David Braben: Why The Industry Needs ‘The Return of the Publisher’

James Brightman, Thursday, August 23rd, 2018 5:10 pm

David Braben is one of the preeminent figures in the games industry. He may not be known in America as well as he is in his native Britain, where he’s been knighted, but he’s earned a place among giants like Will Wright (The Sims) and Sid Meier (Civilization). Much in the same way that Meier has been dubbed the “father of computer gaming,” Braben’s work on games like Elite, Elite: Dangerous, Roller Coaster Tycoon 3, LostWinds, Planet Coaster and others led the The Telegraph to label him “one of the most influential computer game programmers of all time.”

So when I had a chance to sit down with the Frontier Developments boss to discuss his new project, Jurassic World Evolution, and his company’s entry into publishing, I happily said yes. Braben and I chatted in the middle of an E3 booth promoting the game that felt like it was transported straight from a movie set.

He acknowledged that there have been plenty of bad licensed games over the years, but much like Seismic Games’ Chief Creative Officer Eric Gewirtz described his work on Star Wars and Marvel titles as adding to the actual lore of the universe, Braben has found a certain comfort working within the confines of Jurassic World. Universal gave Frontier a ton of freedom.

We’ve become a lot more significant. We’re no longer seen as a marketing [ploy], sort of cuddly toy type thing to go along, merchandising with the film

“We’ve been able to do what I think is a really good game that fits very, very well with the film, without necessarily following the story absolutely rigidly, but telling our own story within the same world,” Braben continued. “So I think what it shows [is] we’ve become a lot more significant. We’re no longer seen as a marketing [ploy], sort of cuddly toy type thing to go along, merchandising with the film. But much more of a key part of the offering. And I think, hopefully, Universal are pleased with what we’ve done. We’ve shown that we’ve really valued the whole spirit behind the franchise, not just literally the what things look like, but the whole ethos and hopefully the players are now seeing it.”

In the past, licensors and game developers making games with big licenses might have butted heads over creative disagreements, but as Braben alluded to, respect for the medium of games has changed some attitudes. There’s a lot more collaboration now.

“Approvals haven’t been a huge challenge. Obviously, there have been issues, but we address them… It’s saying, ‘Oh, what about this direction?’ You’ve got to bear in mind how it fits within their wider picture, both in terms of the 2015 film, the Fallen Kingdom film, and what may be to come in the future,” Braben noted.

This isn’t Frontier’s first licensed game. The developer learned quite a bit from its work on the Wallace & Gromit titles. Building up an understanding between licensor and licensee makes it easy to preempt possible non-approvals.

“We did two Wallace & Gromit games and had a wonderful working relationship with Aardman, and with Nick Park, who is such a great person. By the end of that process, when they were very busy, particularly during the film launch, we were approving things on their behalf from other people. And that just shows how the chemistry had changed,” Braben remarked.

“They said in many ways we were fussier than they were on their IP. We knew very well what Nick really cared about especially, and not only made sure that our [work] complied with that, but we’d share our models with other people — people making things with nothing to do with the game, soap dishes or cuddly toys.”

He added, “In the same way we’re very precious with our own IP, we have to be similarly precious with theirs. We’ve [been] in this business for 36 years, have done a lot of licensing the other way. And I know how irritating it is when there is something that just blatantly contradicts the rules. And you think, ‘No, I’m afraid you can’t do that. You needed to do it this way, and this is why.’ And usually, it’s the ‘this is why’ that gets the other people on board. ‘”

Jurassic World Evolution allows you to build your own world and bioengineer dinos (Image: Frontier Developments)
Jurassic World Evolution allows you to build your own world and bioengineer dinos (Image: Frontier Developments)

Working with licensed fare and doing it well requires a special skill, as does publishing. Not every studio has the resources and know-how to effectively distribute and market their own titles. Frontier self-published for the first time in 2014 when it brought Elite: Dangerous to market.

“What’s interesting now, as the dynamic has changed, and we no longer have to persuade a publisher, but we have to understand those risks and take them ourselves,” Braben described. “I think the world has changed. We’ve seen a lot of new approaches to games, that I think in the older days probably would’ve been really hard to get through. And there are a lot of perceptions, I think, in how you market a game … that you need a character and all this sort of thing, and without that it won’t sell … that lead to games going down a different route.

“[For] Elite: Dangerous, we did think about going through a publisher many, many, many years earlier. My gut fear is it would’ve ended up becoming a character-based game, which would’ve made it much more single-player, which would’ve then made it much more like Mass Effect. I don’t in any way criticize Mass Effect. It’s a very different game. And that wasn’t the game I wanted to set out to make.”

Publishers were the gatekeepers for some time. Braben doesn’t believe some of the great titles making it to market would have been allowed through the gates years ago.

We’ve seen publishing for a long time from the other side of the table… and we were often getting quite frustrated by some of the decisions that were made. And there is an opportunity to rectify that.

“It’s very interesting how, over the years, particularly with the sim genre… the current publishers [showed] a big resistance to them. So, for example, the first Roller Coaster Tycoon game, no publisher was interested,” Braben explained. “And, begrudgingly, with no advance, no payment, it was taken on by Hasbro. And then the game got more successful, they did another run, because in those days you had to do print runs of discs, and so you were very much constrained by how big a print run you did. But they did more, they doubled it, those sold. They doubled it again, and those sold. And then they TV advertised it.

“But it’s funny, talking to those same people a year or two later, ‘Oh I was completely behind that.’ No they weren’t. They were behind it once it was successful. And you see a lot of that. And I think, just touching on Will Wright, I remember having a conversation, at a certain major publisher where that game was published as a favor to Will Wright, not because they thought it was going to be successful. But those same people would say, ‘Oh, yes, of course we backed that game, because it was from Will Wright.’ Which is sort of true, because they did it as a favor to him, but they didn’t think it was going to sell. And it’s that sort of thing that I think is frustrating.”

It’s with that understanding of what developers want and need that Frontier is moving from self-publishing into third-party publishing. The company doesn’t have any grand ambition of challenging the likes of EA, but if it can help some indies get to market, it’ll happily do so. Braben said the decision to enter the publishing field is particularly relevant in an era where overcrowding and discoverability have become nightmares.

“There is an opportunity of almost like a return to the publisher [days], because what it means, practically speaking, is once again we’ve had a sort of time when you can sell games with relatively little marketing. You’re going to have to spend the marketing again. Look at things like this stand, this gets us attention,” he said, looking at Frontier’s magnificent Jurassic booth.

“It’s great, and it’s something to be proud of. But the problem is, it does cost quite a lot of money. And it’s no secret that it’s cost millions of dollars in marketing for this sort of a game. And that’s not to be unexpected. But, having been an indie for a long time as well, you think, ‘Oh, Christ, that’s a lot of money to risk.’ And so I think there is a potential new wave where people like Frontier could help curate those other games, could help publish those other games. We’ve built what I think it a great publishing team, and we could use those and fund it to help other people.”

Braben was non-committal about how many titles they’ll publish each year. Instead, he said that publishing will simply be a case-by-case basis, where the team looks at what games it can help with… if they’re good quality. He didn’t like comparisons to other boutique indie publishers, however, as “some of them do actually quite aggressive deals,” which he’s been surprised to see.

“I think the beauty here is, we’re also learning,” he noted. “Because we’ve seen publishing for a long time from the other side of the table. For most of those 36 years, we were work-for-hire. We were working for publishers and they were publishing our games, and we were often getting quite frustrated by some of the decisions that were made. And there is an opportunity to rectify that, so we plan to do that.”

I don’t like criticizing other developers, but what you end up with, it’s a bit like pouring treacle into a nicely running engine. Eventually it will grind to a halt, because people can’t find what they really want.

While developers often want to keep their IP rights if they can help it, Frontier isn’t guaranteeing that in all cases, partly because the studio is open to lending a hand in development, not just marketing and distribution.

“It depends on why they want to keep the IP. Because the other problem is, when you put a lot of work into it, both sides want some guarantee of continuity. So there is on the one hand, what if you don’t want to do another version, and then on the other hand, what if we don’t want to publish another version? So I think you’ve just got to cope with the nuances of that,” Braben explained.

Braben believes some form of publishing assistance is becoming necessary in the PC and console market to help the cream rise to the top. He’s genuinely concerned that trends we’ve observed on mobile could repeat on PC.

“We’ve got to have integrity as an industry, and one of the things that I think frustrated me a little bit is watching what happened to iPhone games,” he said. “In the early days, there were some really great, creative games. But then what happens is, the barrier to entry has been so lowered by what are frankly excellent tools, that we’ve seen so many games that are copies of other games blatantly, and they’re rubbish. And the title is usually chosen to be confusing.

“I don’t like criticizing other developers, but what you end up with, it’s a bit like pouring treacle into a nicely running engine. Eventually it will grind to a halt, because people can’t find what they really want. And I applaud Apple for just letting things through, but the problem is, having some level of curation is quite helpful. And one of the great things with PC and console at the moment, is there is fantastic coverage from people like you guys. And that is a great differentiator.”

Braben has seen the evolution of computing and gaming technologies over nearly four decades in the industry. He’s still not a big believer in VR or what many see as the future in cloud gaming.

“I have never believed [VR] would take off. Right from day one, I said it would be niche,” he noted. “And it’s a great niche, but it’s still quite niche. We were, I think, the first people to support [VR] with a AAA game, with Elite: Dangerous in December 2013. It’s a wonderful experience, it is really wonderful. But it puts quite a high bar on the hardware, so my personal view is you can’t run any slower than about 90 frames a second, and the resolution you really want to be 4K per eye. [Currently] it is a bit blurry, it’s quite hard on the eyes for a long time. And the other problem is, trying to use it in a family environment, it’s really divisive. Because no one can see or hear what you’re seeing.”

Braben does see a “huge opportunity” in AR, and Frontier has worked with HoloLens and others from the early days, he said.   

“I think when we see displays made by Ray Ban and all the big glasses companies, that’s when we’ve won,” he added. “I think the battle at the moment is getting that to a point where it’s both usable and powerful enough not to be an issue. I think, when you’re superimposing on the real world, you need even higher frame rates, because the tearing effect is really obvious when you move your head.”

As for cloud gaming, Braben had similar thoughts as Unity CEO John Riccitiello. Ultimately, the speed of light and distance to servers will always be an issue.

“Gamers are very, very fussy about the precision of what they’re doing, and you introduce time delay to the controls of a few milliseconds, it just feels a little bit sloppier. And so my view is it can work, but it can only really work in the metropolitan U.S. cities, and in big European cities, because you need a relatively short ping time for that,” he said.

“I want to temper people’s expectations. And it may be the case that you can get to 70 percent of the market via just metropolitan cities around Europe and China and the U.S.; but then the rest would be really hard to reach because they’re on much poorer internet.”

Global internet infrastructure plus the cost of data centers and the power required to run the back-end all combine to create a pretty big barrier for cloud gaming. But no matter where the game resides, developers need to keep innovating. And Braben is cognizant of the fact that a lot of innovation today comes from a new generation of designers. The genesis of the battle royale movement is the latest example, he said, noting the old guard having to adapt by putting battle royale modes into Call of Duty and Battlefield.

“The innovation didn’t come from the old school,” he affirmed. “They’re almost forced to follow. And I think that’s a change in mindset, where the innovation comes from, where the freedom to innovate is.”

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