Learning from Fable III’s UX Mistakes

User experience design is seemingly sometimes forgotten during video game development. Contributor Philip Morton looks at Fable III's biggest UX mistakes to see what we can learn.

Fable III boxart

With so much UX work focused on websites, it can be easy to forget that the same rules we apply online are equally valid elsewhere. Videogames are a perfect case-in-point. Many of the highest profile titles, much like the highest profile websites, have issues that could be addressed by considering user experience. In this article, we’ll take a look at one such game, Microsoft/Lionhead’s Fable III.

The Fable series is focused on making role-playing games (RPGs) more accessible and easier to use. After two excellent predecessors, it might come as a surprise that Fable III is widely seen as a step back for the series. By examining the game’s user experience, three fundamental issues can be found:

  • Misuse of metaphor
  • Lack of user control
  • Over-simplification

In its quest to increase the accessibility of RPG mechanics, Fable III has instead overcomplicated some areas and oversimplified others. The resulting user experience is frustrating and leaves users bored as they struggle to navigate the disconnect between what they wanted and what Lionhead thought they wanted.

Misuse of metaphor

Perhaps the clearest example of poor user experience design in Fable III is its menu system, or rather lack of one. In most RPGs, pressing pause brings up a menu where you can view a map, inventory, statistics, and other information. Pause menus allow you to quickly perform common actions and take stock of your situation, before returning to the main game.

In Fable III, a different metaphor replaces the menu that you’d expect to find. Pausing the game transports your character to a room called the Sanctuary, where an affable butler, voiced by John Cleese, guides you around. Instead of having a traditional menu, you direct your hero around this and its adjacent rooms, interacting with various items to access the information you need.

Fable III's sanctuary

One of the rooms in the Sanctuary

Initially, this radical departure from the traditional menu system seems inspired. It reduces the feeling that you’ve left the action, while providing a retreat to from the rest of the game. However, after the first few times it becomes clear that this abstraction has a huge cost.

Before being able to access any of the commonly used features, you have to get your bearings in the room, locate where you need to go, move your character to that point, interact with an object, and only then can you view the information you want. Each of these steps requires greater mental and physical effort from the player. Over time, this becomes immensely frustrating as the need to access information trumps the novelty of not having a menu.

Tellingly, there are four quick shortcuts that transport you to each of the Sanctuary’s main areas. It seems Lionhead realized the flaws in this design and opted to fix it as best they could in the time available.

Lack of user control

Fable III‘s story has two parts: becoming king and ruling as one. Once you reach power, there’s one problem: the kingdom will be attacked in a year and you must raise 6.5 million gold to defend it. The more gold you have in the treasury, the fewer people will die.

Days until attack

252 days left, but how many will it advance once you’ve completed this list?

With 365 days on the clock, this seems doable. You’re given a set of tasks that either earns or costs you gold. The days go by and the clock advances after certain arbitrary quests are completed. However, the clock jumps from 356 days to 339, 294, 252, 121 days, and finally to zero.

Players have no idea when time will progress or by how many days. Before they know it, their plans based on the originally slow movement of time no longer apply, their kingdom is under-prepared for attack, and their citizens are heckling them in the streets.

The issue here is lack of user control, a classic problem seen frequently on more mundane websites and applications. Many web forms use progress indicators to provide a sense of control and location within a process, which works extremely well. Not including such a simple visual aid in Fable III is a fundamental and costly mistake.

Over-simplification

When designing a user experience, we often strive to make things simpler. With Fable III, Lionhead has done the same, but in the context of the game it has a negative effect.

Once you’re king, you have to make a series of decisions, each of which is presented as a choice between good and evil. Rebuild the orphanage or turn it into a brothel? Bail out the economy or let it collapse? Open a school or reinstate child labor? Occasionally there’s a middle-ground option, but often your choices are polar opposites, neither of which seem sensible.

Alt Desc

Restore an orphanage or turn it into a brothel? You decide.

Combat is limited to three buttons, assigned to melee, ranged, and magic attacks. The former becomes ineffective and the latter is overpowered, so you’ll quickly opt to use and improve a single skill. The only remaining decision you have is how long to hold down the button when attacking. Thus each battle becomes mundane, as the same tactic is universally effective, no matter the foe.

As a result, both presiding over your kingdom and defending it are simple tasks. Yet in a video game, simple tasks don’t make for engaging experiences. Players want to be challenged along the way, however mainstream or accessible the game purports to be.

Fable III is not alone

It’s easy to pick on Fable III, but it’s hardly a unique case. This is one of countless titles where priority has clearly been given to testing whether the game technically works, not whether it offers a compelling and engaging user experience.

While users may be more inclined to persist with products they’ve spent $50/£35 to use, this initial cost also means that they are more cautious about making purchasing decisions. Poor user experiences degrade trust in brands such as Microsoft and Lionhead, further reducing the likelihood that customers will buy their next games.

The video game industry can learn a lot from sectors such as retail and finance, who are aware that user experience has a direct influence on their success. This understanding is something that many video game developers are still apparently oblivious to, a situation that must change.

About the Author

Philip Morton

Philip Morton is a user experience consultant at Foolproof in London. In his spare time he runs Thunderbolt, a volunteer-run videogames website. You can follow his work on Twitter at @PhilipMorton and @Foolproof_UX.

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18 Comments

  • Leon Reply

    …and yet Fable III has a Metacritic score of 76, indicating most users have no problems with the UX and find the game very compelling. By all indications they understand their industry better than you do.

    • Philip Morton Reply

      Be careful not to mistake critics’ scores with users’ opinions. On Metacritic, for the version that has a 76 Metascore, the User Score is 5.5. On Amazon, customer reviews are also in the 3 star range.

    • Leon Reply

      To be fair, most of the Amazon complaints are about it not being Fable 2, not about missing their unmanageable inventory screens. Fable 3 went the same equipment route as Mass Effect 2, which is generally considered a huge improvement over the bottomless backpack approach that older RPG’s use. I’m not saying the game was perfect, but to claim that it wasn’t compelling or engaging is malarkey.

      The quick countdown is another discussion entirely. Changing it from a year to 5 days would have been more predictable, but it wouldn’t have made sense with the story. Some kind of turns indicator (“You have 3/5 turns left” or something) would have helped here. The thing I took away from that section is that you’re not supposed to be able to save everyone *and* be a white knight. Either you uphold your morals and sacrifice your people or you turn into your brother and save everyone by being a dick.

    • John Reply

      The other thing to keep in mind is that generally, games which are rated below 80 are considered poorly reviewed in the industry, and often suffer sales. I know Fable III sold well, but I’m not sure it sold as well as the earlier titles.

      We’ve been talking about some of these same issues internally at our design studio, and I’ve made a post or two on our company blog that touch on similar issues.

      Thanks for taking the time to share this article. I think there’s tons of low hanging fruit as far as user experience quirks are concerned in many games. It’s especially prevelent in real time strategy and rpg games, which generally have complex interactions and menus to navigate through.

      As an aside, this is one of the reasons I’m so impressed with Blizzard’s work. While not perfect, I think they put more thought into these issues while working within these problem genres than any other development house (save perhaps Valve).

    • Chris Reply

      Unless you’re frugal enough to purchase the land-ownership of the kingdom, which generates about 200,000 gold every five minutes, no, you can’t save the Kingdom.

      The whole point of the end wasn’t a dilemma of misinformation on the time allotted, it was exactly what you say, Leon, a morale dilemma. It’s a lesson in “gray areas,” showing that there is no white or black. You do good by making bad decisions, be good and destroy the kingdom, or be “good” while putting massive taxation on the kingdom in your personal ownership to generate funds. No matter what route you take, you aren’t a saint, and when you get hit with that “Day 0″ so suddenly, you realize it.

      About the only thing I disagree with in this article is the part on the countdown. I think the panic it instilled added to the first play-through. Sometimes you have to sacrifice one thing to have another, and in this case, it let Lionhead invoke a little panic in the player instead of giving the player everything they expected.

    • Grim Reply

      “Probably got a design award” comes to mind.

  • Tom Reply

    Philip, while I do tend to agree with your assessment I understand why Lionhead made those decisions. RPGs tend to be a button and key-mapping cluster f and they wanted to make it accessible to a wide variety of players and usher in other users that tend not to play RPGs.

    Interestingly enough Fable III is the title Gamefly sent me this month and I am smack dab in the middle of the game. For me personally, I am willing to sacrifice controls over an intriguing storyline and I do believe the world is beautiful.

    Good article.

  • mr_t Reply

    And while I’m at it – go read

    Kosters ‘Theory of Fun for Game Design’ before you pretend to know the goals that game designers strive towards.

  • Nick Reply

    Cool article. It makes a change to see something written about UX in regards to a video game. Keep them coming!

  • Hammertime90210 Reply

    Couldn’t agree more with this; the problem I increasingly have with the Fable games is I believe Lionhead are chasing an audience that *doesn’t exist* – casual non-gamers who want to play games like Fable.

    As a gamer, menu-less UI’s just frustrate me and make it harder for me to get to where I want to go.

    For non-gamers… I don’t think it matters how simple the combat is, or how the UI behaves. The reason non-gamers don’t play games is not – as much as many game designers would love to believe – because they’re confused by them and its a design task to fix it.

    It’s psychological; non-gamers just aren’t interested in spending their free time running around a pseudo-comedic medieval fantasy world fighting goblins, and all the streamlined UI in the world won’t fix that.

    I personally don’t think Lionhead will make an entirely satisfying game again until they realise this. To my mind, the reason the original Fable is far and away the best is because it was the one designed like a real video game, not a series of one-button-press distractions.

  • Slashman Reply

    RPGs are supposed to have a degree of complexity. It’s essentially what enables a player to take various approaches to different situations in the game.

    Mass Effect 2 worked well, not because it was a superior RPG, but because Bioware finally realized that it played much better as a 3rd person action game with light RPG elements. And ironically, they are adding back in some of the equipment customization options that were removed from ME2 into ME3.

    Finally, that same approach didn’t work with Dragon Age 2…which sold worse than Dragon Age 1 despite some reviewers having been bought off or threatened(I don’t know which) to write glowing reviews to what was a ‘decent’ game at best(yay for dumbing down).

  • Scatterlogical Reply

    Good article, and I wholeheartedly agree on every point. Add to this the framerate problems the game experiences on my more than adequate pc, and it makes for a letdown of an experience. It is a shame because it’s a beautiful game to look at, with some wonderful elements and a great premise – but one that has clearly been rushed towards the end and not properly thought through, and falls flat on its face. Personally I blame console-ization, the over-simplification and novelization of games to make them supposedly more appealing to console gamers – whom developers mistakenly seem to perceive as a bunch of drooling throwbacks, incapable of appreciating complexity in their games.

  • Slashman Reply

    That’s exactly my take Scatterlogical,

    It was written in an interview that Molyneux himself asked that the game be made easy enough for a 9 year old to play through with no difficulty.

    That kind of design decision is what is causing all games released these days to blend together into the same boring mush that everyone refers to as ‘mass-market appeal’.

    I actually sometimes feel like apologizing for having a brain and wanting to play something that makes me think harder than: ‘Oh look at the purty pictures and ‘splosions’.

  • Leigh Reply

    Interesting article/comments, I can see that there is a fine line to be trodden in this genre; when I played Final Fantasy 8 I always found that the menu was far, far too complex, with unending combinations of potions and exlirs to bind and imbue and whatnot. However, the story and gameplay was good enough that this didn’t matter and the game was still playable and very enjoyable for newcomers, while allowing players familliar with the series to make the most of these options. I think the balance between customisation and accessability that was struck in Ocarina of Time can be seen as the benchmark here based on sales and acclaim.

    I do think that one of the most heinous design crimes in video games at the minute is dumbing down: I’m not happy to hear that medic won’t be in Battlefield 3 as this will inevitably make it more CoDish; presumably the revive will be a perk and therefore rarely used [the argument for removing medic in the first place]. It also enraged me that you couldnt save more than one kit per class in BFBC2, especially after years of CoD4, and it really could have done with more flexibility on this front. Which leads me to my next point…

    The worst aspect of this dumbing down is console porting, which is unbelievably frustrating for PC gamers and gives us an inferior experience; I have a mouse/101+ keys and I know how to use them. To my mind this disregard for the market can only worsen the problem of piracy, resulting in less revenue and in turn lower overall quality. IMO console gamers should shoulder the burden of their chosen [inferior] platform; every PC has the same input methodology, every console has its own controller and games made for console always show their roots.
    While i’m bitching, I’d also like to add that DLC is another poor development in games at the minute: the way content that should have been included from the start was removed to increase revenue from Boderlands was blatant and not worth paying for.

    tl;dr no game UI/design is perfect but sequels ought to be iteratively better than their predecessor, case in point GoldenEye on N64 and Perfect Dark. Also DLC bad, console port worse.

  • Matt Reply

    And this is exactly why Valve is such a beloved Company. Listening to the Developer Commentaries in their Games it’s obvious that they have an almost unhealthy obsession with giving users the perfect user experience. Electronic Arts also seems to be taking a greater interest in the user experience when designing their new games.

  • Allan Reply

    A very good article and one that highlights the many flaws of Fable 3. Another game with a very poor interface design is Hunted: The Demon Forge. It really is terrible, given a player a change to pick up items, collect money and rare object and yet sporting no interface to actually do anything with it all.

    It is hard to understand how games companies come to such choices or how they think that it is what people “want”.

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