December 6, 2010

If Fable 3 were my game, what would I have done differently?

My relationship with Fable is a contentious one that dates back to Fable on the Xbox in 2004. Fable the first just angered me, and honestly I'd just finished Knights of the Old Republic. The comparison was not in Fable's favor. But then, Fable 2 arrived for my Xbox 360 and I swooned with joy. Fable 3 spent 60% of its length retreading the familiar ground of Fable 2 (with some changes), then spent the last few hours in strange new territory.

I really didn't like this territory. But I'm not here to whine. I don't learn anything that way and really it has no impact on Lionhead's success. Therefore, the question is "What would I have done differently?"

Give Collection a Purpose: 50 Pennies is still only 50 cents.
If I tallied it correctly, there are 4 things to collect 50 of in Fable 3: Evil gnomes, these flower things in aurora (a zone in which I think I spent maybe an hour the entire game), silver keys, and rare books. Collecting all 50 gnomes gives you 40 of the hero points you use to unlock abilities. Time invested vs. benefit is so not equal it hurts!

I think with the advent of Achievements every game puts in collectibles, but often for no purpose other than adding an achievement, excuse for a second playthrough in which you check every nook, or just padding the game. There are some strong examples of solid collection lately, however.

  • Assassin's Creed 2: Chasing the glyphs was fun because it was relatively easy, came with a puzzle (gameplay!) and ultimately unlocked a very interesting tidbit for the story. The investment required was reasonable and I found the pay off very intriguing, far more than finding every feather only to have Ezio's mother say "cool...I'm less sad now."
  • Fallout 3: Bobbleheads! Not only were their only 20 (a reasonable number!) but each one could add a crucial statistic point for your character. I found 13/20 and I searched high and low for them. Every one found was incredibly satisfying. 
  • Shadow Complex: The entire game is collection intertwined with RPG mechanics. Every item you find makes your character stronger, not to mention you feel smarter as a player for having figured out how to get that elusive power up. 
I think there are some cool mechanics that would have fit nicely both with the theme of Fable's collectibles and existing gameplay.
  • The gnomes are wise-ass, chatty bastards. This is ultimately how you know to look for one. What if each gnome unlocked a benefit to your haggling skill, provided a new insult or joke social? I think you'd need to reduce the number to something more feasible than 50.
  • Potions were fairly rare in the game, and though the game was rather easy I would have liked to have had more on hand. Perhaps the Aurora flowers could be converted into potions?
  • Silver Keys unlocked chests, which were themselves hidden. I only opened 2 and they rendered forgettable rewards. What if the keys provided a discount on purchasing the property abundantly scattered throughout the world? Or unlocked a unique property? 
Collection is good when it serves a purpose, is challenging but not a marathon task, and rewards the player's experience, not just their Achievement score.

Make it More Open: Stop whipping me along! Make it important!
Fable 3 more than any other other Fables and other proclaimed "open world games" whips the player along at a frantic pace. Sure, you can go off the rails at most parts and do as you wish. But, it never feels like that is what the game wants you to do with the exception of 1 or 2 parts. This is especially true of the end game, which literally has a daily task list for you to complete.

I love side quests, often far more than I love the main quest. This is definitely the case in Oblivion and Fallout 3. Perhaps it's the fact that I, the player, "discover" the side quest whereas the main quest is just handed to me on a silver platter? But, the sparkle trail keeps pushing you along and the diversionary activities aren't so engaging. Collection? Fetch quests that force several load screens?

If the townspeople keep calling me a hero, why do I feel so much like a mailman?

First and foremost I'd throw away the "deliver this package to Bob" and "go buy this specific thing and return it to me" quests. Those are not fun in MMOs, so why would you introduce them into a single-player experience, a game with far less reliance on long-term repetitive actions?

Secondly, I'd incorporate doing good for the community as a core theme as I am ultimately gaining favor with the mob to incite rebellion. Is there a way to tie in the real estate gameplay into my activities? I could purchase a home for a family in need. I could scope out a fantastic hideout for a rebel cell, then conduct a raid on remote outposts to collect weapons for the rebels.

Finally, the game should tell me to take pause through my butler or mentor (characters in the game) and explore. Point me in a direction, remind me to come back at some point, but note that the revolution can wait slightly. This happened once or twice, but really should have happened after most major quests.

Add Consequences: 5 million people died you say? So what?
The final portion of the game revolves around a fairly straightforward mechanic; for every coin in the treasury, a civilian is saved from the invasion that is sure to come. Every loading screen details three facts:
  1. How many days until the invasion
  2. How much money exists in the treasury
  3. Projected civilian casualties (as a result of #2)
I'll get to the actual content in a second, but for now, let's focus on this mechanic. I spent the last few hours of the game thinking carefully about whether I should keep the treasury full, buy real estate at a short term loss for the long-term gain, or just suck up the casualties. 

So far, so good Lionhead. You have me thinking! I like hard decisions in games. They are rare and always appreciated. 

Then, the invasion occurs. I had tried to save a reasonable number of people, but alas, approximately 5 million of my citizens died. I was going to feel bad, until the consequences for my questionable leadership hit. You ready for it?

Nothing. Oh wait, my mentor said "we've suffered large casualties" at the beginning of the battle sequence. Boy I feel chastised! Why would they spend so much effort on a fairly different and unique gameplay mechanic for a single line of dialog? 

The first thing I would have changed is the final battle sequence. For me, I let a lot of folks die so I battled with only 2 or 3 of my closest lieutenants. I would have added the ability to save soldiers and civilians currently battling to add to my force. Resistance had some cool hero moments in which your allies were about to be killed and you had a few seconds to save them.

Conversely, if you had a large army because of your huge treasury, the experience could have let you do another mortar fight sequence (really fun moment earlier in the game), send huge troops into the breach...something! There should be a benefit to your choices in either a richer experience or tangible gameplay benefits. 

Obviously studio money and time come heavily into play, but I think a final segment should have been added to the game as well -- reconstruction. This would provide a nice story-arch: Revolution, King, Reconstruction. If you allowed a large number of civilians and buildings to be destroyed, your tasks could focus on rebuilding, re-uniting the community, and setting forth what Albion will become in the future. If you had a high treasury and therefore low casualties, your final moments could be spent rebuilding the trust lost with your "means to an end" policies. 

Lionhead wouldn't necessarily need new mechanics for this segment, just recycled quest content with some writing put to it. It would really bring things around and make you feel the weight of your decisions. The treatment given to it made me so ambivalent that they could have said "you are the only one left in all of Albion" and I wouldn't have cared. 

Add Shades of Gray: Slaughter vs. Save is Tired
I really didn't care for the actual content of the decisions at the end. Had I know my decisions wouldn't have mattered I would have been a good guy all the way through. But, as I didn't know this at the time I tried to make the best decisions possible for my character. The choices were terrible though! Here are a few:
  1. Protect the People of Aurora as promised vs. Putting the people into forced labor camps
  2. Build a school vs. Put the children to work
To me these aren't choices. On behalf of myself and my character putting children to work just wasn't an option. I really prefer shades of gray, each with a pro and con. Dragon Age is the game to do this best most recently. 

At the end of the quest in the dwarven undergrounds you are forced to make a choice: Use the golems (dwarves encased in stone through magic) and add them to your army, or free the golems and lose them as a unit. Both choices cause you to gain and lose something. 

Another great choice is at the end of the game at the Landsmeet. You can execute King Loghain, or pardon him and add him to your army. But, the latter choice will cause one of your best friends in the game to leave. I set my controller down for 20 minutes for that!

I think Lionhead was really close, but ultimately went way too Black and White (see what I did there?) for my tastes.

To make this more meaningful I'd put more than gold and the treasury at stake. Let's take the first example from above:

"Protect the People of Aurora as promised vs. Putting the people into forced labor camps"

Protection would cost you money, but when the invasion came you would receive assistance from the Auroran fighters. Their weapons are primitive, sure, but help is help. You would also gain access to quests in the Aurora region from people friendly to your reign if you chose to play the content.

Putting them into forced labor camps would greatly increase your kingdom's monetary flow. This would boost the treasury as well as your character's personal finances. Perhaps the citizens of Aurora would revolt from time to time, presenting the perfect opportunity for a quest to either put them down or re-examine the decision.

Feature creep is fun,  yes?

Remove the Sparkle Trail: It hurts the experience.
I've been very torn on the sparkle trail seen in several recent games. After Fable 1, Lionhead removed the mindmap and put a sparkly breadcrumb trail that leads you to your objective. Similarly, Saints Row and Grand Theft Auto IV had GPS systems. On one hand it really simplifies the game. It removes the need to constantly check the mini-map and lets you get from A to B rather quickly. But, when you tell the player to follow the dotted line they often fail to take in the scenery. I know this is what happened to me in Fable 2 and 3 as well as the other games mentioned.

Ultimately, Lionhead traded one bad (staring at a map) for another (staring at a sparkle trail).

You can see the sparkle trail on the middle right side of the screen.
How do you guide players along without forcing them to constantly check the mini-map, but also without a breadcrumb trail? I have a few suggestions!
  • Work to keep all quests entirely contained within a single area. Frequently, Fable 3 forces you to span multiple regions. This means load times, getting lost, and the tedium of travel. 
  • Bring back the mini-map, but put map tags on it. Red Dead Redemption did a good job of this. The game world is enormous, yet you're never lost because it points you in the right direction and gets more specific as you near your objective. You spend time looking up ahead of you at all there is to see, not down at your feet.
  • Rely on classic level design tricks. Use visual cues to draw the player's eye towards points of interest. Diversify the color palette so it isn't miles of gray (like in GTAIV), use NPCs to call to the player or run in front of them. No game does this better than Call of Duty. 
  • Move points of interest off the roads and main paths. Currently almost everything is on the road. Move it out of the way to encourage exploration and taking a risk.
Give me my UI Back: Instant Buttons are better than a Slow Avatar
Lionhead had a very noble goal in removing UI as much as possible from the game. I respect this, but greatly question the actual implementation. It reminds me of Criterion's long time refusal to allow players to restart races from the Start Menu in Burnout: Paradise because they "didn't want players to have to deal with loading screens." "But I want the loading screen!" we shouted. "We just want to redo the damn race!"

Almost every decision forced you to load into your sanctuary where your avatar would physically change clothes, etc. Most egregiously this included:
  • Saving the game
  • Changing clothes (which had zero gameplay benefit)
  • Changing weapons/spells (according to the achievements there is something for collecting weapons? I might have looked into this if changing weapons wasn't such a pain)
  • Changing quests (again, more tedious to change)
For each of these cases I would have kept the sanctuary, which is great for storytelling, but also put the options inside the start menu. Don't add a layer of tedium atop the player's experience because of your ideology!

Other frustrations included:
  • No health bar. In a first person shooter the flashing red screen works because it typically means "one more shot and you're dead." In Fable 3, I never knew what it meant, so I probably wasted a lot of potions. Or did I?
  • Almost everything is contextual. You cannot use potions until you are hurt, certain socials can only be done when the game is both confusing and frustrating at the same time. Instead of making things contextual, let me do everything all the time, but unlike previous Fables, limit my choices so I'm not overwhelmed. 
Lionhead gets points for trying to modify the state of things, but ultimately loses too many for again trading one bad for another.

Everything up above is noted assuming infinite money and time. I have no clue what Lionhead's development schedule or budget was like. Some of my suggestions could perhaps have been done instead of the one's chosen, whereas others may be simply  ludicrous content explosions.

Did you play Fable 2 or 3? What would you have done differently?

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