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Why Lionhead sank beneath the weight of Fable Legends

Kotaku UK pulls together accounts from multiple anonymous sources close to Lionhead to try and paint a picture of how Fable Legends spelled the downfall of one of the UK's venerable studios.
"The original pitch was for a really cheap game – it certainly wasn’t the $75m we ended up spending...But as time wore on, there were various voices that made it more complicated."

- An anonymous source, trusted by Kotaku UK, speaks to the development of Lionhead's last project: Fable Legends.

After 20 years of making games, Lionhead Studios is no more. 

Fable Legends, the ambitious asymmetrical multiplayer free-to-play game the studio had been working on since 2012, is also dead, and a new feature over on Kotaku UK pulls together accounts from multiple anonymous sources close to Lionhead to try and paint a picture of how Fable Legends spelled the downfall of one of the UK's venerable studios.

"“I thought I was going to be working on a single-player game, a more advanced version of Fable 3,” claims one source. “But when they went to get that game approved, the three senior designers who were pitching it were told that ‘you will not be given permission to make Fable 4, or something that is a shadow Fable 4.’ Phil Harrison’s vision for all of his studios in Europe was now for service-based games. That’s what he thought was the future of games. He didn’t want to make anything that was a £50 box, fire and forget. He wanted long tails of revenue, even if there was a smaller up-front burst of revenue."

That's well in line with comments former Lionhead chief John Needham made in 2014, when the onetime Cryptic Studios CEO stated quite frankly that his mission included "pivoting Lionhead into a games-as-a-service studio." 

Legends was to be the centerpiece of that transition, and Needham spoke about it as a "platform" where Lionhead could release new Fable content for 5-10 years, instead of releasing distinct Fable games.

But according to Kotaku UK's sources, the project -- initially pitched as a "medium-scale game, a AA game" -- grew dangerously expensive as shake-ups in Microsoft's management structure brought Lionhead under the influence of different masters with different expectations and demands.

"The size of the game just kept growing, and the fidelity value of the game kept growing," said one source. "Because we were the servant of two masters. We reported to Phil Harrison, the master of Europe, but we also had another person that he does not report to: Phil Spencer. And he wants a beautiful AAA quality experience that he can use to sell Xbox Ones. So now we’re making a free-to-play game that’s as expensive as an AAA game. Very dangerous."

Fable Legends was also seemingly designed for release only on the Xbox One and the Windows Store on PC, not Steam, which at least one source worried would handicap its earning potential significantly right from the start -- and the F2P game would have needed a very large playerbase to drum up enough microtransactions to justify its high cost of development.

"Without Steam, without other platforms, it was just painful,” one source said. “The Windows Store is a giant disaster. It’s on fire. 98 percent of PC copies of Rise of the Tomb Raider, a flagship Windows 10 game, were bought on Steam. The same is true for Minecraft. That hurt us, too. The store’s a mess; the number of people who couldn’t even install the game from the Microsoft store was… significant."

But Lionhead soldiered on, through delays and technical setbacks, until one day many at the studio discovered that they had to stop -- the studio was to be shuttered, and one former dev says "the day the world found out, the studio found out."

Microsoft has since lent the Fable license to a handful of ex-Lionhead devs now trying to complete one of the studio's final projects, Fable Fortune, but Fable Legends -- and the studio behind it -- now seem to be gone for good.

For more insight into the design and development of Fable Legends, and how working on it shaped -- and ultimately sank -- Lionhead, you can (and should) check out the full feature over on Kotaku UK.

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