INTERVIEW: Braben and Roberts lock coordinates on open space

Matthew Jarvis
INTERVIEW: Braben and Roberts lock coordinates on open space

The space race has returned.

More than 20 years after seminal franchises like Elite, Wing Commander and Star Wars: TIE Fighter set the bar for space simulation gaming, those that helped the genre first blast off are returning to making out-of-this-world games.

Chief among them are David Braben, creator of 1984 title Elite, who has returned with the fourth sequel Elite: Dangerous after an 18-year gap, and Chris Roberts, creator of 1990s space-action series Wing Commander and the original director of Freelancer, who is developing ambitious simulation title Star Citizen.

That's not to say titles in the last decade or so have abandoned the outer reaches completely – but space games of a certain breed have been in short supply as of late.

Games set in space have continued to be successful,” explains Braben. The Halo, Dead Space and Mass Effect series, as well as many others, have done pretty well.

Publishers have largely shunned open-world space games, though, because of an understandable level of caution. Since Freelancer in 2003, there has been a perception among publishers that such games are expensive, hard to make and don't sell too well when compared to big franchises like Call of Duty.”

However, Braben adds, fatigue among consumers is now leading to somewhat of a resurgence for expansive star-gazing games.

A largely unsatisfied player demand has built up as gamers have begun to tire of a sequence of very similar first-person shooters,” he states. There is a lot of appetite for something new.”

Roberts adds that while a minority of more complex sci-fi games like EVE Online have managed to thrive over the last decade among a niche audience, the sub-genre as a whole has struggled to hit warp speed – until now.

I don't know why particularly sci-fi fell out of favour for a while, especially the kind of game that I'm making, but I think you're seeing a lot of it now,” he comments. I don't think it's anything that's suddenly just happened, maybe there's been some interesting space games that are now on offer and perhaps the positive response to a few of them has emboldened other people to make the move.”

So how is it that resurrected franchises from two decades ago, that deal with topics and gameplay seemingly condemned to obscurity by publishers, have managed to explode back onto the scene with such aplomb?

There is a perfect storm brewing,” suggests Braben. We've seen a decade of a lack of such games, which has meant a pent-up demand for them. We've seen people getting tired of first-person shooters, we've seen the arrival of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter; this has been great for open-world sci-fi games like Elite: Dangerous. I have wanted to come back to this genre for a long time and this proverbial ‘alignment of the stars' has enabled it.”

Roberts, whose $59m Star Citizen drive has been confirmed as the most successful crowdfunding campaign to date, agrees that new services like Kickstarter and a move away from traditional publishing methods have enabled creators like himself and Braben to return.

Publishers aren't very good at knowing what people really want,” he says defiantly. They know what people wanted yesterday. So they tend to always focus on giving people another version of what they were keen on yesterday. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't.

Publishers aren't very good at knowing what
people really want. They know what people
wanted yesterday. So they tend to always focus
on giving
people another version of what they
were keen on yesterday. Sometimes that works,
sometimes it doesn't.What it does mean is that
when you're in a position where you want to do
something that hasn't been a big thing for a
while – something like
Star Citizen – they're pretty
myopic about it. But crowdfunding allowed the
people themselves to have a voice, and that
success has spurred on other people to
go: ‘I'll
do a space game as
well'. When people startto
see there's demand,
they jump back
on the bandwagon.”

Chris Roberts - Cloud Imperium Games Corporation


"What it does mean is that when you're in a position where you want to do something that hasn't been a big thing for a while – something like
Star Citizen – they're pretty myopic about it. But crowdfunding allowed the people themselves to have a voice, and that success has spurred on other people to go: ‘I'll do a space game as well'. When people start to see there's demand, they jump back on the bandwagon.”

Although both advocating for the rebirth of the genre, Roberts and Braben also find themselves facing off against each other with rival products. But Braben says that Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen – as well as other games joining the growing fray – can happily co-exist, much like two other legendary sci-fi franchises.

As a kid I would watch Star Trek on TV and was also a huge fan of Star Wars, he explains.

All these games are on different timescales, and, as such, fans of such games will doubtless play all of them as they come out. Competition is a good thing for players, as it drives the quality of all of the products.”

Despite future console ports, both Wing Commander and Elite were initally computer-exclusive games, debuting on the PC DOS and BBC Micro/Acorn Electron respectively.

That was in a gaming landscape alien to the one we now occupy, where consoles hold far more weight, but Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen are similarly PC-only – a move both creators say will allow them to go where very few games have gone before.

The Xbox One and PS4 specs are below those of a current top-end PC, so from a technology perspective at least, it is PC that is driving things,” explains Braben.

The PC is great both because of its performance and because it is open. Not only is it straightforward for us to publish ourselves on the PC, but the PC is also open to all sorts of other elements; great devices like HOTAS sticks, Oculus Rift and other VR headsets, 3D displays and higher resolutions like 4K all make the PC very versatile. And, of course, the PC is continuing to improve with time.

The biggest change is that we will, and are already, seeing the resurgence of science fiction as a genre. We will see more cross-device play – from tablets to phones to consoles to PCs – they will all begin t

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