has its place where you can say, "OK, I just want to be a melee user." For us, we will let you do that. There is no hesitation. You can be just a sword user or just a gun user, if you want to.

What's more fun in the game is actually combining them together. What we've found through our gameplay and designing the game but also through our own intentions, we really want players to use all the buttons. We don't want them to feel like they just have to use one for the whole game. We're a lot more generous about wanting them to explore other types of combat, not just the one that they're using at the start of the game.  

One thing we've done to allow that to happen is to make experience a single commodity, or currency. Rather than having strength experience that you can only use to buy strength items, we have one form of currency that you can use to buy anything. As a player, if you feel much more comfortable with the different combat types, you'll try to weave them together rather than being forced to pick one.

WP: Tell us a little bit about the concept of the chicken. You've got a chicken icon on all the loading screens, and in the opening narrative about revolution follows a short and exciting story of a chicken's attempt at freedom. Where does the chicken come from, and how does it tie into the overall story?

JA: Oh my god, that is a complicated question. (laughs) I have to say, for the record, and I have to tell the guys back home that all of us are thrilled that people gravitated to the chicken movie. We took a big chance on that one. We sat down, and we said, "We're going to make a video about a chicken." We actually did come to the conclusion that we are the only people who could get away with this.

The origin of the chicken is twofold. The first one is we wanted to get players into the game and understand the state of the world. Rather than just fly by and do a narrative that started with, "60 years later …" we thought it would be a lot more interesting to follow the plight of this chicken as it yearns for essentially what the world wants. The chicken yearns for freedom. The people in the game who are asking for your help, they yearn for freedom from oppression. The narrative tied up nicely, so we used that as a way to get you into the story but also as a way to get an idea of what you were going to be doing.

WP: If you were to describe the gameplay, what really makes Fable III a game that's worth playing — both for people who have and have not experienced Fable II?

JA: When it comes to what makes Fable III different from both Fable I and Fable II and other games on the market, there are a few things that I would call out. The first one is that we sat down and started the game with the idea that we wanted to build a game that had a larger message, and that's not meant to sound self-important, but it was really an effort because we wanted to explore a narrative structure and an idea. What we ended up deciding is that we wanted to explore the idea of not just choices and consequences but the idea of choices, consequences and responsibility.

In Fable III, it's a game where you're going to start out leading a revolution. You're going to become the ruler, and you're going to have some very difficult decisions to make as the ruler. The reason why that's important to me personally is whether you're a middle manager or you're the leader of a baseball team or a Boy Scout troop or a dance troupe, you have responsibilities where you have to encourage people, you have to care for people, you have to make people believe in you, and that's a really unique experience. Trying to match that in a video game is a grand ambition, so we really want to bring that to the forefront and make players be in the position where they needed to make these difficult decisions not because it's a cool feature but because it made them care. I hope that we've succeeded in that, but in the long run, you guys will tell us. It was certainly an exciting ride to make that.

WP: Since the title has a mature story line, among all the statistics that Fable III tracks, it also keeps track of how many sexual encounters you've had. Was there any discussion about explicitly calling it out versus using euphemisms?

JA: Sexy Fable! It's interesting how often that comes up.

When it comes to Fable at a very high level — we're taking two steps back — one of the things that I really like about working on Fable is the fact that it's a game that is focused on players having a number of interactions. In general, an interaction can range from the complexity of a decision and the weight of the decision to humor. When it comes to the sexual relations, I will say that we really love humor the way that any slapstick comedy from the '80s would use. There's a lot of ground for comedy there.

However, there's another line that we're exploring, and that's that it makes you feel something. One thing that we're exploring in this game that we haven't done in the past is the idea of a lot of sexual relations between two players and the idea of having families and kids, whether through adoption or natural childbirth. I think most people will recognize the serious reality of relationships, emotions, and a family and the outcomes of sex. Then there's some of the comedy stuff. We're putting it all together as an overall presentation. It's not all silly; there's some reality to it. I think we tried to pair the things next to each other in a way that is unique and well-rounded that definitely no other game has touched yet.

WP: With Fable II, you guys released the retail product, but there was also the experience of breaking it up into an episodic release and offering it on Xbox Live. Fable II: Part I was free, and if you wanted to keep playing, you could buy the next episode. How did that episodic experiment turn out, and is it something that you guys have looked at possibly doing for Fable III?

JA: Without going into any sort of specifics about announcements because I don't think we want to do that today, I will say that I'm a big fan of the model. I think we would've done the work at Lionhead, but Peter [Molyneux] wasn't a great spokesman for it. I feel like that is the wave of the future, but I don't think we're going to discuss in specifics what we're going to do with Fable III yet. The Fable II thing is actually quite successful, so there is certainly a direction to go.

WP: Out of curiosity, how much work did it take to break up a retail game and prepare it for episodic release?

JA: Like many good ideas, the idea to go episodic was not made at the start of the project. The idea came around through a lot of different conversations, but the truth is that we sat down, and we had two huge challenges. One of them is the technical. There's memory management and all that other difficulty bits of, "What happens if this person has that pack and that person has this pack?" Not only was it difficult, but also very focused.

The harder part was how to break up the narrative because taking a narrative that wasn't episodic and then suddenly saying, "Hey, we're now going to end here," and then try to find the spot that felt like it was a fair path for the price that you paid for the content. It also had to end at a point that you were motivated to get the next pack, and that was really hard.

Together, it was a fair bit of work. I am glad that we did it because the overall experience taught me a lot, and it's a good way to go for games in the future.

WP: Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?

JA: When we started Fable II, we knew that we were interested in pursuing Live as a feature. When we started Fable III, we made it a really strong goal. We made it something that we really wanted to push.

What we've done with co-op isn't just the straightforward, "Hey, we can now bash enemies with swords" because a) we did that in Fable II, and b) everybody does that. It's really good fun; I'm not taking anything away from co-op combat, but for us, we also wanted to push the idea of emotional connections between players.

We were talking about the sexual relations earlier, and that's all part of it. It's the idea that as two players, we could decide to get married, we could hug, we could hold hands, and we can kiss, and all the things that make relationships real. For us, that was really important because it's all about the listening and emotional reaction from the player. We're trying to bring that emotional reaction into a relationship that not only the player can see, but two players. It's really interesting, and I'm hoping that between the idea of getting married and having a family as well as being business partners and sharing the goal of trying to become the property barons of Albion — all those kinds of relations are things that haven't been done before.


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