Life in Video Games – David Braben, interviewed by Phil Elliot at BAFTA

If like me you’re a big fan of the game Elite, the seminal space trader game of the 80s created by David Braben and Ian Bell, you may have found the opportunity to hear David Braben talk about his work in the games industry at BAFTA rather compelling. For those who couldn’t make it here are my notes…

David’s first games were Defender and Binatone Pong. He took what he called his ‘amateurish first steps’ into coding on an Acorn Atom, ‘I had to learn assembly code and that was my first experience with 3D’ and met Ian Bell at university. He thought that ‘parroting’ arcade games for home consoles was boring: ‘What’s the point of a coin drop mentality with a home game?’

It’s now 25 years (crikey) since Braben & Bell created Elite! On developing the game, David told us it seemed ironically right to have money as a score and to choose to be the character of a trader, bounty hunter or pirate as socially and economically, times were interesting – it was the era of Thatcher’s Britain and the Miner’s Strike. It was also the right place and the right time for such a game and with 3D graphics ‘If we hadn’t done it someone else would have’. For those who are wondering, Elite came out when Braben was 19 years old, but started building the game when he was 18 and began programming at 17. Before Elite, the highest selling game was Planetoid with 30,000 units sold. He pondered that had Acorn not been behind Elite, the game might not have been marketed.
Elite uses random number sequences to generate 8 galaxies, which in turn generate 256 planets that fit into 22k of memory. Braben & Bell wrote a search to check for inappropriate names – they once found a galaxy called Arse!

David admitted, ‘Things like docking are so cruel – so apologies!’ and went on to say, ‘You wouldn’t get away with a game like this these days because the gameplay was so difficult’, and also ‘We made the game for ourselves’. An interesting feature was that the dashboard appeared in colour when no other games had colour and wowed Acorn. The sales were close to a million over a long period of time and there were 17 versions made because at the time there were so many formats – anyone could buy the bits and make a machine of their own. But eventually the move to 16 bit got rid of a lot of the competition. On this subject David confessed ‘We got stuck in a treadmill of doing lots of versions and although it was fun, it felt like we were doing lots of the same problem solving’.

Phil Elliot enquired how Braben followed up Elite, the reply was ‘We had to strike while the iron’s hot so we started on a sequel within a week’. The Elite Master version was launched a few weeks before the end of his degree at Cambridge. He also created Zarch (other interations aka Virus) for the Acorn Archimedes, which for its time was an excitingly powerful 32 bit machine. The sequel to Elite was called Frontier and David set up Frontier Developments in 1993. On creating Elite, David enthused, ‘It’s not unlike winning the lottery!’

David mentioned an amusing anecdote about piracy and Elite, they originally included some code and a message that popped up to say ‘If you continue this will destroy your computer’. But the games company wasn’t keen on getting the blame for destroying people’s computers, so the plan was to have just the message but to take out the code. In the end lawyers changed the wording to the less threatening ‘Does your mother know you’re doing this?’

Speaking about some of his more recent games, David told us how Dog’s Life showed that you could make compelling games that didn’t include shooting at things! It was a break in the mould, though in some aspects they were pushed into making it like other games. In Dog’s Life, dogs saw the world in black and white and could see smells while carrying out simplistic tasks that were relaxed and non-violent. This game shocked the industry in the opposite way that Elite did. Nick Park and Ardman were impressed and that’s how he got asked to work on a Wallace and Gromit game.

Frontier Development’s recent game on the Wii is called LostWinds and Braben showed us an exclusive demo and commented ‘The key thing with LostWinds is use of the Wiimote’.

On the future, David commented, ‘Elite 4 is something we’re working on – we’re not saying anything about it but we’re very excited’. He went on to say ‘It’s been so long that we want to do something in the same world but it won’t come out unless we’re happy with it’.

Finally, Phil Elliot asked ‘What’s your legacy?’ and the reply was ‘I’d like to be remembered for Elite, but I want to be remembered for more – we’re still at the beginning! If you remember, flickery film took a decade to get sound and then in the 30s we got stories. To quote Churchill, “We may be at the end of the beginning”. I’m very grateful to people who brought my games, I hope in 25 years we’ll still be talking about games. We don’t know what changes Microsoft and Sony will do – we don’t know what will happen with the Wiimote. Games today are pretty good and some games in the 80s were rubbish as some were impossible to finish. How things have changed!’

After some rapturous applause there followed some questions from the audience:

Q: The best thing about Elite was a world without boundaries – in some ways the industry is going back to that – could you talk about the change from procedural content and how to get the machine to do it on your behalf?

David: The problem that I had with Elite and Frontier is that they felt samey – you need a richness of content. The same feeling of a puzzle played again and again – we’re very good at spotting patterns and it takes an awful lot of planning from a design point of view, but the expectation is to make something plausible. Going forward there is a lot of play. How do we use enough procedural things, but not make them systematic?

Q: Team sizes?

David: Games were generally made by very small teams of 5 such as World of Goo by Introversion Software. What do you think is the ideal size of team? It depends on the subject matter, LostWinds was a small team but got bigger for the QA.

Q: What challenges do you face with technologies that change all the time?

David: Challenges appear all the time unless you keep making the same thing. We’re currently developing for 2-3 years along the line. Also depends if you’re doing it purely for the money and not passion. We’re all gamers at Frontier and really had so much enthusiasm for LostWinds.

Q: We’ve got a lot of platforms to chose from to build games for these days, such as iPhone, Wii, etc. If you could chose, which one would you pick?

David: It’s interesting, there’s the arrogance of doing what you want to do. The obvious answer is the iPhone, but there’s so much competition it’s difficult to get anywhere. Why are you doing it – is it money, new platforms to work with or having your name up in lights? For example, entry level for Wii you need the development kit, so the quality ends up higher. There are no easy answers, but ask what you want to achieve! It’s a hard slog, but be careful what you wish for – if you want to make the most successful game on iPhone you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Q: How do you see narrative progression in games?

David: I’m a strong believer in letting people follow their own narrative. I thought a lot in the days of Elite about why I loved Star Wars. I loved the film, but thought the story was cheesy and I saw the film lots of times. If you look at how non-written cultures, their fireside stories would change every time they were told because the story is not written down. With Star Wars and Elite, the narrative was minimal, but very rich in your head.

Q: How do you feel video games sit in situ compared to film music?

David: The average age of videogamers is over 30 years old. We’re still an amateurish industry, but that’s a good thing. For example GTA4 outsold the film Titanic. In the financial sense we’ve arrived. A lot of games on the Wii are toys as much as games and people love the process of building things in games, e.g. Simms.

More rapturous applause followed and we all headed off to the BAFTA bar. There was a big queue to chat to David, so unfortunately I didn’t get to talk to him about my docking technique, but had some good conversation with other folk, including a chap called Tim who showed me a cute snappy worm game he’d developed and just launched for iPhone. I also chatted to Michel who told me about his wormhole development for Oolite (an open source sim game inspired by Elite). Actually, maybe I should have asked David what he thinks of it!

Here’s some Elite pr0n from my collection :-D

A fork (E-UAE) of an Amiga emu called Unix Amiga Emulator for the Mac.

Elite on NES

Elite on BBC Master

2 responses to “Life in Video Games – David Braben, interviewed by Phil Elliot at BAFTA

  1. You have a BBC Master computer? *drool*

  2. Pingback: Taking stock of my 2009 New Year’s resolutions… « I love kittens…

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