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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.