Since Microsoft made the decision to kill Fable Legends and shut down its British developer Lionhead Studios in April, former Lionhead Studios employees have started to tell the troubled story behind this iconic game franchise. A few weeks ago, a lengthy report by Eurogamer revealed a lot of interesting details about the demise of the studio co-founded by Peter Molyneux after Microsoft acquired it in 2006 and tried to change the internal culture. Today, our colleagues at Polygon have just published the testimony of Iain Denniston, a former game developer who went to work on the first Fable game without being aware of all the sacrifices that he would have to do through his journey at Lionhead Studios.
While the first Fable game was released on the Xbox in September 2004 it took four years to be created. It was the first game developed by Big Blue Studios, a satellite developer of Lionhead Studios. However, the initial twenty person team quickly become hard-pressed by the massive scope of a game which had been hyped as the “best game ever” by Peter Molyneux before it was even ready.
When Big Blue Studios started working on Fable (which was then known as Project Ego), Denniston was quite enthusiastic to work on “incredible art and a game that looked amazing.” However, he quickly felt a growing pressure:
The atmosphere was too relaxed and jovial — work was getting done, but there was not really much sense of an end point. The dates mentioned as deadlines were almost spoken of with smirks and laughter: We made jokes about them rather than treating them as anything that might be worth the worry. We felt invincible. With Lionhead, Peter Molyneux and Microsoft in your corner, what could go wrong?
The former game developer remembers that E3 2003 “marked a time that began the end of our studio.” This was just when Lionhead Studios was getting ready to show off the game to the public, though Fable was still far from complete:
It became clear that we were in trouble. We had lots of cool things to show off — demos for the press and those we gave at E3 were always well received — but the open secret was that we had pretty much no game. There was so much that needed to be done, so much that I don’t think had even been decided. It wasn’t like we even really had a plan of how to get to the end. There were many ideas and lots of potential, but nothing concrete. If we were ever to release the game, something needed to be done. And so something was.
The following story is pretty painful. Long story short, the small developing team quickly grew to a much bigger group that had to work in an overcrowded space before everyone was relocated to Lionhead headquarters. While the team achieved a lot following E3 2013, the working conditions had become brutal. Lionhead Studios head Peter Molyneux himself admitted it years later:
If I’m honest, on Fable we just burnt people’s lives; we destroyed the team. Week after week, month after month, they worked 50, 60, 70, 80-hour weeks. It destroyed their lives and destroyed their marriages.
Denniston explained that he felt so much pressure that some days he would “make exactly zero progress on anything. Hitting my head against the keyboard might have proven more productive,” he added. While he had no choice but to say goodbye to his social and family life, his health was also affected as he used to take medication for stress-related illnesses. “I experienced migraines, complete with terrifying tunnel vision, blackouts, severe depression, anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations and thought insertion,” he explained further.
Lionhead Studios still managed to complete the game in 2004 with Microsoft as a publisher, and Fable received critical acclaim. After a post-launch holiday, Denniston went to work on Fable: The Lost chapters but realized that “the damage was done.” He soon gave his resignation:
I realized I couldn’t stay at Lionhead any longer. The company I’d joined was gone, along with many of the things I had loved so much. I never really felt like Lionhead was the place for me, and even then it was clear Microsoft would probably buy the company … which would make it even less likely to be somewhere I’d feel comfortable. It didn’t help that at that time I was so very, very angry about what had happened withFable. I worked my notice and left. I wouldn’t work again in the industry for several years.
However, despite all that he went through, Denniston admits that “I can’t regret the time I spent on Fable, despite how utterly despairingly dark it got, because of the good things.” He still remembers the beginning of his journey at Big Blue Box as “an experience I would dearly love to have again.” Furthermore, he’s still aware that working on Fable has been an incredibly rewarding experience:
To this day, I still get kudos from gamers for having worked on Fable. Anytime I see someone talk positively about their experience with Fable it makes me smile, knowing that for better or worse I helped shape that. I’m intensely proud of the work I did on Fable. That technology I personally built and, in some cases invented, helped create the game that people played and loved evokes a feeling quite unlike any other.
While Denniston can legitimately be proud of his achievements as a game developer, Polygon reveals that he no longer works as a game developer but has become a programmer with a specialization in the mathematical heavy areas of the profession. We invite you to read the full story over here.