Elite: Remembering the Original Open-World

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I was maybe a little young to have fully appreciated the space trading classic Elite the first time around. It was released nearly 30 years ago on September 20, 1984--a whole year before I was even born--and it wouldn't be until the age of 10 that I got a glimpse of its rudimentary wireframe models running on an ancient BBC Micro at the back of my primary school classroom. And while games had come a long way by that point, with the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive (Genesis to those in the US) both on the market, there was something fascinating about loading Elite with text commands from the Micro's comically large 5 1/2-inch floppy disks.

Not that I could ever play it properly. Elite was hideously complicated; flipping through the game's famously large manual (thankfully preserved online), gives you an idea of just how elaborate and impressively detailed the mechanics were; the docking procedure alone was enough to give even the most experienced Elite players sleepless nights. While most games at the time stuck to the simple cash-extracting ideas of the arcade, Elite took a different approach. There were no missions to guide to you through the game, nor was there a leaderboard of high scores to track progress. Instead, you were dropped into a vast procedurally generated universe with a singular goal: become an Elite space pirate. How you got there--within the game's few constraints, of course--was entirely up to you.

"I was always convinced you could do 3D on a computer," Elite co-creator David Braben tells me," and I got an Acorn Atom and spent time and actually got a game up and running where I had four different spacecraft--all of which made it into Elite--and you could fly them around, and it was called Fighter. But it had the same problems as the other games. Once you have a certain opponent and you beat them, the next opponent has to be harder. You end up with a very tight game loop that just doesn't go anywhere. It has to become preposterously difficult to have enough longevity."

What Braben and co-creator Ian Bell came up with instead was one of the first truly open-world games. You could spend all your time in Elite trading, diving into the game's deep economic and political system that influenced the price of goods based on the demands of planets and the cash you had to hand. Too civil for you? You could try illegal trading, dealing delightful items such as firearms and narcotics to planetary systems while trying to avoid recriminatory action. Or, if combat was more your thing, you could become a bounty hunter and destroy pirates, or become a pirate yourself and hijack the cargo of passing freighter convoys. Pacifists could mine asteroids for ore, and scoop up the dropped cargo of destroyed trade ships.

A very familiar scenario for Elite players. Image credit: blowthecartridge.com

Elite was a revelation. No two players had the same experience playing the game. Its groundbreaking open world, its cutting-edge wireframe 3D visuals, and the believability of its universe made it one of the most influential games of its generation, and not just in the subsequent explosion of space simulators like Tie Fighter, Wing Commander, and Descent: Freespace that flooded the market after its release. Elite was also a technical marvel, a lesson in efficient programming and game design for the rapidly growing development scene in the UK. "Elite was a particular achievement, because of how they compressed such a huge game into such a small space," X-COM creator Julian Gollop tells me. "They had to compress the game into 16K using the [BBC Micro's] high-res mode, so it was a pretty amazing feat. It was the kind of programming that just isn't done these days at all, and probably hasn't even been done that well since Elite was made."

Elite's 3D wireframe visuals were groundbreaking.

Storing an entire galaxy within the confines of the BBC Micro's 16kB of memory was indeed no small feat. To do so, Braben and Bell came up with an ingenious method of procedurally generating everything using a clever algorithm that stored hundreds of different planetary names and configurations as a mathematical formula, rather than as raw data. "When putting together the world, I remember thinking, 'How many locations can we have?' says Braben. "And I thought, 'If we have 20, that's 20 bytes per location, and what can we do with that? That's barely a name.' And that was still quite a lot of memory in those days. And then I thought, 'Ooh, I know! What if we used the name, and the first letter could be the type of system, and we could generate the whole lot?' That was the eureka moment."

But even with the pair's memory-saving algorithm at work, every byte used was under scrutiny. "We spent a lot of time doing something that we called byte savings, where we pored over the code and found a way to save three bytes, and then maybe another four. We knew what we were going to spend them on. So, with Galactic Hyperspace, I remember we needed to save something like a total of 16 bytes. That included the text string and the code and everything, which today sounds ridiculous. We worked exactly how we'd do it, and how we'd change it with one byte here and two bytes there, and eventually we had it."

After Elite's 1984 release on the BBC Micro, it was ported to nearly every popular '80s game platform around, including the ZX Spectrum, Apple II, and Nintendo Entertainment System. Braben would go on to form Frontier Developments, a studio that has created games such as Elite's sequel, Frontier: Elite II, as well as more modern games like Kinectimals and LostWinds. But it's Elite that stands out as Braben's greatest gaming achievement.

"The main impact Elite had wasn't in space games" says Braben, "but in games generally Prior to Elite, publishers were very narrow about what games they would sell, because they knew what sold, which is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. It was after [the release of Elite that] we saw a lot of games that were very, very different, that didn't fit into the mould, that were new genres. That was Elite's real legacy; it freed games. Within five years, games got back into a rut, but at least it was a deeper rut; there was more variation. Elite changed things around, and showed that you can be very successful outside of that."

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24 comments
chrisjj2
chrisjj2

Nice article! Though somewhat inaccurate.


"It was released nearly 30 years ago on September 20, 1984". No. October 1984.


"How you got [to Elite]--within the game's few constraints, of course--was entirely up to you. ... You could spend all your time in Elite trading...". No. The only way to Elite is by destroying things. 


"They had to compress the game into 16K using the [BBC Micro's] high-res mode". No. The cassette version used ~22K and the disc much more, by paging. And the program used only the BBCs mid- and lo-res modes.


"Braben would go on to form Frontier Developments, a studio that has created games such as Elite's sequel, Frontier: Elite II". No. Braben's studio didn't even exist when Frontier: Elite II was released.


-- Chris Jordan, ex.Acornsoft.

kate_jones
kate_jones

I played the hell out of Elite when I was a kid, damn thargoids. It was so far ahead of it's time, and the father of all sandbox games. Inspiration to all programmers. 


Looking forward to Elite Dangerous to get my nostalgia kick and hoping Star Citizen turns out better than a game made in 1984, that's how good it was.

jimmy_russell
jimmy_russell

I've never heard of or seen this game before now.

Brakkyn
Brakkyn

I'd never heard of this game.  Neat.

Unfallen_Satan
Unfallen_Satan

I didn't even know about this game, but I like the ideas I read in the article. I heard about a new Elite game on the horizon. Will it be a similar open-world game or a different kind of game?

plasticreality
plasticreality

Elite really blew me away as a little kid, despite never being able to successfully dock with a space station. In fairness I didn't have ANY instructions at the time, but I still appreciated what the developers were trying to do.  I'm really excited to see the new Elite in action, particularly in VR.  

Raeldor
Raeldor

Man, I still remember playing the original Elite and just being blown away but how much more 'real' it felt than other games.  Even back then at only 14 years old it was obvious this was a game-changer.

blackothh
blackothh

Im very excited for this, im hoping it does not follow the path that X: Rebirth did and hype everybody up on nostalgia and ship an empty pre-alpha stage non-game.


My first game into the genre that I remember was I was about 10 years old and got a hold of Wing Commander Privateer. Since then, its been one of my favorite genres. But the good ones come very slowly down the pipe. Overall I think my favorite game in the genre is Descent Freespace 2 followed by X3 with all the bells and whistles.

Hillsy_
Hillsy_

The original Elite is great, but try also Space Rogue, another good one.

jeager_titan
jeager_titan

I heard the elite series is the reason that GTA exists. Can't freaking wait for elite dangerous.

MAD_AI
MAD_AI

"but in games generally Prior to Elite, publishers were very narrow about what games they would sell, because they knew what sold, which is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. It was after [the release of Elite that] we saw a lot of games that were very, very different, that didn't fit into the mould, that were new genres. That was Elite's real legacy; it freed games. Within five years, games got back into a rut, but at least it was a deeper rut; there was more variation. Elite changed things around, and showed that you can be very successful outside of that."

And then the entire gaming business fell into the same AAA rut yet again. The only reason Elite or Star Citizen are being made is because backers want them to be made, publishers just shrugged them off as niche relics of the past. Regardless, it's for the best to have two legendary space game makers resurrect the genre without the constraints of a publisher.  


Over here tho we didn't play much of Elite, it was mostly Chris Robert's stuff like Wing Commander or Privateer, Starlancer/Freelancer or Novalogic's criminally underlooked Tachyon the Fringe.


It's really great to see one of my favorite genre finally reborn and with experienced hands at the helm, it's a shame that we'll probably never see another Xwing or Tie Fighter game again ( EA has been licensed the Star Wars video game making business) or Freespace 3 unless someone can pry it off Interplay's useless husk.

tomservo51
tomservo51

Finally an open world game that X1 can run at 1080p

kate_jones
kate_jones

@plasticreality It was always a bit scary till you got the docking computer (and the music that went with it)

Unfallen_Satan
Unfallen_Satan

@plasticreality That level of realism (?) is too excessive, and I hope the next Elite game's devs take your experience to heart. Piloting ships is an actual job that people spend years training. Unless playing that game is your life's work, I don't think you should be expected to spend hours and hours and more just to master simple docking.

Instead, if docking were relevant to player's competition, it could be there to give very skilled and dedicated players an edge when it matters. Others can just use an auto-docking function. The same is true, and more evident, for certain fighting spacecraft handling mechanics.

blackothh
blackothh

@MAD_AI I would really love to see Freespace 3 be attempted. The Old Interplay, the good Interplay that I grew up with..........seeing that intro when I play an old game gives me shivers down my spine.

tomservo51
tomservo51

@MAD_AI I wish someone at Disney had the sense to green light a Tie-Fighter reboot.

lindallison
lindallison

@Unfallen_Satan 

Plenty of complaints about docking in Elite: Dangerous, - but its a good system. 

You have to pay attention but its nowhere near as complicated as a takeoff or landing in a decent flight sim.

MAD_AI
MAD_AI

@tomservo51 

Unfortunately they said they didn't care for making games themselves and gave the reigns over to EA and we all know EA. At least they're making Battlefront 3. 

tomservo51
tomservo51

@MAD_AI I loved the Wing Commander games too, the ones with Mark Hamill were my favorite.

tomservo51
tomservo51

@MAD_AI @tomservo51 I believe Disney is working on a few titles in house but they are all cheesy titles geared towards casual, mobile users.