After its predecessor was an Xbox 360 exclusive, Fable III’s appearance on PC marks something of a return to their spiritual home for Lionhead Studios. Originally scheduled to launch alongside the 360 version, the PC incarnation was delayed to build an “optimised” experience – a promise Lionhead have certainly delivered on.
You can read our review of Fable III on PC tomorrow from 17.00 BST, but in the meantime I caught up with Mike West, Senior Designer at Lionhead, and from Don Williamson, the Lead Engine Coder, to discuss the process of bringing the Fable franchise back to the PC – and what the future holds.
BeefJack: The question of console ports has been a hot-button topic amongst the PC community for some time now. In light of that, the fact that one of the first things you see in the PC version of Fable III is a mouse cursor seems almost like a statement of intent. Was differentiating the two versions an important issue to you during the extended development time for the PC SKU?
Mike West: I remember the very first meeting we had about making the PC version of Fable III which went along the lines of “if we are making a PC game, then we are doing it properly.” There are lots of PC gamers at Lionhead, and we know as well as anyone how annoying console ports can be, when lists are displayed and you can’t select things with a mouse, or you have to select the ‘back’ key instead of pressing escape. The complete conversion to PC was the main factor that meant the PC version slipped to 2011 – if a gamer buys a game, they should expect that it has been developed for their platform, not rushed out to meet a publisher’s deadline.
BeefJack: I’ve deliberately kept to using a mouse and keyboard during my time with the game. One of the things that surprised me is how it in fact feels far more fluent than even the 360 controller, especially during combat. How did you approach implementing the new control method?
Mike West: The first thing we tried was a like-for-like button to key switch, but whereas on a controller having three different attacks on three buttons felt right, assigning these attacks to three arbitrary keys really didn’t work very well. A number of other solutions were tried, but in the end we went for a more refined version of the Fable 1 PC controls.
We often went back to play the PC version while in development to see what we did right and wrong, to ensure the combat felt as clean as possible. Also, having the player fight in ‘modes’ allowed us to switch the use of the RMB depending what mode you were in which was especially useful in the spell mode. Also taking the sticky aiming system used on the console and being able to switch it back to full mouse control always makes it feel smoother, especially when you can crank up the sensitivity allowing the player much more control over the hero.
BeefJack: The “Hardcore” mode significantly ups the demands on the player both in terms of dealing with enemies and reinforcing staples of the RPG genre such as health and potion management just to stay alive. Was that a deliberate design feature for the PC market, or something that sprung out of feedback from the Xbox title?
Mike West: It was a bit of both actually. We did get feedback from the Xbox 360 version saying it was less challenging than some fans would have liked and therefore with the extra time created by the conversion, some of the designers had time to tweak a number of the variables to add the hard mode. Personally, I always see PC gamers as slightly more hardcore gamers anyway – I mean the price of a gaming rig alone means they are usually willing to invest more into their hobby. I’m both a console and PC gamer myself. Most genres work better on one platform or the other, but Fable is one of those that straddles the divide pretty well.
BeefJack: What other tweaking went on with both the mechanics and areas such as the collection Achievements?
Mike West: We responded to the feedback that some of the Legendary Weapon upgrades required a little too much grinding and therefore the values were dropped a little, but the actual collection achievements remained the same.
BeefJack: One of the long-running themes of the Fable series has been opening up the RPG genre to as wide an audience as possible, yet the PC version isn’t shy of making some hefty demands on your hardware on higher settings. How difficult was it balancing the need to run on as many machines as possible while still giving those with powerful rigs the maximum bang for their buck? Was there ever a worry that more casual PC gamers would simply set everything to “Very High” and become frustrated when they can’t run it?
Don Williamson: Most of the effort porting the engine to PC was spent making it run on as many machines as we could get access to – we wanted as many people as possible to enjoy the visual improvements the PC could bring. There were lots of features in the engine that were written specifically for the Xbox 360 that had to be re-implemented with multiple PC targets in mind.
For example, the PC version had to somehow keep up with the 10s of thousands of occlusion queries the Xbox 360 engine could do every frame, our histogram evaluation had to be moved from the CPU to the GPU to prevent stalls, some video cards can’t sample the depth buffer as a texture making depth-of-field and crepuscular rays difficult, we were employing lots of tricks to occupy space on the 360 that couldn’t be done on the PC, we had to counter lots of inefficiencies introduced with the higher level of abstraction in D3D on the PC… the list goes on, but the engine guys did a great job bringing it all under control.
BeefJack: There’s no doubt that even on low to medium settings, the PC version is a significant graphical step beyond the Xbox 360 Fable III. What was the scope of the technical improvements that were made to the engine and assets, and just how much time did that take up during the development?
Don Williamson: We spent a lot of time taking the many engine features and making them configurable dependent upon platform. The water was improved to render more world detail into its reflections, while at the same time being broken down into several render modes that accounted for lower-spec machines. Texture pools were increased to get more detail, draw distances were ramped up, shadow resolution was increased, tree billboards were pushed further into the distance, texture filtering was improved, etc. The source assets didn’t change much beyond some parameter tweaking for increased quality. Because our artists originally authored their assets at such a high quality, removing the limits that the Xbox 360 imposed upon us immediately made the game look better.
BeefJack: Has returning to PC development for the first time in half a decade at Lionhead been an enjoyable experience overall? And can PC gamers expect to see dual platform titles become the norm for you from now on?
Mike West: All of our tools are on the PC including the editor, so the game is always being developed in parallel on the PC, but not to a releasable standard. The main benefit to a PC release is to be able to see the world of Albion realised at such a high resolution. We have some mighty PCs in the office and along with the fantastic 3D mode, Fable has never looked more beautiful which the artists love. The main drawback is the huge number of different PC configurations and the testing and bug fixing associated with them, I can’t say the code department enjoy that bit! As a Microsoft Developer we are always tasked with primarily using the Xbox and PC platforms, whether every game is dual platform is really down to what the game is, when we decide that, we can determine on what platforms it will be delivered.
BeefJack: Lionhead have been closely connected with Kinect ever since the initial Natal reveal, and, for a long time, support for the peripheral was rumoured to be included in Fable III. With Microsoft now opening up Kinect to PC developers, is motion control still an area Lionhead as a studio is keen to explore?
Mike West: We recently had ‘Creative Day’ at Lionhead where everyone was allowed to take two days out of their schedule and innovate on whatever area they wished – and around 60 per cent of the projects worked on used the Kinect kit. Microsoft see Lionhead as one of their more innovative studios and therefore if it’s Kinect, or 3D, touch-screens or holograms, then we are always keen to try any new technology out.
BeefJack: The third title in a series always feels like a watershed moment – that unspoken tendency to group fictions into trilogies – and with the PC version coming several months later, that’s seems particularly true with Fable III. What now for the Fable series?
At this point, the PR rep steps in. Lionhead are not allowed to talk about this, it would seem. But West did have this to say:
Mike West: The Fable series has sold just under ten million copies on console and clearly has a large loyal fan base, and therefore looking in more detail at what those fans want is our priority.
BeefJack: Finally – and we have to ask it – but what are the chances of Fable II ever seeing a PC release?
Mike West: With Fable III the team and time was right to create a PC version. Once the game went to submission the content creators started working on DLC and therefore the coders were free to start on the PC version. Unfortunately for Fable II fans, those same coders are already working on new projects and going back to a Fable II conversion isn’t a priority I’m afraid.
BeefJack: Thanks very much for speaking to us.
You can read our full Fable III on PC review tomorrow from 17.00 BST.