Looking back at Lionhead Studios, the company behind Black & White and Fable
These days, when you hear the term "god game," it's pretty easy to summon up an image of what that would look like: a vast game world of interlocking systems; the ability to dictate the lives of digital creatures in a top-down fashion, from their genes all the way down to their tax brackets. But when Peter Molyneux released Populous in 1989, it was (arguably) the first of its kind -- and paved the way not just for its genre, but for Molyneux and the studios he founded as well.
One of those studios -- Lionhead -- sits a few months short of its 20th anniversary, and its parent company Microsoft recently proposed to shut it down. Layoffs and studio closures are sadly common in the games industry, but this one in particular has prompted a great deal of discussion, both on Lionhead as a company and on its most outspoken alumnus. So let's take this opportunity to look back on the early successes which endeared the Lionhead to players, and whose troubled later years unfortunately cast a shadow on that legacy.
A Bullfrog's Fable
1989's Populous stumbled upon its central premise virtually by accident. Following on the release of two games for the Amiga, Peter Molyneux's Bullfrog studio began work on an isometric landscape environment where little figures known as 'peeps' would wander aimlessly until they reached the ocean. Molyneux implemented terrain, for the simple sake of keeping the peeps moving, and then developed a rule that whenever a peep stopped on an undeveloped flat tile, it would build a house and settle there -- a move done simply to keep the number of peeps on the screen limited, at a time where every byte of processing power had to be judiciously managed.
These laid the building blocks for what would become Populous's top-down management systems; what would become the 'god game,' in which players were invited to manage the lives of (seemingly-)autonomous creatures as they moved, grew and multiplied. Populous's narrative layer became about assuming the role of a deity, guiding the game's inhabitants by nudging, coaxing, and sometimes direct divine intervention. If you have ever trapped a Sim in a swimming pool by removing the ladder and watching until they died, you can thank Will Wright of course -- but you also have thank Populous.
Populous became a best-seller for British studio Bullfrog, and the subsquent success of its sequels led to interest from Electronic Arts, which bought the company in 1995. By 1997, Molyneux was out -- he wanted something small and agile again, something that couldn't be accomplished under a powerhouse publisher like EA.
"If we kept it small, we could keep that tribe feeling," Molyneux's business partner Mark Webley would later say in a Gamasutra retrospective, on the founding of Lionhead. The idea was to return to a close-knit, hand-picked team of developers who could focus on the weird, different projects like Populous which had first put Molyneux on the map.
That first "weird" project would arrive in 2001 in the form of Black & White, Lionhead's answer to the god game genre its key people had helped to found. Players would again assume the role of a divine power in shaping a civilization, as well as guiding the development of a monstrous pet which could be trained, through then-state-of-the-art AI, to do the player's bidding. The story is... well it's a bunch of needlessly complex hogwash, but in 2001 it seemed mysterious and uniquely sophisticated; the sort of thing few other computer games seemed to be attempting at the time.
Black & White would solidify Lionhead as a successor to Bullfrog. Meanwhile, one of Lionhead's satellite companies, Big Blue Box, would soon roll out what would become Lionhead's flagship franchise: Fable.
Imagine a role-playing game where you can build your character up from poverty to ascend the throne, and also flirt with, like, anyone. That peasant there selling baked goods? Boom, new spouse. Want to buy that mansion, then rent it out at inflated prices? Boom, you're a cutthroat landlord. Need to raise taxes to fund a war effort? People will hate you for it, but they can't actually stop you. Want deep, emotional connection with a virtual pet? Oh man, then you're gonna love this dog.
That's the Fable games in a nutshell. Nowadays, the breadth of its systems seems downright quaint -- sure, you can live out your Henry VIII fantasies and serially marry half the people on the continent, but as individuals, your spouses aren't much more sophisticated than the 'peeps' reacting to topography in Populous. Sure, you can govern your subjects with an iron fist until they spit on you in the streets, but you can always take that ill-gotten real estate gold from earlier and reinvest it into charity or something, thereby instanteously resetting everyone's opinion of you. Fable, at best, manages the broad strokes of its big ideas -- but there was a time, between when the first Fable released in 2004 and the third released in 2010, when they felt magical.
Lionhead would continue to try extending the Fable brand after Fable III, first with the Fable Heroes party game for Xbox Live Arcade, then the Kinect-enabled Fable: The Journey, and most recently the cooperative multiplayer role-playing game Fable: Legends, which was unceremoniously canceled in yesterday's Microsoft announcement.
Mister Molyneux's Wild Ride
From the studio's inception and even through its acquisition by Microsoft in 2006, Peter Molyneux's name has always been practically synonymous with that of Lionhead. And that was for good and for ill: inasmuch as Molyneux had made a name for himself promising players the world with his god games, he had also garnered a reputation for just making crap up.
"As a designer, whenever I’m making a game I have this perfect jewel in mind," Molyneux told Develop in 2014. "I just shouldn’t get so excited in front of the press. There’s an empirical decay between what the idea is in your mind and what you end up with, no matter what creative field you’re working in."
But 'get excited in front of the press' is what Molyneux did. Again, and again, and again. Some of the things he exaggerated or overpromised seem just nonsensical, like the repeated promises the Fable games would let you grow an acorn into a mature oak tree. Other things, well.
"I could name at least 10 features in games that I've made up to stop journalists going to sleep," he remarked at a BAFTA event in 2011. "I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly lied, at all," he told Rock, Paper, Shotgun in 2015.
During his Lionhead tenure, Molyneux's pie-in-the-sky imagination earned him plenty of critics and unhappy customers, but also a certain low-lying fondness for what many saw as his unrelenting optimism. You sort of had to root for Molyneux, because his ambitions were always doomed to exceed his studio's capabilities, or so the thought went. This side of Molyneux even inspired an earnest parody in the form of Peter Molydeux, a Twitter account who would tweet off-the-wall game design concepts (and which would subsequently inspire a series of game jams).
Molyneux's involvement with the Fable franchise ended with The Journey. He left Lionhead in 2012 to form 22cans, which has born its own host of problems, from missed deadlines to renegged promises to Kickstarter backers. But that's its own separate article. Back at Lionhead, with the most of its key people gone, the studio appeared to flounder. It released Fable: Anniversary in 2014, merely a remake of a previous game, and by 2015 Fable: Legends was slated as a free-to-play, Xbox One and Windows 10 exclusive.
What Went Wrong?
For better and for worse, Molyneux served as an important spokesperson for Lionhead Studios -- he may have imparted to the public that Lionhead was an overambitious, underperforming mid-tier studio, but that was at least a brand. Without Molyneux, Lionhead simply seemed to fade into obscurity among Microsoft's ever-changing roster of game studios.
That isn't to say that Molyneux -- or indeed, any developer -- can really serve as the singular lynchpin holding a studio together. Molyneux may have been the most visible member of Lionhead, but none of the company's co-founders are today listed among its senior people: Steve Jackson departed with the Microsoft acquisition in 2006, and though fellow co-founder Mark Webley briefly served as Molyneux's replacement as head of operations, he lasted less than a year.
And the industry has, quite simply, moved on from the days of Populous and Black & White. God games, once seen as the ideal convergence of AI programming, systems design, and player empowerment, don't really seem to be going anywhere these days. Molyneux's own post-Lionhead god game, Godus, could be charitably described as a trainwreck. If we could look to any genre of game as a successor to Populous's legacy, it would probably look a lot more like Minecraft or No Man's Sky than yet another Fable title.
Still, no matter Lionhead's waning relevance in a contemporary game industry, players hold on to the studio's earlier titles with a certain amount of fondness. Sure, it's just nostalgia, but inasmuch as Lionhead's games were often overly ambitious, the particular ways in which they were broken remain weirdly charming.
I'll always remember my favorite bug from Fable III, for instance. After ascending the throne of Albion and moving into the castle with my wife, I summarily divorced her to marry someone else (as one does), only to find she had kept the kids and the house when we split. I was all right with this -- it's not like I kept all my money in the castle vaults or anything -- until I realized you need to visit the castle to advance the storyline, and I had just gotten locked out.
The obvious lesson here is to always sign a pre-nup. But the less obvious lesson, and a valuable one for the industry to take forward from Lionhead, is: maybe it's OK, sometimes, for your eyes to be bigger than your stomach. Even if you fail, it's possible to leave a lasting impression.
Kris Ligman is the News Editor of ZAM. Please share your favorite Molyneuxisms with them on Twitter @KrisLigman.