The closure of Lionhead Studios was a devastating event in the UK games industry, even if not completely unexpected. There are all these large themes swirling around it, such as the studio's years working on Kinect projects, the move towards games-as-a-service with Fable Legends, and the recent woes of Microsoft Games Studios. But for the boots on the ground, Lionhead staff such as Charlie Edwards and Neil Whitehead, it first of all meant that they were out of a job.
As the studio ground to a halt, with the spectre of unemployment looming overhead, this pair cheered themselves up by discussing dream projects. Amazingly enough - yet another indictment of Microsoft's management of the studio - they kept on coming back to the idea of making a game like Fable. Or to be more precise, like Fable used to be. They wanted something with that humour and spirit, but bringing in features from the games they played in their spare time: things like EasyGameStation’s Reccattear: An Item Shop’s Tale and Level-5 title Fantasy Life.
Lionhead went down, and Edwards and Whitehead formed PixelCount Studios and, in the modern fashion, took their project to kickstarter: Kynseed is a 2D adventure RPG that wants to be one of the many spiritual successors to the Fable series. It got funded and has been in development ever since. And doesn't it look just good enough to eat!
In Kynseed, you play as one of two twins going about your life in the fairy tale land of Quill. The game is pitched as a mixture of an RPG and a lifestyle sim: seasons will pass and living things will grow old and die. In the meantime you can explore, befriend characters, have children, and run your own businesses. That is, until it comes time for you to kick the bucket. It’s at this moment that a mysterious figure known as Mr Fairweather will give you the Kynseed, a mythical acorn that lets you pass on your skills and inventory to your children, and therefore continue playing far into the game’s future.
The name and this mechanic references the infamous acorn controversy around the original Fable, involving an unfulfilled promise made by Lionhead co-founder Peter Molyneux. While hyping Fable Molyneux said the player could knock an acorn off a branch, and it would eventually grow into a tree over time. Many players were then left disappointed when this feature was absent from the finished game, made their opinions known, and this relatively minor detail has dogged both Molyneux and the series ever since – even in jest.
Now, it's the starting point for Kynseed. With a release date that's already been delayed and is now fast approaching, I reached out to Edwards and Matthew Allen (another ex-Lionhead member) to find out how things are going, and whether this acorn is growing like they planned.
“The whole game is built around that joke,” laughs Edwards. “I always loved the idea that we could do a game and fix what was wrong. You know, the one thing that fans hated was that the acorn didn’t grow. So having a game with one acorn and it’s got to grow – otherwise the game won’t work – was a bit of the inspiration in a way.”
That's not the only long-held personal frustration that Kynseed hopes to address. Another goal is to give NPCs much more character in their actions, something Edwards wanted the original Fable because of his love for Ultima VII: The Black Gate. In that game, AIs visit the pub, sit down and eat, and have their very own schedules and habits that they attend to.
“That’s one thing I even suggested back in the day on Fable was that the NPCs never age, and they never do anything interesting. In most RPGs, they just stand around as people to give you a quest, send you A to B, and it always used to wind me up.
“It was something I always wanted Fable to have, better day and night routines and NPC lives. Rather than being these token people just walking around that you mess with, each of them could be as important as you. And if you are building a living world, everything needs to be living. Not just stood there, waiting to tell you the same thing over and over again.”
For a studio of PixelCount’s size, with just two full-time members, the problem may not be the ideas but the ambition behind them. Kynseed's original release date was last December, and the delay suggests an issue of scope.
“Freedom definitely comes at a cost, of sorts," says Allen. "It is stressful in its own way. It’s a satisfying type of stress, because you do have the liberties to pursue the direction you want to pursue with the project.”
“What we’ve found", adds Edwards, "is because we’ve just got the one coder and it’s quite an ambitious game, we’ve had to make our own tools from scratch and that’s taken obviously a little longer than anticipated. We gave ourselves a good amount of time, but we just found that maybe, yeah, we tried to make it a bit more polished than it possibly needed to be. There are a lot of little systems in there – and there are still loads to go in.”
So far the team have been transparent with their backers online, likely due to a consciousness of not just Kickstarters-gone-wrong (and how they're reported) but Lionhead’s own dotted history of broken promises and public perception of Peter Molyneux over recent years. The game will soon be released on Early Access, with certain aspects unfinished (a luxury Fable never had). They hope that this will give them more time to develop and integrate some of the more complex systems, like combat, while proving to players that what's already there works.
This first build will only be the prologue of the story, taking you up until you get the Kynseed. There will be no combat, and most of the game is interacting with your fellow villagers and making a living in The Vale, the starting hub.
“I think if we were going to spin it, we’d say yeah we’re going down the Nintendo route of we’ll only release it when it is ready,” says Edwards. “Nice and polished. We could have released [the first build] at the end of the year, but it would have been very buggy and it wouldn’t have had some of those more entertaining features in, so it’s always best to hold things back. The backers understood totally. As long as you are transparent. Tell them the truth. Involve them and they’re not going to mind a little slippage really.”
Kynseed is a fascinating project, and one of the most gorgeous of the many Fable-inspired projects that seem to have risen from the ashes of Lionhead. If you're curious, the original kickstarter demo for the game is still on itch.io – a brief look at some of the lifestyle elements, as you feed your pets, look after your father, and farm the land. Even now it seems to encapsulate everything that should make this game so lovely – and we all know the saying. From little acorns...