Last month GamesIndustry.biz spent some time talking to the chairman of Frontier Developments, David Braben - here he chats about the effect of pre-owned game sales on the industry, the BBFC and PEGI rating games, and character development in his upcoming title, the Outsider.
Q: How is the Outsider coming along, when will we see it again, and why haven't we heard anything about it in a while?
David Braben: We've not got any imminent announcements or that sort of thing. It's turning out very well, but you don't want to be forever talking about it because it will then make it old. That's the reason.
Q: Do you believe the over-marketing of games is a problem?
David Braben: Well, getting undue exposure can be a negative. What I really want to make sure is that we show things that are really important about the game because I think coverage of those things is what looks good. I'm very excited about Outsider, the way it looks - but also what's in it.
But if we keep telling the the same story... You know what I mean - it's much more useful, much better, more impactful to make a proper announcement when it's relevant.
Q: You talked about making characters more three dimensional, how would you go about doing that? Would you do that with cut scenes or environmental story-telling?
David Braben: No there are other ways and that's what we're trying to do. There are no cut scenes in the Outsider, so all of the story comes from interactions with the characters and we'll show that when we're ready.
Q: You once commented that games like BioShock and Halo 3 weren't truly next-gen games...
David Braben: I didn't actually say that. I was misquoted, well I suppose I said those words but it was the context. I said 'from a story perspective' in terms of what they did with story, and it was in answer to a question about story - so that was taken way out of context.
I think BioShock is a fantastic game, a really, really fantastic game, beautiful sound and all that. I've just got to be careful with what I say - it's still traditional. The way the story is told is still traditional. It's still a linear game, that's all I meant, and the same with Halo.
Q: Do you think there's been anything since then that's come out that you would say the story was next-gen?
David Braben: Well, I think we better start putting a number on the generations. The point with the fifth generation games that have come, a lot of them have advanced, even in story, in quite subtle ways. I think some of the way GTA [IV] tells its story - the way it splits it up, the way you go out with your girlfriend and that sort of thing - brings quite a richness to the world. Story-telling is still in the cut scenes and is still linear but it is interesting. So I think that's done a little.
I think labelling something 'next-gen' or not, I mean clearly it's de facto working, but it's a sort of transition. In terms of what GTA did do for the last generation, it was very much changed because of the way we use streaming and that sort of thing. The way people looked at games and made possible the open world-game.
It's changing the way the story is told and what it makes possible that's really important. I mean you've got an open, interesting story where you can have plausibly very, very contrasting endings - and that's the real achievement.
Q: You've made many comparisons between film and videogames. At GameHorizon Todd Eckhart warned that the games industry faces adopting the problems of the movie industry, it the way that it is treated as a business not as a creative endeavour. Do you agree?
David Braben: I think, much like with film, quite a lot of the games will become commodities, but that doesn't mean they can't also be art. There are some very artistic films around that also are commercial successes.
So I think yes - the points are fair but actually when you look at it, is it really that problematic an issue?
Q: You talked about how the gaming industry can successfully moderate and rate itself for appropriate and inappropriate content, what do you think the effect that the BBFC taking over the rating of games might have on that?
David Braben: I think the plans aren't definite yet, as I understand it. I think it will make a lot of sense to have one rating system and what that rating system is, it needs to be clear. I don't see that there's a harm in it necessarily being the BBFC.
There are issues with it being pan-European - the advantages to PEGI - because if you look in shops in the UK a lot of games come from foreign countries. But in terms of the ratings actually somehow affecting the games, I think, apart from delaying them, that's not such an issue.
Bizarrely some games actually aim to be '18' because there's a 'cool factor' from that.
Q: During your keynote at the Develop conference you suggested the possibility of releasing two types of each game, one for sale and another for rental. There are many who say that the same move in the film industry killed video rental...?
David Braben: It was around like that for a long time and only because some shops were unofficially renting not-for-rent copies.
Q: Warner Bros, with the first Harry Potter movie, first brought in the two-tier system, precipitating a decline in that industry. Do you not see that there would be any problem with that possibly eliminating the pre-owed market entirely?
David Braben: Well what I'm raising are the issues I suppose. I personally don't think it would, because a genuine rental market would be fine. There may well be other business models - and the problem with video rental, as I understand it, was prices were really high. I think that was the issue.
The fact that you've got a different disc already means that it's a different price, and maybe there are different ways of participating in that. Maybe it's not a higher price, maybe we get a share of the rental, which actually might be better where the copy is even cheaper, or even free.
Q: What effect do you think pre-owned sales have on the industry?
David Braben: It skews. There are some games that people keep just because they play them occasionally online, but I think it's really damaging to the single player experience.
Games like BioShock and Assassin's Creed, where they're perfectly valid games but once you've played them they go into the pre-owned section - the sales don't reflect the actual sales of people playing them because someone has gone out and bought, at almost the same price, a pre-owned copy because they couldn't get an original. It's very frustrating that they don't carry that stock anymore.
Q: Do you believe digital distribution is in part a counterbalance to that because a lot of these games are always available online?
David Braben: Potentially and there's the in-between places like Amazon and people like that.
David Braben is the chairman of Frontier Developments. Interview by James Lee.