David Braben

“We’re looking to build long term relationships with people here” – Frontier’s David Braben on launching a major UK publisher

Games are a global business. And the biggest publishers are undoubtedly global players. That said, if you were to ask the nationalities of the top tier; wherever you draw the line on such a group, there’s usually a clear home turf for each: America, China, Japan, France and now arguably Sweden. But not the UK.

Despite having a huge role in the history and current development of video games, there is no major UK-based publisher. Maybe a victim of their own success, or because English-speaking companies were more easily acquired by US competitors.
However, there seems to be something of a renaissance in British publishing – and Frontier Developments is the latest to throw its, rather large and well-appointed, hat into the ring, with the official launch of its third-party publishing arm: Frontier Foundry.

“It’ll be great to see a big UK-based publisher and that’s essentially what we are becoming, which is a good thing for the UK and for the industry, David Braben tells MCV/DEVELOP, setting out some big ambitions for Frontier’s latest venture.
And it’s not alone, Frontier’s launch coincides with Jagex’s own publishing push (see page 38), while both Sold Out and Curve Digital have also recently stated similar bold ambitions to us in these very pages. So what’s Frontier’s unique attraction if you’re a developer looking for a partner?

WALKING THE PATH
In short, Frontier is a games developer with a huge wealth and breadth of titles under its belt. With 25 years of releases across PC, and practically every console, covering numerous genres. It has organically shifted from developer, to self-publishing developer, and now to publisher, over the last decade. We ask Braben if that journey will define its outlook in third-party?
“I think it most definitely does. Because we’ve seen it from both sides of the table. And speaking as a developer, I’ve worked with publishers for over 30 years, personally, and over 20 years as Frontier, and you see what really matters, you know what matters to the developer and what matters to the project itself.

“We have had so many projects that have gone the whole way through their lifecycle. It’s like bringing up a child, you really care about it, you know what matters… you try and make sure on it’s first day at school that it doesn’t get beaten up… by trying to think of what people might criticise.

“It’s also a case of perspective, I think one of the frustrations of working with a publisher is often you have to really polish for milestones in the last year, but polish visually, not necessarily from a gameplay perspective.
“But what really matters is that the gameplay is working. That you can see the promise of the game. And I think as long as we have confidence that whoever we’re working with can make something beautiful, there’s no need to make everything beautiful as part of that submission process.

“Because we’re a developer, we know the gameplay matters. And actually the best time to make something beautiful-looking is right at the end. But there can be pressure from publishing to make every milestone beautiful and that is ever so much makework. And eventually, it becomes quite demoralising for a team.”

He explains that developers are already positive about the approach: “Someone commented that the questions we ask are all about the gameplay, the design, why it will be great. Whereas with some other [publishers], it’s contracts and deal terms. Well, we can sort all that out later if we’re going to have a great game.

“We just look at issues that have to be addressed, not necessarily trying to solve every problem, because you can end up with things that are quite derivative by going down that route.

“And that’s why I think we can bring more unusual projects, or help bring more unusual projects to market working together with the developer, because we’re very conscious not to tread on toes on the things that matter.”

UNUSUAL SUSPECTS

Struggling
Physics-based platform title Struggling can be played solo or with two players, one controlling each limb of ‘The Abomination’

And some of its initial raft of products (which you can see highlighted in the centre of this issue) certainly fit that ‘more unusual’ banner. Time-loop shooter Lemnis Gate and platform title Struggling, come alongside an externally developed Switch port of Rollercoaster Tycoon 3.

The only thing that links the three is that nothing links them, they’re as an eclectic a bunch as we’ve seen. “I’d find it a challenge to draw any parallels between Lemnis Gate and Struggling,” Braben points out.

But are they indicative of the new publisher’s approach to signing titles? “I think indicative is always a dangerous thing because you get labelled very easily,” Braben replies.

“I think they are interesting and unusual games,” he states cautiously, saying that they wouldn’t want to miss out on exciting titles just because someone thought it wasn’t their thing, adding: ”I don’t want to force an identity early on.”

“For our wider industry – just to step away from Frontier for a second – I think the more interesting and diverse things we make, the more interesting and diverse the opportunity is for the player.

“I remember giving a talk more than ten years ago about how, as the technology within games improved, the number of possible games you could make increased. It’s like you’ve got islands all over the place. And as [technology] lowers the water level, more and more islands appear and some of the other islands join together or get bigger in terms of what you can do.”
While he doesn’t want to get pigeonholed, he is clear that Frontier Foundry isn’t about to start competing in the most expensive genres, he has no interest for instance in funding a straight FPS.

“That’s not a criticism of the genre,” he notes. “I just think that the cost of entry for that very narrow genre is immense, in order to compete with those very well honed games like Battlefield or Call of Duty.

“Lemnis is a first person shooter, but it’s a completely different feel, you know, once you have a chance to play it, and similarly Struggling feels quite weird.” And that’s in terms of how it plays, not just how it looks, it’s a physics-based platformer where you have to coordinate controlling two powerful arms to navigate a lethal environment.

“They’re not the sort of games that Frontier would do from our own resources,” explains Braben. “Because we’ve not necessarily got the experience, but it allows us to do the kinds of games, really interesting, rich games that other people have put all of their effort into, their love into, making something that’s great. I think that is very interesting to us.”

While this is the official launch of Frontier Foundry, crowned with appearances for two of its titles at Gamecom’s Opening Night Live, Frontier’s third-party ambitions date back a little further and the games we’re seeing now aren’t necessarily the first ones it signed.

For example, Frontier is also leveraging its strategy and sim experience by working with Haenimont, the developer of Surviving Mars and three of the Tropico series.

“We’re doing their next game, and that was the first one that we signed,” explains Braben. “But we don’t necessarily release them in the order we sign them – some projects are smaller than others, some take longer, some are in earlier stages when we sign them…”

So is there any gameplan in trying to sign titles at certain stages, when Frontier can still steer them as needed?

“What we’re trying to do is sign interesting, good projects. Some will be closer to release than others. Some will be right at the start. And we’re very flexible with that,”replies Braben. “What I’m hoping is people will look back at these games and think: ‘That was very interesting, that was fun’ or ‘I’m glad they did that, that was really innovative’.”

YES PLATFORM
And all that innovation now has more places to flourish than ever before. All three console stores are doing good business and Epic seems certain to take a good chunk of market share from Steam. So that must be good news for publishers right?
“I actually think a wide diversity of channels is really good for content creators,” Braben counters. “If anything, it slightly complicates the publishing process. Though that’s not a bad thing, what it does is it creates a lot of opportunities as well.”
Braben likens it to a digital high street, although one with less obvious cues than our own highly-evolved one: “Whereas on the high street, if I want to buy something cheap, I go here, if I want quality I go here. I think that will probably gradually happen over time. But if you look historically, at the people who benefit from a diverse market, it’s generally the content creators. You get lots of people essentially bidding, which is a fantastic position to be in.”

And those people represent many different approaches to game monetisation, from Epic’s low cut and exclusivity deals, to Steam’s huge reach, to Microsoft’s Game Pass.

“Games that are slightly more games-as-a-service oriented, will be a better fit for subscription model purposes. Than single player games. Both are valuable. Don’t get me wrong, but the different business models suit different kinds of games.”
Speaking of stores we ask Braben for his take on Epic vs Apple.

“I’m always wary of venturing into fights where there are lots of complex issues involved,” he replies. “I don’t think it’s as straightforward as people are making out. It’s like political arguments, you don’t really win by simply siding with one or another.
“As an industry there will always be arguments about which business model is best, how it works best for people. And essentially, what the 30 per cent has done is it’s created an opportunity for people to come in at a lower level, like Tim
Sweeney has.

“We’ve already seen an element of realignment with Steam, we might see different tier changes over time, but I think the industry is as healthy as ever, and we’ve got to make sure that all the different players in the industry get rewarded for what they do.

“Because otherwise you can end up with there being no platforms. You’ve got to make money for the platform somehow. I don’t want to come down on one side or the other, other than I do think the rates will gradually come down over time,” he predicts.

PHYSICALLY DISTANCED

Lemnis Gate
Time-loop shooter Lemnis Gate lets players build up a strategy over numerous loops. The name is a play on Lemniscate, the formal name for the infinity symbol

While the likes of Sweeney are off fighting Apple for a slightly bigger cut of the pie, the future of physical media becomes increasingly imperilled, with announcements like the discless Xbox Series S putting another nail in the coffin.
Braben recently said that the pandemic had accelerated the demise of physical retail and he already pinned it at only two to three years away.

“I think it’s true, though there will always be some collector’s editions and things like that. I think there is a challenge for some people to move from buying a physical CD, to downloading and playing on all sorts of devices like that, or even streaming as on Spotify. But nowadays very, very few people have a living room wall covered in CDs, but we did have them just 10 years ago.
So will Frontier continue to use partners for physical releases? “With physical, especially in some countries, there is still a benefit there. So if it makes sense, of course, we’ll do it. I think what we’ll see is over the next few years, it will make less and less sense for different kinds of projects. But don’t get me wrong, physical is still a sensible route to market.”

FEELING THE HEAT

Of course, the pandemic has had far, far more serious and wider-ranging consequences than simply hastening the demise of the disc. Although the games industry seems to have fared better than many, thinks Braben.

“Compared to other industries we’re doing really well, there are parts of our business, particularly the physical side, that have found it very challenging, but I think the industry in the round has been doing pretty okay.”

And Frontier specifically has weathered the storm: “Sales are up a lot. Working from home is going fine. We have still managed to release products. We’ve done it on time, they’ve reviewed well, they’ve sold well. So we’ve done the whole lifecycle now, with people working scattered around the country.

“It’s difficult for some individuals, no question. Particularly graduates who might be in a shared house, I think it’s more of a challenge, where, psychologically, you’re in what feels like a very small space. But for others, if you’re in a comfortable enough house, it’s actually quite civilised.

“I do feel for the people whose businesses and whose work has just gone away,” he sympathises. “We’ve not furloughed anyone, even people that we could have, because I just think morally it’s not acceptable for a business that’s doing very well.”
The real impact of the pandemic may not be seen on the industry until next year, when 12 months or more of missed events could reappear as a lack of business going forward in terms of signed titles and fans won over. But Braben feels the future is bright.

“I would think we would be in a good position. I think the transition to digital won’t go away. I think it has it has accelerated that a little in terms of the way people consume and play games, I think a lot of people became gamers, or they may have been lapsed gamers, they went out and bought console for lockdown, all around the world and they will remain gamers I suspect, because it’s quite a sticky occupation. We’re already seeing that, they’ve seen it in China, where they’re substantially out of lockdown,” he observes.

A SENSE OF TOUCH

Frontier
Frontier’s lovely Cambridge office, now reopened for those who want, and are able, to come in

Somewhere that’s not yet substantially out of lockdown is the UK office. Frontier’s is particularly nice, but does it now feel like an unnecessary expense?

“I think it’s still an asset. The fact that work from home has worked is great. And I think there’s no question that task-based working works well at home. Collaborative working, team-based working is actually better face to face, you can get things done more quickly.

“We were approaching capacity in the new building anyway,” he explains. “What it will do is increase our runway before needing another building because we’ll have an element of work from home. Because I think what it’s done is it’s taught us lots, we’ve changed our processes quite a lot, in a good way. And hopefully it’s helped people with work-life balance.

“We try to be as supportive as we possibly can to people. Where people have family members that might have illnesses that mean they have to isolate, all the way to the other end of the spectrum where people are finding it really difficult at home, psychologically.

“We’ve employed someone to work from a counselling point of view so that you can have one to one sessions. Some people have found it very hard psychologically being stuck at home. So nearly a month ago, we said for those who aren’t in a risk group, who aren’t worried they can go into the office if they want. The office is very, very big, and people are very well spaced, with a great ventilation system.

“We’ve got all of the doors pinned back during the day. Touch points are an issue, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest surface contact is a big factor, much more so than things like masks, so we try to reduce them, to be sensible.”

It sounds as ideal as it could be, although Braben informs us that their “excellent canteen” is sadly yet to reopen.

CASTING THE FUTURE
The canteen may still be shut, but Frontier Foundry is pushing on and it doesn’t look to be picking the low-hanging fruit – if such a thing exists in the hugely-competitive world of games publishing. Instead it’s making the most of an internal skillset that only a few years ago was looking to be out of vogue (thanks in part to Kickstarter) but then roared back to tackle the issue of discoverability.

“One of the key things for publishing is to create visibility for players. And publishing is a vital role. Whether you have it in a separate publisher is another thing but I think it is really important, and it’s a difficult thing to do well.” says Braben in support of the sector.

“And as the digital world becomes more crowded with more and more digital games, the role of publishing becomes more important. Whether it’s a separate publisher, or whether it’s an internal function is a different matter, but that internal function still needs to employ a lot of people.

“I think what we’re doing is a positive for Frontier and a positive for the industry and a huge positive for those people being involved with us. We’re looking to build long term relationships with people here, and hopefully, they will see that and the market will see that.”

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

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