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David Braben on all things PC. Including the P Word

Towards the end of July, at the Develop conference, we took a much-needed break from listening to design paradigm analysis to have a coffee with Frontier Developments' David Braben. He's one of the living legends of the industry - one word:Elite - and it was a welcome chance to casually pick over the issues of the day. So, yes, the P-word features strongly.

RPS: Develop seems like a good opportunity to talk about where you see things at the moment? What have you been paying attention to?

Braben: What I've been looking at is PC sales compared to those on other formats. Online games, such as World Of Warcraft, are selling well and making money, and then you have almost all other PC games: they're not selling very well at all. It's difficult to know quite what conclusions to draw from that, other than people aren't buying retail copies of PC games unless there's some kind of online component. The real question for me is whether the PC is going the way of the Amiga, with piracy killing off sales. Our last game, ThrillVille: Off The Rails, sold almost nothing on PC, but did sell on other platforms.

RPS: If I were ever to make a game - which I hope not to do, since everyone involved would be doomed - I'd be looking at making an online component intrinsic to the game, even if it were just glorified copy protection.

Braben: EA were suggesting something really draconian for Spore [this interview conducted well before Spore's release, obviously - Ed] and that would drive me round the bend, because I often game on a laptop, away from my internet connection.

RPS: Yes, I just moved house and found myself dragging a PC downstairs to get online to activate Mass Effect code

Braben: We need to find a suitable solution for the PC.

RPS: The solution we need is for the traditional PC middle ground, specifically. Casual games are doing okay, and the ultra-budget MMOs are doing okay, but the middle-ground is really having trouble. What people seem to be doing is embracing digital downloads - Tilted Mill for example with their games - Hinterland is being done on a budget, so it'll make money from the people who want that kind of game. What do you make of those kind of very specific approaches on PC?

Braben: Well yes it's interesting that the market is so fragmented, and so you've got small areas of it that are doing okay, particularly online games. Certain types of games, however, are going to die out, and the rate of piracy is a big factor. I mean the Amiga lived on for a very long time in certain areas, but the main stream of development died off. What that meant was that people didn't renew their Amigas, they just kept them as they were. At the moment people renew PCs every two or three years, and that used to mean it led gaming. Now developers want to lead on console to get away from piracy, and that's a real shame for the format.

RPS: Stardock's approach is interesting that way - they've noticed that the piracy for certain sorts of games is much lower than for other sorts of games. I did that research too: Even a really terribly marked FPS - say Turning Point - gets downloaded enormously on torrents, but something more cerebral like Sins Of A Solar Empire didn't get pirated much, and sold a fair bit.

Braben: I thought the idea for Turning Point was really interesting! Surely the bad mark doesn't justify piracy.

RPS: Sorry: what I meant was that first-person shooters are more prone to be pirated, because the pirate audience is more interested in that kind of game.

Braben: Well yes, that is interesting. It's always been the case that certain kinds of people have quite distinct tastes for certain kinds of games. But FPS gamers are likely to be young, poor, and very savvy about how to get these games online. There's nothing more sinister to it than that - but it is an interesting point. I find that looking at who buys games is fascinating - almost everyone at the company is a gamer, and they're all rather different people.

RPS: Going back to your point about the PC no longer leading game design - where it's pushing now is in alternate business models, isn't it? In the free to play stuff, the micropayments and ad-funded things...

Braben: That's because there's no choice?

RPS: Yes, but the thing we don't think about with relation to the industry is that the biggest games are all free-to-play MMOs that are filled with teenagers. There's that thing about the US teenager playing browser games until he's eighteen and can afford a 360 and the games...

Braben: Runequest! My nephews played Runequest until they upgraded to a paid account. They thought they'd get a lot more from that, and when they didn't they lost interest. What's more interesting about that, perhaps, is it's their education. And it's becoming an education for that generation, giving them the expectation that online stuff is free. That's something we need to look at. People's expectations of what games look like demand huge art assets, and to make something people will want to pay for you need a huge team. When it's something that can be so easily pirated on PC that leaves you with only one realistic choice: something online where the account can be verified by a server. Like the Amiga, it will be slow, but it will slide that way. We're looking at ways round that. Online advertising is a possibility, but not at the moment: the revenue isn't enough. What we need is online functionality to make the game both appealing, but necessarily paid for.

RPS: It's just a technical limitation though isn't it? I mean I'm playing Devil's Advocate here, but games have always, and will always, face technical challenges, and piracy is just that...

Braben: Yes - it's just so easy to remove software protection from PC games. People will crack something you put on within an hour of release. You simply can't assume software protection will work. And as I said, people expect to get stuff for free. They don't have that expectation when they're buying stuff for their console.

RPS: Gamer entitlement is interesting. Why are gamers like that?

Braben: Even within a development house we're never quite satisfied with a game. You always get the "what about this idea!" One of the ways that people justify piracy to themselves: "Oh well it isn't exactly like I wanted, so I wouldn't pay for it." They can always imagine how it would be improved, because they're intelligent people! And it's only when they can't access something, or need something from the retail version that they'll consider buying the game.

RPS: To be honest, when I was a kid we spent all the money we had on games and pirated the rest. I think that's still the case to an extent, but I think now piracy is easier, that money just goes somewhere else. If you wiped it out, just how much of it would come back to the PC is hard to say, of course.

Braben: I remember Virus was hugely pirated because it was on one disc. Just that simple logistical fact made it much more popular. There was no correlation to quality or anything else, it was just about practicality of piracy.

RPS: The PC crowd really hate DRM too, and that's a big issue for them.

Braben: I hate DRM! That "you wouldn't steal a car" thing at the start of DVDs, that drives me mad. I'd rather put games out without DRM, and just find a way to encourage people to buy it.

RPS: Going back to Stardock, they have a way: they make the patcher heavily protected and get people to log on for that. They've had some success with that.

Braben: Again it demands some online support... the people who play it again might well be the people who pirate it. Something I learned in the US is that are still some areas with painfully slow internet access, and people in those areas still buy boxed games! It's those kinds of sales which best support the things that best on the PC: high-quality single player games with great story-telling. Games that you might love, but only play through once, because that's it. I think we'll see less and less of those games, or find them awkwardly shoehorned online, with strange justifications for their online component.

RPS: They're games I really care about, yes. The kind of games you're talking about are what interest me most about the PC, and they are in decline.

Braben: We're a creative industry, we need to find creative ways to encourage people to buy these games - without pissing them off with restrictive copy protection!

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