[MUD-Dev] DESIGN: Analysis of Fable

Mike Rozak Mike at mxac.com.au
Thu Oct 20 13:12:20 New Zealand Daylight Time 2005


Since I noticed several people commenting about how to tell which is
better, "The Seven Samurai" or "Dude, where's my car", and since I
just finished Fable:TLC,I thought I'd write up an analysis (not a
review). It's on http://www.mxac.com.au/drt/FableAnalysis.htm as
well as being pasted below. I'm tring to approach the analysis like
I would analyze a book/movie, or a piece of music.

I would love to see other people's anlysis of Fable, other CRPGs, or
MMORPGs... something that explains "why" a game works (or doesn't),
not whether it's worth buying.


------

Analysis of Peter Molyneux's Fable (Back to TOC) 20 October 2005 by
Mike Rozak


Not owning an X-Box, I have been waiting months for Fable: The Lost
Chapters to come out for the PC. I just got my hands on the game
last week. This writeup is an analysis of Fable's design, not a
review. The article is about "why" Fable works, and why it doesn't.

If you are looking for review, don't read this, since the article
not only gives away the plot, it intentionally strips the "magic"
away from the game to reveal "the man behind the curtain."


Story-like devices

The most notable difference between Fable and other PC- based CRPGs
is the emphasis on "story". I don't like the term story because it's
so overloaded with meaning, so when I do discuss elements of story
as they appear in Fable, I'll try to use more specific terms, such
as narration or foreshadowing.

Let me begin at the beginning...

Act 1a of Fable, first thirty minutes, involves an introductory
cut-scene, a short tutorial, a few short quests that the boy- hero
must perform, and a the finale where the town is pillaged by bandits
and the boy-hero is left to wander around the smouldering ruins.

Act 1a uses a number of interesting techniques that I mentioned in
Sympathetic goals:

  1.  The introductory cut-scene foreshadows that the boy-hero will
  go on to do great things, thereby informing the player that he, as
  the hero's controller, will also do great things.

  2.  Act 1a emotionally ties the player into the game, introducing
  the player to the boy's father, travelling mother, sister, the
  town, and its other inhabitants. Almost all of these characters
  (including the town) are presented in a idyllic light, just as
  Tolkien portrays The Shire as a rural utopia. Having grown up in
  their own family, players readily identify with a family,
  particularly an idealised one in a Leave-it-to-Beaver style
  village. This identification is important since it's later used to
  provide the player sympathetic goals that keep him interested in
  the game.

  3.  Act 1a serves as the first part of the game's tutorial.

  4.  Act 1a culminates with a cut-scene of bandits (their legs
  only, from a child's perspective) burning the village. The player
  is then allowed to wander around his burning rural utopia, meet
  his dying father, and be whisked away by a mysterious mentor.

    Most games would just produce one large cut scene of the
    pillaging and cut "Feature #43: Wander around burning village"
    for cost and schedule reasons. However, allowing the player to
    explore his burning village increases the player's sympathy for
    the hero, and the player's animosity towards the bandits.

Act 1b involves the player's life in the guild hall. It serves the
following purposes:

  1.  It is the second part of the game's tutorial.

    The game includes several other small tutorials later, which is
    a nice touch. For example: The sneaking tutorial is provided
    when the player has to sneak into the bandit camp. I
    particularly liked the teacher who gives the player a quest to
    find books for the teacher to read to his classroom. When the
    teacher is given the books, he gives a short reading to the
    class, as well as the player, thereby feeding the player
    backstory in the guise of a quest.

  2.  The player is introduced to two mentors, the mysterious hero
  that rescued him, and the guild- master. The cut scenes are
  designed to imbue the player with the feeling that the two mentors
  should be thanked for rescuing him, looked up to, and
  trusted. When the two NPCs assign quests the player, the player is
  more likely to internalise the quests' goals from his respected
  mentors than other NPCs. The mentor-apprentice relationship is
  further emphasised when the guild-master's voice is used to
  provide occasional tips throughout gameplay, like "Get your combat
  multiplier up."

  3.  The player is introduced to a female classmate who grows up
  along side him. A friendly rivalry exists with the classmate. It
  first shows itself during a training duel where the classmate's
  achiever-father shows up and scolds her for losing to the the
  player; this makes the player feel guilty for winning, and further
  ties him emotionally to her. She reappears later both as an
  opponent and ally. The classmate is used as a device to
  emotionally involve the player in quests, and to provide a
  non-lethal rival.

Throughout the game, there is an overriding arc of "story" that is
used to keep the player personally involved with the quests:

  1.  In Act 1a, the player gets much of his impetus to play from "I
  just paid $50 for this game and I am going to play it, damn it!"
  as well as "Look at the pretty eye candy."

  2.  The player is sustained through Act 1b by the player's goal to
  learn the game so the player can take revenge on the bandits.

  3.  About a third of the way through the game, the player gets to
  kill the bandits along with the notorious bandit leader, only to
  learn that the bandits weren't responsible for the raid. In fact,
  the evil bandit leader had actually saved his (character's)
  sister, although the leader still deserves death.

  4.  The player is allowed to wander goal-less for awhile, but is
  soon informed that his (character's) mother is alive and held by
  the real villain. The player's goal then is to rescue his
  (character's) mother.

  5.  In the act of rescuing his mother, the player (not just the
  player's character) is captured, imprisoned, humiliated, and
  tortured. The capture and jailbreak scenes do an excellent job of
  making the player dislike the villain.

    Personally, I discovered that when my escaped character finally
    got hold of his weapons, I wanted to run through the entire
    castle and kill all the guards, even though I only needed to
    kill a few to escape. Then, while running through the tunnels
    with my mother NPC following, I was much more careful about not
    letter her get injured than I was with other NPCs. (30 minutes
    previously, I had the grave digger NPC following me and actually
    wanted him to get killed by the undead, which they managed to
    do.)

  6.  The final act leads to the death of the real villain. By this
  point, the player (not just the character) is seeking revenge for
  his (character's) father, mother, sister, and village, as well as
  revenge for the humiliation/treatment that the player was put
  through in jail.

  7.  The PC edition adds a new chapter, where the the player must
  kill the villain yet again. While this extends the game, it
  doesn't work well as an intrinsic goal because the player has
  already killed the villain once, already rescued his sister, and
  already had his mother killed by the villain.

A large story-arc, that runs throughout the entire game, helps the
player sympathise with the goals of his character.  Sympathetic
goals are also used for the quests. NPCs asking for help are
friendly and appreciative of the player. Their requests are
reasonable and can only be performed by a hero. They thank the
player when the quest is completed. This is in stark contrast to
Everquest II where many of the quest givers came off as being aloof,
rude, and requesting trivial (non-heroic) jobs to be done.  While a
MMORPG can't provide a player with a family to be captured by a
personal enemy, many of the tricks used by Fable could help MMORPG
players internalise their character's goals.


Other player goals

Players also have the following goals that they bring into the game:

  -- Get more powerful - Fable is a CRPG after all, and gaining
  power is the name of the game. Monsters that were encountered in
  ones and twos early on in the game are often brought back later as
  charging hoards to show the player how much stronger their
  character has gotten.

  -- New abilities - Most CRPGs rely on a steady stream of new
  abilities (spells and feats) that the player is waiting to get. As
  a WoW druid player, for example, players first aim for
  shape-shifting ability, then cat (stealth) form, then travel form,
  etc. As I'll discuss in sub-games, Fable didn't include many of
  these milestones.

  -- I paid $50 for this game and I'm going to enjoy it - While this
  motivation exists, the game did such a good job of providing me
  (not just my character) with goals, that I found that I didn't
  have to rely upon getting my money's worth to complete the game.

  -- Eye candy - After the first 30 minutes of play, Fable doesn't
  have many new pieces of eye candy for the player. Most CRPGs (and
  movies) ration their eye candy throughout the game, producing more
  spectacular effects for higher level spells and feats. The Myst
  adventure-game series is particularly good at saving the best eye
  candy for last.

  -- Mystery and suspense - Fable often relies on some mystery and
  suspense to keep the player interested. Who killed my character's
  parents? Who is the seer that whispers in the ear of the bandit
  boss? Etc.

  -- Exploration - Fable includes some exploration elements,
  although not as much as other CRPGs.

  -- To be heroic/liked - Fable goes out of its way (perhaps too
  much) to make the player feel like hero. At first, villagers mock
  the player behind his (character's) back, but they gradually
  become more appreciative. This gives players an idea what it's
  like to be a movie star.


Sub-games

Fable relies primarily on the following sub-games:

  1.  Walking - Players spend most of their time walking. Walking
  has two variations, running and sneaking, that are sometimes
  required to complete the game; Fable included several race quests
  where walking becomes the main sub-game, as well as times where
  sneaking is required.

    I expected to have jumping and swimming sub-games to accompany
    walking, but was annoyed and frustrated by their absence. I
    would liked to have seen other variations in the walking
    sub-game, such as walking on ice (low friction), or sneaking on
    noisy/quiet surfaces.

  2.  Combat - Fable's combat is divided into three types:

    - Melee - Close-ranged combat involves clicking the left mouse
    button to attack. The right mouse button is a "flourish", which
    allows a character to do more damage after several successful
    attacks. The middle button is used for parries.

    Personally, I didn't use the parry button often because (a) my
    character was so much stronger than his enemies that I didn't
    need to, and (b) enemies usually attacked in hoards that came on
    so quickly that I only had time to furiously click the left
    button with occasional swipes at the right. Melee combat, while
    fast and furious, didn't give me the sense of being in control.

    - Archery - Bows are fired by pressing and holding the left
    mouse button. Aiming, which is required, is aided by a sighting
    view activated by the right mouse button.

    I liked the archery sub-game best because of the control, but
    used it the least because it was only practically useful for one
    or two shots before the hoard of enemies would set upon my
    character, requiring melee or magic.

    - Magic - Of course, Fable includes lightning bolts, fireballs,
    and healing spells. Fable also has some more innovative spells
    like one that slows time for enemies. As with most CRPGs, spells
    are mana based, which has design downsides. See Sub-games with
    variations.

    Magic's fun-level placed it between melee (boring) and archery
    (fun). Again, I suspect control was a factor in "fun", since I
    had several relevant spell choices at any one time, which is
    more choice/control than combat, but less than archery.

    While it's possible for characters to specialise, combat design
    seems to encourage an initial shot or two with a bow (or
    long-range spell), followed by furious left/right melee clicking
    and occasional spells such as time slowdown or healing. (Throw
    in an occasional NPC-follower to rescue.) Since every combat
    experience requires at least some melee, archery, and magic,
    combat remains interesting throughout the game, which is more
    than I can say for MMORPG combat.

    Unlike most CRPGs, combat did not evolve significantly as the
    character became more powerful. Fable uses a skill-based system
    with no skill tree, allowing characters to acquire all the
    spells and feats early on. As a character becomes more powerful,
    the spells/feats do too. However, from the player's perspective,
    they're given a lot of new toys (spells and feats) near the
    beginning of the game, and then nothing for the remainder; it's
    like having your birthday on the same day as Christmas.

    However, Fable used extensive variation in monsters and
    settings. Some variations that worked particularly well were:

    - Archery competitions - Combat against a moving dummy.

    - Rock-hurling burrowing troll - As the character leads a NPC
    out of the wilderness, a cut scene shows a troll erupt from the
    ground and hurl a stone at the PC. When the PC ducks for cover,
    the troll burries itself again until the PC exposes
    himself. This means the PC must aim an arrow at where the troll
    is buried, wait for it to come out, shoot the arrow, and duck
    before the troll hurls its next boulder.

    - Fighting the bandit boss - Two interesting tricks are used
    here. First, the arena is ringed by bandits with swords. They
    merely stand and cheer the bandit leader until the PC is pushed
    too close to them, and then they swing their swords at the PC
    doing damage. When the player manages to get away from the
    ring's edge, the bandits stop swinging. Second, the bandit boss
    can't be hit until he manages to get both swords stuck in the
    ground, which he does every 10 seconds or so.

    - Arena combat - Wave upon wave of monsters appear in an arena
    as a crowd cheers. The arena also includes damaging machines
    that are good to push monsters into.  - Invincible monsters -
    Some monsters, such as the fairies/nymphs, can only be killed
    when they're in fairy form, not when they're a ball of light.

    - Timed fights - Some combats must be completed in a fixed
    amount of time.

  3.  Leading NPCs around - Players spend a lot of time leading NPCs
  from one place to another. Fable's implimention is more fun than
  other CRPGs and MMORPGs that I've played because:

    - NPCs have a habit of walking into the middle of enemies and
    need rescuing. In a few cases, the enemies intentionally ignored
    my PC and went after the NPCs.

    - NPCs make comments about the player's ability to lead, and
    produce emotes that show how frightened they are. It's amazing
    how much the comments add to the experience.

    - There are several variations to the sub-game: Sometimes the
    NPCs will help fight. Sometimes there are several NPCs to
    lead. Sometimes the NPCs do the leading. Some NPCs must be found
    first.

  4.  Experience point management - Since Fable is skill- based,
  players need to decide how many experience points to put into a
  skill.

  5.  Inventory management - Simply put, there is no inventory
  management. Fable allows characters to carry as much as they want,
  so players never have to decide what they wish to keep or throw
  away.

  6.  Buying and selling equipment - This is a non-event too. Most
  treasure from monsters and chests is coin or health/healing
  potions. Plus, half way through the game, the character has so
  much money lying around that the player doesn't need to sell loot.

  7.  Searching - Items that can be searched or interacted with turn
  blue. As is the norm with CRPGs, searching wasn't very impressive.

  8.  Digging - Digging with a shovel is a version of searching
  where hidden items aren't highlighted in blue. It's used sparingly
  to good effect.

  9.  Stealing - Stealing uses the same mechanism as searching,
  except that players don't want their character to be seen by any
  NPCs. An icon informs players how many NPCs are looking though.

  10. Puzzles - As with most CRPGs, Fable didn't have many
  puzzles. Those that it does have include readily-available in-game
  hints.

Fable also includes some other sub-games that don't seem to "fit"
because they don't have anything to do with the goals I had
internalised, namely revenge and finding/rescuing my character's
family. These sub-games would work better in a world-like MMORPG
than a directed experience like Fable:

  -- Fishing - I didn't actually try fishing in a river, but the
  sub-game was needed to complete one quest by fishing a shield out
  of a pond. Fishing provides a simple mechanic: Don't reel in the
  line when the fish is pulling, reel it in when it stops pulling;
  not terribly exciting. For anyone that has fished, you know that
  fishing could be expanded into a sub-game nearly as comprehensive
  as combat.

  -- Character appearance - Players can find style cards that let
  them add tattoos, change their hair, buy new clothing, etc.

    The reasons why a player would want to change his character's
    appearance is:

      - Some players just like customising their character's
      appearance.

      - Good looking characters find it easier to get married.

      - A few quests require specific appearances (such as fat
      characters), or special disguises (such as wearing bandit
      clothing).

  -- Getting married - I haven't tested this one yet. If you
  consider Fable to be a game about living a life in the world of
  Albion, then the marriage sub-game makes sense. Since I was
  concerned with the goals of revenge and rescue, marriage didn't
  seem to fit.

  -- Trading - Fable includes several features that encourage
  players to trade items between merchants. These include an
  easy-to-access list of what items a merchant is looking for, along
  with automatic profit/loss tallies on items. However, the trading
  sub- game doesn't fit well in Fable because (a) it has nothing to
  do with revenge/rescue, (b) players had no limit to how much they
  could carry, (c) teleportation makes trade too easy, and (d)
  characters quickly have more than enough money to buy anything
  that players want.

  -- Gambling - Again, this is a diversion that doesn't fit into the
  overall plot.

  --  Emotes to NPCs - Players have a number of emotes that they can
  use with NPCs. Some, like follow and wait, are practical and used
  all the time. Others, like "flex muscles", can elicit a reaction
  from a NPC, such as a potential bride. Ultimately, many of the
  emotes are only warranted if the marriage sub-game is
  important. (A few quests require emotes, however.)

  --  Real estate - Property is important for marriage, and is
  another way that characters can earn money. Since money is easily
  gotten through combat, and marriage doesn't fit with the
  revenge/rescue theme, property isn't terribly valuable.

A quick comment about marriage: From the beginning of the game, I
knew that the way I'd "win" would be by killing the main villain. My
knowledge/expectation of this completely emasculated many of the
sub-games, like marriage. If the game were posed as one of
social/political manoeuvring, where dressing fancy and having a wife
at your side was a viable way to defeat the villain, then many of
the sub-games would stop being mere diversions.

A quick comment about balance: To be saleable to a non-CRPG player,
Fable is designed to be easy, handing out copious amounts of
treasure and loot. However, as I pointed out in The four pillars, if
a player can win the game using only the walking sub-game (without
using the other sub-games) then they will only every try the walking
sub-game, and then later complain the entire game was boring. The
combat sub-game provided my character with so much money and XP that
I didn't need the other sub-games to make money, like trading,
gambling, and real estate.


Choices

Fable's USP (unique selling point) is the ability for players to
choose their destiny, allowing them to play their characters as good
or evil.

Fable provides the following choices to players:

  -- Throughout the game, Fable frequently provides the player the
  choice of acting good or evil, with effects on the NPCs involved
  in the quest, minor affects in later quests, and the reactions of
  other NPCs to the character. This is well done. Unfortunately,
  being good or evil doesn't affect the larger story. (See below.)

  -- Players can choose their character's skills.

  -- Players can choose their character's weapons and
  armour. However, since most of what is different about a
  weapon/armour is its damage, choosing between weapons is as
  trivial as comparing two numbers. Some pieces of armour make a
  character look more evil, look nicer, or look scarier, which
  affects NPC reactions, particularly important when trying to find
  a wife. Since I didn't get too excited about the marriage feature,
  these attributes didn't matter much either.

  -- Players can change their character's appearance, such as hair
  styles and tattoos. Again, the same general issues exist as for
  armour; making a character look more evil, nice, or scary wasn't
  relevant. In a MMORPG, appearance would be much more important
  since it affects other players.

Fable is very weak on other choices:

  -- Movement - Fable divides the world into small maps. Most maps,
  even though they're in a woodland setting, restrict the
  character's movement to a narrow path. They do this to (a) ensure
  that players don't miss the map's content, and (b) reduce CPU
  requirements so the game can maximise graphics eye-candy while
  still running on an X-Box.

  -- Quests - Fable doesn't have that many quests, and most of the
  quests are handed out linearly, one after the other. This means
  that at any given time, players have a choice of only two or three
  different quests. World of Warcraft and Everquest II, at the other
  extreme, usually dump 10-20 quests on the player at once. Without
  any choice in quests and an over- abundant use of cut scenes, I
  often felt like I was being led around by the nose, particularly
  in the last half of the game.

  -- Ending - The player's choices (such as to be good or evil)
  don't really affect the ending or flow of the game. It's a
  tradeoff, since allowing multiple endings would either balloon the
  budget or cut into the "story" that Fable relies upon. See The
  peacock.

  -- Inventory management - Restricting the number of items a
  character can carry and limiting how much gold they have in their
  pocket ultimately leads to choice with consequences. Since
  characters in Fable can carry as much as they want and quickly own
  wads of cash, players have no choices to make.

  -- Race and gender - Players can be any race or gender as long as
  they're a male human.


User interface

The UI is atrocious. It is difficult to get around, doesn't have
enough customizable tool-bar items, doesn't use standard PC
conventions (such as "i" for inventory), and overloads the mouse
buttons. (The right mouse button's meaning changes between "running"
and "target arrow".)

Several reasons exist for the UI's failure:

  -- Trying to target non-CRPG gamers requires that the UI should
  look as uncomplicated as possible. However, Fable has gone so far
  into the looking uncomplicated zone that it's actually complicated
  to use, just as digital watches with only one button are a pain to
  set.

  -- Using the entire screen for the game is very pretty, and
  probably a necessity on low-res TV screens. In reality, a display
  with very few controls makes accessing features awkward. The Myst
  series survives with few on-screen controls because their "verbs"
  are limited, but Fable provides many more verbs than Myst.

  -- Fable: The Lost Chapters was originally an X-Box game, with a
  game controller instead of a keyboard.


Mike Rozak
http://www.mxac.com.au
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