Last week, Elite: Dangerous reached its Kickstarter funding target of £1.25 million. It kept on going for a short while too, before the space ’em up juggernaut finally rolled to a stop at near enough £1.58 million. A whole lotta dough for a long awaited sequel. That was five days ago, enough time for Braben and company to finish cheering and talk about what they’re going to do with their crowdfunded cash-injection.
“It’s been great,” an oddlycalm and collected Braben tells me. He had expected the Kickstarter to succeed, though he admits he was worried after one month of fundraising.”It was a little bit nail biting towards the middle section, butthere’s been a lot of love for the game. People have been very, very positive.”
Frontier are now expanding the size of their team whilecarefully planning the next year of game development, which should see Elite: Dangerous launching in March of 2014. That’s 14 months from now, which seems rather loomingfor a deadline.“It does, doesn’t it!” Braben laughs.
“Yes, it should be achievable, we’re just working that out now.We’re currently planning everything, working out what we do and when we do it. We’ve also got to put in place all of the systems to be able to collect [Kickstarter]people’s information. It’s slightly complicated because there werepledge upgrades as well as pledges. But yes, it’s all exciting stuff! We’d already done a lot of work on the game prior to the Kickstarter, so what we’re doing now is planning what we’re doing between now and when we ship.”
Preparation, he says, was also key to ensuring that the Elite: Dangerous Kickstarter met its target. Not everybody holds the keys to a sequel to a seminal space sim classic, but his advice to others looking to run their ownKickstarter is simple enough. Be prepared. “There’s a lot of work to be done and a lot of pressure,” Braben informs.”You’ve got to keep an eye out on it all the time. The fans really care and know a great deal about the game, so be as honest and as open as possible. 60 days was a long time to keep it going, but I think in hindsight it was the best thing to do, we wanted it to end just after Christmas.”
The policy of remaining open and upfront with fans extended to some of the higher tiers of pledge, which allowed backers to take part in the game’s design forum bysuggesting and discussing features to be added to Elite: Dangerous. Sufficiently moneyed players could effectively turn their hand to backseat game design.
“That was always going to be a challenge,” Braben admits. “You’ve got 26,000 people all with their own opinions, all of which are slightly different.We’re gathering people’s views, we’ve got the design forum as one of the Kickstarter pledge levels, where people will genuinely be part of the process where decisions are made.”
That democratisation of design is mirrored in Braben’s views of how Kickstarter is, for better or worse,democratising theindustry itself by scrubbing out middle-men publishers. It’s when talking about this new model of selling games straight to gamersthat Braben sounds at his mostexcited.
“It’s been a really good experience,” he begins,”and from a games industry point of view, this and various other Kickstarters like Tim Schafer’s have really changed the way the industry looks at games, and how we look at getting games made. It’s fantastic from the player’s point of view as well, because there is no middle man trying to second guess what we want. At the moment we have so many first person shooters simply because the success of Call of Duty makes the return on investment of any similar looking game appear very good. It really democratises the process, it has the potential to bring in new types of game that don’t always get made.
“You probably saw the interview with [Chris Roberts, of Star Citizen]on our Kickstarter site. I think the point is we were both suffering from the same issue: you’ve got publishers using the return on investment approach to judge how much money to spend on a game and what sort of game that should be. The very fact that there hasn’t been an open world space game like the one we’re talking about in over a decade means it’s very hard to see what [that ROI] would be and to forecast it.”
As for the game itself, Braben tells me thatElite: Dangerous is in some ways a mixture of Elite and its sequel, Frontier. “It depends what aspect of the game you look at. I think in many respects it’s more comparable to Frontier in terms of the way the galaxy works, that sort of thing. But in terms of the way you fly it’s much closer to Elite.We’re going to have Newtonian physics. But the way that we apply the fly-by-wire layer over the top of makes the combat feel really visceral and seat-of-the-pants, rather than [as in Frontier] jousting at huge distances.”
The game will take place in a procedurally generated Milky Way hosting over 100 billion stars (including our own, and by extension, the planet Earth), each with anything up to one hundred bodies in them. A “truly giant galaxy of vast numbers” as Braben puts it.
Some other info-nugs the developer was happy to divulge: the game willbegin some 50 years after Frontier: First Encounters, around the year 3300. And Thargoids, Elite’s insectoid, warlikealien race, will definitely make theirreturn (though in what capacity, Braben wouldn’t reveal). In case you’ve forgotten what those bastards look like, here’s one. If you’re not legitimately terrified, congratulations, you are under the age of 30.
The ability to land on planets, however, will sadly not be included in the initial release of the game.”That will come,” promises Braben. “One of the things I’ve always thought is: if you do something you’ve got to do it well, or it’s best not to do it at all. We will do landing on planets but not at the first release of the game.”
While keenly aware of the value of nostalgia (if anything Kickstarter’s put an actual pricetag on the thing),Braben and his team aren’t afraid to deviate from expectations. “We’re creating something that’s new,” he says,”but that doesn’t mean it can’t have a touch of nostalgia in it. We can still have that smile factor where people recognise things from old Elite. But the way things are done is very different. The very fact you can collaborate with other players makes a very big difference in the way it feels.”
Frontier are now putting in place deals to begin delivering on the physical pledge rewards, a hefty and costly bit ofadmin-hell that’s all but invisible to outside observers. I asked Braben if Frontier are planning to seek further investment inElite: Dangerous from apublisher, now that it’s in production.
“No,” states Braben resolutely.”But we will be putting in place deals to do things like physicalfulfilment.So no and yes. The game doesn’t stop here, this is where it starts. We’re already looking into other platforms because we’re supporting the Macintosh. We’ll continue to look at where the future takes this game, not just when we release but from thereafter.”
Oh, and one more thing.
Is it true there’s a wormhole at the centre of Elite: Dangerous’s galaxy?
“I would love there to be,” laughs Braben.”I’ll try and make it so that there is. That was always the intention with Frontier, actually.”