Lionhead: Microsoft doesn't need us to be evil
Fable Legends game director David Eckelberry explains the free-to-play decision
"Microsoft is much more interested in making a happy community of players and making the Xbox and Windows 10 a fun place to play - it doesn't need us to be evil," says David Eckelberry, the game director for Fable Legends at Lionhead.
He's talking about the game's approach to free-to-play, because if you missed the bombshell, that's what Fable is now. It's a move that seemed at odds with the game's single player, story-driven past, but Eckelberry promises it's all about innovation, not economics.
"Free-to-play is a model that is a weapon, in some sense. So a weapon can be used for good and a weapon can be used for evil"
"It's a model that is a weapon, in some sense. So a weapon can be used for good and a weapon can be used for evil. We wanted to be sure that the world knew that we weren't doing this for the reasons of a business model. Nobody came to Lionhead studios and said 'we want you to make a free-to-play game' they said 'make a new Fable game.' And we said 'OK, let's experiment, let's be innovative.'"
He goes on to explain that the Lionhead development team didn't sit down on day one with the business model already set. Free-to-play came about organically as they prototyped new ways to play with the old 'heroes and villains' archetypes. However, Eckelberry will admit that once the business model had been decided it was kept under wraps for some time.
"Even though we knew for a while what we were doing in terms of business model, we really wanted to say to the world 'get excited about this pretty new game, it's a AAA game, it's not a game that we made on the cheap.' It's the biggest and most expensive Fable game that we've ever made in terms of the amount of time we're investing in it and the size of the team. It's a major project for Lionhead, as big as we've ever done," he says.
"We really wanted the world to get a sense of that, we wanted everyone to know we wanted to do this innovative thing. Look, whether we had charged $60 for it or brought it to market as we are, we wanted people to be excited about playing it, instead of worrying about how they were going to buy it."
"It's not a game that we made on the cheap. It's the biggest and most expensive Fable game that we've ever made"
It's something we all should have suspected earlier, in retrospect. In April 2013, John Needham became head of the studio, a man with a background in online games like Marvel Heroes and Super Hero Squad Online, Champions Online and Star Trek Online, an ex-CFO of Sony Online Entertainment. A man with a history of free-to-play.
It seems that the free-to-play we can expect from Fable Legends is that of the shopkeeper trying to tempt you with a pretty new dress, rather than the phoneline that wants to charge you by the minute for your fun. Think spending money on customisation, locking down your favourite heroes, investing in a sexy outfit.
"Everything that affects gameplay can be earned from the treasure chests or buying it using silver in town," promises Eckelberry.
"Now, if you have a real love of one of these characters you can customise them. So your Evienne and my Evienne might look pretty different: you tweak her hair style or colour, you might be able to buy an outfit that doesn't have any stats or gameplay effect on it but that just looks neat and that you want to wear."
In addition to the monetisation, new content and storylines will be added as the game goes on, exploring different areas of Albion and different adventures for the heroes.
"They can download the game, play the hell out of it and if they have a great time that's great, and then come back a few months later, see the three or four new quests that we put in, the new characters, the new creatures, there's always going to be a reason to revisit and experience more story and more content."
The game is scheduled for a 2015 release on Xbox One and Windows 10, when fans and the curious can test Lionhead's free-to-play promises for themselves. A beta is currently signing up the faithful, Needham is leaving Lionhead to return to Redmond to work on new IP and Windows 10 is due sometime in the summer, so release can't be far off. It's hard to know what reviewers will make of the episodic content or free-to-play model, but when a game is free, review scores hardly matter. What matters is if people play it.
"I don't want to make a game that I would feel in any way guilty or wrong about, that seems silly and stupid. I'm not in this for personal gain, I'm in this to show this off to the world. The proud moment for me and the people I work with is it's different - and a lot of us are older developers and we can hesitate - but the real answer to it is that being able to give it to any of our friends for nothing is pretty cool."