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Exclusive interview: 'Fable Anniversary' Lead Designer gives us some insight

'Fable Anniversary' releases on February 4.
'Fable Anniversary' releases on February 4.
Lionhead Studios

The graphical prowess of technology has rapidly advanced since the turn of the century. What was already once jaw dropping on consoles now two generations old however, has begun to show its age. Because of this many developers have started returning to those old titles, polishing, upgrading, and overhauling the content on more powerful machines for new and old fans alike. We recently had the chance to sit down with Lead Producer Tim Timmins from Lionhead Studios to chat about Fable Anniversary and he gave us valuable insight into the development of the title.

Outside of visual polish, many games receive addition care and attention and Fable Anniversary is no exception according to Timmins. "[W]e've worked very, very hard to make the visuals look like a game you’d buy in the shop now, and to try to bring every single piece of artwork up to date. We've had a hundred artists working very, very hard to make that happen."

"When you move past the visuals, obviously sound is really, really important and not only have we gone from 4 by 3 to 16 by 9 widescreen TVs, a lot of people have also moved from stereo sound to surround sound." Many fans will undoubtedly underestimate the difference something that simple can make. Timmins continues, "In the original Fable, we only supported stereo, so Russell Shaw, who is the original composer of Fable 1. . .always has the biggest smile because we've removed all of the compression artifacts. Unfortunately you had to have on the original Xbox, [but] now, being able to uncompress things, everything sounds HD and I think that. . .leads to that really immersive experience."

Doing all of this isn't easy of course, Timmins stresses that keeping every type of fan in mind is extremely difficult to do. "I've been in the game industry for ten years and this is the hardest thing I've ever had to work on. I’d be quite happy if I didn't work on another re-mastering ever again. That is tongue in cheek; it has been an incredibly fun project."

As a fan Timmins and the crew at Lionhead have their own idea as to what should be emulated and emphasized. "You have your own expectations of what you want to see in a re-mastering. I played Halo Anniversary, and it was everything I wanted as a fan. I played Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the 3DS, arguably one of my favorite games ever made."

"I've seen what those games have achieved, and that was our target."

"But [we also have to keep in mind that] the fans that have played this game, they have their own expectations. There are certain things they’re going to want to see and certain things they don’t want changed."

In the back of his mind though Timmins knows there's a third group of people that he needs to cater to: the old development team. "[They] worked on the game ten years ago, we need to make sure we do their work justice. That team worked so hard for so many years on Fable 1, that I want them to be proud."

"We've probably put a bit too much pressure on ourselves, but hopefully it has lead to us treating this game with the respect that is really deserves."

Regardless of the quality of the title Lionhead Studios releases, there will be a vocal group of fans discussing their displeasure. "I’ve got to be honest; I might not read the forums for the first week just in case," Timmins jokes. "The great thing about the Lionhead family is we interact with fans daily, I’m an active user on the forums. I like to think they can email me or contact me on the forum with questions."

Despite what he said earlier, Timmins knows that in the end it's all about the fans. "They are our audience; our customers and we have to make sure that everything we do is aimed squarely at them. I probably haven’t made every single decision that will make them happy, but if 99% of the decisions we've made lead to a smile or they think, ‘this game is exactly how I wanted it to be,' then I’ll obviously be ecstatic."

This is exactly why Lionhead decided against releasing Fable Anniversary on anything other than the Xbox 360. "It was really a no brainer for us at the time because our fan base is on Xbox 360," Timmins admits. "It would be very difficult for me to have this interview with you, talk about how much this is a game aimed at the fans, and then release it on the Xbox One because our fan base isn't on the Xbox One yet."

"We’re working hard on on Fable Legends, that’s going to be our big Xbox One title, which we’ll talk more about that later this year, but for me I want the players of Fable and all of the fans to be able to own every single Fable game on one platform. I think that’s a really nice way for Fable to round off what’s been an incredibly successful console for us."

Switching gears, we wanted to get some insight into how things have changed since Timmins was just a tester for the original title. "I spent some of the best time of my life testing Fable 1 and I think [that's] a real testament to the game. [There were so] many choices and consequences and different ways to create your hero, that even now I’m not bored of playing the game; much to my girlfriend’s despair (laughs)."

"At the end of last year I was taking the game home and playing it on my sofa and I’d say, ‘Oh I just need to quickly test something, give me a minute.’ Then an hour later, she’s like, ‘why are you still playing, you said you would only play for a couple of minutes,’" he admits. "I absolutely loved testing the game back in 2004, it was just one of the greatest experiences of my life really."

"At the time, Lionhead was an indie studio, [so] we were pumping out so many different games. The Xbox 360 was on the horizon and it was just a really exciting time in video games. Right now feels a lot like it was ten years ago [with] the Xbox One [just releasing, that said] the industry is an incredibly healthy place."

Things aren't too similar though, with the rise of second hand experiences, Lionhead faced the challenge of utilizing Xbox SmartGlass to better the player experience. "When we first started on Fable Anniversary, I said to our leadership team, ‘please let me make some for SmartGlass.’" Timmins affirms that he was one of the many that loved SmartGlass as soon as it was announced. Unfortunately for him, no one in the studio really had any idea how to approach development on the mobile platform. While in discussions with Prima Games, the strategy guide gurus, a conversation arose on the topic with both sides walking away pleasantly surprised.

"We have a really great relationship with Prima. .. so we've been working with them really closely over the last year." Timmins divulges some specifics as to what fans can expect saying, "First and foremost, it’s an interactive map, as you’re running through the regions, you can just have your phone next to you and you can see wherever you are on any map at any point."

"It makes you feel like a real adventurer, you've got the map in your hand and I’m off in the game running through the wilderness."

Another Microsoft Studios title, Halo Anniversary, gave Timmins the inspiration for another feature aimed at boosting player nostalgia. "[343 Industries] had that incredible feature that allowed you to switch between old and new, but we were unable to pull that off technically because we were using the Unreal Engine. So what I wanted to do was use SmartGlass, the platform to utilize that."

"I did a complete playthrough of Fable 1, I took screenshots in every single region of the original game and then we put them in SmartGlass, so as you go through SmartGlass, you’ll be able to click on the screenshot icon and it’ll show you what Fable 1 use to look like. . .That’s a nice little touch I think."

The deal with Prima has really paid off for Lionhead when it comes to SmartGlass, because of the depth of knowledge the company provides the studio knows what areas fans seek help for. "If you get stuck in a video game, what do you have to do? What if all you had to do is connect your phone or your tablet to your Xbox and you had the answer? That’s what Prima really has provided."

"Whenever you click on your hero, it’ll tell you your current objective, if you need to find the last silver key, the silver keys show up on the map to try and help you track it down. I think that’s the kind of stuff that will help you stay immersed."

"My number one job is to help the player feel immersed and I think SmartGlass really helps with that."

There are countless examples of Lionhead Studios' dedication to the fans. About six months ago the company ran a forum competition allowing fans to design achievements. Timmins was flabbergasted with the response from the community, "Unbelievably, we had 3,000 submissions and it took me three days to go through them all."

The studio picked the top five and then left it up to the community to decide the winner who found himself graced with an honor few others will ever receive. [The fans voted for their favorite and when] “Are you not entertained?" won, we [proceeded to] implemented it into the game. [To unlock it you need to] complete the arena without ever taking [a] rest, which is actually a pretty challenging achievement. The guy who came up with the achievement has his name in the credits, which I know as a Fable fan, he was very, very excited about that for a prize."

In a way, Fable Anniversary is the best of every installment in the franchise so far. Timmins admits that some improvements were taken from the other two numbered Fable titles. "A feature I really admired, and it was in both Fable 2 and Fable 3, was when you picked up an item, whether it was from a chest or it was digging it up you were allowed to equip it or wear it or read the description."

Whereas [in] Fable, the original from 10 years ago, the thing that becomes very apparent is you open a chest, and all it does is show you an image of the item, then you press A and it’s gone. In order to equip it, you had to go through your menu and go through all of these different screens, so for me it was another no-brainer."

"We need to allow the player to equip the item directly from the chest, and not only that, I want them to be able to read the description of the item." Timmins passionately continues, "Even better than that, I want them to be able to see the statistics, I want them to know whether or not this amazing new axe I got from the chest is more powerful than my current weapon. That would then influence my decision to equip it."

"We've looked to inspiration, not just across our games, but also from as a player, what do I want? If the weapon appears on my screen, chances are I want to equip it."

Timmins emphasizes that their decision not to release on the Xbox One was purely because of the fanbase. In fact, he's a huge backer of the new console. "[With] the ability to utilize the cloud and. . .so much more horsepower under the hood, I just find it to be a very exciting console. I was fortunate to get one on day one. The amazing thing about Xbox One for me is I walk in my front door, and I say ‘Xbox On,’ and by the time I am in the living room, it’s on."

"It was a moment for me like when I first played Halo, I remember I unboxed my first Xbox back in 2001 and it [only] had an Ethernet port and it had a hard drive, and now [more than] ten years on, I’m talking to my console, it knows me."

After all that time, even as someone who works for Lionhead, Timmins is still learning new things about the Fable franchise every day. "Did you know that Fable was originally going to be a Dreamcast game, before the Xbox came along? There was also supposed to be a boss fight with [giant] that was about 50 feet tall [and] mirrored your every move."

"It’s been interesting to hear these thoughts from the creators behind how Fable really came to exist and I think it’s a nice story to be told."

It won't be long before focus shifts towards Fable Legends and Timmins knows that. "I hope [Fable Anniversary] reminds people of why so many of us fell in love with Albion in the first place. I hope it brings back some nostalgic memories and makes people excited about entering Albion on Xbox One when Legends arrives.

Fable Anniversary releases on the Xbox 360 on February 4 for North America.

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