David Braben talks to Critical Gamer

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The one and only David Braben.

Yes indeed, the might David Braben talks to your favourite gaming blog (no, us, you cheeky git). While we were waiting for the answers, his PR lady told us he was ‘travelling’; which we took to mean he was exploring deep space, trading and killing as he pleased.

CG: When you created your first starfield, did that ignite your imagination for the beginnings of Elite?

David Braben: Partly – but in some senses it was the other way around. I was excited about doing a game set in space, as there is no ground to draw, and the starfield was effectively the alternative – to give a sense of movement and speed. As I’ve said elsewhere, my first starfield was a huge disappointment – written in BASIC, it took an appallingly long time to draw and then undraw the stars, so it was the trigger to learning machine code.

CG: When you and Bell took Elite to your first publisher, what kind of response did you expect… and what did you get?

David Braben: Before I met Ian, I had had a discussion with Thorn EMI, who offered me a job when I showed them the 3D code I had written, running – but it would have meant not going to university, and I already had a place at Cambridge at that time, so in a sense when we later took “Elite” to them, it was a second visit – they had even seen ‘Ship 1, 2 and 3’ – which later became the ‘Cobra MkIII’, the ‘Python’, and the ‘Sidewinder’.

The response was very strange. About half a dozen people saw it, and clearly some were very impressed, others were marketing people… In summary, they said that what we had was amazing, but an amazing demo of tech, and that no one would want to buy it as a game. We’d need to get rid of the saved positions, bring in a score, make it so you could ‘beat the game’ in around ten minutes, and we should have multiple lives. They were worried that it would take hours to make any progress, and of course they were right!

CG: It’s known that after Elite sold 100,000 copies, the story was covered by the news. How did you feel when you saw this?

David Braben: We were approached by John Taplin, the Editor of Channel 4 News, when most of the people in his newsroom were playing “Elite” (It is an interesting thing that they were using a network of BBC Micros in order to write their news pieces – how times change!). Both Ian and I were interviewed by them, as was Peter Warlock the editor of “PCN” – a news magazine about games. So when we saw the piece on TV, alongside interviews with Arthur Scargill, coverage of the miner’s strike, and a strike at British Leyland, it wasn’t a surprise, but I got a real ‘buzz’ from it. I was even stopped in the street and in college about it.

PhotobucketCG: Although Frontier (Elite2) took around five years to make, if you had been given more time to work on it, would you have spent longer on it?

David Braben: I would have liked more testing, but to be honest I would have gone mad, I think (or is that even more mad), as five years is a long time to work on something!

CG: You’re one of only a handful of figures in the industry recognised by fans worldwide. How does that make you feel? Why do you think so few individuals stand out in this way in the world of videogames?

David Braben: It is great, but it is also a sign of the at times corporate nature of our industry. These days, games are made by large teams, so perhaps that is an inevitable consequence, but I expect we will see more figures coming to the fore as games become more of a creative medium, like cinema, than a technological tour de force, as is currently often the case.

CG: What influenced the original Elite? Did you have any idea that it might still have such a huge fanbase twenty five years later?

David Braben: George Lucas’s first Star Wars film was probably the biggest influence on me, as were the numerous science fiction books that I read. I didn’t really think as far forward as 25 years, but I did hope that it would have a big fanbase.

CG: How do you feel when looking at successful games such as Eve Online, that are often seen as heavily influenced by Elite? Does it make you swell with pride that something you created twenty five years ago still has such a profound effect on the industry?

David Braben: Yes – I am proud of the effect it has had.

PhotobucketCG: Has the rise of the so called ‘casual gamer’ made you think that a new Elite will need more mass appeal…as some would say, dumbing down?

David Braben: The ‘casual gamer’ is merely a whole new group of people that have come to games. All games don’t have to appeal to all people, just as all films don’t appeal to everyone.

It is also a dangerous assumption that casual games are ‘dumbed down’ in the first place. Many of these so called casual gamers are smart; they simply are not part of all the knowledge that has been built up over the years by hardened gamers like us. Remember the criticism of (for example) the excellent “GoldenEye” game on Nintendo 64. People said it was too confusing/too difficult to control – but with time it established probably our most popular genre, with much the same control scheme. To a casual gamer, an FPS’s controls are still complex – it is simply they haven’t yet been drawn in by them.

CG: How and why did the sublime Lostwinds come to be made?

David Braben: It was the first game to come through our “Game of the Week” process – essentially a set of internal forums where people can pitch ideas, and see whether others rip them apart, suggest improvements, or simply demand they be made. Game ideas that can survive this process are generally pretty strong – our MD David Walsh likened it to dipping a leg of lamb into a piranha-filled river – only the toughest bits survive.

The opportunity for a small number of people to work on a project for a short time arose, and LostWinds was the obvious choice.

CG: What influenced that game? The art and music seem to show strong Eastern influences.

David Braben: It was more of a case of taking inspiration from ‘windy’ places – a mix of Incan, Mayan, Tibetan designs, and getting a consistent look that meshed with them. This, and the creative talent of particularly Chris Symonds and Steve Burgess amalgamated them into a stylish whole, with music from Alistair Lindsay.

PhotobucketCG: What have you kept, and what have you changed, for the sequel? Did fan feedback play a part at all?

David Braben: We have improved on just about every aspect of the first game – there are major new gameplay mechanics (such as season switching) as well as most of those from the previous game, there are of course all-new larger environments, a strong story element and greater interaction with NPC’s, and the game looks even better than the first. We actually had an unprecedented amount of fan feedback from the first game, but they were mainly general expressions of joy about the game rather than specific ideas.

CG: Freedom seems to be at the core of a lot of your work in games, do you feel that gaming’s future lies down a non-linear storytelling path, that can help distinguish it from other media such as film or television?

David Braben: Games don’t need to have distinguishing features shoe-horned into them. Frankly they already stand apart. It is more that there is more of an opportunity, that is often missed, to craft an experience for the player, where they play a far bigger part. We are seeing this increasingly now in games, and it is a very good thing.

CG: Do you think that there is a tendency towards simplicity in game storytelling, that focuses on basic concepts such as good and evil or right and wrong? Is the industry finally beginning to mature and offer a more realistic and ambiguous approach to writing?

David Braben:The industry is continually maturing. Much as cinema started with essentially black and white characters (both literally and morally), it gradually introduced subtlety, much as we are doing now in games. To establish a concept, often it is easiest and clearest to do it in its purest form, but now we are starting to introduce those subtleties, doubts, ambiguities too.

PhotobucketCG: You recently said that the games industry has “arrived financially”, but still has a long way to go in other areas. What needs to be done, and what are you doing in your games in general to help?

David Braben: Games have arrived in many respects, but there are sectors in society that haven’t noticed our proverbial tank parked on their lawn. There is an older generation (and MPs are good examples of this sector) that still regard games as variants of the first Mario Brothers game or Space Invaders. The industry (myself included) has been spending time with government ministers, and I think that is making a big difference to perceptions of our industry.

CG: If we introduce this interview by saying ‘David Braben begged us to interview him for weeks, and we finally caved in’, will you kill us?

David Braben: Yes! 😉

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Written by Patrick G

2 comments

  1. Guy Smiley /

    “Yes, indeed! The mighty David Braben…”

  2. Krazyface /

    Wooooo! Go Braben! Can you get him to chisel his name into a copy of Elite on the NES, then post it to me? Seriously though, great interview guys. Should’ve asked him what one of his favorite games of all time was.

    That wasn’t a complaint, I’m just saying. : P

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