Three’s a Charm
Martin McEachern
February 4, 2011

Three’s a Charm

Fable III continues the series unique gameplay in a revolutionary way
In 2001, Lionhead Studios, led by industry veteran Peter Molyneux, introduced the world to the “god game” with Black & White, in which the player is a god—good or bad, depending on how the game is played—called upon to help those who invoke him or her. This was followed by a new property, the morality title Fable, another action role-playing game in which the player’s decisions within the game have long-ranging effects throughout the game.

Most recently Lionhead rolled out Fable III, in which the player attempts to overthrow the King of Albion by forming alliances and building support for a revolution. After successfully winning the crown, the player must then make decisions concerning how he or she will rule.

“What we wanted in Fable III was to make the player stop and think, to question every decision, to weigh up the possible consequences, to realize it’s not always a black-and-white issue. It’s meant to be a journey of self-discovery,” says Llabres.

“What is action but the illustration of character,” Henry James once said, and that’s what the player is forced to find: their character. “This ties in neatly with another of the game’s themes: What does it mean to be a leader? Most of the time, it means being the person who has to make impossible choices,” explains lead writer Mark Llabres. “Whether you’re a general deciding to sacrifice a group of young men in order to capture a strategically important position, or the president of the United States deciding to alienate half of the country to push through a radical reform, for example, you have to deal with choices most people wouldn’t want to make. It’s a heavy responsibility, but it’s also a fascinating one in a fictional context.”

In Fable III, you will be deciding whether key characters live or die, but, more importantly, you will be shaping the lives of a whole kingdom, points out Llabres. “Can you live with the price that comes with eradicating poverty, for example? Are you willing to become deeply unpopular in order to do the right thing? You will be able to see the consequences of those decisions directly--in how people live their lives, in how they react to you, and in the physical impact those decisions have on the world,” he explains. Whole regions will change for better or worse.

Co-op Mode
For this release, the developer made some tough choices, too, in order to keep the franchise fresh. To this end, the game integrated new concepts into the game, such as morphing, which added an extra layer of complexity for the modelers and animators (for a detailed look at the creation of the game content, see “Morality Test” in the January/February 2011 issue of CGW).

To fully engage players, Fable III takes a tactile approach, with a complex touch-based system of play. In addition to this feature, programmers had to contend with programming a sophisticated co-op mode as well, in which two players can join forces without being tethered to the same screen. Both players, however, have to remain in the same region to maintain the co-op mode. Here, one player can marry another, gaining a fortune in the process or losing half of it in a divorce; or they can merely play the other for money.

“Fable III’s co-op gameplay was a huge technical challenge,” says lead programmer Guillaume Portes. “The fact that the game’s features are so vast meant that a huge amount of functionality required the writing of network implementation: multiplayer marriage, adoption, divorce, business partnership, and so forth. Given how everyone was (rightly) disappointed with Fable II’s multiplayer implementation, we wanted to make sure we were going to do it justice this time. This meant optimizing our code to support 30 frames a second rendering of two dogs as well as two heroes, while still staying within the same memory footprint of the single player game.”

Since the group kept roughly the same underlying network architecture and low-level libraries used in Fable II, it soon faced network performance problems. “Suddenly, we were supporting players in different areas of the levels, and both being able to do everything a single player could do!” says Portes. “This entailed a huge amount of surgery to existing network packets in order to reduce their size and frequency as much as possible.”

While Portes concedes it was not particularly difficult to program the touch-based gameplay and all the behaviors it entailed—from hugging your child to holding hands with your wife—he says that making the player feel a believable connection with another was challenging. “It was incredibly hard to do. A lot of the believability comes from how good the animations are, of course, but the code then has to cope with the multitude of situations the player can throw at it,” he says. “What if the hero is standing on a slope? What if the hero is very tall, very muscular, and so on?” “The hand-holding feature, in particular,” says Portes, “was very challenging, because the player had to still be able to control their own character while holding hands with someone else. We had to carefully balance how it felt and how it looked. For instance, you want it to look like the characters are not ‘losing’ each other, yet have the player still be able to move, walk and run freely through obstacles and crowds. To achieve this, we had to apply a careful blend of navigation, animation blending, AI, and inverse-kinematics programming.”

Game Environments
In addition to new concepts as touch-based gameplay, Fable III continues to offer cutting-edge aesthetics, on full display in the game’s environments.

Ensconced in a kind of sepulchral snowdrift, Fable III’s Mist Peak is a brooding, yet beautiful snow world, suffused in a wintery blue, where trees constantly shudder in the frigid winds, and snow falls like a coarse-textured cloth ceaselessly dropped from the skies, sometimes driven hard by the wind, or sometimes falling gently in a light, dazzle of flakes, as if by the emptying of a great, celestial bin. In the village of Bowerstone, great slanting sheets of rain strike the cobblestone streets in a torrential downpour. These are but a couple of examples of the stylized yet stunning weather effects that heighten the drama of the levels.

“For the Fable franchise, we’ve been provided with an ever-improving proprietary Environment Theme tool that allows the artists to [assign] each script, region, event, and zoned area a set of [atmospheric] variables,” says art director John McCormack. “These variables control the lighting, weather, time of day, sun and moon positions, fogging, clouds, depth of field, bloom, saturation, and other exposed visual features. Moreover, this tool is hot-synced to the development kits, so we can input the values and see the effects in real time. This really helps when you’re dealing with a project of this scale.”

For simulating the large tracts of swaying grass and coppices of trees and bushes, Lionhead has a simple shear function for instanced grass patches, and a far more sophisticated wind model for trees. “An off-line system is capable of looking at a tree model and figuring out where the branches and leaves are, automatically assigning constraints to each vertex,” says lead engine programmer lead engine programmer Don Williamson. “Due to the greater number of trees in Fable III than Fable II, the wind simulation is now re-used for other trees of a similar type. Cloth and rope waves in the wind use a Verlet integrator, while snow and pollen can have arbitrary force vectors added to the simulation. [These vectors] are used by the spell system to affect the snow [during the casting of a spell].”

These spells, cast in battles with wolves, for example, as you defend and rescue a child crying, “Help me!” on the hard-packed, ice-encrusted slopes of Mistpeak, come in area-of-effect and directed forms. Quick shock spells produce a flurry of particles and lighting, while more powerful, “charged” spells erupt with a flourish of fire that suddenly illuminate the surroundings. Sword and gunplay, while not as flashy as the magic effects, feature cinematic touches, like dramatic camera angles and subtle lighting. “We created the combat particle effects using software developed in-house. Using a combination of sprites and trails, we also linked larger effects, such as the spells and explosions to the environment themes, allowing us to brighten the scenes at precise moments and deliver a greater impact,” says lead effects artists Adam Sibbick. This combination of sprites and trails also produced explosions and gunfire from ship cannons and other ballistic effects.

Artists used the same in-house effects particle software to enhance the industrial feel of Bowerstone with smoke emissions that belch from the chimneys in a variety of sizes and speeds. “To give the smoke increased depth and a 3D look, we painted highlights and shadows into the textures used on the facing sprites. In addition, the larger the smoke effect, the slower the forces we applied, giving a varied density to the plumes,” explains Sibbick.

The particle-effects system also grace the hero’s weapon, staining it blood red or turning it to bone when it has slayed the innocent, for instance. “Meticulous pre-planning was needed to show how each weapon would morph, and to prevent mistakes from occurring later on. Using the sword as an example, we created many hilts and blades that could slot into one another. The sword blades had to scale up in size, and the materials it was made of had to change, too. Particle effects [for the blood, for example] had to be able to appear up the length of all the blades, while a self-illumination pattern had to glow, reflecting the hero’s morality. All these morphing factors were repeated for the hero pistol, rifle, and hammer, resulting in many thousands of unique hero weapons,” says senior artist Patrick Martin.

For a detailed look at the content creation challenges faced by the Lionhead team, see the feature “Morality Test” in the January/February 2011 issue of CGW.