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Project EGO (Fable) [XBOX – Beta]


Originally developed under the name Project EgoFables development involved more than 150 people. The game’s music was composed by Russell Shaw, with the opening title theme written by Danny Elfman. The game’s release was widely anticipated, due in part to Lionhead co-founder Peter Molyneux‘s enthusiastic hype of the game. The game was originally in development for the Dreamcast, but was moved to the Xbox due to the system’s discontinuation.

Fable is an Action RPG developed by Big Blue Box, a satellite developer of Lionhead Studios, originally published by Microsoft for the Xbox in 2004. Originally developed under the name Project Ego, Fable’s development involved more than seventy people. The game’s release was widely anticipated, due in part to Lionhead creator Peter Molyneux’s enthusiastic hype of the game.



Many of the features promised for Project Ego were never implemented: the original concept was to give the player total freedom on the game’s world, but the final game was instead very limited. A cooperative multiplayer mode was planned too, but it was later removed. Most of the places seen in the early screenshots were removed from the final game or heavily changed.



Big Blue Box wanted to create a time system in which seasons and years  would pass according to the game’s time, making our character to age and the world to change according. This hyped time-system was completely removed. The main character does age in the game, but after a cutscene and not following the game-time.


“It all really started with a game called the Entrepreneur, which sold two copies. Both to my mother, unfortunately.” — Peter Molyneux, driving force behind Project Ego


The story
The premise of Project Ego is based on one of the oldest motivations: Revenge. As a fifteen year-old lad, you’re sent off by your folks to run an errand. When you return, they’ve been kidnapped. Yay! Now you have the house all to yourself, right? Well, it’s not all sunshine, as the bastards who stole your parents nailed the dog to the front door. Sure, they can take your parents, but no one leaves Fido swinging from the doorknocker.

At that point, you take full control of your character. And when Big Blue Box says you get full control, they mean it. Your quest will likely take you from the tender age of fifteen until your middle-ages. While most RPGs occur over the span of a few days or weeks, Project Ego will last much of your character’s lifetime.

The journey will take you through many twists and turns as you work to solve the mystery of your parents’ disappearance. Eventually, the story grows so large in scale that it becomes your mission to save the entire world. By the end of the game, assuming you succeed, you’ll be known as the greatest hero of all time. Or, should we say, greatest male hero of all time, as there’s no option to choose the stronger gender.


“It’s really, principally, Big Blue Box’s vision. I’m just there as the aggravating bastard that comes in and says, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be cooler if you did this or cooler if you did that?'” — P.M.


The way things used to be
Back in the old days of last week, RPGs tended to share some common limitations. The first, and probably worst, is that characters are predefined. Either you have to choose your class (magic-user, fighter, thief, or what have you) when you first start the game, or it is thrust upon you from the outset. You also can’t really affect your character’s behavior. Sure, there are some yes or no type questions thrown into the mix, but they rarely (if ever) change the course of the game or an NPC’s long-term reactions to the protagonist.

The environments you visit, the cities and the people, don’t change much over the course of your standard RPG. Only when it works with the plot directly (like the whole town gets fragged by Uber-Evil Demon #9) will the town and people be affected. Sometimes there’ll be a side quest you can do to make an NPC a little happier. But even that feels predetermined.



RPGs tend to cover a very short time frame. Often just a matter of days or weeks. Very few take the course of a lifetime. And really, when you think about it, shouldn’t saving the world force you to miss more than two episodes of Survivor?

Most RPGs offer little in the way of open-ended gameplay. You are usually forced to stay within the lines and don’t have much freedom in choosing whether you want to take a task or not, or how you want to go about saving the world. And to top it off, there are some pretty poor rewards for your efforts on side-missions. You may spend five hours doing some ridiculously hard task, just to get a new sword barely more powerful than the last.

Though occasionally an RPG will break free of one or two of these limiting factors, none have broken free of all of them. And if you say EverQuest, you will be bonked. What all this means is that no RPG has ever truly felt like a living, breathing entity. Again, if you say Everquest, you will be drawn and quartered and your body parts will be dispersed to the four corners of the internet. What’s this have to do with Project Ego, exactly? Ego’s goal is to be the first RPG to break all of these standard parameters and be the first, true, immersive RPG universe.


“The first computer game I ever played was called Wizardry 1… and I can remember I had it on the Apple IIe. And I believed it was a totally massive, incredible world… This game was so incredibly compulsive for me, that for the first time, of many, many times to follow, I actually stood my girlfriend up at a pub.” — P.M.


Reactive World Simulation
The principle idea behind Project Ego is that players can do what they want. But what they do will affect the characters around them, and will affect the player’s character as well. The world reacts to your actions, meaning that you can’t just wander around town slaughtering people and then expect a merchant to sell you jerky.

NPCs will take note of a character’s eccentricities and react accordingly. If you strip down to your undies (currently Union Jack skivvies, but that will be localized) and wander into a pub, everyone will look at you. Some will laugh, others may point. None of them will have a normal conversation with you. And hey, walk into the wrong bar and you could recreate a famous scene from Police Academy.

As you go through the adventure, gaining notoriety for your deeds, you’ll become an idol to others. Kids will cut their hair like you and even get tattoos to match your own. But you aren¿t the only hero in the world. There are other heroes, who are basically your rivals. Kids are fickle, and they can easily latch on to another hero. So, one day you may stroll into town and find every kid looking like your rival. What are you, chopped liver? Yes. This is partly to reflect your progress in the game, but also to motivate players to continue on with the story instead of spending a lifetime dillying and dallying.

Don’t get the wrong idea that just because you are a hero means you have to be good. Yes, you are going to be the greatest hero of all time by the end of the game. But that doesn’t mean you have to be nice about it. You can be a real jerk to everyone and anyone and still save the world. But how you act will change how the world reacts towards you.

Not enough to convince you of how intelligent this game may be? Well, let’s say you are a mean cuss and one day you cut a kid. That cut will become a scar and if you return to that town twenty years later, that kid will have that same scar and a serious hate-on for you. Or maybe you’re more into plant mutilation. Carve your name in a tree and it will stay there through the years.

And what would a true hero be like without followers? He’d be like all those heroes from those old RPGs of yonder years. In Project Ego, as your acclaim grows, so will those eager to follow your exploits. Followers are an inquisitive and eager bunch and will hassle lazy heroes. They want to see you do something cool. Go kill something and impress them. They’re also helpful in reminding a character of the task they are working on. Something that will come in handy when you’ve been away from the game for two weeks and can’t even remember which town that kid you cut lives in.


“Occasionally… you have to run away from that big dragon because you haven’t got the big stone to hit him with. And sure enough, you’ll walk past the bar, and you’ll hear the song from the bar. And if anyone’s seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, they may remember the ‘Brave, Brave, Sir Robin’ sketch.” — P.M.


You are what you eat… sort of
The choices you make in Project Ego will not only affect the world, but your character as well. Character development in RPGs has always been about raising stats and improving your weapons, armor, and spells. Ego takes this a step further. Your character will actually be defined by the actions you take. If you make a habit of running away, your character will begin taking on the traits of a coward, with a pronounced facial tick to boot. Molyneux calls these types of changes morphs. There are four types of morphs in the game: Physical, Class, Morality, and Style.

Physical
How you interact with the world physically will shape your body accordingly. So, if you run a lot, your leg muscles will get stronger. Lift heavy objects or swing a big sword and your arm muscles will bulge. Heck, you can have massive pythons like Hulk Hogan if you work at it. Hang out in the sun all day and your skin will tan. Spend too much time in the sun and your skin will wrinkle and age faster.

I was able to see this aging process first hand, and I must say, it was pretty impressive and very realistic. The character developed crow’s feet, deeper furrows on his brow, and bags under his eyes from stress. Also, if you get cut badly, the wound will scar and stay with you the rest of the game. Cut scenes will help show a character’s physical development. One of the cooler effects is when magic users eyes begin to smoke after gaining sufficient power.


“If he’s using a really big sword, his right arm will get stronger. Not for the normal reasons your right arm gets stronger.” — P.M.


Class
Rather than choosing to be a thief or a fighter, how you play the game determines what you are. If you go hand to hand a lot or lift heavy objects to impress women, you’ll start looking like Conan the Barbarian (as opposed to Conan O’Brien). Hide in the shadows, dodge a lot of attacks, sneak up on folks, and you will start to resemble a thief. Use your willpower, which is how your magic works, and you’ll become more and more like a mage. Magic slowly saps your life force, so the more you use it, the quicker you age. As a mage, you’re more likely to be frail, but to show your intelligence your hair will recede so you’ll better resemble Peter Molyneux (his joke, not mine).

Morality
Morality works similar to Black & White. Basically, if you are a real piss, you’re gonna be seen as a bad guy. If you are helpful and kind and don’t go around buggering farm animals, you’ll be received as a benevolent hero. But the choice is yours. And it won’t be a simple choice of ‘I will be evil’ or ‘I will be an angel,’ it’s all dependant on your many actions. Perceptions can change as you work your way through the game. So, theoretically, you can be a jerk when you’re 20 and redeem yourself before the end of your quest.

Style
What would an RPG stressing freedom be without the ability to dress your character? Boring. Well, Ego won’t be boring at all. Anything you see in the game, you can wear. In fact, you can strip to your undies and run around town like an idiot, if you want. But, that won’t do much good for your image. Along with clothes, tattoos will be fully customizable, as will facial hair. I’ve already decided my hero will be Elvis. It just can’t be passed up. Now how is Project Ego sounding? Good. Oh yes. And there’s still more to tell.


“You are a hero and you should be able to style your hero any way you like. You can wear any of the clothes that you see in the world. So if you particularly like that shade of purple of that woman’s dress, absolutely you should be able to wander around the world in a woman’s dress. And sure enough, the world will react to you.” — P.M.


Story balance
One of the things Molyneux learned from Black & White is that a game needs some form of clear, linear story to propel it along. Otherwise, eventually, the novelty of doing whatever you want wears off. So a balance must be created between linear story and the freedom to roam.

Ego features a linear story, which means there are major events that will eventually be encountered, but has a myriad of story arcs that branch off from the main story. Players can choose whether to take these side quests or not. In other games, the side quests usually don’t offer much pay off. But in Project Ego, the time put into a side quest will be matched by the reward. There are both short term and long terms goals to consider when playing Ego. Ultimately, it’s the player’s choice whether they even want to try and finish the quest.

The balance of long and short term goals allows for a set storyline to be the backbone for a more independent adventure. And the expansive timeframe of the game allows for some pretty dramatic events. There’s even the possibility your character could wind up in jail for some time. That down time would be sped up considerably, so you aren’t just wasting away real time watching your character sit in a cell.

The interface for Project Ego will be very simple. Right now that interface is being redesigned, but it will not be complex in any way. All of the complexity is saved for the monster game AI. The hope is to give players a comfortable and easy experience so they can fully focus on the massive world in front of them. With such a massive world, there will be plenty of items and weapons to find. This won’t be nearly as daunting as it seems, since important objects in a room will be pointed out to you with either arrows or highlighting. This will help you avoid the Shenmue syndrome of opening eight dozen drawers to find the one drawer with anything useful in it.


“I would love to use every single button on this controller and make it really, really complex. But, most people [who] are going to play this game are going to be half-drunk when they come back from the pub. I’d love to have their full attention, but they are going to be stabbing the keys of this joypad pretty lamely. So, it’s going to be a very, very simple interface.” — P. M.


Competitive Gameplay
As if all this weren’t enough, there is plenty more to separate Project Ego from the rest of the RPG pack. Isn’t it a bit strange that in most RPGs, you and your group of buddies are the only heroes in the entire world? To simulate a real environment as much as possible, Ego is filled with other heroes. And not all of them will be happy if you steal the spotlight. You may even find you have to defend yourself against a band of heroes looking to knock the rising star from his pedestal. Get too lackadaisical and Gregg the Destroyer will save the princess while you’re sitting on your growing posterior.

Though it may not make the final game, the current hope is to allow alliances with other NPC heroes. That way, if you can’t defeat the mighty minotaur on your own, you can grab another aspiring hero and split the reward after you’ve split the minotaur’s head. Of course, other heroes will be competing with you, but you’ll also be competing against them.


“The world [in most RPGs] is a static place. It’s a scripted place. I don’t know if any of you, like me, have gone up to characters in some games and just done the most obscene things in front of them and they’ve still said, ‘Go to the Golden Globe, it’s where you’ll seek your fate.’ And, you know, you’ve just stabbed their youngest child.” — P.M.


Arm yourself, buy a house, and marry that pretty girl from the pub
Love, in RPGs, is as predetermined as who your character will be. Love is simply a plot device, and often not used all that well. That emotion doesn’t seem to be integral to the main storyline, because Project Ego gives you the freedom to get married and have kids. It’s another one of the many options you get to choose. Do you really want to be sidelined with a wife and a bunch of screaming children? Or maybe that will just push you on with your adventure.

Wealth will not only buy you weapons and armor, but can be used to buy most anything you would in normal life. A house, for example, could be yours for the right price. And it would be a good thing to buy, seeing as how the wife and kids are always complaining about sleeping on rocks. The weapons used in the game will be empowered by the gameplay. While you may still hunt for the ultimate sword of destruction, your own weapon can become legendary by your acts. And since a frying pan is apparently a usable weapon, it may be possible to save the world with your legendary frying pan. Ah, the perfect weapon for my hero, Elvis.


“Another thing you can do as a hero, and this is going to seem a bit strange for a role-playing game, you can chat up women. You’re a hero. I mean, if you can’t get women as a hero, well then when can you do it? What’s the point?”


No ugly duckling
It’s all fine and dandy to have a revolutionary RPG, but who wants to play a game for 100 hours if it looks like the girl no one asked to prom? Don’t worry, Ego won’t be lacking in the looks department. Yes, this baby will have personality and looks. I was fortunate enough to see a small bit of gameplay and a demo, illustrating some of the world.

First off, the environments are beautiful. You can count each individual blade of grass. There were people camping out in the wilderness and smoke from the campfire moved to the east, in the direction of the wind. There was a lot of variety in the little details, such as small patches of daisies and different types of vegetation. One cool area features tall stalks of grass nearly the height of the main character. And each blade moved with the breeze. There were even blue butterflies flittering about in the fields.

The towns look authentic. I actually spied some uneven bricks in the foundation of a wall where too much mortar had been laid. What Big Blue Box has done best with the environments is kept them from looking too clean. Towns really look alive with their own history. Project Ego looks like its own world.

There was only a short snippet of animation to be seen. Since the animation is being overhauled, I won’t get too much into how that looked, because it will look quite a bit better than it did, according to Peter Molyneux. There should be some humor in the game, which was displayed when our hero stripped to his tightie whities and walked inside a building, only to be met with a shocked look from a resident. As far as the character models go, the game is definitely headed in the right direction. There’s scores of detail in the clothing and, more impressively, the expressive faces.

Where it stands now
The engineering side of Project Ego is essentially done. What remains is balancing the game, tweaking the fighting, and finding the right mixture of linear story and free-roaming adventure. Don’t expect Ego this summer, though. There’s still months of testing ahead and the animations need some fine-tuning. But the game will come out, eventually. My guess would be by the holidays.

As far as quality goes, Big Blue Box is hiring premiere voice over talent and claims to have stellar writers working on the story and dialogue. There will literally be thousands of hours of game testing, because there are so many variants to the world and so many places something could go wrong.

There are a few things Big Blue Box has to worry about. The integration of the storyline with a reactive world simulation will be difficult. You might face a challenge when you are seventeen years old or, if you toddle about the world, you could face that challenge when you are thirty. With such a massive story to tell, and with so much freedom, the developers are challenged to maintain the emotional context of the story. Because if the story doesn’t have an emotional impact, it won’t resonate with the player ten years down the road. And when you claim an RPG will be the best ever, it needs to resonate for years to come. By its very nature, a vast sim world is a chaotic system. Player freedoms could make balancing a nightmare. And really, when all is said and done, it’s the game’s balance that will determine how great it will be.

“It is Xbox only. One of the reasons is, we simply need the power of that machine. And also, it’s a simulated world, and we need to keep track of the world on a second by second basis.” — P.M.


Outlook
How can you read all that and not be impressed? Yes, Project Ego is ambitious. If Big Blue Box pulls off everything they are hoping for, this may very well be the greatest RPG of all time. But, assuming that everything detailed in this preview comes true, there are still some question marks for Project Ego. First, there’s no information on the specifics of how combat will work in the game. It will be somewhat simple, since the interface is simple as well. But will it be as simple as combat in EverQuest? I’d hope not quite so tedious and boring. (Yes, please flame me now.)



As great as this concept may be, it will be a disappointment if the story sucks. All indications are that great care is being taken to construct a mammoth and intricate storyline. But if it is just the same ho-hum stuff we’ve seen in every other RPG, will the extraordinary nature of the design be enough to make it a classic?

The biggest question mark is on game balance. If a balance isn’t struck properly between the linear story and the players freedom, the game could fall apart. Either the player won’t be compelled to complete the quest, and may eventually get tired of the novelty of the game or, on the other ended, the player could be frustrated because they don’t have as much freedom as they like and feel forced to continue a quest before they desire.

With a game on this large of a scale, there’s a lot that could go wrong. But Big Blue Box seems determined to put out only the best game possible. So if Project Ego gets delayed, which could happen, don’t be too upset. It just means the game won’t be released until it’s at its absolute best.






“I’m now going to say a bold, bold claim, which you are going to throw back in my face, time and time again. And this is a stupid thing I’m going to say, and I don’t know why I’m going to say it, but I’m going to say it anyway. I reckon that Project Ego is going to be the greatest role-playing game of all time. Which is insane. I could say the second greatest, I could say quite good, I could say, hmmmm it’s quite nice, but I’m going to say greatest game of all time.” — P.M


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