The Rise and Sudden Fall of Lionhead
Well, that happened. After a near exact 20 years of game development Microsoft seems to be closing Lionhead and cancelling the in-development Fable Legends. Granted two decades is an enormously impressive time for a game developer to exist, but it’s still a shock when the reasoning isn’t obvious and the timing sudden and abrupt.
Nevertheless we’re not here to dwell on their ending, we’re here to celebrate the rise of a great UK developer and look at Lionhead’s contribution to PC gaming. And then we’ll dwell on their ending a bit.
IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS A HAMSTER
Of course we can’t talk about Lionhead without bringing up Bullfrog. Arguably the most creative developer the UK has ever seen (sorry Lionhead), Bullfrog was home to such innovative and absurdly playable titles such as Theme Park, Populous, Syndicate, Theme Hospital, Dungeon Keeper, Magic Carpet and more. Of course founder, designer and programmer Peter Molyneux had a large hand in many of these titles, and after the release of Dungeon Keeper Bullfrog was purchased by Electronic Arts and a large number of the team left. Many ended up banding together to form other studios, such as Mucky Foot (Urban Chaos, Startopia), and the biggest was called Lionhead.
Named after co-founder Mark Webley’s hamster (RIP), Lionhead was home to many of the Bullfrog team including Peter Molyneux. Well, six of them. Working out of Peter Molyneux’s house, the at first small team immediately began working on their first game, an epic expansion of the God Game genre that they themselves had invented at Bullfrog with Populous. That game was to be called Black & White.
While Lionhead was founded in 1996, the small team would only begin work on the game proper when they moved into their new Guildford offices in 1998. The team, led by Molyneux, started throwing around mad ideas such as being completely mouse-driven and UI-less, and having online weather systems that tracked what your local weather was like and put it in the game. Gradually the game took shape, and Black & White finally launched on PC in March/April 2001.
BLACK & WHITE (2001)
“Find out who you really are”
What is it?: Black & White is still, in many ways, the ultimate god game. Playing as a new god, you have to amass an army of followers and gain enough power to usurp your powerful rival Nemesis. How you do this is up to you. You can appease your followers, give them their heart’s desire and let them rely on you for everything, or you can make them live in fear at unleashing your wrath. But you’re not alone: you have a pet Creature to accompany you. This Creature will learn from your actions, so you better teach it right and tell it off if it eats too many villagers… unless you want it to do that of course.
So how good is it?: Debates still rage to this day on how good a game Black & White is. It got hugely high reviews at the time which have prompted plenty of “overrated” comments since. The biggest problem is that World 2 is the only really “free” level, with the rest either being a tutorial, lacking a Creature or constantly under attack by Nemesis.
Nevertheless the scope and ambition in Black & White dwarfs any God Game before or since (with Peter Molyneux’s own Godus being particularly left in the dirt). The way that the land would mimic how good or evil you were becoming was awesome, and the entirely mouse-driven interface could annoy but mostly worked just fine which was an achievement for such a huge game. It was the AI on the Creature that was most startling however. It would learn by your actions as well as a mixture of praise and punishment, and after a while it’d come to feel like a real animal. While the way the Creature learned was erratic and certainly wasn’t 1-to-1 perfect, isn’t that more realistic? It was an epic game to be sure, and an impressive first game from Lionhead.
BLACK & WHITE: CREATURE ISLE (2002)
“Find out who your Creature really is”
What is it? Lionhead’s first game gets an expansion, Creature Isle, which saw your god and your Creature visit a new island where your Creature could train their own little Creature called Tyke, autonomous from your control.
So how good is it?: An interesting experiment for sure, Creature Isle pushed your Creature’s training and their AI into the extreme situation of having to pass it along to a new generation without any direct guidance from you. It was a cool idea, but the tasks were pretty monotonous and otherwise it was just more of the same. Possibly the most interesting fact about Creature Isle then is that it was made by a Lionhead satellite studio made exclusively to work on the Black & White series, catchily named “Black & White Studios”. It would not be the only satellite studio set up by Lionhead…
“For every choice, a consequence”
What is it?: Lionhead’s first entry in their most popular series, Fable was a slightly more whimsical RPG than many gamers were used to. Like Black & White there was a strong focus on good and evil and how choices had consequences.
So how good is it?: For starters I should point out that Fable predates CD Projekt’s original The Witcher by three whole years, so the idea of a proper choice/consequence driven RPG was a really novel one at the time. Lionhead, in the guise of satellite studio Big Blue Box, actually pulled it off quite well. The PC version, Fable: The Lost Chapters, actually came a year in 2005 and was an extended and impressive port. The simple-but-deep combat was entertaining, the British sense of humour came across well, and the only real cloud was the usual one: Peter Molyneux overhyping it. Such unrealistic ideas such as being able to plant a seed in the ground and being able to watch it grow to a tree was a bit beyond original Xbox hardware, ditto the proper open world (Morrowind was out but it was a very different RPG). Nevertheless many people consider Fable to be the studio’s best game, and despite it being the start of a slippery slope towards acquisition and closure the series kept them alive and relevant for another decade.
BLACK & WHITE 2 (2005)
“Play good, play bad, play god”
What is it?: Lionhead’s sequel to their first epic game, with an improved graphics engine and a new focus on warfare. And it was PC-only.
So how good is it?: Ah. Now, there’s a select group of people who think that Black & White 2 is better than its predecessor. These people are known as “wrong”. While Black & White 2 is an improvement in some areas, notably in making it more obvious when training your Creature and actually having a UI, in most it’s a failure. The AI is completely broken, the warfare no fun, the peaceful defending no fun, the teaching of your Creature has now basically been thrown out entirely, and most of the freeform world building is impossible with a giant wall keeping idiots out. It’s a very repetitive and not very entertaining game that threw out most of the things that made the original fun, and one of the most disappointing sequels ever. Shame. And the mission pack Battle of the Gods was just more of the same.
THE MOVIES (2005)
“Be the Ultimate Hollywood Player”
What is it?: For all intents and purposes, Theme Hollywood. Manage a movie studio, hire & fire cast & crew, and even make your own movies.
So how good is it?: Many gamers were excited about The Movies as it seemed to be a spiritual return to the more amusing management titles the team did so well back at Bullfrog. As per usual with Lionhead it was insanely ambitious, with gamers being able to micromanage three main areas: designing the studio itself, hiring and promoting cast and making movies. Players could choose to manage all of these or specialize, leaving the rest to AI. It’s the movie making stuff that’s of course the most interesting, with the opportunity to do as much or as little as you want - you can write scripts, put in music, effects or voice, and at the time could be uploaded to Lionhead’s website (or Youtube now). Reviews were pretty damn positive, with our own review being more on the cautious side but still calling it “a fine game”. Most of the criticisms seemed to focus on the sheer amount of micromanagement and how mechanical some of it felt.
PURCHASE TWO EXPANSIONS AND GET A BUYOUT FREE
And so we come to the most tumultuous time of Lionhead’s history. Around 2004 things weren’t looking up. With the exception of Fable none of Lionhead’s projects had done amazingly well, with Black & White 2 in particular getting underwhelming press and sales after an overlong stretch in development. Lionhead had two expansions in development and neither were for the game that actually did well (Fable, lest we forget) and yet another of their satellite studios Intrepid was in the middle of development of a superb looking game called B.C.
B.C. had a huge open world sandbox, proper ancient wildlife with a proper food chain to maintain (or not), intelligent fire systems, herds of dinosaurs, a real survival game years before the current crop like Rust or Ark… and there was no way it was coming out. It was too ambitious for its own good, the satellite studio format was hurting it, and the quicker than expected demise of the original Xbox all lead to the cancellation of Lionhead’s arguably most ambitious game (there had been God Games, RPGs and Management Sims before, but not whatever the hell B.C. was).
Combining all this with another cancellation, this time of the Jeff Minter collaboration Unity, it was clear Lionhead was in trouble. In April 2006 Microsoft announced the buyout of Lionhead Studios, bringing an end to a decade of independent development. Their first game for Microsoft would be Fable II, which would come out in 2008 to a mostly positive reception… but PC gamers would be left in the cold. It would be a further two years before Lionhead would be allowed to return to our beloved home computers.
FABLE III (2010/2011)
“It’s a Revolution”
What is it?: The third and final proper game in the Fable trilogy is set 50 years after Fable II, as Albion is entering its industrial age. The player has to overthrow their tyrannical brother Logan, become monarch of Albion and stop an impending invasion. But will they be a benevolent ruler or an evil emperor?
So how good is it?: The reception at the time was generally positive, hanging around the 8s and 7s, but not spectacular. Our own review was generally complimentary, praising the general enhancements from the 360 version and the sheer fun of exploration. Complaints mostly centred about the bugginess of the dog companion and the still-shallow relationships, while other reviews mentioned how systems had been oversimplified, the lack of a decent map, and the rather dull story. PC Gamer in particular suggested that in Lionhead’s desire to moralize a lot of the charm of the series had been lost. The Metacritic user score for the PC version is sitting at a rather poor 5.4, and Peter Molyneux himself said that it was shipped before it lived up to expectations. It’s now not even available to buy on PC, thanks to the death of Games For Windows Live and Microsoft’s unwillingness to patch it. It’s a sad end to the Fable series and Lionhead’s PC gaming heritage.
A LAND OF INNOCENCE HAS NO NEED FOR GODS
After the departure of Peter Molyneux from Lionhead and then finally Microsoft in 2012, Lionhead was stuck without their biggest advocate in their publisher’s camp. Like similar undervalued Microsoft-owned British studio Rare, instead of making a new epic game or even a major sequel to one of their popular titles their talents were wasted on Kinect games. Milo & Kate was either a cute tech demo or an impossible game, but either way was cancelled and 2012’s Fable: The Journey was put in its place. A simplistic on-rails adventure utilizing Microsoft’s first poor Kinect camera, The Journey had some fans but not many. Even more simplistic Xbox Live Arcade side-scrolling title Fable Heroes came out the same year, and you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who remembers it doing so.
2014’s remastered re-release Fable: Anniversary would prove to be the last game released by Lionhead. Fable Legends was announced in 2013 as a MOBA-style game, more focused on co-op action play than quests or exploration, like Raids in MMOs but as full game. It was announced for PC via the Windows 10 Store last year and is still in beta right now… but is nonetheless cancelled despite being seemingly almost content complete. Early reports said the game played a little like Evolve with 4 Heroes facing 1 Villain, except that the Villain sent forth monsters in basically a strategy game instead of fighting them himself. So it was basically a more action-packed Hero Quest. It sounded fun, if yet again not a proper Fable sequel, and it is sad that it’s cancelled.
But it’s Lionhead themselves that’ll be missed more. Say what you like about the Fable series, they were unique, sweet, and absurdly British RPGs and I can’t imagine any other studio making them. And at least Lionhead were a studio prepared to take risks. Sometimes they paid off, like with Fable or Black & White, and even if they didn’t I’d rather have a interesting failure than a predictable success. While I’ll miss pre-Microsoft Lionhead more than anything, it’s sad to see any talented studio go under. We can only imagine that Fable Legends possibly wasn’t coming together right, but whatever reason we’ll have the memories.
Well, just as soon as Microsoft, EA, Activision etc get their asses in gear and actually bloody re-release all Lionhead’s games digitally anyway. You can get two versions of Fable 1 on Steam but not Fable III? And I can’t even get my DVD copy of The Movies to install now. Ridiculous. I want to honour the memory of Lionhead publishers, so let me play their incredible games please.