To the outward observer, little has changed at the offices of Lionhead Studios. It’s just one of the many squat three storey buildings sitting in the greenery of a Surrey business park. Names of old notables such as Priestley, Turing and Huxley are sprinkled across the road signs, while the occasional duck potters around a pond. Apart from the weather, it’s all very pleasant. Taking the weather into account, it’s all very English.
And that’s something Lionhead isn’t anymore.
But according to Peter Molyneux, Microsoft’s acquisition of the company a year ago was much more serious than matters of national pride. It was the final link in the chain of events required to keep Lionhead in business.
“The best way to start this article is to fully admit Black & White 2 and The Movies, and to a lesser extent Fable: Lost Chapters, weren’t the games they should have been,” Lionhead’s MD says. “The main reason was we’d grown into this huge beast. We weren’t focused. We were spending too much money. £1.5 million a month takes away your creative clout and your creative butterflies.”
The juxtaposition of terms is significant. With around 240 staff to organise and feed, Lionhead lost control of the magic that had made it one of the world’s high profile gamemakers; the ability to take creative risks. Combined with difficulties when it came to the more mundane production issues of getting a game finished on time, and the company was close to collapse.
“That’s the pressure of the industry,” Molyneux explains. “It’s not about triple-A anymore, it’s triple-triple-A or triple-A cubed. You can’t promise and not deliver. That’s something we realised, certainly after Black & White 2. Now Lionhead’s about focusing on doing one thing at a time. Being acquired by Microsoft has allowed us to focus again. We’re focused on one and a half things; Fable 2 and Project X.”
PART OF THE PROCESS
Indeed, the desire to marry the often conflicting demands of the creative and the mundane is the most notable aspect of how Lionhead now approaches game development. One is the strong production layer that’s been put in place. Contrary to popular belief, however, Molyneux says this predates the releases of Black & White 2, The Movies and Fable: Lost Chapters.
“We couldn’t have made three games simultaneously without a production process,” he points out. “So about two years ago, we bought onboard a whole layer of management to deal with production.”
The framework includes a studio head for each project. In the case of Fable 2, that’s Louise Copley, who came from outside the games industry, while ex-Bullfrog and Mucky Footer Gary Carr fulfils the role at Project X. Producer Stuart Whyte was also bought in, having previously worked on the Harry Potter games at EA. Each project has a scheduler, and these work with development managers who schedule the workloads within the main disciplines such as art, design and programming. They also liaise with the game leads. “And I lord over them like some sort of demigod,” Molyneux jokes.
Still he agrees there’s sometimes a necessary tension. “We hired those people and I work with them to say, ‘Schedule is incredibly important, milestones are very important, the team knowing where it’s going and what it’s doing is important, but let’s not forget we’re making a game here,” he explains.
“There are times when there will be a pull to do something creative and there will be a production pull too, and we have to negotiate together to see which one wins. Touch wood that’s worked so far.”
WHERE'S THE FUN?
Despite his desire to create the best sequel ever in the shape of Fable 2, it’s clear Molyneux’s reputation for madcap last-minute brainstorming and subsequent slipped release dates has been tempered by Lionhead’s recent history.
“One of my ambitions is to become the most professionally run studio in MGS [Microsoft Game Studios],” he reveals. “By professionally run I mean when we say we’re going to do something, we do it, but still make games that sell. You’ve got to act responsibly,” he argues.
“What I am now, more than ever, is a leader. To be good at that job, you can’t just go in and say, ‘I’ve had a great idea’. I don’t want to have the ideas anymore. It’s more about me seeding people, encouraging people, leading people. If I do my job right, I’m not going to walk into the office and say, ‘Last night I had a great idea for a game’. I’m going to walk in and say, ‘We ought to be thinking more about this...’. That’s what my job is turning out to be.”
Of course, this being Peter Molyneux, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be any more eureka moments. The inspiration behind Project X is a classic example of how a designer’s sensibilities can expand a personal shock onto a universal canvas. More transparently, in the case of Fable 2, the initial concept of a dog to accompany you throughout the game came from Molyneux. “It was my idea,” he confesses. “Everyone said, ‘That’s mad,’ but now we’ve got it in the game, I can’t imagine Fable 2 without it.”
But almost as quickly, he’s keen to stress the importance of the team. “You have to remember I’m not designing Fable 2. There’s a whole design department; me and six other designers. They have their own areas. My job is to challenge quality, saying, ‘It has to be better than that’, providing the final check and balancing everyone’s responsibilities.”
And so, the refocusing of Lionhead, and that of Peter Molyneux himself, continues. It will be awhile before we get to see the end results of a process triggered by over-expansion and now shaped to heal the divergence of creativity and production schedules. Fable 2 isn’t due until 2008, and Project X... well that’s a story for another day.
In this context, even the headline of Microsoft’s acquisition seems somehow unimportant: the final, inevitable, step for a developer committed to be the sort of company that makes one fantastic game at a time, rather than three Okay ones. If not Microsoft, then one of the other big publishers.
“There’s been surprisingly little change since,” says Molyneux, of his new overlords in Redmond. “I report to Phil Spencer [general manager, MSG] and I feel the need to explain my creative vision more and more, mainly out of politeness because they are paying millions of dollars to fuel it. I take that seriously and try to get them to understand why we are doing the things we are.”
Then he grins in a conspiratorial manner. “The funniest thing is we now have a special panic alarm in case terrorists try to come in.”
Surely, that’s just the sort of spark to get any designers’ mind working overtime on their next project?