One of this year's big pillar releases will be the next in Lionhead's RPG series, Fable III. While the game was first revealed last year, new details released at E3 this year have given fans a better sense of how the game will pan out.
At last week's Develop conference in Brighton we spent some time with Lionhead founder-turned-Microsoft Game Studios creative director Peter Molyneux, who explained his thoughts on why the industry needs to change its working practices, how Fable III is shaping up, and why next year could see a host of iPhone apps that cost $5 million to make...
Q: So first of all, how is work on Fable III coming along?
Peter Molyneux: It's very, very tough. Again - Fable, because it is part-simulation, part-roleplaying game, part-action-adventure... it's got more voice acting, a bigger cast, more musical scores, a bigger, freer world - more so than any other game in the whole of Microsoft Game Studios' portfolio, full stop.
It's got more bugs, more active bugs, than any game that MGS has ever had in its history - and the team of over 100 people are working insanely long hours, and they're coming down. That's the way it is.
Here's the issue which I hate, Phil - again, we're in the same position as many, many other developers, if you read the post mortems of Uncharted 2 or any game, they all say the same. We find our game so late on in the process, that it's very hard to pull it all together - and that has to change.
We cannot do this - we can't keep turning up this late. A film analogy is me turning up with a camera on set and saying: "Okay, I'm not sure what the story is, but let's turn the camera on anyway."
We've got to stop doing this, because 1) It's too expensive, and 2) Our consumers, the people that play our games, are too demanding of the quality we have to deliver. We just have to work on a different way - it's got to be the case.
Q: The industry has changed the way that it deals with that in some ways. A little while ago if a game wasn't finished on time, there was a decent chance it would get shipped anyway. Now that happens less, and if it's not finished, it's delayed. But neither approach is really an answer to the problem.
Peter Molyneux: Well, it's not. It's very difficult - the huge supertanker that is the launch platform is very hard to switch off once you get past a certain point. You've got to book your TV adverts, your creatives have to get together and do your advertising campaign - that happens way, way before you know whether you're really going to get to the right quality bar.
And again - I just feel that the way that we developed Fable I and Fable II - and a lot of our games - all of our tech reaches up to a certain line when we can actually play the game... and that line seems to be so late on, it's just frightening.
Q: Does that improve over the life cycle of a console though, as teams get to understand the hardware more, and the limits of its capabilities are approached?
Peter Molyneux: You'd think that would be true, but the problem is that with great knowledge comes great opportunity - and there's your problem. If you know the GPU so intimately well, you're not going to say: "Oh, that's not any problem any more." You're going to push it harder, and that's what we do.
The demo I've shown of Fable III - those levels are four times bigger, and we've got true dynamic lighting. We didn't do any of that before, but if we hadn't done that our problems would be so much simpler... but we push ourselves, over and over again.
There's always this curious thing that happens with consoles - you tend to find that the most spectacular looking games and tech comes after the end of the generation. We're still yet to discover where the 360 can go in graphical resolution. We're still inventing stuff.
Q: Pixar's Andrew Drayton discussed the Uncanny Valley with me recently - that's a company that doesn't worry about realism, and it's arguable that some of the more successful videogames haven't tried to get right to that point either?
Peter Molyneux: Actually, I'm going to argue that point a little bit, because I think it's as easy - because we've been worrying about the Uncanny Valley, not only with the other project we're working on [Milo and Kate] but also with Fable. It's not the human face that's the problem, it's the way that your characters act.
I've seen the Uncanny Valley - those painful, crucial, embarrassing, unbearable moments - with cartoon characters. You only had to turn on kids' TV a few years ago to see some pretty atrocious Uncanny Valley moments.
So I just think that what Pixar does is make characters that you just fall in love with, and that avoids all the problems.
Q: So what pushes you to go to the level of ambition that you do? Lots of people make fantastic games which are simply bringing very good levels of polish to ideas that are already out there. World of Warcraft has often been cited in that respect.
Peter Molyneux: Well, I'm going to beat myself up about this, because I think a lot of the time it's been purely me - not Lionhead as such - and I get too excited about the idea, but not so excited about the implementation. So the idea can fall flat, it's poorly executed, or it's just an excuse where I should have addressed some other issues.
But I think I'm learning now - ideas are important, but the implementation of that idea and the execution of it, how clear it is... that's probably more important.
Q: Is that one of the reasons why Fable II was such a successful game, then?
Peter Molyneux: Yes - I think that's part of it. I got hugely excited by the dog, and I think it worked really well. Yes, I wish the implementation of it was better - and it is better in Fable III - but that is where the idea and implementation starts coming together.
I think if it had been previously, back in the Black & White days, you'd be able to slap or stroke the dog, or teach him to talk - I don't know, whatever ridiculous thing I'd have come up with! But the simple idea was: "Why not give a player a dog, just a dog. Let's not go crazy on the invention stuff, let's just keep it simple."
Q: As a device, it's a companion for the player.
Peter Molyneux: I've got a Fonz 'shark moment' - you know, where he's jumped over a shark on his motorbike... and after that Happy Days was s***. My inverse one of those was when I thought of the idea in Black & White of introducing weather patterns in the game that were the same outside your window, that was my 'shark moment'.
Fortunately I woke up and thought: "Why the f*** did I do that?" If you lived anywhere in the world, you don't want the weather in the game to be outside your window... you want the opposite. It was a dumb, stupid idea.
Q: There was a bit of scorn about the dog when you first talked about it - although it felt quite natural and easy once you played it. And to be fair, only those people whose lost their dog (either through the game or at the end) really understood how much a part of the experience it had become.
Peter Molyneux: It was you being emotionally involved. For Fable III we've talked about the dog a hell of a lot, and we were thinking about what we should do this time. I'm not going to spoil anything, but we wondered if we really needed to do something major this time, like chop one of its legs off or something - and go bizarrely over-the-top.
It will be interesting what you think of the dog this time - I think you'll be most impressed by how little we've done with it, because it didn't need more stuff, laser bolts strapped to the side of its body or more features.
Q: It reminds of the observation about razor blades - over time the Big Thing has been adding more Blades, but now we seem to be at the tipping point where companies are reversing that trend, and suddenly the Big Thing is that a razor now has Fewer Blades... There's a lot of pressure on franchises to add a certain number of new features to the version for the Big Thing - and sometimes they're there for the sake of that number. How do you avoid that temptation?
Peter Molyneux: Indeed... in fact there are less features in Fable III than there have been in any of the other Fables before. But what we do with those features is far, far better.
I think you have to be completely honest, and every time I have an idea, is it really going to make a big difference? We have this really big line which asks - and I take my hat off to Louise Murray, who's the head of the Fable franchise for this - "Is that idea just a good idea, or does it make the game better?"
So often a good idea can actually make the game worse, or another feature can make the game worse. I think you need to be super-honest with yourself, and you've got to work with people who - and this is where politics can be so destructive - are honest, will look you in the eye and tell you if something's not right. And I do work with those people.
Q: That must leave the marketing guys scratching their heads though: "So, hang on, you're giving us fewer features to work with here?"
Peter Molyneux: Marketing is very tricky and hard to work with. They suffer the same problem as everybody else - the game that they get to market, they it so late... The conversation always goes like this:
"We'd really like to see the game, so we can decide on the marketing message." And then there's the fatal line: "We've seen lots of games - don't worry about the quality, we can see past that." As soon as they say that, I feel like saying: "Look, let's just not look at the game at all."
It's very hard for people to see, when you've got a purple box on the screen, that the dog is really cute. They're thinking: "Er, it's a purple box." It's very difficult for them - we've always had a problem working with Microsoft, and we've got some great marketing people at the moment (hi Steve) who are always pushing the envelope a little bit. They know our features and what we're doing, and with Fable III there was this whole thing about touch.
But part of the desire to make a really clear story was also about being able to give something to marketing, so they could get their teeth into it. So the story of Fable III is that you're a revolutionary, there's an evil tyrant king - you're going to overthrow him and become king yourself. That's it - and you can imagine their eyes light up, because there're about 12 things they can get their teeth stuck into.
Q: So how does the industry change, then? I've heard people like Phil Harrison talk about a 'fail fast and often mantra' when designing games, bringing players in much earlier in the process and maybe not monetising it until later - and a bunch of this has worked out for companies like Zynga. But that's not really practical for a big budget, triple-A game, is it?
Peter Molyneux: This is to be expected. I know everyone's talking about it now, but hang on a second - we always think the games industry is unique, but it's nothing new. This has happened before - what happened to the movie industry when television was introduced? It's very analogous.
I can imagine movie executives meeting around a table worrying that movies would be dead because everybody would have TVs, and nobody would want to go to the cinema any more. Well guess what? There was a bit of imbalance, but more people go to the cinemas these days, and TV programmes are still being made.
I think the same is true of this - there's been a gold rush here. It's only a matter of time, Phil, before some b*****d out there makes an amazing quality app on the iPhone which blows everybody away, which costs a $5-10 million... and everybody will turn around and say: "Great - now we have to spend $5 million on every app."
This time next year I bet you there'll be five of them - and there's only a matter of time before the franchises that we're now attaching games to come on to these devices. And when they do, when Star Wars and Disney and goodness knows what else is one there...
Q: There's already a Grand Theft Auto...
Peter Molyneux: Exactly, and they're pretty powerful machines. Just look at how much more powerful the iPhone 3GS is compared to the first iPhone release - it was about three times the power. And the iPhone 4 is double the power of that one.
Q: But that's the beauty of the games industry though, isn't it? Games permeate everywhere there's a screen, so while the iPhone or iPad might suddenly become a $10 million entry price point, there'll be something else coming along that will be able to foster new creativity.
Peter Molyneux: I think Apple completely underestimated how important games were going to be to the iPhone. I think they've been much more important. I remember when Steve Jobs stood up with a big pie chart and said something along the lines that the games industry was only $10 million, and they weren't really interested in that.
But now that you've got 200,000 apps and there are a lot of people downloading small, bite-sized games, they're realising the games industry is important - we're a proper industry!
Q: I bet that frustrates a lot of people in the traditional industry, when a company comes along and corners a market by accident...
Peter Molyneux: It's amazing how designers have done a fantastic job of getting around the problems that this multi-touch screen has. Your finger's always in the way - but they've done some smart stuff.
Q: So looking ahead to Fable III - lots of pressure and expectation, but you'll tell me you're confident it is going to be a great game?
Peter Molyneux: You're asking me to judge my own child. Is your kid going to be a nice person? Yeah, of course he is. I'm not going to say he's going to be a horrible brat.
But absolutely for sure, Fable III is the best Fable yet, by a million miles. Definitely. Absolutely, without question.
Because firstly, Phil - I know this sounds like a PR line - we love making Fable, we really do. It's amazing to me and the rest of the team to go out to somewhere like E3 and have people walk up to you, and ask what you're doing with the game.
That's a brilliant feeling, and it's not like it used to be. 15 years ago in this industry, if you did a sequel, people would come and spit at you in conferences - but now people love the idea. The dream that me and the Carters had back when we first thought of making an RPG was to make a big, huge adventure that spanned time, that took us from fairy-tales right up to - well, that's moving on, but where we are now and beyond.
And we're doing it - that's pretty cool. It feels that now we're getting accessibility right, the core stuff is right, we're sorting out problems with co-op, introducing more innovation than we've ever introduced before... but we're implementing it in such a way that makes sense, that makes the whole game better.
I think Fable III's going to be great - I really do.
Peter Molyneux is creative director of Microsoft Game Studios. Interview by Phil Elliott.