Interview: David Braben on Elite: Dangerous Kickstarter. “If it fails, I’ll be terribly upset.”


Elite: Dangerous is a new Elite game produced by David Braben’s Frontier Developments. It’s a long, long awaited return to the space-faring and trading series that made Braben famous. But it’s not without controversy: Braben’s pitch on Kickstarter is extremely bare-bones. To find out more, we sat down with David to talk through the Kickstarter, and the promise of a brand new Elite.

PCGamesN: How much work has been done on Elite: Dangerous then. What have you go so far?

David Braben:We’ve been doing most of our work on the technology behind it. So we’ve got the networking layer, and we’ve been looking at technology, and how things are rendered, and that sort of thing, and we’ve already started looking and working on the game, but obviously we need to be confident that there is a market for it.

PCGN: So you don’t have a demo or slice of the game ready to go?

DB: Not that we’re ready to show yet. The thing with the game is that it takes a lot of art, and all that takes a lot of time to make.

PCGN: You mentioned in the Kickstarter that you’ve struggled to get this project off the ground. That it’s been a battle. Can you give me a bit of background to that? What’s been going on?

DB: The primary reason is that the project has been done as a skunkworks project, the issue is that because it’s not a project with an official release, or that sort of thing, you end up pulling people away to work on other projects. The advantage of this: it becomes a proper official project and it gets the priority.

PCGN: There’s always interest in Elite, and it seems odd that it’s never got past the Skunkworks project. Why hasn’t it ever got off the ground?

DB: Well, we have confidence in the design. We’re happy that it’s something we can go forward with. One option would have been for us to go with a publisher. If you look at the original Elite, if we’d have listened to a publisher we’d have had three lives, we’d have had a score, we’d have had a ten minute playtime. The fundamental problem is that it wouldn’t have been the game we wanted to make.

PCGN: You haven’t been working in the PC space for while – and it’s a very different world now. How the audience reacts, what they like or dislike is very, very different… particularly around crowdsourced projects. Are you ready?

DB: Well, there’s only one way to find out, right?

In terms of the PC space, it’s not hugely different… I do appreciate what you’re saying, I think there are issues when it comes to DRM and that kind of thing… which I’ve always been dead against… but in terms of interacting space we’re still selling lots of copies of RollerCoaster Tycoon 3. It hit the PC chart number 3 in summer of last year. I do take your point though… it’s something we’ll have to…

PCGN: I don’t really mean about working on PC hardware. The kickstarters and games that are successful, and that people get behind are extremely responsive and dynamic… that’s a very different environment to working on a product to spec…

DB: Yeah, I understand that. To be honest, that’s actually a better match for how I’d want to develop games than what a traditional publisher method. The problem is that a paper design doesn’t convert very well, you want to be able to tweak it, you want to be able to change it. You want to be able to spend time here, this bits much better than this, let’s work on it.

PCGN: Okay. Let’s talk about your vision for the game. We know it’s an Elite game and that you’ll be flying between space stations… but what else. What’s progressed…

DB: The obvious biggie: it’s multiplayer.

I think that makes a huge difference to the game. Once you’ve got a multiplayer environment, it completely changes the dynamic of the game. You can co-operate, go on missions together, meeting your friend in a certain place. That brings in so many more game mechanics, I think it’s fascinating.

Then of course, there’s the way you can interact with all those players, it’s so much deeper than when you’re just against a robot.

PCGN: How multiplayer are we talking? A few of your friends, 10s of players? Hundreds?

DB: Huge numbers. Potentially. A galaxy is almost perfect for this, in the sense you’ve already got the world split into little areas. Each system, you’re talking about many tens of people. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot more in the galaxy, if you jump to meet them.

PCGN:That’s exactly how Eve works, where every system is an instance.

DB:Yes. And we can also shard the instances.

PCGN: You’re talking about a persistent universe. It’s not a single player game.

DB: I’d say ‘a curious mix.’ You’re right, there is a degree of persistence.

PCGN: There’s a lot of space games in development or published right now. Star Citizen is flying on Kickstarter, Notch is working on 0x10C, and Eve’s been around for years. What’s changed? Is this a coincidence. Or has something changed?

DB: I think there’s a strong latent demand for space games, and to be honest, Kickstarter has enabled it. I think that latent demand can be satisfied. If you talk to publishers, they’re very cool on anything that’s different to what is already out there. Because there hasn’t been a big space game for quite a while, they say “oh, space games are very passe.” It’s a self reinforcing thing. It’s also a desire from people within the business. The best games are those that the developers want to make. It’s like in the film business – the best films are the ones when the director has always wanted to make that film. If the people working on it really care about it, they’ll create something phenomenal.

PCGN:Okay, let’s talk about the team. How many people are working on the game right now?

DB:It’s still at a skunkworks stage now, and the plan is to increase it beyond that once we’ve got the thumbs up from Kickstarter.

PCGN: What if it doesn’t work? What if you don’t get the funds?

DB: It will be a tragic shame. But actually, it will probably be for the best. If there isn’t the interest in the game, then it’s probably better to know sooner rather than later. I mean, I’ll be very upset about it, I won’t deny it, but it’s a sensible plan.

PCGN: Since the Kickstarter launched, there’s been a bit of chatter about how barebones the pitch is. Can you see that?

DB: Oh sure, and I’m not saying there won’t be more content up on the site. I think the other danger is, we’re saying “here, this is what we want to do, we’re laying out,” and as we go, we’ll start laying it out to people.

PCGN: Have you ever backed any other Kickstarter projects?

DB: No I haven’t, and I intend to do so.