Lionhead’s Fabled Leap to Xbox One with Unreal Engine 4

By Dana Cowley

Fable Legends returns players to the fantasy world of Albion, where history, myth, and folklore are the same, but this time we set foot in Albion’s past. It’s a time when the land is younger, and magic still flows freely. Fey and otherworldly creatures lurk outside the walls of villages, and strange creatures prowl the dark woods at night. It’s an age of monsters and heroes, and Fable Legends invites players to step into a familiar, yet different world of action, humor, and adventure.

As longtime users of Unreal Engine technology, Lionhead Studios didn’t look far afield when it came time to build Fable Legends. Sticking with Unreal Engine commissioned the Lionhead team to focus on the most important part of the process: crafting an uncharted new Fable experience, rather than trying to invent a toolset worthy of the task.

“The output and quality of what can be achieved with the engine is an order of magnitude more advanced than what we could’ve done if we tried to write everything ourselves,” reveals David Eckelberry, game director for Fable Legends. Rather than using custom programs to handle lighting, particles, and cutscenes, everything from asset discovery to version control is integrated all in one place, providing a one-stop shop that ships with all of the market-leading parts. “As content creators, we used to have to wait for months or years before we had a stable toolset to use,” Eckelberry adds, “but now we’re able to get straight into building games without having to wait for the systems to arrive.”

An Unreal Catalyst

Fable Legends

Crafting a next-gen experience for unreleased hardware is no small task, and as such Lionhead’s developers count on Unreal Engine 4 to help make the most of its talents. “The architecture and toolset provided by UE4 allows us to dive straight into making this without waiting for tech to come up to scratch. Immediately we are able to fully utilize the incredible team we have available,” says executive producer Geoff Smith. “We’ve been able to get assets into the game in double-quick time, plus we’re getting visual feedback in a matter of seconds. All this, combined with the flexibility of the materials and shaders, leads to a better looking game.”

The horsepower of new hardware and Unreal Engine 4 is enabling Lionhead to create the Fable game they’ve wanted to make for a very long time. The world is more compelling and more beautiful than ever before if you ask Eckelberry. “Albion is lush, full of life and color, and its characters are rendered to a level of detail we’ve never been able to accomplish before. Those stunning characters represent a real new opportunity for us that we’re quite eager to explore. Where previous titles have attempted to dip their feet in the water of cooperative play with the orb system and the like, for the first time we’re embracing a game experience where no Hero must go alone as he ventures into quests and stories.”

Accordingly, players will be able to indulge in a deeper and more satisfying multiplayer aspect than with any previous Fable title. In Fable Legends, each Hero is accompanied by a party of three others, each controlled by real life players or via AI, with the option to switch easily between single and cooperative play as the desire strikes. Bringing four characters together allows the Lionhead team to steep every moment of the action in the humor, amusing personalities, and characterization for which Fable is known.

This is largely due to the ease of development under Unreal Engine technology, Eckelberry concludes. “One of the greatest strengths is how the designers are empowered. It means the programmers, always a limited resource, can step aside to some extent.” While programmers provide the building blocks, designers can use Blueprints to make their own vision a reality with much less coder involvement. Designers can iterate on an idea repeatedly since the time each iteration takes is vastly reduced. Ideas can be prototyped in a few hours, allowing programmers to focus on making refinements and custom features rather than reinventing the wheel.

Mega-Palettes and Uber-Building

Fable Legends

Unreal Engine 4’s Blueprint and asset systems provide great scalability and flexibility, especially when working on a complex project across a large team. Functionality is easy to box off, and components can be reused, which helps people be productive without treading on others’ toes. The toolset itself provides ways to group assets and systems together into Blueprints and distribute them across the team, with each Blueprint scaled to the functionality each person requires.

Blueprints encourage people across disciplines to express their vision directly through the tools, according to lead content designer Ben Brooks. “Blueprints have turned our designers into implementers. Where previously they’d have written a document, they can now build a working prototype to show off their ideas. Our artists can tweak the size, shape and scale of assets across everything in the level or a single set of assets. They can apply moss to specific rocks with simple sliders, or light their world in real time. Our designers can work directly with the game to set up all the characters, or build all the AI routines, leaving our programmers free to work on other needs.”

The extensibility also shines through for artists, and Unreal Engine 4 provides a level of detail all the way down to complex shader instructions, with instant visual feedback as the game takes shape. “Fable has always been about rich, colorful worlds,” says art manager Mark Smart. “As an artist you want everything to look fantastic. There are many parameters that can be tweaked and revised. As we’re aiming for a unique style, we’ve needed to unify our focus. For example, using the ease and flexibility of Unreal, we’ve set up master materials for a consistent look. Using these tool pipelines frees up the artist to concentrate on the artwork.”

Fast iteration and cross-team rapid prototyping is making it possible for Lionhead to deliver its most ambitious title yet. Playing good or evil has always been central to the Fable series, but in previous installments, being “bad” has typically meant acting out as more of a troublemaker or miscreant, and there has always been a larger villain to fight. In Fable Legends players will have the opportunity to play as what could easily be described as a villainous dungeon master: He or she will be able to assert real-time control over the other players’ quest by coordinating minions, triggering traps, targeting Heroes, and activating special abilities. The role of Villain can be played via SmartGlass, providing the opportunity for couch co-op against nearby Heroes.

With Fable Legends, Lionhead committed to making the best-looking, best-playing game in the Fable series, and they’re sparing no expense to make this a great return to the lands of Albion, embracing Fable players new and old on their quest to fight (or become) evil.

The Past, Re-envisioned

Unreal Engine and its accompanying toolset are helping to make Lionhead’s aspirations a reality, to the point that there are also other large projects in the works.

Fable Anniversary, coming to Xbox 360, brings the gameplay and story of the original Fable and adds remastered high-definition audio and visuals, all backed by the power of Unreal Engine 3. Ian Shaw, technical director for the project, describes it as “a heart transplant for the game, but taking advantage of the console hardware, we run the Fable game on one CPU and the Unreal Engine takes over the rest of the Xbox 360.”

Using Unreal Engine 3 Lionhead’s artists have been able to pay loving attention to the characters and locations players remember from the first game—Oakvale, The Guild, Bowerstone, all the way up to the combat Arena—with newer lighting, normal maps, and high-resolution polygon models and textures.

“If you haven’t played the original Fable,” Shaw says, “This is the best version to experience it, and see where the story all begins.”

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