Creating a truly reactive gaming world where choices have nuanced consequences over and above mere 'good guy-bad guy' simplicity is a very tough task. Peter Molyneux, creative supremo at Lionhead Studios, has never shied away from a challenge, but Fable III could be his biggest. The gaming veteran wants the third trip to Albion to offer an immersive open world experience that will appeal to hardcore gamers and the masses. Not only that, he also wants the action role playing game not to feature a single list or menu screen in its entire campaign. At the recent Develop conference in Brighton, Molyneux discussed the challenges involved in creating Fable III and also gave some frank reflections on the foibles of its predecessor.
Molyneux said that his main goal with Fable III was to "create a big open world action adventure game rather than a techie RPG", which basically means that he wants to "sell loads more units". He said that it's not only about earning more money for paymaster Microsoft, but also about broadening the Fable series to more players. However, a further goal was to rectify the plentiful problems in Fable II. Despite the game getting a favourable reaction upon its release in 2008, Molyneux accepted that there were "some terribly messy things about it", largely because of the rushed development.
Molyneux said that Fable II's problems also went deeper, blaming "huge design flaws" in the development. Most prominent was the fact that the majority of players used hardly any of the game's features. Post-release research indicated that over 50% of people who played Fable II understood or used only 60% of the game's features, which was like "designing a car with 300 switches when all you need is a steering wheel". A good example of that was getting married, which had limited meaning and most players only did to see if there was a Grand Theft Auto-style 'Hot Coffee' sex mini-game.
In starting work on Fable III, the Lionhead team wanted to create a world where every player used every feature in the game. They also wanted to craft a memorable story as the majority of Fable II players could not even recall the game's basic premise after completing it. Molyneux said that the development team rather phoned the story in for Fable II, but this time he wanted things to be different. Lionhead has worked hard on the third game's script, which is delivered by a stellar cast, including John Cleese, Jonathan Ross, Ben Kingsley, and Zoe Wannamaker (with around 20% of the dialogue coming from the actor's "minds and mouths").
As a revolutionary, the player will call on favours from people all around the kingdom to build an army, but these pledges can be honoured or ignored after ascending to the throne. The choices are linked to the player's moral approach and Molyneux said you can have the kingdom even worse than under Logan's reign if you are "that sort of b**tard". However, there is always a consequence of some description. As Albion is now in the throes of an industrial revolution, the player will have to face tough choices on whether to provide infrastructure for the citizens. Creating civilisation brings prosperity and happiness, but it also costs money. All actions will have an equal and opposite reaction, which the player will have to deal with. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, it seems.
Cleese plays a butler in the game, who will act as a key reactive foil to developments in the story. The game will also keep players focused on the main narrative with the return of the breadcrumb trail, which is basically a golden line of the floor guiding the player to their next objective. Molyneux said that players in Fable II got "hugely distracted" with side quests and collectables, which became confusing. The problems were not rectified by clumsy mechanics, such as a non-playing character irritatingly repeating mission objectives. However, Molyneux wants to do things "more subtly" in Fable III by breaking down the "clunky" game design.
The entire story can be played as either a male of female character, with Molyneux promising that women in Fable III will not look like the "Russian shot putters" in its predecessor. The entire campaign is also playable in drop-in/drop-out co-op, which thankfully this time will feature detached cameras rather than the constrictive one-screen view. Available co-op tasks will also extend beyond just combat, as players can work together to customise houses, conduct quests or even get married, if they so wish.
The dog returns as the player's constant companion and there are the same options for interaction with NPCs, such as holding hands, flirting or belching. A major change, though, is that all actions in Fable III are designed to have meaning and significance to the player. Getting married will no longer be a mindless side pursuit, but instead bring an in-game bonus to the player in the form of Guild Seals, which are basically experience points. The seals are the main source of power in Fable III, but also its primary currency. They are earned from all activities in the game and can be spent on doing things that you want to do (more on that later). This is all about ensuring gamers use and enjoy everything that Fable III has to offer.
For Fable III, Molyneux has taken the bold move for an RPG of not including any 2D menus or lists. He said that Fable II's menu systems for spending experience points and levelling up the player-character smacked of "bad design", with players having to scroll through hundreds of options in menus and sub-menus.
"That is just not good enough in today's world. You just can't get people excited about scrolling down sub-menus," he said. "We had to think more revolutionary, so I said that Fable III is not going to have a single list in the entire game. Everything that you do is going to be in the world. To be honest, that was a crazy thing to say, but the team has done a fantastic job."
Unlocking the gates also brings bonuses inside treasure chests. Guild Seals can be spent on opening the chests to get items such as new houses or "big b**tard swords". The levelling up system also handles the magic, which this time involves donning gauntlets known as Fists Of Power. Players will need to switch gauntlets to access different magic powers, but they will later be able to wear two gauntlets at the same time to combine spells, such as fiery whirlwinds as a mix of Inferno and Vortex.
Alongside the visual levelling up system, Molyneux has also changed the main pause screen so that it no longer takes the player to a static menu, but to a 3D space. Pressing the start button transfers the player from any gameplay level to a dressing room-style space where they can move around. The Cleese butler is always there, along with a 3D living map in the middle of the space that can be examined with a magnifying glass. There are also rooms representing where menu screens would be, such as a wardrobe for changing outfits, putting on accessories or dyeing fabrics. Everything is intended to give a dynamic experience rather than tediously scrolling through hundreds of options.
Fable III will be released on October 26 for PC and Xbox 360.