A Black & White Day: Microsoft Set To Close Lionhead

Sad news, mostly because a studio with some serious heritage looks set to be closed down, but partly because said studio never had a chance to set out its own identity following the departure of founder Peter Molyneux. Lionhead was what the co-creator of Populous, Theme Park, Syndicate and Dungeon Keeper did after Bullfrog (with the help of dozens of talented colleagues), and while it was always a divisive studio the ambition and exuberance it showed in the Black & White and Fable games will be sorely missed.

Microsoft today announced the studio’s next (and first post-Molyneux) title, Fable Legends, has been cancelled, and that it is “in discussions with employees about the proposed closure of Lionhead Studios in the UK.”

Lionhead released Black & White, Black & White 2 and The Movies before being acquired by Microsoft in 2006, after which its only released titles were Fable games. Founder Peter Molyneux departed to form indie outfit 22 Cans, of Godus infamy, in 2012.

No clear reason for today’s news has been given, though this MS release describes it as “a tough decision.” I wonder if it relates to Xbox One not enjoying the take-up that PlayStation 4 has and thus perhaps this is a signal of Microsoft’s wavering interest in the games sector, or if it speaks to a lack of confidence in the free-to-play Fable Legends, but until someone speaks up we just can’t know.

There is perhaps a suggestion that Fable is no longer the force it once was here: “These changes are taking effect as Microsoft Studios continues to focus its investment and development on the games and franchises that fans find most exciting and want to play.” Ouch.

As for the staff facing job losses today, MS claim that “We are committed to working closely with those affected by today’s news to find them new opportunities at Xbox, or partnering with the broader development community to help place them in jobs elsewhere in the games industry should they desire.”

It’s a sad thing. With the possible exceptions of Fable 3 and Black & White 2, I’ve always had a lovely time with Lionhead games. They may have often fallen into a sort of comfort zone of gentleness and quirk instead of matching up with the soaring ambition their lead designer was so know to vocalise, but I really liked that about them. They were warm and built around player expression where ostensibly rival games were so often sternly self-regarding.

I also can’t think of any other studio that made clearly British-feeling games with that kind of budget attached to them. If you look at Lionhead as an extension of Bullfrog, there’s now an enormous hole in the heart of British games development.

Perhaps the glory days were behind Lionhead, and the Microsoft monolith doing this this was pretty much inevitable at some point, but it’s a still a great shame that we’ll never get to see where the studio could have gone now it wasn’t defined by its former figurehead.

MS-owned Danish developer Press Play Studios, known for Max: The Curse of Brotherhood and Kalimba, is also being closed as part of this belt-tightening procedure.

Best of luck to all those affected: hope you land on your feet.

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  1. Sui42 says:

    Years ago, when walking home with the Black and White expansion pack, a child tried to wrestle the GAME bag from my hands. Luckily, I evaded this attempt.

    I’m not sure I would really care if someone tried to steal Fable: Legends from me, though.

    Well, this was a really worthwhile comment, wasn’t it?

  2. JakeOfRavenclaw says:

    I honestly though that Fable Legends had already been cancelled. They never really managed to get the hype going on that one.

    I never had much of a relationship with Lionhead games, but I do have fond memories of playing Fable 3’s co-op in college (for all that game’s flaws, it could be a lot of fun if you just wanted to chill and kill some monsters with a buddy). Always sad to see a studio get shut down.

  3. Yachmenev says:

    Agree with Alec, that Lionheads games were lovely and fun, with the exceptions of Fable 3 and B&W2.

    What’s differs those games from their predecessors? They dropped most of their unique, creative and entertaining aspects, to chase another type of audience (Fable 3 wanted casuals, B&W2 tried to be a traditional RTS.

    They gained very little with that.

  4. bills6693 says:

    Man, I loved B&W 2, probably one of my favorite games (a shame to me that others don’t like it as much). I’d long since lost hope of a squeal but its still sad to hear the studio is going. Lets hope someone can create a successor – there’s been plenty of recent examples of old games being revived/remade by indie studios formed of former developers of the original.

  5. Chaoslord AJ says:

    I played Black & White a lot all the while thinking this creature was actually programmed to learn by its AI – I’m not really sure whether it was this sophisticated back then. B&W 2 was a more straightforward city building God game which I enjoyed more.

    Fable well was never quiet the game series PM hyped it up to be with F3 feeling mostly small and empty with boring weapons, clothes and houses to buy.
    Still solid action-RPG food so yeah somewhat sad but there’s always fresh blood and with W10 Microsoft left my grace anyway.

  6. Sin Vega says:

    Might sound like I’m cruelly putting the boot in, but it’s not intended as such: I honestly didn’t know they were still operating. It’s a shame really. They were never really my thing, and they struggled with some reoccurring flaws, but Fable and We Need Food Ok Thanks Now We Need Offspring Okay Thanks Now We Need More Food Arrgh Not The Monkey Mercy Simulator were ambitious and unusual. The loss of any studio willing to have a go at that is a sad thing.

    • Wisq says:

      Yeah, I’m in the same boat there. To me, Lionhead was always just Black & White — I never even played Fable, probably due to some combination of Molyneux’s reputation and them being unable to decide whether it should be multiplatform or XBox exclusive.

      But, I’ll miss them for Black & White alone, even if it really was less of a god simulator and more of a “god’s pet” simulator.

    • Distec says:

      We need more offspring.



  7. deadly.by.design says:

    Ahh, Bullfrog. Back when requiring 200MB for a full Syndicate Wars install blew my teenage mind.

    All of this reminds me that I should probably play Satellite Reign.

    • spacedyemeerkat says:

      My advice, unless you’ve already bought it, would be not to bother. As a backer, that saddens me. (Although I am sure other backers would take an opposite view of the game.)

      • Wisq says:

        Eh, I liked it well enough. I’ve never returned to it after beating it, but the same can be said for a lot of good games in my collection — it’s just too large a collection.

    • Werthead says:

      I quite enjoyed Satellite Reign, especially how it did scratch the Syndicate itch whilst being different enough not to be a retread.

      It did leave me thinking that the engine was really better than tha game though. I’d love to see the Shadowrun Returns guys doing something with it.

      • aepervius says:

        I enjoyed it but certain aspect i found stupid, like forcing you into pause menu every 15 minutes so to make sure you don’t cheat by leaving the atm drain money for you. Look , if i wanted to cheat there is cheat engine, getting forced into pause because I did not touch the keyboard or mouse for 15 minutes in a single player game is stupid.

        • deadlybydsgn says:

          Forgive my ignorance… What were you up to for 15 minutes in-game that didn’t involve clicking or typing?

          I’m not calling you a cheater — I’m just at a loss as to what it would’ve been. (and haven’t played the game beyond the very first part to know)

      • king0zymandias says:

        The engine was Unity. What you were impressed with were the assets and the art direction. None of which is dictated by the engine.

  8. Jabberslops says:

    Fable 3 was the tipping point. Fable Legends was the Death Rattle.

    Lionhead(Molyneux) wanted to make Fable 3 into something should never have been. They gutted all the things abut Fable that people actually liked and left it with a mediocre story that only loosely tied into the series canon. Also that dimensional inventory was obnoxious to use, being slower than a menu with real inventory management like they added to Fable TLC on PC. Also, why did they think being the King would be fun, if you can’t even really act like one.

  9. Vastial says:

    I was there, an eager 16 year-old, queuing up at my local Game in Warrington – desperate for the title that would usher in “the next generation” – Black & White was THAT game, to this day it’s the only title that I’ve queued for, I even got the tshirt!

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      I really bought into the hype for B&W, and while I liked the game that resulted, it certainly wasn’t everything it had been hyped to be. Since then I’ve always been wary of both what Molyneux says, and hype in general.
      If you have low expectations, then you can be pleasantly surprised. If you buy into the hype and tell all your friends about how amazing this game is going to be, then you will be disappointed. A good lesson for me to learn I guess.

      • Zephro says:

        I have similar memories of Black and White. It just ended up being frustratingly disappointing compared to Dungeon Keeper or Theme Hospital.

      • dodgeblan says:

        I also bought into the hype for Black and White. That game must have had an 8 year hype cycle or something.

        When I finally got the game all the accumulated hype prevented me from acknowledging that it was ‘bad’, but man was it buggy and weird.

        When the height of your powers as a ‘good’ good is telling your wolfbaby to summon a flock of birds to impress a town of non-believers you sort of realize that all those lofty goals you read about in PC Gamer hadn’t come to fruition.

      • lutjasuki says:

        Molyneux always overhyped his games beyond all reason. Right back to populus (a game that promised that I would be a god). People tolerated that because although the games fell dismally short of the promise they were still really(really) good fun and usually very unique.

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      I did the same, but as a student, at Game in Bradford, back when Game in Bradford had a whole floor dedicated to PC gaming.

  10. Ethaor says:

    I enjoyed and played B&W 1 so much, I was quite disapointed in the 2 seeing that it was mostly transformed into a rather uninspired RTS in comparison (a decent game nonetheless).

    Fable was such a joy too, great atmosphere, particularly the music and actor voices wich was to me half the game.

    That’s it though, after B&W 1 and Fable I feel Lionhead lost it and was more interested in catering to a large audience and playing it safe rather than continue to be original and follow a path that made it’s earlier success. Although that’s always easy to say from behind a screen more than a decade later.

  11. deiseach says:

    Fable is no longer the force it once was. But I can relate to the dismay. You can draw a line from Lionhead back to Populous. Okay, it’s a wobbly line, but it’s still there and reminds me of the early days of 16-bit gaming that so thrilled me.

  12. ZippyLemon says:

    Fable games and the Lionhead forums defined a fair bit of my childhood. They’ve long been in decline – Molyneux being a relatively late high level departure – and it’s been sad to watch.

    Fable 2 is an absolutely gorgeous game, and for a moment in time it pointed the world’s lore in a delicious direction. Fun combat, great customisation, sweet humour, smashing female characters and drop in coop make it a great couch game for families as well. I urge the many citizens of PC here to spend some time with an Xbox 360 and have fun with it.

    Farewell Lionhead. You won’t be forgotten <3

  13. Chaoslord AJ says:

    It’s also an ingenious idea to let the adventure show on the PC. (Fable 1)
    Scars, age, being good or evil leaving its marks.
    Sadly always translated to: scars barely visible, age: looks always old in the end… , good: bright shine, looks like God drawn by a kid, evil: looks like the devil, has horns, also character is always samey.
    Imagine a game like Skyrim with this feature (just done better).

  14. JamesTheNumberless says:

    My enduring memory of Lionhead will always be one that has very little to do with any of what they actually produced, but a 1997 PC games magazine article with picturtes of the Lionhead building. They had space-invader shaped door handles! It was the most exciting thing in the world that Molyneux was starting up a fresh new studio at a time when it looked like the British games industry would all be bought up by mega-corps and run into the ground. Those door handles gave me a lot of hope.

    • Geebs says:

      Molyneux originally intended the door handles to be shaped like an actual human child, to visibly grow with time, and to be able to learn from interactions with anybody who went through the door.

      In Molyneux’s head, of course, that actually happened.

      • frogulox says:

        The dry heat of this burn reminds me of the desert a 6 year old imagines.

        But dialled up so as to scorch concrete.

        • JamesTheNumberless says:

          But don’t you see, the burn was just part of the design. It shows how your not-at-all-pathalogically-lying game designer is scarred over time by the slings and arrows of outrageous consumer entitlement.

          • melnificent says:

            Only when you look at the sling you realise it’s loaded with acorns. You look up to see people planting acorns everywhere, and waiting…

            waiting…for an oak tree to grow.

  15. Zephro says:

    I can’t say I really have any fond memories of a Lionhead game. Black and White 1 had all this ambition but bugs and creatures seeming to forget everything made it a frustrating nuisance.

    Fable had some cool ideas but always just struck me as really meh, same for 2. Sort of too lightweight and annoyingly twee as fuck English.

    My childhood is defined by Bullfrog games but Lionhead seems to have been in steady decline since then.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      Anyone of a certain age feels a mixture of nostalgia and regret when bullfrog is mentioned but the thing that’s strange for me is that none of Bullfrog’s games ever made it into my list of all time favourites. Most of them are initially brilliant but then either get repetitive, and/or are let down by wonky game balance and ideas that don’t quite work. For almost every Bullfrog game that I liked I can think of a contemporary or near contemporary in a similar style or theme that I spent way more time with. I played Transport Tycoon, Caesar and Sim City way more than Theme Park and dungeon Keeper. I sunk way more hours into Mega-lo-mania, Utopia, K240 and Startopia than Populous or Black and White. Syndicate for all its style barely gets a look in when simpler but more fun squad based games like Cannon Fodder, and more involved turn-based offerings like Xcom and Lords of Chaos are around. Fable is probably my least played of all the RPGs I’ve enjoyed.

      Not at all suggesting Bullfrog games weren’t good, it’s just that there’s never been one that’s been my “favourite game” at the time.

  16. Avus says:

    Thanks Peter Molyneux

    Good luck for M$’ plan for PC gaming platform domination…. Definitely is not a good start.

  17. buzzmong says:

    If we’re honest, Lionhead died in 2006 when it was bought out by MS.
    Not a slight on MS, but just with publisher owned studios in general, or with pretty much any smaller company being bought out by a larger one, as after the purchase, the small company’s identity invariably declines. Sometimes quick, sometimes it takes a while, but whatever the timeframe, it ceases to be what it was.

    I really enjoyed B&W though, the sequel was okay, but I bounced off it.

  18. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    It always seemed the only reason Microsoft didn’t close Lionhead down years ago was because it got suckered by Molyneux into paying some exorbitant fee they’ve felt they needed to justify. Even at the time it seemed kind of crazy, and in retrospect the many failures of Fable make it seem even less wise. This was a long time coming.

    • tigerfort says:

      There’s an interesting consolation for Godus backers – “at least we didn’t give him as much money as Microsoft did”…

  19. JamesTheNumberless says:

    One of the most frequently expressed feelings I’ve seen within the industry today has been disappointment and anger at MGS for just folding the whole studio rather than attempting to sell it off or finding something else for those people to work on.

    It’s one thing to decide that Fable is finished or that the Lionhead label has had its day, it’s another thing to decide that a whole studio full of talented people no longer fit into the Microsoft dream. Lots of people now who’ve not only had their project canned but their jobs pulled out from under them too.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      Now of course the Lionhead label and the Fable IP will just sit and rot in a vault in Redmond. I guess not letting a competitor like Sega or EA get their hands on those was more important than the jobs of a few British guys.

      • Avus says:

        You really think it will be better the IP will go to company like EA?? (which rotted Syndicate, Simcity, Dungeon Keeper, any games from Westwood + other studios) MS Game Studio actually rotted the fewest games because of its shortest game list.

        • JamesTheNumberless says:

          I don’t care what happens to the IP. I care what happens to the people, and the investment in the British games industry. My ideal scenario would have been some sort of management buy out but I’d certainly take being bought by EA over losing my job.

          • JamesTheNumberless says:

            Microsoft selling the studio to anybody would have been better than them just canning it. You can expect Rare to be next, that place is like a ghost town already. This is hardly encouraring anybody else to set up in the UK.

  20. matte_k says:

    The Movies was an excellent idea, especially in Sandbox mode where it just became an accessible, amusing and flexible machinima creator, and it’s worth the price of admission for that alone. Some of the neat little touches,like the tech progression each decade changing the film quality, or stars developing addictions made the campaign entertaining, but I’m pretty sure I spent most of my time with it making “B” Movies. Shame there was never a sequel with better tech.

    • Pantalaimon says:

      A lot of cool ideas but not a very good game at the end of it – largely what will be written on Lionhead’s tombstone, unfortunately.

  21. Premium User Badge

    Ninja Dodo says:

    Sad to hear. I remember reading the Black & White developer diaries as a wide-eyed teenager wondering about the mysteries of game development. Never got a chance to play Fable but quite enjoyed Black & White. Never got very far in it but teaching your tiger/cow/ape to make food and throw things was great.

  22. Pantalaimon says:

    To be completely honest it was downhill after Black & White, and even that game had huge issues. You had to avoid looking at the problems directly and focus on the charming bits. And you can say that about every game produced at that studio, or every post-Dungeon Keeper Molyneux game. They all had massive problems, some of them forgiveable, some of them kind of scandalous (Fable basically being unfinished and running a busted dev build final area in the shipped game – later fixed with a standalone paid-for DLC; The Movies being a terrible, wonky management game, with an amazing little mini-game, etc).

    Their ambition and inspiration was admirable and second to none, really, but unlike previous efforts at Bullfrog, they just didn’t have the hard-edged development chops to hone these game ideas to the polished and perfect finished Molyneux projects of the 90s period.

    …and their two best games got canned under PM’s watch – Dmitri (bits and pieces dissolved into The Movies) and BC (recently reimagined in multiple prehistoric-themed games, like ARK, but still not really matched in scope).

  23. Lord Byte says:

    Microsoft. Where studios go to die once they shat out their golden eggs.
    – Ensemble Studios (AOE series, AOM)
    – Bungee (face it, noone anywhere remotely related to the old Bungee still works there)
    – FASA Studios
    – Aces Studio
    – Press Play studio
    Soon Mojang? The fact that they’re actively self-developing their own build next to the “official” build seems to indicate so.

      • JamesTheNumberless says:

        I thought so too but opinion seems to be divided. In fact I, like a lot of others, really expected Rare to go first just from my personal experience and experience of some of my colleagues in dealing with them.

        Something Rare have going for them is that Microsoft completely own the buildings and the land that they’re on, they’re probably not as expensive to run as Lionhead was. Rather than being a studio that works on a big IP for years between high-risk releases, they’re a useful place for MS to use as support for their US studios.