'Elite' Creator on Sci-Fi, Politics and His Studio's Next Big Thing

Elite: Dangerous creator David Braben discusses politics, science fiction and what's next for his game

Elite Dangerous Credit: Elite Dangerous

As gaming matured from depthless blips to shimmering vectors, sci-fi enthusiasts who grew up on The Empire Strikes Back and Isaac Asimov hoped to someday jump in a spaceship and sail to distant stars. 

In 1984, David Braben's genre-pioneering Elite – widely considered one of the most influential games of its time – gave these would-be aces their first taste of interstellar travel, albeit powered by a pint-sized processor. The sci-fi classic's core ideas never ceased to churn, and after two sequels followed by a an interminably long drought of space games, Braben's company Frontier Developments crowdfunded and released Elite: Dangerous in late 2014. The game inspired a deluge of similar titles and, in Braben's view, granted the genre wings once more. 

Glixel caught up with Braben to discuss the shortcomings of science-fiction games, the politics of the Elite universe, and the challenges of maintaining such an ambitious sequel.

Tell me how you got your start in gaming.
I loved the idea of computers. Then, they were a very new thing. I was fascinated by what you could do with programming. I typed in my first programs from a book, and one of them was called "animal learning program." It was really simple. It asked questions and built a database, like: "think of an animal." What amazed me was not just how simple the program was, but how it could learn, and teach itself. That fascination with programming merged with my huge love of science fiction. I love Asimov, Robert L. Forward. Those kind of guys. Harry Harrison, James P. Hogan.

From the late Sixties to the Seventies, there was so much interest in science fiction. What I learned from that is that it wasn't so much the stories they were telling, but the worlds the stories were set in that I thought were so interesting. The contrast with real life was really thrilling. It was never matched at that point, in TV or film. Star Trek was almost a comedic take on it. It was still enjoyable, and I still watched it. For me, Star Wars was a big turning point. I was 13 or 14. It was the first time in film that the world approached the worlds I had imagined in science fiction books.

"The nearest parallel to Roman slavery in modern times is signing up for the Army."

It's very funny, actually. One of the things my dad said a few years later, "Ah, that's just a rescue-the-princess story." And I said, "No, it's not." It's funny. It made me quite angry. I had seen something completely different. I had seen it not as a linear story, but an immersion in a world, where you had Mos Eisley contrasted with the Death Star, contrasted with everything else. I thought that was really wonderful. That, combined with the ability to program computers, seemed like a great mix, and I loved the idea of being able to create a world you could adventure in.

Do you ever think there has ever been a good "serious" sci-fi game? In a game like Elite, the focus is more on your adventures in space, but not necessarily the worlds themselves. Do you think there's a work of video game science-fiction that rivals the novels of, say, Ursula K. Le Guin?
To a point, I agree. I think Ursula Le Guin put emphasis on the sexuality as well as the politics, but if you separate those out, if you look at the rich politics that you get in some science fiction books, like the works of Iain Banks – he does touch on some of the same political issues. I think with games, Elite does touch upon those themes. But the side that people want to engage with is still the space-opera, because it's the personal fantasy of exploration that drives people. One of the things that I've really enjoyed with Elite – and some people do engage a lot with this – is the feeling of the politics of slavery, the politics of different totalitarian systems. What happens when all these different governments clash?

I'm a big fan of Ancient Rome and studying why things turned out the way they did. We have an image of Roman slaves as terribly treated. Now, that was true beyond the Rubicon, but within Rome, slaves – by law – had to be treated really well, and they had rights. The nearest parallel to Roman slavery in modern times is signing up for the Army, where you sign up to be sent to risk your life or whatever, but there are rules, and you get paid, and there's a fixed term. That's as close as you get to Roman slavery. But, once you cross the Rubicon, you were outside Roman law, and the slaves were treated incredibly badly. That's what we tend to remember. I'm just touching on this to illustrate some of the political implications of imperial slaves versus unregulated slaves, in the game. In Roman times, people would sign up for slavery to pay a debt. That's a different sort of cultural and political root.

But, to touch on the other point that you made, with regard to aliens, humanity has only just re-encountered the Thargoid aliens in our game. Back in January, the first encounter happened. But, part of this is also the fact that I'm dead-against the stance where the alien is just a human with a slightly wrinkly head, or pointy ears.

Like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where all the mythological creatures are just regular dudes in terrible makeup?
(Laughs) Yes, exactly. It makes me cringe a bit, to be honest. That's one of the beauties of written science-fiction. That wasn't a restriction. And then the practicalities of putting it onto TV, onto film, meant that it probably had to be somebody in a suit. And so they weren't truly alien, and I think that's one of the things that with our Thargoids, they are truly alien. They are based on differently chemistry, and a lot of effort went into making that chemistry right and plausible. The chemistry is still carbon-based, but with ammonia as the solvent, rather than water, and it does seem to work.

Imagine going to an ants' nest. They're probably the most alien species that we interact with regularly. And we have no comprehension what an ants' nest is thinking. If a dog runs up to you, you can understand. Any mammal, we've got a pretty good immediate empathy with it. But something like an ant, we don't even know where the intelligence is, how it's distributed. Ants will sacrifice an individual ant if it's diseased. It won't return to the nest, in case it infects it. It's those sort of things where this is when I say, if you like "hard" science-fiction, where the science is as front and center as it can be, that's something that we've tried to do.

It is less personal, of course. You're in a spaceship, and you communicate via electronics. But, it is there. And that's the challenge. Something like Mass Effect is a very different thing. I'm not criticizing it. It's much more on that personal level. It's much more first-person related, person-to-person, rather than the galaxy. In Elite, it's our galaxy. I'm very proud of that. It's as accurate as we can possibly make it. Even things that we put in at the start are not very far from real life. For example, the discovery of Trappist-1. We have something like 160,000 star systems typed into our catalog. Beyond that, we use a system we call Stellar Forge that essentially fills in the gaps.

We use density maps and all sorts of things. We know the rates of instant light, for example. Even Hubble can't resolve the faintest M-class stars beyond 40-odd light years. Trappist-1 has just been analyzed, and it's just visible, it's right on the cusp of visibility. Planets were discovered around it. When we grabbed the data, in that part of space, there weren't any stars in it. But our system filled in where Trappist-1 has been discovered, because the density suggested there would be several other systems there. Incredibly – and there's an element of luck here, as well – it had seven planets, which were quite close to it. So Trappist-1 was already in the game, even though it hadn't been discovered, which was lovely, and we've now renamed it and tweaked it to make it accurate.

That's commitment to the cause.
It's the fact that we've got all the data in one place. What I'm saying is that we've done our best to make it as accurate as we can. It's not just random encounters with aliens, where you roll the dice. To go back to your original point, I think that's what we're doing. Elite is a hard sci-fi game, basically.

You clearly put in a lot of work into it. Still, that's pretty rare in the industry, right?
Oh, absolutely. And I think it matters to a small percentage of people, but it matters a lot of them. I think hat's off to people who are able to do that. It is a good thing, and it broadens people's awareness. People can be quite myopic, and science is something that isn't very respected all of the time. I'm reminded of the quote from C.P. Snow, who said "Everybody is expected to know Shakespeare's plays, but they're not expected to know the equivalent sophistication in science." Like Maxwell's equations or something. And I think that's partly why we founded Raspberry Pi, as well – to try and evangelize the love of science was a big part of it, and it's really important. People getting into scientific subjects, but also realizing that quite often, with the right approaches, we can solve things. A big hero of mine is Elon Musk, somebody who's going ahead and solving these problems, rather than just talking about it. The more people we can have educated about computer science and physics, the better.

Don't you feel like society is already moving in that direction, to some extent? It seems like the only sphere where "good jobs" continue to materialize are in the computer science realm. There's a lot of money in the tech space, Musk is a great example of that. I graduated from college fairly recently, and it seemed like everybody wanted to take at least a few computer science classes, and go into STEM fields. Everybody was running away from the humanities as fast as they could.
Maybe it's different where you are, or where I am. I take your point, but it's a case of where you think the normal amount should be. One of the reasons computer science jobs are all very good is because there are too few people trained in them. It's supply and demand. You may think there are too many, of course.

(Laughter) I wouldn't say that. Though, I do think there are definitely a lot of people who say, "Well, I'm going to study computer science now, because that's what's expected of me." It's the same way that somebody might have studied mechanical or electrical engineering thirty or forty years ago.
I suppose that, slightly controversially, I think that's a great thing. I think that we're going to go through quite a difficult time – humanity, I mean – moving forward, because we're slammed on resources at the moment. There is such a danger that because of that, countries are gonna fall out with each other and the like. If we can smooth the edge of that, which will require an element of cooperation, an element of science, then that will be very good long-term for us as a species. I think the humanities are great, and they're important, and I don't mean to belittle them. I think that it's what we need from a practical standpoint, going forward. They don't have to be science-related jobs. A general awareness and understanding of science is essential to our future. And the respect for it. In that sense, I am evangelizing against the humanities, I suppose. But I love the humanities.

I think that's clear in the games you make. We just live in a strange time for science and tech. A lot of people think that the tech class are a source of active harm in American politics, for example.
(Laughter) Well, there are a lot of sources of harm in American politics. But the reason I respect Elon Musk is that he isn't partisan, he just wants to get things done. People who will work, who will do what it takes within reason – that's the point. Musk isn't afraid to criticize Trump when he crosses certain lines, and say "No, that's a bridge too far." I've done a lot of things in the UK with education, I've done it with both political parties that were in power. Through that, we were able to make a change in education. Often, you have to work with people for whom that's not their first priority. Through the Raspberry Pi Foundation, we've been able to bring the price down so precipitously to $5 for the 0, and $25 for the 3.

There was almost a two-decade gap between Elite 3 and Elite: Dangerous. Why was that?
There were lots of reasons, honestly. The publisher that we went with was disastrous. It resulted in legal issues and, eventually, a settlement. I think what happened was, by that time, I talked to publishers about doing a fourth Elite game, but some things happened. Publishers were skeptical of space games in general because of the financial failure of Freelancer, an early 2000's game. It was delayed. It's a nice game, but in that period, they were just incredibly skeptical. They also wanted to drive it towards character-based action. That would change the complexion of the game. I don't know the story behind Mass Effect and other games like that, but it wouldn't surprise me if that was how that process began. It creates a very different game. I remember in a publisher meeting, if you remember the game Dead Space, it was described as a space game. It's a lovely game, but definitely not the sort of thing that I would want to make. Over that period of time, we made loads of games, but, for me, revisiting Elite was something that I wanted to do properly, and I also wanted to do it with an element of greater freedom that most publishers would give. A lot of publishers say they'll give you that freedom, but, in practice, they just don't do it. "When's the delivery date? Who's it going to appeal to?" Things like that. The ROI is really what matters to them. It's an investment calculation. And then they scale everything down.

When we first greenlit Elite: Dangerous, there were no other major space games since Freelancer. Now, there are dozens. So, I think we've succeeded. We've brought the genre back to life. And we've proven there's quite a lot of demand for this sort of game. Yes, it's niche, but it's quite a big niche. And we've got Chris Roberts coming along now, and so many other games that look interesting. No Man's Sky, even.

Describe some of the difficulties that came with trying to give Elite the characteristics of a massive online game.
I've always been obsessed with the social aspects of communities working together. I think the challenges chiefly come from not having a subscription. Otherwise, when you have a central server, there are very significant costs, which means it's very hard not to be subscription-based. I was convinced that we could have a hybrid server/peer-to-peer architecture. We had to do quite a lot of research on that. Most people don't realize this, but a lot of MMOs are instanced. They just don't call it instancing. I think there's a lot of talk about that implying that a genuine MMO has no instancing, but we spent a lot of time getting that tech to work, because it's way more complicated than a central server. I'm very proud. The team did a great job.

Upon its release, Dangerous was accused of being "unfinished." What would you say in response to that? Obviously, you've added a lot to the game over the past three years.
I would say no game is ever finished. There's a lovely story about J.M.W. Turner, the artist, breaking into one of his art galleries to tweak one of his pictures. It so annoyed him that a wave in the foreground didn't look right. So he went in and changed it, and someone noticed. I don't know if that's true or not, but I've heard that from so many people. When we first released the game, there were so many things we wanted to do. There's a point where you have to say, well, let's go with that. It's a great game, but we can make things better continuously now. People have described so many games as unfinished, but what they mean is "You could do more."

That applies to film as well. Like I said, I'm a huge fan of the original Star Wars, the '77 one. And apparently George Lucas couldn't do a plausible encounter at Mos Eisley where the trip takes off. Then he was able to do it five years later. And now, that's the thing that's most dated about the film. Because he felt it was unfinished without it, he felt the need to keep changing it. In every medium, people want to tweak things. I've even heard interviews where it happens in books, with continuity errors.

What does your ideal space game look like? Is Elite: Dangerous beginning to approach it?
It's definitely approaching it. The ideal is basically just a simulation of everything. We want to be able to do that well and plausibly. How we build that so it makes sense every step of the way, that's the real struggle. I suspect we'll never quite achieve perfection, in terms of my ideal. But we're definitely approaching it. Look at how well-realized the world of Star Wars, and moreso Iain Banks, and the way so many parts of it work together. I feel like the term "game" is meaningless. The worlds we represent, the challenge of making it whole, is really what I focus on. Having visited film sets, what I found horrifying was how fake it was.

When a game tries to tell a story via linear narrative, I think we're not making full use of the medium. The style of game was particularly common five or so years ago, where you have a game like a film, and the film might have a handful of set-pieces. You play through almost like the film. There's success and failure. Success is doing it exactly like the film. Failure means you have to do it again. To me, that's not really exploring the games medium, because you think, "No, I'm going to get shot if I go behind that door, because I know the bad guys are waiting there. I'd rather go up the fire escape." But you can't do that. You can't be clever. You have to do what the character in the film did. Or, you just have to keep trying again. I think that's where the two media branch. Now, games are the biggest components of the entertainment industry. Moving forward, we need to slightly realign how we look at story, as a huge part of the industry. I think that's extremely fascinating.

Do you think you'll ever be done with Elite: Dangerous? If so, what's next?
I hope not. It's down to fans engaging with it, to be honest. But I would very much like to see it still going in 10-plus years. We might change things but, we'd like to keep the same basic idea. What's next? We brought out Planet Coaster in November, and it's done very well for us. We've got over 120,000 objects in the Steam Workshop that were created by users. We've also announced that we'll be working on a third franchise which we'll be talking about this year. It's a license of a movie franchise of worldwide renown. It's because we're a listed company, and that we have to announce things that might be deemed "market-sensitive," but we didn't want to announce what the franchise was. But it's a biggie. We want to have the materials to do it. We talked to lawyers, and that's the form of words that most exactly matches that, without giving it away. (Laughter) That's coming in 2018.

What's coming for Elite in the next year or so?
One of our conceits is that humans tried to settle other worlds as soon as it was possible. If you look at history, that's what's happened over time. Look at the 15th, 16th, 17th century. People who feel that their lot isn't a good one will get together, save what money they can, and depart. Not Columbus himself, but so many who came not long after him – within 10 or 20 years – a huge number of them just didn't make it. And we don't know exactly what happened to them.

In the last few decades, with better diving equipment, we're starting to see what happened to them. Some made it to the US coast. That's the spirit of the Generation ships in Dangerous. Even though it was dangerous, people still wanted to try to get away. Whether they shared a religion, or just wanted a different society, whatever. Our story is that most of them made it, and you are now discovering the ones who didn't. They each have their own sad stories. We've got a richness in trying to learn from history. Same with the wagon trains. A lot of those didn't make it.

In the Elite universe, the society is very cutthroat and capitalistic, where you stab people in the back for credits. In Star Trek, people live in a post-scarcity world, where all contemporary conflict is almost entirely resolved. Why do you think that science fiction tends to gravitate towards these political extremes? Do you think that either is plausible, or is it just a contrivance? If you want to have a game about intergalactic, inter-species war, the humans have to present a united front, or there's not much of a story there.
I think that it's the challenge of idealism versus realism. At times, I am idealistic, but I get depressed by human nature. If you look at idealistic societies and how quickly they get overtaken by a few not-so-well-meaning individuals, there will always be an element of conflict. Within our story, we do have idealized communities. We have a character who set up this idealized society and worked for a century or so, and everybody worked together for everyone, until his son took over, and his son thought "Oh, this is good." And it gradually got worse and worse. We look at where things work, and how long they can stay idealized, and go from there. The idea was that the Federation has evolved from essentially current-Earth, just rolled forward. It's taken a lot of the politics from the way the US Constitution is set up. The Empire is one of these wagon-trains which settled a long, long way away. They wanted to set up an idealized society. The founder met an accident – probably killed by her brother – who then styled himself as emperor. It's not totalitarian. It's actually less totalitarian than the Federation. It's a society based on honor, like the Romans, or the Japanese Bushido, even elements of the British Empire, pre-WWI. It was shaming to do something that put people in a bad state. The poorhouses still happened, but sensibly, people were supposed to look after each other.

The whole left-right thing is something I've cursed and disagreed with. It's very rarely that that matters in politics. It's totalitarianism that matters, to the individual. The other axis does matter, but less so. I try not to get too involved in politics, but looking at what happens in history is my guide. I want to do all the extremes. That's what we've tried to do. The question that's going to come now is, how are players going to act now? Players are very supportive of slavery, because there's money to be made. People say, "Oh, it's only a game." I'm sure in Roman times, people justified it a bit like that. "At least we're looking after them." The shaming aspect is what makes a difference. That's where Roman society comes up again. People were very proud of how they treated their slaves within Rome. Seeing it from the lens of today, once you start framing it as, "Oh, we have slavery under those terms today," we can start to see those things in context. I'm not advocating slavery, of course. But, quite often, stories and history shine a light on how we behave.

Do you ever feel strange that you're essentially working on the same concept you were when you were in your early 20's? Does it bring you peace to know that you've taken your original concept as far as current-day technology will let it go?
I'm very comfortable with it. I feel lucky to be able to go back to Elite. I wouldn't say it's the same game. What we're trying to do is tell a story in a science fiction world. The fact that we've kept the name is essentially secondary. The story is everything. There are so many things that we've done. We're a great team – it's definitely not just me – and I'm learning things every day. And that's the joy of making Elite. Whether it's looking at the early speeches of Hitler, and seeing how that's framed in modern politics, because it's amazing how long before some of his terrible views became apparent. He was quite smart in some of his speeches, very charismatic, very engaging, and said, "Everyone can have everything." We just have to watch out for that, for politicians who promise too much. How are they going to deliver that? We try to echo that in some of the speeches that we've written in our politicians. We do have our idea that people's motives are generally self-serving. So I feel very privileged to be able to tell these stories. And I think they're rich stories that allow us to look at every different element of humanity.