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Frontier Developments founder and industry veteran David Braben talks mobile, casual, Kinect, free-to-play, OnLive, and anything else that pertains to the now and the next of the game industry.

March 19, 2012

26 Min Read

Author: by Mike Rose

If anyone has the right to say "Been there, done that", it's Frontier Developments founder David Braben. Of course, you may know him better as the guy who co-created '80s space trading classic Elite while still at university, or the man behind Virus, the first game to ever use 3D lighting effects.

For the last 18 years, Braben has headed up Frontier, where he has led development on the likes of the self-titled Elite sequels, RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, LostWinds, Kinectimals, Kinect Disneyland Adventures, and many other games on various platforms. He has seen hardware go through multiple interations and gaming genres rise and fall.

With so many years under his belt, it's understandable that the industry veteran is not only knowledgeable in all fields of gaming, but also has plenty of opinions ready to let fly. Gamasutra visited Braben at his Frontier headquarters in Cambridge, UK, in the hope that these opinions would fly, and was not disappointed.

Smartphones are the way forward, casual games "a bit shit" and OnLive's day is yet to come, reckons the Frontier boss. Read on for David Braben's opinions on everything and anything gaming.

Microsoft has released Halo Waypoint and an Xbox Live app, but it hasn't released a full game on iOS before...

David Braben: Until now!

Exactly! So when you released Kinectimals for iOS, I was a bit surprised and thought "What's going on here?" Because iPhone is a competitor to Windows Phone. It just seemed like quite an odd move.

DB: Well, it's not my place to comment on what Microsoft choose to do, but obviously from Frontier's point of view, we developed the game for 360, Windows Phone 7, and on iOS, and it is logical to go on multiple platforms. But also if you look at what Microsoft have done, they have published games on Nintendo DS before... so I think it's really, in terms of getting maximum eyes to a game, it makes a lot of sense to come to multiple platforms.

So do you think it is something that we'll potentially be seeing more of from Microsoft -- again, not talking for Microsoft in particular -- and maybe from you, as well?

DB: Well from us, we've just released LostWinds; that came out just before Christmas on iOS. It had previously come out on Wii, so we're covering very broad platforms. The very fact that, just as we shut down for Christmas, we had five games in each of their respective top 50s, which we're very proud of. And part of the way that happens is by being cross-platform.

Are you also planning to go for Android as well?

DB: Well... obviously, we would be stupid not to consider it...

In terms of mobile development, is it more of a case of testing the water at the moment? You know, what with Kinectimals and LostWinds both being ports or remakes of games you've already done before. Are we going to be seeing new IP from you on mobile platforms?

DB: We are going to be seeing new IP in 2012 on mobile platforms, but we haven't announced what that is yet. But the thing to think is, we have done tests in the past - in 2003, we did a game called Darxide EMP (an enhanced version of Darxide for the Sega Genesis) on mobile platforms. Because there was a lot of talk then about how successful mobile platforms were... but actually they weren't. So that was actually a toe in the water. And we did it again in 2005 with our Wallace and Gromit game.

brabcrop.jpgI think the problem was that the market then was very confused, whereas nowadays its far clearer. Of course, a lot of that is hats off to Apple, but also the principle of the App Store, which is fantastic. And that applies to a lot of platforms -- it applies to Android, and it now applies to Mac OS, and it's been announced for Windows 8... and I think that is a very interesting realignment of the stars.

But the other point is that I'm not so sure that this time we've actually shifted to mobile... I think mobile has shifted to us. What I mean by that is, if you look at two years ago, mobile platforms were fundamentally 2D, and they had a lot in common with Flash games, but very little in common with console games in terms of how they worked, what the content was, how sophisticated they could be.

But what's happened, with the recent Apple devices especially, is that we've seen the capability of mobile devices come much closer to consoles. We've now got devices like the iPhone 4S and the iPad with performance very close to things like the Wii.

And I think that is a very interesting transformation. Because one of the things that we did as a company last year is that we now have our tool chain completely cross-platform, so that includes iOS, Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation 3, Android... so the point is, that move for us is very good going forward, because it means we can then make a decision about what platform would each specific game be suitable for -- we can easily go between platforms, which I think is very attractive.

But the way I see it is actually, mobile platforms have very much come to us, because I think this Christmas for the first time, we've seen the high production value games coming to mobile devices. Things like GTA, Kinectimals... I mean, they're not necessarily the same game. Each is engineered for the platform. But one of the great advantages from a developer point of view is that you can potentially share, or at least leverage, some of the assets so that some of the work you've done creating animations and models can, to some extent, be carried over.

And I think as the mobile platforms get even more capable, I think this year now will be very exciting.

So do you think from the perspective of the average gamer, it's the high-quality graphics that are pulling more people into mobile gaming? Do you think those gamers feel like the visuals in a mobile game are finally on par with those of a console game?

DB: I don't think we're quite there yet, but I think that some of the sentiments are there. What I mean by that is for some games, it actually feels quite appropriate. Playing lovely games like Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet on 360, that obviously lends itself to other platforms as well. And there are so many like that -- but that's because it has a style that already happily goes across to other devices.

And I think what we're seeing now is more and more of a blurring of the boundary as devices become more capable. I think interface is the one thing at the moment that provides more of a challenge. Because I think the iPad 2 can draw a lot of the things that a console currently can.

And what's more, if you look at the things that Apple has been doing with AppleTV, where you could have a 4S in your hand, and a 1080p picture on your TV, no wires or anything, you start thinking, "How is this not a console?"

On to Kinect. So Kinect has been a success, it has sold well, it has decent games... but you hear a lot of 'hardcore' gamers saying it's just a gimmick, it's taking away from the Xbox 360's core library, it's not adding anything, it's just tacking things on. Your games for the device have being aimed at younger audiences. Do you think there is a way to pull in these more hardcore players? Do you think there is a way to make these people feel drawn into a Kinect game and want to play?

DB: The simple answer is yes, but it's a lot more subtle than that. I think where the thrust up to now has been -- and again, I'm not speaking for Microsoft -- but the thrust has clearly been to engage new audiences, and they've been very successful with that. Because there is a very big potential audience out there who are hugely put off by the complexity of a controller.

There is a fear factor for this audience, and I think one of the things that both Microsoft and Sony did early on was that games like Buzz! and Scene It?, where you just have a really simple controller with a big button, was great because a lot of people already know how to engage with that, and they just press the button to choose their answer. And I think that is a fantastic way to mediate things in a party environment.

But that showed to me also that those people would not do it with a controller, because they were forever pressing the wrong buttons. And Kinect is more an extension of that, where what you're doing is removing a barrier for people who, deep down, would like to get involved but don't want to be made to look foolish by the devices.

And I think we've still got further to go in that respect. And one of the things we've seen this year is a lot more use of voice. Playing Kinect Disneyland Adventures, for example, where you can select a lot of things in the game without touching a controller or selecting buttons, I think that's really elegant. And the new dashboard update is surprisingly good when it comes to selecting things via voice. You know, the ability to be able to say "Play Skyrim" is wonderful.

Core gamers are immensely conservative -- they don't think they are, but a lot of us are. I remember the people ranting about GoldenEye and how the controls were impossible, and I actually thought it was great. I mean, at first I found it quite hard to get used to the controls... but I mean, I see my dad, when he's trying to play something like Halo or Call of Duty, and he spends the whole time looking at his feet or the ceiling. Because it isn't intuitive -- and everyone in the room laughs, and he feels a bit uncomfortable, and then he won't play it again.

And that's the problem -- it's counter-intuitive, and we've really got used to that over time. So we're finally seeing that new audience... but core gamers really resent that audience coming into "our" arena. How dare they! How dare these noobs, these people who aren't inculcated! My dad! My dad! [laughs]

But also, widening the audience is not a bad thing. It would be like people who like watching violent movies complaining because Strictly Come Dancing [the British version of TV show Dancing with the Stars] is being shown. Yes, that may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the real point is that, in the long run, it makes TVs cheaper, it makes the service more ubiquitous, and it broadens it -- maybe you'll have a TV in more than one room.

Frontier Developments' Kinectimals

So there's no point railing because you're doing something for someone else, and it doesn't mean less for the core gamers. The real problem when you think about it brutally, if you look at just core gamer games, preowned has really killed core games. In some cases, it's killed them dead. I know publishers who have stopped games in development because most shops won't reorder stock after initial release, because they rely on the churn from the resales. I won't buy a preowned game out of principle.

Of course, none of that revenue or chart position gets recorded, or VAT [value-added tax]... it's borderline whether that's legitimate. But it's killing single player games in particular, because they will get preowned, and it means your day one sales are it, making them super high risk. I mean, the idea of a game selling out used to be a good thing, but nowadays, those people who buy it on day one may well finish it and return it.

People will say "Oh well, I paid all this money and it's mine to do with as I will", but the problem is that's what's keeping the retail price up -- prices would have come down long ago if the industry was getting a share of the resells.

Developers and publishers need that revenue to be able to keep doing high production value games, and so we keep seeing fewer and fewer of them. But people are connecting the fewer and fewer with Kinect -- the two are completely independent.

I want to see a game with a controller, where you can lean left and right... I'm surprised there hasn't been more of this kind of thing. There are some games coming out where you can select your gun with Kinect, but that just feels like an add-on.

I remember being a developer in the early days of Xbox 1, where multiplayer was seen as a little bit of a tickbox, and usually it was a bit rubbish. I think that was partially because developers didn't really engage with it, because really only a few players had it, and it was seen as a bit of a faff. And also evidence showed that very few people used it.

And so the attempts were, dare I say it, a little bit half-hearted. But they got better quite quickly. Nowadays, would Call of Duty happen without multiplayer? It's almost as if the single player is now the tickbox. And in the same way, with time, Kinect is a very interesting thing that's not trivial to engage with, but when you do, it's great. And I think like with the multiplayer, Kinect is still early on, and I think people are just starting to personally believe in it, and also starting to realize that there are some great additive things that you can do with it.

So Frontier's main tech is called Cobra, and that has been evolving over the last two decades.

DB: Yes... Well, I've very frighteningly been in the business for nearly three decades -- my 30th anniversary is later this year! Which is pretty horrific [laughs] But yeah, we first started using our tech in 1995, but I think it's a bit like "the 14th century axe", where the shaft was replaced, and then the head was replaced... although people keeping saying to me "Oh, I found a bit more of your code!", and then they, with glee, removed it! [laughs]

But yeah, it's a whole set of tools and technologies that are all designed to work together, and we've ripped our the bowels several times and improved it with generations. We took a big painful change between the previous generations to 360 and PS3, where we moved to a multiprocessor environment, which has set us up well going forward. Because even with mobile devices, we're looking at two cores, four cores, and it doesn't take a genius to realize it's going to go higher than that.

In 2011, we moved our tech into mobile, so that we could then say "Well, what game would we like to make and what platforms does it make sense on?", rather than saying "we've got this tech on this platform," and we'll need a team for each platform. I mean, in the '80s it was a nightmare -- Ian [Bell] and I wrote umpteen versions of Elite, and then contracted out some of the others because we just couldn't face doing another version. There were 17 different versions in total. [laughs]

I wanted to ask your thoughts on a variety of bits and pieces from the current state of the gaming industry. So first off -- casual games. We're seeing lots of people leaving AAA companies to work on casual games, mobile games, Facebook games. How do you feel about casual games?

DB: Well firstly, the word "casual" is almost like a rude word. It's the collective name given to games that are a bit shit. [laughs] Now some of them are actually quite good, don't get me wrong, but what I mean by that is that there's a bandwagon where people have seen Facebook games get oodles of revenue, and then have tried to jump on thinking that the reason these games are good is that they're casual.

That's not why they're good. They're somehow addictive via very traditional gameplay roots, and if you look at the amount of tuning that a game like FarmVille has had -- and also don't forget that Zynga were not the people who made it to start with -- there were other companies that each ripped each other off, as far as I could see, with games that were a gnat's whisker apart from each other! Even the graphics looked similar.

I was surprised that happened, and that was allowed to happen... but that aside, there haven't been that many successful ones in numbers. You know, the games that are often given that "casual" tag are mainly given so because they are 2D games on Facebook. So the perception is that they're quite easy to write and that they make their money out of microtransactions.

I mean, there have been a few successes, but it's not a huge number compared to the number of failures that there have been. You hear about all these Facebook games, and then you never hear of them again, and that's because they're not very good. And they have got this tag, "casual".

Thankfully, a lot of these games have crashed and burned, but I think that is starting to change. What we've seen in the mobile space already is the 1980s and '90s condensed into about two years -- you know, where we started off with really simplistic games playing on a little phone, and then smartphone displays have gone bananas, going from low-res blocky graphics playing on a numeric keypad, to iPhone games that look gorgeous and feel a bit consoley.

I think browser games are also going through the same thing. I think the combinations of HTML5 and all the various tools that enable better games to be run in a browser, that's going to go through a similar transition.

We were saying earlier that Kinect is helping to bring people into gaming who normally wouldn't play games. Do you feel like casual games are also doing that?

DB: Oh yeah, that's a great thing. It's like Brain Training [Brain Age in the U.S.] -- I think if that came out now, it would be called a casual game. It's just the term wasn't really there at the time for people to criticize it with.

I mean, people have said, "Wow, games were great in the '80s. It was the golden age of gaming! Why aren't games like that now?" Actually, games in the '80s were rubbish! But history sort of condenses it down into a glorified, wide-angle lens, and so we've got lots of games that have been remembered for being good, but there was lots of tosh which, in today's world, would be called casual games.

Also, the terms "casual" and "social" are almost used in conjunction. Is FarmVille a social game? Well, no, it's not really. But people hang around their farms, which is sort of a bit social. The term hasn't really got much meaning, and I'm not sure what "casual" really means. It's often just brightly colored graphics with relatively shallow gameplay that is somehow addictive.

I think if you ask what "casual" is again at the same time next year, I think it will be attached to something slightly different. For example, I like playing online Scrabble, and the great thing about that is that you can have one go, but have several games on the go. Is that casual? No, I take it very seriously! [laughs] Is it social? Well, the other person isn't there, but it is sort of social... so what do you call that? Turn-based gaming? It falls under the "social" term now, but I'm not quite sure why.

For myself, the word "casual" sort of describes the kind of game that you can be playing, but not focusing on as much as you would with a regular game.

DB: That's true. But I think we need to find a new vocabulary for these things. They're changing so quickly, that we're attaching names to things, but then some time later these things have changed...

Yeah, it's very much a grey area. How do you feel, then, about free-to-play games?

DB: If you look at other industries, such as the gambling industry -- they started off with premium games, then they found that if they lowered the price, they got more people in. They then lowered it to zero -- freemium -- and even more people came in. Then they lowered it beyond zero, so they actually give you free chips.

Now their industry has matured, and apparently the average cost of acquisition of a customer is over $100. So why go to freemium? If we stay at 99 cents, people will still play. Otherwise, from an industry point of view, you get this diminishing spiral where, the only reason you're really lowering the price is to take customers away from other developers.

And they'll do the same -- hence the gambling industry going to minus $100. It's what we call a pissing contest. The company with deeper pockets will try to acquire the customer more because the presumption is that the customer will then stay loyal. But that presumption often isn't all that tested.

The problem with our industry is that we're selling ourselves short. There are already a lot of games that are a lot cheaper than perhaps they ought to be. How many developers have very little chance of recovering their costs? There are a lot of people making games for iOS where they're living hand-to-mouth and doing the odd bit of work elsewhere to prop up their hobby. That is a problem, and it's partly because games are going for 99 cents. You've got to sell a lot of games to have anything close to a salary.

Do you think there's a way back?

DB: Yes. I think if we can hold the price, then that might actually bring some of the revenue back in. But I think the other option is to see slightly more money for premium games -- and we are seeing that. I mean, I've got to watch what I say, because we've just brought a game out at £1.99 and £2.49, which bizzarely is quite a lot for a mobile game.

Yeah you're right -- that's the kind of price where the average person would be wary to spend that much.

DB: But you see these people then going and spending £30 or £40 on an Xbox game! A lot of it is down to psychology -- for a £3.99 game, you'd give as much thought about buying it as you would for a game that was £39.99. I think it's down to expectation.

I mean, compared to the App Store, you've got Nintendo's eShop, and all you hear from people is that the £5 games in the eShop cost far too much, and that the prices need to be dropped to the same price as the App Store.

DB: Well, there is an argument that I've heard that people will pay a lot more for a Ferrari than a Mini, but they both still get you from A to B -- it's just that your experience en route is far better. And that may be the case for a higher-end device -- essentially, the reason you're paying less on a phone is that you're playing it on a phone. But I think that's been eroded over time, especially as up-market devices like the iPhone and the iPad have come out.

I think the bigger problem is the experience in some of these stores. The eShop experience is a challenge. Even to get the eShop to work in the first place is a challenge! I think that's a bigger obstacle. In a sense iOS has probably done a lot of damage in terms of price expectation, and whereas in the past, there were people who had a PlayStation 3, a Wii, an Xbox -- they then may have gone out and got a DS for gaming on the move, and the expectation was that the games were massively inferior because you were playing it on the move. I think iOS has damaged that expectation.

Definitely. I mean, if you had asked me a year ago if I thought the PlayStation Vita would sell well, I would have said yes, as it's a lovely device. But if you ask me now, I'm really not sure anymore. And I think a lot of it comes down to price -- I think people seriously underestimate how much the price means.

DB: I think the Vita has a very big challenge. There's a 3G version, which may well endear parents to it, and I think that's where a lot of the purchases will be made. But the real question is whether kids will say "I want a Vita!" or instead say "I want an iPod Touch!". One of the big challenges Sony has is the prices of 3G devices now -- they are sufficently low, especially if you get one with a cheap contract.

Until you can get a Vita for free on a contract, that's going to be a very easy decision for a parent. Also, parents will look at both devices, and look at the Vita and say "How much are the games? How much?"

So I think the Vita will sell okay to twenty-somethings - it's a very shiny device, it's a nice device, but I think the combination of things like issues with battery life, the ways you can use it for things other than games... my fear is that it will be like the PlayStation -- in theory you can web-browse on it, but in practice half the websites are a bit broken.

Yeah, I don't know anybody who uses gaming devices other than the iPhone for browsing the internet.

DB: Exactly, because it's a slick experience, and the penetration of those devices is enough that most websites will actually test their sites on iOS devices.

I think it's just a really difficult time for hardware manufacturers at the moment. On the one hand you've got people creating really annoying devices like the Raspberry Pi for very cheap [laughs], and on the other hand you've got the ubiquity of things like the Apple devices, which they'll have a real struggle dealing with.

I also wanted to ask you what you think of OnLive and cloud gaming. It throws into question what is going to happen with the next generation of consoles, if OnLive can simply update its hardware at no extra cost to the consumer.

DB: It's interesting, but its day hasn't come yet. I live in Cambridge town center, and I get reasonably reliable internet speeds. But everyone I know is lucky if they get even 1 meg. The question is how long will it be before our internet infrastructure can actually handle the speeds required in every home.

BBC iPlayer is actually currently fighting that battle for them, but fair-use caps are going to be the real challenge, and all service providers will need to address it.

The other problem is ping times. I've only tried OnLive in a city-type environment -- what happens when you have half-second ping times? That's obviously an issue.

So I'm not betting against it; I think it'll just take a while for it to have a really big install base. For core gamers, yes, it does sound potentially viable, but what worries me as well is the scale-side of things. At the moment, as I understand it, a typical server is hosting six games of OnLive. But as the power requirements of games go up, they'll be getting fewer games running per machine, so eventually there'll need to be potentially 100 machines running in each phone exchange.

So OnLive's big problem is that its success could also kill it. Typically, people play games in the evening or the weekend, so you're going to have these long periods where the machines are just sitting there waiting for someone to connect, and then the users will get a very bad experience when they all try to connect at the same time.


To finish off, I have to ask the obligatory questions about Elite 4.

DB: Well, it's a game that we've been looking at for a long time, and we are still working on.

One thing I worry is that you're building up expectations for the game to such heights that it doesn't matter what the final product looks like, there will be people now who have expectations that can no longer be met. Does that worry you?

DB: Well, obviously, and I want to be satisfied as well. It's not that the game has been in development for a long time -- we were in development, and we stopped because it wasn't going the right way. But yeah, we're very conscious of that.

In terms of everything else you're working on, how important is Elite 4? Is it still in the stages where you're trying to work out what you want it to be?

DB: We know what we want it to be, and we're currently putting in place all the things we need to make it achieveable.

The other project of note that is in limbo, of course, is The Outsider.

DB: Well, with Outsider, we've stopped. That's not to say that it can't be revived, but there are various things that are working against it at the moment. The fundamental nature of it is of a story-based game, and from a design point of view, the story itself doesn't lend itself very well to being a multiplayer game other than as a tacked-on affair, which we've seen with quite a few games, and it's not generally worked.

It just becomes a higher and higher risk. I would very much like it to see the light of day -- it's a really good game which we're very proud of, and the story is fantastic. But justifying that is much harder at the moment. That's not to say that it won't see the light of day, and I plan to work on it at some point and show what we have publicly.

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