A quarter of a century making video games. In the case of its founder, the legendary David Braben, we talk about more than three decades of the history of the game. Which is almost like saying that Braben is an Orlando of the tenth art. Because the evolution of this medium, technological and artistic, in these three decades, is like going from the stone age to the Internet in three fleeting flickers.
Today, Braben and the company he founded 25 years ago, Frontier Developments, live a placid and successful present in the Cambridge Science Park, away from the madding crowd in a limpid but to some extent discreet large property. Nothing of an omnipresent brand image on every corner, with replicas of the spacecraft that ply the cosmos in Elite dangerous hanging from the ceiling; nothing either of the dinosaurs of Jurassic world evolution, the last pitch of the company. The headquarters of Frontier is a silent laboratory of ideas that does not reveal, at a glance, before what kind of company we are.
In one of its meeting rooms, the main staff of the company is presented. Jonny Watts, COO of the company, Alex Bevis, CFO, and, obviously, David Braben founder. A legend of the medium that like other illustrious British – the Codemasters twins, Richard Garriot or the ineffable Houser of Rockstar – have silently contributed to turning it into the entertainment giant that it is today. A symptom of how invisible are the faces behind the pixels. His biography in the Wikipedia in Spanish barely has three lines, although his works have been played by tens and tens of millions of people. 1UP sat with the illustrious trio for a long hour, in an exclusive interview that Braben commanded with affable eloquence.
Syndication, cultural status, the emerging narrative, the future transmedia, self-publishing … Nothing remained untouched in this conversation that we now transcribe with a minimal edition.
Question. There is a big change with which I would like to start this trip. They have gone from being a company that worked, so to speak, to the letter of the powerful of the game to be reborn as a self-publishing company. Recently, Jason Della Rocca gave a talk in Madrid …
David Braben. I know Jason well, yes [sonríe].
P. For in that talk, which he gave to the indie community of the capital, he spoke of precisely this was the way: self-publishing; that you are not in the business of making games, but in creating communities [de fans]. This is, so to speak, the end point of the trip, in which Frontiers is located. How was the beginning, 25 years ago?
DB. I can go back, personally, much more [risas]. Personally, I started in this 37 years ago [Braben lanzó su primer gran éxito, Elite, en 1980; Frontier no se fundaría hasta 1994]. Everything was very amateur by then. It was just at the beginning of the middle explosion. The Publisher concept did not exist. Obviously, work on commission, either. It's funny, but the picture was much more similar to what we have now than to these last decades. In the sense of creative freedom and speed to do something and distribute it to the public.
Of course, then … [risas] We talked about a video game designer recording his works on cassette tapes, putting them in a package, along with your photocopied covers and end point. There was no more left. You only had to put the stamp, the sender and send it by mail to the buyer. That was the distribution in the eighties.
Gradually, it became more professional. I still remember when I visited Acorn[[publisher of his first success, Elite, and mythical video games like Adventure by Warren Robinet]… Their offices were in an address. To get there, I had to leave behind a neighborhood electronics store, a series of containers and then get out of the side of the house and enter through the back door. The concept of publisher, in the mind of someone who knows the word, associates it with a large building, a bit like the one Frontier has now. It was not that at all by then.
P. Was there then the feeling of creating something new in a cultural sense, rather than building the future dominator of the entertainment industry?
DB. I think it's a good perception. And I think that lately we are returning to it; a little, at least. The lowest point of this creative spirit, and the highest of the mercenary, I think it was the last 80 and the first 90. We saw many games identical to each other, each of a brand. And most of them competing only in what movie they gave them the cover image. Some of them were … shocking.
I remember one in particular, The Robots, who was very poor. But I had a spot great advertising At the time, that was enough to have tremendous sales input. But of course, then people played it and realized that it was very good.
P. Like the game of 'E.T.' for Atari.
DB. The details of that particular development I do not know. But I think there was very little time, right?
P. Well, I think like a couple of months or less [en realidad, fue escasamente más de un mes].
DB. Puffff …
Jonny Wats Do you talk about the game of E.T. from the creator of Yar's Revenge, do not?
JW I read a great article about the game that defended it a lot. One of the first games in history with collectibles. Actually, its design was very sophisticated for the time. And that was his problem. The players had a hard time having to memorize the map and the threats. It was very difficult. In fact, it is argued that this is one of the book cases in which a game was unfairly criticized in its time.
As developers, the truth is that it is really difficult to criticize a game of others, because you know how difficult it is to make them. There are even references in the cinema already. You've seen Ready player one?
P. Yes. The scene about Warren Robinet's easter egg was wonderful. In fact, that is a subject in itself. In the 80s and 90s it was practically impossible to know who was behind the games. The industry overshadowed its creators.
DB. They did exactly the same as the big Hollywood producers in the 1920s. The screenwriters were ignored. And even silent film actors were credited much less.
P. I imagine that this invisibility was by contract. That when Frontiers assumed one of those mercenary jobs, there was that clause.
DB. Sometimes. The big problem at the time was that they were playing everything to the number of cartridges created. Tell him you created five million. Well, although the game sold four, which was already a very big success, the company had to eat a million games without selling. This is what happened with the game of 'E.T.' and that iconic image of the cartridges being buried in an open field. The fact is that Atari came to sell other titles very well [de hecho, fue por entonces la adquisición de derechos más cara de la industria del videojuego: unos 22 millones de euros de la época, cercano al presupuesto de la cinta] and that's why they thought it would be a great success.
JW Returning to the question, there is something that caught our attention when we organized an exhibition for the players of our games. There were fans who did not know that certain titles were ours; Kinectimals, for example. As the name of the publisher He was the one on the deck, nobody was not aware of us.
The case is that a whole reward to see the eclectic panoply of titles that we have created in 25 years. For example, to 'Dogs life' [juego de PlayStation 2] he was called in his day the Grand Theft Auto with dogs [risas]. The fact is that, even when we worked on commission, there was a maxim behind each game: treat the player as an intelligent individual; let's give it something sophisticated. It does not matter if your target audience is a child or an adult, male or female.
DB. In fact, in what you mention, I think we were pioneers. Our games were among the first to achieve a balance between female and male audience. And then you read things like: Sony has done a great job with this.
DB. Sure, the people here, reading things like that … Yes, Sony published it, but we conceived it from the first stone to the last. And that, in the end, is the question. It's like in that scene of Bohemian Rapsody, when they disdain Freddy Mercury. I do not know how reliable it will be. What I do know is that I received a letter of rejection from Elite He told me that, to fix it, he had to put in a three-life counter, a high score 10,000 points and that each game should not last more than 10 minutes.
The industry does not want change. He fears it. That's why the change from working to order to becoming independent is so crucial. Jason's comment [Della Roca] about creating communities hits the spot; but there is more. It is building communities around works that people care about.
P. There is one thing that fascinates me about Frontier and that is that in your list of games there are hardly any examples of what was so common until the first 2000. A dominant line of videogames that try to translate the experience of watching a popcorn movie to interactive art. Frontier games have not been like that; they have been games that only make sense as games.
JW What you say makes us especially proud. Look at the three we have now: Planet coaster, Elite dangerous Y Jurassic evolution. They are non-linear worlds in which the player is the one who fixes the narrative and the way to play. We do not give you a prefixed space. We let you create your way. Trying to sell this approach to a Publisher … Elite dangerous I do not think it would have been possible.
DB. In fact, in the time of work by order, we talk about resuscitating Elite. And look, it happened a bit like with Mass effect. As far as I know, the initial focus of Mass effect It was more like ours. But then the people of marketing and he tells you that the best way to sell it is by having charismatic characters. And of course, this is a decision that ruins the initial design, because if you have a cast of charismatic characters, you already have to focus on human interactions. And do not get me wrong, I think that Mass effect It's a great game, but …
P. It is cinematic.
JW It is about the experience you want to look for. Let's see, when I read the Jurassic Park book, I was fascinated by putting myself in the shoes of a park manager who had to deal with this problem. The movie gives you a plot made of how everything goes to hell. We let you manage the player how his experience happens. Obviously, when you finish everything will go to hell as well, because otherwise it is not funny [risas]. But the path to disaster is genuine for each player.
DB. The most fun, is when it goes a little bad. Or it's almost a disaster, but you save it. [risas]
JW We have a great Hollywood screenwriter in Jurassic world evolution, but the way in which he wrote the story was not linear. He left space for the player to create his own narrative. I think it's the way narrative works best in video games.
DB. For me, one of my obsessions is that the narrative always tells a story, but the story is not necessarily narrative. I explain. When you tell a classic, linear story, that of counting in front of fire, there is only one way; from beginning to end. But for me … Look, Star Wars, for example, that I went to see with my father at the premiere. He told me, on leaving: "Bah, it was not so much, it's just the story of rescuing a princess."
DB. It's amazing how I got pissed off about that. And it was totally true; but at the same time it was not. Because for me the extraordinary thing of seeing Star Wars I had been immersed in that world. It was the first film, honestly, that interested me in its creation of the world. I had read many books and authors that caused me that feeling: Larry Niven, Robert Howard … These books, at least in the eyes of a teenager, managed to create worlds in your mind. While the television, well no. Star Wars it was different. Star Wars Yes it seemed a credible world. To me Star TrekHowever, I was disappointed. It seemed to me like an operetta, a representation.
So, for me, creating a story is as much the particular and specific line that some characters follow as the world that you build around you. I like to call the specific path that a character goes through: narrative. And then you have narrative in branches when that character can make a decision about his trip around the world. I applaud the games that manage to disguise those choices and make them not look prefabricated. But it is very, very difficult to do it.
It is for various reasons. If you start the branches soon, it is expected throughout the game to have a capacity for constant decision. And of course, deciding means recording multiple options with actors and writing them. And that ends up forcing the writers to recast the divergent plots at some point to regain some control.
P. How is the creative process to create something so open, in a sense of narrative and expression of each player, as Elite dangerous? Because the big problem of today is the domino effect that creates not being able to generate an artificial intelligence that reacts on its own to a dialogue with the player. As such intelligence is impossible, you have to create dialogue by branches. And the dialogues by branches are created by scriptwriters. That is, both the questions and the answers are prewritten; and that impacts the feeling of interactivity and freedom. How do you deal with these problems in Frontier during the early stages of development to choose which mechanics will be the most flexible and expressive for the players?
JW Let me take a distance to get to this point by leaning on Elite. What we create here, that some call sandbox, but I think it's more than a sandbox, is a series of very complex systems that interact with each other. So it was just a matter of seeing how the player faced them.
I give you a very specific example: the fuel rats. This is a player profile that was not created by us. It is a community of users that is dedicated to replenish those ships that are suddenly without fuel. Sometimes it takes days to get to the ship in danger. But they have designed their ships to carry huge amounts of fuel and be able to fulfill this role.
If you ask one: "Well, what happens if you get to that supposed beached ship and it's a trap?" They respond: "Well yes. Sometimes happens. Then, we die and that's it. "
But it is not fascinating that for a group of people fun in our world is this, refueling who has been stranded[thiscommunityis[estacomunidadestáorganized with its own website, very worked in his aesthetics]? In fact, I think it's a reflection of society. In society you also find altruistic people, bad people, selfish people who only think about themselves. And this is seen when you have a game open enough. Fascinates me.
DB. There are about four or five possible answers to how to do this type of mechanics. I think, in fact, that this question points to what is the beginning of a great journey [para el videojuego]. We do not yet have an AI that answers the player efficiently; although we are improving on that too. What you can have is a group of players who, when they meet, generate unexpected situations. What can you do as a designer when observing these interactions? Facilitate them.
Take the case of the fuel rats that Jonny commented. Philosophy when you see something like that, is: let's listen to them, let's observe them. The secret is to build a long-lived community. And, let's be honest, ours is five years old now.
P. For how things are, it's a lot.
DB. And we do not stop constantly changing the game! We look at them and say: "Look, they're doing this. Well then, if we give you this … "And so on all the time.
From a point of view of history; not the narrative; of history. The ability to tell a lot of small stories. For example, those of the generational ships; The idea is that they are vehicles capable of traveling long distances. And, being human nature as it is, at the moment we have a new technology like that, we use it; although it is dangerous. It is probably a one-way trip.
There is a clear parallel. The settlers of the American West. They took their families, put them in a wagon, joined a caravan and adventure. They had no idea what could happen on such a trip. They were completely crazy! But they did it. The same in the time of Columbus. We know that many more ships left than they arrived. From time to time, we discover the wrecks.
The fact is that these generational ships behave the same. And each one has its own history. You have to think about what would really happen if you put hundreds of human beings together for generations in a closed space. In many cases, they would kill each other [risas]. We are just like that. We have one that I love in which only one crewmember survives and he writes a logbook detailing how he has been left alone.
P. A constant in Frontier is science. Do you notice that your audience, your community, is interested in this topic; what is, so to speak, illustrated?
JW It's funny that you mention this. It is clear that we like to be scientific in our games. A game like Planet coaster Apply the real physics that you can find in a great attraction. In Jurassic world evolution we play with genetics. And in Elite we made this copy of the Milky Way.
DB. There is an interesting story about it in Planet coaster. The attraction Steel Vengeance [del parque de atracciones Cedar Point, sito en Ohio, uno de los más prestigiosos del mundo] It premiered in our game. And it's a real attraction. We had to replicate all the actual conditions accurately to make this premiere possible. And it is curious to think that the first contact of a visitor with that attraction was through us.
I think it is true that our community are the first evangelists of this interest in science. And this is also related to the step to independence and self-publishing. Because the first part of that community of players is us. We play the games we create. And that is contagious.
Back to Elite Dangerous; We have another community of self-styled users Cannon Interstellar Research Group that are dedicated to travel the universe of Elite for all its confines to find all those strange messages and surprises that we have left hidden[[on your Twitter page, this community often updates the findings].
One of the crazy things that they started and that I like the most was when they discovered by brute force a city that we showed in a trailer last year. Since our sky is not painted by an artist, but is real, they were able to triangulate the position by approximation and then hit the exact solar system by observing the colors of the planets. We had left a trail of much more mysterious information to find it. But the community found its own way.
P. But of course, this forces a constant update.
JW And that is wonderful! Think that when they were floppys or cassettesIf you wanted to modify a game, you had to agree with the owner of the magazine that distributed them. Now we can be constantly changing it.
P. One thing that would interest me a lot to know how the teams are structured and what are the qualities that you look for in your signings.
JW For a game, they are around a hundred, a hundred and something. The games we do have a very high graphic quality and that forces a large team size. But it is the maximum with which we feel comfortable; beyond, we do not want to grow. Then you have the heads of each department, the production manager and the creative director overseeing everything.
But as for the design itself, we have a very clear philosophy: the best idea wins. It does not matter what happens to a programmer, an artist or a designer. Games with this amount of detail are impossible to evoke by a single person.
DB. There is something I want to add. While fostering creativity, we encourage constructive criticism. You have to create an environment safe enough for anyone to criticize anyone's idea and say where they see the failures and possible improvements. Because there are many ideas that sound memorable and then when landing them in the game, they are tedious or do not fit with the rest.
Another thing to be careful with is not designing things that a group of people love, but another detests. We had this case with difficulty. You can upload to your community if you put an extremely hard challenge that only a very small part of your audience will try.
P. One of the themes of the year has been the crunch and, related to it, the unionization of workers. What do you think about it?
JW As we have been making games so long, we have implemented many things that work internally. As an example, have vowels that speak for each group. The fact is that making a game is a very intense task. So if you are exhausted or stressed, you do not contribute the same.
The other side of this issue is that it is a vocational job. So sometimes people are very willing to put in extra hours to polish the details. I would say that when we worked on commission we definitely had crunch. I think this, on a personal level, coincided with us when we were young and we did not have families. That made it somewhat more wearable. We were a young story led by young people. But it was clear that the pace of the industry was not sustainable in the long term.
DB. It is true that in this work there can be a tremendous amount of pressure. And, specifically speaking of the unions, it seems to me a very sad thing that people think that is what we need. A company should be built in such a way that a union is not necessary, that anyone can file a complaint without problems. I believe that in our case we have those channels and groups to talk openly and that they work well.
JW I guess part of the question comes from everything that happened around Rockstar. I want to believe that it is the exception to the rule. I want to believe that the industry is maturing and that it understands that the key is to be sustainable on a human level and take care of our people. I am amazed to walk through the corridors and see people in the corridors with which I have been working for 20 years. They are like brothers and sisters. And that's why we have to take care that they are happy. And you know what? I think they are.
Alex Bevis. Sorry to interrupt, but I think the change of model to self-publish helps. When we worked on commission, we did not control the calendar. Now we can set our pace. Whenever we succeed, we will have it under control.
JW I just hope that our situation extends. And if they are unions, what is needed for companies to treat their employees well, well welcome. I just hope that everything focuses on us to work better and better at reasonable times.
P. The announcement of the Epic store is one of the earthquakes of how to distribute games. Another will be the streaming. What impact will these channels have on the creation of video games?
DB. Well, I think part of the crunch it came, like in the movies, that we had to package games before. Everything had to be ready and definitive. The way we work now, with open development, helps alleviate the crunch, but also allows you to design a different strategy based on the content. Because now every game is like an edition for collectors, which keeps adding things throughout its life cycle. And each piece of that edition can be distributed through a different channel. In this sense, the work of Steam and the PlayStation and Xbox stores have completely revolutionized the way you launch a game.
JW In fact, its apogee coincided in time with our decision to self-publish. And it is true that without these channels it probably would have been impossible to do so. We probably would not have allowed that risk.
DB. I think Valve has been excellent with Steam [aunque muy criticada en fechas recientes, especialmente por los desarrolladores menos poderosos]. I think that if there is a plethora of stores, the client may end up very confused. But still we are open to any opportunity. And what may end up happening is that each one specializes in a specific type of product.
JW One thing we love about Steam is its Workshop. For games like 'Planet coaster' it is vital, because it provides a place where our community can upload their creations. The amount of capital that Valve can invest in infrastructure to make it possible is incredible. We believe that this made 'Planet Coaster' a better game.
P. I think it's something interesting that Tencent has invested in their company, because it seems that the future of entertainment will be dominated by the great technology. Being Tencent one of the Top Ten, what would enter the company was a way to ensure a preferential place in that future?
DB. I would go farther than you suggest. I think the whole universe of entertainment is changing. Radically. And we are doing entertainment. The borders between cinema, literature and videogames are being diluted. Every time you import less what you do and more the quality you achieve.
In this context, I am very sad to see the British studies that have fallen. Bizarre Creations had a short life; five or six years And when they close, they lose their IP, the key people go to other companies; the spirit behind that seal disappears. The good thing about Tencent is that it offers another path. It keeps a small part of the drive [en el caso de Frontier, en torno al 9%] and let us do.
We take many precautions and study the question very thoroughly before giving them the yes. But we realized that having them on our side was going to be tremendously beneficial to enter China. They have helped us a lot; to the point that everything we have launched there is a success. One of the things they do, which helps a lot, is that they sign the best influencers, youtubers, etc. and they organize huge launch events. And that gives you incredible visibility. For one of our events, there were 25 influencers; each, at least ten million followers. The footprint left was gigantic.
Something like that, we could never do it ourselves.
P. Looking to the future, as you said (Braben), the boundaries between media are diluted. Does that mean that all entertainment companies, including yours, have to see themselves as creators of transmedia content regardless of whether they were born in movies, television, comics or video games?
DB. This is something I do not see for the future, it's something I see for the present. Let's see, is that we already do a huge amount of non-interactive content; both in the game and then on Twitch or YouTube. Right now, as we speak, we are making a streaming 24 hours for charity. This is an incredible amount of material.
I think you're right I think we have to communicate and hybridize with entertainment companies with other DNA. But going further, and that is what we are doing, we have to create our works of tomorrow, thinking already of that crossing of roads.
P. Do you mean to have, for example, a first-class writer who writes for Elite dangerous?
DB. Can be. But also new things. Franchises created to be transmedia. We have, in fact, that we have a franchise that we will launch next year that explores these things. And there is much more thought for the future.
P. Although you can not give me specific details, what is the main emotion behind this new project?
DB. It is that this is always problematic [sonríe]. If I tell you something, it will start the speculation ball about what we are doing. We are very jealous of our secrets. To give you an idea, when we signed the Jurassic Park license, British law obliged us to announce publicly that we had done it.
And we did it, but we consulted the lawyers on how to do it did not mean what kind of game we were doing. So the formula was something like: "We have signed a great agreement with a major of Hollywood for a franchise of enormous global impact and longevity " [risas]. It was fun. Within hours, the Internet boiled with dozens of lists with 10 franchises that could be. And then they were refining until they had three that could fit that definition. So I'm not going to say anything about that new release.
But in reality we do not have only one launching in march, but many. And it is also a very diverse portfolio. As we were until now or more. The only common point in which they are aimed at a large audience and that will be games created with a motto in mind: Remember, with love, 10 years after its launch. And I think we fulfilled this even when we were doing commissioned work.
P. I have two more questions for you. One is related to Pokémon Go.
DB. [Risas]. Clear!
P. We have never seen anything like this in the video game. Maybe in general in all popular culture. Has your success encouraged you to think about playing with such things in the future, with augmented reality?
JW Pokémon Go It is very interesting We can not talk about concrete things that we are experiencing, but it is certainly a very interesting case. And it comes from afar. If you study it, you realize that there were many previous innovations in design that have made it possible. But as to what we would do …
DB. In fact, we have a pokeparada just beside.
DB. It is a question that connects a lot with what we spoke before, the diffusion of the frontiers between media for the public. There are, of course, many fascinating technological possibilities from a design point of view to be exploited. For example, the relative positioning between mobile devices.
The mobile, by the way, is going to change a lot. We were used to having an abyss between the desktop platform and the mobile. And that abyss is being cut.
P. And if you already compute everything in the cloud …
DB. Well, yes, but that will only be good for the metropolitan areas, with good coverage. Fuera, las esperas serían insostenibles. En cualquier caso, Jonny estaba siendo precavido porque trabajamos mucho con Microsoft. Y ya sabes, las Hololenses… Para mí, la realidad aumentada es realmente interesante cuando tienes libres las manos.
Pero, de momento, la tecnología es muy torpe. No me veo llevando unas gafas así por la calle.
Lo que sí me gustaría decirte es que para mí, en general, el panorama del videojuego es como un inmenso mapa por explorar en el que todos los puntos visibles están apilados encima unos de otros [risas]. Quiero decir, que la diferencia entre 'Call of duty' y 'Battlefield' es mínima. Y luego sale Fortnite, que es un punto ligeramente desviado de esos, y ya todos a hacer modos Battle Royale.
Para nosotros, el futuro es descubrir esas regiones por colonizar del mapa que potencialmente pueden interesar a mucha gente pero que no están siendo exploradas.
P. La última. ¿Cree que hace falta un evento a lo Cannes o Venecia que muestren más a los rostros tas los juegos?
DB. Alguno tenemos. Está la GDC.
P. Sí, pero la GDC está pensada para un público profesional. Me refiero a algo con un alcance de gran público.
JW. Es una pregunta muy interesante. Yo, por ejemplo, leo Gamasutra, porque creo que es el punto de encuentro entre desarrolladores. Pero, de nuevo, no es para el gran público.
P. ¿Y creen que es posible crear algo así para el gran público?
DB. Soy un jurado en el Bafta, también en el de cine. Y mira, hay una gran verdad. ¿Cuántos diseñadores de producción conocidos puede nombrar un aficionado al cine? ¿H.R. Giger? Pues eso te dice, y en los videojuegos pasa igual, que muchas de esas profesiones y profesionales solo interesarán dentro de la industria.
JW. Bafta lo intenta. Pero tener un gran foro sería muy interesante.
DB. Bueno, de hecho, nosotros semanalmente hacemos un streaming sobre temas muy específicos y salen diseñadores (a algunos les encanta y otros lo odian, claro).
P. ¿Y la gente los ve?
DB. Parece que sí; yes. Pero también es verdad que ahí la audiencia se escinde en dos: el que está interesado en ver la tramoya y el que no quiere que muestres que hay tras el telón. Este segundo grupo no quiere que la fantasía se revele como real. Es como esa extrañísima demanda de una madre porque un actor se quitó la cabeza de Mickey delante de sus hijos.
Tenemos ya algunos eventos para hablar y tienen su público. Pero es claramente menor que los que compran el juego. Y creo que eso pasa también en el cine.