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Q&A: Game sage Peter Molyneux on Fable III

My interview with game industry luminary Peter Molyneux began with me being forced to admit that playing his new game was not my top priority.

As far as embarrassment goes, for a game journalist it doesn't get much worse.

I'd just joined a teleconference call with Mr. Molyneux, who was promoting the third entry in his popular role-playing game series Fable (an Xbox 360 exclusive developed by Lionhead Studios and set for release on Tuesday), when he asked if I had played the game. I responded that though Microsoft had provided me with a copy I had not yet cracked it open because I was on deadline for my review of Fallout: New Vegas.

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I wished desperately that I could have answered otherwise. Still, I'd spoken with Mr. Molyneux a couple of times before. He's a kind soul and a every bit an English gentleman. I suspected he wouldn't hold it against me.

And I was right. It turns out the only reason he wanted to know whether I had started playing his game was because he was interested in discovering how much time journalists were planning on devoting to it. I said 20 or 25 hours, based on my experience with previous games in the series. He explained that 20 hours or so would be enough to get through it at a nice pace, though it can be shorter if you rush through or last longer if you explore everything it has to offer. Consequently, he said he expects to see a "very personal review" from each journalist who writes about it.

At least I won't be under any pressure while playing and writing about it this weekend.

Preamble ends there. The following is a transcription of the rest of our regrettably brief-he was on Redmond time and it was early evening in Toronto, where I had fatherly duties that required attention-conversation.

I remember earlier this year you mentioned how only a certain percentage of players did everything that one could do in Fable II, and that this stat weighed into design decisions in Fable III.

The stat was this: Only 60 percent of people who played understood or used 50 percent of the game's features. We've designed that into Fable III. You can visibly see which things you haven't used because you haven't unlocked those particular game chests...[stops abruptly] Do you mind if I ask you a cheeky question?

Sure.

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What did you think of Fallout: New Vegas?

Well, I love the idea of role-playing in a post-apocalypse world. I enjoyed Fallout 3 immensely, and I enjoyed the new game as well. But it really felt like a massive expansion pack rather than a true sequel. Except for some very superficial modifications-like being able to aim down your gun barrel-everything felt exactly the same. That's fine, since I liked the previous game so much, but I think there was virtually no innovation.

That's interesting. I was a real fan of Fallout 3. I'm only asking you because I wanted a thought on whether I should install that game, go back to my iPad, or play Civilization V.

It's tough making a sequel, you know? It really is. We were really passionate to inject some innovation into Fable III, and I hope you see some of that.

From what I've heard it sounds like Fable III has loads of innovation. Speaking of which, can you talk a little bit about the decision to remove some traditional role-playing elements, such as levelling up and experience points?

Do you mind if I just rant a little bit?

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Feel free.

It's the easiest way to explain. Here's the thing: I adore role-playing games. I love them more than girlfriends and partners-well, I can't really include my wife, of course-but I love them in a really tangible way. I love that feeling of growth and power. I love collecting stuff. If you tell me there are five things in the world to find I'll go and find all five.

But I loathe some of the burdens that come with that. So you can level up, and there are a hundred numbers, and you can add any number to those hundred numbers and...well, what does all of that mean, man? It's like having a hundred switches on the dashboard of a car. You would never design a car like that.

So when it came to Fable III the first thing that we said was that we're going to look at those levelling up mechanics and what it feels like to level up. And the most important thing we are going to do is weave levelling up into the whole experience and the story. In previous role-playing games and previous Fables, levelling up has no effect on the story. You could level up to the stars and it wouldn't make any difference at all.

When you come to Fable III, we give you a visualization of how you level up. It's a road that you're walking along, and the further you walk along this road the more powerful you get. And on this road there are gates. And when you go through these gates you tangibly feel different and you're able to change who you are and what powers you have and what abilities there are in the world. That feels far more exciting. At the end of this road you become king. You can see the castle that you're headed toward.

In Fable and Fable II we had four different types of experience denoted by colour, and you could spend that experience on three different categories, and within these categories you could unlock different things that had no effect on the story. No character in the world referred to these things. That was pretty poor. What we've replaced this with in Fable III is much, much more powerful.

Then there's collecting things. It's not only a matter of collecting them, but also where they go. They go into a place called the Sanctuary, which you can think of like the Bat Cave. It's a location in the world that you can find and go to and it's staffed by your own butler. Rather than being in a list or a menu, which has no emotional impact on the game, it's actually inside the story.

So I love what we've done to evolve Fable. When you play Fable III and you discover things like the Sanctuary you're really discovering collecting in a role-playing game. When you discover the Road to Rule, that's when you see levelling. It doesn't feel like levelling up anymore but you definitely feel more powerful as you go through those gates.

I assume as you follow the Road to Rule you can still choose whether to be good or evil...

Yes. We've still got moral choices in there. When you play you'll find that your first big moral choice comes in the first ten minutes in the game.

But think about it less as being good or evil and more as being your choice. Certainly, when you play you'll find that we've just made life a little bit tougher for you. It's not just I want to be a good guy so I'll take this choice. The choice is now a lot tougher.

I want you to be who you are rather than for you to be who you think I want you to be. Does that make sense?

Yes. How about you? What sort of choices do you make? I remember seeing a Fable III demonstration at an event earlier this year in which the demonstrator showed how players have the ability to lead non-player characters to a factory to relegate them to a life of toil. What do you do in that situation?

Well, there's an interesting idea there. Are you willing to sacrifice a single person for the good of everyone else? It's like Spock said in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Do the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many? I'm a many person. So, if it means sacrificing one person's life to save a thousand lives, I definitely do that. And if I make a bit of gold on the side? I'm fine with that, too.

Can you tell me a little more about how the player interacts with non-player characters?

It's a freedom that you have all the time. You can reach out and touch anybody in the world. You can take them with you on a quest if you want. They'll carry on talking and interacting with you. They all operate by simulation, so they'll get scared, they'll become frightened, you can ransom them off, there's all sorts of things you can do-if you've chosen to unlock the proper chests on the Road to Rule, that is.

We're also using a touch mechanic in the drama and emotion of the experience. I won't tell you exactly where, but the first thing you do in the game is to reach out to your girlfriend or boyfriend (depending on whether you're playing as a man or woman) and hold their hand all through the gardens of Fairfax Castle. It's there to make you feel more engaged with the character. We use it quite a lot in the game.

Sadly, I have to leave now to take my daughter to a swimming class, but I have one last question for you.

Sure.

Did you design Fable III with the intent that there would be a Fable IV?

[Very long pause]

There's a very easy way to answer that question, but there are a couple of people in this room who would probably kill me if I did.

I would say that there has always been a vision since the first time we spoke about Fable over 10 years ago to go on this grand epic journey, and we're not nearly finished that journey.

Right. Because in Fable III we've only arrived at the industrial revolution.

Yes.

Thank you so much for your time, and good luck with next week's launch.

Thanks for that. And thank you for the questions.

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