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Exclusive: Big Blue Box on Fable

We talk to the Simon and Dene Carter, MDs of the studio behind the Xbox RPG

Yesterday's exclusive hands-on playtest of the first hours of Fable is today followed up by another splendid exclusive, as we chat with Dene and Simon Carter, the brothers who are co-Managing Directors of Big Blue Box, the development studio behind the Xbox RPG .

Dene Carter is Fable's senior designer, while Simon Carter is chief programmer on the title.

It's quite a corker is the interview, with plenty to interest and amusement as the last few hours of Fable ticked down before it went gold. And it's also chock full of fresh 'good' screens for those of you whole like helping old ladies across the road and rescuing stranded kittens.

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Join us now as Dene and Simon confess to being full-on technology whores, reveal the truth about working with Peter Molyneux, present the inimitable eyebrow wriggle and their [we think] fairly laudable ambition to produce a brand new genre of dinner party games aimed squarely at the next generation of consoles...

So what's happening with Fable right now - what kind of work are you doing for its impending release?

Dene Carter: We're right at the very end, but we've got a couple of tricks up our sleeve which we're going to use to improve the framerate, to get it really sorted out and we're just trying to do those at the moment.

We're in this bizarre position, where rather than everyone fighting to add in all those little pieces that they really want to add in, we're now in a situation where the publisher doesn't really want to add anything else, especially for a game like Fable, because it's so complicated.

For example, if we change the colour of a texture, the entire testing unit grinds to a halt and we have to restart the entire test procedure. It's a strange balance between doing absolutely nothing, so we don't break anything, and tiny delicate little fixes to improve that framerate. It's a very strange, precarious position.

What's the relationship with Lionhead been like?

Dene Carter: It's been really interesting actually. We started off Big Blue Box as a very, very small company, with very, very small company values. We announced Fable and we did an awful lot of groundwork for Fable, but it became very noticeable about a year and a half ago that what we had to do in terms of bringing everything up to console standard... Because of course console standard was different entirely to PC games - was just absolutely phenomenal.

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So at that point it became a choice of, well, are we going to try and do what we can with the people we have or are we going to try and form an even closer tie with Lionhead and say "Come on guys is there any chance of some help from you"?

We had a very long series of talks with Peter and said, "Look we're going to need an awful lot other people working on this to finish it" and basically everyone all mucked in to get it done. So it's been all hands on deck for the last year or so. Pretty much everyone from Lionhead has come here and worked on it and it's been fantastic, but madness, absolute madness.

How's it been working with one of gaming's legends?

Dene Carter: Working with Peter has been really interesting. You know I've never heard him make any decision which would make a game worse. I've never ever heard him say, "Well we'll cut this corner to try and get it done", which is something everyone can respect.

But at the same time he's also really very demanding indeed. And of course when you're sitting there at two o'clock in the morning and you're absolutely frazzled out of your mind and you don't want to do any more and he's there saying "This isn't quite right".

So you'll sit there for another two or three hours thinking; Peter seems to retain the mind of a consumer at all times during a project, so he's probably right. That's probably his greatest asset really, he never gets jaded about his own game.

He never starts to look at it as a developer, he comes in every single morning and says, "Right I'm seeing this for the first time today, what do I think?" It's really, really interesting and I don't know how he does it.

One intriguing factor about Fable is that it's been a relatively long time at four years in development. Is that a good thing for a game?

Dene Carter: Political answer on this one. It's been an interesting thing. I don't think we realised it would take quite as long as this, for a number of reasons. One of which is that we set up the game's central two premises. Which are, everything you do in the game changes your character and everything you do in the game changes the world. From that point, what would it be like to play and what would we like to do?

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It's a 'what if' game, what would be fun? That generated 500 game features and being the people we were, we said, we'll do all of them, every single last bloody one. We were over ambitious, we sat there and worked through them and what we didn't realise is that our original two questions should have been the guiding light through the whole of the project.

And if something didn't enhance those two main features, then we probably shouldn't put too much effort into it. Basically we tried absolutely everything and we've done so many things with this game and some things didn't work, which we expected.

In some way it was really good in that it gave us a lot of chance to experiment, to try out a whole bunch of new things. There's a load of technology which has never been used, just because they didn't enhance those two main features, which we'll use later on and you'll see in forthcoming games.

Secondly, we didn't realise how much more polish you had to put into a console game compared to a PC game. It's not so true anymore, but it's something that dawned on us and it was changing while we were finishing Fable. We'd finish everything to what we thought was about 80 percent, but what we didn't realise there was still about 80 percent to go.

Getting that animation spot on, getting that feel for combat absolutely there... That was a completely different way of thinking for us, because an action game is that much more tactile and that's what makes the whole experience. Going forwards, we're much more aware of how much extra effort modern games demand.

What challenges does developing solely for Xbox present?

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Dene Carter: It's been really great actually, it's been a much more free medium. The only thing which would have been better is the PC; and the only reason for that is the thing we've tended to do in the past is rely on the drifting PC platform to become powerful enough to support the kind of games we trying to do.

What usually happens is that by the time we've finished a game, the PC becomes powerful enough to support all the ambition we had to start with. With the Xbox of course that didn't happen, so we had to do it the other way around. We had 300Mb to fit into 64, let's see if we can cram it in, oh dear, okay that's another eight weeks work on compression technology.

It's not because the Xbox is limited, it's unlimited because it's a fixed platform, but it's been valuable in some respects, because you don't have to get everything working with the latest video card.

You talked about some new technologies you've developed, which haven't made it into Fable, are you ready to share those with the world yet?

Dene Carter: Oh crikey... Er no in a word.

Simon Carter: What technologies? [Laughs]

Okay, well moving swiftly on. What's been your favourite part of working on the game or perhaps, which part makes you proudest?

Simon Carter: I think for me it's two things, one from the technology point of view and one from the gameplay point of view.

Just the sheer amount of stuff we've managed to cram into the Xbox. We've got so many graphics being streamed through the Xbox hardware that it's completely outrageous. The second thing is, actually seeing people play the game and actually doing things we'd never expected them to do and abusing the game in really fun ways. Actually realising that the game can be used in ways we'd never expect.

One example? One tester from the Microsoft technology centre found that he could play 'keepy-uppy' with human heads and sent us a video. He was obviously very proud of himself for being able to keep this head in the air and so he should be. It makes you wonder doesn't it? When someone sits down with your title and thinks, "today, head keepy uppy!".

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That was something that evolved from what we've done, and the fact that we're still surprised by it is something that we should be very proud of indeed, because usually everything's usually very, very prescriptive. Most games you know everything about it, but this game's still surprising us, which is a wonderful thing.

What do you make of the advent of the next generation of consoles? Are you excited by the prospects?

Simon Carter: Always, because I'm a complete gadget whore.

Dene Carter: Me too...

Simon Carter: Being able to work with new technology which no-one's really seen before is a fantastic privilege. It's really good fun looking at new technology and thinking about game ideas you can actually apply to it. There's certainly lots of stuff in Fable which we'd like to have done and either didn't have the time or the console wasn't powerful enough.

There's a lot of stuff already which we could use that power for. I think if you gave us a console that was twenty times as powerful as anything seen before, we'd still find a way to fill it.

Dene Carter: For me it's a case of what can we do, and how far can we push things? At the end of the day if we can make a game that really moves people emotionally, which makes people nervous about things other than monsters, for example in a social setting.

If people are nervous about going to a dinner party, nervous about meeting a crowd who are going to adore them, that would be really interesting for me.

Simon Carter: One of the key things we always remember is that, where technology and the industry are at the moment, is the equivalent of the black and white era in film.

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As we get more and more technology we can develop the ability to give people narratives, character interaction and gaming experiences which we can't really conceive of. But when they actually happen, they'll feel completely natural and will fit in with peoples' idea of what gaming should be.

As Dene says, at the moment, if you wander into a dinner party in a game, it's filled with static, almost cardboard cut-out people. But in the real world, you'd actually be nervous about what people are going to say, how you're going to interact with them. If you can get that in a game in the future, that would be a fantastic achievement. Perhaps a whole new genre of dinner party games? [laughs]

So what's next after Fable? Are there more Fable games in the pipeline?

Dene Carter: Hm, I'm not sure we can say anything about that. Perhaps you could indicate it with a wry eyebrow wriggle? [wriggles eyebrows wrily]

Well I'm not sure how we'd write that, but marvellous, thank you very much.

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