You are running a luxury resort that provides a habitat for genetically engineered dinosaurs, but you just know that sooner or later the Indominus rex, your most fearsome creature, will escape and start eating the staff, or worse, the paying guests. This is Jurassic World Evolution, the latest game from David Braben, renowned in the computer gaming world for his pioneering space exploration game Elite in the 1980s. The new title will be available for PC, PS4 and Xbox One next summer to coincide with the release of the new film Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
For Mr Braben, securing a games licensing deal with Universal studios for one of its most successful franchises marks the latest coup in an extraordinary career that began while he was at Cambridge university. Having taught himself coding as a teenager, he created Elite with fellow student Ian Bell.
David Braben has secured a deal with Universal’s Jurassic World film franchise, starring Chris Pratt
“The industry started off entirely in back bedrooms with people stuffing cassettes into jiffy bags,” Mr Braben recalls. “That was proper self-publishing, but it didn’t scale very well. Once you started selling more than a few hundred units, your life was ruled by stuffing jiffy bags.”
But it was lucrative. In between essays and exams, he was raking in tens of thousands of pounds as a games developer. Then Elite came along and found a distributor, with no need for jiffy bags. The game, using revolutionary 3D graphics, was a hit and served as a model for countless others. About one million copies were sold. After university Mr Braben, 53, worked as a freelance developer before forming Frontier Developments in 1994. Initially the studio created games for other publishers such as Microsoft and Atari, a model that allowed it to keep only £3 to £5 of the £40 sale price of every game. Since listing on Aim in 2013, it has moved to a more lucrative self-publishing model bypassing third parties to get to the front of the supply chain, where it can keep about 70 per cent of sales revenues.
Today, with a rock solid reputation for quality, Frontier is benefiting from the shift from boxed copies of games to cloud-based distribution. This removes the risks and costs of holding physical inventory and enables publishers to sell additional paid-for features over time, giving products a longer shelf life. “With an online game it’s much more software as a service. You can make it better over time,” Mr Braben says.
With two further games in development, analysts at Liberum expect Frontier, which has trebled revenue in the past four years, to double its sales from an estimated £30 million next year to £61 million in 2019. Much of this growth will come from China. Frontier has secured a £17.7 million investment from Tencent, the Chinese internet group, to help it to expand and develop games that cross cultural boundaries.
Mr Braben wears his hallowed status in the industry lightly, saying he is “honoured, slightly embarrassed and secretly delighted” by it. A lover of history, he believes that creating games is an opportunity to weave complex stories. He rejects the suggestion that computer games are creating screen addicts. With online games, he says, “kids are chatting to each other all the time and co-operating as well as competing; they are often doing things that are mentally very stimulating.”
Frontier was one of the first studios to develop for virtual reality with an adaptation for its Elite: Dangerous game, although Mr Braben believes that VR will be stay a small niche market for some time. He sees more potential for augmented reality, which is more “sociable”. He is lukewarm too about mobile games, which represent only a tiny proportion of his business. “There’s no real value given to quality in mobile,” he says.
He foresees a future in which gaming continues to take audience share, screen time and revenue from other forms of media. partly because older people are being attracted to gaming. With revenues estimated at $109 billion for 2017, computer games have overtaken film and television ($105 billion) to make up the single biggest component of the $300 billion-a-year entertainment industry.
At the same time, non-interactive forms of media such as film and television could increasingly adopt interactive features from games. Even at the most basic level, the popularity of shows such as the Great British Bake Off is testament to the demand for interaction in TV. “The people who know how to do interaction best are in the games industry. The scope for interesting tie-ups, with the BBC, television and film production companies, will get stronger,” he says.
Mr Braben is also one of the forces behind Britain’s all-time bestselling computer, the Raspberry Pi, which was initially made as low-cost tool to teach schoolchildren computer programming but is now widely used in industrial applications. He sees it as a way of getting mass-market programmable devices to a generation raised on locked-down ones such as the iPad that don’t allow users to tinker under the hood. The hope is that by encouraging children to write programs to solve real world problems, the industry can better engage girls and women. “If you regard computers, not as a thing in their own right but as a tool to do something, that’s a very valuable way to get more balance across the sector.”
Who is your mentor?
Jacqui Lyons, the first agent to represent computer game developers; David Gammon, Frontier’s chairman; and my father for his approach to science research.
Does money motivate you?
No, though it is great at enabling things and not having to worry about paying bills.
What was the most important event in your working life?
Being told something wasn’t possible. It was the realisation that even very smart people make assumptions often without realising it and that challenging those assumptions can be a great route to success.
Which person do you most admire?
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a great engineer and innovator. Elon Musk: he has an ambitious vision and he continues to challenge assumptions.
What is your favourite television programme?
House of Cards. The newer US one with Kevin Spacey.
What does leadership mean to you?
Having a clear vision of where the company needs to go and building a consensus to best achieve that among a great team of people I respect.
How do you relax?
Watching films (I’m a Bafta judge), sailing, playing games with the family — board games, computer games, card games, croquet.
Born 1964, in Nottingham
Education Natural sciences, then electrical sciences at Cambridge University, 1985; PG Dip computer science, Cambridge, 1986.
Career Self-employed computer games writer, then founded Frontier in 1994. NED Phonetic Arts (sold to Google in 2010). One of six co-founders of Raspberry Pi in 2008; a trustee and director of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. Member of Cambridge Angels and investor since 2008. Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, 2012. Bafta fellow, 2015. Family Married to Wendy, two stepsons.