Credits, Cobras and Crowd-Funding: David Braben tells us about Elite: Dangerous
At the time of writing, Frontier Developments’ attempt to Kickstart a new entry in the venerable and classic Elite series is heading towards £600,000 GBP of a £1.25 million GBP target. The original project page for Elite: Dangerous was rather sparse, but the past few days have seen new concept art, information updates and videos released by the development team.
I asked Elite co-creator David Braben about the groundbreaking original in the series, why Frontier has waited so long to develop a new Elite title, the nature of the proposed multiplayer, and finding a delicate balance between the wishes of backers and the vision of the development team.
IncGamers: ?I?’?m going to assume most people reading this interview are familiar with the original? ?Elite,? ?but for those who may not be could you give a quick synopsis for the game??
David Braben: Take? ?100? ?Credits and a basic space ship to make money legally or illegally? ?– trade,? ?bounty-hunt,? ?pirate,? ?assassinate your way across the galaxy.? ?You fly seat-of-the-pants style for your life as you cross dangerous space routes to make your fortune.? ?Buy? ?food? ?cheaply? ?at a poor agricultural world and take it to an industrial power-house and make your fortune.? ?That?’?s if you make it there.? ?Perhaps? ?you?’?d prefer a life of piracy?? ?Pick off those juicy traders arriving with cargo bays loaded with valuable food instead and steal? ?it,? ?and deal with the police from time to time??? Or hunt those pirates for the bounty??
IG: ?Elite is generally credited with being the first? ?‘open world?’? (or? ?‘open space?’? I suppose it should be?!) ?game.? ?Was that intentional in your original design from the very beginning,? ?or something of a happy accident??
DB: Yes it was,? ?or rather the freedom was a key desire for the game.? ?Most games of the time were entirely prescriptive.? ?Fight off one? ?‘wave?’? of baddies,? ?then deal with another? ?‘wave?’?,? ?that were slightly more challenging to beat,? ?and keep doing this until you lose.? ?Three times.? ?Or four times if you manage to reach a score of? ?10,000.? ?You certainly couldn?’?t run away? ?– or sneak past them?!
We wrote the game primarily for ourselves? ?– ie? ?we were the judges of what the game should be,? ?and we wanted something very different from what had gone before.? ?That freedom was a big part of that,? ?so yes,? ?the freedom was our intention from the start,? ?and? ?the openness of the world was a key part of that.
IG: You say that? ?Elite:? ?Dangerous is the game you? “?have wanted Frontier to make for a very long time?”?; what has prevented you from doing this over the years since the company?’?s formation in? ?1994??
DB: Working with publishers is great,? ?but as part of the process,? ?inevitably the publisher will want to steer the game in a particular direction.? ?It happened with? ?“Elite?”? – the? ?game was rejected by Thorne-EMI because it was so different to what had gone before?; ?to what they believed would be successful? ?because those sort of games were? ?successful? ?before.? ?They wanted three lives,? ?a score and a ten minute play time.? ?That was because that was the norm? ?at the time.? ?Today,? ?we would be steered to make a game with cut-scenes that would appeal to an imagined audience.? ?That is not the game I want to make.
Publishers had then,? ?and still have now,? ?established processes and a key part of that is the forecast ROI or return on investment.? ?For that to work there has to have been a sufficiently similar game in the near past to base the forecast? ?upon.? ?The publisher will then try to ensure those similarities remain.? ?Anything else will be? ?‘too risky?’?.? ?It is why we see so many sequels and? ?‘me too?’? games.?
IG: You?’?ve just? (?at the time of writing?) ?added a pitch video and some artwork to the? ?Elite:? ?Dangerous Kickstarter page.? ?Was it a deliberate decision to open the Kickstarter without those?? ?What was the thinking there??
DB: It was a matter of timing.? ?We wanted to go live as Kickstarter went live in the UK.? ?We actually thought that it would make sense to make a second? ?‘splash?’? when we added more content to the site? ?– we? ?thought it would be a slow start.? ?With hindsight we were wrong? ?– particularly? ?because of the huge splash the BBC story made.
IG: ?It sounds like multiplayer will be a key part of this entry in the series.? ?If you?’?re able to say at this point,? ?how will the multiplayer system work?? ?Is the intent a persistent? ?‘MMO?’? style world where every player will be present in the same universe,? ?or more of a drop-in/drop-out,? ?invasion/co-op system like? ?Dark Souls??
DB: It has elements in common with both.? ?There will be significant elements of persistence? ?– the? ?world will gradually change,? ?and everyone will effectively? (?in some respects?) ?be in the same universe,? ?but you will also be able to select the players that you can meet in the game? ?– perhaps? ?just your friends? ?– perhaps all-comers.? ?You will also be able to leave the game,? ?and your commander will be saved? ?– you? ?will not be able to be robbed while offline,? ?for example.
IG: ?In the Kickstarter video,? ?you refer to a hypothetical situation where a player could call another player for some co-op help with ferrying some cargo.? ?Will co-op be? ?‘formalised?’? in a situation like this,? ?or would you be aiming for more of a trust-based system where,? ?in theory,? ?the person helping ferry the cargo could turn on the first player and steal the freight??
DB: It will be a trust-based system.? ?The helper could indeed turn on you and steal the cargo just as you?’?re about to complete the journey.? ?Some missions will be based around encounters? ?– things? ?like distress calls or stumbling upon a shipwreck.? ?They may be what they seem?…? but they might not be?…
IG: ?Are you able to expand on what you mean by procedural generation techniques going? “?further?”? than in previous games?? ?Does that mean more detail with star systems,? ?more procedural influence on the game?’?s economic/political models,? ?or something else entirely??
DB: All of these things,? ?and we have procedural texturing,? ?procedural cloudscapes and other things too.
IG: With so many more games being developed and published today,? ?do you think it?’?s now much harder for titles to make such a stylistic,? ?revolutionary jump as? ?Elite did back in? ?1984??
DB: It is certainly harder to make an impression,? ?and stylistically there is such a broad range out there,? ?it is hard for strong differentiation,? ?but having said that,? ?the best games still stand out.
IG: ?Space-based games seem to be cropping up a lot on Kickstarter? (?Star Citizen and? ?Strike Suit Zero to name a couple?)?.? ?Is this simply down to a general lack of publisher interest in the genre pushing developers to Kickstarter,? ?or is there more to it than that??
DB: That is a big part of it.? ?I think the assumption is that games set in space will not succeed because there hasn?’?t been a big success in space for a long time.? ?A sort of circular,? ?self-fulfilling argument?!
IG: The first? ?Elite was the game you and Ian Bell wanted to make?; ?the vision of two men.? ?With this crowd-funded project,? ?will you be relinquishing a little of that development power to the players who?’?ll be funding the game? (?in the sense of beta feedback and other suggestions?)?
DB: Yes.? ?It is important that we embrace the desires of those backing the project.? ?We all have a similar goal already? (?which is part of the beauty of Kickstarter in the first place?)?,? ?as? ?we have all come to Kickstarter with a very similar goal,? ?and? ?in the few cases? ?where the goals are slightly different? (?for example emphasis of single player over multiplayer or vice-versa?)? we should be able to find a solution that? ?accommodates? ?both sides.
There can also be a huge benefit in having open discussions about ideas and plans for a game.? ?We find it at Frontier with our? ?“Game of the Week?”? discussions? ?– more? ?often than not the discussion about what might be a tricky issue in a design? ?yields? ?a solution that wasn?’?t originally in the mix.
IG: Kickstarter campaigns seem to fall into two categories?; ?you have the projects launched by established developers as a way of bypassing publishers? (?yourself,? ?Tim Schafer,? ?Obsidian?) ?and those launched by smaller teams hoping to get their first game made.? ?As the former type become more numerous,? ?is there a danger that they will begin to dominate the media coverage,? ?to the detriment of the smaller projects??
DB: Not at all.? ?In fact I believe these are actually the same category? ?– both? ?are looking at it as a way of bypassing publishers.? ?Those trying to get their first game made are doing it this way because the publishers? ?won?’?t deal with them as they are set in their ways.? ?That exact same issue applies to established developers too.? ?The reasons are not too different.
What Kickstarter gives is the opportunity for those passionate about wanting to get something made to connect directly with others that also want to get that same thing made.
IG: ?Looking far,? ?far ahead here,? ?if? ?Elite:? ?Dangerous is funded and proves to be a success,? ?is there any chance of? ?The Outsider re-emerging as a Kickstarter project??
DB: Perhaps.? ?It is a great concept,? ?perhaps a little before its time.
The Elite: Dangerous Kickstarter can be found here.