‘We don’t let business affect the game in the middle’: Lionhead on taking Fable free-to-play

When Lionhead Studios made the decision to turn its latest entry in the long-running Fable franchise free-to-play, it knew one thing: not everyone was going to love it.

The outlet announced back in February that upcoming co-operative action RPG Fable Legends wouldn’t cost a penny on either of its release platforms: Xbox One and Windows 10.

Much like Fable: The Journey’s shift to on-rails motion-controlled gameplay in 2011 and 2012 beat ‘em up Fable Heroes’ side-scrolling cartoon world, Legends’ embrace of free-to-play is sure to raise eyebrows among some fans of the original Fable trilogy’s conventional open-world gameplay.

But this is a natural cost of pushing the series forwards, says Lionhead Studios business and strategy director Emmi Kuusikko.

Lionhead has always done innovative things with the Fable series,” she explains.

Every game has been completely different to its predecessors. They don’t all cater to every single fan.”

Game director David Eckelberry clarifies that going free-to-play does not mean the firm is ignoring its fans in favour of new users.

You can’t action everything fans ask for, because there are millions of people out there on the internet and they all want different things,” he comments.

That said, we do listen to our audience – both existing Fable fans and newcomers coming into the universe.

The big thing they were concerned about with free-to-play was that it can be a great thing and it can be kind of a bad thing if it’s abused or done poorly. They were largely concerned about a fair playing field.”

When announcing the free-to-play transition, Lionhead pledged that Legends could be completed ‘without spending a penny’.

Eckelberry expands on the firm’s promise that gameplay experience wouldn’t take a backseat to the need to monetise.

In terms of the core game loop, there’s nothing that that free-to-play has affected,” he says. There’s no ‘I’m losing, I want to buy a magic potion or a health potion to improve my odds’.

You can get all of our content and there’s no pay walls or energy meters – you can play as much as you want without any kind of gated areas.

We don’t allow the business side to affect the game that’s happening in the middle.”

Product manager Ian Griffiths reiterates: We don’t allow the business model to define the game. You can’t purchase anything mid-gameplay. There’s no way you’d be able to get an advantage. We utterly reject any notion of pay-to-win.”

While Fable’s existing player base may end up divided over the game’s new approach, Lionhead is working hard to bring the franchise to brand new players.

One big step the outlet is taking is the launch of Legends on Xbox One and Windows 10 on the same day.

While Fable and Fable III came to PC (the second instalment skipped the platform), the latter title landed on the platform over six months later than on Xbox 360.

Kuusikko reveals that a simultaneous launch – as well as cross-platform multiplayer between Xbox One and PC – is key in Lionhead’s efforts to grow Legends’ reach.

When we think of things that have been asked for, PC has had been asked and requested for a long time,” she recalls

We’re launching on Windows 10 at the same time as Xbox One, with the ability to play across platforms.

"Launching on both platforms lets us have as many people as possible play the game without the barriers to entry, and that’s really important to us.”

Eckelberry adds that this was a central driver behind the move to free-to-play.

The core of the idea was that we wanted to embrace as large an audience as possible,” he states.

Part of that decision was going with the decision to be on Windows 10, as well as Xbox.”

Transitioning to PC isn’t the only role the platform has played in Legends’ creation; the title has also taken plenty of notes from burgeoning free-to-play computer games.

Eckelberry recollects, regarding his inspiration for Legends: I looked at some of the great free-to-play experiences I’ve had – most of them on PC. Games like League of Legends and Hearthstone that let me play the game as much as I want. Games where I thought: "I’ve played this game for 30 or 40 hours. I’m going to buy something here – as much as a sort of thank you as an ‘I want this thing’."

Griffiths echoes Eckelberry’s belief that players should be encouraged to invest in in-game purchases by enjoyment, rather than necessity.

For me, Dota 2 became a big inspiration,” he says. A lot of what Valve is doing is really good. I played about 800 hours and then brought some new Crystal Maiden outfits.

Obviously, there was some internal studio thinking as well; we looked at Killer Instinct and things like that, too.”

Kuusikko adds that the PC sector has helped to establish free-to-play as a business model which doesn’t just require players to dish out money in order to progress or gain the upper hand.

Especially on the PC side, it’s widely accepted in general that free-to-play is not just pay-to-win,” she says. With League of Legends and other eSports titles, you just can’t have pay-to-win in there.”

"There’s been a lot of developments industry-wide that have shown that free-to-play can be done right and can be done fairly."

Ian Griffiths, Lionhead Studios

Free-to-play has often had a bad rap among core gamers, but the landslide success of PC games like League of Legends and Dota 2 has proved that the business model can have a place outside of mobile.

Lionhead hopes that Fable Legends will be among the first games to usher in a similar acceptance on PS4 and Xbox One.

There haven’t been that many free-to-play examples in the console space,” Kuusikko observes. When you think of the previous generation of consoles, it wasn’t really up to service-based gaming or free-to-play.

Definitely with the newest generation of console hardware, it’s a much more viable business model. We’re trying to show what free-to-play can mean on a next-gen triple-A title.

Free-to-play isn’t the only feature the new generation of consoles allows, but it’s definitely a feature – there are more options now.”

Griffiths concludes that, while some players may have reservations about Fable’s move to free-to-play, the modern form of the business model should ultimately prove their fears to be baseless.

We’ve all seen a lot of bad examples of free-to-play,” he admits.

But there’s been a lot of developments industry-wide that have shown that free-to-play can be done right and can be done fairly, and that’s where we’re trying to be.”

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