The Long Beta of Fable Legends

Beta used to designate a game still in development, but these days it’s almost a bit of a misnomer. Publishers have been using open beta as an early access reward for years now, which means there can’t be too many bugs because you might not get another chance to make a good first impression.

That’s what makes Lionhead Studios’ closed beta for Fable Legends – which began on October 16 – so intriguing. In many ways it’s a throwback, a necessary stress test set up to refine an incomplete game. In this case, the QA demands have more to do with balance than bugs. Despite the franchise lineage and the similarities to other well-known RPGs, Fable Legends poses a surprisingly difficult design challenge:

What does an RPG look like when the villain is allowed to win?

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In the broad strokes, Fable Legends is classic Fable crossed with Dungeons and Dragons. It has the trappings of a single-player RPG, but instead of a continuous narrative, the game plays out across a series of multiplayer instances. Four heroes set out to raid a dungeon, while a fifth player takes on the role of Dungeon Master and attempts to kill them before they accomplish that goal.

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“We’re balancing the game for a 50/50 win rate, but we want the villain, if he’s going to win, to win at the penultimate finale of the game,” said David Eckelberry, the Game Director for Fable Legends. Eckelberry previously worked at TSR and Wizards of the Coast on earlier editions of Dungeons and Dragons, so it’s no coincidence that Lionhead’s new game has traces of the D&D DNA. He joined Lionhead just as founder Peter Molyneux was leaving, and now he’s trying to oversee the transition to the realm of multiplayer.

“The optimal length for a quest is about 30 minutes,” he said. “That feels like a good size to us, and we balance for that from the beginning.”

While that might not sound radical, it’s a sharp break with prior RPG tradition. Most RPGs (including MMOs) are narrative driven, and are therefore weighted toward the heroes. There’s also a definitive sense of progress. Single player video games use save files to shepherd the player to victory while tabletop RPGs utilize a DM that presents danger with the expectation that the party will be able to get past it. The story can’t continue if all the player characters are dead.

Neither is true of Fable Legends. The game has an overarching story, but each encounter is supposed to be replayable so the story will lose more and more of its novelty with every reset. Lionhead has to rely on the gameplay to provide the primary appeal, with the caveat that the asymmetrical narrative structure makes many of the lessons of arena multiplayer inapplicable. Being the villain is supposed to be as desirable as being the hero. How do you convince heroes they’re having fun when the story doesn’t always have a happy ending?

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Eckelberry hopes that the mechanics will translate many of those ideas. And to the studio’s credit, Lionhead has done an excellent job of communicating with its players, keeping the sample size small while highlighting the difference between closed and open beta. So far, everyone seems to have realistic expectations.

But balance is an imperfect science even in the best of circumstances. Since the villain can’t be able to beat the heroes too easily – the games just wouldn’t be long enough – Lionhead had to find another way to entice players to do evil. To that extent, Eckelberry advises players to think of villainy as a war of attrition.

“Our heroes show up full of equipment and gear with lots of hit points. You’re [the villain] not going to win the first encounter with those four heroes,” he said. “But you might wear them down, make them use more healing potions, so that by the time you reach two thirds of the way through the quest, you have a legitimate chance to put them down and win.”

Of course, it could make for a long outing if the villain isn’t able to make the heroes waste those extra potions. Why keep playing for the full thirty minutes if you know you’re going to lose after the first five?

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That’s ultimately why the closed beta is so important. While players will forgive balance issues as long as an RPG delivers a good story, Fable Legends resets to almost zero every time you launch (it’s still an RPG, so heroes and villains do unlock more abilities as they level up). Since it can’t rely on that narrative hook, there’s that much more pressure on the gameplay to hold audience attention. The only way to generate the data needed to balance the game properly is to take it to the players, a scary proposition knowing that anyone who provides feedback is probably a little biased.

“All of our characters are asymmetrical to each other and intentionally designed that way,” said Eckelberry. “We’re going to balance the characters looking at their win-loss ratio when they’re on a team.”

“Some weaknesses are intentional,” he continued, emphasizing that no class can be great at everything no matter how desperately players want to play favorites. “All of the characters have to have appeal to different players. It’s going to be the biggest challenge this game design team has ever had, to balance these characters. But that’s why we’ll be in beta for many months.”

The only question is whether or not fans will give Lionhead the leeway needed to make adjustments. The studio is attempting to engineer fundamentally subjective experiences, and the appeal of Fable Legends relies almost entirely on the give and take between players. If something feels off, some players may not have the patience to see the experiment through to the end. Fortunately, Eckelberry and his team are well aware of the challenges they face in the months ahead. They hope that audiences remember that a game in beta is still a work in progress.

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