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Fable Anniversary: "initially we wanted to remake the whole thing"

Ten-year Fable veteran Ted Timmins discusses the acorn that grows into an oak tree, "rubbish" quests, why Fable Anniversary will never score a 10, and stepping out from Molyneux's shadow.

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"I know the game inside out from being a tester. There's loads of things I'd like to fix, that frankly, pissed me off."

With Fable Anniversary due for release in Europe this Friday, we got the opportunity to speak with Ted Timmins, franchise manager of the Fable series for Microsoft. That might sound like a fancy title, but Ted has earnt it, starting out at developer Lionhead ten years ago as a QA tester on Fable: The Lost Chapters before working his way through two sequels, its spin-offs and this remastered version of the original.

Here, he compares the development of the two games, the balance of pleasing old fans and new, tweaking the original game design and re-establishing Fable as not just a Peter Molyneux game.

You started at Lionhead doing QA work on Fable: The Lost Chapters and now you oversee the whole franchise. How was it going back to a game ten years later?

I started as a tester in 2003 so it was really nice to go back to something that started my game career. I'm very proud to now be in a position where I can look after the Fable-ness of our games and work on things like Fable Anniversary. I was offered the opportunity to work on a couple of different things but I felt like I owed it to the franchise that gave me my first opportunity. When the opportunity came up to work on Anniversary I didn't feel like I had to even think about it.

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I know the game inside out from being a tester. There's loads of things I'd like to fix, that frankly, pissed me off when I was a tester. I'm probably ready now for the nostalgia of this year to end. Whether that's been catching up with old colleagues who I worked with on the original or working on the new behind-the-scenes strategy guide. I'm ready to join the next gen now.

How does the development process of the original Fable compare to Fable Anniversary?

You have to approach it as you would making a brand new game. Sure, it's a remaster, not a full-on remake. But a remaster on the scale of Fable: The Lost Chapters is a huge undertaking. There's so many different parts and components. At one stage we had over 100 artists working on the art. There was Halo Anniversary which was very successful a couple of years ago, and there's Legend of Zelda Ocarina of time on the 3DS which I love. When you look at those they've set the standard for what people expect in a remastered game.

This isn't a reboot like Tomb Raider. This is reminding the fans why they fell in love with Albion all that time ago. The fans have been demanding this and it's one of the reasons why we decided to put it on the Xbox 360 - to let the fans complete their collection and have the whole franchise on one platform.

What was the original goal with a remake like this, what did you want to achieve?

Initially we really wanted to just remake the whole thing. But then once we worked out it would take about three years we realised it wasn't viable. And that's not really what the fans would want. The fans want a nice excuse to play through the original again. The feedback that we've had so far is that they're ecstatic. I have that feeling towards a lot of games myself, like Halo - it blew my mind. I can relate to the fans' feelings.

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The most immediate thing to notice is the visual upgrade of the game. But what do you hope the players will discover after spending some time with Fable Anniversary?

"Halo Anniversary and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time on the 3DS - when you look at those they've set the standard for what people expect in a remastered game."

I fully expect someone on the forums to do a complete side-by-side analysis of the entire game, which is going to be interesting. There are a lot of little touches here and there. We've done the big things like the visuals, the brand new interface and the save system to go with that. But on the other end of the spectrum there were lots of loose ends that I really wanted to tidy up. I've been playing the original game a lot over the past year and I'm constantly remind of - not just the flaws of the original - but you want to stay true to the original as well. We don't want to go too far that fans think it's an evolution of the original.

As an example, in the original game when you get an item it would show you just an image. Then you would have to press A to close the screen, go to the user interface, sort through the different panels and screens and eventually get to the item you'd just received. For me, it was a real no-brainer to allow players to equip the item from the item screen. And we needed them to be able to read about the item, and if it's a weapon they need to see if it's more powerful than their current weapon. So things as small as receiving a new item - we put a lot of thought into implementing and improving it. There are tens of those examples that we've tried to fine tune for 2014.

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"Being frank, some quests are just a little bit rubbish. But as much as I think something might not be great, there may be players out there who remember that quest as their favourite part of the game"

Some of those design issues were of the time. They were standard 10 years ago but have since been made obsolete. You obviously can't go about chopping huge chunks of gameplay or code out of the original game either, so were there any aspects of the original Fable that you've found frustrating as a designer, things you're unable to change?

It's really difficult. I came to terms quite early on that this game will never get a 10 out of 10 review. That's just the reality of doing a remaster. Unless you just happen to have a games reviewer who is the biggest Fable fan. When we worked on Fable 2, for example, we were aiming for the tens. With Anniversary we're hoping for 8s. Of course if we get a 9 no one is going to complain.

So when you start working on the design stuff I think some of the quests are a little outdated. Being frank, some are just a little bit rubbish. But then you can also look at it and see it as part of the charm. As much as I think something might not be great, there may be players out there who remember that quest as their favourite part of the game. For that one person they may be longing to play that again. Of course there are frustrations but we were constantly reminding ourselves that it's a remaster and people will be picking this up because they want to relive it. Some people have told us its the first game they ever played and I have that attachment to other games. It's important that we don't fall too far from the tree.

I remember Fable as a game that got me interested in RPGs after a long time away. It wasn't hardcore, it wasn't po-faced, it was genuinely funny. It felt fresh...

I've worked on Fable 2, Fable 3 and Fable Heroes and this has probably been the most challenging project yet. It's such a fine line between nostalgia and improvements. The Fable 1 controls are nostalgic for some people. Look at them through fresh eyes - because we don't want to alienate someone who's playing Fable Anniversary for the same time - and I can see that the Fable 1 controls are actually a bit crap. What can we do to improve the controls? It struck me that actually Fable 2 has a vastly improved control system so can we retrofit those into Fable Anniversary? And the answer is yes, we can. Little things like that which allow players to switch between old and new really let the fans customise the Anniversary experience to how they want to remember the original.

Are there any lessons you can take from the original Fable and apply that to the future direction of the Fable franchise?

It's a nice reminder of all the crazy features it has. Back in 2004 everyone was looking for the acorn that grew into an oak tree. In reality it's a pointless feature. What purpose does that serve? I'm not a gardener, I'm a hero. Fable Anniversary has shown me that we may have not have had the oak tree but you can go down the pub and get hammered. You can get married, you can play pubs games, you can get fat. There's so much content in Fable that it was borderline scary to go in and remaster it.

Do you think the team has reclaimed Fable now or does it still sit in the shadow of original creator Peter Molyneux?

What's special about Fable - and this carries across to 2 and 3 - everyone knows Peter and Fable 1 will always be one of his titles. But it's also about all the people that worked at Lionhead during that era. What made the original special is that when you do think about the myriad of features the game had, not all of those came from Peter. Just as Fable anniversary is special to the fans, I know the developers who worked on that game ten years ago are excited about the stuff they hid in the original game and they want to see if it's still there. Peter played an important role but with Fable Anniversary we've had an opportunity to show that there was a huge amount of people who worked on this.

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