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Fable: The blunder, the backlash, the self-doubt, the fight back, the Journey

The new face of Lionhead opens up on how the studio saved itself from E3 criticisms

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Interview with Gary Carr, Lionhead Creative Director

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CVG: Fable The Journey's presentation at E3 2011 had flared up many criticisms of the game's concept and apparent execution. How was the development team affected by this?
CARR: It destroyed them. You get very excited when something is very embryonic, and when you're building something at its very early stages. In the past we have shown things much more underdeveloped, much cruder, than the Fable The Journey demonstration at E3 [2011]. But for some reason, it wasn't resonating with people.

I think the presentation itself is partly to blame. It looked a bit like some spammy shooter, but actually we were building this big world around it. Y'know, you have about two minutes and 45 seconds to demonstrate what you're doing. I know that a main problem people have is they think we've taken the Fable series and trivialised it.

I think we should have shown Fable The Journey further down the line. I think we should have had some press cover it beforehand, just so they could get a better feel of it.

This isn't a sequel to a Fable title. It's meant to be a sister-title, if you will. It's not meant to be a big RPG, but it does open the narrative of some Fable characters, and that's exciting to us because we want to tell this story.

To me it has always felt like the support title, while Fable itself is to my mind the mother ship. But back in the studio we are building something more ambitious than we've ever done before.

After the E3 2011 demonstration, was it your job to motivate the team?
Well I flew back to the studio slightly with a different perspective. Peter [Molyneux, former studio head] was doing the one-on-ones with the press, and he was getting the backlash, while I was doing theatre-room presentations with the public, which allowed me to show the game in full, and I got pretty good feedback.

So I was in my own bubble, and when I came back I was really surprised by the comments in the press.

I think the studio took the criticisms to heart. I was okay, personally. The team rallied really quickly, it made us double-down on the project and worked really hard to make sure it was the best thing they could make.

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Did you lay out a new strategy following the backlash?
We decided then to go quiet for a while, not promote the game for a year, and then give it to the press to just play. I mean, I can't really recall a time when we gave a game to the press and just left them to it. But we had to do it. By that stage, Fable The Journey wasn't something we could have PRed, it wasn't something that we could have promoted on its own, we just had to show it to people and let them decide for themselves.

We showed journalists the start of the game, not the mid-point or a highlight; the very start. This was the tutorial, meeting new characters for the first time. No guides. No tricks. And fortunately the response was really positive. I struggled to find people who said 'no this is still shit'.

I understand that people won't love this game just by watching other people play it. You have to see it for yourself. That's part of the challenge.

Do you feel you have a point to prove?
I don't suppose I was exposed to the project in the same way when Peter was here. Peter was the shield for the company. Plaudits or criticisms, Peter would take it in equal measure. Now he's gone, someone has to take that place.

I don't feel we have to explain our decision to use Kinect. We're interested in it.

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I wasn't specifically referring to Kinect, but Lionhead. Does the studio have a point to prove, about its heritage for producing great games?
I think the studio took the criticisms to heart. I was okay, personally.

What's been challenging over the past few years is this additional responsibility that we have to explain what we're doing. You talk to the press usually when you get to preview stage, but from very early on - even when we had little to show - we found challenges to do with misconceptions.

If you're hit by criticisms, you can either try and prove them wrong or simply lose faith.
I think the turning-point was after the E3 [2011] showing, we finished up on developing our first dungeon. It's still the best one in the game. It just came together brilliantly. It has the Fable humour, it has the diversity, the combat, the puzzle-solving - it even has platform sections.

We nailed it. I think that turned the team. People started realising that no, we were not making a shit game. We were making something that can be great.

The team that put that dungeon together, which was about eight people, I think did more to lift the place than I ever could with some kind of speech on a Friday afternoon.

The key problem for Fable The Journey was that, from the very moment it was announced, it was packaged with these preconceptions. Preconceptions about Kinect, preconceptions about on-rails shooters, preconceptions about Molyneux promises. I think, with all this assumption, everyone was bound to lose sight of what the game actually is.
It's interesting you say that. Every single game is on-rails. I can score a fantastic goal on FIFA if I press certain buttons in the right order at the right time, that's the rails bit.

Peter's [post-E3] on-rails rant, if we should call it that, was him trying to hit back at the criticisms saying that it wasn't on-rails. I think, if we had done this again, we would have just said, yeah, it's on rails.

The truth is, at the time Peter was saying it wasn't on-rails, we at Lionhead were considering free body movement. But it was awful. It just wasn't fun.

The truth is, we were actually close to killing that E3 demo, but some of the team tried to revive it. We did come back from E3 [2011] with some people saying, we're doing something wrong here. We need to change course. Ultimately, the decision was, keep the faith. On-rails is actually necessary to make the game work really well.

We are building a story-based game, a well-crafted world, a powerful narrative, a beautiful looking game. All our money is going into that. We are not messing with alternative control schemes any more.

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Are you sick of talking about Kinect?
Yes. It's not important to me. If the game's good, it's good. If it's rubbish, it's rubbish. I don't want this to be about a controller.

Can Fable The Journey become Lionhead's best game?
I do think it can. We're right in the bug fixing phase. This is where it's all critical. When the build gets it right, when the balance is right, I'm blown away by how good it is. I'm like, if anyone touches this build, you're fired.

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