An audience with David Braben: on the fate of VR, Xbox One’s Kinect and the beauty of open worlds

David Braben

With Elite, David Braben co-created one of the most influential games of all time. A game that not only defined the template for 3D space simulations, but one that set out nonlinear gameplay precepts that designers still look to today. Twenty years on, the series remains at the cutting edge of videogame development as Braben crowdfunds a complex living universe populated by other players for the fourth game, Elite: Dangerous. Braben has found other avenues to explore, too, testing the current limits of motion control in games like LostWinds and Kinectimals, and, through his position as Raspberry Pi Foundation trustee, helping to promote the teaching of computer science in school through Eben Upton’s pocket-sized computer. Braben is enthusiastic during interviews, but thoughtful, too, his speech measured and rhythmic as he pauses to consider each passionately delivered point. Twenty years ago, issue one of Edge and Frontier: Elite II launched within a month of each other, which seems like a good place to start.

Do you miss anything from 1993’s development landscape?

I miss the feeling that you could, as a single person or small team, make a huge amount of progress. That time was pretty much the forefront of the rise of the larger team. In the early ’90s, most games were made by ‘teams’ with a single-digit number of people. I’m not saying we’d do everything, but as we were making the game we’d say, “Oh, we need someone to do music,” so we’d phone up the people we knew could do that.

Things were simpler then, but we were in such a state of transition that ever since, this industry has just continually been changing. That time was actually particularly painful because we were moving from what you might call the back-bedroom-crew developer to the professional one, and you ended up with a lot of things in between which to me certainly weren’t professional. There was a lot of shadiness in that business, if you know what I mean; a lot of people trying to make a fast buck. We saw quite a number of new publishers coming in that soured things a little bit. So I’d say things are way better now than they were then.

Back then, there was ACE magazine, and in some ways Edge was its spiritual successor. They both had the really high production values and they both very much covered – probably more so Edge – games as art. And I think that appealed quite a lot to game designers’ vanity, like mine [laughs]. They put games on a pedestal, and it was the sort of coverage that has stood the test of time more than some of the other publications.

You were interviewed by one of our readers in Edge issue five, and you described virtual reality as a distraction – has Oculus Rift finally convinced you?

Oculus Rift is great. And I applaud all the experimentation in virtual reality. But with all the virtual reality technologies over time, there are so many things that you have to get absolutely right, and humans are very good at identifying when something is wrong. 3D technology is a case in point, and something that I’ve always been pretty sceptical of mainly because it’s actually quite hard on the eyes. It gives people headaches and it’s not pleasant to do for an extended period of time. But more than that, I’m slightly weary that as an industry if we cut people off from the world it has implications for the way games are viewed generally. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great experience, but if we make headsets for gamers that cut them off visually and aurally from the world, we will take an awful lot of criticism.

So, in your eyes, devices like Oculus Rift could, to some extent, set the industry’s reputation back to the way it was before social gaming and motion control?

If you exclude the entire world, it’s a much harder ask for the technology in terms of what it allows you to do. Can you answer your phone, for example? Probably not. There are challenges to that. But the one that concerns me more is that I really don’t want the games industry to go back to a niche. I think we can make games that are like that, but if it becomes the default, if people were watching television on a headset that excluded them from their family, would we think that’s a good thing? Now we might think the experience of watching television like that is better. But it might be like the 3D glasses thing; it works OK in the cinema because it’s an activity where you’re all going to do it, but when you’re in a social environment where the interaction with other people in the room is as important as watching the TV, then having something that excludes you. I mean, I love the idea of social games where you’re involving other people and of course that can work through a headset.

I think [technology like this is] very interesting and I think sometime soon the technology will get a lot better. I’m not talking about any one technology, but it can’t make people feel sick, make their eyes hurt, or any of the things people have said. And it also mustn’t exclude people from the rest of the world.

Do you imagine that that concern could hamper the evolution of this kind of technology, and restrict it to a niche?

Well, I think potentially, yes. There are parallel needs, really, and I think as our industry gets bigger it can support more and more niches without damaging itself. Look at the Omni. It’s that sort of technology that I think, ‘Actually, that’s quite interesting’. The Wii Balance Board worked because it was inclusive. It was quite a social thing because you were commenting and guffawing on the failures of one of your number, but you didn’t want to criticise too much because it’s probably you up next. And that, admittedly in a party game where each person’s just having a go for a minute or two, is very additive. With Omni, you can imagine that technology will eventually get to where it’s like you’re running around a bumpy field or battlefield. The immersive stuff is interesting – it’s just trying to make sure that it doesn’t isolate an individual.

I think isolation can be appropriate, too: people can go head-down and play games, but it’s when that obsession factor causes damage towards our industry. Twenty years ago our image was very different; it was kids in their bedrooms, never coming downstairs, being obsessed with things their parents had no understanding of. The great thing now is, to an extent, that’s moved into the living room. But the obsession thing hasn’t completely gone away and that’s because a lot of games are very compelling. But having kids obsessed with Minecraft is so much better than being obsessed with something like Call Of Duty.

Elite: Dangerous.

Setting aside funding methods, what does it mean to be developing a new Elite in today’s industry?

It feels great because we can try out and discuss so many rich details, and the scope that’s open to us is much broader. I think that’s fantastic. Also, the tools today are much better. The power of the machines is astounding. It’s amazing to me what we can do on-the-fly now that in the past we couldn’t even contemplate doing. There’s the technology enabler, but also the sheer size of the team, the manpower you can deploy on a game these days.

The manpower you’re deploying is relatively modest, though, isn’t it?

It is, but that’s partly brought about by the fact that we have a procedurally generated game. It’s still around 60 people, so it’s a lot of people if you think about each person working on a different set of tasks. Compared to one, that’s a hell of a ratio.

At E3 this year, open worlds were prevalent, from puzzle adventures to racing games. As one of the accepted originators of open-world games, how does it make you feel to see it becoming an accepted baseline standard?

It’s fantastic, and I’m honoured. I’ve always loved not necessarily following the railway line path. I love running around to see how things are. When San Andreas was released, I recognised some
of the scenes, little vignettes taken from various areas in Los Angeles, and the contrast there. It’s where the openness of a game almost makes it as much of an activity as the game. You’re playing it for interest as well as the challenge of progressing. For example, I love astronomy but was never really interested in star-spotting in the night sky. But what Frontier did for me was make me go, “Oh, wow”. I learned about it because it matched up [with reality]. When you have the openness of the world and you can look beyond a ‘set’, you’ve got to make it so much more complete, and I love games that do that.

Elite casts a long shadow over your career. Is that always a positive experience for you?

[Laughs] It’s mostly positive. I was always very proud of Elite and it was a great time when we were making it as well. To apply any negativity to it would be stupid. But sometimes… let’s just say everyone has a different impression of the game, and we’ve seen this a lot through the Kickstarter, people saying it’s a very solitary singleplayer game when actually one of the things I’ve always wanted to bring to it is the social aspect, getting into battle together.

Kinectimals was the most charming use of Microsoft’s peripheral – what’s your take on Xbox One’s Kinect?

It’s a lot better, and it works in a different way. But I think the most important thing, in a bizarre way, is the fact that it’s bundled with the machine; it means it can just be used where it’s additive. One of the things I said at the start with the initial Kinect is that I wanted games to be augmented by, rather than necessarily defined by, Kinect. So you could still be playing Call Of Duty or Battlefield on a controller and just lean your head left and right. I’ve always thought just a few extra buttons would be great for that sort of game. Because [those kinds of actions are usually] on different buttons that don’t necessarily fit in well with the control scheme – lean left being on the D-pad, for example. Not everyone needs to have it but that sort of thing would be great. I always thought the way voice was used in Skyrim was good. You could just say [a spell name] while fighting off some annoyingly powerful monster, and I thought that addition was lovely. And because it’s with the machine this time, you can assume it’s there. And I think we’re going to see some nice game design approaches coming out of that.

But from the other side, would you agree motion control has failed to live up to its potential? Has the learning curve been too slow there?

That’s one to answer on so many levels, and it depends what you consider to be motion control. When we first came into this, five or six years ago, the talk about motion control was about new interfaces. Touchscreen was considered alongside camera-based technologies like Kinect. And both have very much changed the way people look at games. I think some of the swipe systems, certainly the fantasy of it, in Kinect, work very well. Often the only problem is the interface isn’t pervasive. And, to reiterate, I think [the use of] speech with these technologies is very much overlooked, but can be pretty good. I think what’s happened now is touchscreens have been sort of subsumed into the canon of user interfaces; they’re now just accepted. One of the challenges with Kinect was it lacked ubiquity, but I think you’re right that it hasn’t evolved into a default interface, and I think that speaks quite a few volumes.