Roughly a year ago, I sat with Ted over a now widely publicised cup of coffee. We talked about all kinds of crazy ideas for games we could make – but the reality was, if we were going to actually make a fun game in time for Creative Day, we needed to use the existing Fable engine rather than writing something from scratch – or we were going to end up with showing a slideshow of some really crazy ideas we came up with in the staff canteen one day.
Using an engine that had already been made and modifying this to a 4-player smash-em-up didn’t leave me whole lot to do – the vast majority of the demo would be programming work from a really tall clever man called Alex Dowdeswell and some level scripting from Ted.
So rather than help come up with an idea and tell people what to do (note: this is what Producers do) I set about working out how I could play about with an art style in an engine that was really set up to make Fable look like Fable. My mind rolled back to three things that had happened during the development of Fable III; a painterly effect that Senior Programmer Martin Bell created in a happy accident that was never used, the huge amount of work and art that had already gone into the 3d world map and also a Demon Door level that Level Designer Charlton Edwards had created for some Fable III DLC.
The Demon Door used assets from the 3d world map to make a little toy-town level which the hero ran around; I thought this was not only really charming – but it would make for a great, fun art style if it was pushed as far as was possible. It would also mean I could cheekily claim I had made hundreds of art assets for Creative Day, and clever, tall people would like me.
I spoke to Lead Engine Programmer/Space Cadet, Don Williamson about some ideas I had and whether it was possible to add the code Martin had written back in to the game, whilst combining it with some post processing wizardry (a way of taking how the art looks once it’s all in the game, and applying a ‘look’ to the whole screen as you play the game in real-time).
The code was very cleverly added back in, and I did what all the very best artists tend to do – mess about in ways you’re probably not meant to. I set all the numbers to negative values (‘You can set it to any value from 1 to 128’ – sorry, Don) – and it turned out to make some really great looking cell shaded effect!
To my (and Don’s) surprise, it was a great proof of concept. We (more accurately, they) continued to play about with all kinds of engine cleverness and post processing tricks from depth of field ideas such as tilt-shift and bokeh (search for these words in the image section of any browser to better explain anything I could type in words), to cross-hatching rendering for the environments and sky, to really toonify the world and make them look hand drawn.
Now enter Lead Level Designer and all-round nice guy, Mike Green and trendy polymath, Rob Tatnell (who magically brings games to life with his dazzling particles and effects). Ted talked to them both about our ideas for the game and I chatted with much gusto and passion about how we could make it stand out artistically for the demo. Rob, Mike and I talked about Windwaker, Okami, Jet Set Radio Future and all manner of other great, stylish games, and how we could have the effects, and level design, match up to that concept. Mike, seemingly in about two lunchbreaks, managed to build the basis of our very first level (portions of which still appear in Heroes today!) whilst Rob listened to some very cool music and effortlessly made some really, really beautiful particles.
However, the one thing that continued to niggle at me was that we were still using Fable III characters with dyed clothing – and with four of them running about on screen, it just didn’t cut the mustard. I pondered for a couple of weeks and tried a few ideas – but I kept coming back to the same point with Ted: the characters needed to be iconic and simple enough to be a toy which could sit on my desk. On top of that, to actually be useful, they’d need to work with all the countless animations that had been made over the life of two Fable games. And then I had a Eureka moment – Hero Dolls!
The Hero Dolls had been made by Fable Art Director, and raconteur, John McCormack for the original Fable, and we had later re-imagined them for Fable II. Not only were they part of the lore – they were cute, quirky and they also somehow worked with all the animations (thanks almost entirely down to Spanish Tech-Animation wizard and part-time Michael Bolton Impersonator, Emilio Serrano Garcia). They immediately changed the feel of the game, and we had our toys! (note: I’m still waiting for the actual toys).
The final thing I wanted to cover is our world map; a world map does sound pretty dull, but I’m convinced that the end result is not only one of the coolest and best looking features in Heroes, it’s also one of the coolest world maps in a game I’ve seen. It came out of a meeting I had with right-hand-man, Senior Artist Patrick Martin, about how we could make a world map fun (which when you think about it, is actually pretty tricky). We started with a traditional grid based level layout where your icon would move between levels – standard stuff. From there, we started to chat about the hero dolls themselves and the fact that they were toys. Conversation soon moved on to kids building blocks, board games, and railway sets and how it would be fun to drop tiles in, and complete a board game as you completed levels. Yes! On top of this we had the idea to give it a real sense of scale by having real sized objects littered about the table; a lot like a great game called Micro Machines did many years ago. Amongst the coins, dice, candles and other objects are a few easter eggs I hid away, so keep your eyes peeled…
All in all, creating the artwork for Fable Heroes has been superb fun. It is not meant to be a serious take on where Fable goes from here; it was merely what 6 friends chose to make and show to other friends and colleagues, with a different spin on a francise that we all really care about. I really hope you’ll play it with your friends and enjoy it too – and if you don’t like the look of it, feel free to blame Ted.
Jon Eckersley, Lead Artist.