Lionhead: the rise and fall of a British video game legend

One of the UK’s most creative studios was shut by Microsoft in April, we talk to co-founder Peter Molyneux and his staff about the end of an era

For almost 20 years, Lionhead Studios was a beacon of the UK games industry. In a medium where big budgets tend to shrink ambitions, here was a group of experimenters, inventors, and craftspeople who always produced something curious, whether that was creative oddity The Movies or the hugely successful Fable series. Formed in Guildford in 1996, the studio was independent for a decade before Microsoft acquired it. Another decade later, on 31 April 2016, the lights were turned off for the final time. Lionhead made games with big choices, and it was ended by a cruel one.

For much of its history, the studio was synonymous with Peter Molyneux, the idiosyncratic game designer who co-founded seminal Guildford studio Bullfrog in the 1990s. There, he oversaw a string of classic sim titles – Populous, Powermonger, Syndicate, Theme Park – before selling up to Electronic Arts in 1995. That publisher’s subsequent mishandling of the studio, which would flounder and then close six years later, is a foundation myth of the games industry; a stark cautionary tale on what can happen when big money meets creative genius. Usually, one of the two doesn’t make it out alive.

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