The news of the “proposed” shuttering of acclaimed Lionhead Studios by parent company Microsoft hit the Internet hard on March 7, 2016. Creator of the award-winning god-game Black and White (2001), Lionhead earned its hall-of-fame status through a series of Fable games, which attracted the attention (and cash) of Microsoft who ultimately bought the studio in 2006. The greatly anticipated Fable Legends was already enrolling people in its multi-player beta, but Microsoft scrubbed the title.
As an archaeologist, I already have questions, some of which might be answered soon as Microsoft and Lionhead work through the process of terminating the studio. From a software perspective, I am wondering what the fate of the legacy games will be: abandonware? Probably not for a while simply because of the games’ popularity. One could assume that Microsoft will continue to sell the active and legacy titles via the Xbox store. Black and White is another matter, the title having been developed for PC and Mac 15 years ago and is increasingly hard to find outside of occasional listings on eBay and Amazon. The game is still under copyright but could end up as an orphaned work on an abandonware site.
Second, I am curious as to what will happen to the never-to-be-finished Fable Legends. I’d say it’s likely that Microsoft will mothball its intellectual property much like a film studio will save an unreleased film, doing so either permanently, or holding the title until it decides the time is right to resurrect it with another developer. The feasibility of that seems doubtful though, bringing on a new team to go through someone else’s code. I would love to know if/how Microsoft plans on archiving Lionhead’s games.
Going one step beyond, I would also love to know if/how Microsoft plans on archiving Lionhead Studios itself, its email, its files, and its physical ephemera (writing, art, storyboards, etc.), and bits of its corporate culture. Lionhead started small, but grew to around 100 employees by the time Microsoft broke the news about Fable Legends. What artifacts will remain with Microsoft, and what will Microsoft absorb from Lionhead? How will Microsoft make those decisions? What is necessary to keep and why?
Speaking from a more traditional archaeological perspective, what will happen to the physical space that once housed Lionhead Studios? The building is situated on Occam Road about a quarter-mile from the University of Surrey in Guildford. It is roughly two miles away from Hello Games (No Man’s Sky). [Apropos of nothing, Guildford was also the rumored town of Ford Prefect of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame.] The three-story building screams “university research park” with its clean lines, relatively recent construction, and mirrored windows. The building should have no trouble finding new tenants ready to move in to a space with enough IT infrastructure to enable the computing/data needs of a Galaxy-class starship.
It would be interesting to visit the building on Occam Road one year following the departure of Lionhead, and again five years after to talk to the current tenants about the building’s history. Architecture has its own kind of memory, so what ghosts will Lionhead leave behind? One could also ask the question of whether or not this building is important when considering the output of Lionhead Studios under the Microsoft banner. Can we separate space and structure from the resulting intellectual property? The building is certainly a part of gaming history in the fact that Fable titles were produced here, but that importance is dwarfed by the artifacts of the games themselves, from the pre-alpha versions to the finished, patched, latest/final editions.
With this kind of nondescript, non-distinct architecture, one might feel a sense of “who cares”, but the space is imbued with history nonetheless. When considering the archaeology of Late Capitalism and of the recent past, these buildings are the norm, not the exception. We archaeologists are faced with corporate designs built for a technology-enabled, fast-moving culture with a demand for huge amounts of data delivered at light-speed in a comfortable, well lit space. It communicates something different than classical structures that were themselves their own message and monument. I doubt we’ll see tourists at what was Lionhead Studios, but that should not diminish the importance of place in the history of game design.
It might be that in a corner office somewhere someone (or many people) left written evidence of this past occupation not necessarily for others to find, but for themselves, to give closure, a farewell from the occupants to the reliable structure they had occupied for years, a thank-you, a remembrance, that will likely be painted over before the next generation moves in, oblivious.
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming