For the most part, movie games suck. (Insert long conversation here.) But NBCUniversal wanted a good game to go with the launch of its Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom movie (which opens on Friday, June 22, in the U.S.). So it approached Frontier Developments, a United Kingdom studio with a long history in theme park games.
David Braben, CEO of Frontier, saw the Jurassic World deal as an opportunity to bring back high-quality movie games. And last week, the company launched Jurassic World Evolution. You can see some of the company’s experience with Planet Coaster in the game, but it has the added complexity of making sure your park guests don’t get eaten by the prime attractions.
Frontier’s game is the spear tip for the console and PC. But Universal also launched a Jurassic World VR arcade game, an Oculus VR experience Jurassic World: Blue, and Ludia’s Jurassic World: Alive mobile game as well. Braben believes that big media companies such as Universal and Comcast are waking up to the potential of games, and he hopes that Frontier will be in more demand in the future as a result. I spoke with Braben at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) game trade show in Los Angeles last week.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
David Braben: I feel like we’ve brought back film licenses. I don’t know if you know, but Universal came to us. I think hopefully they’re very pleased. They seem to be very positive. This was probably two years ago.
GamesBeat: They knew that this was a good franchise for you?
Braben: Well, the new film was coming, so it was logical to do something associated with the film. We wanted to do a dinosaur game anyway, and it was such a logical time. I think the team did a fantastic job. They really care. You try to find a kid that doesn’t like dinosaurs, that’s pretty hard. We’re all big kids really. There’s a lot of love for this. We just hit the 25th anniversary of the original film.
The game is not tied into the Fallen Kingdom film. We’re set in a time between the two films. But we reference, very closely, all of the history of the other films. The early signs are that people really love it, as far as the feedback on Steam reviews, YouTube reviews. They’ve been really positive.
Our animation team has done such a good job. The dinosaurs match the film’s really closely. It’s actually funny looking at the film now. I saw the premiere last night. Looking at the detail on the dinosaurs in the game versus the film, I’m confident that we’re up there. Some things we’ve got, the way the water comes off the dinosaurs, may be even better than the film.
GamesBeat: Did you make use of assets from the movies?
Braben: We did to some extent, yeah. Our assets are the same resolution as the film. They’re not anything lower. Our engine can really push a lot of polygons. The other thing is, we have to comply—in a film you can choose where an animal’s going to walk and they animate to that route. With us, they can walk on any terrain. They’re not walking on the flat. They’re walking on very uneven surfaces. There are lots of challenges.
If you think of a brontosaur, with huge feet, those feet have to align. We can’t just plunk it down like that. It has to be at an angle. It affects all the joints in the leg. There’s lots of complexity there that you don’t tend to get in other games with straightforward foot-planting.
GamesBeat: I’m sure you’ve all become pretty big dinosaur experts.
Braben: That’s right. But with all of these things, it’s nice—you build the technology and that helps future games. A lot of the things we did for Elite Dangerous benefited Planet Coaster, and then a lot of the things we did for Planet Coaster, particularly as we’re rendering millions of objects—the engine’s become very efficient. With this, think of all the trees we’re rendering, all the detail, which is all user-created content. That’s a challenge, particularly on console, and yet it still runs at a decent framerate.
GamesBeat: Universal has gotten very aggressive. This feels like a big re-entry into games, with Jurassic World VR and the mobile game and everything else coming out at once.
Braben: We’re seeing Universal and Comcast looking at the future a lot. If you look at the figures on how important games are within the entertainment industry, $116 billion revenue last year—we’ve overtaken TV by quite a margin. They’re looking and thinking they want some of that.
GamesBeat: I guess because they’re different platforms, these games aren’t necessarily going to cannibalize each other.
Braben: Right. They’ve certainly said they’re very pleased with where we are. It’s always a good sign when you see people at Universal, senior people, aligning themselves with the game. We’ve built a great relationship. I’m sure we’ll do things in the future. I don’t know if you saw in Planet Coaster, but we put some Universal IP in there. We had Back to the Future. We had Knight Rider and the Munsters, all Universal IP.
GamesBeat: I’m going to be judging their contest for indies. They’re giving indie developers access to all the licenses they’ve never used before. It’s an interesting way to do it.
Braben: Jaws is quite an interesting one. You could do Hungry Shark with the Jaws license. I’m quite amazed, actually, at how film licenses haven’t been much of a thing. Maybe it’s because we see ourselves as being independent and not really needing that support.
GamesBeat: It seems like there was such overkill in the past. They burned everyone out on it for all time.
Braben: And games that didn’t particularly stand out. That was the trouble.
GamesBeat: When you guys were conceiving this, what did you seize upon as what you wanted to do with it? Where was the fun?
Braben: One of the things that was important—the quality of what we could produce would be very close to what the film could produce. That was a key point. They saw what we did with Planet Coaster and Zoo Tycoon as well, with Microsoft, in terms of the detail. If you look at the detail on the skin of the Indomitus Rex there, the way all the muscle structure animates, which we have to understand in order to do the hillsides—it’s the sort of thing that the film animators paid a lot of attention to.
This would be very hard to do in quite a few other engines. CryEngine could do some of the pixel shader stuff, but getting the performance up, so the animation’s smooth, would require quite a lot of extra work. Also, for a management game, it’s very rare that you can take the camera as far in as you can here.
GamesBeat: As far as how much action to throw into it, how did you work that out?
Braben: We put in some things that really—I know people want it, the ability to drive the jeep, fly the helicopter, and the little ball thing, the gyrosphere. You can drive that around. It’s quite nice. There’s a bit of that in video clip. But it’s all of these things. We’re gamers. What do we want? We just put that in. The great thing was having two years to make a game. That’s quite a long time. I suppose the other thing is, we’ve stuck to quite a tight budget on this. Our budget for development is below $10 million.
GamesBeat: That sounds like a fairly small team.
Braben: We had a team of just under 100, yeah. Or just over 100 as we wrapped up. I think we’ve done that with most of our games. Planet Coaster was a similar-sized team. It just means that we can take more risks. Obviously we spend a lot more on marketing. But also it’s trying to show that within the games industry, there’s an opportunity here now for relative newcomers to publishing like us to actually make E3. My worry previously that E3 was going to die. That would have been a shame for the industry. Bringing members of the public in has been good, but also seeing new publishers like us being able to take part in this in a positive way. That’s good as well.
GamesBeat: Are you happy with the level of creativity and diversity in the ecosystem, then?
Braben: Absolutely. We’re in a very good place. We’ve also got a very good pipeline. Our fourth franchise is in full development. We’re working on a fifth one as well. We have a good overlap. It’s very good for staff morale, staff retention, the fact that we have different, quite varied things going on. Elite is entering its fifth year now. We have people who might want to change. Whereas previously they might have left and joined other companies, now we can offer them work with dinosaurs or coasters or another thing. They’re all quite varied.
GamesBeat: Are you more excited about movie-related games in the future?
Braben: Not especially? If you look at our history, we’ve done the odd license before. They’ve been successful. I think we’re looking at a portfolio approach. We have quite a mix. This has done quite well for us and will hopefully continue to do so. We’ll continue to support this going forward. This will be another—hopefully it will last quite a few years. Same thing we’ve done with Planet Coaster, which is now in its second year. Elite is at the start of its fifth year.
The fourth year of Elite Dangerous was its biggest year ever. It’s not like it’s tailing off. That sort of thing is good for the industry, to see long-term success, and from a player perspective to see a game continue to be supported.
GamesBeat: The approval you have to go through in order to sign a deal like this, has that gone well for you? Does it add a layer of complexity?
Braben: It does add a layer of complexity. It always does. But we’ve done it before. To give an example, we did two games with Aardman Animation, a lovely company. They make things like Wallace and Gromit. They were doing a big Hollywood film. Not only were they happy for us to self-approve, but they were sending us things for approval, because Nick Park didn’t have time to approve on their behalf. We had so embraced what mattered to Nick and what mattered to the team that we were being more fussy than they would. I hope that’s what we’re doing here as well.
The approvals at Universal have been good. Obviously the primary videos and all these other things had to be approved, but with a lot of these things, it’s about building a relationship. You can draw further and further apart, in which case approvals get more difficult, or you can get closer together. When we were working with Disney and Pixar and Microsoft, those approvals got easier and easier, not harder. We build a confidence.
Being at a distance, in different time zones, is a challenge, but in practice it’s understanding what they really care about and what they’re not too worried about. In the early days with Disney – we were doing Disneyland Theme Park — I remember them saying that one of the fences was the wrong color. I said, “Is this really an issue? Here’s a photograph of Disneyland taken six weeks ago. This is the color here. We matched it as close we could.” “Oh, did you not know? Two weeks ago we painted the fences.” “No! You should have told us! We could easily change the color.” “Oh, I see.”
Then we decided that we weren’t making Disneyland now, because it’s just too dangerous. We were making Disneyland on the first of June. We actually set a date, which is when we took all the photographs. We shared all the photographs with them and said, “If there’s anything you’d like to change, please do, but that’s what we’re making.” It was amazing, that once you get down to that level of detail—that was a really good icebreaker. Then they saw that it really is quite difficult. “Oh, and by the way, did you know we’ll be demolishing this thing here next week? We’d rather you use the new one.”
It’s also, internally, about building relationships within the team, making sure people are happy and content with what they’re doing. I think it’s managing any business. I don’t know if you know, but I’m one of the founders of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. We have all sorts of challenges there working with people, but we try to work around them and grow with them. There are other organizations with very similar goals, and we’ve tried to either work with them, or in some cases actually merge with them in very sensible and productive ways.
In our industry–I’m really pleased with how friendly an industry we have. We share things. We talk about things. Not necessarily—I think Activision and EA don’t do that so much. But most of the other companies do. I know pretty well what they’re working on and they know what we’re working on. We’ll help find ways around problems. That sort of thing is great. You look at the film industry, they all seem to hate each other! It’s a completely different mindset. Actors don’t, I mean, but the companies are in very strong rivalries.
GamesBeat: Did you have a core group of people with dinosaur expertise on this game?
Braben: We did our first Frontier Con last year. It was very successful. We sold out very quickly. It was only 2,000 people, so it wasn’t huge. But we got speakers. One of the guys we had for Jurassic was Jack Horner, who is the advisor for the three Jurassic Park films, and has also worked with Universal a lot. He’s a character. You know Sam Neill, the original Jurassic Park? That was based on him.
Right now his job is making real dinosaurs. They’ve actually managed to isolate blood from a T-Rex, but they’ve found the DNA is denatured, which is very sad. They’ve found dinosaur DNA in chickens, though. They’ve managed to make the head, the claws. It’s all very sinister. The legs. But they can’t find the tail at the moment. It’s very scary. The real velociraptors are a lot smaller, though. They’re more like dog-sized or chicken-sized.
But yes, we’ve talked to people about it, the science of it. I had a science background anyway from university. I know a lot of people to talk to. There’s a lot of discussion about how dinosaurs might have had feathers. There’s a balance there. But what we’ve decided is we’re making the fiction of Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, which has gone down a certain image of dinosaurs. It’s as accurate within that mindset as we can make it.
GamesBeat: I always liked single-player games over multiplayer, because the story of something like Call of Duty would motivate me to play multiplayer. It’s interesting that maybe here, in this case, the movie could have the compelling story that pushes you into the game.
Braben: One thing that I think has been very successful that we did with Planet Coaster was the Workshop, the Steam Workshop. We have 20,000 items in there. But they’re so lovingly crafted by players. They’re so often downloaded. Really beautiful, intricate creations, with millions of components altogether. People must have spent months doing that. That’s wonderful. That’s also continued to drive sales, because it drives awareness and drives interest. I think the longevity of all these games is good for the wider industry. We’re building hobbies for people as well as games. We’re building communities around them. People like to be part of those communities.
GamesBeat: It’s good to see movie games getting better, or making a comeback.
Braben: It’s also about relationships. The stronger the ties we can build with the film industry, the better. That will be good for the games industry, for the film industry, for all of us.