With a hard deadline in place, the inevitable consequence was crunch. While this is a hot topic in 2020, it wasn’t as well-documented almost 20 years ago. “It was so bad that it broke many people – like completely broke them,” says Buzugbe. “Crunch is one of the things I detest about this industry and we did it for almost a year and a half. Luckily, I was young and naive, so I was the prime target for doing one last push for the game; for the milestone, for the demo. But there was always one more push, one more speech by someone who you barely know asking you to sacrifice everything for their annual bonus. It was insane, and I vowed never to crunch again.”
What upsets me is Peter would never correct journalists and say ‘Oh, that’s not my game, that’s my satellite studio making that’. I don’t think I ever heard him credit Big Blue Box or any part of the team that actually made the game. That still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth
This intense pressure was perhaps felt more keenly on a project like Fable because during the entire development period, Peter Molyneux was doing what he arguably does best – hype up video games. The Lionhead boss was one of the most vocal champions of the game and would fill the ears of any nearby journalists with lofty promises. Given his recognisable status and clear passion for the project, many people attributed the game’s inception and creation almost solely to him. Nailing down exactly how much input he had – and what he should take credit for – is a topic that triggers passionate responses amongst the Big Blue Box team. “The ‘lone genius creator’ myth is something I wish the games industry would get over,” laments Simon.
"To credit any work of this size to just one person diminishes the efforts of every single other person on the 100+ team," adds Dene. "The idea of focusing on a story within a simulation was Peter’s. We were already working on village simulation within Wishworld for when a wizard grew urban areas, but Peter was the person who suggested we focus on a single-player story, and on leveraging that simulation to make the story more personal. But, like most others on the team, there are a lot of aspects of Fable consider ‘mine’; Albion, the world, its characters, its creatures and its spells and the missions, its mood and its tone… but that also gives me far too much credit. Many ideas for characters and quests came from my conversations with other people on the team. And every idea was implemented by people given a large amount of autonomy, whose efforts made everything they touched so much better than the initial ideas. Anyone can have an idea; genius lies in the execution, and I was happy to be working with quite a few of those.”
Putting the same query to Buzugbe elicits a more vocal reaction. “This question, more than any other, gets me pointing and shouting at people down the pub, on the tube and sometimes at weddings – it really gets my goat. Fable was created by an incredible team of hard-working and dedicated individuals working together, not one man stood in front of the cameras basking in a spotlight. It was the brainchild of Dene Carter, who was supported by his brother Simon Carter and their long-time art comrade Ian Lovett. These three hired and grew a pretty small but incredible team and each and every one of those people created Fable. All the poor sods at Lionhead who had to help us finish it, they created Fable. They gave everything to that game – their time, personal health and mental health. I wasn’t privy to any lead meetings so I never heard from and rarely saw Peter Molyneux at all during the development of Fable. What upsets me is Peter would never correct journalists and say ‘Oh, that’s not my game, that’s my satellite studio making that’. I don’t think I ever heard him credit Big Blue Box or any part of the team that actually made the game. That still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.”
However, just as the team are keen to stress that Fable was the work of many rather than just one person, they’re equally keen to ensure that Molyneux’s contribution isn’t overlooked entirely. “Without Peter’s help we wouldn’t have been taken seriously by Microsoft, and without Microsoft there’d have been no Fable,” says Dene. “Publishers were all very conservative at the time, and only Microsoft were interested in hearing about anything weird. Also, without Peter’s bold claims as to what our game was going to do, nobody would have paid much attention to us and our peculiar action RPG. This – of course – was a double-edged blade. Honestly, in addition to pushing us to make a game with more of an emphasis on ‘social’ interactions, I think Peter’s biggest contribution was his willingness to direct the entirety of Lionhead to help Big Blue Box finish the game. It ate into work on Black and White 2, The Movies and a ton of other – later canned – projects. I don’t think that’s an easy thing to do; to take on a property that isn’t really 100 percent yours and devote a majority of the remaining years of your company to pursuing that shared dream.”
Peter’s biggest contribution was his willingness to direct the entirety of Lionhead to help Big Blue Box finish the game... I don’t think that’s an easy thing to do
Even Buzugbe admits that Fable wouldn’t have been possible without Molyneux, irrespective of the amount of credit he gets for its creation. “As much as it grates on me, I’m pretty sure Fable wouldn’t have been as big as it was without his celebrity and fame. He generates word-of-mouth hype you simply can’t pay for – but that also crushes the team back home as he obviously sells a very loose fact that the team can never achieve. But as much as he infuriated and confused me and some of the team at Big Blue Box, it is clear that the game would not have shipped without his support.” For Simon, Molyneux also encouraged the team to dream big. “Peter’s biggest strength was the way he continually challenged gaming conventions, and encouraged the team to think ambitiously. He gave us license to make the game we wanted – to create something original, to do something that mattered.”
Charlie Edwards, who worked as lead tester on Fable and is currently hard at work on Kynseed, a 2D spiritual successor, perhaps sums up the situation best. “Peter was Fable’s champion knight in glittery armour, flying the flag from his lance as he galloped up and down the countryside, courting the invaders from across the sea and dazzling the throng as he regaled tales of heroism and legendary deeds. Back in the castle though, all the peasants knew it was the wizard Dene stirring the cauldron and creating magic. Other than being the PR behemoth, Peter does contribute out-of-the-blue ideas that at first people groan at, but often make sense or can really add to the game. It was incredible to witness just how much weight he had with the press and how famous he was in game development. Even after a number of years working with him, I would still think ‘That’s Peter Molyneux!’ as he drifted past, and you could hear the creative cogs turning if you listened hard enough.”
Dene also feels that, amid all of this concern about the measure of Molyneux’s involvement with Fable, a key person is being overlooked. “If you want to credit anyone with the largest contribution to the creation of Fable, I’d argue that it is Louise Murray (née Copley), who came into our male-dominated, utterly chaotic development process and forcibly organised us in spite of both the company culture and her relative inexperience in the gaming world. She was incredible, and too few people recognize her gargantuan contribution. Without her, Fable would never have been finished, and Lionhead would almost certainly have folded.”
Against seemingly insurmountable odds, Big Blue Box and Lionhead got Fable over the finish line and it launched in September 2004 to positive reviews; while it was perhaps a little too late to truly aid the Xbox in the battle against the PS2 (the more successful Xbox 360 would be released in the following year), its impact on players was unmistakable. An RPG of this scale and scope had never been witnessed previously, and it was clear that it simply wouldn't have been possible on any other console of the period. However, given the truly mind-boggling remit of Fable – and the fact that a lot of development was mercilessly crammed into that final year – it's easy to see why the end result fell slightly short of what its creators originally had in mind.
We worked on so many things for Fable that I genuinely have a problem remembering what features made it into the game, and which didn’t; often people will say ‘it’s a shame you didn’t have X in Fable’ and I will be momentarily confused, since we spent months developing ‘X’, only to realise it didn’t quite fit in
For example, Buzugbe wanted a female hero, something that didn't occur until the sequel arrived. "It always felt wrong just having a male hero,” he says. “Thankfully, we managed to get her into Fable 2 – although art director John McCormack and I had to fight hard to keep her from getting the chop in that game, too. A few parties within Lionhead were against the idea – so much so that we based all of the original designs for the heroes and models I sculpted on the female hero so she didn’t get cut."
"As a tester on Fable, I wanted more open areas," says Edwards. "I thought the levels were too linear and like corridors. When the game was known as Project Ego – and I first clapped eyes on it – the world was open and you could go anywhere. Sadly, that all had to go, but the desire for more openness is what drove my designs when I moved to a level design role for Fable 2. And don’t get me started on the many levels we wanted to make but had to drop." Simon adds to this. "We worked on so many things for Fable that I genuinely have a problem remembering what features made it into the game, and which didn’t; often people will say ‘it’s a shame you didn’t have X in Fable’ and I will be momentarily confused, since we spent months developing ‘X’, only to realise it didn’t quite fit in."
Meanwhile, Dene remains slightly uncomfortable about the overall quality of the finished product – proof that it's hard to maintain objectivity when you're so deeply invested in something. "I personally wanted to polish all the stuff we’d already put in!” he says with a laugh. “There’s so much I look back on and say: ‘that part was just not shippable’. We wasted years chasing so many wild-geese, and tried to do so many things that didn’t work out – and still haven’t in any game – that we ended up crushing five years’ worth of development into just over a year. However, there was so much love put into the game by so many people that I think fans could feel that and were… kind. Fable fans are the best."