GDC 2009: Fable's Peter Molyneux plays with portals

Lionhead founder explains his studio's innovation process and demos a number of successful and unsuccessful experiments.

SAN FRANCISCO--Peter Molyneux is perhaps known as much for Lionhead Studios' hit franchises such as Fable and Black & White as the often radical, overblown, or undelivered features these games were promised to feature. Be that as it may, his studio actually actively courts innovation through a program known as Lionhead Experiments, and the eminent game designer detailed this program, as well as a number of projects to come out of it, during a session at the 2009 Game Developers Conference today.

Peter Molyneux

Molyneux began by explaining the background of Lionhead Experiments, saying it was born from the studio's first project, Black & White. Molyneux said that development on the title was "utter and complete chaos" because "some guy named Pete" would routinely derail the team by proposing new design features and ideas. One "dumb and stupid" idea that derailed the team, he said, was incorporating weather patterns inside the game that reflected those outside gamers' windows.

"Innovation is what our audiences really want," Molyneux said, so Lionhead decided to implement the program to control the influx of ideas so that they wouldn't negatively impact development. He also noted that it was important to develop innovative ideas because if there is no channel for a designer to pursue these experiments, "they leave your company and go do it elsewhere."

Providing a rough overview, Molyneux said the program provides a fast way of prototyping risky ideas from Lionhead team members. They are short-term affairs, lasting on average about four weeks, and typically have one to five people participating.

Any member of the staff can propose an experiment, Molyneux said, but they will need to find a senior member to act as a sponsor for it. The sponsor then sells the idea to Lionhead's creative board, and, if approved, it is scheduled in the same way as any other project, with milestones and checkpoints.

Projects primarily manifest in one of two ways. Since not everyone at the company is of the programming persuasion, Lionhead has a prototyping engine that strips away all unnecessary code, so much so that even someone unfamiliar with programming can build out their idea. Alternatively, experiments can be conducted using one of Lionhead's existing game engines.

Lionhead also has a program that Molyneux called "Concrete," which is designed to allow any asset from a game--be it a graphic, animation, or piece of code--to be intermingled within an asset from another game. Molyneux gave the example of taking trees from one game, a village from another game, and the AI from yet another game, and then combining them all into one project. He noted that the system "is still a dream" at this point, but a work in progress.

Once the project is prototyped, the creative board is given a full breakdown with risk assessment. If it is greenlit, the original creator is integrated into the full development team, designers are briefed so it is fully utilized, and a patent is filed, if applicable.

Molyneux then gave examples of some of the experiments that have come out of this project. The first was one of Fable II's most notable characters, the dog. Originally, the dog was planned to feature a punishment and reward mechanic. However, once prototyped, the dog didn't feel natural, he said, and they realized a better focus would be on the bonding elements of the player and the animal. Molyneux notes that had they not prototyped this feature, which took about two weeks, they wouldn't have realized it was not such a great mechanic until a year down the road.

The Lionhead head then ran through a number of other prototypes, ranging from Fable II's one-button combat to lighting based on ray-tracing technology to deformable skin to water mechanics to using a graphics processing unit to render thousands of animations and creatures at a time. Of the last experiment, Molyneux said that it was too late to implement in Fable II, but the studio may end up using it in the future.

Easily the most interesting experiment, and one that didn't actually pan out, was called The Room. Conducted by several members of the team who left Lionhead to form Media Molecule (of Little Big Planet fame), The Room was essentially a highly detailed workspace that resembled any given room in Fable II.

However, in the room, the creators came up with two other features. The first, Molyneux detailed, was called clay, which was essentially a nondescript cube that could be transformed, block by block, into an in-game object. For example, Molyneux demonstrated how a 2-by-3 clay box would turn into a TV, or a 2-by-1 box would become a bowl of oranges.

The Room also demoed technology called portals. Molyneux noted that the demo was created several years before Valve's highly praised The Orange Box's pack-in puzzler Portal was released but that the system played out much in the same way.

Adding a wrinkle to Portal's mechanic, however, Molyneux demonstrated how objects dropped into a smaller portal--in this case, a mirror--would grow after coming out of a larger portal. The enlarged object could then be dropped through the small mirror once more to become an even bigger object. At this point, Molyneux inadvertently dropped the small mirror into the large mirror, and the demo crashed. He did note, however, that Lionhead plans to incorporate this gameplay mechanic into its future titles.

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50 comments
Legend-of-Evil
Legend-of-Evil

This Concrete program seems like a must-have for a designer, that is when it is solidly complete.

TTDog
TTDog

Molyneux is the perfect example of a man who's ideas are stifled by hardware limitations, he has grand designs for his games that just are possible with the current tech. Now if he'd learn not to shoot his mouth off about an idea and discover whether it is actually possible before he announces the new feature he'd be held in higher esteem. All those moaning about features being left out have completely missed the point, his games have included more innovative features than most companies entire catologue for the last 20 years, yet these simpletons moan because 1 idea failed to make the cut... appreciate the genius of the man rather than criticise for the sake of it.

Ashmasaki
Ashmasaki

Peter Molyneux, always striving for new and exciting innovations in lofty claims and empty promises.

DontEatCream
DontEatCream

Cause Prey was only an average game while Portal was outstanding.

Razoroo
Razoroo

Why does everyone forget that Prey came out before Portal and had very innovative portal and gravity gameplay mechanics.

bennae66
bennae66

i admire him but fable 2really wasnt that much better than fable 1. maybe its just me, i expect more meat in my rpgs; more storyline, more levelling, more abilities and less focus on action and button mashing.

SpunkyB0B
SpunkyB0B

I love this man, and I want to shake his hand, and I think it would be an honor to work with him.

Subterfuge
Subterfuge

"Make a new populace!" Hell yeah!

WizengamotX
WizengamotX

I do not believe Peter Molyneux when he says that his studios had developed the 'portal' system before did Valve. B.S.

tlow0678
tlow0678

lol even though they developed the idea before Portal, theres no way they can pull it off without being dubbed copycats.

rav44
rav44

CHEESECAKE!!!!!!!

Noise964
Noise964

I thought it was anticlimatic. In my game reaver took my kill.

dragon31691
dragon31691

Fable 2 was a good game but it could have been great if the co-op didn't suck and if the ending wasn't really stupid. Did anyone else think that was extremely anticlimactic?

tsiper
tsiper

Fable 2 was so awesome. P.M. is awesome that kind of thought and creativity is just what the game's industry needs. The developers that have the same kind of attitude are what has moved video games into the mainstream. Without them we would still be back somewhere near the atari 2600 stage or just nintendo and only a couple of games a year coming out!

jagus12
jagus12

Fable with portals? That is going to be either very f*cking weird... OR VERY F*CKING AWESOME! :D

mikefoy
mikefoy

Its funny how he gets away with some of his comments and failures. He is definately not a liar though, over ambitious yes but certainly not a liar. He often seems a little mis-informed during his interviews but people let it slide. I like him loads, he obviously has a clear confidence and pride in his work and that is great.

Immortal_Zarok
Immortal_Zarok

Peter Molyneux is not a liar he simply gets far too many ideas and runs of time to implement them all. The fact is that he wants to put more features in the game then they have on the schedule but he is a visionary he tries new things he experiments rather than trying to produce games that do the same thing as several other games he's always trying something new. He's done a lot for the games industry it's just a shame he didn't have time to finish with everything he wants to do with his games.

Terminal_Omega
Terminal_Omega

I am so done with anything Molyneux has a hand in. He is a liar, pure and simple. How many times has he pumped up a game promising all of these awesome features and you go out and buy it only to discover it is a mediocre piece of ****? Fable II was the last straw - overrated, anti-climatic, and nowhere near as "free choice" as it was advertised to be.

modem22
modem22

Hey Pete give me Fifa 10 with next-gen graphics for the pc and bring back Madden, also with a nex-gen flavor for the pc u traitor.

Sins-of-Mosin
Sins-of-Mosin

Give me a Fable with the free roam like Fallout 3 and I'll be happy.

gmreedy
gmreedy

He will have the portals, but never the comedy.

vaejas
vaejas

He did note, however, that Lionhead plans to incorporate this gameplay mechanic into its future titles. Ah yes, crashing is always innovative because nobody expects it. Like the Spanish Inquisition. I do respect that Peter doesn't want to hold the monopoly on dumb and stupid ideas, and works hard to give everyone a fair chance at f'ing up. This is why they don't do cookie cutter games, and the industry is better for it. So few "eccentric cousin" studios left...

DangerClown
DangerClown

So cool. I wanna read more articles like this about other prominent game designers/teams.

ftjx
ftjx

Peter Molyneux!

ThePowerOfHAT
ThePowerOfHAT

Wish I could get Black & White running on my laptop again. For some reason it keeps crashing near the end of Land Two. I miss that game.

JaredTrotterboy
JaredTrotterboy

mikep09 Posted Mar 28, 2009 4:49 pm GMT **** you Molyneux. You promised us co-op in Fable 2, instead we got really really crappy **** that I would never call co-op. I've lost my faith in you, so go **** yourself. dude seriously grow up, to me you sound like a spoiled brat. Game designers can't keep everything they promise.

killa4lyfe
killa4lyfe

COME ON MOLYENUEX! seriously BRING FABLE2 to PCs PLZ!!!:cry: I loved fable one SOOO much on my pc its not even funny plz MOLYENUEX! /begging i don't know where i read this but its really cool... "Molyneux could make/hype watching grass grow the most exciting thing in the world" ...:lol: so whatever he says is usually not always going to be true! He s the opposite of "aim low and avoid disappointment" :P

lilmichaelson
lilmichaelson

Man the only improvement for me to make fable 3 much better would be co-op that is actually fun, I mean shared a camera view even over xbox live, that was just ridiculous.

JLuke360
JLuke360

I recall Molyneux demoing "The Room" a couple of years ago. I don't remember what the venue was, but I was pretty excited for it (it was still "next generation" back then).

frogiggy323
frogiggy323

Portals in Fable 3? I actually want to see how that plays out.

mikep09
mikep09

**** you Molyneux. You promised us co-op in Fable 2, instead we got really really crappy **** that I would never call co-op. I've lost my faith in you, so go **** yourself.

BenBenBen93
BenBenBen93

i bet he said that he was the cause of the big bang at one point during Fable 1 development. But i'll give him that he is a very good liar and has not made a crap game

LokiHero
LokiHero

What isn't mentioned here is that this isn't happened in a computer. Peter Molyneux, being both insane and a transdimensional hypergenius, can do these things in real life. If you're surprised by this stunning, physics-shattering development process, clearly you've not kept up to speed on everyone's favourite Franc. All the same, seeing the innards of the creative process with Lionhead is quite interesting, though I'm not too stunned by the "creative chaos" they experienced once upon a time. Molyneux's an idea man, no doubt, but he's one of those types who constantly churns out dozens of ideas at a time, all creative, but most of them atrocious. It's the few million-dollar ideas that make him what he is.

LokiHero
LokiHero

What isn't mentioned here is that this isn't happening in a computer. Peter Molyneux, being both insane and a transdimensional hypergenius, can do these things in real life. If you're surprised by this stunning, physics-shattering development process, clearly you've not kept up to speed on everyone's favourite Franc. All the same, seeing the innards of the creative process with Lionhead is quite interesting, though I'm not too stunned by the "creative chaos" they experienced once upon a time. Molyneux's an idea man, no doubt, but he's one of those types who constantly churns out dozens of ideas at a time, all creative, but most of them atrocious. It's the few million-dollar ideas that make him what he is.

xatman911
xatman911

I feel like working for Lion Head studios now, lol. Prototyping is key to success if you do it right.

AoW_TMS
AoW_TMS

Make a new populace!

brilhasti
brilhasti

Agreed viewtiful_jay but there's a reason why it's good to "under-promise and over-deliver" Molyneux should probably look into that.

viewtiful_jay
viewtiful_jay

My take is that if you don't read a single thing about a Peter Molyneux designed game before it's released, and you buy it, you generally won't be disappointed. The guy comes up with some stuff that is anywhere from solid to mind blowing. Very little of it is actually of poor quality. However, IF you read previews, especially interviews with him about his games, you'll be annoyed by the constant delays, the features chopped out, and frustrated with a game that is nothing like what Peter said it was going to be. The first Fable was a good example of this.

thk123
thk123

He he, and then he inadvertently dropped the small mirror into the large mirror, and the demo crashed That's when you know you are dealing with a real person not just some super organised faceless company.

JaredTrotterboy
JaredTrotterboy

remember guys that Molyneux is notorious for not keeping his promises, but you gotta give him the benefit of the doubt, I've always suspected Microsoft may have been the main reason Molyneux did not keep his promise in the Fable franchise...even if they did or didn't say it was they're fault or Microsofts... and also, everyone knows big business' and littler business' connected to the big ones sense when somethings going down, like the recession.

cdx00
cdx00

What a failure

finaleve
finaleve

No. Stop Peter. Stop trying to compile every neat feature from every game and put it into one. Fable 2 outdid 1 in so many ways, but that was because it actually improved. Adding new "gameplay" features will either make or break the game...this case would be break. ...then again, this "feature: would probably not make it.

Hazzerz
Hazzerz

"Very neat indeed! I want me some portals.. To bad Molyneux never gives what he truly intended, he just.. forgets to mention what got cut out.." There ya go. I give up on Lionhead >.>

SR71halo
SR71halo

Cool idea, maybe he'll put that feature in Fable 3.

Outlaw-X13
Outlaw-X13

Very neat indeed! I want me some portals.. To bad Molyneux never gives what he truly intended, he just.. forgets to mention what got cut out..