Elite Dangerous: David Braben Interview

Ryan King


David Braben talks about Elite Dangerous, trumbles and 'Halo in space'

Published on Nov 6, 2012

Elite: Dangerous is currently seeking £1.25 million by January 4th. You can follow its progress on Kickstarter.

Did you anticipate the Elite: Dangerous Kickstarter would take off the way it has done?

To be honest, I wasn’t really sure. So far, it’s been great. Huge thanks to all those people who have pledged. It’s fantastic that there is the level of interest that there was out there.

What was the discussion leading up to this Kickstarter project? I know part of it was you said you wanted to gauge the interest.

Well, that’s right. I get lots of emails saying “can you do Elite” but you say well, if it’s only a few hundred people… there are other people out there, aren’t there? [laughs] Because don’t forget, we’ve all got to be happy here. It’s not just me. It makes sense to go forward.

You mentioned there were a couple of false starts over the years where progress wasn’t quite what as good as you wanted it to be. Can you elaborate on that?

That’s the downside of essentially being in a skunkwork situation where you have other projects that have deadlines and all that sort of thing, and schedules to deliver on. They take priority because they have rigid deliveries. And this project, assuming we do get the money from Kickstarter, fingers crossed it’s looking good.

But when you say you had a couple of false starts, how far along did you actually get?

Well, we’ve been moving forward more or less continuously. Mostly with design but also with technology that’s behind it, particularly the multiplayer which is actually non-trivial. So we have been moving but as I said, progress wasn’t as good as I liked and as I said, other priorities meant that it had been deprioritised.

Did you approach any other publishers with Elite: Dangerous over the years?

Well… we have had discussions with publishers but they all say we want this, we want that. The problem with the publishing mechanic is you’ve gone to look at ‘well, there haven’t space games in the market for ages, that means they’re not going to sell well’. If you look back to Elite, even when we were doing the first Elite, we were told ‘right, we want three lives, we want a score, we want the playtime to be around 10 minutes’. And 10 minutes in playtime now is seen as nothing! That’s because they had a mindset that successful games, games that sold well, were games that were essentially copies of games that came from arcades. They saw it as these are the sort of games that are successful, therefore it’s not like those, therefore it’s not going to be successful.

So the recent success of Faster Than Light and Star Citizen’s Kickstarter project didn’t soften any publisher’s view on that?

It might do with time. But I think there’s still scepticism. We waited until Kickstarter came to the UK to do this, which is why there was a delay, but you’re right. That scepticism will gradually be softened. But also, the beautiful thing about Kickstarter, is that it’s a very dynamic environment. And that’s the sort of environment that’s the best environment to making games anyway. You say ‘oh we tried this, this is great, what do you think of this?’ and then what you thought was good isn’t really working very well. It sounded good on paper or on the screen or whatever but when you come to play it, it’s not that good. So it’s that sort of reactive, flexible design that I think is important.

Sure. I noticed on the rewards side of things there are design decision forum members. What role will play in shaping Elite Dangerous?

Well, we’ll have a group of people that we’ll talk about and say well, okay, we have these platform choices, what shall we prioritise over what, and actually properly discuss it.

So you’ll take on board all their ideas? I imagine there will be at least one or two wacky ideas that won’t fit your vision for the game.

Yes, you’re right. But what will tend to happen is a consensus will come out. That’s why we’ve limited it to 500 people. I think the point is that that group – and I expect it will be quite a lot smaller than that – that group will have a part in saying what platform shall we do next? So for example, a lot of people have said ‘oh let’s do it on Mac’ and that might be an easy platform to do but it might actually be a hard platform to do. So we’ll look at the risk/reward and discuss it.

How did you come up with the total goal of £1.25 million?

That’s what we need to deliver the minimum game that fits the goal, if that makes sense. So just on PC. We hope to get a lot more than that. If we get less than that, I think we shouldn’t do it.

Looking at how quickly the pledges are climbing, you must be feeling pretty confident.

I am, yes. The point is we are extremely grateful to all the people who have backed it so far, because it’s a huge jump of faith. So that’s fantastic.

That’s another point I wanted to touch on. There’s been some scepticism with regards to the lack of assets on the Kickstarter page. Were you anticipating that there’d be some cynics?

There are always cynics! The point is we’re doing this for the first 60 days so yes, we will add assets. It would be silly to put everything on day one and then just leave it. And we will plan to put things up there gradually over time and additional content. There it is a little bit already on the BBC website, I’m sure you’ve seen that.

Yeah, I saw it this morning. I don’t remember seeing any other Kickstarter projects covered by BBC.

I think they’ve mentioned a few. Certainly via Twitter and things like that but not on their main page, that’s true. But we have talked to BBC about this. We did give them a heads up.

In terms of planning, have you got a schedule for development for Elite Dangerous or are you going to wait and see how much money is pledged first?

We have an idea for the schedule already and we will harden that up. We will move up, turn the wick up if you like, when we’re close to the threshold. We’re not going to wait for the thing to click over to start. But having said that, and the sooner it clicks over the better,  everything after that we’ll think oh, actually maybe we can do it on Mac and Linux and on mobile and all those sorts of things. Because we have the technology for that as well.

Looking back, what made Elite so successful then which would make Elite Dangerous successful now?

I think the fact you had the freedom. The open-world nature. A friend of mine, Gary Penn, once described a game he was working on as Elite in a city. And that game turned into GTA. And so it’s how you see the game, it’s the openness of it. that matters. The same with GTA. It’s the fact you can do what you like. You don’t feel constrained.

You’re not going to describe Elite as GTA in space now are you?

No! Not at all [laughs].

That's a relief. Do you see any that games out there that could rival Elite Dangerous?

I think it stands apart from everything that’s out there now and it’s interesting and heartening to see that there are other games in the same arena. Notch has talked about a space game to follow from Minecraft. There’s Chris Roberts’ Star Citizen. And I suspect they’ll be very different experiences. Each one will stand on its own and be great.

Given publishers wanted to push this in their own direction and you’ve gone down the Kickstarter route, is it fair to describe this as one of less commercial projects you have?

Well, hopefully every project to some degree is commercial, in the sense that commercial means it’s got a lot of demand for it. The danger is you get things that are purely arthouse that genuinely aren’t commercial. Then you raise an eyebrow and think, well why they’re doing it then? In the sense that if no-one wants to see it… you see what I mean? I know commerciality has a sort of grubby overtone to it but you don’t want to make something if no-one wants it. So what I’m saying is, although that might not be the top thing as doing a great game is important here, it’s important for the game to have a life going forwards. For it to be commercial. It has to support itself.

Is this the end of contract work for Frontier?

No. Everything we’ve done we’ve mixed and matched. We’ve worked with publishers. We’ve worked on our own. We’ve done core games. We’ve done family games. We’ve done Kinect games. We’ve done sims. We’ve done open world games. Each of the games that we’ve done stands along. And so does this.

What experience can you pull from those various projects into Elite Dangerous?

Well, we’ve used the same technology in all our games, so it’s pretty robust. We had Disneyland Adventures, which had a very big team working on it. 390-odd people on one game. A big game. We had Lost Winds, which we self-published, which for much of that development had 12 people on it. It was a very short development, less than three months. We’ve got a very broad range of the sort of things we’ve done. We’ve also got a rollercoaster game, Coaster Crazy, coming out very, very shortly.

Would you describe Elite Dangerous as a spiritual successor to Elite or Frontier?

It’s a spiritual successor, really, to the series. I wanted to take the best of all of them. Does that make sense? There were things I loved about Frontier and for that matter, First Encounters, that were great. There were things that I didn’t like. What I want to do is take the best bits from each of them.

Now onto the hardcore questions. Will the game begin in Lave with 100 credits, as with the original?

[laughs] We haven’t decided that but it is certainly on the cards.

Will there be century ships?

Hmmm… possibly! That’s more… that would be a mission thing than actually that they’d be there all the time.

Will there be trumbles?

[laughs] Probably not.

What will this new version bring to Elite that you could never do before?


Is that the key thing?

I think so, yeah.


Well, there weren’t really networks around when we did the first Elite [laughs]. So that’s probably the biggest change. And also, it does change the way gameplay works. You can’t fast forward time, for example, when you’ve got a multiplayer game.

Will it nudge Elite Dangerous into MMO territory?

Yeah, I think so. With all of these things, I don’t want to be pigeon-holed because we didn’t set out to create this as an MMO but there will be a lot of players playing it. It’s Halo in MMO! [laughs] At any one time, you’ve got literally millions of players playing it.

As I’m staying away from GTA in space, I’ll take that one.

[laughs] Yeah, okay.

How many Frontier star systems and planets will there be?

We’re not saying what the numbers are yet.

So to wrap up then, what’s the main thing you’d say has surprised you about this Kickstarter project?

Oh, the level of interest is amazing. It’s great.

Were you really not anticipating it though?

I genuinely wasn’t sure. That was all part of this because it is very difficult to know. I did… secretly hope, let’s just say. But you’re never completely sure, one way or another.

But I imagine with all the other projects you’ve worked on, you’ve had more than enough journalists asking after Elite.

That’s true. I had a lot of people asking about Elite. But that’s within journalists. You know what I mean? It’s within the industry. I know there’s a lot of interest in the games industry but then I spend a disproportionate amount of time in the industry! We’re only a very small percentage of the people who buy games.

What’s the status of The Outsider?

We stopped it.


It was stopped some time ago. A little over a year I think.

What happened with it?

It was a shame. We were… well, case in point. We were working with a publisher and the publisher essentially didn’t have the money to go forward.

Finally, when can we expect the first assets for Elite Dangerous? The first screenshots?

Well, we need to look at them and we haven’t got a timeline for that but we should be able to see some material, things like concept art, sooner than that. Next sort of, few days.



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