Next-Gen Narrative: The David Braben Interview

By Brandon Boyer

David Braben made his name by co-developing (with Ian Bell) Elite, a seminal space trading game originally released in 1984. The title is massively popular with European gamers, and prefigured the open world stylings that are so relevant to today's gaming.

Braben's went on to found Frontier Developments, the studio behind the Thrillville franchise, and his current project is The Outsider, an espionage game which Braben hopes will challenge preconceptions of how game narratives are crafted. That desire follows controversy he invited in 2007, when he told consumer site Eurogamer that BioShock's gameplay was "not next-gen." Gamasutra recently caught up with Braben to discuss all of this and more.

For people who haven't heard much about The Outsider, can you describe what's unique about it?

David Braben: The Outsider is a game we've been working on already for a while, and we're trying to move forward where we are with story. It's very interesting looking at a lot of games we've seen recently, where we've moved forward massively in audio and visual sides, but the way the gameplay works is still very similar, except in subtle changes, and I think it's because the story's quite a hard thing to move forward.

We're putting a lot of effort into how to do that. I wholeheartedly love where people have done that, but they've been doing it by degrees. Elements of variability in the story are always lovely, but it's actually very hard to achieve. So that's the fight we're having.

Who do you feel has moved it forward?

DB: Most of them that have are quite subtle. We've certainly seen things like Oblivion where you've got all the side quests that make the world feel a lot better.

The Darkness touched on that a little bit as well, and quite a few games have elements of what you might call 'side gameplay' that help feed into the richness, but they don't fundamentally alter the story: games like Deus Ex where you had branching story, and there was some slight branching in games like Indigo Prophecy. So, I think all of those things are positive, but a lot of them felt, to me, like they hadn't done the trick.

The problem is, I felt they didn't quite deliver on their promise. Their promise is not actually the fact that you can play it through and have a different story, because that sounds fundamentally irrelevant -- you play a game through and think, "So what, I could have done things slightly differently". That's not the point. I find that once you try playing games in a slightly contrary way, you end up finding a lot of blind alleys, things that you just can't do, which I think is tragic. If you offer that promise, you've got to deliver on it.

So it's not so much the fact of the story being able to go lots of different ways. It's the fact that you can try a lot of different things and you'll find a way through. It may not be what you anticipated, but there is a way through. I think it's that sort of thing -- being able to experiment with the world in a fun way.

I mean, there's quite a bit of variability, not in the story, but in the way a level's played in Call of Duty 3. But if you embraced that and tried playing around, you'd find quite often -- it happened many times to me -- that you'd finish a level, and it wouldn't terminate, because you'd done the wrong thing last. I found that really frustrating. You'd just run around and find that you were stuck.

It's that sort of thing, where you felt there was a bit of promise, where you thought, "Maybe I'll get behind the tanks", and it didn't deliver. But, the fact that it's there is a positive thing. The actual problem is, when you start making a story very flexible, you're putting your hand in a mincing machine from a design point of view.

But also, you have to cater for a lot of different types of play style. There are still the sort of people who want a brain-off experience, and I think that's a good thing -- I don't think that's a criticism. You don't want to have to think, "Oh, what am I supposed to do now," because that's the flipside of this, the unspoken problem.

[Objectives] should still be really obvious, but there's something nice about when you go through doing what you're told, and you think, "Wait a second, this isn't quite right!" And it's that same element with Outsider where you've got corruption, that it's really quite interesting. Now, you can play through the [straightforward] route, and you end up with quite an interesting ending, but you can also break off at any second, and start questioning why things are happening the way they're happening.

 


So how do you actually model and control that openness? Don't you get to a point where you're just creating more and more branches?

DB: That's not what we're doing. We're not looking at it as a branching story. We're looking at it as you're playing characters off against each other, and so that actually makes it harder. You can't just have, "Here's the roadmap".

So what we've spent a lot of time on is how the various things that are likely to happen: how they can be tested, what comes out of that, and that kind of thing. One of the first steps, which we did some time ago, was implement the story in a very simple interactive way. Not playing a game, almost more like a text adventure, where you could crawl through the story. We called it the Story Crawler, where you could say, "OK, I'll do that. I'll get that guy, and I'll do what he wants and see what happens then." And it's then "Urgh! OK. Then I'll get this guy, and I'll do that."

So you can see the interest, and in a way where you can play through hours of gameplay literally in a minute, just by clicking through. That gave us the confidence to verify the story, and it also allows us to see the extremely contrary player, like me, who will try and break it and do weird stuff.

So on top of that you're building, what, combat and stealth?

DB: Just. [Laughs.] Yes, that's right. That's the thing that drives all the high-level behaviors. But just testing and verifying that we can do it in a way that is going to work, at least to a degree that's interesting.

That's the nightmare, isn't it, where actually there's only one route through that's actually interesting. It's also trying to make sure that the player knows what's available. It's a world that you really do want to play in, rather than a world where you feel, "Oh, I don't care. Just give me the next thing to shoot."

The traditional way to handle open world games is, here's the world, and here are specific missions within that world -- is this the same thing?

DB: It can be as considered as that, yes. With anything, if you look at the cinematic parallels, whether it's 24 or whether it's some great battlefield thing, there will be things of interest -- explosions going off, an attack happening. There'll be some bad stuff that you'll know about -- hopefully multiple things.

The way The Outsider works, it's the choice of what to respond to, who to go to, who to listen to, who to work with, that tends to determine the flow. For example, if the Chinese agent comes up to you and says, "Hey, I can help you," you go, "Cool!" and he may actually give you some guys to help you go in and sort the problem out. And then you realize, 'Wait, what exactly are we doing here?' when they start breaking into the safe and nicking stuff!

Braben's seminal space trading game, Elite

Ian Bell has spoken about how, in making Elite, you accidentally made a very pro-Capitalist game. Have you thought the same thing?

DB: [Laughs.] Yes, it's interesting with Elite, for either of us, it was never intended as a pro-Capitalist game in any way. I think it might have captured a bit of the zeitgeist almost collaterally, but the way we looked at it is, I played around with some 3D before I met Ian -- a fighting game, where you get 10 score for the little red ones, maybe 20 for the little yellow ones. So you think, "I'll kill that one. 20. 40. 60, 100." Then you start to think, "What's the point of this?!" So we thought, "OK, what if the score instead is money, so you can buy stuff for your ship."

And then we thought, "What would you want to buy for your ship? Oh, bigger lasers. And let's give some of the baddies shields." And so you have this little arms race. Stuff on the trading and docking? That all mushroomed quite quickly from that. It wasn't that we sat down and thought, "Let's make a capitalist game -- no-one's done one of them." It's more that we wanted to make a great game that was evolving.

Essentially we were writing the game for ourselves. We were gamers, and luckily there were a lot of other gamers who fitted into that mould. I don't think Ian regrets it, but I do think the overtones -- that's not how it was intended. But in Britain, with Thatcher at the time, there were inevitably associations. She'd only just got into power around then. That certainly wasn't the intention -- it was much more the way of doing clever stuff with progression.

 


The Outsider is obviously a much more overtly political game than Elite. Are you integrating real world politics into it?

DB: Yes, we are. We're not really talking that much about that side of it, but you have rival factions, and I've already taken some stick for saying, "Yes, you can work with terrorists." The point is that you find out your side is corrupt -- and what do you do?

You've got these terrorists, and of course, they call themselves revolutionaries, and you think, "Wait a minute, maybe they've got a point." These are American revolutionaries, not foreign terrorists, so there's a very interesting dynamic there: who is good, who is bad? In many ways they're all bad, but they're all good in some way, too, so you can play them off against each other.

The brilliant thing is, because you're accused of such a terrible thing, things can't get any worse. So it's you who's in control. You can determine who's going to win this one, and that's how the game can play out. You get dramatically different end results because of that.

How much control do you have over other characters? How much is it AI-driven?

DB: Essentially, it's all AI-driven. You have control of people who are working on a squad with you, but we're putting a lot of effort into key AI characters who will work with you and you may piss them off.

But to go back to the political thing -- I've taken a lot of stick -- you might have seen the thing in Eurogamer. It's not that I was misquoted, but that they'd taken it out of context. One of the things I felt with that was that I stand by what I said, but it was by no means meant to promote The Outsider. It was actually a question about The Outsider I was answering.

To put the record straight, I think BioShock and Halo 3 are fantastic games. I think they have moved forward. BioShock: all the Art Deco stuff, all the soundscapes, brilliant. But they've not moved the game forward much from games we've seen before, and that was my point. Gameplay's supposed to be the key thing, and it's getting forgotten.

Halo 3 I thought was great, but the gameplay is so similar to where we've been before, that I felt it was a missed opportunity. Some of their squad tactics were better, which I thought was a big improvement, but we shouldn't be in an industry where we can't be critical, and give praise where praise is due.

We all know it's very hard bringing a high-quality game to market, and there are so many slings and arrows in the way, and they've done fantastic jobs. But there is also almost an obligation we've got to keep moving things forward so things don't get stale. That's the criticism.

As it happens, I played The Darkness and then BioShock, and I thought Darkness was a very good game, but that got reviewed in 6s and 7s. I loved it, and I thought, "Wait a second, this actually has done stuff with the gameplay, and I think it's up there with BioShock." If they gave it an 8 and BioShock a 9, I'd be happy. But they gave it a 6, and they gave BioShock a 10!

What do you think The Darkness got right?

DB: I thought the way they built the character was very interesting. You felt like a character and you don't get that in games very often. He was a character I was playing, which was a bit bizarre, but they managed to pull it off. The subtlety of the cut scenes when it's loading -- that was a nice touch. The way it played as a story, and did it in an interesting way, even though it was still linear.

It had side quests which gave some richness to the characters, and I think people railed against it because it used so many dark clichés, but if you take that to one side, it's really lovely. So the flipside of BioShock, yes the reviews rightly criticized The Darkness. They also criticized BioShock and then gave it a 10! Similarly Halo. But it is awkward. You see comments in print and think, "D'oh! Did I really say that?"

So why do you think story hasn't moved forward as much? Do you think you have the magic bullet that no one else has discovered?

DB: No one has a magic bullet. We've been working on it a long time. It's a risk as well. The reason I mention The Darkness and BioShock is, story's not a priority in reviewers' eyes, and I think that's a sad thing. For me it's very important and it makes a very big difference, and I know that's true of a lot of other people, and I suspect it will become more so as people feel the sameyness. We're still reveling in the fact that, graphically, games have become a lot more beautiful as people get to grips with the new platforms. But I think we've now spent that. That's the expected benchmark.

We really need to move forward on story -- as one of the fronts. That's not the only front left. Look at Katamari. A while before that, people were saying there are only so many genres, and then someone comes out with a lovely game. And tomorrow it will be something similar. By all means, push on different fronts, but whether it's a novel gameplay mechanic, something new in the story, or whether the way the game's presented.

I had an argument with somebody that there were only four types of gameplay, and then out comes Populous. Okay, there are five, then. And usually, it's an excuse to plagiarize. We all take inspiration from other games, and that's fine. It's when we take inspiration and don't do any more. That's the sad thing. When you don't move it forward. And there's a danger. Some of the games that fortunately don't get much airtime don't necessarily do that. That's a missed opportunity. Especially these days, where we're making fewer games than we used to. We're essentially being trusted to use the opportunity to do something fantastic, and if we don't we should get slapped around -- which I'm sure we will do. [Laughs.]

 


What was your experience with creating Dog's Life?

DB: It was a lovely game to have worked on, but it also turned into a very difficult game, because it's amazing the resistance we got. We made that game at a time when making kids' games was not what you did. To an extent it's still the case. With Thrillville -- look at the reviews. The review scores are always lower. You look at a review and they say, "Wow, it's a great game, but it's a kids' game: 70." It's like the score caps out at that level, unless it also appeals to a core gamer as a core game.

With the occasional reviewer they'll say, "My kids really love this!" and they give it a half-decent mark, but I think we need to move to that level of professionalism. Dog's Life suffered really badly from that. "It's a game about dogs. I want to play Halo." That's really the subtext.

I think the reviewer should be a reviewer who loves that kind of game. Dog's Life was really trying to bring a new approach, saying, "We can look at this differently." It was a game I loved doing, but we went with Sony in Europe and there were probably various issues there.

I don't know that I'd say that it was a prototype for open world stuff you're doing now, but it certainly had a lot of those same elements.

DB: Indeed, and the same year we also did a similar Wallace and Gromit game. The openness thing -- that's what genuinely revolutionized the PlayStation 2 generation. And the criticisms we've already talked about over my BioShock comments -- I still don't think this generation we've had that switch. I think it could be story, but it could be something else.

It's not necessarily The Outsider. I've got high hopes for a lot of the things that are coming out soon. They've talked this talk, it's whether they walk the walk. For me GTA was the one that did it last generation. It wasn't necessarily the first with a completely open world, but it was the first that properly embraced it and it was certainly the first one that captured peoples' imaginations and got the sales to boot.

I think we need something for this generation, because if I'm saying this game's genuinely better than this PS2 game, why should I buy an Xbox 360 or a PS3, that sort of question, and people say, "Yes, well it's prettier, but I don't have an HDTV," so you get this snobbery thing.

It's a good point. Yeah, it looks better but why is the game better? Why should I spend $300 to buy this for my kids? It's a hard one to answer. Until GTA came along it was a hard one to answer for PS2. It gave us a new kind of gameplay we hadn't had before that, which justified the platform, and we haven't yet had that now.

There may be other breakout things, like the ease of PSN or of Xbox Live, because I think some of the games on there have been great. We all loved Geometry Wars. And that's a surprising one, because, to me, that felt like something new, but there's nothing in it you could put your finger on that felt like something new. It was just well executed and it looked great on the big screen.

So it may be things like that, and like the connectivity, which is certainly way better on 360 than it ever was on Xbox Live before that. But, we've not had that change. That's the point. I hope we have more than one of them. It may not just be story, it may be that there is something none of us have thought of yet that will just suddenly revolutionize everything.

Are you interested in Xbox Live or PSN yourself?

DB: Yes, we are. There are things I can't talk about, but it would be mad for us not to embrace it, basically. I've heard some rumors that some people are going silly and doing stupid numbers of games for them. Xbox Live is already crowded and I'm sure PSN will become very crowded very quickly.

What I'm hoping is that they don't get crowded with rubbish. I have faith in the platform holders to stop that, but I've already found it's difficult on Xbox Live to find a game. You scroll through a lot of lists, but I think that can change. The nice thing is both machines can be updated remotely so that's a step forward.

I think Xbox Live and PSN will mature and they'll be really interesting platforms. The thing that I think is a tragedy is that you can't yet assume a hard drive on the 360. So, whether we will see whole games delivered that way, I think that will be a positive step forward.

Finally, because we have to ask, is there anything you can say about the sequel to Elite?

DB: [Laughs.] No, we're not talking about that yet, other than it's extremely exciting. One of the problems I've learned from in the past is that I mention something and then it gets emblazoned in mile-high letters, and I think, "Oh, I didn't make an announcement!"

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