Lionhead Revisited: Memories of a Videogame Studio

Introduction

In “The Death and Afterlife of a Studio and Its Games” posted here on March 7, 2016, I blogged about the closure of legendary Lionhead Studios, creator of the Fable series of games and other acclaimed titles such as Black and White. Over one year after Lionhead shuttered, I was curious to see what the studio’s actual building had become, and if there were any material remains left over from the studio’s occupation of the building in a Guildford, England office park. Because it’s impossible for me to make the trip myself (I live in New Jersey), I asked a fellow archaeologist (who has asked to remain anonymous) to make a visit in May to do an informal survey. Below is her report. I am very grateful to her for her time and effort in following up on this real-world archaeogaming mystery.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

What Remains of Lionhead Studios

The name ‘Lionhead Studios’ has connotations of strength and gravitas—it could almost be intimidating. The name of the British video game developer was actually borrowed from co-founder Mark Webley’s hamster, a detail which I discovered during the process of researching this piece and which I couldn’t help but include. Why? As an archaeologist, my eye is caught by personal, extraneous details. Of course, the rodent inspiration for the Lionhead name isn’t particularly important as such but in terms of the history of the studio such ephemera is comparable to the abandoned material culture that still remains at Occam Court in Guildford: the contemporary archaeological site of Lionhead Studios.

Historic Background

On the 29th of April 2016, Lionhead Studios officially closed. It had been originally founded almost 20 years previously in August 1996. One of its co-founders, Peter Molyneux, had also founded Bullfrog Productions, but decided to create a new studio after it was acquired by Electronic Arts (EA) in 1995. However, Lionhead would eventually be acquired by Microsoft in April 2006, marking the same cessation of independent development that had led Molyneux and others to break away from Bullfrog and found Lionhead in the first place. A more detailed history of the studio will be explored through the results of a site visit I made to Lionhead’s now vacant office space in Guildford.

Site Visit

The Lionhead Studios office buildings, occupied up until April of last year, are situated within the Surrey Research Park in Guildford, which is run by the neighbouring University of Surrey. The area also has the somewhat unfortunate alias of ‘Teletubby Land’ thanks to its man-made hills which are reminiscent of the British children’s’ television show. Lionhead wasn’t always located here—it started life in Peter Molyneux’s mansion in Elstead. In 1998 they moved to an office in the Research Park, but on Frederick Sanger Road, not the current premises. According to Wesley Yin-Poole‘s brilliantly detailed piece Lionhead: The inside story, by the time Lionhead was working on The Movies and Black & White 2 in 2001, they had expanded their office space and taken over the top floor of One Occam Court.

I approached the park from the east, following Stirling Road until I reached Occam Road and I encountered my first (literal) signs of Lionhead.

LH1

View of subsidiary Lionhead office on Alan Turing Road.

Lionhead may have closed over a year ago, but signage directing a visitor to the two Lionhead office buildings still remains. Though not acknowledged on Google maps, there is in fact a second subsidiary Lionhead office building, as opposed to the main office at 1 Occam Court, which is situated on Alan Turing Road to the south.

LH2

Lionhead Studios signage on Alan Turing Road.

The building was unsurprisingly non-descript, save for the aforementioned Lionhead signage and a now defunct intercom and security system. A sign compels you to press the intercom for assistance, but no one will come—the building appears to be completely vacant apart from a few forlorn abandoned chairs in the foyer. The building had a Microsoft key card system, likely introduced due to the fact that the company was acquired by the company.

LH3

Defunct intercom system at Lionhead Studios subsidiary office.

panorama

Panoramic view of subsidiary building with 1 Occam Court in the distance.

I went ‘across the pond’ to 1 Occam Court, where Lionhead’s main reception was located. As indicated earlier, Lionhead hadn’t always had the run of the place—it was only after the Microsoft buyout that the company bought the lease for the entirety of 1 Occam Court.

LH4

1 Occam Court.

One Occam Court, like the subsidiary building, is a roughly ‘L’-shaped structure which has been left vacant since Lionhead closed. Unlike the other building, there were more indications that this was once the workplace of a videogame developer. The roaring lion logo still remains in frosted decoration on the front doors of the building with its own disconnected intercom system.

LH5

Main entrance of 1 Occam Court.

Much more interesting is the large mural of Fable artwork visible through one of the ground floor windows. The Fable series of third-person action role-playing games are perhaps the most strongly associated with Lionhead. The setting of the original game roughly resembles medieval Europe, with Fable II being set in the Age of Enlightenment and Fable III roughly corresponding with the Industrial Revolution. Although the mural in question was used as cover art for the first Fable game which was released in 2004, apparently it wasn’t until a few years before Lionhead closed that Microsoft decided to add game artwork as interior decoration for Occam Court. There’s some irony that artwork for the first Fable game is the most conspicuously displayed near the main reception, given that the game was actually made by the satellite developer Big Blue Box Studios. Thus, in terms of the memory of place, the Fable artwork serves as a reminder of a game which is strongly associated with Lionhead but wasn’t produced in their main office.

LH6

Fable mural adjacent to the lobby of 1 Occam Court.

LH7

1 Occam Court car park.

Moving to investigate the rear of 1 Occam Court, I found the Lionhead car park with all the relevant parking bays still marked with ‘LH.’ I discovered a small relic of Lionhead’s workplace camaraderie-a plaque on one of the parking bays nearest the front entrance was marked ‘RESERVED FOR LIONHEAD CASINO CHAMPION.’ In her piece, Yin-Poole details how during its early years Lionhead was apparently very much a ‘boys’ club’ with pranks and even canal-jumping very much a part of the employee culture. I have to admit that, as a woman, I found the idea of an incredibly male-dominated studio somewhat troubling, but to Lionhead’s credit it wasn’t afraid to attempt more diverse representation in its games. For example, in the Fable series it is possible for the player to have relationships with NPCs of any gender.

LH8

Parking bay plaque.

LH9

A potential calm retreat for Lionhead workers?

Round the eastern side of 1 Occam Court I found a tranquil, if mouldering, spot where Lionhead developers presumably may at one point have come to eat their lunch or take a break—there was even a bird box and a ‘fairy circle’ of mushrooms. It almost felt as if the fantasy world of Fable had somehow bled into the turfy edges of Surrey Research Park.

LH10

Wall art at 1 Occam Court.

On the east side of the building another piece of wall art, also from the Fable series, could be seen near a staircase. It seems rather appropriate that it should be a fantasy character holding a skull. To paraphrase Hamlet: alas poor Lionhead, we knew you well.

What remains?

The aim of my site visit was basically just to see what remained, if anything, of Lionhead Studios. As it turns out the answer to that question, at least from the perspective of someone who can’t enter the offices, is that there is both very little and quite a lot. Walking around 1 Occam Court searching for material remains of its past occupants, I felt like I was in a ‘walking simulator’ devoid of any other human presence but with some interesting environmental storytelling. One year later, the offices of Lionhead Studios are vacant. Whilst a lot of the interior furniture and equipment has obviously been cleared away, the odd bit of miscellaneous culture remains—a red umbrella rests against the wall in the lobby, a stack of chairs is entombed near the eastern staircase. All the original signage is still there, directing a visitor to a building with no occupants. In this way, the Lionhead Studios offices are ‘undead,’ a term which Maksymilian Frąckowiak, Kornelia Kajda and Dawid Kobiałka have used to describe contemporary archaeological sites in Poland which “do not simply belong to the past or the present.” This is true of any archaeological site, but as a building caught in stasis between its videogame development past and an uncertain future, the Lionhead Studios offices are particularly undead. Like the spectre of the hamster which gave the company its name, Lionhead Studios lives on, the last vestiges of the office preserved indefinitely.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks are due to Andrew for supporting the creation of this piece, and for coming up with the great idea of visiting Lionhead Studios!

Sources

Frąckowiak, M., K. Kajda, and D. Kobiałka. 2014. “Night of the Living Dead: modern ruins and archaeology.” archaeolog (online) (Accessed: 04.06.17).

Yin-Poole, W. 2016. “Lionhead: the inside story.” Eurogamer (online) (Accessed: 04.06.17).

*The title of this post riffs on the title of the novel Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945).

**The author received permission from the property owner to publish the above images on this website for academic and research purposes.

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