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The Nuts And Bolts Of Fable III

Lionhead's Fable III lead designer Josh Atkins talks in-depth to Gamasutra about extending the storied action RPG franchise into its third iteration -- from voice acting through kingmaking.

While Peter Molyneux gets a lot of ink, there's obviously a team of developers working very hard to turn Fable III from fan favorite into full-fledged phenomenon -- working to make the goals that he outlined in his GDC talk earlier this year more concrete.

One such developer is Josh Atkins, the Xbox 360 and PC game's lead designer. Originally a Microsoft employee who was lent to the team during development of the original game in 2003 and 2004, he worked again on the second and finally joined the team full-time for the third, starting in 2008.

Atkins' earlier background is as an in-house Nintendo developer; he had professional contact with Shigeru Miyamoto when working as lead designer of Gamecube title Wave Race: Blue Storm.

He decided to jump to Microsoft, excited by the Xbox and what "it was going to become" -- "in particular... the future of online games" and the "possibilities" of Xbox Live, a subject he goes into in depth in this interview.

But he also discusses how the team is structured and how it works to realize those lofty goals laid out by Peter Molyneux -- improving accessibility while maintaining depth.

Lead designer for Fable III is quite a lot of responsibility, isn't it?

Josh Atkins: Yeah, it's a very big game.

Peter Molyneux has been very vocal about how there has been a lot of thought put into how you want to make the game more accessible and more streamlined, but more satisfying. That's a complicated challenge, isn't it?

JA: Yeah, it is. It's a fun one. It's not a bad challenge by any stretch of the imagination, but it's very difficult. We spent a lot of time talking about making sure the player understands their objective and making sure we know what we want a player to feel at a given time. We want what they need to do to be clear and we want them to be emotionally involved in what they are doing.

When you talk about how someone feels, there are different kinds of emotions that come out when playing games. There is certainly the emotion of the story, but there's also the emotion of what you've actually just accomplished. Which are you speaking about? Or is it both?

JA: Both. They go hand in hand. There's the emotion you get from the story that is, for us, really critical, and it's something that we spent a lot of time thinking and talking about.

There's also the emotion of trying to meld the drama of the story with an action-packed sequence, so they feel like it has a true ebb and flow to it; that the drama and pacing of the story blends perfectly with the drama and pacing of the actual gameplay.

How do you approach that, making those things align? That's been a challenge with game design, to have those two work in concert.

JA: With Fable III, we started with our story and the journey we want the player to go on. From a story standpoint, we started out with what we call "journey to rule," which we have talked a lot about in the press already; it's the path you go on as a revolutionary where you ultimately become the ruler.

We knew we anted to do that journey, so we started to ask, "What are the big moments along the way? What are going to be the big, dramatic combat sequences? What are the times where you will feel like you are on an adventure on your own? What are the times when you're with somebody? What are the times where we want it to be a simple, easy fight scene so you feel quite powerful versus a more challenging fight?

We look at the story first and as we start building that out, we put together the peaks and valleys from an action sequence standpoint and approach it that way.

Particularly with games, you are always generating content, having to generate environments, and role-playing games also offer more non-linearity than other types of games. How do you orchestrate that in terms of the narrative?

JA: The interesting thing about Fable is that it's non-linear, in a lot of what I personally think are very unique ways. The first thing we do is make sure we put in points in the story where the player feels comfortable wandering off, and feel like there's a point where a character will tell you directly or insinuate, "Hey, now's the time where you can do whatever you want" and give you that feeling of open space as part of the ebb and flow of the game and also the pacing of the story.

We make sure we leave those moments in for you to feel like there's a purpose to exploring. But what we do differently at that point, in addition to having the standard optional quests, we have the sim.

You can lead this rather full life in the game so we need to make sure that we leave these brackets where you can play with the sim, get married, buy houses, try trading, do all the layers of activities that are in fable, along with all these great optional quests and side quests that build into the main story.


Do you work with a narrative designer on the game? How does the responsibility with creating and implementing the story with the core gameplay design shake down?

JA: There are a couple of us that oversee the story and how it weaves into the gameplay. There's me, there's a lead writer who is the owner of the actual story and dialogue of the characters, then there's our lead scripter, who is also a huge participant in how the story flows and the activities and missions work.

The three of us work very heavily with Peter on the breakdown and outline of the story, and we're left to fill in the middle bits and review those with him on a pretty regular basis.

There are three of us, from a design standpoint, that are the core story people, but we also have a combat team that focuses on the creatures and combat, and we work very closely on the audio and art animation teams on how to build the story in a compelling way, from what a character will look like to who will voice them.

An interesting story would be how we ended up with John Cleese as our butler. We began with the idea that we wanted to reinvent the way the player interfaced with the game; effectively, we wanted to reinvent the GUI.

That wasn't really what we started out doing. We wanted one crazy way for players to customize their hero and feel like everything was really integrated, rather than having a weird 2D menu you have to go to.

We came up with the idea that if you have to go to one place to change your clothes, your weapons, do all your activities, we really should have a butler. Then we started talking about what kind of character the butler would be, what kind of personality he would have and who we wanted him to be.

The more we talked about him and figured out what he looked like, we came up with a list of actors that we thought could play him. At the top of our list was John Cleese, just based on the personality of the character we had come up with.

When you approached John Cleese, did you have -- I'm assuming this was earlier on and you didn't have all his dialogue. Approaching someone like that, to say, "Hey, we have this idea for a basic character concept, are you interested?"

JA: Basically what we do is concept art for what the character looks like, then we write a bio, then we write sample lines. I'm not super involved with the agents and the Hollywood-y fancy bits, but we try to create a package for that actor that makes them feel like they understand the character they are going to be playing.

We've said out loud that the voice actors we've compiled are the best cast in the history of games. What's interesting about having such a deep cast is that they end up bringing a lot to the role, you want to give them enough to work with that they understand the character.

But you also want to work it so that they can bring something of themselves to it and get involved in it, and you want them to enjoy the process. We send them a bio, and a lot comes out in the studio, through improvisation and things like that. It's a bit of a give and take with them.

To talk about this idea of scrapping the GUI and going for more direct in-world control and representation of your character, I can totally understand the impetus behind that, but it also seems like it could be a tremendous challenge and a potential pitfall to create something that does work for people and is comprehensible. Can you talk a bit about that process?

JA: The interesting thing about our efforts with that is that we started out and it was one of our big things to reinvent for ourselves. We started out by asking ourselves what he hadn't done well, and we wanted to improve it. In Fable 1 and Fable II, the GUI was fine, but it wasn't great.

We sat down and said, "Let's fully integrate it and make it one seamless experience. We did a lot of things. We broke it down into the things that a player will want to do, and not so much focus on how to over engineer it to focus on the things they might do.

We wanted to focus on the things that a player will want to do, that will come up in the average play experience, and we tried to make those perfect and not worry about the sideways, outside stuff that could come up. We tried to make this as clean an experience as we can for the person who is having the experience we feel they should be having.

That's kind of a good angle to approach design in general from, I would think, especially on things like RPGs, scope can spiral out of control very fast.

JA: Yeah, and from a design standpoint, it's easy to stand there and go, "What if, what if, what if?" I don't want to create the impression that we don't spend time talking about depth, but we definitely ask, "Is that really going to happen, or are we just dealing with the outside chance of some weird occurrence?"

We did think a lot about something like the iPhone when we were looking at our GUI, because the reality is that it doesn't do everything, but what it does do is so good and so clean that you don't think about all the things it doesn't do.

I don't think you should be criticized when looking at Apple when it comes to UI design; I don't think that's something to apologize for. (laughs)

JA: I tend to look at their stuff with great awe and admiration, and we definitely took a lesson about not putting the kitchen sink into every single feature, but try to make it as smart and as clean as you possibly can.


Also, when you are talking out loud about your approach to a game like this, particularly with RPGs, you have that really broad audience spectrum, and the second you start saying things like that, the vocal minority will be like, "Oh, you're dumbing it down, and taking things away."

JA: Whenever you try to do something that's outside the norm, you definitely will run into people who will be critical of it. One of the things we started out with was taking some steps away from the RPG-ness of the game.

That's not to say we don't have a leveling system, and all the RPG fun that players like, but we definitely tried to take a couple strides more toward the action experience because we felt like first off, that's accessible and something that would be good for players and give them something unique to Fable as well.

Fable has always been kind of an action RPG, not a hardcore RPG, so for us to take strides away from the RPG side for the GUI really fit with what wanted to do with the franchise.

Something I've spoken about with other designers is how complexity is often mistaken for depth in games.

JA: That's a great point. Some of that is built on the foundations of where we came from. A lot of us grew up -- at least I did -- in the PC heyday, and made our console transitions from anything from NES, Genesis, to maybe Atari.

The reality is that that great PC era was full of complexity, and we look back to that as a good way to do things, and for some games it is. The real trick is to build something that has that layer of depth that the player can explore if they want to, but not something that they have to.

I think the question is: how do you identify what is depth and what is complexity?

JA: We have a whole property management system, and we have our sim, our economy, and all the pieces of that. If we couldn't explain the rules of our sim, our economy, our house management, and the rest of it... We didn't explain it clearly to ourselves, and clearly it spiraled a bit and got to the point where our consumer wasn't going to be able to understand or use it.

To maintain control of it, we made sure we could explain it in one or two sentences: "This is how it works, you do this, and that happens." You can get a lot of depth out of interlocking systems that are not particularly complicated, so long as they are clear.

When it came to documentation, how much time was spent before you got into the production of the game?

JA: It depends what aspect of the game you are talking about. I think when it came to our missions or our script, those are very detailed, living documents. They start out in a form, and as the script and dialog changes -- by script, I mean mission script by the way, not just dialog script. As our mission and dialog scripts changed, we kept those documents up to date, and they were very much the living, breathing thing you'd expect them to be.

Some of our docs, depending on what you are talking about, are mind-map, stream of consciousness, and we distill from those what we are going to do. Once we get stuff into the game, we tend to work more on the game than the document. It's only the documents that other people use that we keep the most up-to-date. The document for us is the starting point, in most cases.

You mentioned earlier the team of you, the writer, and the scripter, and you just mentioned scripts for missions, could you clarify what you are talking about there in terms of role, and document?

JA: The team is broken up -- and it's slightly unique, [though] I think other teams probably are structured this way -- but from a design standpoint, we essentially have a scripting team. The scripting team consists of the guys who make the story and the gameplay come together. They are essentially very high-end Lua scripters. If we want to create a scenario, they go and built it.

From a toolset standpoint, it does require us to have some really talented and smart people on our scripting team because it's not very visual; it's very code-driven, or very high-end scripting driven system. Everybody works hand-in-hand, but our level designers are about building the world, and some of the experiences you have in the world, but they are not level designers in the sense of a first person shooter.

They are level designer in the sense of, "This is this town. What makes this town have personality? How is this town built so it feels like a real place? What's at the center of the town? Where's the square? Where do people go during the day? Where are all the houses?" They build a world, more than a faux, one-off level. They do that as well, but mostly it's about world-building, from a level design standpoint, and scripting is more about creating good drama and beat-by-beat experiences.

That's interesting because it sounds like it's broken down on one end as a very tech-centric design role, and the other is very art-influenced.

JA: That's very true, and on top of that you have the combat team, who are very animation- and code-compatible. My philosophy, for whatever that's worth, is that you can break designers into categories; you have art-focused designers, visual-focused designers, and I think you also have technical-focused designers.

Our combat team is made up of two designers that split that curve but fall on the technical side overall, the scripters are definitely very technical with a flair for the dramatic, and or level designers are very artistic, with a flair for the technical to get it all to run, if that makes sense.

It sounds like it's tough to find the right person for the job potentially. That's something the industry struggles with; teams develop idiosyncratic ways of working that work well for the styles of games they want to make.

JA: That's true; it's fair to say that the people we hire tend to be younger from a scripter and level design standpoint. We still have some of our hardcore veterans that have been with us for a long time, but our new guys tend to be people who come in from university or come in through test, or some facet like that, and we do that because our way of building Fable -- because it's such a unique game -- is different. We found a way to make Fable, but because there are so many facets to the game, it tends to take a certain kind of methodology to build it.


You told me that you were interested in the future of how online can be used in games, and I know that Fable has dabbled in ways of using online that are a little bit different, and I find that most uses of online tend to be very typical, and there's probably a lot more room to explore, so I was curious about your thoughts on that.

JA: Yeah, that's definitely true. Where things stand today, I don't think any of us can complain about the fun that can be had on Halo, on Call of Duty, on Gears, and those games that I think of as a sport, where you are generally playing against other people to be the big dog of that match, of that day.

That is fun, and there's absolutely no problem with that, but personally, there's a lot to be said about the kind of relationship you can have online with other players that isn't competitive. We want to build on the anecdotes we've heard from people who have played Fable and said, "I played with my kids" or "it's a game I played with my partner."

We want to make sure we capitalize on those experiences also, because co-op, in a lot of ways, yields -- I don't want to say it's more fun, because that's in the eye of the beholder -- but it certainly yields a different kind of experience that has a lot of merit to it.

For us, with online, we looked at two things. How do we capitalize on these experiences people have together? We created two things that I think are interesting. One is we are letting two heroes get married.

Unlike Fable II, you can have two heroes in a game, you can have two dogs. But now you can get married and have a family. You can go on the entire adventure together; you can level together, you can buy property together. One person can buy property while the other decorates houses and gets a job, one person can take care of the kid while the other goes to the job. It's pretty endless what you can do.

You can hire a nanny to watch the kid if both of you want to go adventuring, you can do a lot in that kind of experience. No game I know has ever done it, and I'm not sure any game but us could do it.

On top of that, there are many kinds of relationships you can have with people. You can have business partnerships where you and a friend elect to share all your gold and play the game together as two business partners buying houses, buying property, splitting the money earned, and really trying to create a new kind of gameplay based around co-op.

Is any of that stuff asynchronous?

JA: Some of it is. There's a certain amount of -- you can manage your relationships with people even when they are not online. If you decide to break a business partnership, you don't have to be in the same game to do that.

But because the experience is based around both of you being there, in most cases, we designed it so you both play together. You can do a lot of management of your relationships asynchronously, but the actual relationships are built around two people talking to each other and actually having the experience together. It will support drop-in/drop-out, but we are trying to encourage people to play together.

I don't know about other people, but the only time I play co-op is when I spend a little bit of time to get off the ground on my own. I don't just turn on my Xbox and play co-op.

JA: I'm actually the same way. You can break it down into two kinds of players. Two people that go out the same day and pre-order the game and eagerly wait for it to come out so they can play together the first night, and then you've got people who are more drop-in/drop-out who just want someone to drop in their game to play for a while, but they are not so linked in to the hip.

The thing for us was to make sure we provided an experience to both kinds of players. We also support the idea of if you want to just drop into somebody's game, you can earn gold, and we treat it as a job, and you can earn quite a bit of gold if you're helping other players out.

If you look at social games on Facebook and whatever, I think what's good about them is their asynchronicity, not necessarily the social interactions they are espousing -- but that's opinion on my part.

JA: For those games, I completely agree with you. For each platform, we have to design the experience we think is best for that platform. I think the beautiful thing about FarmVille and those games is that because they are asynchronous and on the PC or mobile applications, they are really built around a coffee break mentality, where you can play them during a coffee break, waiting at the bus, sitting at your desk, or whatever.

With console games, the good ones are high-end, dramatic experiences that have a story to them, and an overall dramatic arc that you want people to experience and feel fully immersed in. You play it on your fancy TV with your fancy surround sound and make it a fully immersive experience. You can certainly combine the two, but for us, the first stop on the train was making a compelling experience under that banner.

It's interesting because Nintendo is really pushing the idea of the tag mode, recently with Dragon Quest IX. Nintendo is also making a big deal that the 3DS is going to have always-on communication, and all your games that have this function will look for passive communication with other 3DSes. I can see that making more of an impact in my life than a co-op mode, in a lot of games.

JA: That's one reason why we like our orbs so much. If you remember, we are bringing back our co-op orbs that either let you see everyone playing Fable, or just your friends playing Fable, and at that point, you can talk to them, find out what they are doing, and choose to jump into their game, give them a gift, or do whatever you want -- but you don't have to actively play with them.

I guess I just see a lot of places to go, and it's cool to feel like we are only hitting the tip of the iceberg, in the sense that we have a lot of stuff still to come. But personally, it's a little frustrating because I'm not interested in what is typically defined as "multiplayer".

JA: I definitely think there's a way for us to continue to try and find things for everybody, there's no question in that. I do feel like the most important thing to do is not copy what everybody else is doing but to try to bring new things to that puzzle. We understand the Halos, the Gears, and how all that works, at least thus far. You can kind of guess where those are going to go. But thinking about asynchronous play, how to build on the relationships we have in our game, are things that have yet to be proven. There are new areas and new directions to go.

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