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Interview - From Outsider To Elite: In Conversation With David Braben

October 17, 2005
 

David Braben, a 23-year veteran of game development, last month won the Development Legend Award at the Develop Industry Excellence Awards in London, in honor of his long and storied career in the video game industry. In 1984, alongside colleague Ian Bell, Braben co-wrote Elite, one of the first 3D home computer games ever created, and such a complex, addictive title that it left its 'mostly harmless' mark on the game community, many years before 3D gameplay and open-ended questing became commonplace.


David Braben

Other games Braben lists on his resume include seminal filled-3D title Virus (1988), as well as more contemporary titles such as Dog's Life, Wallace & Gromit in Project Zoo, the latest Roller Coaster Tycoon title (in association with series creator Chris Sawyer), and the just-released movie adaptation, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Braben now heads Frontier Developments, a game studio in Cambridge, which recently announced that it is developing two new projects: "high-tech thriller" Outsider, to be available on consoles in 2006 (he chides the term “next-generation,” opting for the more specific “fifth generation”), and a new expansion pack to the consistently popular Roller Coaster Tycoon.

Thargoids & Canines

About his beginnings in the field, Braben says he first got a computer and was enamored with working on 3D graphics, which were at the time extremely rudimentary compared to what they are today. But most importantly, they were completely novel. He turned down his first game job offer with Thorn EMI because he had been planning to attend university and had just been accepted to Cambridge.

A few years later, when Elite was eventually made, Braben pitched the game to EMI, who promptly turned it down. “I got the most amazing rejection letter,” Braben told Gamasutra in a phone interview last month. “They said, ‘It has no score. It takes more than three minutes to play. You need a cassette player'—because back then games were on cassettes. They were rejecting it because it was different. It was successful because it was different. There's some irony in that.”


Three years before Nintendogs there was Dog's Life.

In 2003, almost 10 years after Elite, Braben made another title that was, arguably, ahead of its time. Commissioned by Sony Europe, the 'dog simulator' Dog's Life, which let the player navigate the game world in a special 'smell-o-vision' mode that color-coded scents, was released to positive, if sometimes quizzical 'hardcore gamer' reviews. Nonetheless, it won Most Innovative Game award at the 2003 Leipzig Game Convention and was nominated for two BAFTA awards. Unfortunately, it was only mildly successful in the marketplace, which Braben attributes to poor marketing.

“I was really disappointed with the way Dog's Life was pushed,” Braben said. “It was a first-party Sony title and they saw it as a niche game and didn't push it. We signed with Sony Europe--didn't go with Sony America--and they just sold it as a conventional game.”

With the right marketing, a game of this style can succeed (even wildly so), Braben suggests, as evidenced by Nintendogs. “We were three years earlier than Nintendogs. Sony Germany did push [Dog's Life]” and it was successful there, he said. “It's so out of the ordinary, it needed the right marketing. Hats off to Nintendo for doing it so well.”

Britsoft Forever?

When asked about the state of British development, Braben is bullish. “We've got a huge history of innovating,” Braben said of the U.K. development scene. “Look at [the North American] NPD [charts]. Often, about a third of the games on those charts are developed in the U.K., even though it's not always apparent.”

Still, Braben sees a streak of pessimism surrounding the U.K. from the larger game development society. “There's a lot of negative talk around. There are conspicuous collapses in the last year or so, for example, Argonaut.” Additionally, he “finds it very strange” that Europe at large doesn't have as much game development as the U.K. specifically. “Most of the developers I know are in the U.K., not mainland Europe. There's a small group in Holland, a small group in Germany, but beyond that there's very few.”

Whether on the continent or in England, location does affect development, Braben contends. “In theory, it shouldn't. In practice, it does. In Cambridge, we're at the doorstep of one of the best universities in the world. We've got very good graduates coming straight into the company.” And with the new technologies that are emerging, “we need new blood, new ideas,” he said.

Frontier's blessing of being so close to Cambridge University is two-fold. For one, the types of graduates who come out of that environment tend not to see limitations and “don't know what's not possible.” Second, Cambridge is an attractive place to live, so many of the graduates want to stay there. “It's very close to London, and in fact it's often faster to get to London from here than from the other side of London.”

“Talent begets talent, if you know what I mean,” he said, citing the congregation of developers in certain locales, especially those like Cambridge who draw talented people in for reasons other than gamemaking specifically. The state of the hotbed is further stimulated as new companies spring up, allowing talented developers to shift from one
company to another. Individuals need ample opportunities to expand their careers, and companies need the talent to stick around.

“I'm surprised there are relatively few [game developers] in Massachusetts,” Braben mentioned, suggesting that development studios would want to take advantage of the brains attracted to and emerging from both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. As game technology progresses and matures, development
studios will have to rely more and more on the originality and competence of these human resources, but also on the process and production of games as they're made, including what's in the developer's toolbox. “In the future, we've got to be very smart about how we work. Since 1995, we've been writing games with basically the same engine,” building off of it and changing it so that now, none of the old pieces exist. “But there's commonality going back,” Braben said.

The Final Frontier

Frontier has 100 full-time employees, plus contractors for audio, writing, and other divisions. “We're very efficient with how we make use of our people,” Braben said, adding that Frontier has managed to ship “40-odd different SKUs on time … consistently and on time” and thus has a clean track record with publishers, which allows the company to continue adding new gigs to the schedule. At any one given time, the
company is working on three big projects, he said, plus a number of smaller ones, such as expansion packs and mobile games, another important feature of the company's business plan—diversification. “If all you've got is large bricks, you'll have lots of gaps in between,” he said.


Frontier's recently shipped Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Yet, Braben still remembers the time before he worked in such a large-scale environment. “It's positive working by yourself, but it's also very destroying,” he said. A career as a solo game developer is possible, but only on certain types of games, such as Lumines and Tetris-like games. However, working alone isn't as practical anymore, since consumers expect a certain amount of content—many times over what games contained in the 1980s. Braben, possibly thinking aloud, asked one fundamental, possibly rhetorical, question on this front: “Are people buying correspondingly larger games?” — corresponding to the size of the team that it took to make them? Corresponding to the investment made on behalf of the game's development?”

“What we've tried to do is a broad range of titles. Licensed IP is difficult.” Braben's opinion of working on licensed properties stems somewhat from Frontier's relationship with Aardman Animation, the company that owns Wallace & Gromit. “You're looking after someone else's babies when you're working with licenses,” he said. Frontier recently shipped the game tie-in to the new feature film, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, published by Konami and available for current-gen console platforms in Europe and the U.S.

Braben admits that working directly with Aardman was an enjoyable experience, especially because the Wallace & Gromit characters translate well to game characters. “Not all licenses are right for games,” he says. There are different risks and rewards, and the developer's goal is to find a successful balance of work.

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