Lionhead Studio Closure Was Unexpected, Buyers Lined Up After Announcement

Eurogamer has just published a fantastic piece on the history of Lionhead that covers everything from the studio's start to its recent closure. There's quite a lot to ruminate on, but what I think deserves attention news-wise, is the fact that the piece paints the picture of a studio that, right before closure, was well aware of the problems with Fable Legends and its possible cancellation.

Interestingly, though, the development team seemed to believe that a cancellation would simply mean that they'd switch gears and start working on Fable 4 with the same assets and engine:

The thought was that Lionhead would soon switch focus to a Fable 4 game - little more than a Powerpoint presentation at this stage - using the technology and assets built for Fable Legends.

"The game was technically finished, the infrastructure was all in place, work had started on Fable next, and morale was actually quite high again," says a source.

"People were happy that Legends was coming to a close. We never really expected Legends to last a long time, but we never expected them to cancel it. "The biggest shock was the closing of the studio though. It felt as that because Microsoft hadn't had the best year with their games that we took the brunt of the attack, rather than a big studio such as 343.

"The biggest stab in the heart though was that for roughly six years the studio had pretty much been tasked to develop games that Microsoft wanted us to make to show off tech. Very few people wanted to make Fable: The Journey and almost nobody wanted to work on Fable Legends.

"It felt like the time was right to finally make that Lionhead 2.0 claim and build the game everyone wanted to play and we all wanted to make - Fable 4. We had some amazing in-house tech by the end, a foliage system to rival any other engines and a dynamic global illumination system which looked beautiful."

Lionhead's "doomsday scenario" was that Fable Legends would get canned, and the studio would take all of the assets and make Fable 4 out of it. This meant any Fable 4 game would have been set in the timeline of Legends, that is, several hundred years before the events of the original trilogy, so there would have been a lot of magic in the world. There would have been cameos from the Fable Legends heroes, too. It turned out Lionhead's true doomsday scenario was closure.

Both the piece and a recent Kotaku UK article also intimate that, at least for a time, there was hope that the studio might continue under a new owner, but Microsoft's refusal to sell the Fable IP sealed its fate:

A core team of staff tried to save Fable Legends in what was called "Project Phoenix". The plan was to take Fable Legends, finish it, ship it and continue developing it as a new studio that licensed the game from Microsoft. "It would have safeguarded quite a few jobs," says one person who was involved in the effort. "And if you write-off the cost of the Fable Legends development to date, it becomes something that actually could have made money."

Project Phoenix came close to a deal, with two Chinese companies expressing interest in funding the formation of a new studio, but ultimately it failed. Not only was Fable not for sale, but the talks took too long, and so by the time the news reached developers outside the core team, most had found a new job.

"Microsoft were supportive of it as an idea, but we ran out of time," says the source.

"During that period, Evolution got closed by Sony, and then within two weeks Codemasters picked them up. We were like, what the fuck? How did that happen so quickly? And it turned out the management team at Evolution had been given a heads-up months before as to Sony's intentions. Maybe if Microsoft had done similar it would have been a different story. Shit happens, unfortunately."

Fans of the studio who were disappointed by the announcement of Fable Legends will probably not take the news well, but the aforementioned pitch for Fable 4 wasn't the only one that floated around the studio during its post-Molyneux history. Art director John McCormack pitched the idea of a Fable 4 styled after Jules Verne's literary work that would borrow heavily from British and London's mythology, but Microsoft vetoed it due to their focus on games as a service:

It was in this context that a pitch for a Fable 4 game was rejected. John McCormack was the chief architect of the pitch. He wanted to switch to Unreal Engine 4 and move the series into the technological, industrial age, with tram cars and flying machines. "We wanted to hit the late Victorian proper far out Jules Verne shit," McCormack says.

In the first Fable, Bowerstone was a small town. In Fable 2 it was a big town. In Fable 3 it was a city. In McCormack's Fable 4, Bowerstone was London, vast and dense. Jack the Ripper would run the streets, a Balverine in disguise.

The game would lean heavily on British mythology. McCormack planned to take Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, give them a Fable twist and drop them in "this kind of weird fucked up London environment".

"And that was going to be Fable 4, and it would be darker and grittier. And because it was R-rated it would have the prostitutes and the humour. I was like, man, this is going to be fucking brilliant, and everybody was really into it."

Well, not everyone. The pitch was rejected because Lionhead had to switch to making games as a service.

Overall, I highly recommending reading the Eurogamer piece in full to everyone who's ever been interested in either Lionhead as a studio, the Fable IP, or even Peter Molyneux himself. It's really one of the best examples of game journalism I've read in a while.