co-developer and Frontier Developments founder David Braben spoke at the Develop conference in Brighton to argue that, despite the frequent doomsaying by various industry veterans, the state of game development is in great shape.
Braben, who created pioneering freeform 3D title Elite
with Ian Bell in the early '80s, went on to found UK-based Frontier, which has worked on games including Thrillville
and Dog's Life
, and is currently developing freeform action title The Outsider
To set the stage for his point, Braben looked back on the development process for LostWinds
, Frontier's WiiWare sidescroller based around controlling the flow of the wind to aid the game's platforming protagonist.
The game was prototyped in a week by two developers, and was based on an idea by Frontier designer Steve Burgess that was spawned in the company's regular "Game of the Week" concept meetings. The graphics were taken from the game's concept doc, and Braben claimed that little attention was paid to "prettiness" (though the game ended up receiving praise for its soft, colorful visuals).
Part of the game's "dramatically short turnaround" resulted from the simplicity of the game's editor, which allowed level designers to place objects anywhere in the game while it was running in real-time, so they could "tweak the game without stopping it." As it turned out, the game ended up being extremely economical - the audio alone took more memory than the rest of the game combined.
Development spanned less than four months with a team that peaked at 12 members, with a release date of May 12 to correspond with the WiiWare service's launch. There were no demos or "distractions" to finish beyond the game itself. Braben called the whole process "brilliantly enjoyable development," and sees it as evidence that it's still possible to make a game in only a few months.
Braben then used LostWinds
' development history to springboard into a discussion of various lessons either taught or confirmed by that process. He started by noting that developing "something new" creates a great deal of editorial coverage - indeed, LostWinds
as well as 2D Boy's upcoming WiiWare and PC puzzler World of Goo
received a disproportionate amount of coverage from the gaming press among WiiWare games.
The designer also noted that non-development staff such as secretaries make for great playtesters on casual games when tuning difficulty, as they are closer to the broader target demographic than programmers would be.
Online distribution, he went on, is a great way of "de-risking" the publishing process, as it removes much of the overhead of getting games onto store shelves. Frontier has already indicated it is working on a sequel to LostWinds
To provide a contrast to the short, tightly-focused LostWinds
, Braben brought up The Outsider
, Frontier's long-in-development politically-themed action/adventure game for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. In contrast to LostWinds
, it aims for immersion through nonlinear storytelling; Braben compared the approach to that of the original Star Wars film, which he argues is more about an immersive world than a chronology of events.
The two titles are "at opposite ends of the spectrum," but all games need innovation to stay fresh, he argued.
(An audience member asked about the oft-mentioned but never-detailed Elite 4
. In response, Braben said, "It needs the right technology. We’re very nearly there. We don’t want to do something that is not brilliant.")
The Future Is Bright
Braben challenged the industry naysayers head-on. "There is more innovation now than ever, contrary to the implication of the retro community," he stated, noting that innovation and freshness sell copies. "We are an industry to be proud of," he added.
The media is reporting on games as a more respectable business, he pointed out, and the average age of gamers in the UK is now 28, with 48 percent of the gamer population being female. In 2007, the British Board of Film Classification age-rated only 2.4 percent of games as "18," with that segment representing only 5 percent of the market. Meanwhile, sales overall were up 26 percent year over year.
With the rise of the internet, the designer also maintained that game quality is now more important than ever for sales. Player to player communication is widespread and is becoming as important as reviews, as is the accessibility of gameplay videos. A good license or marketing alone no longer automatically generates sales.
The internet also brings new opportunities for publishers and developers, he said, even beyond the digital distribution channel itself, with delivery of additional in-game content, shorter paths to market, and vibrant online communities surrounding the games.
Trouble In Paradise
Still, Braben had one area of complaint: the gaming retail scene, which is increasingly dominated by used game sales, which provide no financial reward to the games industry itself.
The storefront of the film industry, Braben pointed out, is a shiny image of a film premiere and huge advertising around the cinema. The games industry's store front, on the other hand, is full of pre-owned games. "Only the paper announcing the new stock of the Wii Fit
combo is new," as he put it.
Pre-owned games can go around about ten times, Braben noted. In some cases, it can be difficult to purchase a particular game as new even if one wants to, particularly if it is an older game. This kind of backdoor rental is not tolerated by other industries, he claimed. In the film industry, there are special rental copies sold to stores for higher prices.
To combat this and "help retailers make the right choice," the industry could make pre-owned games more detectable, he offered. Microsoft uses one approach by including a scratch-off Xbox Live voucher with its games, although that would only be effective as a used sale deterrent to those who do not already subscribe to Xbox Live. Alternatively, developers could withhold functionality of used games in some way.
Looking further, games could be purchased online with the disc mailed after as backup, he said. Braben cited Sony Computer Entertainment Europe president and CEO David Reeves, who projects that digital distribution is likely to be the main route to market within five years.
Despite veering off into a brief bit of frustration, Braben finished his talk by reiterating that the games industry's future is bright. As he put it, there is more innovation, the market is bigger than it has ever been, and the rise of online communication means that quality is being valued like never before.