We first found out about Fable Legends back in August. Developer Lionhead Studios also announced at the time that the game, a prequel set in the earlier years of the land of Albion (before all that guns nonsense, back when it was truly magical), was almost exclusively their focus, and Fable IV was not being made. Lots of information was given about the new game, which would add an online cooperative multiplayer element that would allow you to play with friends, similarly to what The Elder Scrolls Online is doing.
All of that is well and good, but some new quotes from John Needham, the man who replaced Peter Molyneaux at the top of Lionhead, could lead one to presume that, just like the aforementioned Elder Scrolls Online, Fable Legends could be going the route of monthly subscription fees, or maybe microtransactions.
See, just to paint a bit of a picture, Mr. Needham used to be the CEO of Gazillion Entertainment, maker of the free-to-play MMORPG Marvel Heroes. He also was the CEO of Cryptic Studios, maker of the subscription-turned free-to-play/subscription/microtransactions hybrid City of Heroes and City of Villains games, the subscription-turned-free-to-play/subscription/microtransactions game Champions Online, and the subscription-turned-free-to-play/subscription/microtransactions game Star Trek Online. Needham was also CFO for Sony Online Entertainment. Just so you have an idea of what we’re dealing with here.
When he was announced as the new head of Lionhead Studios, a statement was released saying:
“John’s deep understanding of all aspects of the gaming industry, from subscription-based, massively multi-player to client-based console and free-to-play online, PC and mobile experiences, will be a huge benefit to Lionhead and European Studio operations more widely.”
Speaking to Edge recently about his new position—in which he says he’s been doing “a lot of evangelising the power of connected games”— Needham talked about his excitement and where he wants to take the Fable franchise:
“I’m honoured to be working with the guys who’ve been here ten-odd years, and been involved with every Fable product, because it’s an IP I love. My standards are high for the IP because of my love for it, and the perspective I bring to the studio is a focus on community and online.”
“I think the real magic in the industry now is taking great traditional gameplay and IP, and this new connected world, and mashing them together. I am the person pivoting Lionhead into a games-as-service studio. Legends is quite different from previous Fable games.”
It’s that last part there. The bit about turning Lionhead into a “games-as-service” studio. That would be the part that has me nervous, and I have no doubt most of you feel the same way.
But before we get too nervous, Needham wants to assure fans of the series that their primary focus is making sure that even with these new connected features, whatever they might be, Fable Legends will still be a Fable game:
“The trick with Legends, and the question we’re constantly asking, is: ‘Is it Fable?’ Even with the connected aspects. That’s why Fable Anniversary’s launch in February was perfect, because it grounds us – we want to make sure we’re maintaining what makes Fable great. Now we’re looking at all these great online features we’re building into Legends. We’re bringing both of them together, taking what’s great about Anniversary and [Fable] II and III and bolting on features that make it a great connected experience.”
He then compares Legends‘ connected features to games like Dark Souls and Journey, where other players from around the world are moving in and out of your own game as you play. If this is the case, there’s absolutely nothing wrong. Both Dark Souls and Journey integrate connected gameplay brilliantly (hell, I didn’t even know I was playing Journey with other people until months after I beat it!) and there are no additional costs or microtransactions or any of that silliness. You pay for the games, and you can play them, online or off, with other people or alone, whenever you want. That’s when connected gaming is OK.
Then Needham ruins the happy feelings inside by talking about the longterm plan for Legends:
“We can do other styles of Fable games, and keep them within Fable Legends. My plan is that Legends is essentially a platform for almost everything Fable going forward. It’s a long-range plan, of five to ten years, where we’re going to build and keep building onto Fable Legends. That’s the nature of games as a service – you keep adding systems and features and content.
There are lots of examples in the MMOG world of keeping players engaged for that length of time, with new content constantly flowing into the game, and bolting on new [modes] into your game to keep it fresh. It all comes down to listening to your community, building content into the game that they want, and then iterating upon that.”
And there’s that nervous feeling again. All this talk of longterm plans and adding new content constantly and so on. That all sounds like something that will come with additional fees, if not the monthly fee you’ll have to pay to play.
Sure, it’s indicated that other Fable games (Fable IV) could come eventually, and that’s potentially good news. But knowing nothing else is being worked on right now means years of waiting for those who have already been desperately awaiting word of a new Fable game for a couple of years already now and don’t want anything to do with pay-to-play games.
Needham was asked point blank whether or not there would be any subscription fees or anything like that, but unfortunately he wasn’t yet willing to make anything official yet, saying only “We haven’t talked about the business model yet, we’re just trying to build a great game.”
For now we can only wait and see how things go. Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised in the end. Maybe I’m reading too much into this. But, for right this moment anyway, these words have me very, very worried about the future of the Fable franchise.
What do you say, fellow geeks? Am I worrying too much, or do you get the same bad feelings in your gut about this one?