Making video games

27 April 2015

Interview with

David Braben, Frontier

How do you actually make a video game? And how has game development Elite: Dangerouschanged over the last few decades? David Braben is the founder of Frontier, who recently released Elite: Dangerous. This is a space venture game that's modeled one to one on our own galaxy. He explained to Chris Smith how he got started with his latest game.

David - Well, it depends what the subject matter of the game is. It's like saying, "How do you start making your film?" I think with that, you start off with a subject matter. So, with a game like Elite: Dangerous, we started off wanting to recreate our galaxy. We would look to all the star maps in real life and work out what we wanted to do. So, you start off designing what you would expect to happen and what the player would expect to see and work out all the different subsystems that are needed to be able to make that. Then, you breakdown all of those tasks into sort of sub-tasks. These days, lots of different people then work on it together, to bring it altogether.

Chris - How do you spot the gap in the market that you think, "Aha! This is where we need to target." How do you spot those sorts of trends?

David - So, many of us at Frontier are gamers, me included, and we know where there are sort of games that we know we'd like, but don't exist anymore. I mean, there have been very few space games for a long time for at least a decade, and yet, they have been very successful in the past. So, there was an obvious gap. The games market is a funny beast. It's much like the films in some ways, in a sense that a lot of the very big publishers tend not to go for the gaps in the market. They tend to go for the big sellers in the market. So, we see lots and lots of games that are all frankly quite similar to each other, and then huge gaps where there's nothing. If you talk to the publishers, they say, "Well, we're not sure games in that gap are going to sell."

Chris - How much do you have to spend in order to get a game to market nowadays? The days of being able to sit in your living room and code up a little thing that someone would take away on a cassette tape and load into their home computer? I mean, they're clearly gone. What's the price tag for that investment to get a game onto a shelf?

David - Well, the cassette tape is gone, but the principle hasn't gone.

There are still games that one, two or three people have created in often literally, their back bedroom, although they are few and far between. I mean, if you look at the massive blockbuster like Minecraft for example, it was created by a small number of people in Mojang. They created that as a very simple game and very quickly, it grew into a fantastic, monster almost.

So, it does happen and there is a whole area called indie gaming where independent people have gone and created games. A lot of them don't do very well, but a few of them do really well. What's great is there's a lot of - it's where our new blood is coming from if you like - it's not a million miles from the sort of indie music scene of a decade or two decades ago, when we were a lot younger when experimental music - not all of it brilliant - but some of it was great and they turned into big bands. And so, I think what's happened is the whole games business has matured a lot. So, we're seeing lots of different kinds of things appealing to lots of different audiences, whether some are aimed at kids, some are aimed at adults, some are aimed at people who want experiences where you sit down for several hours, others where you have an experience where you play for 5 or 10 minutes on the bus.

Chris - The internet must've made a massive difference now. Because I remember as a kid, I would buy a computer game. It was a one-to-one experience, you and your computer. But now, we expect almost to be able to compete against the world when we play these games.

David - Yes, I think it's made a lot of differences. I mean, one example, if you look at the kinds of games that do well and the way people find them; sort of 10 years ago, most games would be bought in a shop on a disk because you couldn't really download it.

What that meant is the gatekeepers of what games get made were the people who owned the route market. So, you would go into a big shop and often, it was only the big distributors who could get their games into those shops. So, they determine what games were made and that tended to mean lots of games that were very similar like I mentioned earlier get made.

But what's great now is the internet has facilitated this sort of independent development that I mentioned because lots of companies including Frontier now can go directly to our players, to our fans. And that means we can make games that we know we want to make, What it's done is it smoothed the route to making the game directly. What it's meant is lots of new games that probably wouldn't otherwise have got made including games like Minecraft and including games like Elite: Dangerous are now being made. What's happened? We suddenly now got a huge range of exciting things being made.

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