Interview: David Braben

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Interview: David Braben
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Atomic chats with the legend behind Elite and Frontier.

Elite. To many, this word means little (which is odd because it actually means ‘great’). To others, hardened by phosphor and repetitive strain injury, it is a game. A ‘great’ game. We chatted to David Braben, one of the men behind Elite, to find out why it was so, well, elite.

Atomic: How do you spend your time these days? What have you done since Elite?

David Braben: Sailing, playing both computer games and board games. I’m currently enjoying Oblivion on 360.

Since Elite, I’ve started the company Frontier, which employs more than 100 staff, and written or designed many games since. These days I am part of a larger team, with games such as RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, and Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the WereRabbit under our belts. We’re currently working on Thrillville – a console based rollercoaster theme park game, and The Outsider, a thriller.

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Atomic: Do you watch or have an interest in sci-fi? If so, what’s your opinion of shows like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly?

David Braben: Yes, though most of the sci-fi films I’ve seen lately have been poor.

Atomic: With the advantage of hindsight, what are your final thoughts on Ian Bell, the lawsuits and the falling out? Is there anything you would have done differently?

David Braben: Perhaps. At the root of the problem, or the falling out if you like, was Ian’s unwillingness to continue working. This created an asymmetry in what had been a good partnership. The best thing would probably have been to have a clean break much earlier on.

Atomic: What do you think of the genre that Elite created?

David Braben: The many games that followed, from Federation of Free Traders onwards, mostly didn’t capture the feel of Elite for me. Pretty soon I stopped playing them. Interestingly, one of the producers on Frontier: Elite 2, Gary Penn, went on to produce Grand Theft Auto with DMA Design – which he described as ‘Elite in a city’. For me, this captured some of the spirit – perhaps more so than many of the games that more overtly tried to follow Elite.

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Atomic: Elite and Frontier made extensive use of procedural content generation to squeeze an entire universe in a few kilobytes (or a megabyte in the case of Frontier). Can you explain how you came to the decision of using procedural coding, how much it influenced the game, as well as the pros/cons?

David Braben: It wouldn’t have been possible to get a game of the complexity of Elite and Frontier on those machines otherwise. Procedural generation is nothing to be afraid of. In many ways it made the game production process much easier – imagine in Frontier designing and testing 100,000,000,000 stellar systems, each of which had up to 100 planets. Clearly you wouldn’t have that many – and they perhaps wouldn’t have been so ‘samey’ – but at least with procedural generation, you know what the bounds of what you are going to get are.

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This feature appeared in the September, 2006 issue of Atomic Magazine
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