Working on Fable destroyed my life, but I don’t regret it

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …. “

-A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

I don’t think I could come up with a more perfect description of how my time working on Fable felt than those words penned by Dickens nearly 160 years ago. The recent closure of Lionhead Studios made this an ideal time to share some of those stories.

The best of times

“All our sweetest hours fly fastest.” -Georgics, Virgil

There were 20 or so people there when I joined game developer Big Blue Box in December of 2001 and, with few exceptions, all of them would be there at the end as well. It wasn’t a huge office, but it was situated on the ground floor of a building next to the river in Godalming, a village to the south of Guildford where Lionhead was based.

The word “picturesque” springs to mind.

I remember my first day. I arrived late due to miscalculating the ever-reliable train service. I soon became accustomed to the strange sense of time kept by the trains in that part of the country.

My PC wasn’t ready when I arrived, so I spent my first day waiting for my equipment and playing a very early build of a game known then as Project Ego, what would later become Fable.

This all set me up nicely for my first faux pas: asking which button caused the character to jump. It was a contentious issue with people back then. However, when I was shown around the office to meet everyone, what I saw was incredible art and a game that looked amazing. I was intimidated. How could I possibly live up to the standards of everything I saw? I was also absolutely overjoyed to be part of something that even then seemed like it would be special. I was determined to do my damnedest to make sure I would rise to the level of everyone else there.





The following months would be the customary baptism of fire as I discovered how little I really knew about, well, anything. I knew nothing of Direct3D, for instance, and I barely knew what a shader was. Leading up to getting the job I had spent six months teaching myself the basics of OpenGL and C++, from which came a demo that helped land me the position, but OpenGL and DirectX are very different beasts and DirectX is much more difficult to get to grips with.

Also, unlike when I taught myself, my learning was now under the scrutiny of others. I felt so far out of my depth that, for a while, I genuinely feared my trial period would end badly. It felt like a hobby club: a place where a bunch of guys could have fun doing what they loved and get paid for it. We were all friends, and the office was full of banter, laughing and joking. People would zoom up and down the office on scooters, often stopping by someone’s desk to say hi and chat for a bit.

This seemed like a warning sign in retrospect. The atmosphere was too relaxed and jovial — work was getting done but there was not really much sense of an end point. The dates mentioned as deadlines were almost spoken of with smirks and laughter: We made jokes about them rather than treating them as anything that might be worth the worry. We felt invincible. With Lionhead, Peter Molyneux and Microsoft in your corner, what could go wrong?

All good things must end

“The most beautiful moments always seemed to accelerate and slip beyond one’s grasp just when you want to hold onto them for as long as possible.” -Brushstrokes of a Gadfly, E.A. Bucchianeri

Louder warning bells started to ring on the road to E3 in 2003. The stress was to be expected; E3 was a big deal at the time and most studios expecting to show stuff would be spending a massive amount of time putting together special E3 builds that may feature more smoke and mirrors than actual game.

I think it also marked a time that began the end of our studio.

Many of the people working there had been in the industry for a long time, with many games under their belts, including a number of crunch periods. Even they didn’t foresee the pain we’d experience. For those of us new to the industry, there was no way we could even begin to imagine what was in store.

It became clear that we were in trouble. We had lots of cool things to show off — demos for the press and those we gave at E3 were always well received — but the open secret was that we had pretty much no game. There was so much that needed to be done, so much that I don’t think had even been decided. It wasn’t like we even really had a plan of how to get to the end. There were many ideas and lots of potential, but nothing concrete. If we were ever to release the game, something needed done. And so something was.





We were given dates for gold master that were actual, real deadlines that we were supposed to hit and we were expected, from then on, to put in a push to reach those deadlines. At the time it all seemed pretty reasonable. Then annual leave was canceled and longer days became the norm. It would be more than a year before it would end.

Everyone agreed it was the worst crunch they’d experienced or even heard of. Although the day-to-day aspects would be familiar to most crunch scenarios, it was the total length and the complete burnout that was so different. A couple of months crunch was to be expected; several months would be less usual, but common. For it to go on for as long and as relentlessly as it did with Fable was all but unheard of.

The team also changed drastically. When we switched gears, practically the entirety of Lionhead became team Fable. Few had avoided being drafted. By this time Big Blue Box had already been bought by Lionhead — although to some of us it was not clear that this had happened.

Microsoft would also add developers into the mix in an effort to get the game finished. What this meant for our little team, which was still less than 30 people, is that suddenly there are more than twice as many people working on the project. People who you don’t necessarily know and may never have met. We’d gone from a small, tight-knit group into something else entirely almost overnight. It was hard not to feel a little resentment at all these new faces muscling in on our game.

The Godalming office became packed with people. More people than could comfortably fit — many of us had to negotiate with those behind us in order to move out our seats. We’d get stuck if we both tried at once. After several months that would reverse, as everyone was slowly relocated to Lionhead HQ in Guildford. The Engine team, to which I belonged, was the last to move. By the end of the project only a handful of people who he begun at Big Blue Box remained in the office.

However, something worked, because at the start of this time we suddenly began to get bits of real game together — there were areas that you could play that felt a lot like they would in the final game. The world of Albion was rebuilt countless times over the course of Fable’s development, but I think that around this time was when things began to set; areas began to take final shape and become like the game that everyone would eventually play.

The worst of times

“If I’m honest, on Fable we just burnt people’s lives; we destroyed the team. Week after week, month after month, they worked 50, 60, 70, 80-hour weeks. It destroyed their lives and destroyed their marriages.” -Peter Molyneux, Develop, March 2009

Crunch is brutal for any amount of time. Even a few days of extended hours can cause all kinds of psychological and physiological changes.

The effects it has on the mind and body can be devastating when the crunch is measured in months. Some people may say they thrive on stress, but I don’t think anyone can come out of the kind of experience we had with Fable without suffering.

A pattern emerged in my days during this period. Get up, get washed and dressed, wash down a couple of caffeine tablets with some strong coffee, pick up a red bull, a coke and some cereal bars on my way into the office. Once at work I’d be at my desk non-stop; all meals would be eaten at my desk, though sometimes I’d not eat at all. When I did eat, it would usually mean a sandwich from the supermarket for lunch. Work would often provide dinner, invariably takeout. Sugary caffeinated drinks and sweets would sustain me for the rest of the time.

Eventually I’d give up for the day and go home, where I’d go straight to bed and hope that I’d get at least some sleep before the cycle started again — but unfortunately, caffeine, sugar and stress would make any rest difficult and fitful. Days were a minimum of 12 hours long. We worked six to seven days a week. Days off, if they came, would be spent using what little energy remained to deal with the details of living — shopping, cleaning and the rest of the mundane details of keeping yourself alive.

Every day at work would be the same. My computer would wake up displaying the same file I had open when I went home. Often it was the only file I’d be looking at for days on end. I would try to figure out why nothing was working as it should be, or I would try to get my head around how I could implement some feature or other.

The worst were the bugs that refused to be solved: The bugs where the code looked like it should work, but for some reason things wouldn’t display as intended — nothing I’d do seemed to make the slightest difference.

Some days I’d make exactly zero progress on anything. I’d even resort to random code changes in the vain hope that prodding the code in the right place would cause the bug to fix itself. Hitting my head against the keyboard might have proven more productive. My brain power was essentially zero. I’d used up all my reserves and had no way to replenish them.

The company I’d joined was gone, along with many of the things I had loved so much.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, it was all just the same endless hours of exactly the same patterns. It was all but impossible to distinguish one day from the next. Even my dreams would be about work. At times I don’t know if I had imagined something or if it had actually happened.

I barely saw anyone outside of work. I had neither the time nor the energy to be social. Family events were missed: weddings, births and birthdays … everything. I didn’t cut my hair or shave for months at a time. In some ways I count myself lucky that I had no partner nor family of my own. Those that did would be hard-pressed to see them, let alone spend much time with them. On the other hand, the support might have been helpful.

The consequences for the team were dire. Relationships were being tested to the breaking point, and a great many of the team were on medication for stress-related illnesses, myself included. General chatter in the office faded off, and smiles were replaced by pained grimaces.

The consequences for me were devastating. I was briefly prescribed anti-psychotics at my lowest point. I experienced migraines, complete with terrifying tunnel vision, blackouts, severe depression, anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations and thought insertion.

I ended up having to take some time off for my illness in the middle of it all. I just couldn’t cope. Sadly, though, even the time I ended up taking off didn’t help much. I was too consumed by guilt over the team struggling on without me.

I’m amazed I survived.

Endings

“Every ending is a beginning. We just don’t know it at the time.” -The Five People You Meet In Heaven, Mitch Albom

We made it to gold master eventually. The game was finished and, more importantly, crunch was finished. We were zombies going through some mimicry of the motions of life, but somehow we’d finished it all.

Unfortunately, the harm Fable had done would not be so easily dismissed.





It was straight onto Fable: The Lost Chapters when I returned from my post-launch holiday. The game was actually quite fun to work on. The pressure was almost non-existent in comparison to what we had finished, and we knew what we needed to do and roughly how long we had to do it. There was also a sense that we’d done the hard part, and everyone was so much more relaxed about everything.

However, for me, the damage was done. Returning from my subsequent Christmas break I realized I couldn’t stay at Lionhead any longer. The company I’d joined was gone, along with many of the things I had loved so much. I never really felt like Lionhead was the place for me, and even then it was clear Microsoft would probably buy the company … which would make it even less likely to be somewhere I’d feel comfortable.

It didn’t help that at that time I was so very, very angry about what had happened with Fable. I worked my notice and left. I wouldn’t work again in the industry for several years.

Regret

Never regret anything you have done with a sincere affection; nothing is lost that is born of the heart. -Basil Rathbone

Yet, despite all that I went through — that we went through — I don’t regret my time on Fable. I am sad at some of the things that happened. I’m sorry about some of the bugs that were left unfixed, and some things that were broken after I left. I’m sorry that the open, streaming world that Albion was supposed to be was replaced with the level transitions of the final game. And replaced very late on, too. I’m sorry for how things went for me, but regret? Not so much.

For a long time after I left Lionhead I was utterly incensed at what had happened and how it had all turned out: I felt we’d been mistreated and misinformed — sucked in, chewed up and spat out. It took me a long time to calm down and be able to take a step back from it all and realize that actually, I can’t regret it.

I can’t regret the time I spent on Fable, despite how utterly despairingly dark it got, because of the good things. Truly the beginning of my time at Big Blue Box was “the best of times,” and it is an experience I would dearly love to have again; I have many, many good memories from working at Big Blue Box.

It’s all the little things that make me smile. The football (soccer) games at lunchtime with sweaters for goalposts. The time I tried to explain displacement maps using a dinner plate. The 512-by-512 fly textures we created for the flies that, um, fly around the heroes head. The bug that made the landscape use the eyeball texture.

The entire office played the then brand-new Battlefield 1942 Wake Island demo every lunchtime for about a month. The times you posted a screenshot of something you’d been working on to the company newsgroup, and everyone would reply with the most amazing praise. Praise, respect, support, friendship and even ridicule, all where they were due. It was an amazing place to be.

Then there were the parties — oh, the parties! Lionhead parties were something else entirely. I recall little of the endings of most of those parties, which, given what occurred, is not something I’m very proud of. As a gravestone in Fable: The Lost Chapters attests “I. Denniston. One drunken punch-up too many saw him meet his maker.”





I’d like to take this moment to say how genuinely, profoundly sorry I am to anyone involved in any of those … ahem … incidents.

The fans also helped to dull the pain we went through creating the game. To this day I still get kudos from gamers for having worked on Fable. Any time I see someone talk positively about their experience with Fable it makes me smile, knowing that for better or worse I helped shape that. I’m intensely proud of the work I did on Fable. That technology I personally built and, in some cases invented, helped create the game that people played and loved evokes a feeling quite unlike any other.

There are screenshots that to this day I think look remarkable, and to be able to point at them and say “I made that” is something special indeed. Yes, obviously, it would still have been Fable without me, but it wouldn’t have been that Fable.

I also got to work with some of the best people in the industry, some of whom remain among my best friends: people who made many of the games I grew up with, including Syndicate, Dungeon Keeper and Theme Park, and people who have since gone on to do even better things. My name shares a credit roll with them and luminaries like Peter Molyneux and Danny Elfman! How many people can say that?

It may not end with happily ever after, but it’s a story I’m glad I was privileged enough to lend a few words to.

Yeah, it may have broken me so very, very badly, but I can’t regret Fable.

Iain Denniston can mostly be found in front of some screen or other – often several simultaneously — be it for programming, gaming, writing or tinkering with art or music. Professionally he is a programmer with many years experience inside and outside the games industry and tends to specialize in the mathematical heavy areas of the profession.

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