From all appearances, Fable Legends was due to receive a definitive release date at any time, after a fairly lengthy promotional period. Microsoft and developer Lionhead Studios made sure to keep fans abreast of its developments since announcing it in August 2013, and showed it at multiple opportunities. Unlike previous Fable titles, this was a free-to-play co-op title which was part of an alternate initiative from Microsoft, to see if their market was ready for a service title with a nice budget behind it. While it was recently delayed from late last year to early this year, that was too frequent an occurrence for video games to raise any eyebrows. Development seemed to be progressing smoothly.
That’s why Monday’s news came as such a shock. It was early in the morning for North American territories when Microsoft confirmed that Fable Legends had ceased development, despite appearing mostly finished. Lionhead is also being shuttered, despite previous Fable games being multi-million sellers. It’s been a couple of days since the announcement, but many are still trying to digest it.
Beyond the game, what’s tragic is how evidence suggests this announcement caught all of Lionhead’s staff by surprise. Just this past Friday, their social media manager enthusiastically reminded everyone of a live demonstration which would occur at GLive in Guildford, England this weekend. On that same day, the developers sent an email to beta players to notify them of changes that would be made in the near future. And if there was still any doubt as to whether this came as a shock to the staff, the creative director flat-out said that this announcement caught them off guard.
Not to mention the beta was, and is, currently running, and those who’ve played it said it feels like a nearly-finished product. Since there’s no longer any point in upholding the NDA they agreed to before participating, its players had plenty of good things to say about it. Interestingly, the beta will remain active until April 13th, though they aren’t accepting any new players. Anyone who used real money to pay for in-game gold will also be refunded within the next week.
It’s not just Lionhead here, sadly: Press Play, previously responsible for reportedly enjoyable 2D platformer Max: Curse of the Brotherhood, is also being closed. You’d think Microsoft would want to keep some studios that make small-but-profitable titles around for their lower-tier digital market, but clearly they thought otherwise.
There’s one arbitrary question to ask regarding this depressing news: Why? Why would a company get rid of development teams capable of creating quality software, particularly one that made a few best-sellers? While it’s clearly a sign that Microsoft is consolidating their video game development efforts, it could also be due to fear of a contracting industry.
Free-to-play games aren’t simply about releasing a title and being mostly done with it. No, the developer responsible needs to maintain support for the long haul. They’ll want people who enjoy the game to play it over a lengthy period of time, so they’ll keep paying for microtransactions. Those enjoying it will spread the word to attract new players along the way for co-op experiences. With the positivity coming from the beta, it seemed like releasing the game would have been worth it. But there’s always the risk of an f2p game not taking off in the long run, and this is apparently one Microsoft didn’t want to take.
But that still doesn’t dig deep enough into precisely why this happened. We’ve recently seen word that Microsoft will be unifying Xbox One and Windows 10 software ecosystems, which is mostly good news for those who miss their PC support. (“Mostly” because their impending plans to monopolize PC gaming on Windows 10 aren’t going over well.) But contemplate it a little harder, and this may not be good news for anyone who enjoys the company’s first-party output. The closing of Lionhead and Press Play could signify how they’re scaling back on gaming-related productions, not exclusively due to contraction in AAA game development, but because their execs see ominous writing on the wall.
The last time we received numbers, we saw how Sony had moved twice as many PlayStation 4 consoles as Microsoft did Xbox One systems worldwide. That subtly paints a picture of how Sony’s console is currently the only one performing incredibly well, while Microsoft’s is doing merely OK. But video games are far important to Sony (and Nintendo, if you want to include them here) than Microsoft, so the latter can afford to relax their output a little. That would explain why they lost faith in providing the expense that would be required to maintain Fable Legends for at least a few years, and felt they didn’t need Lionhead as a whole in the chance that a Fable game can’t sell to current AAA standards. Getting rid of entire development teams is a cold and callous corporate move, especially when they can’t see it coming, but it’s sadly not surprising upon observing the big picture.
We should receive a more definitive answer through Microsoft’s actions within the gaming industry from here on, and don’t be surprised if it’s dire. Meanwhile, hopefully everyone affected by the layoffs can find work somewhere else quickly. It would be nice if the Press Play team, for instance, could stick together to create an indie platformer, despite the market for smaller titles being considerably more competitive these days. That’s less likely for Lionhead’s staff, but perhaps there’s work awaiting them at other studios.