Frontier's David Braben on LostWinds iOS, Android, Elite, and the Raspberry Pi

'Technology on mobile has arrived at the console space in terms of performance'

Frontier's David Braben on LostWinds iOS, Android, Elite, and the Raspberry Pi

Frontier Developments is one of the best-known British developers working in the industry today, having released hit titles across PC and consoles for the past 18 years.

Recently, the company has ported a number of its most successful titles over to mobiles, starting with Kinectimals on Windows Phone, followed by the WiiWare hit LostWinds on iOS last year.

With the recent announcement that WiiWare title LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias will be making the journey across platforms to Apple's mobile OS, we talked to company founder David Braben about iOS, Android, and plans for the future.

And, yes, I threw in a question about a certain sandbox space epic, so you can stop shouting now.

Pocket Gamer: Can you talk about some of the new technical features we can expect to see in LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias for iOS?

David Braben: Dynamic lights are on the iPhone 4 and 4S, as well as the iPad 2 and new iPad. We've got real-time radiosity, which is where an object picks up the cast light around it, sort of like the Ray-Tracing-style effect.

It's something that had previously been seen in console games - that's on the new iPad.

The point, really, is that we're pushing forward our tech as much as we can, and this game will show a big step forward from where we were before.

Is it closer to the WiiWare original in terms of graphical quality, then?

No, the WiiWare original didn't do either of these things.

These are made possible thanks to the improvements to the GPU on the newest generations of iOS devices?

Well, there are two factors. There's the improvement to the ability in what it can do, and there's the sheer amount you can do. We had to trade off - some things we could do on the less-capable platforms, but the framerate would have been affected.

I think the thing that makes it attractive to us is that the technology on mobile has arrived at the console space in terms of performance. So, we can do a lot of techniques that previously had only been seen on consoles on the new mobile devices.

Have you kept the same options when it comes to the controls as in the updated version of LostWinds?

Yes. I think that some people just prefer the D-pad and the amount of precision that comes with it, but I quite liked the relaxed style and playing with one finger. So, I actually still play it in the way we shipped LostWinds.

Do you feel that games designed for the more unusual console controls - the Wiimote and the Kinect sensor [for LostWinds and Kinectimals, respectively] - are more suited for iOS than, say, a joypad-based title?

I think it all comes down to the game. What I would say is that people who are looking creatively at different input methods are likely to do a better job with touchscreen than if they were set on a specific control scheme, on a very specific controller. That's going to move less readily.

The nice thing about the original Wii controls was that they were very experimental. But, they worked very well on the touchscreen.

How has the experience on iOS been so far for Frontier?

It's been great. It's always interesting and exciting to be masters of your own destiny, and I think a lot of people have seen that, as well.

We now have the ability to be quite reactive - we dropped the price during the week for the blossom, for instance, which got a lot of interest.

The other thing I find interesting is that China has been really big for us of late, whereas last time around the Chinese market didn't register on the radar.

Will we see LostWinds on Android in the future?

It's something we're continuing to look at. Android is an interesting platform - I use an Android phone - but it's a very fragmented market.

We only want to release games if we know we're going to do a good job of it, and within the sort of broad Android install base there is actually a very wide range of handsets, each with subtly different elements.

I think, therefore, it's a big challenge to make that as good as you can.

Miles Jacobson from Sports Interactive has been speaking about the piracy rates on Android. Is this also a concern for Frontier?

Yes. Piracy happens on a lot of platforms, but it's a concern. There is an amount of effort you put into [creating games], so it's where best to put that effort that's the challenge.

I would very much like to see LostWinds on Android. The level of piracy doesn't mean we won't do it, it just pushes it down our priority list.

I think that's the problem. People think, "oh, we're not harming anyone when we pirate things", whether it's Miles's games or one of ours, but actually it does, because it's a vote for not porting to that system.

Same with pre-owned [boxed games]. That's effectively saying, "I want to deprive the developer and publisher of revenue for this game because I don't really want them to make another game like this."

I know people will complain at me for saying stuff like that! We don't just make games for money, but it's important that we can pay people their salaries.

So far, all of Frontier's releases on iOS have been ports of existing games. Are there plans for an original title for the platform in the future?

Yes, of course we're going to be making original games for iOS.

We're not going to be announcing what those are yet, or when they come out, but, yes, we absolutely plan to support it.

Is there a temptation to bring one of the older Elite games (such as Elite 2 or 3) to iOS?

It's certainly a possibility, but we're not announcing anything yet.

You're one of the driving forces behind the Raspberry Pi project, which hopes to introduce children and students to coding using affordable computing. Would you say that mobile development, thanks to its relatively restricted hardware, is the natural step-up from learning on the Pi?

I think the great thing about the Raspberry Pi is that it's a step-up to many things. The intention isn't a selfish one to create new employees. It's really to give something back and to give other people the opportunities that I feel I and a lot of others had in the '80s.

To be able to learn and self-teach. To really absorb how a die works.

Modern PCs are so locked down it's really hard to get down to understand what's going on. It's having a familiarity with the way it works, and to make something your own. You can, to a certain extent, do it with a PC - it's just much harder.

LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias will be out on iOS later this year. If you're interested in learning more about the Raspberry Pi, do check out the official blog.
Will Wilson
Will Wilson
Will's obsession with gaming started off with sketching Laser Squad levels on pads of paper, but recently grew into violently shouting "Tango Down!" at random strangers on the street. He now directs that positive energy into his writing (due in no small part to a binding court order).