Game designer Peter Molyneux and I talked about death in video games last week, and the failed experiments that led to the unusual lack of player death in "Fable II."
Lionhead Studios founder Peter Molyneux can talk a good talk about video games. So let me get out of the way and run his response to me from our interview in San Francisco last week, when I asked him whether he thought the lack of player death in his team's "Fable II" Xbox 360 role-playing game was a success:
"The way death worked in 'Fable I' was just so tedious."
Peter Molyneux: "We started with saying that 'The way death worked in "Fable I" was just so tedious.' There are certain games that, as a game player -- not as a designer but purely as a game player -- I found very, very frustrating, which ended up as barriers for me going any further in the game. 'Grand Theft Auto' was one of those games. I just found it super-frustrating to have to restart the game.
"You find yourself questioning yourself: 'Well, what do we really want? Why are we doing this to the player? We're doing it to make the game better or worse?'
"I fell down [on the side of]: we're making the game worse. Just because we've always done it, doesn't make it right.
"So, the first instinctive reaction to that was: 'Okay, how can we make death meaningful? How can we get people on the edge of their seats when they're fighting?'
"We still over-thought that... We did a prototype on the "Fable I" engine. We thought: "Death will be this: you'll fall down on the ground, you will be able to spend experience and gold to get off the ground, or you can stay on the ground and pay the price of waiting to get up and you would start to get horribly scarred.'
"What we found was with that the limitation in there -- with that penalty in there -- the vast majority of testers kept reloading [the game]. They were emulating the very thing we were trying to take away because they didn't like being scarred, they didn't like losing experience, they didn't like losing their gold.
"So what we did then is we removed the gold and the experience cost.
"They still reloaded.
"He was in the middle of a nuclear explosion and this whole tribe just died to keep him alive."
"Then we removed the scarring and said, "Okay, any experience [orbs] that [are] left on the ground -- which, after all, is your currency in the game -- you lose. That's what we got to, which is a pretty good place. I still think, as a designer, that we've got a ways to go.
"I think there's some refinement in that mechanic I would want to do. It really says something about you and what you're like as a person...There's this great comic from when I was a kid. This is going off tangent, so tell me to shut up if you want to. [Note from Stephen: Molyneux tangents tend to be interesting, so I didn't stop him.] It was called "Kelly's Eye" and it was this guy who had this eye that made him invincible. The cool thing about it was that every time he was injured or hurt -- this amulet was made by this tribe in Africa -- someone in the tribe in Africa got killed. It was really cool. I think the comic ended when he was in the middle of a nuclear explosion and this whole tribe just died to keep him alive. I remember when I was a kid, thinking, 'He goes in all these dangerous situations trying to save this girl from being killed and he just killed off three people in Africa.' So, I think, there's some mechanics to play with. [Note from Stephen: My research indicates that Molyneux might be mis-remembering the back-story of the comic, but his anecdote is no less illuminating.]
"That's my thing with 'Fable II.' I've got a three-page list of things that didn't quite hit the mark or are a little off simply because when you get to the end there's so many sacrifices you have to make to meet the date and get through it... We did take a different approach with things like death and the dog and the emotion stuff and the one-button combat. But I think that still needs a bit of polishing and refinement."
I'll have a little more from my conversation with Molyneux later this week.