Q&A: David Braben--from Elite to today

Elite cowriter talks about his new project, The Outsider; promises Elite 4 is still on its way.

by

David Braben is a gaming legend in the UK, best known for being the cowriter of the space trading game Elite. It was first published by Acornsoft in 1984 for the BBC Micro and the Acorn Electron and was then ported to several other platforms. The player was put in the role of Commander Jameson with 100 credits and given eight pseudo-randomly generated galaxies to explore. Two sequels followed--the first, Frontier: Elite 2, was released in 1993 and featured filled 3D graphics, a backstory, and a variety of new missions and ranks to rise in. The second, Frontier: First Encounters, added realistic Newtonian physics and the ability to land on planets.

David Braben

Braben founded Frontier Developments in the early '80s in Cambridge, England. The company has worked on games including Dog's Life, RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, and Thrillville. It is currently working on a game called The Outsider, which it claims will give the player "genuine freedom" to explore the world and change the story. GameSpot caught up with David Braben after listening to his talk on "Gaming: Now And Then" at the Game On exhibition in London.

GSUK: So, first things first. Are we ever going to see Elite 4?

DB: Well, we started it in 2000--and we stopped it in 2000. The reason was, we started it as a MMORPG, and the technology at the time for connectivity was rubbish. It had been oversold by the providers. We realised very quickly that what we wanted to do would overload the system and that we would end up taking the blame for the failings of the telecommunications industry. It was put on hold after that. Now we've decided to do two projects: One will be a single-player game, and the other will be the massively multiplayer online role-playing game. We will do Elite 4 after Outsider, so it will benefit from everything we've done in Outsider. In Elite, you were a spaceship, to move on to be a person, so many other things have to happen. Apologies for it taking so long, and I really mean that, but it's a game dear to my heart, and I don't want to do it badly.

GSUK: What do you think is the most important thing for a game?

DB: I think that's like saying "What's the most important thing for a car?"--there may be many different things. A game is first of all entertainment--it really has got to give you some kind of experience... I don't think there's only one thing that you can say "Oh yes, have you got some of that?" "Fun" is the one that's often quoted--but that's such a vacuous thing, you know what I mean? You know, have we put some fun in? I mean hopefully the answer is yes, but you don't put fun in per se. Fun comes from the other things; it comes from the enjoyment out of either its film intervals or that really nice in-the-zone feeling you get in some of the games--it's not a tangible thing.

GSUK: Do you think games are missing something on their continual quest for better graphics?

DB: Graphics are very good, but getting close to reality is not really the nirvana. In the same way in the cinema, they try to get a look that is characteristic--Thelma and Louise, for instance, did some very interesting things with lighting techniques which didn't look real; it looked beautiful. That's all graphics. I think the thing with games is there's just so much more to it. Most games when you look at it, it's as much the intricacies and response.

Is Missile Command about graphics? No, clearly it isn't. It's about playing the game and the rules of the game. So no, it isn't all about graphics. In the next generation, it's mostly not about graphics.

GSUK: How did the idea for Elite come about?

DB: We wanted a huge world, but we had 22K of memory--which is probably even less than a single Frontier icon today. That meant there were probably only a dozen places we could create, which wasn't what we wanted to do. So what we did was we compressed the world, and this trickery gave us huge galaxies to explore. Initially we had way more than the eight galaxies [in the game]. For instance, we threw away a whole galaxy because it had the word "arse" in it. The names were also random. When we took it to companies we were met with blank faces. It was completely different to its shelf-mates. There was very much this "coin-drop" mentality--they were saying things like, "Who would want to spend weeks on end on one game?"

GSUK: What do you think about the games out now that are obviously heavily influenced by the original Elite?

DB: That depends on which games you mean. For example, the producer of Grand Theft Auto was before that the producer on Frontier. He described Grand Theft Auto as "Elite in the city." The biggest legacy of Elite was that it showed the "coin drop" mentality had gone away. There are games like the X games and Eve Online, but they're not really the true successors of Elite--they're just re-implementing an '80s game. They've completely ignored the reason it was what it was. There is so much you can do. And you'll see that in The Outsider.

GSUK: Tell us something about your new game The Outsider?

DB: It branches massively and still works as a story. It's very interesting because it raises lots of very contemporary issues, ranging from ID cards to how the rising paranoia that we see now towards terrorism is being used as an excuse for becoming ever closer to what will eventually become a police state. And it's very interesting to show, you know, this is what it'll be like if you go a bit further.

The Outsider is trying to create the sort of feeling that you get in a film--and the feeling where you can really take your character anywhere you like. If you move away from the game/cutscene/game model you lose control of the story. That's both a good and a bad thing, because if there's no story, what are you doing? What you're doing is you're building "care" for your character.

The character has been accused of assassinating the president of the US. That's the start of the story--from there you can choose to do many different things. You can choose to get revenge on the people who set you up. You can choose to prove yourself innocent. Or you can go a much darker route and join the people who did it... There are some very, very interesting moral choices in the game.

It's an action game and is scheduled right now for around the end of 2008 to early 2009. It will be a next-generation game for the PS3 and Xbox 360.

GSUK: A game without a story--tell us how that's going to work.

DB: There is a story. The full plot of the story is there when you start an adventure, any adventure. What I mean is that a lot of it is discovering things, discovering the way things are the way they are, and you can go in a completely different direction from that. There is something else underneath the story that reveals the motives of the characters, how they've got here and what they've done in the past. That's all already set in stone. But how you can respond to that is a completely different matter. The story can unfold in dramatically different ways.

GSUK: For a game that is going to be breaking so many conventions, why did you decide to still rely on the whole man-with-a-gun thing?

DB: (Laughs) I guess we were too cowardly not to have the gun, and I think the target audience would have been upset if we didn't have a gun.

GSUK: What can't we do with narrative in games today?

DB: You can do an awful lot--the trouble is it's written for a certain set of circumstances, and when you mess with the circumstances, the script has to consistently change. This is why the cutscenes are so choreographed--many games tell their story entirely in the cutscenes.

GSUK: What do you think is the future of independent game companies?

DB: People have been saying [they're worried about the future of independent game companies] now for decades. If anything, the indie sector is growing--there may be less companies around, but in terms of the number of games and people employed, it's growing. Britain is becoming a hard country to [run an indie business in]--in many countries, like Canada, it's easier. It's like saying that it's the end of the indie music sector--it isn't. There always has been and always will be [independent game companies].

GSUK: What games have you played recently that you've enjoyed or been impressed with?

DB: I admired [Elder Scrolls IV:] Oblivion just because of the sheer size and the scope. That was quite fun. I don't agree with some of the things they've done, but it is quite fun. I also quite liked Test Drive: Unlimited, again for the size of it.

GSUK: Thanks for your time.

Discussion

23 comments
Theolen
Theolen

The Outsider sounds awesome, and it's great to hear from Sir Braben again! Can't wait to play Elite IV either! To jazreal: Elite was the first successful open-world (or in this case galactic world) game. You started with a a basic ship, a small amount of money, and were set loose to forge your own path as a space pirate (by destroying and then looting your target's cargo), a bounty hunter, trader (of legal, and illegal substances) etc. It used very simple vector-like 3d graphics, the controls were flight sim-ish, and it paid homage to iconic sci-fi like 2001 (when docking with a space station to the Blue Danube Waltz), or Star Trek (by infesting your ship with tribbles!). Elite is simply put, the father of many, many games, and showed the industry that not only could an open-world game where the player writes his own ticket work, but it could be highly successful, and a joy to play. From Wing Commander to GTA IV, all open-world games that followed owe much to Mr. Braben's innovation.

Triple_H90
Triple_H90

The Outsider sounds really good.

p_kwiatek
p_kwiatek

Elite II: Frontier, was one of the first games I've translated to Polish, on my AMIGA 500+ computer. God, that game is great. Even now I'm playing Frontier: First Encounters (damn you! Gametek!). And now I'm reading, that Elite IV will be on PlayStation 3 :) MGS4 & EliteIV & don't forget Outsider - this game will be something.

jazreal
jazreal

As someone who is involved in game dev and has a passion for inovation, i believe this game just may break a few bounderies, which is something that i as a gamer hunger and thirst for. i crave for the feeling that " wow, ive never done something quite like this in a game " feeling. i strive for that in game dev and in my music. go go go go go outsiders....as well as the development crew. hats off :) p.s.- i missed elite back in the day...sounds cool.......whats up with this one(elite), and how did it change gameplay? i would really like to know as stated before, i crave inovation. if anyone has the time...please fill me in. thanx

Silasraven
Silasraven

Elite was the game that got me into gaming. A friend of mine had a BBC micro computer and invited me around to have a look. He put Elite on and I was amazed even though it was vector graphics ( I think that is what they are called. He attacked a station to show me what would happen and when the space cops came after him it blew my mind. I could not afford a BBC micro ( they were damn exspensive) but 2 weeks later the C64 came out and Elite was the first game I got on it. So thank you my man for opening the world of gaming to me. Elite cannot be beaten not even by a remake, its that first time of seeing it in that new revolution of home entertainment. Look where ti has led us now. Still gaming but I will never quite get that feeling again as I did when I first played Elite. I guess I lost my gaming viginity that day, and like sex I cant stop having it lol.

horioricorious
horioricorious

i love you, good sir david braben. and to think! it was already started! and if this game is dear to your heart, as it is mine, then i swear that i will be full of utter joy and giggle like a little school girl, or whatever it amy be, when i get my hands on it and begin consuming and devouring your majestic creation. make sure you include a fat, hefty amount of starships, which of coarse is only natural, and if we could walk around in them, and in bases of various kinds, if not simply for the sake of wasting valuable memory, then so be it, sir; it would make the game so tremendous.... but already you avail to that. anyway. good. great. grand. wonderful. definitely something to look forward to. you know that feeling, when you seem to be lost in space, and your looking for a way back home, and you're scared, because you are a kid and video games are something more to you then than now, and are surrounded by an endless void, yet still you luckily have a powerful computer to help you, giving you some hope? well, isn't that everyone's dream of experiencing again? OH i also like pressing and holding F1 or something like that while the game loaded, which brought me to an entirely different planet and gave me a new ship. i remember just manouvering in the nifty, zero gravity atmoshphere, going slowly back and forth through that dome to look at it and the buildings. good thing the gigantic metal structure incasing those poor people would seem to mold around my ship and let me through, eh?!? anyway, make it happen, and if you put in the amount of work and soul into it as you did the others - of which i have only had the privelage of playing one, frontiers - then we will all be very, very happy. And remember, do what you need to do, relax if you need it, if it means a better, if not slower, outcome of your creation!

Gizzer7
Gizzer7

What could be better than a next-gen Elite? I've been waiting for a true 'fantasy simulator' where you can chose whatever you do for years now and that could just be it. David Braeben is a personal hero- who else has made such a suggestive 22k game that you can imagine you are playing in a real universe (a lot of it from filling in the blanks with your own imagination of course) and it is still to be bettered! Thanks for the article and let's hope that Elite 4 fulfills some of that promise and in the meantime that The Outsider does.

fahad2mail
fahad2mail

Great interview GS. He is the best i know.

Mohsin4
Mohsin4

This article is way too long, sorry no comment on this one, don't got the time to read all this.

haloj
haloj

Great interview GS! Some slight inaccuraces with regards to what Frontier and First Encounters were. Frontier was the first Elite with Newtonian physics and also allowed you to land on planets but it had no plot per say. First Encounters introduced a plot mechanism and the resurgence of the alien race the Thargoids who were presumed to have been wiped out by a man made virus some time before Frontier.

SmileyPyramid
SmileyPyramid

Kikokones: you mean Chris Roberts. I agree, those guys were the best.

jordanroher
jordanroher

Cecil's my guy. The first RPG I ever played with a real plot and real characters. Regarding the 720, I mean that Elite 4, coming (let's say) 3 years after The Outsider, will probably hit in 2012. That would be seven years after the Xbox 360 is released; I'm guessing Microsoft would have a new console on the market by then.

KikoJones
KikoJones

Elite set the benchmark for open ended games, I had the original version on my C-64 and bought the "updated" VGA version for the PC. Braben is truly a great designer, right there with Richard "Lord British" Garriot, Chris whatever the creator of Wing Commander, Sid Meier, etc. Anyway, Elite 4 might be the most awaited game ever for old school gamers, I hope we do see it.

s0ck69
s0ck69

elite 4 get in elite was one of the greatest games ever made

SGTMUS
SGTMUS

Elite, that takes me back. Waited for this long for something to come out from him, I can wait wee bit longer for a new Elite game.

solidmatt1
solidmatt1

Xbox came out in 2001. 360 came out in 2005. It wouldnt be that hard to believe if the next xbox came out in 2009.

ObiKKa
ObiKKa

No, the so called Xbox 720 will likely come out at the end of 2011 or some time in 2012. Lol, 2009? That's a bit super early! Wow, that FF2 character icon of yours - I just finished playing that game on the ZSNES emulator a week ago or less! Cecil sure was powerful!

jordanroher
jordanroher

So, The Outsider comes out in 2009 and Elite 4 comes out after that? You realize this will be an Xbox 720 game by that point. Also, David Braben, I love you and will gladly abandon my job to go worship you until Elite 4 comes out.