Peter Molyneux was smarting last week from the fact that half of the people who played his studio's last game, Fable II, didn't bother with half of its depth. People didn't even change their (virtual) clothes. His fault.
Molyneux's got a plan to fix things, and to induce more wardrobe changes.
The butler will do it - or, at least, endorse it. We're talking about the Fable III butler, voiced by Monty Python's John Cleese, appearing in the game when it launches late this year on the Xbox 360.
Molyneux explained: "The butler can say, 'Sir, you are wooing this girl. I can tell you the word on the streets is that you're just a hippie,' or whatever. 'Wear this and you're going to find out it's much better.' It doesn't come across as a tutorial. It comes across as a butler. And it's John Cleese anyway, so it's naturally funny."
The butler solution being implemented by the Fable III team at Molyneux's Lionhead Studios is the latest attempt to fix a problem gamers and game makers suffer from in different ways. That problem is the neglect of parts of a game that have been toiled over but then left unexplored in the shadows. Gamers don't mess with the ability to change clothes in Fable II and X number of hours implementing a clothes-changing system in the game are essentially wasted. And the gamer misses out of something that might have been fun, interesting or even useful for their virtual quest.
"The tragedy of it is there were these machines of [artificial intelligence]all running, anticipating you changing your clothes," Molyneux recalled, reflecting on the results of Microsoft's research into how people played the hit 2008 Fable II. "You could change people's attitude of you from good to evil, from kind to cruel, depending on how you looked. All of this stuff was running ..." And people didn't use it. "We had done all this engineering but no one knew about it at all."
Molyneux dismissed the suggestion that maybe players just don't care about changing their character's clothes as they venture to save the world with guns and magic spells. He thinks they would, if they knew they could and if they knew the consequences. So he finds the fault with Lionhead. "We did an atrocious job of making people realise that you could change your clothes."
The problem propelled Lionhead to a new system of in-game menus, ditching a two-dimensional pause menu that enabled text-based clothes-changing for three dimensional private quarters through which your character can walk to find his outfits. The John Cleese butler will hang out in those quarters, suggesting the player try different outfits and, perhaps, informing them of other elements of the game that are being neglected. Molyneux showed Kotaku that navigation through this virtual chamber will be swift, as it mixes character-walking with some eye-blink-fast teleporting from room to room. (Cleese may be the announced voice actor for the butler, but Fable III gamers better hope Molyneux is the role model. A demonstration of a Fable game is always improved by his presence as he points out features, makes under-the-hood calculations sound fascinating, or, as was the case last week, overrules the other Lionhead people in the room and lets Kotaku watch a flythrough of Fable III's new and improved Bowerstone that bears the marks of urban improvement and expansion.)
The Fable III butler won't be the first video game character who is included in order to direct the player's attention to in-game stuff that matters. The fairy Navi in The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time was used by Nintendo's designers to direct player's attention. She was a welcome aid in in the first Zelda that occurred within a three-dimensional space. Various voice-in-the-ear partner characters inform players of Metal Gear or Splinter Cell what they should do to get through a game level alive. Previous helper characters, though, were seldom, if ever, included to draw player's attention to the periphery the way the Fable III butler seems made to do.
If the butler really does compel players of a big action-adventure like Fable III to change their clothes, that might be more akin to a Japanese role-playing game that convinces the average player that it is worthwhile to indulge in the game's deep but optional cooking system. Or it would be the fix that could diminish the kind of neglect for side stuff that leaves side quests in adventure game unexplored, that leaves secondary weapons in an action game unused. Imagine if all we neglectful gamers need is a nudge from a butler.
With a butler, gamers will know better. And if Fable III gamers change their clothes a little more often, everyone, from the players to the creators will be the better for it. Maybe, virtually, they'll even smell better, not that a Fable game is ever going to keep track of that.