Games That Changed The World
Everyone remembers the first time they played a computer game, be it Space Invaders down the local chip shop, or some variant of Pong on a Binatone TV system. I enjoyed both those moments, but if it wasn’t for a week-long encounter with a certain BBC Micro-computer game, these moments may otherwise have been forgotten. My interest for computer games might well have ended up in the back of a musty wardrobe along with the Action Man Capture Copter.
Since its release in the summer of 1984, Elite has sold more than a million copies and has appeared on more platforms than perhaps any other game since. But it’s the original BBC version that most have the fondest memories of, not least the game's creators, David Braben and Ian Bell, who met at Cambridge University in 1982 and began work on what was to become one of the most immersive games of its generation.
"I’d written a simple 3D space game called Fighter on the Acorn Atom," remembers Braben. "It was simple and pretty dull - 3D space and little else. I had found a way of doing solid 3D shapes using line-drawn graphics, with early versions of what would become Elite ships. By then though, the Atom was yesterday’s machine and so the game was not commercial, and in any case not finished. Ian had a BBC Micro and was working on a game called Freefall for Acornsoft. I changed my 3D code so that it could run on a BBC, while Ian finished Freefall. We had a number of very productive brainstorming sessions, from which Elite was born. The irony was that if I could have afforded a BBC Micro myself. I’d probably have finished and sold the fighter game, and Elite would never have happened.
The First Frontier
But of course Elite did happen and it took two years to produce - an incredibly long time for a game back then. However, despite the incredible depth of the finished game and the technical limitations of the hardware at the time, neither Braben nor Bell can recall any significant problems during Elite's development.
"The scope of what we planned seemed pretty daunting at the time," admits Braben. "but the basic idea evolved in just a couple of evenings and the rest followed during development, so at no point was anything unachievable. Despite the late nights and hard work, I thoroughly enjoyed it."
"It was fun," recalls Bell, "I was in the first and second years of a math degree and. in the first year particularly I was keeping up with the work really easily, so I had plenty of free time to work on Elite. Once feasibility of graphics was established it all went fairly well. The problem was having too little room to do what we wanted, not that what we wanted was too hard to achieve. It was lack of RAM all the way."
Unbelievable as it may seem today, Elite was made to fit into just 22 kilobytes of memory, less than a typical Word file. Into that 22k Braben and Bell managed to squeeze 8,000 planets and space stations, 20-odd types of ship, dozens of tradable commodities and ship upgrades and even a handful of missions. Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that the game had a tangible infrastructure; with each planet having an economy, tech level and government. In agricultural systems you would buy furs or food and sell them for profit at the stations of industrial worlds. Anarchic governments would harbour pirates while corporate systems would be relatively safe, depending of course on what you were carrying in your cargo hold or whether you were wanted by the police.
The Dark Wheel
Considering the majority of new releases at the time weren’t much more than simple arcade conversions of games like Defender, it was no surprise Elite was passed over by some game publishers. Dropped by Thorn EMI, it was Acornsoft who picked up the game and saw the potential in what the pair were trying to achieve. And with little room for a backstory to the game, it was Acorn’s MD David Johnson-Davies who commissioned fantasy author Robert Holdstock to write one, The Dark Wheel, which was the first novella to be written for a computer game. Although the story had no crossover into the game as such, it set the tone of what was to come.
"I think the story was important at the outset. Establishing the world of Elite, and showing how radical the game was at the time - later on it was less significant," says Braben. Equally as important was the groundbreaking manual. Up until then instructions were little more than cassette inlay cards, but Elite offered a Janes' style guide that offered not only instructions as to how to play the game, but information on the political structure of the 8,000 worlds in the game, as well as a history of the ships themselves. It was a brochure of riches that players could aspire to and much of the myth that has grown up around Elite comes from the documentation, such as the mythical Generation Ships, secret missions and Rock Hermits.
Join The Elite
Elite was finally completed for the BBC in the summer of 1984 after months of testing and tweaking and both Braben and Bell were well aware they were breaking new ground.
"It was a rebellion against the games available at the time," says Braben. "I found them pretty boring. Elite was the first free-form game - the first with saved positions and many other things."
Acornsoft. sensing they had a hit on their hands, arranged a press launch at Thorpe Park, another first. "That was the first time I saw people’s reactions who were fresh to the game," he says.
"The magazine reviews were all ecstatic, so we knew we’d made it creatively, which was important to us," remembers Bell. "Feedback was almost all positive apart from some maliciously gleeful crackers. Some people objected to the unrealism of dust-not-stars and massively fast planet rotations but that didn’t bother me at all since I knew realism would have played worse." Braben says: "The first time I appreciated the scale of the game's success was seeing a room piled high with competition entry cards - neatly sorted into bundles of 100 - and each of these had reached ’Elite' or 'Deadly' representing hundreds of hours of someone playing the game."
A Space Odyssey
Up until Elite, to fly a spaceship in a game meant having to save the universe from relentless marauding aliens. Science fiction games in the early 1980s were as cliched and banal as sci-fi films were in the 1950s, and just as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey challenged filmmaking, Elite was to have the same effect on games.
Apart from the 3D graphics, Elite did more than enough to give you the feeling of existing within a living, breathing universe. No longer were you at the centre of things, you were just like everyone else, trying to get along in a harsh environment. Some were out to kill you. while others neither cared or bothered with you. Not only was it up to you how you progressed, but the game allowed you to measure and pace your own progress. The greedy could accumulate wealth through trade, the altruistic could hunt pirates for a bounty, the explorers could mine and criminals could break the law just for fun. As much as Elite was a space combat game, it was also a role-playing one that remains as intriguing as any goblin-infested dungeon.
Lost In Witch Space
The BBC Micro - physical dimensions aside - wasn't the biggest games machine around and it was logical that Elite should move onto other platforms. Bell and Braben kept working on the game, turning out versions for the Electron. Commodore 64 and Apple II. Other teams were drafted in to handle other conversions and in 1987 it was finally the PC's turn to get an Elite of its own. coded this time by Real Time Software, most famous for Carrier Command. But by then the Braben/Bell partnership was coming apart and pressure was building for a true sequel. "I had very little input on the conversions we didn’t do ourselves," says Bell. 'We weren't involved in the PC version as at the time I felt that the game would be implemented easily on such powerful machines and it would be best to let the programmers who know the machine get the most from it."
"After EWe I was on a real high." recalls Braben. "We did do some work on an abortive sequel but to be honest, the problem was all tne other versions we had to think about." Bell agrees, although maintains it wasn't the sequel that was the problem, but the difficulty in moving to new hardware: "In a way Elite was never really finished because one version followed another. We were fully underway on 6502 (8-bit) Elite 2 and I put a lot of work into that. Only when it became dear that 6502 was not the future and we had to jump to 68000(16-bit)did I bailout."
Plus And Minuses
In 1991. seven years after the release of the BBC original, the final round of Elite conversations were launched: one for tne Acorn Archimedes - widely regarded as the best version of the game, one for the Nintendo Entertainment System - coded by Braben and Bell, while the job on the newly-updated PC version, dubbed Elite Plus, fell to Chris Sawyer - who was soon to find fame on Transport Tycoon. "I think I'd only seen Elite once before that time, and that was on a BBC Micro many years before." remember Sawyer. "To be honest I didn’t think much of it originally, but then I hadn't played it.
"The brief was to basically update the original PC wire-frame version of Elite with new filled-polygon EGA/VGA graphics and add some new features David wanted in the game."
"Elite Plus was little more than a remake." admits Braben. "Chris Sawyer did a great job. nonetheless. And it’s one of the series of which I am still very fond."
In October 1993 the game finally got the sequel the fans were craving for. although not the one it deserved. Frontier: Elite II. designed and programmed by Braben for the ST and Amiga and converted to PC. again by Chris Sawyer. For a great many fans it was a disappointing game: a sprawling epic that was a million times bigger, too complicated and not very much fun. Another sequel in the same vein followed in 1995, Frontier: First Encounters (aka Elite III). though this time the game was released unfinished by publisher Gametek. a move that would sully both Braben and Elite's great reputation.
"The publisher support and nurturing that Elite received was never given to the sequels." says Braben "They were rushed out in comparison, and suffered as a result. Nevertheless I am very proud of Frontier: Elite II."
The New Frontier
Despite having fallen out and gone their separate ways since Elite, both Braben and Beil remain proud of the original game and realise that without the other. Elite wouldn't have been the durable game it was.
"Working together is frequently more than the sum of the two." says Braben. ’We bounced ideas around and Elite grew to be great as a result. We each knew the whole code pretty intimately. I don't think there were any particular strengths or weaknesses between us, although Ian wrote an amazingly complex and sophisticated set of tactics routines."
Bell says: "David was a competent and industnous coder, he was also more business minded. We were both creative, but he was coming at programming from an electronics direction and was stronger on hardware issues. I came at it from a mathematical direction and handled most of the speed-critical stuff." So why is it that nearly 20 years later, Elite has yet to be bettered?
"Relative comparisons can be divisive. Games in other genres have bettered Elite, but few have come close for the same style of game. I believe Frontier Elite II managed to deliver much more than Elite - it just didn’t cut it in the fun of the combat," says Braben.
Chris Sawyer adds: "I think many games nowadays are designed from the outside in, so the look, feel, interface, and 3D engine take priority, and then the game logic is bolted on last. Elite and Elite II were the other way round; they centred on a complex physics engine and universe simulation, and the visuals were designed around the gameplay. This meant they had incredible depth. You never quite knew what you’d find next, or whether there were other features you hadn’t yet found in the game. Most games can be completed' - the Elite games can just go on and on."
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
- P-200, 32 MB RAM
This simulation and strategy (managment) video game for one player was developed by David Braben and Ian Bell, published by Firebird Software Ltd., and released in 1984.
Commander Jameson has 100 credits and Cobra Mark III, the lightly armed trading ship, to start with at Lave Station. The credits Jameson has got can be mounted up through a number of means: piracy, trade, military missions, bounty hunting and the mining of asteroids. With bigger amount of money the player can upgrade the ship with better weapons, shields, increased cargo capacity, an automated docking system, and some more. Well, what is there for a player to do: take the ship and trade among the different star systems. It is safe to trade on razor-thin margins. Or, you can take the risks and trade with anarchic systems. But you will also have to watch out for pirates.
Buying a fuel and flying near the sun you may save on fuel scoop, but you will have to be careful and look out for pirates. Also you can be a pirate yourself and raid all the other ships. In this case you will have to be careful not to get a bad rep – the police will follow you.