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The Future of Games with David Braben

March 19, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

On to Kinect. So Kinect has been a success, it has sold well, it has decent games... but you hear a lot of 'hardcore' gamers saying it's just a gimmick, it's taking away from the Xbox 360's core library, it's not adding anything, it's just tacking things on. Your games for the device have being aimed at younger audiences. Do you think there is a way to pull in these more hardcore players? Do you think there is a way to make these people feel drawn into a Kinect game and want to play?

DB: The simple answer is yes, but it's a lot more subtle than that. I think where the thrust up to now has been -- and again, I'm not speaking for Microsoft -- but the thrust has clearly been to engage new audiences, and they've been very successful with that. Because there is a very big potential audience out there who are hugely put off by the complexity of a controller.

There is a fear factor for this audience, and I think one of the things that both Microsoft and Sony did early on was that games like Buzz! and Scene It?, where you just have a really simple controller with a big button, was great because a lot of people already know how to engage with that, and they just press the button to choose their answer. And I think that is a fantastic way to mediate things in a party environment.

But that showed to me also that those people would not do it with a controller, because they were forever pressing the wrong buttons. And Kinect is more an extension of that, where what you're doing is removing a barrier for people who, deep down, would like to get involved but don't want to be made to look foolish by the devices.

And I think we've still got further to go in that respect. And one of the things we've seen this year is a lot more use of voice. Playing Kinect Disneyland Adventures, for example, where you can select a lot of things in the game without touching a controller or selecting buttons, I think that's really elegant. And the new dashboard update is surprisingly good when it comes to selecting things via voice. You know, the ability to be able to say "Play Skyrim" is wonderful.

Core gamers are immensely conservative -- they don't think they are, but a lot of us are. I remember the people ranting about GoldenEye and how the controls were impossible, and I actually thought it was great. I mean, at first I found it quite hard to get used to the controls... but I mean, I see my dad, when he's trying to play something like Halo or Call of Duty, and he spends the whole time looking at his feet or the ceiling. Because it isn't intuitive -- and everyone in the room laughs, and he feels a bit uncomfortable, and then he won't play it again.

And that's the problem -- it's counter-intuitive, and we've really got used to that over time. So we're finally seeing that new audience... but core gamers really resent that audience coming into "our" arena. How dare they! How dare these noobs, these people who aren't inculcated! My dad! My dad! [laughs]

But also, widening the audience is not a bad thing. It would be like people who like watching violent movies complaining because Strictly Come Dancing [the British version of TV show Dancing with the Stars] is being shown. Yes, that may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the real point is that, in the long run, it makes TVs cheaper, it makes the service more ubiquitous, and it broadens it -- maybe you'll have a TV in more than one room.

Frontier Developments' Kinectimals

So there's no point railing because you're doing something for someone else, and it doesn't mean less for the core gamers. The real problem when you think about it brutally, if you look at just core gamer games, preowned has really killed core games. In some cases, it's killed them dead. I know publishers who have stopped games in development because most shops won't reorder stock after initial release, because they rely on the churn from the resales. I won't buy a preowned game out of principle.

Of course, none of that revenue or chart position gets recorded, or VAT [value-added tax]... it's borderline whether that's legitimate. But it's killing single player games in particular, because they will get preowned, and it means your day one sales are it, making them super high risk. I mean, the idea of a game selling out used to be a good thing, but nowadays, those people who buy it on day one may well finish it and return it.

People will say "Oh well, I paid all this money and it's mine to do with as I will", but the problem is that's what's keeping the retail price up -- prices would have come down long ago if the industry was getting a share of the resells.

Developers and publishers need that revenue to be able to keep doing high production value games, and so we keep seeing fewer and fewer of them. But people are connecting the fewer and fewer with Kinect -- the two are completely independent.

I want to see a game with a controller, where you can lean left and right... I'm surprised there hasn't been more of this kind of thing. There are some games coming out where you can select your gun with Kinect, but that just feels like an add-on.

I remember being a developer in the early days of Xbox 1, where multiplayer was seen as a little bit of a tickbox, and usually it was a bit rubbish. I think that was partially because developers didn't really engage with it, because really only a few players had it, and it was seen as a bit of a faff. And also evidence showed that very few people used it.

And so the attempts were, dare I say it, a little bit half-hearted. But they got better quite quickly. Nowadays, would Call of Duty happen without multiplayer? It's almost as if the single player is now the tickbox. And in the same way, with time, Kinect is a very interesting thing that's not trivial to engage with, but when you do, it's great. And I think like with the multiplayer, Kinect is still early on, and I think people are just starting to personally believe in it, and also starting to realize that there are some great additive things that you can do with it.

So Frontier's main tech is called Cobra, and that has been evolving over the last two decades.

DB: Yes... Well, I've very frighteningly been in the business for nearly three decades -- my 30th anniversary is later this year! Which is pretty horrific [laughs] But yeah, we first started using our tech in 1995, but I think it's a bit like "the 14th century axe", where the shaft was replaced, and then the head was replaced... although people keeping saying to me "Oh, I found a bit more of your code!", and then they, with glee, removed it! [laughs]

But yeah, it's a whole set of tools and technologies that are all designed to work together, and we've ripped our the bowels several times and improved it with generations. We took a big painful change between the previous generations to 360 and PS3, where we moved to a multiprocessor environment, which has set us up well going forward. Because even with mobile devices, we're looking at two cores, four cores, and it doesn't take a genius to realize it's going to go higher than that.

In 2011, we moved our tech into mobile, so that we could then say "Well, what game would we like to make and what platforms does it make sense on?", rather than saying "we've got this tech on this platform," and we'll need a team for each platform. I mean, in the '80s it was a nightmare -- Ian [Bell] and I wrote umpteen versions of Elite, and then contracted out some of the others because we just couldn't face doing another version. There were 17 different versions in total. [laughs]

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Freddy Hajas
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Elite! OMG! I played alot on MSX... good times! :P

Vladislav Apostolyuk
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There is a good news in terms of the for-ages-awaited "Elite 4"! David, look at the It seems like what is needed to finally complete the title.

Brian Tsukerman
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Quite an interesting article. I agree with a lot of what he brings up here, especially the parallels between Flash games and the lion's share of mobile titles and the importance of broadening the user base past hardcore gamers.

However, I'm still not convinced by his explanation that used-game sales are the reason why retail prices remain as high as they are. Do you really expect me to believe that core game companies would actually have dropped the price of full games, if only it weren't for the rights that the First-Sale Doctrine grants consumers? I'm of the opinion that he is mistaken in this, and that if anything, game companies would have simply raised prices even higher, knowing that there is no alternate market for obtaining games.

Still, if someone can direct me to an unbiased, current model that supports this claim, I would be more than happy to reconsider my assumptions.

Joe McGinn
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There is no reason to expect used games have affected game *prices* one way or the other. What they have affected is revenue to the developer - or rather the lack thereof. If games were $10 more or less it wouldn't have any effect on used sales - the used game would still be $5 less, and shortsighted businesses like Game would still be aggresively pushing the used version.

Joe McGinn
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I disagree that the Kinext investment "doesn't mean less for core gamers". It absolutely does. While great for the new audience Microsoft is chasing, and buttonless, non-feedback, slow-response control system does not work for the vast majority of core games. That's an ergonomic fact, it's not "being conservative". And as Microsoft's investments have overwhelmingly been in casual Kinect games the last while, there are not no XBox 360 exclusives coming down the pipe for core gamers.

Joshua Darlington
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I LOVE Kinect. The game EDEN proves that it can handle action registration and lag requirements. Most of the best games are dance games. You may see this as a limitation and call dance games casual. I look forward to seeing the first AAA story game based off of dance. Beyond dance, the Kinect opens new doors for macromovement based entertainment. Your human body likes to move. It will make you happy. Perhaps if you are a hardcore couch potato (rather than a hardcore gamer), you might see this direction as threatening? Dunno. Otherwise, the Kinect is MAJOR. It progresses the potential for broader language interfaces for things like replacing awkward menus with simple voice and gesture commands. As the technology gets better it can allow games to read players emotion (boredom/frustration) and provide a more balanced (funner) experiences.

If you want anything resembling a holodeck in your living room, Kinect is an essential step.

Chris MacDonald
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I appreciate his comment likening a 4S connected to a TV as a game console. I completely agree with this. Sure it's not as powerful as a current gen console, but it's fairly darn close to PS1 quality models with shaders.

Off topic to this, I love that I purchase a game or app once for the iOS and Android and don't have to purchase it again when better hardware comes about. I can't fathom how Microsoft, Sony, and their publishers will lure those of us who are starting to take this for granted. Really, I pay $60 for this game, I can only use it on one device and it isn't guaranteed to work on a future device. Whereas my iOS games that were bought on sale for $.99 work now and probably will on a future device. As a consumer, that console game better have a very high ROI to get my purchase.

I'm not about to say consoles are going to die anytime soon, but the current business model definitely will.