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Lionhead closes today - one of gaming's greatest dreamers is gone

Making video games is a high-cost, high-risk endeavor and, sadly, studios going out of business is a common occurrence – both big and small. In the last decade, we’ve lost the likes of Bizarre Creations (Project Gotham Racing), Eden Games (Test Drive Unlimited), Neversoft (Tony Hawk), Rockstar Vancouver (Bully) and more besides. But as gutting as those closures were, it’s been a long time since something properly winded the industry like the demise of the storied old studio that brought us the Fable series (opens in new tab), Lionhead.

With today’s closure of Lionhead (opens in new tab), it feels gaming has lost something intangible; a small sense of hope, of wonder. That might sound melodramatic and, if you want to be cold and logical about it, perhaps it is. Lionhead’s output has never really reflected the high esteem the industry holds it in, with 2008’s Fable 2 being the studio’s only undisputed critical hit. Indeed, although Lionhead’s games were warmly received, they had a reputation for over-promising and under-delivering (Black & White, Fable), or not being delivered at all (the famous Project Milo, unveiled during the Kinect launch at E3 2009, which allowed players to interact with an adaptive AI that learned from you).

But then, that was all part of the charm of this unique studio, where dreams were allowed to take precedence over financial bottom-lines. And what else could be expected from a studio led by gaming’s ultimate dreamer, Peter Molyneux? Founded in 1996, Lionhead was seen as the spiritual successor to Bullfrog Productions, an influential developer formed in 1987 by Molyneux and Les Edgar (who is now the chairman of TVR, motor fans). Bullfrog’s crowning achievement was effectively inventing the ‘god game’ with Populous and Powermonger, a genre that allowed you to control the fates of little computer people and bend the world to your whims. It was the kind of game that could only have come from a mind like Molyneux’s; one that hoped for something bigger and better from video games. One, you might say, that wanted to play god. 

Following Bullfrog’s acquisition by Electronic Arts in 1995 (the studio would close just six years later), Molyneux founded Lionhead Studios to carry on Bullfrog’s free-spirited tradition. Ted Timmins, who worked at Lionhead from 2004 to 2014 and was lead designer on the Xbox 360 remake Fable Anniversary, describes the atmosphere within the studio as being one that harboured creativity: “There was a very liberal approach to the game design. I don’t recall hearing ‘but that’s impossible!’ at any point during my ten years there. It felt like every idea from the smallest to the wildest was embraced.”

Early on in its life, Lionhead set up partnerships with numerous small studios who became ‘satellites’ – remaining independent but having access to Lionhead’s marketing and creative heft. While some of these projects, such as Intrepid Computer Entertainment’s ambitious evolution sim BC, never bore fruit, a collaboration with Big Blue Box, a studio founded by brothers Dene and Simon Carter, did lead to the birth of Project Ego – what later became Fable.

Dene describes Lionhead’s input as “‘Here. Have some rope to hang yourself with!’ It’s one of the only places I’ve worked where if someone said ‘I can do an awesome thing!’ they were given licence to do so. As a result, we had engine coders helping with the UI design, artists suggesting lore, and designers helping out with sound design. People weren’t just invested in their little area, but in every aspect of the game. There was no ‘I created the untextured mesh for Godzilla’s big toe’ segmentation. Being associated with Lionhead meant we had some amazing applicants. Without this help we’d have just been another struggling indie developer nobody had heard of.

“I think that if you asked Peter or [co-founder] Mark Webley, they’d say the satellite scheme was, technically, a failure. It didn’t do what it set out to do, which was to create a fully independent suite of studios. Fable’s ambition was far too large for that. Indeed, we were actively encouraged to expand that ambition, to push ever further, even if it seemed impossible.”

This enthusiasm often gave Lionhead as much grief as reward. The original Fable will likely forever be associated with Molyneux’s claim that you’d be able to plant an acorn and watch it grow into a tree. No such thing could literally occur in the final release, which drew criticism, but the game delivered on creating an RPG in which you gained a sense that time was passing and you were making a mark on the world. Such under-appreciation was par for the course for a studio that noisily shot for the moon, and then raised critical ire when their games merely landed at the top of a mountain.

Lionhead’s first Xbox 360 title, Fable 2, was the game that finally saw the studio tie their potential together. “It felt like the shackles of the prior generation were finally free, and games were beginning to explore big open worlds with brand new systems,” Timmins reminisces. But yet, Lionhead were unable to capitalise on their success in the RPG genre, as the team were pushed in different creative directions. “Fable was a weird game in an expensive, slow-turnaround genre,” says Carter. “There was a sense that we couldn’t take four years to make a new game each time. With The Witcher and Skyrim proving RPGs’ popularity, it’s easy to say ‘wrong!’ But at the time it looked like that route was going to be terrible for studio longevity.”

As such, Lionhead evolved into a breeding ground for ideas for new tech, including Kinect (Fable: The Journey) and Windows 10/Xbox One cross-play (the doomed Fable Legends) – a time period that dovetailed with many senior members of the studio, including Timmins, Carter and Molyneux himself, leaving Lionhead. As bottom lines began to take precedence over dreams, Lionhead’s roar quietened. Yet it’s still a shock to see this grand, iconic studio silenced for good.

The creator of Fable closes today, and with it, our industry loses a little of its magic. Allow yourself a moment’s repose to remember a bold studio that dared to be different.

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