Interview: David Braben

Interview: David Braben

We recently caught up with Frontier Developments’ founder and chairman, David Braben, to discuss the UK game development tax breaks situation, the studio’s experience creating Kinectimals for Xbox 360’s upcoming motion sensing peripheral, and whether he thinks 3D gaming is here to stay. We also asked how The Outsider and Elite IV are coming along, but on those subjects he was less forthcoming.

What are your feelings about the government’s decision to scrap the plans for the introduction of tax breaks for UK game development studios?
It’s disappointing obviously. I think we have got to work as best we can with government to understand what has happened here. I think it does do quite a lot of damage, especially in a time when I would have thought they’d have liked hi-tech industries to stay in this country. But the government has a difficult time. We’ve just got to be practical and try and understand why it is they’ve done it. They may have other reasons. They may not want to be seen… The trouble is it got classed as a tax break. Call it a measure or whatever and it sounds different, it’s [about] the way these things are presented. I think there are within government groups that have no belief in games. It’s strange to me that the film tax break is treated differently from the games one.

What does the government’s decision mean for a developer such as Frontier?
It’s very disappointing. The message is that we’re not valued and that’s a shame.

Are you fearful of losing talent?
Well no, it’s a fact. That is something that’s happening. It’s a question of whether it increases as a result of all of this.
Have you considered moving abroad to countries that are more welcoming?
Absolutely, but I don’t want to. You know, the real problem with running a company is that you do have to consider these things, you have to consider your options all of the time. We have no intention of doing that, but we’d be silly not to look at what the options might be. The trouble is other people will now seriously be looking at that. It is possible people had put plans to move abroad on hold and that now they’ll go back on to the front-burner, which will be a shame. If you compare where we were a few years ago in this country, in terms of the studios, the ownership and the number of games being made in this country, the figures were way greater than they are now. That’s a lot of revenue lost to the Exchequer and there’s no acknowledgement of that. What frustrated me is that the headline is the amount of money saved [the government claims not introducing tax breaks will save the country £190 million] and not the amount of money that has already been lost and that the government accepts as being lost.

I despair sometimes when I see some of the choices being made and some of the justifications for them… Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has a hard job, don’t get me wrong… The real problem is that anything I say, or our industry says, very much looks like special pleading, which is why I’ve said previously that I think the industry – as a global industry – is in rude health and will do very well. The message from the British government is that they don’t want the industry here, which is fair enough if that’s the decision, but I think the consequences all rolled up in that are a shame. Just looking at the revenue that’s been lost over the last few years from games that were from companies that were based in this country is a tragedy. But governments make these decisions, and we all make decisions that aren’t necessarily the best in the long run, and I think it’s potentially one of those.

Do you think it’s likely that some game companies – or one major one – have been lobbying against tax relief, as recently reported?
Yes, I believe it’s true, but it’s not… It’s interesting when you say within the games industry. I believe it’s not a group that’s within the UK games industry. It’s a foreign company, it’ a competitor.

Someone without UK game development studios.

How have you found using Microsoft’s new technology creating Kinectimals compared to more traditional game development?
It’s interesting. What is traditional game development? If you wind back a long time we had keyboards only and then we had four way joysticks, then someone came along with a mouse. It took a while for games to use a mouse and then mouse and keyboard became the de facto game controls, then people came along with consoles and controllers. It took us a little while as an industry to get there. One of things I distinctly remember was people railing against games like GoldenEye because they felt imprecise compared to the mouse keyboard combination and people still say that. You do get more precision on a mouse and keyboard but you gain a lot of other things via the console. I think with each change of control… the Wii came along and if you look retrospectively at the best Wii games, it took us a while to come to grips with games like LostWinds, doing a really good job on the Wii. I think with Kinect it’s the newness of it which makes it very exciting, but there will always be people railing against it.

So you think it’s going to be a while before we see developers crafting really new and unique experiences with Kinect, and that we’re likely to see some games and concepts that are already very familiar to consumers in the early stages?
Yes and no. I think inevitably there are going to be [some], but I’ve already seen excellent games that just strip away a lot of the guff, if you like. Dance Central, for example, it’s just brilliant that someone can just dance rather than having things strapped to them or having to hold controllers in bizarre ways. I think you’re right. I think a lot of the experiences we’ll look back on in ten years’ time and say, ‘that’s what made Kinect’, we haven’t seen yet. Wii is probably the closest example. If you look at Wii there were some standout things that worked well, but if you look at a lot of the early applications that I saw, which haven’t stood the test of time, they were glorified – and I don’t mean to be derogatory of them – reimplementations of mouse things where you were sort of clicking on things on the screen.