Frontier on bringing scientific authenticity to games and why the studio still uses its own engine - MCV
As they settle into their shiny new building, we talk to David Braben and his team about the scientific authenticity that lies at the heart of each and every Frontier game

Frontier Development’s latest game, Jurassic World Evolution, is just being finished as we visit the company’s new building, which is part of the science park on the outskirts of Cambridge. It’s easy to spot, despite being so new that the council haven’t yet given permission for a nice shiny sign outside.

The gleaming building looks like something you’d find in the game’s dino-park simulation, while in buildings nearby there’s actual genetics research going on. And it doesn’t feel like simply a coincidence that the game and Frontier’s own choice of locale chime so sweetly.

Frontier takes scientific fact very seriously, using it to build an authentic core to fantastical pieces of entertainment – much like Michael Crichton did in his original novel. Thankfully, the chances of a genetically-engineered dinosaur rampaging through Frontier’s lobby below us remain slim.

Safe in that knowledge, we settle down in a smartly-minimalist new board room, to meet Frontier’s top trio, with founder and CEO David Braben flanked by chief creative officer Jonny Watts and chief operating officer David Walsh.

Frontier Developments new building on the Cambridge Science Park

Frontier Developments new building on the Cambridge Science Park

A NEW OUTPOST

The trio look to still be in the honeymoon period when it comes to their new building and while it’s undeniably a status symbol, the company sees it more as a statement of intent.

“We’re expecting and demanding genuinely world-class work from people and they need a suitable environment,” Walsh tells us, adding that “it’s a fantastically better tool than we had before.”

There’s plenty of meeting rooms plus onsite recording studios. Best of all, it unites the company in a single building for the first time in many, many years. That means the 370 staff, split across an undisclosed number of development teams, can easily meet and discuss their projects. Plus it brings the in-house publishing and marketing functions closer to the development teams than before.

There was never any thought of leaving Cambridge, Braben tells us: “We’ve grown up here and it’s actually quite hard to move. I think it’s nice to be in a competitive environment, where we have to work hard. After all we’re not the only games company on the science park.”

Frontier Developments new office on the Cambridge Science Park

Frontier Developments new office on the Cambridge Science Park

With Jagex and Automaton nearby and Ninja Theory in town as well, there’s both a big talent pool and plenty of competition for it, Watts points out: “All these prestigious companies want really talented developers, so it just goes to show that we must be doing something right to retain our staff.”

And it’s not just about experienced games developers. Braben explains there are lots of skilled programmers on the science park who do not currently make games but who have transferable skills from their current roles. To that end they put up clear hoardings around the site when it was being built, to ensure their neighbours knew who they were.

RED ENVELOPE

Sitting in that building, it’s impossible not to think about the double-whammy of investment that Frontier has come into in recent years – first through its IPO and then from last year’s £17.7m Tencent investment – the Chinese giant now owns nine per cent of the company. However, Walsh explains that these acted as a security net to the company’s expansion rather than necessities to fund it.

“We got our IPO money but then Elite Dangerous generated cash and it turned out we didn’t need the IPO money. Other than that it was very important because it gave us the confidence to go in that direction, in terms of scaling up our development to do new game releases more frequently than we have done in the past. The Tencent money fulfils a similar role today, and so far we haven’t needed it but it’s great to have it there.”

An IPO naturally brings greater scrutiny of any company’s earnings on a quarterly and annual basis. Which can be something of a roller coaster for developers who don’t have annual releases. However Braben points out that because Frontier’s games “are successful year after year, it becomes less of an issue.

“We are bringing the releases closer together just by the fact of scale and the other opportunity it gives us is working with other developers. We can use what we’ve learnt in [self-publishing], there are a lot of interesting opportunities there going forward.”

There has been some concern at the size of investment from Chinese companies into the UK games industry recently. But Braben doesn’t equate the relatively small stakes involved to the swathe of American takeovers of 20 years ago.

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“You look at the list of once great British companies that were acquired by US giants and then slowly suffocated. Which is tragic. There are a lot of them, I won’t list them out. Then they end up getting disbanded and various staff moved to the head office of the US acquirer. We took an investment from Tencent. I think they’re great. They are very supportive. There’s a very different model to the US acquirers. Beforehand, I spoke to Fred Wester of Paradox, he had high praise of Tencent’s support.”

Watts adds: “From a development point of view we feel very supported. Our games are getting better and better in my opinion because we have enough resources to make them. And that’s the bottom line.”

Walsh agrees: “It’s enabling. We’ve gone public, we’ve changed our business model and it’s all to make better games.” He adds that working with Tencent has other benefits: “It’s a genuinely a strategic investment both ways. We knew China was an interesting and strategically important region for us. [Tencent] sees that the type of games we make are starting to really resonate with Chinese consumers. China is an amazing country that is going from strength to strength at the moment. And we were already selling in China when we first had discussions with Tencent.”

And with the reach of the Jurassic World license and the huge boom in theme parks and rollercoasters in the region, the firm’s slate has definite appeal to Chinese consumers.

SELF HELP

The investment and the building are both plain indicators of the success of its long-term strategy, which started with a steady transition from work-for-hire projects, such as Kinectimals for Microsoft, to being entirely self-publishing today. As Walsh explains:

“If we were talking five or six years ago, we would have been very excited because we’d just have got the Jurassic World licence, from say Microsoft, to do a game for them. But now we have the license and we’re publishing it. And that’s the real transformation here.”

He goes on to admit that before “[they] were not making the games that [they] probably would have played [themselves].” However, the experience did have its upsides by teaching the team to “hone in on exactly what it was about the game that will be exciting and appealing to the intended audience,” and in pushing the team into “a range of different genres.”

Walsh is clear though that self-publishing is just that: “We didn’t fall for the trap of ‘we don’t need a publisher, we’ll just go off and make our games’. You absolutely do need a publisher, it’s just that we’re our own publisher.”

And Watts too is positive about the publisher role: “One thing the publisher used to do – this is the one positive I will say – is that they are your conscience, a good publisher, a good external producer, pushes you and challenges you and tries and make that game good.”

We wonder how this is managed internally, whether there’s a separation of church and state so to speak? Watts replies: “The beauty of where we are now is that we do have a publishing department, that we get the benefit of. But we are on the same team. So we’re getting the constructive criticism, we’re getting that conscience, but we’re not getting that division.”

Braben won’t name names, but it also means they’ve now sidestepped “some of the more bizarre decisions [of publishers] that happen, where you get a lot of wastage in the process.”

Braben continues: “We’ve got decades of experience working with publishers, including companies such as Sony and Microsoft, and they work hard to get their games noticed. It doesn’t just land in their lap. Knowing this competitive landscape, knowing that there are lots of great games out there, this is why we have to make our games really good.”

SCIENCE AND NATURE

Not only is Frontier making some great games, there’s a clear theme running through the studio – that sense of authenticity and scientific accuracy. This has come out of the passions of the team, explains Watts: “We are fans of the genre of games we make. I am a roller coaster enthusiast. David ‘might’ like space,” he laughs. “While dinosaurs are the reason I went to university.”

Braben explains that even Elite Dangerous is built on scientific fact, with a one-to-one recreation of the galaxy with “all 400 billion systems” included. Though, as Watts tells us, the gameplay is of course predicated on “one big lie” – that being the faster-than-light travel that underpins everything you do.

Elite Dangerous

Elite Dangerous

The simulation’s mass model was accurate enough to roughly predict the placement and size of planets which hadn’t yet been discovered, Braben explains. Though of course hard scientific fact rarely makes an enthralling game on its own.

“There’s truth and believability and then we build a game on it but it immerses people a lot more because they can latch onto reality. And that’s why science fiction is such an amazing genre because you can get transported to a totally different world. Some of it feels real and that’s how you get this immersion,” Watts enthuses.

COBRA MEETING

The simulation aspects of Frontier’s games do make some unusual demands upon the company’s in-house Cobra engine technology.

“Rendering planets, you’ve got such a big draw distance, unless you make them into ‘Clangers’ planets that you can represent with 32-bit floats. When you need full 64-bit, it’s a challenge and there isn’t another engine that does that,” Braben says.

That means the company has more programmers than most developers these days, companies using off-the-shelf engines. So it would only be natural for the company to not stick with its own tech.

“It’s one that we do debate internally, I don’t know about the future, but I will say that every time we’ve had this debate our engine has won hands down,” Watts tells us emphatically. “The reason, is that we pick various parts of the game that we want to be better than anything.”

Whether that’s Elite Dangerous’ huge galaxy, or the intricately modelled crowd in Planet Coaster, as it pathfinds and spends the cash in its pocket. “That’s where we put all our energy in and so it gives us this competitive advantage to choose core aspects of the game where we really go to town on it,” he continues. “Our engine is multi-platform, it’s been in development in various iterations for 30 odd years.”

Planet Coaster

Planet Coaster

And having their own tech allows the team to move quickly to keep up with the latest trends, such as when it provided Oculus Rift support in Elite Dangerous within weeks of DK1 headsets becoming available.

And it’s flexible too, Watts says: “It’s the engine that’s done Elite Dangerous, Kinectimals, Planet Coaster, Lostwinds, Jurassic World Evolution, Wallace and Gromit: Dog’s Life…” The list could go on.

“It is a balance, because you take Unreal off the shelf and it gives you so much great stuff, it’s just when you want to push it in a direction where we can’t compromise. That’s where your headstart is caught up… We don’t believe our own hype. We like to keep testing ourselves and challenge ourselves that these decisions are correct,” Watts explains.

FRONTIER BRITAIN

With Braben at the helm, it’s hardly a surprise to find that the company is both scientifically-inclined and, in a way, programmer-centric. After all, as a co-founder of the Raspberry Pi project, teaching the world to code has long been important to him.

“There are worldwide issues and local issues,” he says. “I think it was a real shame that computer science was removed from schools for the best part of the decade. I think that was unforgivable… Just a terrible act of vandalism. A number of us lobbied to get that
change made and we we’re told by members of government that we were special pleading [self-interested lobbying] which is really terrible ”

But, in part thanks to the Raspberry Pi, plus “the British Computer Society, Microsoft, the whole games industry” who were “all very supportive,” it’s back on the curriculum today and Braben sees things looking up for the UK industry in general: ”Over the years various changes of government started to support this whole sector, and the current government is very supportive which is fantastic.”

Tax breaks are obviously a big part of that, he adds: “What we were trying to achieve with that was a level playing field because other countries already had them for many, many years before we did, including France, Canada, a lot of US states.”

He goes on to note that a lots of the development and revenue now in Canada could have been in the UK if things had changed quicker. And change is going to keep on coming, the co-creator of Elite predicts.

“If you look over the 36 years I’ve been in the business, the amount of change that has occurred over that period, from frankly a completely amateur industry – which was lovely, don’t get me wrong – to where we are today... And it still feels we’re at the beginning of a process.

“We’re not at the end of the process. We’re beginning to become very, very significant in the entertainment sector, beginning to have all those great relationships. It’s amazing.” 

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