Lionhead's upcoming Fable Anniversary is being designed with two audiences in mind. First, the game marks the first time the original Fable (and its Lost Chapters content) is available natively to the Xbox 360 – giving fans who jumped aboard with Fable II a chance to see where it all started. The game's also been revamped to give veterans a reason to go back to the game a decade later. I spoke with Ted Timmins, the game's lead designer and the series' newly appointed franchise director on what players in both camps can expect to see.
Timmins had celebrated his 10-year anniversary at Lionhead the day before we spoke.
Game Informer: Did you work on the original release of Fable?
Ted Timmins: Yes, I started as a work experience. I don’t know if you have it in the U.S., but in the U.K. when you come out of college, it’s quite common to get a one-week placement in a place of work. It’s unpaid – it’s a bit like an internship, just without money, and it’s only a week. And at the end of the week, Lionhead asked to keep me on to do a one-month testing contract, so for a month I tested the original Fable game, and then one month became three, three became six, and yeah, after a couple of years I moved into design and just continued from there really. Yesterday, I was also promoted to franchise director, and that was a complete coincidence. It was nice to be able to look back and go from pretty much the bottom of the ladder to now looking after a franchise and also being able to be the biggest fan of it. I consider myself to be one of the biggest fans. It’s been a nice 10 years, to be sure.
Yeah, yesterday was quite the day. Unfortunately, it didn’t result in going to the pub because we’re very busy obviously finishing Fable Anniversary, but at some point I will go to our local pub and have a few drinks I imagine.
Just to get this out of the way, Fable Anniversary was delayed until February. Were there any particular reasons, aside from needing additional time for polish?
Yeah, it’s just polish stuff really. We felt if we were going to hit our original date of October we would have to sacrifice too much quality and we weren’t prepared to do that. It’s never easy to make these decisions and to push things back, but we just wanted to make sure that what we release in February will meet the high expectations of our fan base. We’re still working late, we’re still working weekends – we’re not off the hook. When you push a game back, it doesn’t mean you suddenly get to see your family, it just means that you get a bit more time to make something that you’re proud of.
With anniversary being in the title, a 10-year anniversary sounds more prestigious than a nine-year one. My wife and I celebrated our nine-year anniversary this year, and we just got a frozen pizza.
Honestly, that’s a really good way of putting it. There were a few eyebrows raised when we decided to call it Fable Anniversary, but ultimately what we were trying to get at was when Halo Anniversary came out on its 10-year anniversary, I think what was great is that it set the expectations for what fans can expect from a first-party Microsoft remake. And we wanted to continue those expectations through to Fable. Sure, Fable Anniversary, the ninth anniversary doesn’t have quite so much a ring to it, but it might make people think of Halo Anniversary and what they can expect in terms of quality, polish, and the love that’s gone into it. We chose the title more based on that than anything else.
Can you walk me through Fable Anniversary? What’s changed, what’s new, what’s been added?
The first thing that people will notice is the graphics. The art team has spent an incredible amount of time and effort not just in doing a quick HD texture pack. We wanted to update absolutely everything. Not only is that textures, models, particle effects – we’ve also got a brand-new engine. We thought it would be really nice to use the Unreal 3 engine in conjunction with the original Fable engine. Fable Anniversary still plays like the game that people remember, in that the controls are similar, the animations feel the same, the simulation, the combat – that all feels very, very similar, because the original game engine is still running in the background. But what Unreal does, and it does such a great job of, is the game looks just fantastic. It’s got a brand-new lighting engine, brand-new lip-synching, a brand-new audio engine. It’s really allowed us to pull out the best of what we could hope to do with Fable Anniversary.
Once we were happy with the graphical direction, we then started to look at improvements to the actual game itself, and that’s a really difficult line, and it’s something that I think at the start of the project gave me a whole lot of sleepless nights. There are things that are charm, and that players expect from the original game, but there are also bugs and general features that could be improved. In terms of features that could be improved, the save system is a really good one to call out. The original save system wasn’t great if I’m being honest with you, even for its time. In summary, it could have been better, let’s say. The reason for that is, if you remember, the save system wouldn’t let you save on a quest. If you did save on a quest, you would lose all of your progress through that quest. One of the things we invested a lot of time in is when you’re on a quest, creating multiple checkpoints all the way through so that at any point if you die, if the kettle has boiled and you want to make a cup of tea, you can just come back a little later and continue from where you left off. That was a really, really important thing for me. I’m still in contact with Dene Carter, the original creative director on Fable, and when I first told him about Fable Anniversary, the first thing has said was, “Please, for the love of god, tell me you’ve changed the save system.” I’m glad that he felt that was a good thing to do. Really, there were so many amazing, talented people who worked on the first game, and not only are we carrying the torch for the fans, but we’re carrying the torch for those original staff as well – which there’s obviously a whole bunch of us still here. But for those who aren’t, I’m sure they’re going to want to play it when the game comes out next year.
Another thing that perhaps could have been better in 2004 was the UI. The user interface was a little slow to be fair to it. It wasn’t particularly nice to look at. The great position we’ve been in is because the original Fable game is finished, I went through every single menu, I went through the game and collected every single item, and I made this huge video document and an Excel spreadsheet that charted absolutely everything the player could possibly have. Once I had that data, I then went through and created a whole bunch of designs, and I worked with one of our UI artists to create some initial concepts. But there was something that just wasn’t right about them. They felt good, but they didn’t feel right. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, and then one day I turned to our UI artist, and I said, “I want the UI to feel and look like a book.” I think everyone thought I was a bit mad at the time, but as time has gone on, I think it has been the right thing to do. Obviously it’s Fable, and it’s inherently a story that the book felt like an appropriate metaphor and the whole backbone of the whole UI structure. When you start the game up there’s a really nice front end with the book opening – it feels very much like an old fairy tale, and I’m really happy with the way it turned out, and the feedback we’ve had from the fans that have been able to get hands on with it has been like, “It feels magical, and it fits with the game.” That’s definitely been a highlight of one of our new features.
Does that manifest itself as seeing pages turn when you’re going through different categories in your inventory?
Yeah, correct. It feels very much like a journal, like a logbook. Fable is inherently an adventure as well, and it’s nice to feel like you’re going on this adventure, and you’re charting this map. And the map is another one. The original Fable map is a very, very iconic map, however, I really wanted to add some Easter eggs and some secrets to it. We put a few messages on the map in Fable runes, so I wonder if anyone will be able to translate that. We’ve added a few little Easter eggs… the sand goose might make an appearance. The sand goose was a very, very famous nonexistent thing in Fable, so it’s great to get some references in there.
I absolutely love achievements. I’m a bit of an achievement whore, for lack of a better term. I really wanted to bring out the Fable-ness into those achievements as well. We’ve had a lot of fun with the text and the descriptions and tried to, again, poke fun at previous Fable memes. Because Fable has always been about choice and consequence, we thought it would be nice to get that into the actual achievements as well. For about 15 of the achievements, you can earn them in one of two ways. I’ll give you an example. There’s an achievement called “Definitely not on rails,” and with this achievement you can either visit every region in the game – which is obviously quite a long task – or you can just become morbidly obese. It’s entirely up to you how you wish to do it. Are you going to go the, I guess, morally good route and venture out and visit every place, or are you willing to sacrifice your hero’s appearance and potentially have NPCs run away from you just for the sake of an achievement? And the game tracks and logs the decision you made. We’ve tried to bring that Fable-ness into a unique feature of the achievement. Achievements have been around for such a long time, we were just trying to find ways in which we could still innovate getting on toward the swapover to the next generation.
One of the things that’s been quite good in the Fable series is combat. It’s always been interesting and varied, and improved from release to release. How do you keep what’s good from the original while adding those elements that players have grown accustomed to in recent installments?
This is one of the areas that I had the sleepless nights. People have that nostalgia and that recollection of what the original game was like, so tweaking with it too much could potentially have a fan backlash with it, and there’s no way I wanted to get any hate mail. What we did was get back to the root of Fable 1, we all played it through multiple times at the end of last year. One of the things that affects combat the most in Fable 1 was the frame rate. It was so poor that it meant that your laggy inputs, because they were delayed by the frame rate, meant that you often didn’t actually feel like it was fluid. So our first priority was quite simply improve combat by running at 30 frames-per-second all the time. That’s had an incredible impact in improving the combat. To really round things off, there are certain expectations that we’ve created with each subsequent title. What I wanted to do was to was bring across the Fable 2 control scheme. If you remember with Fable 2, you could press X to do a melee attack, you could press Y to do a ranged attack, or you could press B to do magic. I wanted to see what it would feel like to put that into the original Fable 1 combat and control system and see what effect it would have on the combat. We put that in at a very basic level, and it felt really, really nice. And it made such a massive difference to the flow of the combat.
One of the things we really pioneered with Fable 2 was this combat system that let you do multiple things with the touch of one button. When we put that into the game, straightaway it felt like the right thing to do. As we bug-fixed and polished it, it just made combat feel better and better, to the point where we actually put the Fable 2 control scheme in as the default control scheme. So purists don’t have to worry – they still can switch to the original Fable 1 control scheme at any time, but because we felt it had such an improvement to the actual combat without us having to risk changing the combat itself, we felt it was the appropriate change to make. I think it’s had a lot of positives on the ebb and flow of the combat. Like I mentioned, we were reluctant to change the combat itself, but we pushed the limits of what we felt we could change without damaging the expectations of the fans while still improving the experience and bringing it up to date.
When you went back to the original game with the knowledge that you were going to be working on an updated version, was there anything within the world itself that you wanted to change?
We played through absolutely everything, found every key, visited every region. I think of one of the things that stood out is that Fable 1, the regions were smaller than Fable 2 for example, but they were packed full of content. I think that was the difference with Fable: The Lost Chapters – which I should mention Fable Anniversary has all the extra content from that. So not just the fans who have played Lost Chapters, but for fans who played the original Fable but never the expanded version with the 30-percent more content, they’ll actually be able to go back and experience that. It’s obviously great to have a dragon in it, for example. But one of the things we noticed when we got back is that although the regions are slightly smaller, there’s so much richness in that, and Fable: The Lost Chapters is the longest game we’ve made. It’s about a third longer than Fable 2 or Fable 3. We weren’t immediately worried about the size of the regions, because they were entertaining, and there’s fun and there’s something to do in every single one of them. But what we did want to try and pull off was improving the feel of the world and making it feel bigger. So not only did we change the map in 2D, but we went back and added a bunch of new vistas in the distance to make the world feel expanded. When you’re in a region now, you can’t see to the edge of the height field, like you could in the original Fable Game. The trees go really, really deep. There are buildings that are off in the distance. We’ve just tried to make the world feel bigger. Again, we wanted to stay true to the dimensions of the original title. It’s very important for us to bring that feeling that Fable 2 and Fable 3 added.
Have you put in references to other entries in the franchise in the game?
There’s a whole bunch of fans that we’ve met on the road this year, whether we’re at PAX or the Eurogamer Expo, and they’ve all come up to us. It’s surprising how many people say, “I’ve played Fable 2 and Fable 3, but I’ve never played Fable 1.” For those guys, they can now complete the collection. That’s one of the main reasons we’ve decided to bring it out on Xbox 360. There was a big discussion at the start of the project on which platform should it be for, but for me it was an absolute no-brainer – this has to be on the 360, because a lot of our fan base joined us with Fable 2, and for those guys, they’ve never experienced the 500 years prior to that game. When I was speaking with someone at PAX, I said, “Well, Theresa from Fable 2 is actually your sister from Fable 1,” and it just blew their mind – they had no idea that this character had such a rich and important history back in Fable 1. And they had so many questions about it, and I was just like “Wait to play the game. There’s no way I’m going to spoil it for you if you’ve already waited 10 years.” I think that’s where a lot of our fan base is going to get the most bang from the buck for the game, in that they can re-experience the original game and see all of these little details that we put in the original title that they’ve perhaps forgotten about or missed when they went on to play Fable 2 or Fable 3. I think that’s going to be a really special moment for a lot of them.
You worked on the original game, and you’ve had the opportunity to reexamine it while working on Fable Anniversary. Does anything stand out to you as something that the team wanted to address or fix or tweak a little that you weren’t originally able to due to technical or time constraints that you’re finally able to take care of now?
It’s hard to define every single instance, because we’ve put in a lot of little touches. I can certainly mention a few of them. One that immediately comes to my head is a very, very tiny thing. I think a lot of players won’t notice, which is a really, really good sign because it means it just works. And that is when you get an item, whether it’s a weapon or a piece of clothing from a chest, you can now equip it without needing to go into your inventory. It’s a very tiny thing, and it’s not a big deal because that’s what players expect these days, right? You get a new item, and you can equip it instantly. But it wouldn’t surprise me if you’d asked any of the original dev team back in 2004 after releasing the game, “Do you wish you’d allowed players to equip an item after they collect it immediately and didn’t have to visit their interface every single time?” I think the answer would be yes. There’s a lot of those little things that we’ve dusted throughout the game, whether it’s the UI or in the game itself, just to try and improve the experience. I guess my number one ambition with this project, and this is something that I’ve relayed to the team, is I do want fans to come up to us and say, “Oh my god, it’s exactly how I remember it.” For me, in my mind, Final Fantasy XII is still the greatest-looking game of all time. Whenever I go back to it I always go, “Oh my god, I don’t remember it being like this!” I want players to say, “This is exactly as I’d remembered it.”
One of the funny stories I had with Halo Anniversary is I must have played Halo Anniversary for two hours before I noticed that I was playing in the high-definition mode. So I’d been playing for two hours thinking, “Oh man, this is just as I remembered it. This is amazing.” Then I realized I could switch to how it used to look, and it felt like my eyes were lying to me, I remember saying to myself, “No! It didn’t look like this! This is the best-looking game of all time!” I think nostalgia is a really funny thing to play on. One of the ways we’re trying to show that to players is with our SmartGlass application. I love new technology; it always excites me. I always wanted to do something with SmartGlass – this wasn’t a request from anyone, it was just a personal ambition of mine to try and implement it into one of our games. I don’t know if you’d heard, but [Microsoft CEO] Steve Balmer gave all of the Microsoft employees a Surface. “Brilliant! I can now try SmartGlass!” At the time, it didn’t really feel like it was being pushed. It didn’t feel like it had been pushed to its limits.
One of the things we’ve really worked hard to do is to implement features that will prove that SmartGlass is an amazing piece of technology. We’ve partnered with Prima with our SmartGlass app. If a player gets stuck in Fable, the current process is that they have to grab their laptop or their phone and go to a gaming website that may or may not have the correct information. They’ll probably have to go through a whole bunch of forums and posts. Wouldn’t it be cool if they could just pick up their phone or tablet and just get the answer they need right then and there? The game knows what region they’re in, it knows the part they’re potentially stuck in. And not just that; you can even access the ability to find where all the silver keys are, because there are 30 silver keys in Fable, maybe it would be nice to have that accessibility. In terms of trying to show players what the original Fable looked like, throughout SmartGlass at any point, you can click on a little icon and it’ll show what Fable 1 looked like in that area. You can hold it up side by side by side with your screen and see how much Fable has changed in the last 10 years. That’s a feature that I’m really excited about both as a gamer and as a developer. I love the idea that in five years’ time, playing with your tablet next to you is just as normal as playing with a control pad these days. You get home, you pick up your controller, and you turn on your tablet. That would be a pretty awesome future for me.
Will that SmartGlass functionality come via a free app, a paid app, or some combination of the two?
There will be a free component; I can say that much without hesitation. I know you’ll get access to the map, you’ll get access to the Fable 1 screenshots, we’re just working out with Prima how best to deliver their content. SmartGlass is of course free, and we wanted the screenshots in particular as well as the map to be an important free component of that.
Are there any plans to bring this to Xbox One at some point in the future?
I just can’t see it happening, to tell you the truth. Our team is so focused on Fable Legends on Xbox One, and I wouldn’t want to distract them with another title, given that the reason for Fable Anniversary is to sort of close off the Fable Xbox 360 chapter, if you will. If there are any PC fans out there, I would say keep demanding it, because I would love to see Fable Anniversary on PC, and we’ll only be able to do it if there’s demand for it and our fanbase wants it. Keep writing those requests on the forums, because we do very much listen to our fanbase, and that’s the reason we’re making Fable Anniversary at all in the first place.