When you’re talking about great RPG’s, it’s almost impossible not to mention Fable. Though ultimately ill-fated after Lionhead’s takeover by Microsoft, it’s a series that will forever go down as a favourite in the memory of many gamers. Admittedly the was a series that experienced highs and lows, but its quirky, eccentric charm and humour always held it together; even throughout the weak link that was Fable III.
It always struck me as an odd decision to make such massive changes to Fable when the first two games had been mostly well-received and widely played. From the word ‘go’, Fable III felt like it was striving to be something new, a reinvention of its former self. Naturally, in some cases, that isn’t a bad thing – a great many games in the past have benefited from re-imagining of the way they work and how they play. However following the relative success of the first instalments in the series, one must wonder if with the series, the adage ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ would have been more appropriate.
Indeed, even Peter Molyneux, formerly of Lionhead, wasn’t shy about expressing how he felt about the end product, saying in an interview with Develop:
“…I think Fable II was a step in the right direction. I think Fable III was a train wreck. It was built to be much bigger than what it was constrained to be and eventually ended up as. If I had my time again, I’d take the advances we made from Fable I to Fable II, I’d make the same advances from Fable II to Fable III and spend another entire year working on Fable III. But would it be that perfect gem that’s in my mind? No.”
As time passed, more spins on the Fable universe were released – unfortunately with hindsight, it’s now apparent that the later entries in the franchise were symptoms of the studio’s coming downfall. While they weren’t necessarily awful games (although, let’s be honest, the Kinect game was bad…) they just never took off the way they could have done. The franchise seemed obsessed with the idea of innovating when it should have been focusing on getting its core solid.
Ultimately, Lionhead’s transition from independent studio to part of Microsoft Studios was the start of a downward spiral. As ever, Microsoft being at the helm meant everything became about pushing for a bigger profit, hitting a wider audience; not about continuing and building on what fans already loved about Fable. It’s sad, really as the series was never a bad seller, even at its lower points. In fact, in the humble and relatively uninformed opinion of many fans (myself included), Microsoft would have done better to let Lionhead do what they always did best – and give us Fable 4. Instead, there was a push towards the online and free-to-play market, and what we were offered was Fable Legends.
Maybe it’s slightly dramatic to say this co-op mess of a game killed Lionhead. Perhaps more apt to suggest Microsoft did that, with bad planning and forging ahead with half-realised ideas and trying to turn them into something they were never going to be. Early access to Legends revealed a game with a solid base and some stunning visuals; but not much of substance beyond that. It never reflected the Fable that people were used to, or what the majority wanted. The game, and eventually the whole takeover, became a costly mistake in the eyes of Microsoft, and in April 2016, the studio announced its closure. It seemed inevitable when looking back but at the time, there was a sense that Lionhead and its employees had been betrayed by their management who blindly followed orders from Microsoft instead of taking command.
Then again it’s easy to sit here and say Microsoft could have made better decisions, or that they shouldn’t have continued the push with Legends and worked on Fable 4 instead. But that’s exactly what I think they should have done. Instead of trying to weave the franchise to whichever mistress Microsoft was calling for, the series should have been allowed to grow and flourish as a competent RPG first – spin-offs second. It’s why Fable II is so highly regarded, and why the Kinect rubbish is not.
Will we ever see Microsoft pick back up one of their most loved franchises? I think we all know that’s highly unlikely given that the franchise was so engrained into the identity of Lionhead and it’s maverick leader. But a girl can dream; and replay Fable II in all its chicken chasing glory in the meantime.