First, some confessions: As you might expect from the theme of this issue, I’m British. I’m also a gamer and old enough to recall the boom in the British games scene during the early ’80s. At the time, I didn’t really care where my games came from – I mainly just cared that they were good. So my first brush with a bedroom programmer was something of a surprise. After reading a review for a Sinclair Spectrum 48k text-based adventure game in a magazine, I mailed off my cash and a self-addressed envelope to the programmer’s post office address. (Like many independent designers, he produced copies of the game on cassette and mailed them out himself.) A couple of days later, a knock at the door signaled the arrival of a young teenager with my unused envelope in hand. He delivered it back to me, gave me a copy of the game and headed home – a couple of houses up the street. From that moment onward, my relationship with British games changed. Game development really was everywhere – even six doors away.
That was during the 8-bit era, a far cry from today’s million-dollar games and star-studded ad campaigns. Back then, young programmers were experimenting with the BBC Micro, the Commodore 64 and the quirky rubber-keyed Spectrum. Some of them found success: Codemasters Richard and David Darling – two brothers who were the equivalent of ’80s gaming rock stars – proudly displayed the latest Ferraris they’d purchased thanks to soaring profits from their early games. Jeff Minter was building a brave but slightly odder reputation with games that seemed obsessed with llamas and camels. The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, who went on to spearhead Blitz Games Studios in the U.K., produced top quality games at an amazing rate. Creativity in this new medium was exploding. And at the forefront of this wave of influential young British programmers was David Braben.
It’s almost impossible to talk about Braben without mentioning his seminal title, the space exploration game Elite. Although not the earliest example of such a game, Elite has earned a place in many of the Best Game of All Time lists in the 25 years following its launch. Its influence has been far-reaching: You can still find echoes of the open-ended gameplay, trading missions, frenetic combat and the pure unadulterated vastness of the game’s arena in contemporary titles. Not bad for a game that used only 32KB of memory.
For gamers at the time, having the freedom of choice to follow the rules or break them at will was incredibly liberating. Do you take important resources to a struggling fringe planet, or run narcotics to a densely populated colony? Every action had its own unique consequences. It’s ironic when you consider that these revolutionary features might have never have made it into the final game if Braben and programming partner Ian Bell had listened to early critics. “We were told by publishers at the time – before release – a great many reasons why it would fail,” he explains. “Those same reasons proved to be why it was so successful.”
It was this level of confidence that propelled British game developers to such influential positions during the 1980s. Yet Braben believes it wasn’t just a version of the British bulldog spirit that made the U.K. so important to the global gaming community. “The U.K. had a huge burst of creativity in the 1980s,” he says, “partly due to the excellent education system we had then, but also due to the very easy-to-use computers we had like the Acorn Atom and BBC Micro.” The latter platform hosted the first version of Elite, with subsequent versions appearing on other platforms, including the Nintendo Entertainment System.
“Programming them was easy, and was supported in schools and on TV. This was not the case in most other countries as far as I can see – you could only go so far with machines like the Commodore PET and Apple II, but with the BBC Micro, even the beginner’s guide included assembly language programming,” Braben says. Even gaming magazines would fill their publications with long programs and line after line of code, some to help players cheat in a title, others to help players make their own rudimentary games. “This meant that there was a huge pool of diverse people exposed to the possibility of making games, probably people that might otherwise not have thought of a career in games,” Braben continues. “Those people went on to become many of the key game developers now around the world. Sadly, many have not stayed in the U.K.”
This exodus of talent from the U.K. is clearly of great concern to industry insiders like Braben, and voicing those concerns has made some headlines. In a much quoted meeting between Braben, Fred Hasson of Tiga (the British videogame trade association) and Margaret Hodge MP, Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, the MP told Braben to “go and set up in Canada” when he highlighted how many U.K. games studios are setting up shop across the Atlantic due to the country’s generous tax breaks – an unfortunate example of missing the point. “Politicians throughout history tend to be fickle,” Braben reflects.
Far from the harbinger of doom for the British games industry that some in the specialist press have lazily portrayed him as, Braben is actually one of the most outspoken and vocal supporters of the Brit game development scene. From his offices in Cambridge, England, not far from where he studied at university and first worked on Elite, his company Frontier Developments now employs around 200 full-time staff. At the time of our interview, he was preparing for GDC, a platform where he has often promoted the value of the British game development industry. Clearly this is a bedroom developer that’s not content to live off past glories.
So it’d be wrong to purely focus on titles like Elite, especially when his studio is still at the forefront of innovation today. The digital distribution of LostWinds – one of the first title to be launched on WiiWare – allowed Braben’s team to reach a wider audience and gave him a greater degree of freedom from controlling publishers. “LostWinds was an excellent experience from the development side, so I am very happy with how it went,” Braben says. “Certainly, digital distribution did deliver for us; without it, we wouldn’t have been able to make the game as we did. Conventional distribution would require us working with a big distributor or publisher, and to recover the costs involved in manufacturing and transporting discs to every corner of the world, the game would have to sell for a lot more, and so it would be a far larger risk to be quite so experimental.”
Looking to the future, Braben’s team at Frontier is currently developing The Outsider, an action thriller that sees you accused of assassinating a U.S. President. In the studio, hopes for the title are running high. “We are looking at ways of true character interaction within a game as opposed to narrative within separate, canned cut scenes – and by ‘interaction’ I mean more than just shooting or bumping people over the head,” he explains.
And ultimately looming on the horizon is his long anticipated return to the world of Elite. (“Can you share any news on that?” I ask. “Not yet,” comes the reply). After following the franchise from Frontier: Elite II in 1993 to Frontier: First Encounters in 1995, fans are eagerly awaiting the chance to explore Braben’s worlds again. After all, a 25th anniversary would be the ideal time to dive back in. And therein lies another reason why Braben remains so important to both the British games scene and the industry as a whole: A quarter of a century on, he is still innovating, still exciting gamers, still finding new ways to get games out to the players and, perhaps most importantly, still caring enough about the industry to fight for it. Maybe the spirit of the bedroom programmer, tapping out lines of code and hand-delivering games to the customer just up the street, lives on after all.
Dean Reilly, when not meeting his gaming heroes, teaches games development to students in Britain. Find out more at www.sutcol.ac.uk.