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November 2008
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Fable II and the Henchman, too

I have played a lot of different types of multiplayer games over the years, from Super Mario Bros. to The Lost Vikings to Castle Crashers.  Multiplayer was one of the major missing pieces of the first Fable, so its inclusion in Fable II (website) must have taken a great deal of design and planning.  And it was worth it.

So I had a dinner party last night and I wanted to show Fable II to my guests.  My cat doesn’t play video games so I haven’t had a chance to try out the multiplayer before this.  I had read about it, sure, but it was still a shock to actually see it in action.  We weren’t sure how to get into the multiplayer mode, and I hate reading the instruction book, so I said, “Try pressing start.”  It’s that easy.  Player 2 gets to choose a sex and alignment while Player 1 assigns a percentage of gold and experience to each player.  In an online game with a friend’s real character – which you can also do – I’d split the gold and experience.  But this was a quick build-a-henchman, and the henchmen don’t save.  100% gold and 100% experience for me!

Seconds later we were back in the game!  It’s that fast.

The build-a-henchman starts with all my abilities.  The first friend I played with liked my mix of Will (magic) and Strength (melee combat).  The second friend unspent all my abilities and bought new ones – he’d rather be a Necromancer.

Right about then, I started thinking about how clever the game’s developers must be.  The henchman, who doesn’t save, can unspend experience points and then re-spend them.  But since he’s not a saved character, what happens to his experience points if he leaves the game?  It turns out they revert to me.  This is kind of a ridiculous exploit of a flaw in the game system, but it turns out you can get a lot of experience very fast by making a henchman, abandoning all his abilities, and quitting.

But exploits aside, this is multiplayer done easier than I think I’ve ever seen it.  Any friend can just jump in.  He (or she, but my female gamer friends don’t play this type of game) doesn’t even need a character of their own.

Now, if he does have a character – either another profile on the same machine or playing over Xbox Live – he can play with those, too!  I want more games like this.  This is what the first Fable should have been.

Since this is a post about an awesome implementation of multiplayer in the game, though, I do have to nitpick at its flaws.  I write software for a living, and I have worked on games in the past.  There is one feature that seems odd about Fable II’s multiplayer, and it strikes me as something they put in to avoid the much harder task of doing it differently: you can get Achievements if the player whose game you’ve joined gets them.  Some of the Achievements are very hard to get, so it seems odd that you can jump into somebody’s game and share his as he earns them.  This is the kind of accidental implementation detail that comes up in software design a lot: You have a robust system built on all kinds of design specifications, and then you find something that doesn’t quite fit the software you’ve been writing.  So you design a “feature” that’s a little odd, but you make it look like you did it on purpose by writing it into the wording (the Achievements end with “or see another Hero do so”).  My guess is, the method they used for the multiplayer functionality isn’t really split from the single player game, and all events are sent to both players.  One guy earns an achievement, and so does the other.  At least, I can’t figure out why they’d do this on purpose.

And even though I set the henchman to earn 0% of all the gold, whenever I’d get the periodic payout from property my character owns (currently around 4000 gold every 5 minutes), my henchman would earn 1 gold.  In consideration of my request that all gold go to me, the 12 gold he accumulated while we played seemed a little strange.

But seriously, more games should have multiplayer like this.

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