OPINION: Dear Xbox, I think you’re making a mistake with Lionhead

Phil Spencer’s repetitive insistence that Xbox remains ‘committed to first party’ seems to be falling on deaf ears.

Because, as some of the firm’s more vocal critics will tell you, what Microsoft says and what Microsoft does are often very different.

It’s just announced the intention to close two internal studios, while several other Xbox development teams have vanished from the firm’s website. That doesn’t seem like a commitment to first party.

Yet, in this case, I’m not so quick to doubt his words.

It’s almost three years since that ill-fated Xbox One reveal shocked the company. Don Mattrick and his team, including the likes of Phil Harrison, had a very different vision for the future of the console. A disc-less, always-online business with games that offered something very different to your typical box-model approach.

One former Lionhead employee even told me that Harrison once insisted that – with the exception of Remedy’s Quantum Break – Xbox’s European studios will never work on a ‘traditional’ game again.

But Xbox gamers didn’t want this (or at least, they didn’t think that’s what they wanted). They didn’t want free-to-play, they didn’t want online-only, they didn’t want Xbox-made TV shows, they didn’t want Kinect or SmartGlass… Mattrick left, Harrison eventually followed.

Phil Spencer is now the man in charge. He’s a more conservative man, happy to adhere to the demands of his fans and focus on the big triple-A titles such as Halo, Forza and Gears of War.

One unsubstantiated story that reached our desks was that Spencer had gone into Lionhead and asked it if it was too late to turn Fable Legends into a more traditional product – a story I could well believe.

Spencer is his own man with his own views. A lot of these studios and partnerships that have ‘vanished’ from Xbox’s website are relics of the previous management team.

But Lionhead is different.

Sure, Fable Legends may not quite fit with what Xbox gamers were demanding – a free-to-play, co-op-based SmartGlass-infused spin-off (a hugely ambitious project in many ways). Spencer certainly had his doubts, and the game was notable in its absence from Xbox’s Gamescom press briefing last year.

Yet this is the studio that made Fable II – a wonderful, accessible and charming RPG that had few peers during the last generation of consoles. Fable III may have been a step backwards in some ways, but it was still a good game – particularly when you consider the title’s truncated two-year development period.

Fable: The Journey was the Kinect RPG nobody wanted. Yet despite technological limitations, it’s not the unplayable mess that some critics had painted it. It’s not a great game, but considering the near-impossible brief, it’s a remarkable achievement in some ways.

RPGs and the fantasy genre in general is going through a renaissance in the Western world. The Witcher 3’s incredible sales performance last year speaks to that, as does Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age.

Taking away the emotion around it – and as someone who loves Lionhead’s output, I am emotional about it – the decision to close a talented studio that makes wonderful fantasy RPGs doesn’t make business sense.

Of course, Microsoft’s ‘consultation’ period is just the firm stepping through those legal hoops it has to go through in order to close the developer. The decision has been made.

So I can only hope that a new Lionhead emerges from the ashes. With the recent Government tax breaks and the increased investment that the UK games industry is receiving, there has never been a better time.

And if a group of former Banjo-Kazooie developers can generate more than 2m to make a spiritual successor to that game, just imagine what the Fable makers could do.

I know they’ll have my backing.

Full disclosure: Although it had no bearing on my opinion, a member of my family has spent the last 9 months working as a temporary intern at Lionhead.

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