20 Years Of Games: A Look Back At Lionhead Studios
I’m sure you’ve probably heard by now that Microsoft last week made the decision to close the beloved British developer Lionhead Studios for good.
Lionhead were a studio that never shrank from ambition, never rested on its own merits, and always looked to push itself – and now that legacy has come sadly to an end. To say it’s a shame would be a massive understatement.
Founded in 1996 by Peter Molyneux, Lionhead Studios ran for nearly twenty years, putting out a number of hugely beloved games and creating some fantastic IPs in the process.
Not only is this a real shame for the industry, it is (obviously) also a huge blow for a number of incredibly talented folk who now find themselves out of a job. Still, I’m sure such a skilled team won’t find themselves down for too long.
Anyway, this is as good a time as any to look back at the games that Lionhead made great. Surprisingly, the Guildford based studio actually only had three franchises to their name, but it’s safe to say that each one is wildly different, and all fondly remembered by gamers everywhere.
Naturally, Lionhead are probably best known for a certain fantasy RPG franchise – but I’ll get to that in a bit. Their first game series is just as adored as Fable by an awful lot of people. In 2001, their incredible RTS effort Black & White hit PC.
Take a look at this trailer, and bathe in some lovely nostalgia.
Black & White, in short, was Lionhead’s crack at letting you play God. While the game was initially met with near universal acclaim, many critics later reassessed their opinion of the game – with plenty of them claiming it was actually pretty overrated.
Forgive my language, but poppycock. Black & White was a wonderful game, where every action, or lack thereof, would have an effect on how your subjects/followers saw you.
Indeed, it’d even have a lasting effect on how you actually appeared on the game. An evil God would have a clawed, black hand, while a good God would have a village filled with light, and a gleaming white hand. This notion of player consequence is something that would carry over in other Lionhead efforts, in a much bigger way.
By and large, Black & White 2 (released 2005) was more of the same, with a more conventional, easy to use HUD, and more of a focus on RTS style battles.
All in all, anyone who experienced a Black & White game back in the day will remember that they were a ton of fun. A series of great, ridiculous ideas, all tied up in a game about as good (or as much of a bastard) as you wanted to be.
Also in 2005, Lionhead gave the world a fantastic little game called The Movies. It was an awesome, surprisingly deep title that gave players the chance to run their own studio, even make their very own films.
Player choice was once again a key factor, and everyone may have had their favourite section to go through: designing the movie studio, forging the careers of film stars, or actually making films. Of course, you could go between all three as you pleased, and each section offered something different and fun to do.
On a personal level, I was all about making movies. The game actually plays through the history of cinema, right from its inception through the modern day, with all the technological advances that came with it. Hell, you could even add in your own voice, text, and music in post-production, which afforded no end of crazy opportunities.
The Movies was, for my money, a perfect piece of interactive entertainment. I doubt it’ll ever be remembered in the same way as games like Mario 64, or Skyrim, which is a shame. It was literally hours upon hours of dicking around in front of a computer, with so much to learn and do.
If The Movies passed you by, I strongly recommend tracking it down. You honestly won’t be disappointed. Once again, Lionhead demonstrated their ability to create a game with real depth, but one that never sacrificed fun for the sake of innovation and ambition.
And then of course, we have Fable. In my humble opinion, the Fable franchise sits among the greatest new IPs of the last twenty years, despite what some might tell you about the subsequent entries’ declining qualities.
Released in 2004 for the Xbox and PC, Fable was quite unlike anything at the time. It certainly blew me away. A Zelda-esque action RPG where choice and consequence were key, Fable was Lionhead’s crowning achievement. Your actions defined who you were, what you looked like, how the surrounding world regarded you.
You could fight through the game as a conventional hero – fighting for good, winning the admiration of the public, (even scoring wives in every town, if that was your jam). The scope and scale of what you could do in Fable was pretty amazing for the time, but I’m not certain any of it would have been as successful without the creation of the land of Albion, a truly rich creation.
Across three core Fable games, Albion was a constant. It was the kind of creation Terry Pratchett would have been proud of, full of outrageously silly British humour, the constant sending up of fantasy tropes, and so much heart.
It helps that the games were populated by a stellar cast; Stephen Fry, Michael Fassbender, John Cleese, Simon Pegg – whatever your opinion on Fable 2 and 3, it was always a joy to return to Albion and spend some time in that world.
And whatever your opinion on the Fable sequels, you can’t say Lionhead didn’t aim to push themselves forward. Fable 2 was essentially the first game on a much grander scale, which might not have always paid off, while Fable 3 comes under the most fire for the changes it made.
See, Lionhead Studios were a team that weren’t content to rehash the same game over and over again. God knows they could have with Fable, and everyone would’ve been happy – but they kept taking risks, even if a ton of people think those risks didn’t pay off (although I think Fable 3 was awesome, for the record).
You just don’t really see the bigger developers taking huge risks with games these days, and certainly not with their biggest IPs. Fable Legends was proof that Lionhead were always thinking outside the box, for better or worse. and it sucks that we won’t get to see whether or not that particular gamble was to pay off.
Often these days, it’s up the the indie developers of the world to come up with something completely new. It sucks that we could be missing out on potential Undertale or Everybody’s Gone To The Raptures from larger devs because they won’t take the risks – but it just seems like that’s the way it is.
Now Lionhead is gone, and the pool of genuinely innovative big name developers just got a little smaller. It’s a real shame, but I guess you’ve gotta stay optimistic for the future.
Here’s hoping everyone involved with the last 20 years of awesome Lionhead games, from making movies, playing God, or just cutting down bandits with swords and magic, can get back to doing what they do best soon – making great games, with a focus on innovation and fun.