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.