MIGS: Frontier's Braben On Retailers 'Killing The Longevity' Of Games
In a Montreal International Game Summit keynote, Frontier Development chairman David Braben spoke on the evolution of game consoles over the last five game generations and speculated on the future, concluding his talk with a reflection on the benefits of rapid development as exemplified by the studio's own LostWinds.
Calling himself an "old-timer" who got his start in 1982 with Elite, co-authored with Ian Bell, Braben began by identifying some consistent trends over the decades.
"There's been a very consistent six-year tick throughout the generations," starting in about 1986 up until the present day, according to Braben. He pointed out that performance has increased exponentially since then, while storage capacity and RAM are progressing at a slower rate.
"When we started in the early 80s, the machines were not leading edge," he pointed out; developers were working on machines that were already dated in some ways. Now, on the other hand, generational shifts constantly push the bleeding edge.
Looking at that same six-year "tick," the next generation may occur in 2012. But what does this mean? The Wii suggests evolution may come with new input devices rather than purely performance.
"Nintendo, just by being clever, have bypassed" the traditional generational curve, Braben said.
"What Nintendo were very, very good to spot is that the reason we're increasing performance dramatically with each generation is so that we can make much better games with that performance," he explained. "Arguably, by the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, the return on that investment was reducing."
Braben continued, "We still had good animations and recorded voice, but there are other ways we can make better games, and that is what Nintendo have spotted. The lesson I take away from the Wii is not that it has a good controller, but that you can do great things with that controller."
The Online Myth
Braben then criticized ongoing comments from WildTangent's Alex St. John, who argues that the current console generation will be the last such generation. "That to me just feels bizarre," said Braben.
"The more likely scenario is that the next console generation will be sold as media devices," he argued, "but to suggest they don't run games -- I'd be astonished if they don't run games with controllers."
"If you look at the PC, that's what's problematic," he continued, noting that the success of the PC is online games -- but those games will increasingly not require a PC, as more and more systems gain online capabilities. "We'll see the PC moving away from being a mainstream game platform. We'll see those online games moving to other media devices."
But Braben says that even in the next generation, online connections will not be ubiquitous -- in 2007, only 53 percent of United States homes have broadband connections, and data suggests a smaller proportion of consoles are ever taken online. Even by 2012, some forecasts suggest that only 70 percent of homes will have broadband.
"There's a lot of lack of appreciation of the benefits online," he said, adding, "Over in Europe, we're probably slightly ahead of the U.S." when it comes to proliferation of online access.
The Retail Myth
"As an industry, we're in denial about the problems with retail," Braben argued, citing a common myth that online distribution will become the norm in the coming generation.
"Retail is killing the longevity of our titles," he said, with the massive used game market contributing to the problem. "The industry sees none of this" when it comes to preowned sales.
Meanwhile, the retail film industry puts its new films front and center, and the stores in which movies are sold are often more attractive and inviting than game stores.
"What's worse, if you ask for a new release, they'll offer you a used one, and it's not even much cheaper," said Braben. "What it's doing as an industry, means the long tail, which is what games rely on, is going to go away. And relying on online is killing ourselves."
Braben suggested selling higher-priced copies of games to rental stores, then lowering the prices of not-for-resale copies -- thus making new games more affordable for players, while introducing additional revenue streams for rentals.
"We can add value for people who have actually bought the game," he said -- designers should come up with additional content that rewards those who buy games new.
A Broken Business Model
Braben pointed out that under the current business model, revenue is shared roughly equally between developer, publisher, distributor, and retail -- but risk is almost entirely shouldered by developer and publisher, making the revenue split uneven.
"I think there is an inevitability that development costs increase again as capabilities increase," he said, "because as developers, we can't resist" taking advantage of the latest technology.
"We'll see more in-house development by publishers, and more publishing by developers. Publishers are already saying it now -- 'Let's grab the big slice of the value chain,'" he said. "What does this mean for a pure developer, who doesn't publish or fund their own titles?"
"The important thing to do is de-risk development wherever we can," Braben continued, suggesting developers look for ways to reuse their own content, keeping hold of their own intellectual property, and sharing technology as much as possible.
Capturing Design Ideas
"The upside of this is that it's us in this room who are shaping the sixth generation now," he said. "Customers don't buy machines because of fancy controllers, they buy them for what you can do with those fancy controllers, or the new performance, and it's us who determines that. ... The important thing is, how can we stay fresh as an industry? It's certainly why I'm still in the industry -- to learn new things."
"Almost everyone I know in the industry has some element of game design in their heart," Braben continued. "What I mean by that is not producing documents -- but you might be in a pub and say, 'Oh I really hated Crackdown, if only they added this, or if only I could do this in another game.' That is essentially game design. Just wacky ideas, and see where it goes. Sadly, this creativity is very rarely captured."
Several years ago, Frontier introduced a "game of the week" program, where developers pitched ideas for discussion by the team. "Some of these ideas should stay in 'game of the week,' but some are really fantastic," Braben said. "For a long time, nothing came out of this. But the first game to go through the system was LostWinds."
"We made the game in fifteen weeks," he said, pointing to the rapid development techniques used during production. Once the concept had been developed, six days were given to a programmer and designer to create a prototype -- simply taking the 2D images from the design document and mocking them up as a playable to test the control mechanics.
"Some of the control mechanisms we tried actually worked very badly, so we learned a lot from this," Braben recalled. "We could do playtesting regularly, every week, with a new group of people, just so we could see their opinions genuinely fresh."
"Rapid development requires real discipline in the tasks you do and the tasks you don't do," he warned, explaining that it is important keep to the schedule and not let unnecessary features creep in. When a feature starts to go awry, it may be worth simply cutting it.
"The mantra was really to get the maximum fun from the minimum time," said Braben. The game was completed fifteen weeks after the prototype.
"It was very exciting for all that worked on it," he added, "and [to have] the feeling of euphoria to have completed a game in this day and age in that [amount of time] instead of two or three years."
The game ended up topping WiiWare charts in North America and Europe, but Frontier had initial difficulties breaking into the Japanese market. "I'm delighted to announce today that LostWinds will be published in Japan and the rest of Asia by Square Enix," Braben announced.
The veteran designer concluded his talk by showing brief artwork from Frontier's ambitious upcoming nonlinear game The Outsider, promising more details on the long-in-development title next year.