GDC: Peter Molyneux On Moving Fable Out Of The RPG Niche
At a Thursday morning GDC session, Lionhead Studios’ Peter Molyneux unveiled new features of the upcoming Fable 3 and discussed the challenge of moving away from the RPG niche.
Describing his love of early RPGs such as Wizardry and Ultima, Molyneux noted that these games depended on stats and numbers. “I lost my girlfriend because she was down the pub and I was still playing Ultima. Absolutely adored it. But again, it was a lot of numbers and stats and it was quite techy, and it required you to memorize an awful lot.”
Action-adventure franchises like Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed include RPG elements, but don’t burden users with numbers and statistics. The action-adventure genre is a more natural home for “emotion and drama” – qualities that are core to the Fable franchise. Molyneux also noted that the market share for RPGs is a niche, while action-adventures sell more broadly and are easier to market. Molyneux said the goal for Fable 3 is sales of over 5 million – more than 25% growth over Fable 2.
In addition, Molyneux said the game will provide a more accessible interface. User research indicated that over 60% of the players of Fable 2 understood fewer than 50% of the features, and players would skip features like the ability to change their clothes because the menus were too complex.
Through demos of features in Fable 3, Molyneux demonstrated a simpler interface. The game will abandon the health bar and use other indicators (such as changing the screen to black and white) to indicate when the player’s health is low. Instead of going through a multi-level interface to change an outfit, players will walk into a dressing room, where a butler – voiced by John Cleese – can also recommend the most suitable outfit for the quest that’s coming up.
While the process of morphing the avatar to fit the user’s play would stay in Fable 3, Molyneux noted that players found the cause and effect confusing. “It was [a good feature], but it was very mystical and it was defined by the experience you spent. In Fable 3 we’ve got this: if you use a sword, your muscles get bigger. That simple. No more complex than that.”
Molyneux also discussed the story for the game. The goal of the Fable franchise is to make the player feel “powerful.” “We realized that we could sit down and do another Hero’s Journey. You’d start off the game pretty weak as a character, there would be some big baddie … [but] what if we made that Hero’s Journey the halfway point of our game? What if we constructed a story where you started as a hero without any power at all, and what if there was this evil terrible king running Albion, and what if you went out as a rebel, took forces, and took on and overthrew that evil king – and then you became king yourself?”
Along the way, the character will also make “campaign promises” – for example, to close factories or end child labor. Players will make moral choices around these promises, and they’ll also run into practical problems as they struggle to meet all the promises they made on their way to power. “You will make a lot of promises. It will not be possible to meet all those promises.”
In addition, players will gain or lose followers who allow them to level up. Even personal choices will affect their number of followers: for example, marrying the daughter of a mayor will make the player more popular than marrying someone from the slums.
Lead designer Josh Atkins also spoke at the talk, describing the combat mechanic, where a player’s weapon morphs based on how often they use it and what they kill with it. Atkins also addressed criticism that the Fable series was too “easy.” “We balance Fable completely intentionally. … It really is built around feeling powerful.” Comparing Fable to the old-fashioned arcade games that were tuned to challenge and defeat you, Atkins said, “we want you to feel strong, and we want you to feel rooted in the world. Almost more important that you feel powerful than it is that the game push back at you and make you drop a metaphorical quarter in.”
Molyneux showcased many other details. In addition to the horns and halos seen in past games, avatars in Fable 3 will also have angel’s or devil’s wings: Molyneux showed off the large red wings that had sprouted from a hero’s back during combat. Two-player co-op will be come back, but players will have the option of marrying a co-op character – making this an interesting game for spouses.
Players will be able to touch any other character in the game: Molyneux demonstrated a hero scolding and then comforting his daughter, and trying to lead her into a pub, which caused her to protest. He then held hands with a beggar and led him merrily around the town, before dragging him into a workhouse and selling him into slavery.
Molyneux skimmed past the world map where users will manage their kingdom, but he demonstrated a feature where the player can skim around the globe and zoom in to see any city. While the player will be able to move troops and do other high-level features, Molyneux was careful to note that it will not be “an RTS.” Fable may be moving farther from the strict RPG niche, and it’s not about to fall into a smaller one.