David Braben has been an elite game designer since 1982. His first hit was Elite in 1984, and the followup Frontier in 1988. After founding Frontier Developments in 1994. The company has released several games since then, but is finally going back to its roots with the successfully Kickstarted project Elite: Dangerous, which came out in January.
We sat down with Braben to talk about his history and why the Elite franchise is important to him and its fanbase.
The Escapist: Trading-based games have been popular for a long time, and even before graphics became an important part of the equation, there were games like Taipan. Did any of those games have any influence on your original conception of Elite?
Braben: No, they didn’t. I was quite naïve of games at that time, and most of the games I played were on the Acorn Atom. That was what I had, and most of the games for it were various arcade rip-offs and they generally weren’t very good. They were games like Defender and Pac-Man, obviously called different names, but the game mechanics were much the same. And they all felt very samey, they all had very short playtimes and things like that. But I also played games like Philosopher’s Quest and Colossal Cave Adventure. You probably know the two of those, they were text adventures.
I thought it was intriguing that they had such rich progression. I loved the rich description and detail. Nowadays, they’d be seen as quite trivial, but at the time, I thought that there was a richness there that you didn’t get in games like Space Invaders or Galaxian. That’s what started me thinking about what sort of games I would most like to play. I also remember there was a type-in game called Star Trek. Obviously, it was nothing like Star Trek, but you had an array of cells, you could select which cell you wanted to go to, and there might be another ship there that you fought. I never actually had it on my computer, I played it on someone else’s Apple ][. It was a very simplistic game, but it was those sorts of games, from my perspective, that affected my thinking. Because Elite, when it was originally conceived, was a fighting game with spaceships fighting each other.
When I first met Ian, I showed him what I had. He was working on another game, called Freefall, which came out from Acornsoft. I was on an Acorn Atom, which by then was seen as a dying platform because the BBC Micro had already been out for six months. The trading was seen as a way of validating the combat, really.
The Escapist: So it was more an excuse to keep the story going rather than the focus of the design.
Braben: I think what happened was that at the start, I only had four different ships. Ian and I had a really good discussion, trying to figure out what would make us care about our ship to not just fight to the death. I remember thinking that in playing a game of Galaxian, why on Earth do I have just one ship against so many? Why don’t I run away and pick them off one by one? How could you get that mechanic in the game, because it would be so much more engaging? A little bit of intelligence on the part of the player would greatly help to make it more interesting.
The Escapist: It sounds to me like you’re saying that storyline and the player motivation that flows from it had a significant effect on your design.
Braben: Oh, absolutely! Design is about engaging with the player. With any game, I want the player to care about what they’re doing. Whether it is because they are making something beautiful or shooting down enemies, a little bit of thought gives you an edge in the game. And games that do that are the games that I, personally, engage most with. Progression isn’t just managing to survive in Defender for three minutes instead of two-and-a-half minutes and maybe getting as far as the green level where you get your people back. I played Defender a lot and I really enjoyed it. What really interested me was that there was a little bit of story that involved rescuing the people. It was one of the first arcade games that I saw that had some variation in the way you played it. You could choose to play the game and focus on rescuing the people, or you could even shoot the people yourself and bring on some changes and cause the landscape to go away and all the landers mutate all at once. I thought that’s quite an interesting way to play it, there’s a sort of hidden score here. I know there is a bonus at the end of each level but I did like the way how you played affected the outcome.
The Escapist: It’s interesting to see how role-playing games affected the development of one of the more famous trading and fighting games. How did Star Raiders affect your thinking?
Braben: It didn’t. I know that’s surprising, but the problem is I didn’t have an Atari and none of my friends did. I didn’t know anyone who had an Atari. It’s one of those computers I aspired to because I heard it had 4,096 colors and I thought, wow!
The Escapist: Mind-blowing graphics!
Braben: But the Atari was much more expensive. Don’t forget, I was at that point a poor aspiring student. I couldn’t even afford a BBC Micro, which I eventually got from taking the early version of Elite to Acorn with Ian. You end up with your choice of games being very narrowly selected by the hardware you’ve got access to.
The Escapist: You mentioned how narrative and story can affect design, but I’m sure you recall that when you went to Frontier: Elite II, you incorporated a different physics engine. How did that technological change also affect your design process.
Braben: Moving to Frontier, it was just me working on it. There were a lot of things I wanted to do, and I wanted the game to be set in a much more realistic galaxy, so that was one of the things I took some time on. And also, I thought we could do so much more with the graphics so I spent a lot of time on them as well. Ironically, the first two or three years was spent working on the engine and getting it working well. That was one of the times I resolved that I’m not going to do this again. By that I mean, I didn’t want to work on my own, because I felt the world was moving so quickly that the beauty of that particular engine I’d engineered, which was finished in 1988, didn’t get to see the light until five years later. It was really advanced back then, but …
The Escapist: But when it takes too long to develop, you get caught out and it looks outdated.
Braben: That’s right, and it’s slightly galling because machines were getting better. I started that right in the early days of the Atari ST and the Amiga, because the PC wasn’t really a viable platform. But by the time the game shipped, the PC had become the viable platform. One of the problems was that the PC existed, but even CGA graphics were not on a very large percentage of them. You had to have a separate graphics card and it was very expensive. It was only by the early 90’s that the PC started to be a possibility for games, then the launch of EGA meant you could actually choose the colors rather than having pink, white, and magenta. Or red green and yellow, when you couldn’t have anything in white.
The Escapist: What I meant by my question, though, was that in the original game you had an arcade model, whereas you had more of a true physics model in Elite II. For some people that was actually less popular. Were you pleased with how it turned out or did you feel that you permitted the technology to take over the design?
Braben: No, the problem is that I was hoping it would feel similar. But what happened is that the sheer development effort got the better of me. I originally signed with Konami, so there were lots of difficult issues because Konami decided to pull out of PC games. They handed it over to GameTek without my permission, so there were a whole lot of admin things to be done that I hadn’t anticipated. It meant I didn’t get a proper chance of testing and playing the game, so it really didn’t shine the way it should have.
The Escapist: I thought the difference between the flight models of the two Elites was interesting in how it is echoed in the discussions online between the easier flight model in Elite: Dangerous versus the more complicated one in Star Citizen.
Braben: No! What Elite: Dangerous does do essentially, is a physics-based system, but what it’s got on top of it is a fly-by-wire system of controls that makes it feel like an aeroplane. You can turn it off. Loads of people have done beautiful things online showing flight assist-off flying. We are doing it the correct way. It’s just what we’ve done is made it more approachable and more intuitive for the majority of players. In the same way, pilots fly an awful lot of fly-by-wire planes these days, using the computer to catch all of the corner cases, to make it feel more like a normal aeroplane. And it’s a reasonable assumption that in real life that will be extended in the future, because people are not so good about thinking with six degrees of freedom or more.
The Escapist: I think it is an intelligent approach. In my own designs, I usually favor a more complicated system masked by an easier means of addressing it. It allows the player to push himself to his capacity.
Braben: Indeed. The other thing is that we still work out the thrusters; we show the individual thrusters thrusting, which actually is a really good hint of what the player ahead of you is doing. The thrust fires just before he starts moving, before you would notice the offset. Things like that actually came from Frontier, but with Frontier it was a real pain. If one of your thrusters failed, your ship became virtually uncontrollable. So even in Frontier, I toned back very much the likelihood of one of your thrusters being damaged, because if you lose one or more of your degrees of freedom, the ship becomes incredibly pig-difficult to fly – and that can be a problem if it happens a long way away from a station.
The Escapist: What are some of the more interesting design aspects of Elite: Dangerous in your opinion?
Braben: I think the heat mechanic. That’s something we wanted to do quite early on and it’s quite intrinsic. You have different styles of game play, and stealth now becomes possible. I think that’s the sort of richness that as we move forward more and more, will become ever more significant. When we start bringing in assault tactics, where a group of players will attack another group and you can make it look as if it’s only a single ship coming in while the others are coming in silent, that’s another way to play it.
The Escapist: You can see where that is going to have a considerable effect on multiplayer gameplay.
Braben: I think all of these different sorts of strategies will eventually become adopted and even be named by the players. It’s very exciting. A lot of the activities and interests are around other objects, like in the rings of the planet and around stations because that’s where it’s interesting. And as the stations become larger and more complicated rather than just single installations, it becomes much easier not to notice a small ship when it’s not showing on your scanner.
The Escapist: Are you interested in seeing Elite: Dangerous move more into the Eve Online space?
Braben: I don’t feel like that. The way I see it, the important difference between Eve Online and us is that Eve is an executive control game and Elite: Dangerous isn’t. That’s a big differentiator. What I see us doing is moving more into the richness of the experience and expanding the depth of space gameplay. I think the more games we have in the science fiction genre the better, because it’s a genre that has been languishing for a bit. If you think about the way people work together in squad-type games like Battlefield 4 or even in Warcraft raids, the fun of it is in playing together and actually planning a little bit ahead. I’ve seen it a little bit in slightly more arcadey games as well, like Battlestations Midway, where a group of four players go against another group of four players and the difference in tactics makes a big difference. It’s not symmetric. Someone might go in with a big Anaconda and essentially draw the fire, but then there will be other players in more nimble ships.
The Escapist: I’ve been disappointed in multiplayer games like Battlefield, Call of Duty, and even Warcraft due to how uncooperative the average player often proves to be. What sort of mechanics are you envisioning to foster that teamwork and cooperation as opposed to letting people run around like chickens with their heads cut off?
Braben: I’m hoping it isn’t the latter. It’s interesting, I know what you’re getting at, because there was a situation I saw in Battlestations Midway. Because of the one-shot nature of the game, I felt quite frustrated playing with strangers, particularly if you play earlier in the day, some of them, particularly teenagers, quit out as soon as they think they’re losing. There is one bizarre tactic where you just go hell-for-leather for their airfields and then you see that a lot of the other side just quit out. That is a depressing thing where the way the game mechanic manifests itself overshadows the game as there is a benefit to quitting early. In terms of encouraging intelligence, the incentive is very much there for the players to work together in a PvE environment, because everyone on the team will benefit and hopefully get a reward.
The Escapist: Let’s move onto the financing angle. I know you have a much broader range of finance experience than most. You’ve worked with publishers, you’ve worked with financiers, you’ve funded yourself, and now you’ve had one of the UK’s most successful Kickstarter projects. How has crowdsourcing affected your design and development compared with some of the other financing methods?
Braben: So far, in my experience, it has been the best. The approach of crowdfunding itself creates a group who are aligned, otherwise they wouldn’t have come along. It’s where the views of everyone come together with the idea to make a great game. When you’re working with a publisher, their objectives are much more blurred. They set off with the objective to make a profitable game, but the actual individuals involved may not be a fan of that type of game. They may not be a good judge. I’ve seen it lots of times. Individuals try to steer a game towards the type of game they believe to be most successful. This is how we end up with so many games in a narrow genre, because that genre has been seen to be successful. We see it with all the games trying to be like Call of Duty and Battlefield, the first-person shooters, and not all of them are as good. It’s because of the smell of the money there.
We’re now seeing lots of people talking about space games because of Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen. We had this with the original Elite. We discussed this earlier, how all the earlier games were very simplistic because that’s what the publishers had learned would sell in the early days of publishing. A game with three lives, an extra life at 10,000, play time measured in a small number of minutes where a really successful player might last five or ten minutes at most. Elite broke that particular mold because it showed we could sell a lot and be a great, compelling game without following those rules. I think it’s part of Elite‘s legacy that if you look six months to a year after Elite came out, suddenly the shelves were filled with a plethora of games that didn’t follow those rules, some of which were very good. I strongly believe that without Elite, the publishers would not have funded those new types of more thoughtful games. They would have been met with the same stone wall that we ran into. The only reason Elite got published is because we went to Acornsoft, which was attached to the manufacturer and promoting their own platform, and they were all technical people who were also gamers. They didn’t have to do business plans and that sort of thing, although perhaps they should have done. But they all went “Hell, wow, how did you do that, and how did you do this!” It was a completely different reaction than with the other software publishers. The term “who is your target audience” never came up with Acorn. They just said it is a great game, can we make it any better, how do we distribute it, all of these sensible questions. They were very enthusiastic.
Don’t get me wrong, thinking about your target audience is still important. But you can become obsessed by it, and that will mean that you don’t make the game you set out to make. Crowdfunding is much more like the Acorn experience, where people are here because they know and breathe and love this sort of game. That is a much better way of developing a great game. In my view the way to be successful is to make the game as good as you can. Then people will play it, and continue to play it, and you’ll build a loyal following.
The Escapist: Frontier has a broader range of game development than most people realize, it’s not just Elite. What is the next step you’d like to take in terms of game genre or design mechanics you’d like to introduce in future games?
Braben: There are a lot of design mechanics we’re adding to Elite. In the short term we’ve announced more community challenges, we’ve got wings coming later on in 1.2, and much further down the line we’ve talked about having other people in your spaceship and being able to land on planet surfaces. The game is not standing still. We’ve already released updates and we will continue to do so. On the wider company level, we’re the world experts in coaster games and we’re doing a new game called Coaster Park Tycoon. This is another game we’re very excited about, but we’re not yet discussing the details of it yet.
GameDesign is a new column series on The Escapist featuring a game designer tackling industry issues from their perspective.