David Braben

Fron­tier Stu­dios’ founder on Elite and chicken DNA.

PC GAMER (UK) - - CONTENTS - By Phil Sav­age

Juras­sic World Evo­lu­tion has one of the more mem­o­rable booths at this year’s E3. Mim­ick­ing the films, huge gates wel­come you into a walled-off trop­i­cal stand – com­plete with ve­loci­rap­tor – containing rows upon rows of PCs demo­ing Fron­tier’s lat­est park sim. It’s here that I meet up its founder David Braben to talk about how Juras­sic World Evo­lu­tion came to be, what’s next for Elite Dan­ger­ous and Planet Coaster, and if chick­ens are the key to res­ur­rect­ing di­nosaurs.

How did Juras­sic World Evo­lu­tion come about? Did Uni­ver­sal come to you based on Fron­tier’s ex­pe­ri­ence with Planet Coaster or did you pitch them?

Uni­ver­sal came to us – which is bril­liant! Iron­i­cally we would have ap­proached them in some way, be­cause we were look­ing at do­ing some­thing with di­nosaurs. We knew about the film, ob­vi­ously, but it was one of those spooky mo­ments where they ap­proached us and I think that was won­der­ful. It’s also an in­ter­est­ing sign of the times, you know? Ten years ago we’d pitch at half a dozen pub­lish­ers be­cause that’s how the world was ori­en­tated. We’d bid for a game and then the per­son with the least money – be­cause they had paid the most for the li­cence – would end up mak­ing the game.

I think what hap­pened is an aw­ful lot of games came out that cre­ated a bad rep­u­ta­tion for tie-in games, so there haven’t been any real tie-in games for quite a while. And hope­fully we’re show­ing a new way it can be done, and hats off to Uni­ver­sal, by the way, I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate that, be­cause it shows how for­ward-look­ing they are.

What’s the process like ac­tu­ally work­ing with Uni­ver­sal? Pre­sum­ably they need ap­proval on cer­tain things...

With all of these things there are pros and cons, and it’s been good work­ing with them. We had pretty well free reign – there are ap­provals – but the way I’d frame it is it’s much more… with ap­provals it’s much more about build­ing a re­la­tion­ship and if things are work­ing well, you’ll find it gets eas­ier and eas­ier over time rather than harder.

I’ve heard of cases where peo­ple drift apart, where there was a lot of fric­tion with ap­proval as it went higher and higher, and that can prove very prob­lem­atic. But we’ve ob­vi­ously done li­censed things in the past … and go­ing for­ward there will still be a mix. We’ll do some li­censed things and some orig­i­nal things.

Pre­sum­ably there are some com­pro­mises in work­ing with Uni­ver­sal. I’m as­sum­ing there’s no mod sup­port planned.

No, there’s a lot of chal­lenges with a li­censed game there any­way … The rea­son I’m slightly wary of mod sup­port is it then means we can’t eas­ily up­date the game. Elite is very sup­port­ive of… not quite mods, but we sup­port a lot of third-party tools and third-party plug­ins, which are essen­tially mods, where we’ve said, ‘We’d rather you don’t go there be­cause we’re in­tend­ing to im­prove that’ … What we don’t want is the game to go off in mul­ti­ple di­rec­tions so we can’t touch the code, be­cause then it would trash all the mods. We’ve al­ready had that a lit­tle bit, be­cause one of the prob­lems we’ve got with Elite Dan­ger­ous … is that there’s a bit of an arms race go­ing on with the an­ticheat­ing stuff. On player-ver­sus-player, we’ve had the odd thing where [mod­ders have] be­come in­vin­ci­ble, and that’s not fair to the other play­ers … It’s things like that.

What I’m re­ally say­ing is that we do un­der­stand the pos­i­tiv­ity of [mod­ding], but there is a bal­ance here. The up­side is that we’re con­tin­u­ing sup­port of the games, and that’s the flip­side of mod­ding.

Does that mean you see Juras­sic World as an on­go­ing project, like Elite and Planet Coaster?

Yes. We’ve al­ready said there’s an up­date com­ing on June 22 with some of the things from the film, which we didn’t want to put in early be­cause we didn’t want spoil­ers for the film. And I think there will be some other things in there as well, but yes, I imag­ine we will con­tinue sup­port­ing both with... we’ve talked about some free stuff, I’m sure there will be some paid stuff as well we’ve not an­nounced yet. But it’s a lovely sand­pit to play in, for want of a bet­ter term, for things we can add… new mis­sions, new di­nosaurs.

Fron­tier has moved to a new of­fice, and you’ve been staffing up re­cently – what does the next phase of the stu­dio look like?

We’ve been staffing up con­tin­u­ously – we’ve never stopped staffing up.

What’s hap­pened is we’ve be­come more vis­i­ble, we’ve taken on around 50 peo­ple a year for the last few years, and that’s been re­ally good for us. We’re in the new of­fice which is re­ally nice, as you said.

What it’s meant is we’ve con­tin­ued to sup­port and nur­ture the ex­ist­ing fran­chises. Elite Dan­ger­ous has con­tin­ued to grow, the team size is ac­tu­ally get­ting big­ger.

Planet Coaster has con­tin­ued to be sup­ported. We’ve got the Ad­ven­ture Pack, the Spooky Pack, the Stu­dios Pack, there’s an­other one to come which we’ll be an­nounc­ing shortly and then there will be more af­ter that … Each of these things has some free stuff in and some paid stuff. And I per­son­ally don’t feel like there’s any is­sue with that. With the paid stuff, you’re get­ting a lot of new things. The

Stu­dios Pack also adds ho­tels and lots of other me­chan­ics to do with that. We would do some­thing sim­i­lar with

Juras­sic as well – con­tinue to sup­port it over time.

And then, of course, we’re also hard at work on the fourth game. We’re not say­ing what that is yet, but we’ll say when it’s the right time, which will be a way off – prob­a­bly either at the back end of the year or early next year. But ob­vi­ously we’re ex­cited about that as well, and with Juras­sic fin­ish­ing, we’ll be kick­ing off other projects. We’ve al­ready got a small team on the fifth, we’re look­ing at it… so we have a nice flow-through.

From a staff point of view as well it’s also re­ally good be­cause peo­ple who have been on Elite for five or six years now might want to change and we can of­fer that change in­side the stu­dio. And what’s good for Elite is it brings in a lot of fresh blood and fresh ideas, which is al­ways good for a game. It keeps it alive and keeps it pos­i­tive. The plan was – be­yond the [cur­rent] sea­son for Elite, which is mostly an­nounced – there are a lot of things that we will be an­nounc­ing that are re­ally ex­cit­ing, some of which will be free, some of which will be paid. So it’s that quite healthy mix that is very good for the stu­dio and is re­ally good for the game.

You talk about the com­mu­nity’s re­la­tion­ship with these games, and per­haps the most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple of that is the Fron­tier Expo that you did last year. Is that some­thing you will con­tinue?

Yes. We don’t want to get onto a tread­mill of do­ing it reg­u­larly at the same time each year – it’s some­thing that we’re look­ing at when’s a good time to do it. We haven’t an­nounced or prop­erly de­cided – we’ve got a rough idea – but I thought it was re­ally good, and for me it felt like an­other stage of the com­pany. I felt, ‘Wow, all these peo­ple…’ We sold out those tick­ets re­ally quickly. It was only a rel­a­tively small num­ber, but still a lot of peo­ple. And the talks were re­ally good. Wil­liam Baines for the Elite Dan­ger­ous [talk], talk­ing about xeno­bi­ol­ogy, and Jack Horner talk­ing about Juras­sic was lovely. That was amaz­ing be­cause he went be­hind the scenes – he was a great guy with lots of in­ter­est­ing sto­ries. Do you know him?

I don’t, no.

Right, so he was the sci­en­tific ad­vi­sor for all of the Juras­sic Park films, but he was also the real-life char­ac­ter who… do you know the guy played by Sam Neill? He was based on Jack Horner, loosely. In the sense that the things that the Sam Neill char­ac­ter had dis­cov­ered were all ref­er­enced back to things that Jack Horner had dis­cov­ered in real life, like the ve­loci­rap­tor claw and that kind of thing.

But what’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing is that Jack Horner’s job now is mak­ing di­nosaurs for real from DNA! Which is in­cred­i­ble! And if you go onto our YouTube chan­nel and look for Jack Horner’s talk, you will be amazed – I was amazed – in the sense that they’ve ac­tu­ally man­aged to get a T-rex thigh bone, and they’ve ex­tracted T-rex blood. But, the DNA’s gone, be­cause DNA ages over time. And so sadly it doesn’t quite work like the film.

Well, ‘sadly…’ – Juras­sic Park does have a lot of lessons about that.

There is that. But – on the neg­a­tive side or the pos­i­tive side de­pend­ing on your out­look – they have found di­nosaur DNA in large quan­ti­ties, and it’s in chick­ens! And you know how al­most 99% of DNA doesn’t ex­press, and you can con­trol which bits ex­press? So you can turn off the chicken-y bits, and turn on the di­nosaur-y bits.

I saw a pic­ture of that…

Oh did you? Was that from our talk?

“the num­ber of play­ers is higher now than it’s ever been”

It was on the BBC, I think…

It’s as­tound­ing… he’s got the head of the ve­loci­rap­tor, the teeth of the ve­loci­rap­tor, the legs of the ve­loci­rap­tor, all from chicken DNA! They can’t find the tail – be­cause it looks like the tail has evolved to shrink, so it’s been changed over time, rather than dif­fer­ent things be­ing ex­pressed. But it’s stun­ning – they’re now look­ing for the tail in other species, be­cause they’re pretty sure it will still be there. But you just think, bloody hell! Per­haps Ian Malcolm – Jeff Gold­blum’s char­ac­ter – was right! These things would be like, dog-sized. It’s a ter­ri­fy­ing thing. There’s a lot of ev­i­dence based on bone dam­age from other di­nosaurs that the way ve­loci­rap­tors fed is much like in the film – they jumped up on things and just started eat­ing them. They didn’t kill the prey, they just started eat­ing them, a bit like if you look at how an ea­gle picks up a mouse or a fer­ret or some small mam­mal – it just sits on it, and just starts chew­ing – and the thing’s scream­ing. Ob­vi­ously it stops scream­ing… af­ter a point. And ve­loci­rap­tors al­most cer­tainly at­tacked in packs, and they would just over­whelm them, and just start eat­ing un­til the thing would die. It’s not a very nice way to go!

Any­way, sorry, that was a mas­sive aside.

If we can talk EliteDanger­ous for a bit. You’ve re­leased Be­yond as a com­pletely free episodic chap­ter – what was the think­ing be­hind that de­ci­sion?

There were a lot of things that we wanted to do in the game that we didn’t par­tic­u­larly want to charge for. We haven’t brought in any pay-to-win con­tent, either. The term ‘van­ity item’ sounds hor­ri­ble but what I mean is things that make you look good rather than specif­i­cally af­fect­ing the game­play. I know some peo­ple have said a matte black space­ship helps you but it doesn’t re­ally be­cause you’ve still got a whop­ping great big tar­get around you!

And so I’m proud of that. And I think the com­mu­nity em­braced it re­ally pos­i­tively, and we’ve got to find… it costs us money to keep the team go­ing, so we’ve got to sen­si­bly fund that. But the game’s do­ing re­ally well – we’ve got an ever-grow­ing com­mu­nity, the num­ber of play­ers is higher now than it’s ever been. We’ve got a lot of peo­ple still buy­ing through our store as well as buy­ing through Steam and through the con­soles. And so it’s do­ing us proud. It’s now en­ter­ing its fifth fi­nan­cial year, it’s com­ing up to four years since re­lease, five years since the Kick­starter, and it’s as strong as ever. And we’ve got a lot more com­ing and a lot more that we haven’t an­nounced yet com­ing af­ter Be­yond. Be­yond Be­yond!

What’s left on the wish­list for Elite? What would you like to in­tro­duce?

[Laughs] It’ll con­sti­tute an an­nounce­ment what­ever I say… but there are a lot of things that we’ve talked about that we’d like to do, and we’re look­ing at all those things – we look at them all the time, and yes we will do a lot of those things. But you’ve got to be care­ful. Peo­ple on the fo­rum, they each have their own pet fea­ture, so I just want to be care­ful not to essen­tially an­nounce those be­fore we’re ready to do that.

But we’re look­ing at new big things that peo­ple will value and re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate as well as the lit­tle things. For Be­yond, peo­ple are of­ten crit­i­cal of these things, say­ing, ‘Oh, you didn’t do much in this up­date…’ Then they found out there’s lots of things that were se­cret and were there for the play­ers to dis­cover, and I thought per­son­ally, I thought it was joy­ous that we didn’t an­nounce that there were aliens in the game or any­thing, and even­tu­ally a player ac­tu­ally dis­cov­ers them, and even then we don’t back it up – we leave it to go. I think, from a player point of view, I love the feel­ing that there is gen­uine dis­cov­ery there, gen­uine ex­plo­ration, and some peo­ple… I love the to and fro – ‘is it real or is it fake?’ – that you would get from real alien sight­ings! And the fact that we made the front page of the BBC web­site, back in Jan­uary 2017, I just en­joyed and I loved hav­ing that and I looked on the fo­rums and see­ing peo­ple that hadn’t dis­cov­ered it yet!

I re­mem­ber the time it broke, be­cause we were cov­er­ing it as a news story and peo­ple were shar­ing videos around the Slack chat and…

It was won­der­ful wasn’t it?

‘Phil, you play Elite, what is this…?’ and I was there analysing the UI… ‘I think this is le­git!’

Yeah, that’s right – but it’s lovely from know­ing what is in there, see­ing the spec­u­la­tion, it’s re­ally fun. And then the whole thing prior to that with the [Un­known Ar­ti­facts] was quite fun, it had been in for a while be­fore peo­ple saw it, and I like the gen­er­a­tion ships, be­cause one of those gets to­gether ev­ery now and again and that’s quite nice.

I sup­pose that’s the ben­e­fit of hav­ing this en­tire galaxy with much of it still un­charted and you can just hide things any­where!

That’s the other thing! I’m sure Mike will cor­rect me with the fig­ure be­cause I think the last time we an­nounced it was… how many ze­roes?

(PR: The num­ber I re­mem­ber is it would take an­other 25,000 years for every­one to map the whole thing.)

And of course, there are some new things com­ing within Be­yond that we have talked about but not an­nounced that will mean there’s even more to dis­cover, even within those things that have been dis­cov­ered but not yet ex­plored.

RIGHT: A chicken, many mil­lions of years ago.

RIGHT: Only about 0.0066% of Elite Dan­ger­ous’s galaxy has been ex­plored.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.