Lionhead – Analysing A UK Gaming Legends Closure

It’s 2016 and we’re still seeing stakeholders close studios. Not just any studio – Lionhead, specifically. One that has been around for two decades. Founded in 1996 from another British gaming institute (Bullfrog), Lionhead was acquired by Microsoft ten years ago. And whilst it could be said that it’s Microsoft that has kept the company going through its output of mixed reviewed games over recent years, it could be argued that this was the start of the downfall for Lionhead. Principally being directed to peddle efforts into promoting Microsoft’s new tech gadgetry.

With the closure statement announced on 7th March, the gaming community mourned the loss of an iconic studio and empathy was sent out to its 100 employees. It was claimed to come as a complete surprise to the staff. Focusing on their last game in development, Fable Legends, the warning signs were there, and educated guesses can go some way to filling in the blanks.

An official statement sent out to beta players today reads:

The decision has been made to stop development on Fable Legends, and the service will cease to be available after 15:00 GMT on Wednesday 13 April 2016. Players who already have access to the closed beta will be able to continue playing the game until this time. Gold purchases from the in-game bank will be disabled with immediate effect.

We will be providing all players who purchased gold a full refund. Players who are eligible for a refund will be provided further information by email within the next 7 days.

Fable Legends without a doubt was in development too long. It was not handled well. I believe ultimately this decision lands on the publishers door. Action was not taken sooner, steps were not put in place… Or perhaps behind closed doors steps were put in place, but done so too many times (the too many cooks syndrome) with no clear direction and work needing to be constantly restarted.

I first got to play a polished demo of Fable Legends at EGX way back in 2014, nearly two years ago. It was a decent experience and something I was looking forward to playing soon. And there’s the crux – The closed Beta came out over a year later, and on Xbox at least it was a hot mess. Slow, clunky, dialogue missing, artwork missing, too few community support to get regular games going. I almost couldn’t believe it was the same game I was playing. It felt too early to be beta testing, potentially putting off the players before it even had a chance. But maybe this was the intention – the game was already seen as taking too long, they needed to get it out and see whether it was even worth carrying on with. Perhaps now this decision can be seen as a popularity gauge, rather than the mask of network testing it was meant to be for?

I decided to un-install and wait a few months for a better experience. The developer in me started to churn over the maths and I was suddenly concerned how this game was ever going to make its money back, let alone have a long shelf life. It must have been haemorrhaging money, with no clear end in sight. I started to feel for the developers, who I knew from experience would be using the new system Microsoft had created for Xbox One/Windows 10. I also knew that this could be a nightmare for them, using a system that was obviously rushed and incomplete in order to compete with the launch of the PS4… and was still getting regular ‘catch up’ patches that would be breaking old code.

Without inside information we might never know exactly what happened for Microsoft to start swinging its hatchet. It is such a final, drastic action. With two days of reflection on my side, I can’t help but wonder whether it really needed to come to closure. Ultimately, it does no good to objectively analyse the reasoning for the employees affected by this. My heartfelt hope is sent out to them that they come out of this OK. Perhaps eventually setting up new, smaller studios whereby they can make the games they want to again. Making their own iconic stamp on British gaming history.

Final thought – Please leave Rare alone, Microsoft!


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