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.

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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.

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