To be honest, the first time I ever saw Fable – Lionhead's 4v1 multiplayer remix of Fable, due out later this year – I could have made a confident educated guess that it would be free to play. Its reliance on team play and selection of different, customisable heroes suggested a splash of LoL and DOTA might have found its way into the design document. The developer has now officially confirmed it, shortly after announcing that players on PC can join Xbox One owners in the same matches.
For fans already thrown by the idea of multiplayer-only Fable, this might not seem like the most reassuring news, but it certainly appears that Lionhead aspires to the Valve model of free-to-play as opposed to, say, the Candy Crush model – or, worse, the increasingly prevalent "paymium" model, where a developer asks for £45 up-front and then also tries to tempt you into micro-payments. This inspires confidence, at least in me.
The game itself, which was already promisingly fun when I played it last year, is a convincing action-orientated arena combat experience when you're playing as one of the team of four heroes and a reactive strategy game when you take on the role of the villain, placing enemies for them to slaughter (or succumb to). With ten heroes now in place it's got a robust selection of playstyle options. The combat was never the best thing about Fable – not by a mile – but Legends' fighting spans a variety of third-person action styles: playing a ranged character, it feels like a Gears-style third-person shooter, whereas some of the sword-wielders have a touch of Devil May Cry flavour.
Here's how things will work: any PC or Xbox One player will be able to download the game for free. There will be a whole story's worth of quests at launch, with more to be released episodic-style every few months, and continuous updates. There will be no paywalls, no limited game time, no horrible "energy bars" or "gems" or whatever that take time to recharge. There will be 4 heroes available to play at any one time, and they will rotate every 2 weeks. Then, if you want to keep playing a character, you can either wait for them to come back into rotation (with all your XP and equipment intact), or pay to unlock them permanently. You can pay either with earned in-game money or real money, and you can also pay for cosmetic items; everything gameplay-related can only be earned through play. Same goes for villain players: different villain monsters will rotate every few weeks, and you can pay to unlock them permanently.
Creative director David Eckelberry clearly wants Fable Legends to lead the way for high-budget free-to-play games on consoles, in terms of value and fairness as well as, presumably, popularity. "The right version of F2P is a very good thing for the world. The wrong version is kind of an abomination, but if you’re very fair to your players and they can play as much as they want, then it seems right."
Statistically, usually 90 per cent of players of free-to-play games never spend so much as 50 pence on a new hat, which means that any successful game needs to have a pretty huge player base. "We need scale," says Lionhead's studio head John Needham. "PC gives us that scale element, but even with the core Xbox audience, we’ve got a lot to work with there."
"[We need] millions, probably," reckons Eckelberry. "But then, previous Fable games have hit those kinds of numbers. We’re taking on a lot of risk, I accept that and so does Microsoft, but there’s no risk for you, as a player."
Of course, the biggest problem for Lionhead and Fable Legends might not be the business model, but the challenges of making an online-reliant game that launches without enormous game-breaking problems on two platforms simultaneously (Xbox and PC). Making a multiplayer game at all is new ground for this studio, let alone one with 4-versus-1 gameplay that relies on servers. With disasters like Drive Club and Halo: Master Chief Collection fresh in the memory, how can Lionhead ensure that Fable Legends launches well?
"The honest answer is a really long beta," says Eckelberry. "There’s a lot of new stuff for us both in game design and technologically: cross-platform, Windows 10, all of the networking we have to do is mostly new to us. We run into game-crashing bugs frequently in our beta. But we want to find them NOW, so we have time to fix them... a bad launch week sticks with you forever. Nobody ever forgets – and they shouldn’t, I think fans are right not to forget it. They might forgive it… but I don’t blame fans for saying “dude, you screwed this up”. I don’t want to be in that place."
To that end, Fable Legends has no solid launch date beyond "2015", and is unlikely to get one until much nearer the end of the year. That way, Lionhead can gradually open up the (currently closed) beta to more and more people and launch when there's confidence that everything is working at scale. It's never going to be a 100 per cent sure thing, but the studio is giving itself ample time to ramp up Fable Legends gradually.
Multiplayer-only Fable will always be a tough sell for some, but the game's fun, crucially, the fairytale Fable feel is definitely there, and the barrier to entry is low, so anyone can try it out (and then walk away with wallet intact if it doesn't appeal). Free-to-play actually seems less risky to me than asking people to pay £45 for a multiplayer-focused take on a series that's got such strong single-player memories attached to it. The beta is likely to expand its player population in the coming months. If you're curious, you can sign up here.