Senior design director Josh Atkins is currently hard at work putting the finishing touches to Fable III, the latest adventure game from Lionhead Studios. We caught up with him to find out what's changed for this sequel and if other morality-based games have had an influence.
Q: Could you talk about what you learned from the previous games, what you think didn't particularly work well in the past and thought you wanted to change in Fable 3?
Josh Atkins: I think we've already come out on the record saying that we weren't happy with the co-op. And so there are three things that we set out to do in Fable 3, and re-inventing our co-op was something that was definitely one of them. For us, we needed to make it a Fable co-op experience. We've allowed two heroes, two dogs, and split the cameras up so you can wander around separately or not. That, I think, was a core failing of Fable 2 - the fact that you were jammed on one screen together. It didn't feel natural. So we've allowed you to roam free and feel like a full hero. If you come in my game you can level, you can get gold, you can get items - you will feel like part of the game and not a second-class citizen. We basically fixed what was wrong with Fable 2. But on top of that we had to decide what makes a Fable co-op experience. One of the key points in Fable is to make you feel something and make you have an emotional moment with the game. Therefore what we've done is try to create new forms of relationships for players to have with the person you're playing with. So you can get married, have a family, buy a house, have a kid and feel like you really live in Albion.
Another one was the idea of the GUI. We wanted to make the experience of interfacing with the game seamless, and feel like you're always in the game. Those are two things that we looked at in Fable 2 and thought we could have done a lot better. The map's the third one. We made this full-on [3D] map that is a way of interacting and interfacing with the game you haven't seen before.
For us it is really important to make something that is really different. So the key tenet is something that has a great story. Very few games do humour well, so we make sure that there's a nice mixture of drama and humour. And then very fun, accessible combat is a very big tenet for us. On top of that it's just the breadth of the world and mixing all of that together. It's tough to find a game that does it all at the same time. So we like to think we have our own niche, but we certainly look to other games for inspiration.
Q: Could we go back to co-op for a moment, because that seems to be an area that has had the most changes. How exactly does Fable 3 co-op differ from Fable 2?
JA: The first thing that you'll notice that you'll be playing in the same world together and you are on different screens. For us there were a lot of facets to thinking about what happens when you're in different parts of the world, how do we make sure the game feels like you're actually playing together but feel like you have your own goals and your own things to do. First thing was making sure the combat worked in two-player. Lots of games do this, it's not an uncommon thing, you play Halo or you play Gears of War. What we're going to say is very few games have ever done this level of co-op gameplay in a game that has levelling RPG elements. So when the two of you are playing together you're able to level your hero out and become more powerful. The important thing from a design standpoint is make all the attacks work well together and have a benefit against each other. If one player is very good at melee and another is very good at ranged attacks then there's benefits both with how the enemies behave and the experience you're getting.
We didn't want there to be any kind of penalty to having somebody else in your world, so everything that you earn in that game is shared completely 100% between both players, zero penalty to it. However there is also a slight benefit to the player [who has entered your game] in that they also earn a salary as a player. They will earn gold for going into somebody else's game. There are only benefits [for playing together]. We have actually turned co-op into the most lucrative job you can have. You can change the settings of your game if you don't want people joining you but it's a pretty great way to make money and a really unique idea.
Q: What about on the morality front in that case? Obviously Fable is a very morality-based game but there are other, more hyper-realistic games like Heavy Rain that have similar moral themes of good and evil. I'm wondering if there are any other games that have influenced that aspect of Fable 3?
JA: Certainly. I mean, I think Heavy Rain was a brilliant game and I have no problem singing David Cage's praises. I was lucky to meet him one time, he's a brilliant man and I think the whole team at Quantic Dream are fantastic. For us we definitely will be inspired by stuff that they do and other people do. But when it comes to morality in Fable we started the franchise with the idea that every choice has a consequence. Morality as its own thing, with very black and white decisions gets old for us. Because life isn't just about good or bad, there are lots of shades of grey in between. We wanted to ask questions that weren't so straight-forward and really made you think. And we had that experience at the end of Fable 2 with the question at the end of the game where it's very difficult to say what is the right answer. People have talked to us about that particular moment in the game and for us we wanted to try and capture that. When it comes to morality, yes we're going to have some decisions that are very straight forward, good or bad, but then we really want to try to give ones that make you ask: "What is the right thing to do here, what is moral?" I think that's a very interesting question as players.
Q: I had read that a lot of people who had played Fable 2 weren't actually aware of the amount of things you could really do in-game. How did you go about to make it more obvious for the players?
JA: There are two things we've done in that respect. The first thing is that we've tried to integrate a lot of the features into the actual core experience of the game. [Many of the features have] been tangential, but now we're giving you a better reward and a bigger reason to do it and we're pointing you toward it a bit more. Then we're trying to advertise them better. So for things like Road to Rule the reason that some of the expressions and relationship systems are built into that is so that as a player you see and go "Oh, I didn't know I could do that!" Like house buying and house editing. We've made them relatively inexpensive unlocks but you still have to make the conscious decision to unlock them and therefore it's in your mind as something you can do.
Fable III is due for release on Xbox 360 on October 29, with a PC version to follow.