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Braben On Elite, Oc Rift, Dodgy Gravity & Doing Space Right

"A little bit of gravity is nice, so that your sneeze lands on your tissue"

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At last week’s Develop conference in Brighton, I grabbed a half hour with Frontier Developments boss David Braben to talk about what’s going on with Elite Dangerous (fresh from my own wide-eyed experiences of it on a VR headset). Discussed: space, Oculus Rift, why FIFA games don’t sound right, how Star Trek doesn’t talk about gravity, developing in the public eye and publisher-free, and the resurgence of joysticks.
RPS: [forgets to turn on dictaphone initially, like a professional, but says something about how what most struck me about Elite: Dangerous is that the essential ‘being in a ship in space’ aspect feels so good, even before you get into any of the actual features, and that sound seems to play a big part in that.]

David Braben: [IIRC says something about how he’s pleased to hear that and that Frontier tried to]…be as accurate as we can. It’s not just the distances, but the way things look, the way things behave. The rules, if you like, of the game. You mentioned sound – the sound team at Frontier have done a really good job, led by Jim Croft, who put a really rich audioscape. But we played around with a lot things. People have said, y’know, there’s no audio in space, because space is a vacuum. But we know that, and that’s what we’re doing – what we’re assuming is that in the 33rd Century you can have a reasonable sound system.

I read a report about a crash in the Pacific, an Air France crash, and when the plane was coming down there would be a cacophony of different alarms and indicators going off, saying essentially very bad things. I think the way you would indicate a ship coming from the left is you do it with sound, and you would put it into a stereo soundscape or even 7.1. I think the point really is that we have thought of this, and that’s how we’re doing the sound. That’s why the sound changes when you go into a station. Then you can hear the echo and the ambience of the volume. One of the examples that people haven’t called out, for example, is games like FIFA. If you go to a real football match, it’s not just the roar of the stadium, but you see a footballer kick the ball and there is an appreciable delay before you hear it. In FIFA you don’t hear that delay. It’s what people expect as well, a degree of that.

RPS: I suppose in FIFA there’s an issue around who you are playing as. Are you the players, are you the manager, are you the audience, are you some floating god watching from above?

David Braben: I think that’s right. I think you’re some strange homunculus of all of the above. And also you’re a manager to an extent, because you’re choosing the allocations of the player.

RPS: You’ve got a great get-out in that argument that whatever you include in the game that might be scientifically dubious now might represent the technology of the future, hey?

David Braben: I know it’s a cop out, but it’s a cop out that we’ve thought about at least.

RPS: I guess you could say that in year x someone came up with a study saying that pilots flew better if there was a simulated engine noise…

David Braben: We did think about making it tinny and always the same, but there’s just no point. You wouldn’t do that, and it would spoil the experience.

RPS: What other aspects have you had to fudge, for the sake of a more engaging game?

David Braben: There is the one great… lie, if you like. Which is hyperspace. We know that’s not real, so what we’ve done is make sure that it works really well from a gameplay perspective. But all the rest we’ve made as physically accurate as we can. We are assuming that hyperspace is essentially some sort of dimensional shift, so that it’s contracting distances and you don’t have the inertia problems, you don’t have the fact that if you had that level of acceleration you’d be a small smear on the back of your cockpit. In fact, the cockpit itself would probably collapse.

RPS: What is the internal tug of war at Frontier between fantasy and reality like? Are there competing opinions?

David Braben: The gameplay has to come first, which is why we’ve made this hyperspace assumption. Generally, making science the way it is is a fairly arbitrary choice, really. It annoys me that in a lot of science fiction films they don’t bother. They just do it without really thinking about it. So, for example, having gravity in Star Trek. They all walk around and no-one really explains how they’re doing it. Same in so many games, like Mass Effect – you just assume ‘oh, there’s a gravity field’, a hand is waved slightly and then people forget about it. But I think it’s interesting – it brings a lot of gameplay interest and a lot of solidity to the game in doing that. We have the rotating spaceships that are novel, you look at it and you think ‘that’s from Elite: Dangerous.’ I think that is how it would be. That is a very good solution to the problem.

[editor’s note- I’m informed that Babylon 5 did shoot for a similar explanation. Star Trek seems to have settled on the ‘magic box under the floor/inside boots’ rationalisation, however.]

And actually, do you want gravity everywhere? You don’t actually. A little bit of gravity is nice, so that your sneeze lands on your tissue, or because eating with a knife and fork would become very difficult in zero-G. Loading cargo – it’s really great that cargo stays put when you it down, but in a tenth gravity you could pick it up and lift it over your head if you want.

The other thing I like is, in some value, maybe .3 or .4 G, a human can still fly. Isn’t that amazing? You could strap on wings and fly. But you don’t see that.

RPS: I suppose you’re fortunate in that, despite the game covering such an immense amount of space, it has a much narrower focus than a lot of other sci-fi. This is primarily about getting spaceships right, whereas something like Mass Effect has to do stories and cultures and characters on a much bigger level as well.

David Braben: That will come to us as well. We have said that this is just the beginning. We’ve shown inside the ships already, we will have those things with time and for the release. Walking around, ultimately landing on the surfaces of the planets. All of those things, whether it’s talking to people or big game hunting will come.

RPS: And you’ll be looking more closely at how the individual civilisations and cultures work?

David Braben: Yes, we’ve already got that. We have piles, pages, hundreds of pages of that sort of thing, because we’ve created fiction bibles for just about every element of civilisation. What is the law, who is the president through time, who is the emperor, were they deposed? I’m sure you know [I did! – Ed],there have been quite a few books now based in our world, so in order to be consistent they have to follow these fiction bibles.

RPS: The long term plan you have now, how much was it planned already, what you expected to have when you launched that Kickstarter?

David Braben: It’s certainly where I’d hoped we’d be by now. All of these things, you do your absolute best to deliver the best thing you can, and I think we have. I’m very proud. There are lot of very, very dedicated people at Frontier, putting in many, many hours – I mean man-years – to make the game very beautiful, and I get to take credit for it [ laughs], which of course is great. The point is that there are so many moving parts to it, and I think that… Well, I hope that the backers are pleased with what we’ve done so far, and what we’re continuing to do. I believe we have delivered what we said we’d do, and are continuing to, but that’s not to say we should get complacent. I am absolutely hopeful and expect that, in the same way looking where we are now and back at a few months’ earlier and thinking ‘I thought that was good, this is better’, I hope by the time we get to release we will have continued that rate of improvement.

RPS: You mentioned about the other people involved, and how Jim Croft was heading up audio – I’m really interested to know who the other driving forces are on this game.

David Braben: Johnny Watts is the producer, he makes it happen, he’s doing really well… Y’know, there are so many people, and the danger when you start naming individuals is you leave someone out. That would be my fear. The reason I mentioned Jim is because you called out audio, but again he has a whole team, and they’re doing a great job. Every ship sounds different, every component of the ship has a sound, whether it’s a little relay switching because you’re lowering the undercarriage… All of these things have a sound, it’s the solidity of feeling you’re involved. They’re all placed in a proper 3D soundscape, so whether you’re listening on 5.1 or 7.1 or just stereo, you’re embedded in the world.

RPS: I noticed when I was fiddling with the Oculus Rift settings that you can either have ‘Oculus Rift – headphones’ or ‘Oculus Rift – speakers’, which is impressively specific.

David Braben: Oh, I know! Absolutely. It’s one of the things that’s funny, because one of the things we found at Frontier was that playing Oculus Rift with headphones was excluding, particularly if you’re talking to people. We’ve actually got a room set up with 7.1 and it’s nice, and we actually play the Oculus Rift without headphones, but we noticed you need the soundscape to stay with the headphones.

RPS: Will you be tracking the depth motion tracking aspect of the Rift DK2?

David Braben: We support that. If it’s on your Oculus Rift, we support it. We support DK1, we support Oculus HD and we support DK2. It’s actually quite nice, you can see some things around the cockpits, you can look out and lean around, particularly on the Type IX, you can actually see down to the weapons.

RPS: You’ve got that modeled pilot body with the moving fingers in there already – are you going to see that leaning forwards and craning around?

David Braben: ….Yes? Although it’s quite hard to see, so yes and no, I’d say in quite a weasely developer way. I’m trying to think, actually, the last time played on the Rift… I think it moves, it can’t track your body fully but it can try to. It’s funny, if you take your real hands off the joystick then look down, you’re ‘woah, why’s my hand still on the joystick?’ [Laughs] That’s the sort of thing that, with devices, if we wanted to explore we could. Whether it’s Kinect on PC or whatever, but I don’t think that adds a huge amount.

RPS: I guess you can give a ‘well, we’ll see’ answer to everything now, as there’s no-one above you to say what you can and can’t do now.

David Braben: Well, even when we shipped Alpha 1, we weren’t expecting to support things like Oculus until a lot further down the line. We had it in mind, we’d thought about head-mounted displays, but the Alpha backers said they really wanted it. So we said ‘actually it’s not that hard to do’, did a quick investigation, we showed it worked, and then actually the rest of the work was probably a total of three days’ work for one guy. So we got it in there and we did it as a Christmas present to the backers. We did it as an update to a patch for the alpha build.

RPS: That’s fascinating in terms of the demographics for those high-level backers. Are they developers too? Are they just rich?

David Braben: Ten percent played on Oculus Rift.

RPS: That’s huge, my goodness.

David Braben: Some of them probably are developers, some of them they probably do a bit of tinkering at home… There’s no harm or shame in that. I think that now we’ve got, in round figures, 30,000 people playing, I don’t expect 10 percent of them to be playing on Oculus RIfts. There will be a significant number, as DK2s roll out maybe a lot more, and it’s not just Oculus RIft. There are also other head-mounted displays coming up, some from Kickstarter, Sony’s Morpheus… I think what we’ll see is a much more populated field anyway, and it’ll be like TV sets. “What about Oculus, ooh, what about this other one?”, all different in some way.

RPS: It’s fascinating that, for so long, as press and developers we’ve talked about which games sell hardware, but we’ve always meant graphics cards and processors and consoles. Now we’re beginning to talk about it in terms of joysticks and headsets. You and Star Citizen are now the figureheads for a completely different form of hardware.

David Braben: Yeah. Well, actually what’s happened is that the industry has turned on its head a lot. Developers are now saying ‘we will do this’, whereas five years ago it was publishers. Publishers would come to developers, saying ‘we want you to work with this…’ It’s meant a lot more freedom. There’s no way if we were with a publisher that we could just support Oculus Rift like that. There would always be a deal in place – ‘what do Oculus get out of it?’ All of that side of things.

RPS: And presumably it wouldn’t be something you could just turn around in three days, because you’d have all these levels of approval to meet.

David Braben: Absolutely, you’d find it was way more work, all these prototypes. And that’s the difference. I suppose we are a publisher, but in a different way, with a different mindset. Our allegiance is to the game, and if a particular piece of hardware – I like the X52 for example [me too! – ed], it works really well and that’s the one I’ve been playing with. Having said that, I still like playing on a console pad. It works well, and actually on Oculus, an X52 takes a bit of getting used to because you have to work out where all the switches are [laughs]. You have to memorise them. With a controller, I’ve played games with those for so long that I know exactly where all the buttons are, so it’s not a problem.

RPS: Clearly you’re very much an advocate of developing in the public eye like this, but I do wonder how much that’s because it’s gone so well for you so far. Just as a thought experiment, did you are can you think about how you be feeling about being this open if the reception to Dangerous had been more negative, and you were on the back foot, having to defend yourself all the time?

David Braben: Yeah, you are right. It’s something that, before we went for Kickstarter, I did agonise either. But I actually thought ‘well, I’d rather know sooner than later if someone hated what we are doing.’ You know, while there was still a chance to rectify it. People have said ‘oh, I don’t like this feature or that feature’ or ‘your game runs rubbishly on my hardware’, and we’ve looked at it and tried to fix it. It’s actually been very helpful having such a big test bed so soon. We say there are ‘only’ 200 people playing alpha 1, but actually that’s still a very big test set, and we found all sorts of obscure graphics cards combinations and things that weren’t in our normal test set. So we were able to fix things.

RPS: It’s free QA!

David Braben: Yes, they were fantastically helpful. There were a few guys who we said ‘actually we can’t find out why this isn’t working, because we haven’t been able to source the graphics card that you’ve got. Well, we have one, but it works!’ So we tried to figure out why his different, and eventually we sent him a really simple test program, he ran it and we found it was to do with the way the driver worked. So we’ve now got the bottom of it – we said ‘it is a problem, here is a temporary fix and we’ll solve it properly next.’

Other obscure problems we’ve found in the wild, is that people love upgrading their machines and they love upgrading their network connections, to get fast connections. But they will have a network hub or a switch somewhere that they’ve not touched for ten years, and it doesn’t support a lot of the modern protocols. So we have to write a different codepath that copes with the older hubs. It’s things like that that were flushed out ,that we hadn’t found at work because we were working on a fairly straightforward and very clean LAN that doesn’t have these things.

Next – questions for Mr Braben from Twitter. CROWDSOURCING. Yes.

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