Best of British gaming: David Braben
If you ever find yourself in a discussion about the greatest British videogame developers, throw in the name of David Braben and you’ll get many knowing nods. In 1984, Braben created Elite with Ian Bell. Its open ended gameplay and 3D graphics were truly groundbreaking and it is quite telling that it tops polls even today, more than a quarter of a century on.
But when Braben and Bell sat down together at Cambridge University to work on the space trading game, they would have had little indication that it would go on to shape videogaming as we know it today, proving to be hugely influential for generations of developers. And it almost didn’t happen – publishers, most notably Thorn EMI, turned the game down because it was very different to what was out there at the time.
The pair persevered, however, and it was eventually taken on to major critical acclaim. “I was a hobbyist to begin with,” Braben says. “In those days ‘playing’ with computers at home was a very new thing. Acorn and Sinclair had released two relatively cheap computers, the Atom and the ZX80, compared to the then very expensive Commodore Pet and Apple II and so computing was starting to really take off.”
It was an exciting time. Young people were experimenting and churning out games from their bedrooms. They, in turn, were being played by young people in their bedrooms. And the stigma that is maybe attached today didn’t exist. “These days we forget that programming computers was not seen as a geeky hobby, but almost had a rock star image,” continues Braben. “Teenagers were shown on TV making fortunes while still at school, and many ended up typing in great long program listings from magazines into their ZX80 with precariously attached 16K RAM packs, that would most likely stop working before they had finished.”
Braben got his hands on an Acorn Atom before he went to university and he found programming the machine was a relatively straight-forward affair, certainly when compared to today. He discovered his new-found knowledge was easily transferred to the newly released BBC Micro. It was at university where he met Bell, wrote Elite for the Micro and sold around a million copies, a huge number for that time.
“A large community built up around those early computers, and I am proud to be a part of that community,” Braben reflects. “Between us we have trail-blazed many new genres of games including Elite, Populous, GTA, RollerCoaster Tycoon, Sensible Soccer, LittleBigPlanet and many others. There are few fields Britain can still be truly proud of and this is one of them.”
At the time of creating Elite, however, he wasn’t massively impressed with the games that were being produced. Those titles of the early 1980s, however, indirectly influenced Elite because Braben and Bell wanted to produce a game that was a world away from those 2D offerings which he felt were derivative of each other and had the same expected play-through time (“games before Elite were mostly based around a ‘coin drop’ mentality as their designs were derived from the coin-operated games that were played in the arcades of the time; games like Defender, Pac-Man, Galaxian, Space Invader,” he says). Braben believed gamers were being asked to repeat the same gameplay patterns over and over until it ground them down or the succeeded. Elite was different – it didn’t have three lives, a score or 10 minutes of play through. “Publishers were also aghast that the users would have to provide their own cassette or disc to save their positions,” laughs Braben. “The only games that had the concept of saving before this were text adventures running on university computers.”
Elite was one of the games which put Britain on the gaming map. The country led the world with only Japan and America producing more games. “But starting in about 2007 Britain has slid down this ranking dramatically, which is a real shame,” laments Braben. “These same people are still making games; just most are no longer based in the UK. Visit development facilities in Montreal, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the dominant accent is often British, so in a sense, British video gaming is still very influential, but the sad thing is the last generation, in which I include myself, is predominantly bringing up the next generation outside the UK.”
He says the fundamental problem is that while game development is a new, rapidly growing field, the geographical locations in which that growth happens are inevitably the ones that have the best environment to make such growth possible – and the sad thing is that the UK is one of the most unfavourable places in the world at the moment. “As we saw with the film industry, once that industry is established, it tends to stay put. That is why so much film is still made in Hollywood,” he adds.
But those developers across the world will have undoubtedly benefited from Elite, either directly or through the influence that subsequently spread in the years that followed. “One of the things I think Ian and I achieved with Elite was to change the way people that played games regarded them, and it opened a door for those that followed,” he says.
Elite came with a story book, a manual, a map, a quick reference guide, a poster, a key chart and it was a very involved game. After Elite bigger games became acceptable – even desirable. For it wasn’t just the wireframe 3D graphics which caused jaws to drop. The open gameplay – almost a space precursor to Grand Theft Auto in its ambition – made the game so utterly absorbing. Later titles such as Eve Online have taken obvious influence from Braben and Bell’s 1980s gem but Elite is all the more remarkable for having been put together in just 22K of code. And while so many games operated under the same restraints, few broke out with as much flair.
“Elite helped allow games to become much bigger experiences as the success of Elite showed particularly to game publishers that being a coin-op style game was not the only route to success. I’m very proud of what we achieved.”
David Braben is among a host of British videogame developers being celebrated in an interactive gaming exhibition taking place at Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives </a> near Ashington, Northumberland. It runs until September 5.Tagged in: computers, console, David Braben, gaming
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