Disclosure: The organizers of Gamelab paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.
David Braben became a gaming legend in the 1980s with the creation of Elite, a 3D space exploration game in the 1980s. He went on to found Frontier Developments, one of the longest-surviving U.K. game studios with titles such as RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, Thrillville, Kinectimals, Kinect Disneyland Aventures, and Elite: Dangerous.
If that weren’t enough of a career, Braben is also one of six original trustees for the Raspberry Pi Foundation, which launched a low-cost computer for education in 2012 and helped fuel the enthusiasm for the Maker movement. The Raspberry Pi, now on its third version, started out as a $25 computer that was aimed at getting kids excited about learning computers. It has succeeded in pumping up computer class enrollment in the United Kingdom.
Braben spoke at the Gamelab event in Barcelona, where he also won the “industry legend” award from Gamelab. Afterward, I interviewed him about his legacy in games and computing. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: For the sake of our readers, can you summarize your career in 30 seconds or less?
David Braben: I can try, and do a rubbish job of it. I’m David Braben. I’m the CEO and founder of Frontier Developments. I’ve had a long career, starting in the early ‘80s writing Elite with Ian Bell. I’ve written a huge number of games with the wonderful team at Frontier since, and with other people in between like Chris Sawyer. I was one of the co-founders of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. There were six of us in 2008. It’s gone from success to success and still doing well. I’m still on the board of Raspberry Pi and very proud of all that.
Loads of games to call out that I’m proud to have been part of since Elite. Rollercoaster Tycoon. Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 is doing especially well for us. Dog’s Life. I love that. Slightly quirky game with Sony. Obviously Disneyland Adventures was fun, working with all the people at Pixar and Disney. Microsoft, Kinectimals, and now Planet Coaster is doing very well. And obviously Elite Dangerous.
GamesBeat: Elite Dangerous even has this VR version.
Braben: It’s fun. I think we’re one of the only triple-A games at the moment on VR. There are some others. Alien Isolation has a VR mode, but it’s not officially supported. The rest of the things on VR that I’ve seen — there are great things coming, but right now they’re just sort of experiences. The things that you do are — you’re only really expecting to play for 15 or maybe 30 minutes. I’m sure lots of good ones are coming through. It’s exciting. AR is very exciting as well.
GamesBeat: Did it surprise you how popular Elite Dangerous became?
Braben: A lot of people came because of Frontier or because of Elite, in the early days of the Kickstarter. But very quickly we saw the age of people coming down. People are playing the game because they’ve seen cool videos of Elite Dangerous, not because of the historical stuff. In the games industry we have to be careful about too much nostalgia. Otherwise you just get locked in the past.
GamesBeat: Procedural generation, was that something you guys came up with on your own?
Braben: I think so. It didn’t exist back then. We wanted a world for the player to take part in, but how could we make it big enough? I was looking at compression, compressing things further and further down. I remember hitting on the idea of the name-creating system, which also determined the economy. I suddenly thought, “Wait a second. We don’t need to store this. We can just generate it.” That was the lightbulb moment. From that I thought, “Right, throwing all that away and starting again.”
It was wonderful. It was also a bit stupid, because the world became so incredibly big that it was meaningless. We had two-to-the-48th-power galaxies with 256 stars in each one. We reduced it to eight, because that was a bit more plausible.
GamesBeat: Did you see that propagate throughout the industry?
Braben: Not really, no. I didn’t see any other procedural generation for at least a decade, when you’d see flight sims using it to create trees and the like. Although having said that, procedural generation exists at different levels. It gradually came in, and where it happened first was more in things like textures. You’d have texture detail generated on the fly, pseudo-randomly. That’s still procedural generation. Some of the rust shaders we see now, that’s procedural generation, even though often the artists don’t realize it. They just say, “I want that to have a rust pattern.”
GamesBeat: For something like No Man’s Sky, do you have any observations about how they do it?
Braben: Oh, it’s very interesting. It’s very pretty. The planets are each quite small. I suspect they’re stuck within a 32-bit world. But it’s lovely. I look forward to playing it. It’s quite soon now, isn’t it?
GamesBeat: That one also seems unique in that it was made with so few people. Three people, I think? The efficiency of that is something.
Braben: That’s one of the great things about procedural generation. Once you get it right, you just get more and more and more.
GamesBeat: For Elite Dangerous, did you have some lessons from that past that you brought into this modern age?
Braben: Always. We’ve all learned a lot from the past, what works and what doesn’t work. All that learning we try to put into everything we do. It’s not just the level design in that sense. To do a game like Elite Dangerous, there’s an awful lot of algorithm design, to make the server side work.
All the technical things that happen underneath to make it work — one of the big challenges, if you’re doing a realistic-size galaxy, is you have huge distances. Even within a solar system, you have draw distances that are a fraction of a light year. To be able to do that you need a different approach to rendering and so many other things. It’s been great fun.
GamesBeat: Amid all this, where did Raspberry Pi appear from?
Braben: Around 2003 we noticed, from a recruitment point of view, that fewer graduates were coming from universities. I was on the board at Birmingham University, and a few other places as well, where it was a bit of a crisis. The issue was that teenagers were not applying to do computer science. Six of us got together and we wanted to try to fix that.
We brainstormed lots of different ideas and came up with making a little computer. One of the problems was that so many computer systems were closed. I remember meeting a really great teacher who had a suite of software to teach kids object-oriented programming. It was the inaugural meeting of a group called Computing At School. The other teachers said, “Oh, I could use that!” But they couldn’t get it working because of different compilers and different Windows versions. It required a lot of fiddling to get it to work, because you had so many different PCs in classrooms.
You end up with this mess because all these machines are closed down, because of antivirus software and all these other things. When you start doing the sort of things you want a kid to do to experiment, and also from a classroom point of view — on the BBC Micro, one of the great things was that a teacher could run a piece of software really quickly. It would instantly deploy to all the machines in the room, that same software. It’s basically how a virus works. We wanted something where that was possible, where the attitude to viruses would be, “Okay, you got a virus, switch it off and on again.”
That’s the Raspberry Pi. It’s completely open, but it’s not really that vulnerable. You can just reset it. It’s got no state. It was that philosophy from the ‘80s that we wanted to carry forward. It was great for teaching. That’s where it came from. We had a lot of betweeners, a lot of experience of hardware and how we could make things very cheaply, and lots of relationships. Evan Upton, for example, worked at Broadcom, and so he knew where to get the chips. I knew how we could publicize it. So the six of us founded the Raspberry Pi Foundation. Within a few years we solved the problem. The number of applicants to universities is now six times higher than it was back then.
GamesBeat: Why do you think it caught fire like this, though?
Braben: Because it’s ridiculous. To be fair, the first 100,000, 200,000 Raspberry Pis mostly went to hobbyists. Not the people we wanted them to go to. But we didn’t worry about that, because we’re making money on every Raspberry Pi. The way I thought, it’s essentially a donation. Even though we’re a charity, we’re making a huge profit, and all that money gets plowed back into teaching and all sorts of other things, helping children. We’ve had sponsorships from companies like Google to give them away for free into schools. That’s gone very well.
What we’ve also done, which is a bit more subtle, is we’ve made programming fashionable. There was a horrible turn in the late 1990s and early 2000s to thinking of people who did that as geeks and nerds. But that’s gotten softened. “Geek” is a positive thing.
GamesBeat: The maker movement seems to have coincided with its popularity.
Braben: That’s a good thing. We see amazingly diverse projects. Everything from little robots to weather stations to watering your plants to making the lights in your house turn on when someone walks in. There’s a whole industry now around Raspberry Pi, making devices that connect suites of sensors and things like that. And there are lots of other machines now doing similar things. But we’re holding the price down.
Raspberry Pi Zero, do you know about that? We’ve been holding the price roughly constant at about $25. We brought out the Raspberry Pi, the Raspberry Pi 2, and now we’re on the Raspberry Pi 3. They’re much more powerful for the same price point, making use of how technology’s moved on. But with the Raspberry Pi Zero we’ve created the original Raspberry Pi, but cut down in spec as much as we can. We’re selling that for $5, which is just ridiculous. We put them on the cover of a magazine for free.
We’re trying to just shake up the industry. Look how cheap you can make stuff. You can give them to kids in a way they’ll think of them as theirs and really engage.
GamesBeat: I remember Cyrix once got some microprocessors past Intel into cheap sub-$1000 PCs. Everyone said they were going in the wrong direction, that you needed to have high-priced microprocessors to survive.
Braben: They did a good thing for the industry in the end.
GamesBeat: Right. People realized there was pent-up demand for something small and less powerful.
Braben: That’s what’s happened with Raspberry Pi. There was a wonderful initiative, the One Laptop Per Child project, which I thought was fantastic. But sadly it didn’t really carry on. A lot of times they were stolen, which was a real shame. Even though they were given away for free, they had a pretty high value, and a kid carrying this thing is pretty obvious in the street. Whereas a Raspberry Pi, dare I say it, looks a bit shit. [laughs] Someone selling it in a pub, it’s not got that same cachet. And it’s easy to replace.
We’ve seen a lot of use of Raspberry Pi in the third world, mainly because they’re actually quite tough. Worst case, even if you drive over one in a Land Rover and it might crack, you can take the memory card out and put it in a different Raspberry Pi and it would still work.
GamesBeat: There’s some competition out there.
Braben: Oh, there is. There’s quite a lot. It’s a shame, because we’re selling at such a low price point. We didn’t want to sell it at a high price point and create a fragmented market. The key thing is there’s now a big groundswell of software created by other people that supports Raspberry Pi. It supports teaching with Raspberry Pi. We’re supporting that as well at Raspberry Pi Foundation. If that whole educational thing gets fragmented, that would be a real shame.
We put the designs in the public domain. If other people want to make Raspberry Pis they can. I would challenge them to make something as good at the same price. Some are getting quite close. Some are at $40 now. Maybe they’ll undercut us on price, but that’s a success. That means it’s even cheaper. But like we’re showing with Raspberry Pi Zero, if you use the older technology you can go a long way down.
GamesBeat: Have you seen anything that tells you the best somebody can do with the Raspberry Pi?
Braben: To me the best thing is to engage as many kids as possible. Minecraft Pi is great because it’s something a lot of younger kids are familiar with, but they can change it. To see the expression – “Wow, I can rewrite Minecraft!” – it engages them with object-oriented programming at quite a low level. They love it, and then they want to do more.
If you can capture a kid’s imagination, you’ve won. You’ve overcome the technophobia kids have with programming. The way I see it, we have some lovely tools. You think about how easy Unity is to use. But I liken it to a staircase. The first six steps are missing. It’s quite a reach to get up there in order to do C# programming or whatever, especially for a younger kid, or a parent who’s not very technically literate who wants to help them.
What I see we’re doing is pitching in a couple of those lower steps. We’re still not putting in the bottom. There’s still a leap to get to Raspberry Pi. But each year we put in another step. We’re making the software easier for teachers. A lot of teachers are stuck, not being knowledgeable enough to be confident to teach. That’s a challenge.
GamesBeat: You need some Raspberry Pi VR pretty soon.
Braben: I guess it’s possible. Raspberry Pi 3 has quite a lot of grunt. Whether we can make 90 frames per second, it would have to be quite a simplistic image. But it could probably do it.
One advantage we have, although we’re using mobile technology, we can run it at full power. A lot of phones can’t do that. It would kill the battery too quickly.
GamesBeat: Can you get Elite Dangerous running on one?
Braben: Not on the Raspberry Pi 3. Maybe in the future? Raspberry Pi is rattling along in performance, as are these things. They’re getting quite powerful now. And we’ve got Planet Coaster maxing out large numbers of cores. I love the way technology is moving forward. I love trying to get the most out of it.
GamesBeat: It’s as good a way to reach a billion people as any.
Braben: They’ll come. We have loads of interesting new markets. You look at China, it’s coming up very quickly. Brazil as well. We’re seeing the world change.
GamesBeat: Which countries have absorbed the most Raspberry Pis?
Braben: It’s the U.K. We started there because we knew the U.K. Now, with Code Club throughout the U.K., I think we’ve got 5,000 or 6,000 Code Clubs, people doing Raspberry Pi stuff after school, each with a mentor who helps out 20 or 30 kids. We’re spreading that now. We have some Code Clubs in the U.S. We did quite a lot in Africa, because there’s a lot of demand for Raspberry Pi in Africa. It’s a very cheap and robust way, because the Raspberry Pi can be run where the power is not terribly reliable. It can run off batteries or solar cells. We’re gradually spreading to more and more companies.
The key thing is, it needs people locally to mentor other people and help get it off the ground. It’s not like when you open an iPhone and you have a lovely box. The out of the box experience, you still need to know what you’re doing. But we’re getting better at that. We’re addressing that and making it better.