Just a handful of the UK’s independent studios are still run by the pioneering individuals who founded them, and David Braben’s aptly-named Frontier is at the head of the pack.
Currently employing 120 people in-house, Frontier is based on a single site in Cambridge’s Science Park, having combined its Cambridge and Ely offices around two years ago. It’s working on a wide variety of projects, including current gen big hope Thrillville and the next-gen standard-bearer, The Outsider.
Develop: What is Frontier currently finding the biggest challenge in development?
David Braben: Making the changes to a new generation of hardware and the associated transition as new tools and techniques come on line has been an issue at each of the four generation changes I have seen so far – and this one is no different. Also, as project sizes increase once again, we have to refine the way projects are managed too.
The current change is probably more akin to the first one – that is, from the old 8-bit machines to the 16-bit ones – because of the major changes needed to the way we work.
That first change was significant – it was the change from one or two developers to teams, from assembly language to compiled languages like C (for all but a few die-hards like myself), but the gradual nature of the change, and the costs involved made it manageable. This time the scale and effort involved is that much greater – but the payoff is correspondingly larger.
Most games now facilitate fourth generation games with fifth generation graphics, but to go further to a true fifth-gen game has required a significant reworking of tools and technology.
And recruitment? Getting sufficient high quality staff seems to be a choke for a lot of UK studios in the current climate.
It is indeed, but The Outsider and our relationship with good publishers such as LucasArts has been very helpful here. This is part of the reason we have started early with The Outsider publicity – to attract the best candidates. We’re doing well at getting excellent graduates, but still want to hear from more experienced hands on all fronts.
One problem I have seen is there are few good Computer Science courses at universities any more. Most are dumbed down, teaching Java, and going easy on the mathematical side, especially the techniques you need in games today like matrix maths.
I had a depressing conversation last year with a professor at a well known red brick university about computer science, where they had tried reintroducing maths into their course and found students leaving for softer options like Media Studies. Now that courses are funded purely based on the numbers attending, this is a serious issue.
Does Thrillville represent a deliberate move to create your ideas in-house?
We have always primarily done original titles and created our ideas in-house. Even when using Aardman’s wonderful Wallace & Gromit characters, the game and the story we created for their first video game outing, Project Zoo, was written and conceived here at Frontier. The second game clearly tied in quite closely to the Curse of the Were-Rabbit film, but even then, working closely with Aardman, we extended the story to make it work well as a game.
We have done quite a few titles now around Chris Sawyer’s great RollerCoaster Tycoon series, including RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 and its expansions, which I suppose is what you are alluding to, but since Chris is a shareholder of Frontier, it seemed a logical choice.
Who owns the rights?
Thrillville is jointly owned by Frontier and LucasArts, and came out of the will to revisit the simulation/ tycoon genre for a console audience – to recreate the excitement of first entering a theme park.
What’s the thinking behind creating a game very much targeted at current gen consoles and kids?
The very large number of fourth generation machines will not disappear overnight, and I expect this will not be the last game we will do on them, but their ownership will gradually skew younger, as with all previous transitions.
Nevertheless, just because the game has a young audience in its sights does not mean it won’t be taken up by the more core gamers, too. I hope that the longevity of the attraction of the mini-games (which I am very pleased with) and the underlying simulation element will help. Also, you’re assuming Thrillville is going to stay on the fourth generation...
On a next-gen note, how is development of The Outsider progressing?
Very well indeed. We have had overwhelmingly positive responses from the few people that have seen what we are doing, and why it feels so different.
The Outsider started off as a diverse range of technology research projects, and it is great to see these coming to fruition – and now coming together for what I think will be a major milestone of a game. When looking at where to ‘push’ with regard to new technologies, we chose quite a broad front, and I had personally expected that we would not get as far as we have in some cases, so even I have been pleasantly surprised.
When do you expect to have the game signed, and what rights do you hope to retain?
Always a difficult question, as it requires the right partner, but I’d expect to get it signed some time in the first half of next year. As with all our projects, what I like to see, if possible, is a longer term relationship with a publisher where we are all ‘the same side of the table’ – working together to make the game great, so I would expect joint ownership of what should become a valuable franchise.
What’s your take on self-funding games like that?
A major advantage of the self-funding approach of pre-production at least (if you can afford it!) is it enables developers to make games that would not get funding otherwise – usually because the idea or technology is unproven.
This has been the case for a long time, and Elite was a conspicuous example. Ian Bell and I had largely completed the game before showing it to publishers, and even then we were met by reticence from most because it was so different to the games of the time.
And with The Outsider?
With The Outsider, it has allowed us to address the big potential ‘project killer’ risks up front, and to create working prototypes of specific aspects of the game. Once these big elements are in place, a project can be scheduled and planned with confidence – and this risk reduction element is key to getting a project of this size underway. Unless we can see a reliable way to delivering the project, we’re not comfortable to ‘sell’ it to a publisher anyway.
We are not trying to create the much-vaunted vertical slice; this concept in itself is tied to a previous approach to games. When the structure of a game is a self-contained cut-scene/level/cut-scene/level format, it makes sense – but the more a game relies on a rich world, the more of that world is required to truly see a ‘slice’.
What do you sense games publishers are looking for most in 360, PS3 and Wii games?
Something to make their games stand out from the crowd. The Wii is very interesting with the new control system, but is also quite a risk. As with EyeToy, some of the games which require the most extreme controls – where the user has to stand up, for example – are likely to be short-lived; they make great party games, but are hard to play in a restricted place like a living room, where you have to watch out for knocking things over. Other games that can be played by a couch potatoes sitting down I would guess are what will survive longer term.
A couple of years ago you talked about a coming Golden Age of games, drawing comparisons with the history of movies. Is it dawning as you’d hoped?
Any such Golden Age requires us to make it happen; we need to continue to drive forwards, or games players will get disenchanted with games.
Prior to 1930 (or thereabouts) films were about spectacle, they were a collection of beautiful set pieces (like Buster Keaton’s newspaper gag, Harold Lloyd’s clock face dangling episode, and countless cars being smashed into by trains), only loosely linked by a lightweight story. Are games now so different?
The change in cinema was enabled by the ‘Talkie’ – synchronised sound technology – but nevertheless it was five years or more before what this enabled actually came to fruition, where cinema came of age with compelling epics that engaged the viewer like The 39 Steps and Citizen Kane. Before this films were not seen as ‘respectable’.
How do we get there in games?
There are plenty of obstacles to overcome to achieve respectability. One worrying aspect is that of the shopfront of our industry, the retailers. Most do a very good job in a difficult climate, but with some there is an aura of the jumble sale.
Pre-owned games in dog-eared packaging in gaudy bargain bins are a problem. Not only are their sales (generally) not recorded in the charts, but they further reduce the shelf-life of new games and so are an obstacle to quality, as they reduce the benefit of longevity to the original publishers and developers.
I don’t see why we cannot move to genuine rental model, as they have in the video industry, where a ‘for rental’ copy costs significantly more than a retail copy, and have done with it?
The alternative is to include online functionality, only available to the original purchaser of the game – but this drives an unhealthy wedge between the retailer and publisher.
Where do you see Frontier being in three years time?
I expect we will still be independent, with long term relationships with certain publishers, but who knows? Independence enables us to make the sort of leaps we have with The Outsider, and we plan to do for future projects.
And that massively multiplayer online version of Elite?
Elite IV will come after The Outsider. We have two such games in mind, one is a fundamentally single player game (which would support small numbers of players in multi-player), and the other is an MMO – but I imagine that would be later.
Do you still have any involvement in day-to-day game design?
Yes, I do still get involved in game design. To be honest, it is the main reason I am still in the industry. The sort of game design opportunities presented by the technologies we have been putting together for The Outsider are like new toys we have been waiting for, for a very long time now. It is that feeling you may have had as a small kid on Christmas morning, opening your new presents...