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David Braben: Now is the best time to make your game

Frontier Developments founder reflects on his three decades in development and the long journey to self-publishing

Although it's been in business for 25 years, there's a real sense that Frontier Developments is just getting started.

Following the UK developer's triumphant floatation back in 2013 and the ongoing success of Elite Dangerous and Jurassic World Evolution, the company is finally realising its publishing ambitions via a newly-secured deal with Haemimont Games.

GamesIndustry.biz publisher Chris Dring reflected on all this with Frontier founder and CEO David Braben during yesterday's closing keynote for the first day of Develop:Brighton.

Before becoming a publisher, Braben says it was necessary to establish whether Frontier could self-publish its own titles. While many consider Elite Dangerous to be the studio's first major self-publishing success, the company actually started out with WiiWare adventure LostWinds.

"We did that with a small team and a small amount of time," said Braben. "It was an experiment to prove to ourselves that we could do it. Because one of the problems you see in a lot of industries is believing your own hype... I wanted us to be conscious that it was quite a difficult thing."

LostWinds proved to be a hit and a self-published sequel followed, but it wouldn't be until 2014 that Frontier self-published a large-scale title in Elite Dangerous. So why the delay?

Frontier Developments CEO David Braben on stage at Develop:Brighton 2019 with GamesIndustry.biz's Chris Dring

Frontier Developments CEO David Braben on stage at Develop:Brighton 2019 with GamesIndustry.biz's Chris Dring

In part, Braben admitted, the studio was kept busy with projects for Microsoft, such as Kinectimals, Disneyland Adventures and Zoo Tycoon. But he dismissed the notion that the company grew too comfortable with the work-for-hire model that had safely kept it afloat for decades.

"I think work-for-hire is a bit of a misnomer, because you're designing the game, releasing the game and doing a lot of the work for it," Braben added. "But actually it's probably riskier, in our experience, than publishing ourselves.

"Being able to sell directly to customers [is a joy]. The route to market used to be owned by publishers because of the bottleneck of retail"

"The work-for-hire model is quite low margin, and if you have a publisher who has a problem, that can actually be a challenge for you. We had that three times during our 20 years -- of the 25 years we've been running, roughly 20 of that was in the work-for-hire world.

"But the beauty was we were making numerous, very successful games and making a lot of money for quite a few people. We kept Atari going for quite a while."

Working with publishers in this way dominated Frontier's time throughout the '90s and '00s, but this helped the studio identify the barriers to self-publishing, dictated largely by the very nature of the industry at the time.

"One of the biggest challenges during that period was dealing with retail. One of the joys these days is being able to sell directly to customers. You asked why it took us so long to self-publish, and that's because the route to market was very much owned by the big publishers because of the bottleneck of retail. If a game didn't go into retail, it wouldn't sell."

Retail presented many problems. Companies had to rent shelf space, and only secured a certain number of placements per shop. Worse than that, retailers would often oversell the shelf space so mystery shoppers had to be paid to visit each store and check the publisher or developer was getting the placements they were paying for.

"More often than not, you wouldn't be," Braben said. "To me, that was really shocking behaviour. Nowadays, when moving to digital where shelf space isn't restricted, it's much more possible to be able to sell directly to people but also to have relatively small inventory."

"One of the problems you see in a lot of industries is believing your own hype"

This was another reason it took Frontier so long to fully embrace self-publishing: preparing to overcome all of these hurdles.

During its work-for-hire period, the studio even had to dramatically change the way it worked, shifting from a one-team business to a three-team one. This, the CEO explained, was "in response to worries about publisher stability" -- a lesson hard-learned in the case of Atari.

"If you're one team, you're very vulnerable to everything changing under your feet. And one of the problems with this business is if you need to find a new deal it takes a while to get that business in place. When you're a big company, you have a lot of mouths to feed. Whereas if you have multiple teams, there's an amount of overlap and the risk is actually proportionately less."

The company's confidence grew as it built up to the launch of Elite Dangerous, and Braben and his team prepared for an IPO -- an ultra-rare occurrence for a games firm at the time. When approaching financial leaders in the City of London, Braben discovered "there was a lot of cynicism," with doubts that Frontier and specifically Elite could go head-to-head with the likes of EA and Activision.

Elite Dangerous has dramatically increased Frontier's confidence in self-publishing, and its plans to publish other studios' games

Elite Dangerous has dramatically increased Frontier's confidence in self-publishing, and its plans to publish other studios' games

It was thought the triumph of Elite Dangerous at launch would quash these fears, but the same cynicism was encountered in the run-up to Planet Coaster. Without a Kickstarter campaign like Elite's, "they didn't believe we could be lucky a second time with a new IP."

"But then Planet Coaster was a success and did very, very well for us," said Braben. "It was only then that the City and other people became a little less cynical towards us.

"We're probably one of the only developer-led publishers -- we can look at everything from a developer mindset, not a marketing one"

"When we first started talking to brokers about floating, almost every one of them mentioned companies like Eidos and SCi, because they've got long memories and very burnt fingers. Whereas I'd like to think we've trailblazed for other people who have then floated since -- people like Codemasters, Team17, Sumo Digital."

However, there still remains nervousness within the financial sector when it comes to video games. Share prices for major publishers have dropped, even in the wake of blockbuster releases, and a few planned IPOs have been scrapped. Does the cynicism remain?

"The City is surprisingly mood-based. You would like to think they have spreadsheets that work out the value of things, but there is definitely a sentiment that goes up and down. We see our share price go up and down over a few days, even when there hasn't been any news or changes. It's like a ship at sea, you just end up riding the waves.

"It can be based on a misconception, like the belief that the release of something will completely change the industry. The announcement that Google made in respects to Stadia... which, to me, the more companies pouring money into our industry the better, because there's more outlets for our games and that potentially broadens the audiences. But some of the City people listening to some of the things being said thought, 'Oh, this is going to change the industry, therefore it's risky, therefore the stock price should fall.'"

Frontier has proved itself time and again since floating, with a trio of flagship titles delivering some of the firm's best financial results. This has funded the long-planned move into third-party publishing, which Braben described as a "fantastic opportunity to work with other people" and the chance to make better use of the great marketing team the studio has gathered. And the firm's insight into what developers need or expect from a publishing deal give it a distinct advantage.

"We were on the other side of the table for a long time, and I think we're probably one of the only developer-led publishers -- we can look at everything from a developer mindset, not a marketing one. One of the challenges we had over many decades was most of the people we were dealing at publishers were from a marketing background.

"Nowadays you've probably got the best chance of getting your game made than ever before"

"It's a bit like building a house. If you want to show the house off to someone who isn't a builder and doesn't understand how houses are built, you end decorating the house to make a milestone it look pretty but you haven't done the plumbing yet. But then the first thing after the milestone is to rip out all the furniture and decoration out just so you can do the plumbing. It's a slightly different mindset."

Braben himself has been in games development for more than 30 years, and the stark contrasts between now and then have left him feeling more optimistic about the industry than ever. While many seem to romanticise the original indie era of the 70s and 80s, he notes that most people just remember the milestones, the good titles and the positives.

Making games back then was much more difficult without the widespread availability of game engines and related support tools. Equally, game distribution amounted to "stuffing cassette tapes into Jiffy bags with a photocopied set of instructions" and mailing them out to customers one by one.

There are negatives to today's world of games development, of course -- one being that "the internet is really cruel." That said, it has contributed to quality control; in the '80s, games were able to sell thousands of copies before word spread of their poor quality. Whereas today, "if you produce something that's rubbish, within ten minutes the world will know" -- although, frustratingly, great indie games can often be met with "deafening silence."

Nonetheless, Braben believes now is "the best time there's even been" for making games.

"I've heard a lot of indies say they've missed the boat, they should have released their game a few years ago. But it's always been a bit like that, there's always been something a few years ago that was great.

"The world is continually changing. Just because one dimension of it was better a few years ago doesn't mean it was necessarily better overall. Nowadays you've probably got the best chance of getting your game made than ever before."

GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner for Develop:Brighton 2019 and attended with the help of the organisers

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