While Peter Molyneux gets a lot of ink, there’s obviously a team of developers working very hard to turn Fable III from fan favorite into full-fledged phenomenon — working to make the goals that he outlined in his GDC talk earlier this year more concrete.
One such developer is Josh Atkins, the Xbox 360 and PC game’s lead designer. Originally a Microsoft employee who was lent to the team during development of the original game in 2003 and 2004, he worked again on the second and finally joined the team full-time for the third, starting in 2008.
Atkins’ earlier background is as an in-house Nintendo developer; he had professional contact with Shigeru Miyamoto when working as lead designer of Gamecube title Wave Race: Blue Storm.
He decided to jump to Microsoft, excited by the Xbox and what “it was going to become” — “in particular… the future of online games” and the “possibilities” of Xbox Live, a subject he goes into in depth in this interview.
But he also discusses how the team is structured and how it works to realize those lofty goals laid out by Peter Molyneux — improving accessibility while maintaining depth.
Lead designer for Fable III is quite a lot of responsibility, isn’t it?
Josh Atkins: Yeah, it’s a very big game.
Peter Molyneux has been very vocal about how there has been a lot of thought put into how you want to make the game more accessible and more streamlined, but more satisfying. That’s a complicated challenge, isn’t it?
JA: Yeah, it is. It’s a fun one. It’s not a bad challenge by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s very difficult. We spent a lot of time talking about making sure the player understands their objective and making sure we know what we want a player to feel at a given time. We want what they need to do to be clear and we want them to be emotionally involved in what they are doing.
When you talk about how someone feels, there are different kinds of emotions that come out when playing games. There is certainly the emotion of the story, but there’s also the emotion of what you’ve actually just accomplished. Which are you speaking about? Or is it both?
JA: Both. They go hand in hand. There’s the emotion you get from the story that is, for us, really critical, and it’s something that we spent a lot of time thinking and talking about.
There’s also the emotion of trying to meld the drama of the story with an action-packed sequence, so they feel like it has a true ebb and flow to it; that the drama and pacing of the story blends perfectly with the drama and pacing of the actual gameplay.
How do you approach that, making those things align? That’s been a challenge with game design, to have those two work in concert.
JA: With Fable III, we started with our story and the journey we want the player to go on. From a story standpoint, we started out with what we call “journey to rule,” which we have talked a lot about in the press already; it’s the path you go on as a revolutionary where you ultimately become the ruler.
We knew we anted to do that journey, so we started to ask, “What are the big moments along the way? What are going to be the big, dramatic combat sequences? What are the times where you will feel like you are on an adventure on your own? What are the times when you’re with somebody? What are the times where we want it to be a simple, easy fight scene so you feel quite powerful versus a more challenging fight?
We look at the story first and as we start building that out, we put together the peaks and valleys from an action sequence standpoint and approach it that way.
Particularly with games, you are always generating content, having to generate environments, and role-playing games also offer more non-linearity than other types of games. How do you orchestrate that in terms of the narrative?
JA: The interesting thing about Fable is that it’s non-linear, in a lot of what I personally think are very unique ways. The first thing we do is make sure we put in points in the story where the player feels comfortable wandering off, and feel like there’s a point where a character will tell you directly or insinuate, “Hey, now’s the time where you can do whatever you want” and give you that feeling of open space as part of the ebb and flow of the game and also the pacing of the story.
We make sure we leave those moments in for you to feel like there’s a purpose to exploring. But what we do differently at that point, in addition to having the standard optional quests, we have the sim.
You can lead this rather full life in the game so we need to make sure that we leave these brackets where you can play with the sim, get married, buy houses, try trading, do all the layers of activities that are in fable, along with all these great optional quests and side quests that build into the main story.