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Who were Lionhead Studios?


The recently announced closure of innovative developer Lionhead Studios was sad – if not entirely surprising – news for many of us here are Power Up Gaming. Lionhead brought us some of the most interesting, unique and characterful games of the early 2000s. Though the studio has been in decline in recent years, our fond memories of Lionhead’s earlier genius still had some of us hoping that the studio was only one great idea away from bouncing back.

Though Lionhead may soon be no more, their library of great games will live on. Lionhead Studios leaves behind a worthy legacy and will be remembered by many as a company rich in personality and creative ideas.

Lionhead: A Brief History

The founding of Lionhead Studios can be traced back to the developers Bullfrog, who created many classic simulation and strategy games such as Theme Hospital, Theme Park, and Dungeon Keeper. However, it is Populous, the very first God game, released on the Amiga in 1989, that has the most obvious connection to Lionhead.

The designer of Populous, and founder of Bullfrog, was the enigmatic Peter Molyneux, who split from the company in 1997 to found Lionhead Studios. In 2001 Lionhead released their first game, an ambitious God game named Black & White. It spawned a sequel in 2005, and later that year they released movie tycoon title, The Movies. However, it was back in 2004 that they released their biggest game: Fable, which Molyneux famously promoted as “the best game ever.”

Despite not actually being the best game ever, Fable proved to be quite popular. In 2006 the studio was acquired by Microsoft, and Fable would go on to have multiple sequels. Unfortunately, the latest scheduled entry, Fable Legends, is going down with its studio. On 7 March 2016, Microsoft announced that Lionhead Studios was closing, thus cancelling development of the game.

Many wouldn’t have been surprised by this as its key series had been staggering into irrelevancy over the past few years. The studio also gained a reputation for cancelling games, with the cancellation of the Kinect game Milo and Kate being particularly noteworthy. Molyneux left the company back in 2012 after completing Fable: The Journey, and went on to create Godus, the spiritual successor to Populous.

Black & White

Black & White Conscience
Your nakedness does not amuse Mr Beardy.

Few games have ever been able to match the freedom and minimalist design of the original Black & White. In a time of fairly straightforward city builders and strategy games, Black & White threw out the rule book and made the player a god. If you wanted to grab a villager and hurl him over a mountain, you could. If you wanted to rip up a tree and plant it somewhere else, you were more than welcome. You even moved around the map by grabbing the world and pulling it towards you.

Moral choices were central to Black & White’s gameplay, as reflected by the Good and Evil consciences that accompanied you through the game. These cheeky little guys would pop up in missions to indicate different approaches you could take and bicker amongst themselves. While a mix of good and evil tactics gave you the most flexibility, leaning heavily in either direction would cause your realm and avatar to either be a shining beacon of faith, or a twisted nightmare.

As villagers’ belief in you was literally the source of your power, it paid to give them a helping hand sometimes. Making rain over their crops, creating resources out of thin air, and helping them build new structures were all good ways to keep them – and yourself – healthy. You could even micromanage by assigning individuals their own calling in life, becoming Disciple Farmers, Foresters, Builders, Missionaries, Craftsmen, Fisherman and even Breeders (“Honey, I swear God told me to go forth and bang everything in sight!”). Of course, you could always sacrifice a plant, animal, adult or child at your temple for a quick boost of god juice. Good luck finding another game that lets you sacrifice small children to yourself!

Evil monkey stares at you!
Evil monkey stares at you!

Raising your creature was another major part of Black & White. Your ape, tiger or cow would gradually grow bigger and stronger, and change in appearance to reflect your alignment. At first your creature was little more than a Tamagotchi, needing food and pooping all over the place. But with lots of training and postitive/negative reinforcement (gentle patting and savage beating, respectively), your creature could be taught to eat certain kinds of food (such as enemy villagers), fertilize crops, cast miracles and more. Since your creature could venture beyond your territory and didn’t drain your power with its miracles, it was an extremely powerful tool for bringing entire islands under your control.

Black & White’s UI was almost non-existent, with no icons to click on at all. Instead, you accessed and cast miracles by tracing gestures with your cursor, which would light up on the land when successful. Peaceful miracles tended to have broad, looping gestures while dangerous miracles were more jagged and narrow to cast. This bare-bones UI made the experience so much more immersive than the subsequent Black & White 2, which had a more traditional set of menus for some features.

While certainly a novel concept, Black & White didn’t quite have the staying power of more popular games. Micromanagement soiled the experience somewhat, especially with worshipers at your temple constantly needing to be fed. The sequel and expansions added more to the experience, but it was an experience that just didn’t feel fresh or exciting any more.

The Movies

Look at De Carlo, pumping those polygon pythons.

I always knew that I could be a better director than hacks like Spielberg, Lucas, and Hitchcock, and in 2005 I finally had my opportunity to prove myself. Unfortunately, I became a bit too focused on the running of my movie studio to ever make a decent film. That’s showbiz though?

The Movies was a broad title in which you could sink countless hours into one of its small aspects. The best way to think of it is probably to split the title into three parts: organising your studio, your actors’ skills, and making movies. I found the first two parts a lot more enjoyable than the first part, and the brilliant thing about The Movies was that there were usually ways to get around the things you didn’t want to do. Hiring a good director and investing in script writing was a good solution for my woes.

Dealing with actors was definitely one of the trickiest things to balance in the game. Stars would have different sets of skills when coming in, and polishing your diamond in the rough felt truly rewarding. You’d have to take care of your stars as well, or else they could easily turn on you and run to another theatre. So you might start paying them the big bucks, but those damn divas could also turn to food or alcohol, and other stars may get annoyed by the pay rise and go on strike. It’s in this area that I’m reminded most of the classic Theme Hospital, but you won’t be seeing any popping heads here; the closest you’ll get is when you send stars to get lipo.

There’s some quality acting right here.

Another fascinating aspect of The Movies was that it actually went through different time periods in the movie industry. Early-on your films would be in black and white, the radio presenter – who spoke over the music— would mock the movie industry (in favour of theatre), and even the awards ceremony -The Lionhead Motion Picture Awards- would have presenters dressed differently. As time progressed you’d have to upgrade your studio in many ways in order to stay relevant; new technology brought new buildings and jobs to keep in check.

Getting down to the nitty gritty, making movies was a lot of fun, but also required a lot of effort. Using the sets you built, you could choose different scenes for the movie, and add in-game music or your own tracks. Short sound files could also be used for character speech, and actors would even sync their mouth movements to your speech, so you can shove yourself into that James Bond role that you always deserved. Unfortunately, I found the movie making quite clunky, and the rating your film got often didn’t make sense, but maybe I’m just delusional about my work. Where’s my Stanley!?

The game got bulked out after release, and The Movies Online allowed users to post upload their masterpiece. The Movies Stunts & Effects came out in 2006, and added new sets, vehicles, and stunt doubles. Nevertheless, despite winning Best Simulation Game at the BAFTA Video Games Awards, and being nominated for best game at the Game Developers Choice Awards, The Movies never sold too well. Its planned release for Xbox, Gamecube, and PlayStation 2 was cancelled in 2006, just before Lionhead was acquired by Microsoft, and The Movies Online was shut down in 2008. Well, that’s showbiz!


fable wasp
I just wanted to have a nice picnic!

Fable took the morality system and vibrantly cute appearance of Black & White and repackaged them in a story-book adventure that, at the time, seemed filled with limitless possibilities. Not only could you be however good or evil you pleased, you could develop your character with any combination of Strength, Skill and Will you could imagine. You could play the way you wanted.

Even better, these choices would have cosmetic effects. A good hero with all his experience in Strength would be a beefy blond-haired giant with butterflies flapping about his halo. Similarly, an evil wizard would sprout black horns on his forehead while his hands tingled with energy. Wounds suffered in battle would sometimes leave permanent scars on your face or body. This was a game designed to make your experience with it truly feel like yours alone.

While laughably simple in some respects compared to other RPGs, that simplicity was one of Fable’s draw cards. Good and evil existed in cartoon-like extremes, and with the colourful art palette, even wholesale slaughter was never particularly disturbing. Yours existence was one of joyful adventure, untroubled by anything but the next part of the tale to unfold.

While the graphics and gameplay have certainly aged, Fable’s soundtrack remains one of the most fitting and epic we’ve ever heard. From the music-box theme of a hidden library, to the tottering string plucks of a busy town, to the dark and foreboding battle music, Fable always gave you the right sound for the situation. The main theme alone perfectly sums up the Fable experience, masterfully transitioning between heroic and nightmarish in a reflection of the moral scope available to you.

It's just a phase he's going through.
It’s just a phase he’s going through.

Sadly, lightning never quite struck twice for Fable. The sequel lost something in the change from Medieval fantasy to a Renaissance setting, though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what. In a way the world and story are actually more interesting than the original’s, but even the addition of a lovable canine companion failed to make Fable II a true hit.

The following Fable III was something of a catastrophe, its few good points unable to save the game from critical and commercial failure. By now, the Fable name had been tainted by repeated instances of over-promising and under-delivering, thanks in no small part to the big mouth of Peter Molyneux. The series struggled to bounce back with spinoffs Fable Heroes and Fable: The Journey, with only Fable Anniversary – a remaster of the original and its expansion – garnering a positive reception.

With the upcoming Fable Legends scrapped and Lionhead set to close, we’ll never know if this charming but wayward series would ever have returned to greatness. At least we have Fable Anniversary to relive the glory days every now and then.

What’s your opinion of Lionhead Studios? Groundbreaking pioneers, or hype merchants? Let us know in the comments!

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  • gustav

    black and white best game i ever play.