Peter Molyneux on Fable II Episodes, Fable III, and Natal

And hints at what might be coming in the future.

September 29, 2009 - Back at Gamescom 2009, Microsoft Game Studios Creative Director Peter Molyneux, in addition to announcing Fable III, let everyone know that Fable II would be rereleased in downloadable chunks. It's not exactly episodic distribution in the style of Telltale's Sam & Max series, but more a retrofitted version of Lionhead Studios' action-role-playing title. Players get the first chunk for free, and if people find that bit to be enjoyable, more of the game can be snagged for a price.

If you've been following along with the industry for the last decade, you'll know that this kind of distribution is nothing new. Bypassing the brick and mortar retail outlets has been a staple of PC gaming for years, a subject of ever increasing public visibility as hard drive space and download speeds continue to be less and less of a concern for consumers. With outlets like Steam, Direct2Drive, Impulse, and GamersGate, just to name a few, people can grab a huge variety of titles old and new from across multiple genres.
On consoles, the current generation of hardware has shown us there's plenty of viability for a download-only distribution model as well. On the Xbox Live Arcade, games like Shadow Complex, Trials HD, Castle Crashers, and Battlefield 1943 have achieved huge sales. For retail titles, bits of downloadable content for a price, such as Fable II's Knothole Island and See the Future, help keep consumers interested in the games and invested in the franchises. More importantly, of course, they keep people spending money.

So how does the sliced-up downloadable version of Fable II fit into all this? Why go this route instead of just releasing a normal demo, and what does it mean when big $60 retail release console titles start heading down the path of episodic, downloadable distribution?

"I'm just a very greedy person," said Molyneux. "I want as many people as possible to play Fable II...If I could persuade or cajole or chain people to a chair and get them to play it for a while everyone would enjoy it. That's where the idea started, is how could you get more people to sample Fable? Then the next thing, I've always absolutely loathed demos. They should be shoved in a big coffin and thrown in a deep hole and never pulled out again because normally demos are requested by the publishing team very late in the day, me as a designer has got this impossible problem to solve where you have to teach someone to play a game and not entertain them too much and entertain them just enough. And if someone gets to the end of the demo and then chooses to buy the whole game then they've probably got to go through the same content again then they get bored and that just sounds like rubbish."

He feels by giving away the first part of the game for free, it works a lot better, since it's the actual game that's been played instead of some manufactured sample. Once the end of the demo is reached, the game will ask you if you want to continue playing and at that point, a decision will have to be made by the player about whether or not the rest of the experience is worth paying for. If you do choose to continue, you'd keep your gold and experience and continue on exploring the world of Albion.

Molyneux offered some perspective on how this method of distribution ties into the way the industry is changing. "These days when we're all obsessively talking about broadening our audience and getting more people into the industry, I think this just helps with that. Games are, and rightfully so of course, expensive items. If you can make it more palatable for people, allow them to play the game, not lose their progress through the game…that makes a huge amount of sense."

There's power, according to Molyneux, in allowing people to make their decisions about how much they're willing to see while they're still in the game world. He gave a fictional example of what he was talking about. Please note the following is not in the game. "Why can't I have a ferry in the Fable world and this ferry arrives every 24 hours and you need a ticket to go on the ferry. Why can't that ticket be sold in some shop in Bowerstone, and it costs you 100 Microsoft Points as well as some Fable gold. What you're actually doing is unlocking a little side episode, almost like a footnote, which is your choice to do. If you don't want to do that you don't have to, it's not required by the story, but it is like another little side episode. And because you still feel like it's part of the game it really gets over some of my frustrations…Because we don't have to bundle things together in these big packs, we can make them a little bit smaller and a bit more bite-sized it means we can do, as developers, and awful lot more."

What about people that might be put off if price tags were popping up around their fantasy role-playing world? "I suppose if this was like American TV advertising this would be really aggravating. I'm not talking about you walking through the world of Albion with people throwing themselves at you saying "Buy this land for 200 Microsoft Points!" I don't mean that. First and foremost, this is an engaging and an amazing world. I would fight against anything horribly intrusive. I just want to make sure that people have a choice. And what I would never want that choice to be is aggravating or intimidating and in any way exploitive. If it was, I think it would be a cheap trick that people will very easily see through."

On the subject of emerging ways to play, Molyneux gave a brief update on how he saw Natal, Microsoft's upcoming alternative input device being utilized in the future. "Well, obviously there's some very confidential stuff I really can't comment on. What I will say is that you can imagine an organization like Microsoft really deeply thinking how it's going to surprise people…I love the challenge of Natal and I'm thinking of games like Fable all the time and obviously we're making Milo and Kate, and I find that fascinating as well."

Perhaps Natal could be utilized with Fable III, particularly with the game's dynamic touching character interaction system? "I could so easily comment, it's so tempting."

No updates on Milo and Kate were available, aside from Molyneux saying work is still being done.

He did mention how it seemed to him in 2009 that the industry in general seemed to be "holding its breath," and that he's also looking forward to 2010, when Fable III is scheduled to be released. Why the hesitation this year across the industry?

"For me, retail will always be there, it's a fantastic gift market which is brilliant around the holiday season. But the relationship with people who don't go into game stores regularly is a tricky one. I think now more and more digital is part of everybody's life, and it's interesting to me that computer games weren't leading the charge on that where you've got TV and music all having strong digital relationships and computer games falling a little bit behind the race on that. There's an opportunity to catch up. I don't think we're going to do something which excludes retail by any means. I think retail is retail is incredibly useful for us, probably even more so than movies and music."

Molyneux touched on how game design has to be altered to meet with different styles of product distribution. "The normal way we would produce and release something, we would make a game and then we'd have a little bit of a rest, and then we'd work on the DLC…Well for the consumers they're into the game, they're into the world, they're probably done playing the game over a weekend or maybe a week, and they want some more…It does mean that us designers have to think a lot more than just about a game.

The real inspiration for me is I really feel, slightly because of episodic, we're moving away from games like films that are completely self-contained boxes of entertainment, into making TV series…I think series' like Lost and Battlestar Galactica are the perfect example of this, as they actually changed the flow of the TV series as it was being aired. They realized people were getting excited about one thing or another thing, and just imagine how amazing it would be for me as a games designer if I could see what people were getting excited about. Something like this has very much existed in MMORPGs, and World of Warcraft is a great example of that, and before that Ultima, if they've already been doing it, why should MMORPGs be the only format that's allowed to change? We can do the same, and that's exactly what we will be doing."