GDC: Peter Molyneux On Simplifying And Enhancing Fable III
"The whole Fable series was built out of our passion for role playing games," says Molyneux. And in the past, with games like Ultima or even, more recently, Fallout 3 games were about "numbers and stats".
When embarking on Fable III development, "our dream was -- and I got in a lot of trouble for this dream -- was to take Fable and push the boundaries of what we think of as RPG. We asked ourselves... Are we really a role playing game or are we starting to become more of an action adventure game? We started getting obsessed about it."
At the Lionhead offices, Molyneux wrote this question on the whiteboard: "Is RPG dead for Fable?" Predictably, this inspired a great deal of debate. If the developers moved the series towards an action-adventure, the team asked itself, "What would we lose and what would we gain?"
Of course, there are commercial considerations that prompted this question. "If Fable doesn't get bigger as a franchise it will eventually die," says Molyneux. "We were very happy with the success of the franchise -- we sold about 3 million of Fable and 3.5 million of Fable II. But we want to sell about 30 percent more of Fable III." And, unfortunately, because the genre is so hardcore, "Marketing finds it quite hard to sell an RPG."
But there was an even bigger consideration, he says. "The most interesting thing of all -- and this is a fascinating thing when you're designing a franchise like Fable -- we get a lot of user research back, and Microsoft's quite good at it. What we found from this research was this disastrous, awful number. More than 60 percent of the Fable audience understood less than 50 percent of the features."
Of course, says Molyneux, "This was enormously frustrating. We're creating content that people don't care about and don't use, and we're spending vast amounts of money on this."
On an industry-wide basis, says Molyneux, now "there's this enormous drive to clarity and simplicity" and "feeling [you're] a part of the world in seconds." Tutorials are on their way out, he says, replaced by "a dream, where we can say, 'just play the game.'"
To figure out where to make changes, the team identified what's core to Fable:
- Morphing system - the character changes in appearance
- The "every choice a consequence" system, which "was a huge success. Players love to choose."
- Drama - "You've got to take that drama very seriously"
- Emotion - "very, very important."
- Accessibility - "moving to one button combat."
When evaluating what was core to the series, Molyneux had a revelation: "How many of those things in there are really RPG?" And when examining Fable II, "And the RPG-like segments were really confused because of our 2D GUI."
Simplify The Interface
Because of that, there was a goal towards simplification of the interface -- the most confusing element of the game. Says Molyneux, "The truth of the matter is that the interface that we had in Fable II and Fable is that people who played the game had to work through up to 300 items in a list."
Players gave up on systems like changing costumes because of that. "We said to ourselves, take the whole of the 2D interface and put it into the 3D world." Later, Molyneux demoed the new costume system -- which involves a butler played by John Cleese and full in-world mannequins.
"Removing things like the health bar... epitomizes this drive for simplicity," says Molyneux. The game is moving to a more shooter-like in-world context-based health system.
Reducing the Player Complexity
The player morphing was very important -- but Molyneux wants to make it clearer. "If you use a sword, your muscles get better -- it's that simple. If you use a hammer, which is even bigger and heavier, they'll develop more." This continues with other weapons and other options, such as eating food, which makes the character heavier. "The big design flaw that we made was to put the morphing within the experience system."
Combat has been changed to a one button system -- with a charge move as well as a quick hit. "It's all down to that number -- 60 percent of the people understood less than half of the game," says Molyneux.
Amplify Emotional Connection
The dog was a big hit in Fable II -- and the goal for the next game was to make the dog more meaningful -- "more compulsive and make you play with him more."
More importantly, says Molyneux, "We've got a big new feature called 'touch' - this is the ability to reach out and touch at any time during the game. This was all part of the emotional connection. We were very inspired by a game called Ico, and what an amazing game it was."
This is a purely context-sensitive system for interacting with characters in the world -- and according to Molyneux, "It replaces a huge segment of the game."
Finally, there is a new system of "judgments". "Now, within Fable III, we had this problem where we were running out" of ideas for moral choices, "so we've introduced this whole mechanic called judgments." He refused to elaborate beyond saying it ties into the system where your player becomes a king later on.
Make the Story Clearer and More Dramatic
Of course, just like a tremendous amount of media -- not just games -- there's an obvious path to take the story in Fable. Says Molyneux, "When we came down and thought about the story... We realized we could sit down and start another hero's journey. We asked ourselves this very simple question. 'What if we made that hero's journey the halfway mark in our game?'"
Thus, in Fable III, you overthrow the evil tyrant king and then become king yourself. As a design consequence, says Molyneux, "Suddenly giving you the feeling of power became really important. We want people to feel really powerful, that's what role playing games are all about, man!"
And with great power, as they say... "On the way to becoming king, just like any politician in the world, you'll make all of the promises you're going to make." And from that, says Molyenux, "You'll realize that being powerful means being responsible and that's a really interesting mechanic."
Make the Core Mechanics More Simple
"This was a big one for us -- throwing out the experience system. I began to realize [that experience systems are] all about combat, but actually the Fable world is much bigger than that," says Molyneux.
If you get rid of experience points, "Can we start to think about another currency, just one currency for people to care about? And that's where we came up with this idea of followers. What if we had this simple idea that everything you did, no wonder how noble or wonderful or trivial, made you gain or lose followers?"
And when it comes to online features, he was coy, saying, "I Twitter now, and I've got followers on Twitter. Can we integrate that into the Fable experience?"
Of course, the core of RPG achievement is still the leveling system. "We are still keeping leveling up -- it's done visually within the world, not in a 2D interface. We celebrate it visually."
Fable Combat Philosophy
Josh Atkins, the game's lead designer, took the podium to discuss the game's combat.
When approaching the new game, the team asked itself, "What about Fable combat mechanics have made the game fun to play?" In his opinion, it's that the game gives you a meaningful reason to fight.
"We started looking at our competitors slash the games we admire. Who out there do we really like?" Since the team was thinking more action-based, they looked at Team Ninja's Ninja Gaiden, and Sony Santa Monica's God of War. "What do they do? How can we improve?"
But those games don't hold all of the answers, says Atkins. "When you look at games right now, and you get into the nitty gritty stuff, they do a lot of really fast transitions. Your character looks really good but you're not seeing what he or she is doing."
When it comes to enemy design in most games, you don't remember much about the enemies or what they represent in the game world, or even how they really look. All you remember, says Atkins, is "you remember what it feels like to fight them." In Fable III, he says, "Each creature had to have not just a [design] but a place in the world and a personality."
And as Molyneux says, "The big point in Fable III is about feeling powerful." This means that gameplay balance "is a huge discussion topic. Is Fable too easy? That's a tough thing to figure out. We balance Fable very intentionally. It really is built around feeling powerful, so when we evaluate other games it's built around what arcades do. We need to slowly move away from that and move towards balance to create an emotional experience. We want you to care and to feel strong, and rooted in the world. Clearly there's a fine line there, and the game could get too easy."
When asked if the "golden breadcrumb trail" from the last game worked -- the questioner thought it made the game too linear -- Molyneux says that in fact, "I loved that it wasn't a corridor unless you wanted it to be a corridor. What we want to do better in Fable III is tempt you off the breadcrumb trail."
Of course, Fable is known for its moral choices -- but we're beginning to be bored with obvious, dark/light moral choices. Molyneux agrees that the moral waters have to be muddied. "I think [choices] get really interesting when you're slightly more morally ambiguous. It's about how cruelty now equals kindness later."
And though he clearly wanted to speak about it, Molyneux was unable to discuss Natal integration in Fable III. "Natal is wonderfully additive to this experience... it's been a real joy to put some Natal stuff in," says Molyneux, and sadly nothing more.