CEO David Braben on Frontier Developments' new HQ, its Jurassic Park Evolution success and the future
Independent games studio behind Elite Dangerous and Planet Coaster has new games on the way
There’s a celebration going on as we arrive at Frontier Developments.s
The Steak and Honour burger van is outside, along with a sweet truck, and the drinks are flowing. It’s a Frontier Friday – a chance for the 380-strong team at the independent games company to relax a little and socialise.
But this one is special, because it marks the official opening of its stunning new headquarters on Cambridge Science Park, and it comes a day after the announcement that Frontier’s latest game, Jurassic World Evolution, has passed one million units
“It’s a great place to be in,” CEO David Braben tells the Cambridge Independent, after cutting the ribbon in front of his fast-growing team.
“I’m really pleased that we’ve got one million units in such a short space of time. It’s an incredibly good sign and there’s every prospect of it continuing to do well for the rest of the year.
“It’s a lovely game and people are continuing to play it. You only have to look at the number of videos on YouTube of triceratops killing T-rex and things like that!”
Clearly the release of the latest Jurassic Park movie has given the game a big lift, but the success surely reflects more than that.
“It’s a compelling experience that you can play for a long time,” suggests David. “The average play time is already over 20 hours so people are engaging and staying engaged.
“We did a small expansion at the time of the film’s release that included some of the dinosaurs that were in the film. We’ve said we’ll continue to support the game with other expansions, as we have done with both Elite Dangerous and Planet Coaster.”
These are Frontier’s other major titles, which helped it achieve revenue of £19million and operating profits of £3million for the six months to November 2017, according to interim results.
With its sparkling new headquarters – part of the £200million investment by TusPark, the science park body of Tsinghua University in China – Frontier is ambitious to grow further.
“We were on three different buildings on the Science Park and so you get fewer efficiencies. We had very few meeting rooms. Having everyone on one site is good from a practical point of view.
“It’s also a lovely building to be in. We’ve now got a canteen so there’s a big social aspect to it. We do meals at lunchtime where people can bring in their partners or families.
“In the evenings, it’s really good because we’ve got quite a few people who are graduates who might have relocated from a different place, and it means they can eat in the evenings and have a social occasion.”
And he says, admitting this is somewhat cynical, the prominence of Frontier on the Science Park now could be useful for recruitment.
“There a lot of people on the Science Park working in different disciplines whose skillset would be right up our street, particularly for programming, for example – so they’re welcome!
“Recruitment has always been a limiting factor. We’ve been very successful – we’ve found about 50 developers a year. We are quite discerning but it’s hopefully a great company to come to.
“What helps is we’ve got a lot more visibility, particularly now we’ve got three big franchises selling well in the marketplace.
“In the first half of the year on Steam, all three of our games were in the top 100, which is a huge achievement,” he says.
Frontier expects to add another 50-60 people to its headcount of 380 over the coming year.
Some will work on new titles that are still under wraps. But many are supporting its existing franchises with updates. Today, the ‘live games’ phenomenon means the release of a title is only the start of its life.
“Once you’re online in the digital world, there’s a model to keep sustaining a game and improving it,” says David.
“Look at Elite Dangerous. It’s now in its fifth financial year since it was released and every day there’s been a new story in the game, every week there’s been new content. Roughly every quarter there’s been an update. A lot of those have been free, some have been paid.
“It really builds a community because the game is continuing to change.”
More than 100 staff continue to work on Elite Dangerous, a massively multiplayer space epic in which players take control of their own spacecraft in a cutthroat galaxy.
The number indicates that Frontier has some big surprises in store for players, but David is coy.
“We’ve got some amazing things to come in Elite Dangerous, which we haven’t talked about yet,” he says. “There’s also the ‘Beyond’ series of updates, which are lovely in their own right. We have a long future planned for Elite – it’s very exciting.”
Elite’s first incarnation was, famously, on the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron in 1984 and was eventually ported to other home computers such as the Commodore 64, Amiga, Amstrad and ZX Spectrum. A cult game with an enormous following, it was written by David with Ian Bell, after they met at Jesus College.
Players controlled a spaceship that they could upgrade through making trades while travelling between space stations, choosing between legal goods or opting for the higher risk-higher reward strategy of trading in narcotics or indulging in piracy.
For those who played it, the challenge of trying to dock your ship through a narrow entrance – before you could afford an upgrade to a docking computer – is burned in the memory.
“That’s one of those strange game design decisions that Ian and I made in the early days, which may not have been terribly wise!” laughs David. “It was such a hard thing to do, but once you overcame it, it was then quite easy to buy a docking computer. It should have been the other way around.”
Arguably one of the most influential games of all time, Elite represents the very origins of Frontier Developments, which was founded by David in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Cambridge in 1994. The company worked with many leading publishers for the first two decades of its life before going independent in 2015.
David admits that “on some level” he realised something of the potential of what he had on his hands back in the mid-1980s.
“I did see it as being a big medium,” he says. “I was always a big fan of science fiction. But almost all the science fiction that I liked and enjoyed was in books. Where television touched on it – Star Trek and Lost in Space – there was such a different level of engagement. They didn’t have the rich worlds that were portrayed in books.
“The first time I saw it was in the film Star Wars, in 1977, and I thought ‘Wow, this is so much closer to those worlds’. My dad described Star Wars as a ‘rescue the princess’ story and I remember getting quite annoyed. I thought ‘No, it’s not: it’s a world and they happen to be rescuing a princess in this world’.”
For David, story and narrative are not the same thing.
“If you think of people recounting stories in a world and think of the worlds that have come since – whether it’s Alien or Harry Potter – they are worlds you can immerse yourself in and the narrative is secondary,” he says. “It was that sort of thinking around the time of Elite.
“Almost all of the games then were coin drop-based. In other words, they took typically 10 minutes to play and you got three lives. They became so stuck in a rut.
“And yet, on mainframe type computers that were around then, you got these adventure games, where you typed in ‘Go north’ and they came to home computers as well, like Philosopher’s Quest on BBC Micro.
“And I thought ‘These games are so incredibly different. Why can’t we do a game where thinking about it makes a difference?’
“The reason I liked the idea of a space game is it was much easier to render a black thing with dots on it! But it was really more about building a world – a world you can engage with and feel you’re part of. That’s where it came from.”
And that, in many ways, is where Frontier is at home.
“I’ve always wanted to get into the entertainment industry and I’ve always thought games were a very interesting way in,” adds David.
“The word games is a bit of a misnomer. I would say interactive worlds where you can meet other people and be social.
“We have it in Elite, where we have tens of thousands of people getting together with a particular objective. I think that is a very rich thing for the future. We’ve been disruptive to the entertainment industry and also I think we’ve been additive.
“There is scope for us to work together constructively with film and television and bring interactivity into the home.”
Once the equivalent of a marketing add-on, games are now central to an entertainment franchise, as Jurassic World Evolution indicates.
“We were looking at doing something involving dinosaurs but Universal came to us,” says David. “That has been great and shows how things have changed.
“Ten years ago, we would have been seen as a merchandising opportunity for a film, because our business was so much smaller and less relevant. But as we’ve moved into the sitting room, it’s become a really positive additive component of a broader franchise audience.”
Meanwhile, the thrills will keep on coming for players of Frontier’s theme park game.
“Planet Coaster has been doing very well,” says David. “We’ve done a lot of expansions – a lot of those have been free – and it’s built an ever richer game over time and a very, very supportive audience.
“We released the vintage pack a week or so ago and it went right up the charts. We’ve got more packs to come that we haven’t announced. The creations people have made in Planet Coaster are incredible. It’s only in the second year of its life cycle – it’s got a long way to go and we expect to go there,” says David.
But what is going on in the spaces within Frontier’s new HQ that remain closed off to visitors?
“We have new games in development: new franchises in different stages of development, which we’ll announce when the time is right for each,” says David.
“We’re very excited about them. We’re building a portfolio. Some we’re working with other people. Some will be our own IP. We are building this for the long-term.
“If you think about our three franchises now: one is licensed, two are ours. It will be a mix going forward as well and that’s really sensible. They are all very different but with the common factor of our engine.
“It also means the audiences are largely non-overlapping, which is fantastic. There is a small cohort who buy all our games and also evangalise them – and we’re very grateful for those people!”
More by this authorPaul Brackley