We chat to lead designer Ted Timmins about its conception, a Peter Molyneux-induced dream and working in Achievements.
> Read our review of Fable Heroes
Can you talk a bit about how Fable Heroes was conceived?
"Yeah sure, every year at Lionhead we have a Creative Day where we have a few days to let our hair down, experiment and create something. We've always been told we can literally create anything; it can be a powerpoint presentation or it could be a design document for the next big thing.
"Myself and five of my friends and colleagues got together and we decided to make a Gauntlet-inspired Fable game. A very high level, our players having a great time, the kind of thing you'd play with your mates on a Friday night, drinking beer, eating pizza, that kind of thing.
"We spent a few weekends on it to get that extra bit of polish. When we showed it to Peter Molyneux and Louise Murray - the head of the Fable franchise - they were just over the moon. They actually wanted it to go into full production after Creative Day."
After that initial presentation to the upper staff, how did the project evolve from there?
"We were given a team of about 15 people, and we were given our own offices across the street from the head Lionhead Studios, and we were just told to make a great XBLA game. It's not very often you get the keys to a big franchise like Fable with the only stipulation to be 'make a great game'.
"So we went across the road, we were given three months dev time initially and to do internally a 'green-light', which is proving the project, so when we go back and show Louise and Peter, they can make sure it's on track, it's the sort of thing they think represents the company and the Fable games."
"After three months we showed them, and they were still really happy with the direction we were going in and expended it through till earlier this year."
Is this the first game to be created out of this yearly Creative Day?
"Yes, obviously we're a creative company so we've always had creative elements in our games. There's always been quests that people have made in our games, for like, Fable 2 and Fable 3.
"We've had technologies that have been made as well. But this was the first time we've had a Creative Day game being green lit and subsequently released on Xbox Arcade. That was great to be the first of something, and hopefully it won't be the last."
Do you think these games, small games for Xbox Live Arcade, will be important for Lionhead going forward?
"Yeah! I mean, I hope that we start to see more of it. I mean nothing is ever written in stone, but if Fable Heroes is successful and more importantly fans enjoy it, then yeah. We still have our Creative Days every year so who knows?
"Next year we may have 10 new games coming out of it! I think that internally at least it has been very well received at Lionhead. People come up to me in the pub on Friday and said 'Fable Heroes has really inspired me, I feel like I can create anything'.
"It's great it's not just externally it has been received well, but everyone at Lionhead feels like they can be that extra bit more creative. We've always been creative anyway, so to go that bit more is amazing."
Has it required any adjustment by the studio to do a smaller project, because you're normally focused on bigger retail projects?
"Well, a lot of Lionhead DNA came from Bullfrog and if you look at Bullfrog, they were always making these smaller games because it was that era in game development. When you become such a big company that you're making these triple A, quadruple A, 150-man team games, I don't think it does any harm to remember your roots.
"When you look at the way games are these days, you've got them from every game possible, from a Windows Phone, to tablets to everything. I think that the industry is shifting so much at the moment, I think it would be a mistake to rely only on these massive 40 million selling games.
"I think the important thing for me personally with these smaller games is that you can express your creativity. That's not to say we don't have fun on something like Fable 3, but with something like Stacking or Fable Heroes, you can really let your hair down and go crazy with it, and I think everyone needs that once in a while."
Talking about the game itself, what's the inspiration for the visual style? It's quite distinctive.
"Well, my good friend Jon Eckersley, he's the lead artist on Fable Heroes, and when we started talking about it, the most important thing first and foremost is that it felt like Albion, the world that everyone knows and loves from Fable.
"But we wanted to put on this almost cartoony Wind Waker look spin on it, so even though it looks familiar it's got a personality of its own. We felt that also it suits the gameplay, this retro, four-player hack and slash inspired game, we felt we should go for this more classic look than a realistic look."
In between stages you have a board game, roll-of-the-dice mechanic for levelling up and different power-ups. Can you explain why you implemented this?
"The only thing Peter said to me at the very beginning of development was, 'the most important thing was the levelling up system, and it's the thing that I'll care about'. I went away and had a chat with our design team, and nothing really clicked with us and nothing really clicked with Peter even though we had some ideas.
"But I couldn't stop thinking about it and one night I had this dream, and in my dream, Fable Heroes was a board game and I went into work the next morning and said, I had this crazy dream, what if the game was based around the board game, and to level up you roll the dice that you earn from the levels, and you spend the gold accumulated as you play through the game.
"And although it was some insane dream, everyone really bought into it. The next thing we know we're all rolling a dice and levelling up our characters. It felt like it really fit the game world, the fact that you're almost in the pub and everyone is playing the game laid out on the table. We wanted to create a levelling up system with a difference, and that's why the board game fits so well.
"I know Peter is very happy with the final product, and says it's definitely a levelling up system that's different and fun. It's a game within a game. You play Fable Heroes as a game, then you play another game to level up. It's quite unique."
I suppose ideas can come from the strangest places…
"Yeah, they can, especially when someone of Peter's stature turns around and says, 'the most important thing is the levelling up system'. You are gonna be thinking about it all the time, whether you try to or not, so that really helped."
Did Peter Molyneux provide much guidance or was he more hands-off?
"It was more guidance. It was more every couple of months playing the game with him, coming up with things that he liked, what he didn't like. He was a good resource for being fresh eyes, coming in with a lot of experience from not just Fable, but also for game development.
"When he gave us the thumbs up for the levelling up system - that was just amazing. He loved some of our other stuff, the fact you can play as some characters, he liked the look of the game.
"When you have someone being that receptive to the game, and just giving you guidance, I think that really helps. We never felt like we had to change anything too drastically, it was just tweaked here and there, and that was a nice experience to have."
You can replay each level as a dark version, and also keep levelling after finishing. Is replayability a strong focus for this game?
"Yeah, because we're on Xbox Arcade, one of our inspirations was Trials. Originally it was Trials HD, but now we're all knee deep in Trials Evolution. We wanted to create and bring in the replayability of something like Trials, where you just wanna play one more level, and you just want to play it, and before you know it you've been playing for four hours and it's 3am and you're cursing at the screen!
"What we wanted to do was by having each level to be not just replayable, but when you complete light Albion, which is our first world, it flicks to this dark Albion. We felt it allowed us to create a Fable game in which there is an alternative harder version. We all read the forums and over the years players have said to us that they find Fable a bit too easy.
"We found that by giving them this Dark World along with difficulty options, we could appeal not just to the hardcore Fable fans that want a more hardcore Fable, but at the same time not alienate anyone who's become accustomed to Fables as a RPG-lite, if you will. We tried to cater to everyone as much as possible."
It's also one of the first XBLA games to use the new 400 point amount. Is it a challenge to think up that many Achievements?
"With a game like Fable Heroes there's no end for ideas for Achievements. When we started on Heroes, the cap was 12 and we designed anything around these 12 Achievements, then one day Microsoft said you have an extra 18 Achievements if you like. And your first thought is, 'Oh God, we designed the whole game around these because we wanted to integrate them all'.
"But then it was like, 'Hang on a minute, why don't we just take that even further?' In the end we got some really fun stuff in regards to power-ups, but we also have things like Big Head Mode, which you can turn on at any time, there's No Gooey mode where you can turn of the scores and nobody knows who's winning until the very end, and we've got exploding coins where, they're usually something you want to pick up, but now after a while they start to flash red and eventually explode.
"There's lots of these little quirky things that we've turned on, so we thought how about we integrate some of our Achievements with those? The Achievements are there's things like, 'Complete The Level Playing With Big Head Mode' or 'Complete The Level Mission First With No Gooey'.
"We've taken these little fun features and integrated them with the Achievements. Our credits level, which is a little bit of a secret, but one of our Achievements is to complete the credits level and destroy 20 developer names, so we definitely had fun with them as well."
With it being finished, looking back, how well do you think the project went?
"It was amazing. I started originally in Lionhead in 2004; it's just been the most unbelievable experience to go from quest designer on Fable 3 and then get green-lit by Louise and Peter, to be given our little office. The 15 people - every single person who worked on Fable Heroes - 100% believed in making an awesome four-player Fable game, [it was great to] work with those guys.
"To work on it for a year and be given almost 99% creative freedom, to Microsoft to come along and just say they want it as part of their Arcade Next program - which is massive - it's just been a really incredible experience and I'm very proud of the team and happy to just have been a part of it."
> Read our review of Fable Heroes
Fable Heroes is available exclusively on Xbox Live Arcade this Wednesday, May 2 worldwide.