Frontier Studios’ founder on Elite and chicken DNA.
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.