by Tadhg Kelly
As a band of knights approach Camelot in Monty Python And The Holy Grail, we see their leader change his mind. “On second thought,” King Arthur says, “let’s not go to Camelot. ’Tis a silly place.” It’s a description that fits many of the older UK studios. You know the ones I mean: the Frontiers, the Rebellions, the Codemasterses. They are silly places, amusing places, inspiring and occasionally aggravating places. They’re places caught between the past and the future, places whose signature games we remember fondly and whose transgressions we often forgive.
Why? Because they’re the places with spirit in a modern industry that often lacks it. Modern studios are factories, measuring every interaction and mathematically tuning their games like a Vegas casino might. Many have forgotten (or never learned) the virtues of charm, humour, story, curiosity and more that make up a rounded game. And so, with a heavy heart, we must speak of the passing of one of the few that didn’t forget those virtues: Lionhead Studios.
Lionhead began life in 1996 as the successor of Bullfrog Productions, which had enjoyed success with titles such as Populous, Syndicate and Theme Park before being bought by Electronic Arts. At first, EA’s acquisition bore fruit, notably with Dungeon Keeper, but eventually it stalled. And so Bullfrog’s founders left and got the band back together under a new name, but that story of success wasn’t the same. Between the time of Bullfrog and that of Lionhead the economics of the industry had changed and put huge strain on developers. And for Lionhead that meant falling into two consistent patterns: over-promising and under-delivering.
“Black & White combines the best elements of a strategy game, a roleplaying game, along with all the elements of a story-based game in which the player can choose to do almost anything,” said Peter Molyneux in an August 2000 interview. This kind of statement was typical for the designer, geeing up the press to write optimistic stories about what was to come. But the actual products rarely matched up. Lionhead’s first title Black & White spoke of a marriage of the gameplay of Populous with the creature-caring popularised by devices such as Bandai’s Tamagotchi. The promise of the title was grand, but the actual game proved to be thin. It was a pattern the studio would often repeat.
Another Lionhead title, BC, dragged on for years and never saw release. The Movies had a great pitch but was very fragmented to play. Fable became an industry legend for its tall promises, and then a deep disappointment on release. 2005’s Black & White 2 simply came and went, selling disappointingly to middling reviews, despite high internal expectations. To hear Molyneux tell it, at regular Friday afternoon gatherings, each of these games was going to revolutionise the universe. But often the reception beyond the walls of Lionhead HQ at Occam Court was mute, even angry.
Yet it wasn’t all a story of frustration. After Fable, the studio hit a high note with Fable II, the game for which it will probably be most fondly remembered. In many ways Fable II was a blessing, a repeatable franchise for a company often at odds with itself. The game also positioned Lionhead well when it needed a patron, which it found in a Microsoft undoing the console dominance of Sony. But the partnership did little to fix the mismatch between dreams and execution.
I had left Lionhead by the time of Milo & Kate, a title that was part of Microsoft’s Kinect ambitions in 2008. It was shown at the Game Developers Conference and TED, and reportedly involved a huge amount of technical work and creative struggle. But it went nowhere, and was ultimately cancelled. In its wake, Molyneux was promoted to oversee creative across all of Microsoft’s European studios, but soon left the company to form a new studio that became synonymous with controversy. For Lionhead, the story was no better.
When a studio is bought by a publisher, it usually evolves into a single-title operation, which eventually dooms it. Lionhead may have had its wild years, but at least in those days it had a lot of sizzle to sell. But when it became the Fable studio, its days were probably numbered. Fable was a worthy franchise but never a breakout hit. It was quirky and very British – a silly place, you might say – but never a must-have. And, after the lukewarm reception of Fable III, the franchise started to wane.
An attempt to make Fable work via Kinect flopped, as did a family-friendly edition, Fable Heroes. Then Fable Legends promised to re-energise the brand with co-operative multiplayer and a new hero/villain dynamic. But by that point it seems that Lionhead had become adversely affected by the situation in which Microsoft found itself. Unlike its predecessor, Xbox One was not a success. Multiplayer-focused games also failed to prove as sticky as the industry at large had hoped, Microsoft instead laying down big money for Minecraft. The move seemed to involve cuts being forced elsewhere, meaning that there was no future for a quirky, RPG-focused studio from Guildford.
Experts no doubt believe that Lionhead’s problems came from a poor product/market fit, from Molyneux, or from forgetting that it was a business. But those experts have no idea what running a creative videogame studio in the UK is like. Every studio struggles with the need to sell visions versus the practicalities of realising them. Every studio has leadership, creative and business challenges. The spirit business is tough.
That Lionhead survived in such an environment, developing several notable games and providing the foundations for the careers of hundreds of developers, is to its credit. That it was a place that fostered its staff, providing learning space from which other studios – such as Media Molecule – would be spawned is notable. Perhaps this is why its alumni mourn its passing. Because, beyond anything else, Lionhead had spirit.
It may have been a silly place, a maddening and occasionally even cultish place, but Lionhead Studios will be deeply missed.
Game design consultant and former Edge columnist Tadhg Kelly is currently working on a new book, entitled Core Game Design. He worked on The Movies at Lionhead from 2004–2006.