What’s going with Microsoft’s premium franchise?
Fable 4 is finally coming…we’ve just not been treated to the announcement yet. It’s been nearly a decade since Fable III, and it’s been months upon months of hope for a formal Fable IV announcement since rumor of its development first surfaced last year.
While a Fable IV reveal was a no-show at the most recent Game Awards and for E3 2018 and E3 2019, within the past few months the purported leaks have been accumulating, creating a feeling that the Fable IV’s unveiling is just a matter of time. With the original developers Lionhead Studios closed since 2016, eyes are on Forza Horizon developers Playground Games as the suspected developer of Fable IV, and the pressure is on to see what sort of game is revealed for Forza’s big return to gaming. But what happened to the franchise after Fable III, and what has the arc of the franchise been like leading up to this heavily anticipated title? We’ll explore that in our video.
The main Fable games are RPG’s, wherein players construct their own protagonist character to interact with citizens and push forward plot events in the fictional world of Albion. Characters can have their attributes raised according to certain characteristics, such as strength and magic, and depending on your choices, your created character will also take on a moral alignment, and the choices you make will also affect your appearance and associated reputation in-game. The setting is inspired by European medieval fantasy, though the world of Albion evolves throughout the course of the franchise’s numbered titles. Fable is a Microsoft-owned property and appears only on Microsoft platforms.
The franchise got its start with the first Fable game, releasing in 2004 for the Xbox. It was one of the earliest games of Big Blue Box Studios with development of most future titles formally shifted to Lionhead. It was an ambitious game at the outset – rather than simply controlling all aspects of a character’s appearance, as is the case with many create-a-character games, your appearance is dependent on your choices. The connection between the citizens of the world and your environment, and your own choices as the player, was meant to be palpable. It took four years for this mammoth project of player choice to be complete.
Fable was a game whose depth and inviting world were widely celebrated, founded on the idea of the creating a game for which the player’s experience was continually impacted and realized by their choices, but it was also criticized for lacking features that were initially promised prior to release – the game was aggressively promoted the game with promised features, some of which never made it to the final release. Fable reportedly sold three million copies in its lifetime, a strong debut for a new IP. It later received an expanded release in Fable: The Lost Chapters in 2005, containing all content found in the original release while adding significantly more content in terms of weapons, items, story locations, and quests, while also expanding the role of certain existing characters. Fable: The Lost Chapters was also re-released in 2014 for the 360 and for PC’s as Fable Anniversary, sporting graphical improvements in such areas as lighting and draw distance, and Achievements, but it was also heavily derided for not addressing existing bugs.
Off the heels of its successful debut, Fable would eventually make its way to the 360 with Fable II, releasing in 2008, and taking place in an Albion set five hundred years after the original game. Aside from the host of additions made to the franchise, one particular standout is the introduction of the Dog, your companion throughout the adventure, who assists you in combat, finding treasure chests, and completing quest objectives. As with the player, the Dog’s appearance is a function of the player’s choices.
The Alignment system introduced in the first game is significantly expanded upon, thereby introducing new appearance features, which are a combination of your in-game morality and your rating on the scale of Purity and Corruption. Other introduced Alignments reflect the assessment of NPC’s towards your character, including Funny and Scary, Attractive and Ugly, and Love and Hate. Scoring higher on the positive ends of these scales tends to create characters that are more palatable to others in-game. Money is now earned through simple jobs rather than quest fufillment, and in a post-release patch co-operative gameplay was introduced, wherein players can visit others’ games according to certain restrictions set by a host for players to adhere to. Fable II would sell to 3.5 million units, and a Game of the Year Edition, which included the two DLC packs Knothole Island and See the Future, was released in 2009.
Fable II would rather quickly be followed up by Fable III in 2011. The developers didn’t want Fable to become too formulaic, comparing his dilemma to the design of many games where the goal was always to become stronger and kill a main villain, and for the story to conclude with just that. So Fable III expanded the scale of making the ramifications of one’s actions felt by introducing the concept of being a ruler. At the end of the second Fable game, the protagonist character becomes ruler of Albion, with the crown later passing down to his eldest son, and your older brother. The course of the game dictates that the player eventually leads a coup and overthrows their brother, becoming ruler themselves. As a ruler, one has the choice of being active off of the throne or staying relatively safe within walls.
There are various dimensions to how one rules and how this affects citizen behavior and the royal treasury – in general, the concept of rebellion and the management of power, once assumed, were foundational to Fable III. This aside, the game also makes use of many existing mechanics as defined by Fable II, including the previous game’s Alignment system, as well as bringing back the Dog. While generally reviewing well, its critical average was a noticeable dip compared to the reviewing success enjoyed by its preceding mainline titles. It missed the anticipated sales target of 5 million units set by the developer, who expected an expansion in audience by exploring a change in direction that shifted away from its RPG roots, and the developer was dismayed by the underperformance of the game both critically and commercially.
It was followed by a new direction altogether for Fable, in 2012’s Fable Heroes, a beat-em-up game where players can choose from one of twelve characters from across the Fable games prior to Heroes’s release, and also allowing for multiplayer play. It was a marked tonal shift in aesthetics, while also reflecting this in minigames based on franchise mythology. While meant to be accessible, the final product was generally regarded to be poorly-executed in its core gameplay, seen as repetitive, dull, and bogged down by control issues.
Another new direction explored for the Fable franchise is in the Kinect title Fable: The Journey, also releasing in 2012, wherein players don’t create their own character, using hand gestures to perform magic spells to attack enemies, but even this yielded an average of mixed reviews as even when the game tries to explore something new for the franchise, the experience is seen as being held back by requiring more usage of Kinect motion controls than should be expected for Kinect games. The most recent Fable release is 2018’s free-to-play Fable Fortune for PC and Xbox One, surprising everyone by exploring the collectible card game genre, but earning a mixed critical average as did the just-mentioned non-mainline titles.
Interestingly, Lionhead Studios, which had worked on all games up to this point, closed during this game’s development, and so the development of the game was given to the newly-formed Flaming Fowl Studios, which contained former Lionhead personnel. Flaming Fowl had sought funding through a Kickstarter campaign in 2016, but the campaign fell short of its goals, though the studio did later receive funding elsewhere for development. Lionhead had also been working on Fable: Legends, a team-based action RPG, and while a closed beta was playable starting in October 2014, the beta closed in April of 2016, and official announcement of the game’s cancellation was made public along with news of Lionhead’s closure, with refunds being issued for gold purchases in-game.
And so we sit on the heels of the announcment of Fable IV, whenever that is scheduled to take place. Fable built a name for itself on emphasizing the effects of player choice in gameplay and conveying that through a robust RPG experience, but the perceived need for novelty in Fable III and the following experimentations in new genre and gameplay experiences in Fable titles since then have diluted the brand power of Fable.
It’s certainly not helpful that Lionhead being closed put the future of the franchise in question, but with repeated rumors suggesting that a new challenger in Playground Games will take up the mantle of developing Fable IV, we’ll have a lot to look forward to in seeing their take on a new Fable game. Tell us your thoughts on the Fable franchise’s experiments in departing from the gameplay experiences offered in the mainline titles. Does Fable IV really need to do anything new in comparison to the gameplay offered in the mainline titles in order to win you over, if you are a fan of the previous games? Let us know your thoughts on the path of the Fable franchise in the comments section.