David Braben is the rare example of a video gaming luminary who has managed to continue to contribute to the medium over the course of three decades. Creator of the seminal game “Elite” in 1984, he founded Frontier Developments in 1993 and has contributed to a wildly varied group of titles, from “Rollercoaster Tycoon,” “Kinectimals,” “Zoo Tycoon,” 2013’s runaway Kickstarter success “Elite: Dangerous,” and just this week, “Jurassic World: Evolution.” At this year’s E3, Braben sat down with Variety to discuss the ways the games industry has changed and how Frontier has managed to survive and even thrive as other studios buckle under skyrocketing budgets and changing platforms — and where he thinks the future of games may go as the decade unfolds.
“Jurassic World: Evolution” came out this week, which is interesting timing, since most games won’t get away with releasing during E3 —
I love doing things that you’re not supposed to.
It’s probably helpful that you’ve got a good co-marketing thing happening, with a movie launching at the same time. You started this console generation with “Zoo Tycoon” on Xbox One, and this is a logical progression of what that was doing, and this show has seemed like a sort of indication of a mature console generation. What are your thoughts after having done so much this generation, having spread development around so many platforms — what’s your read on the state of the industry right now?
Well I think we’ve got into quite a good place. One of the things from a development point of view is that there haven’t been any really big changes, outside of changes to the business model, which hasn’t been particularly disruptive to us. I think even the last couple of console generations, haven’t been as challenging to the industry as they have in the past. The hardware that’s in both of the current consoles is basically PC hardware, running different operating systems, so it’s much easier now than it was before for them to revise the hardware.
You look at the launch of the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro, they were both pretty seamless, partly because they were both based on the same hardware, so there weren’t huge development costs to make that happen. And so from a development perspective, there’s a lot of commonality in approach. It’s much easier to do cross-platform support. I think from an industry point of view that’s really healthy. It’s good for Microsoft, it’s good for Sony, and I think it’s good for PC. It means you get much more economy of scale.
So the mid-generation hardware refreshes haven’t presented a particular development challenge?
They’ve presented more of an opportunity. We support 4K in our games already, so it’s not hard to add it. And I’ve been very impressed with what those platforms can do, particularly the Xbox One X.
Frontier has pursued divergent platform strategies and business models. You’ve done console exclusive development with Xbox, you’ve done early-access games-as-a-service with “Elite: Dangerous,” and now you’ve done a fairly large licensed game in an era where licensed games are increasingly uncommon. Has it been important for Frontier to broaden its portfolio or has that come naturally?
Over time we’ve had a very broad portfolio anyway. If you look at our games, they’re all quite different from each other. If you compare “Elite: Dangerous” with “Rollercoaster Tycoon 3,” with “Kinectimals and Disneyland Adventures,” they’re all very different kinds of games.
But I think we always push hard on the quality, and we always use our own engine, and all of those things give us quite an advantage. And if you look at the games we’re doing now, we’re doing things we feel have an opening — we’re not going head to head with other people necessarily. “Planet Coaster” was the nearest, because Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 was still around, but we shipped that in 2004. So by the time we shipped “Planet Coaster,” “Rollercoaster Tycoon” was 12 years old, but still selling. So I think that alone is testament to how good it is, but we knew we could do so much better, and “Planet Coaster” did very well for us.
I think what’s happened is the move to self-publishing has really liberated us. And the fact that Universal came to us, and offered us the license for “Jurassic World” — 10 years ago we would have had to bid on that. So hats off to them for that. Hopefully looking at this game, they’ll be glad they did that, and I’m very proud of what the team has done with this game. I think it’s one of the richest uses of the license that there’s been, and we’re day and date with the film. We went to the premiere yesterday, and Steven Spielberg came over and saw it. It’s all gone really well.
At the same time that “Jurassic World: Evolution” was in development, you’ve had some pretty solid success with “Elite: Dangerous,” which is a GAAS in a field where other games often fail. What do you think has been the key to success in that space for you?
I think we were the first open-world space game, there were no other open-world space games when we commissioned the game and went to kickstarter. Being first was good, we have a very loyal following, we’ve added new content to the game continuously since it shipped. Our expansions have been free, and the things you pay for are just vanity items, which in a multiplayer game just makes sense. I think that’s worked well, and it’s that loyal fanbase, and the fact that there’s lots of things in the game for people to discover. We had aliens in the game and we didn’t announce them, we just let people discover them, and there was a lot of buzz around that.
So, I think there are a lot of different factors that have contributed to “Elite,” and it’s not all nostalgia for the original game. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. It might have helped when we got started, but when we first announced the Kickstarter and went to different shows and looked at the queues to see the game, the average age was 20-something, which is much too young for the original “Elite.” So, I would like to think it’s because it’s a good game, with a lot of value.
With that in mind, having a successful GAAS title with a very loyal audience, who are invested with microtransactions and evangelize for the product, has there been a discussion about moving away from packaged goods like “Jurassic World: Evolution”? It feels like more of a risk.
Well we took the GAAS route with “Planet Coaster,” with downloadable content that people pay for and content that’s been free, which has done very well, and I expect that we’ll continue to do that with this. There’s a pack to go along with the film, which we’ll release next week, but thereafter, we have plans to do something similar though we haven’t announced anything yet. It would be stupid not to do things in a similar way. So I hope “Jurassic World: Evolution” will have a similar life that “Planet Coaster” and “Elite: Dangerous” have had. Hopefully those too will go into their fifth year after having their best years yet.
You’ve talked about how this generation hasn’t been especially difficult for “Frontier” regarding business models. Is there something that you see on the horizon that could make a new generation of hardware less sustainable? There were a lot of conversations about development costs this gen, and how those have exploded, and we’ve seen a lot of developers collapse. So what is your concern at “Frontier”?
There’s never been a generation where people haven’t said that. Particularly with the development cost point. Development costs really haven’t exploded, despite what people are saying. They’ve gone up a little bit. I think there’s been a lot of makework and rework. Planet Coaster cost around £6 million to develop, and about £1.5 million on marketing, so it was around £7 million rounded to bring to market. “Jurassic World: Evolution” was a little bit more, because we spent more on marketing. But in terms of development, it was only around £8 million. And I hear of the most ridiculous budgets.
The problem with the old model, which is very hit-based, where you’re selling primarily on discs, is you’re inviting failure, because you have to get those sellthroughs in the first 2-3 weeks. So you’ve got marketing budgets in the hundreds of millions, and so you see correspondingly development budgets going up as well. It’s silly to spend a hundred million on marketing when you’re spending maybe 10 million developing. And a lot of that is wasted. I think it doesn’t need to be that way.
We’re competing head to head with games with development budgets of ten times ours, but we’re much more efficient. We don’t go through lots of difficult intermediate stages like some publishers and developers do. And we’ve done that too, we spent years as a company making work-for-hire games, and we know the processes they go through. One of the challenges is that the games get a lot of polish in the early stages, and it’s wasted, because it’s thrown away. I liken it to building a house, when you have the walls up, and you might be at a point where you can paint the walls. But imagine you decorated and put furniture in without putting the plumbing in yet. So you have to take the furniture out and take the plaster off the walls, and it’s all wasted, because you have to dig in and put in pipework. That’s the process of some games, and it’s very inefficient to do that, but it’s what you have to do to get past certain (publisher) milestones. There’s a lot of inefficiency.
So when we’re reviewing things there’s a lot of stuff that looks plug-ugly, but we don’t care if the gameplays there. It could be white boxes. But you can’t show that stuff outside of the studio, or outside of the industry, because people would say “oh god, what’s that? It looks like shit.” (laughs) So it’s that contrast, and that’s the world that we’ve moved into, and it’s been very good for morale, because working late in the evening, spending all your time on things that will be torn down, that’s frustrating, it’s disheartening. But that aside, I think our industry is changing, and it’s not like it hasn’t continued to change, and we have to be adaptive to that.
What I’m saying is that the changes that have happened over the last few years have mainly been for the better, the ability to go directly to customers, to respond quickly to complaints. When we were with big publishers, if there was a problem with a particular graphics card or some other issue, we couldn’t say “oh we’ll fix that.” It had to go through an approval process, with an answer taking two or three days, and people would be very angry. Whereas now we can respond within minutes, and say “oh, right, we’ll fix it.” With Jurassic World: Evolution we had a team ready to fix things, which are usually translation issues. There are just so many things to look for, launching in so many territories. And the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro are now almost separate platforms.
Why do you say that?
Because you have to do different things with them. People want them to run in 4K, so you have to do things slightly different with them, and then you have to make sure the UI scales cleanly. To me the PC is about half a dozen platforms at the same time, because you have to do things so differently with a low-end PC compared to a top-end PC, which you want to run at 4K beautifully and smoothly.
As the head of Frontier, what are the challenges you foresee in the industry, in the near-future and far future?
I think the industry has changed in a good way with the entertainment sector, and some of the challenges I see are also opportunities, they go hand in hand. We’re taking a lot of screen time from TV, if you look at the stats, TV is shrinking about 8% a year. One of the big opportunities I think for TV and for games could be supportive, where we work together in what I call “mild interactivity.” We’re already starting to see it a little bit with esports, but we’re starting to see it with reality television, where people interact and vote in realtime.
When I say mild interactivity, I say it acknowledging how little TV these days is consumed via live broadcast. Apart from the news I almost never watch TV. There was the wedding, my wife wanted to watch the royal wedding. (laughs) But apart from that, it’s almost all watched through catch-up services, which is being delivered on-demand via a device. So the scope for interactivity is a huge opportunity and I think we’re going to see the growth of that moving forward. It’s not quite obvious how it will be or what will happen. But I think the scope is immense.
Is there anything at this year’s show that’s surprised you, as far as the trajectory of the industry?
I’m delighted by the fact that we’ve got a stand of a similar scale to Ubisoft or Nintendo (note: Frontier’s booth at the show is a platform for Jurassic World: Evolution, which includes a replica of the fictional park’s large gate and a life-size velociraptor in addition to other themed set dressing).
Does that surprise you?
It delights me. It shows how things have changed and how the old infrastructure no longer really matters. We released this game digitally and we’ve got physical discs coming in a few weeks time, and that’s intentional. I think what I mean is that I’m delighted that we’ve gotten that close, that our voice is being heard. I think the biggest thing that surprised me that at Microsoft and Sony nothing surprised me. I realize that sounds circular.
No, I don’t think it does.
I was expecting a surprise and didn’t get one.
Were you surprised at the open signalling at this year’s E3 about a new console generation being so close.
I was. I’m slightly worried at the motives as to why people need to do that. Because Sony also more than hinted at it. And I’m trying to understand the logic in that. I suspect Microsoft did it in order to preempt any signalling that Sony might be thinking of doing. I would have thought it was inevitable that there would be new machines. Nobody announces there’s a new PC coming out, because everyone knows there is. And everyone knows that when you spend $1000 on a PC, the next day there will be something better. That’s the way of the world. PCs are continuously getting better at a relatively constant rate, and it’s not something that gets announced. There’s an occasional announcement of a new graphics card family, and people get excited about that, but it doesn’t get the sort of attention that the announcement of a new Xbox or PlayStation would.
Maybe we’ll end up with annual updates to consoles, and then console updates will be de rigueur, they’ll just be as expected. So it didn’t especially surprise me, but what surprised me is the lack of a reason to do it. Usually they’ll say we’re doing it because of this, and show something amazing.
My experience of the show so far is that there have been comparatively few 2020 games. I can think of maybe four.
For me, maybe five E3s ago or so, I remember thinking wow, what a lot of stuff is coming next year, and that year came, and those things were still coming. The can got kicked down the road. I think there’s been a few like that. We’ve seen quite a few games that don’t have a date, like Bethesda’s games that don’t have a date. Beyond Good and Evil isn’t clear. Things like that, you think maybe that’s not coming in 2019. I don’t want to criticize other people’s games, I know it’s hard to make them. But I still come back to what surprised me was how unsurprised I was by anything. I was hoping for something I wasn’t expecting.
What opportunities do you see new hardware providing?
I think the standardization we’ve seen with hardware has been fantastic. I think more of an openness between platforms would be great. I think AR is a big opportunity for the industry, and I mean proper AR, not holding your phone up. I think we’re 3-4 years away. For me the test is when the glasses are made and styled people like Ray-ban or Gucci or whoever, you’ll be much more likely to wear them. For me the test is whether I’d wear them on the train. I think that was an issue with google glass, and hololens. But it’s a potentially life-changing thing, as having a smartphone has been. And I think the game opportunities there are huge.
I think the other big changes we’ll see is the merging of streamed television content and games. It’s not going to be that games are going away. It’s not that all games will be for non-standard audiences. These will just be whole new things that we don’t have now that we choose to engage with, or we might choose to engage with first person shooters. But just look at how quickly Fortnite and PUBG have captured the first person shooter market, from things like Call of Duty and Battlefield, that to me is very heartening, to see a new developer like Bluehole come up. Now we see games like Call of Duty announce a battle royale mode, which I don’t find particularly surprising.
Did you expect more announcements of battle royale modes and games at this e3?
I think I wasn’t surprised (to see so few). People are biding their time. What I’m afraid of is a gold rush, where everyone is chasing that new thing. Instead we’re all seeing how that plays out. It will be interesting to see how they compete with Fortnite and PUBG.
At the beginning of this console generation there seemed to be a quite consensus that the last generation had gone on too long, and that third parties had been able to find consumer success with new ideas at the end. Do you think that’s something could happen again, that Microsoft and Sony are trying to head off?
I don’t think it went on too long. I think there were a lot of new things towards the end of that console generation. I think the spec of the consoles held things back, because PC got so far ahead, and I think that this generation wasn’t enough of a step up. When you look at things like a line and you have the PC going up, with the Xbox 360, that was actually ahead of the PC in many respects, which I know cost Microsoft a lot of money. Whereas this time the two consoles were quite a lot below the PC when they shipped. What you’re seeing now with the Pro and Xbox One X increases the longevity of them, and I’m for that. Because console generations can be extremely disruptive. And as a gamer, it’s really annoying when my games stop working for a new console.