How Elite took flight

GDC 2011: Frontier Developments chairman David Braben reveals what it took to get space trading sim out of spacedock and onto 17 different platforms.

Who was there: David Braben, who, along with Ian Bell, developed the seminal 1984 3D space flight and trading sim Elite, originally released on the BBC Micro computer.

Frontier Developments chairman David Braben.

What they talked about: While much of the Game Developers Conference is fixated on looking ahead to the future of the gaming industry, this year's GDC has a series of talks focused squarely on the past. One such session came courtesy of Frontier Developments chairman David Braben, who took time Wednesday afternoon to offer up a classic game postmortem on Elite.

Braben started by admitting the session is designed to be a nostalgia trip. Going back to 1980 (complete with a picture of Braben and Bell from the era), he talked about how a company called Acorn made it possible for him to get into the industry. The Acorn Atom computer let users program at a relatively cheap price, with everything needed for programming included. There was also the BBC Micro, endorsed by the British media arm, which Braben said created a generation of programmers with the easy-to-experiment-with BASIC language.

Essentially all games made during the era were designed for arcade play, he said. The average playtime was no more than 10 minutes, they had steep difficulty curves, and even the extra-life-at-10,000-points milestone was fairly universal. Braben noted that even home games--which didn't live off a constant stream of pocket change--retained most of those design constraints for no apparent reason.

Braben said he thought that games were already stuck in a rut at the time, despite being an incredibly new medium. He and Bell responded by wanting to write a game for themselves that was something they wanted to play. He stressed it wasn't designed with a market in mind.

It might not look like much by today's standards, but Elite was well ahead of its time in terms of visuals and gameplay.

The pair was also a bit young and inexperienced to know the game they wanted to make was technically daunting for the hardware at the time, Braben said. But they struck out with the belief that 22K would be plenty of memory and that any problem they ran into could be overcome with a little thought.

In early experiments, Braben realized two things. First off, flying ships around shooting other ships was a bit dull. Each enemy ship would just be replaced with another, tougher ship, but without a sense of purpose behind it, the game didn't capture the feeling Braben wanted of going on an adventure.

Second, Braben and Bell realized they hated the idea of scoring points. They wanted a score to be something that could be traded in for upgrades, not just extra lives at every 10,000 points. As for how to get money and make players feel like they were going on journeys, Braben said Bell came up with the idea to have them engage in interstellar trading. That led to the idea of piracy as a playable possibility, bounties for particularly prolific pirates, and the notion of rags-to-riches character development.

Braben acknowledged that score wasn't totally useless, but it should be limited to giving players a sense of progression. The player's pilot rating was created in response, giving them the long-term goal of raising their rank to "The Elite." Unfortunately, short filenames and a lack of support for spaces necessitate the abbreviation of the rank to "Elite," giving the game its name.

Next, Braben busted out an Acorn emulator on his laptop and took the audience through the early stages of gameplay, from equipping his ship to looking at star maps to choose a destination. Once in the gameplay, he stuck around just long enough to show the space station docking gameplay, which required players to match the station's rotation as they lined up with a docking bay. It could be particularly nerve-rattling at the end of a long journey with a hold full of expensive cargo, Braben noted, but he completed the task without a problem before resuming his talk.

For the world of Elite, Braben and Bell wanted to create a huge universe for players to explore, but they had equally huge problems with memory (the aforementioned 22K of RAM). One trick they used to get around the issue was Fibonacci number sequences to fake randomized, procedurally generated universes with little impact on memory. They created hundreds of different universes using different seed numbers and had a "beauty parade," culling possible universes as they turned up with an uneven distribution of locations, or even remote star systems that would have effectively stranded any players unlucky enough to start there. Other math tricks (using logarithms to increase speed on multiplication and division tasks) also had to be employed, because the alternative was not being able to make the game, Braben said.

Elite, now available for BBC Micro!

As for ship design, Braben said he and Bell ran into problems with making enemy ships. They knew they wanted about 20 or so lines in the wireframe models to make the shapes distinct. On top of that, standard wireframe graphics resulted in muddled messes for complex shapes (he mentioned Battlezone), because it was like building ships out of glass, and players wouldn't be able to instantly figure out which lines were in front and which were in back of the ship. However, Braben said they implemented a method to hide the lines that shouldn't be visible to players, which made a world of difference not just on the ease of ship identification, but on the speed at which the game ran.

Text was another problem, Braben said, much like video is in modern games. Instead of saving a list of lengthy planet names, the developers just created a set of generic letter pairs that the game would mix and match as needed to get the same output without as much strain on the memory. The effort was so successful they used that same compression technique on all the text in the game, going so far as to rename items and menu lists to use those same preexisting letter sequences to save bytes here and there. When players were docked and the memory space for the game's renderer was no longer needed, Braben said they added descriptive paragraphs for the planets to add some humor. For example, one planet may be "a tedious place," while another is famous for its "mountain poet."

In the fall of 1983, they had a running playable version of the game and began taking it to publishers, an experience he referred to as "heart destroying" while acknowledging it's something developers still deal with today. The first reaction they received was that Elite was a great tech demo but didn't make for a good game because it didn't have three lives and a 10-minute play time. According to the publishers, consumers wouldn't "get" 3D, and the market for a game like Elite was too niche.

It was discouraging enough that Braben started to wonder if the publishers were right. However, he eventually found Acornsoft, a publisher started by techies working out of a converted house. Braben and Bell signed on with the company and split the advance money (which Braben used to buy a BBC Micro). And perhaps more importantly, Braben said he and Bell retained the film rights for the game, as well as the rights to bring it to other platforms.

Then Braben said he became "every publisher's nightmare." With the game finished and two weeks away from duplication, he and Bell decided to change it. Until that point, Elite had used two separate radars to give players a sense of location in 3D space: one from above and one from the side. Players would have to cross-reference the two radars to figure out where they were--a tricky task with a steep learning curve. In tinkering with the game for a sequel, Braben figured out how to depict a 3D radar system and implement it in the game. He showed it off to Acornsoft, and they agreed it should go in.

The work paid off in the end, as Elite was a resounding success. The game was eventually converted to 17 different platforms, selling a million copies in the process.

After the main portion of the talk, Braben was asked by an audience member if Elite 4 was still on the drawing board.

"Yes," he replied. "It would be a tragedy if it [weren't]."

Quote: "The fantastic thing about being young is you don't know what's not possible and you don't know quite what you're getting into."--Braben, on how Elite benefited from his lack of development experience.

Takeaway: There's a good reason 3D space flight trading sims weren't common when Braben and Bell made Elite. The pair had to reach deep into their mathematical bag of tricks to coax every bit of power from the hardware of the time.

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Discussion

34 comments
PrivateerXXX
PrivateerXXX

I fully agree that for that time this game set the spirit I never experienced before about being amazed about things like creating an endless looking universe with infinite trading possibilities and upgrades. A clever mathematical algorithm I know now, did this job. To dock at the space stations was a nerve wrecking to develop skill. Imagine you just got this profitable trade item and you've just beaten down all the vicious fighting pirates and mean shooting skilled privateers luring to capture your valuable carrying goods and in the last minute of the docking maneuvering you crash into the space station losing your last trade items and resetting to the last save. Frustration and excitement at the same time!!! So by the time you managed to get to auto-dock computer on-line. You did realize and appreciated the difficult work it took over. This made life in Elite-space a lot easier. Unfortunately today there is no game coming close to this great space adventure fight privateer exploration. So maybe now it is not the technology holding back the realization of a new Elite-space-game but the dull creativity of your present developers. Today if you look at google earth and its outer space section I think it is very possible to create a great privateer exploration game base on the real lay-out of our present knowing universe. So good for educational purposes as well.

tk9780
tk9780

Elite 'ST' version, and M.U.L.E '800xl' true classics that regular playthrough........

jmarsh07
jmarsh07

I still, every once in a while, open up my commodore emulator and start trading again. It has never stopped being fun. All I can say is THANK YOU!!

Humorguy_basic
Humorguy_basic

I can't say how, but I was involved with Firebird and the C64 version of the game in the U.S. It was an exciting time, with all the U.S. acclaim for the title! I was so glad to be involved in the games business in the 80's with the Spectrum, Commodore 64, Oric, Amstrad and all the other computers coming out all the time! I was then involved again in the U.S. games market from 1991 to 1997, with all those great Amiga/ST and DOS games being released on an almost daily basis! I will never forget the 1997 Xmas edition of Computer Gaming World (A U.S. computer games magazine par excellence, that eventually became Gamespot!) with it's FORTY SEVEN PC game reviews in one month!

ildamos
ildamos

"The first reaction they received was that Elite was a great tech demo but didn't make for a good game because it didn't have three lives and a 10-minute play time." Facepalm to whoever told them that.

Mausolus
Mausolus

"...goal of raising their rank to 'The Elite.' Unfortunately, short filenames and a lack of support for spaces necessitate the abbreviation of the rank to 'Elite'" One wonders how they managed to get 'Mostly Harmless' in there then.

voodz
voodz

I've been waiting for Elite 4 for 20 years or so. Every couple of years I type it into google. I don't feel disappointment anymore only numbness. If its ever released I think I will experience an emotional break down. David Braben ruined my life.

V----V
V----V

Elite was one of my all time favorite games. It's also one of my favorite types of games. I don't think there is anything like it on the market today. I'd love for another game like Elite or Privateer to show up, I'd buy it in a hear beat. I'm tired of the endless parade of FPSs, Fantasy RPGs and other crap flooding the market these day, I want a good space sim. V^^^^V

gbrading
gbrading moderator

Elite is a groundbreaking game, and it's all the more surprising that it surfaced on the BBC Micro rather than the ZX Spectrum. It showed that the Micro wasn't just for schools.

brunorr
brunorr

wow I played this game so much on my msx computer.. it was really ahead of its time. They shoud make it a mmorpg now that technology allows it.

dajunka
dajunka

I think if David Braben shut down the Oolite program that would make him one sorry arse. If you download and add the addins: Fighterhud, Griff_Shipset, Randomhits and System_Redux, then you will have one brilliant game.

neuroboy
neuroboy

Ooo... leet? I remember checking that out years ago, and am downloading it now :) but I'm surprised it hasn't been shut down by David Braben, seeing as he did the same thing to Elite: The New Kind... http://www.christianpinder.com/games/

neuroboy
neuroboy

For the ultimate in Elite nostalgia, go to the homepage of Ian Bell, Elite co-creator. If you can look past the garish headache-inducing '90s styling - I use that word loosely and personally feel he should be fined for not following W3C accessibility guidelines ;) - then you'll find a treasure trove of Eliteness... for instance, scroll to the bottom of this page http://www.iancgbell.clara.net/elite/archive/ and download the 675k zip file of 'Early design scans'. Warms yer cockles, don't it?

samedizombie
samedizombie

Many fond memories of playing this on my C64 for hours on end, peering into my 1701 monitor, (which I still have) Those really were the days. The C64 is still my fave computer, (you can tell can't you.) and I still have them :-)

Hugo_Fahkov
Hugo_Fahkov

I really enjoyed playing Frontier on my Amiga 500, or maybe...3000, back in the day!!! Elite 4??? Hell yes!!! Bring it on!!!

papaschris
papaschris

@Zloth2 or freelancer by digital anvil and its various fan made mods for a more -casual- space trade/dogfight online multiplayer experience

BMAN0201
BMAN0201

@666NightsInHell Hey man! It's not a crime to enjoy fps'! Don't make those people feel guilty for something they enjoy.

Zloth2
Zloth2

@Parker_P38 - you might want to look into the X series from Egosoft.

lindallison
lindallison

Rock. on. Braben. Dude's my hero, and the genre he and his collaborators singlehandedly created is by far my favorite. The drip-feed space-sims are on these days is the primary reason I'm in such a cranky gaming curmudgeon. The void even made me consider a career in the field, but if I wanted to work 70 hour weeks I'd have gone into medicine....

JusticeCovert
JusticeCovert

Definitely one of my all-time favorites. And perhaps the only videogame ever made that my dad spent even more time than me playing.

666NightsInHell
666NightsInHell

WOW VERY GOOD GAME! Played on zx spectrum, wish we get remake someday! Sick of neverending first person shooters, made to not think for some brainless beings.. shame on fps customers.

NicWombat
NicWombat

Great game. Played it on C64 and Amiga. Totally looking forward to Elite 4.

Parker_P38
Parker_P38

I don't know of another space trader that surpasses Elite. Used to spend hours playing on my C64. Which makes me realize I have a possible culprit for my tendency to get addicted to games :-).

neuroboy
neuroboy

I've played it on a BBC Micro, Spectrum, C64, Amiga, PC and, er, I think that's it. Oh yes, I also played it on a Mac once using an online Java-based Speccy emulator! I think people are very nostalgic about Elite, mainly because it was very impressive at the time (Vector graphics? Over 2000 unique planetary systems? On a 48k Spectrum? Bonkers!) and because it is such an icon from the early golden age of home computers. People stiller clamour for a real Elite 'killer' or, heaven forbid, an official Elite IV from Frontier Developments, but in truth it has been surpassed in so many ways, even by basic updated clones like DarkStar One. Yes, really. People slated that game because every system within the game feels the same - it has a planet, sun, space station, random encounters and not much more than dogfights and cookie cutter missions. But is that not exactly what Elite was like? Except Elite didn't have missions of course... apart from a few much later on in the game. However, the fact that Elite was originally programmed to fit into about the same about of RAM that DarkStar One's readme.txt file takes up says a lot! Frontier: Elite II on Amiga was the bee's knees, apart from the combat which was almost tediously impossible as it was such a realistic physics model... great for authentic navigational viewing of and travel to star systems, but in space you just can't have fun dog fights. Everything else about it was excellent, and I fondly remember being huddled up in a duvet in my attic room as a student, glued to an old 19" CRT TV for hours on end... just one more trade run...

FoeCrusher
FoeCrusher

I also had to laugh about the "rut" the gaming industry was in then. Lets face it if it isnt an MMO or a first person shooter, it doesnt seem to get made these days.

FoeCrusher
FoeCrusher

Man so many hours lost to playing elite. It used only 22k of memory and to date there hasn't been a game that has been better in the genre.

franzito
franzito

Never heard of... is a shooter?

Lanatir
Lanatir

Epic. The game that started all other space combat simulations. Modern Developers must look at this and bow their heads in shame for what they do compared to this masterpiece.

thenephariouson
thenephariouson

Anyone remember the damn pesky 'Lens-Lock' thingie that you had to put on the TV screen to decipher the unlock code in order to play Elite, and the many times you had to retry as you couldnt quite make out the damn characters : ) I loved Elite, but when they made Frontier for the Amiga, i was blown away, definately one of the most immersive gaming experiences i have ever experienced. Mining, Bounty Hunting, allegiences (Imperial, Military, etc), simply brilliant and true classics.

papaschris
papaschris

I still have the manual and boxed version for both the C64 and Amiga....lots of fun back then. Too bad the sequels were not as exciting as the original

puffadell
puffadell

the quote these quotes get me