Elite

By Edge Retro

Originally published in EUG #67
 
Elite revolutionised gaming with its 3D graphics, expansive game world and balanced blend of space trading and combat, transforming the lives of young programmers Ian
Bell and David Braben in the process. Edge traces the story of its development, and how it was nearly never published

Original format: BBC Micro/Electron
Publisher: Acornsoft
Developer: David Braben/Ian Bell
Origin: UK
Release date: 1984
 
When someone unfamiliar comes knocking on your door at ten o'clock in the evening dripping with rain and weary after travelling the 300 miles from Liverpool to Cambridgeshire, you know you are in the presence of an obsessive. Questions including: "In which galaxy can the Generation ships be found?" and "Just how many stars make up the whole game universe?" only serve to re-establish the weird world of fandom into which David Braben and Ian Bell, co-creators of Elite, must occasionally warp.

Elite spawned the first ever internet user group, and eventually docked on to seventeen separate formats. The game established Braben and Bell as coding heroes to the next generation of programmers. It also brought them early fame, extensive news coverage and an amount of money no number of narcotic runs between Wolf II and Lesi could have garnered. The Elite story began in typically humble surroundings: a tiny dormitory at Jesus College, Cambridge, Earth.


Perhaps the most innovative feature of Elite was the opportunity to trade across eight vast galaxies. It added a depth and durability still unsurpassed in today's market. Steady food and mineral trading wouldsoon turn to narcotics and firearms when greed took over
"Elite was substantially written during the summer holidays when I was at university," reflects Braben. "I was nineteen and Ian twenty. I wanted to do a 3D space game since time began and I had a little Acorn Atom PC that was largely built at home - I'd already programmed this 3D expanding star field which included a few spaceships." Though Braben and Bell have since fallen out over the rights to the Elite brand, he is candid about their initial relationship and early friendship: "Ian was doing Maths and I Physics. When I saw his BBC Micro it was like, wow. We got reallyexcited about programming and at that point he was already coding a game called Free Fall."

Bell's recollection of the genesis of Elite is somewhat different: "David claims to have been planning a 3D space game on the Atom at the time," he tells Edge. "Peter Irvin, who had written Starship Command, and later Exile for the BBC Micro, was talking about a space trading game. It was the obvious thing to attempt." After lengthy discussions and some experimental coding, a 3D space combat game began to emerge. It would be called The Elite. Revolutionary vector maths, huge areas of space to explore and frenzied action, however, did not satisfy the two Cambridge undergraduates. "It felt very empty," continues Braben. "When you played it for a bit, it felt pointless. To make it a satisfying experience we have to have some motivation. That's where the trading game came from." Ironically, both Braben and Bell agonised over this aspect for a long time. "We were both afraid that it would actually be a boring component. But in a sense it gave you the contrast - the relief inbetween the tense combat."

The game was rebranded as Elite and the real grit and grind of producing the expansive and unique game universe really began. "I suppose it was the red bedroom coding scenario," recalls Braben. "We each worked separately on different sections and then amended sections by fixing or tuning." Working in tandem speeded up the process yet the dangers of replicating key code had to be studiously prevented. "We were just very disciplined about keeping records of what we changed," he continues.

The game naturally pushed the BBC Micro to its limits and the headache of compressing all the data down to 22K proved a constant struggle. Yet Bell recalls that first magical moment when he knew he had something special: "It was the first time when I tested the movement and rotation routines together with the tactics code and actually saw some Vipers moving in 3D - that was special." Though Braben always considered Elite more of a hobby than a business venture, the toll of long nights at the keyboard did begin to eclipse his Cambridge studying. "I delivered the master disks one week before my examines," he ruefully tells Edge.

Elite's success is now well established. Bell estimates that some 600,000 copies were eventually sold. The game was released in 1984, cost 15 - expensive for the time - and went into a production run of an unprecedented 50,000 copies (only Revs had previously managed to sell 30,000 units). The national press soon picked up on the phenomenon and both authors employed an agent. Yet early code had been turned down by some of the big players of the early '80s. "I first submitted Elite to Thorn EMI in London, and in a letter which I still have they said they didn't want to publish it," explains Braben. "To be honest it was one of those moments when I thought, my God, they might be right."

This maverick space trading game broke every conceivable convention. Pac-Man and Defender clones ruled the videogame industry. Who would want to play a game which had no recognisable goal and committed the blasphemy of having no points total? "The reaons they cited were all true," concedes Braben. "But ironically they would turn out to be the strengths of the game." Among the criticisms levelled at Elite were that it was too long, required save positions, used vector graphics, and wasn't colourful enough.

Undeterred, Braben and Bell returned to their task of studying by day and programming by night. A few other publishers were tentatively approached before Elite finally generated the gasps and exclamations so common among gamers when they first piloted the Cobra MkII. "We went to Acornsoft and fired up the game on their BBC Micros. We instantly had a crowd. It was two-deep within minutes because of the open-plan arrangement. I knew then there was no question as to whether they were going to publish it," remembers Braben.


Even warping could be a tense affair, with the chance of meeting Thargoids in Witch Space - if you were out of fuel it would be curtains for your commander
Acorn, however, was not completely happy with every single design feature. Incredibly, Elite was an even more extensive game back in 1983. The eight galaxies which became standard on all versions originally numbered two to the power of 48 - literally hundreds of thousands of billions. "Ridiculous numbers of galaxies," reflects Braben. Speaking about the decision to drastically curtail the Elite universe, Braben remains philosophical. "I like the idea that you're in a Douglas Adams-type universe - an insignificant dot on an insignificant dot feeling - but you don't want too much of that sort of thing."

The inclusion of gun running and narcotics was also a potential sticking point with publishers - Thorn EMI had emphatically said so in its earlier rejection letter to Braben. Acorn eventually came round to the idea after much persuasion, but the potential controversy of buying and selling narcotics for a profit would hang over the team until the first sales figures were returned. The inclusion of such elements are tame by today's standards, and Elite can at least be defnded on the grounds that a moral choice must be made. "The idea was that you could get a much better benefit from carrying narcotics," replies Braben, "but, of course, you've got the downside of police intervention."

Acornsoft must also be credited with a great deal of the praise for the early impact of the game. A competition was devised based on the concept of becoming the best - the Elite. The competition was run at the end of each month after release, for six months. Results were published in the most popular games magazines. The play-off between the six winners went on to the grand final at the Acorn User Show. Not only was it the first home videgame-related competition of its time, but more importantly it became an anti-piracy measure. Looking back, Braben marvels at the way the competition prevented lost revenues to the pirates. "It was very interesting actually, chatting to people who had entered. I asked them, 'Did you buy the game?'. 'Erm, no,' they said, 'But when I realised I was in with a chance I thought, right, I can do better than that.' They went out and bought the game just to get the entry card."

Channel 4 News quickly picked up on the phenomenon. An experimental starfield with vector graphics had suddenly become national news and was being played by just about every teacher and child who had access to a BBC Micro. One story suggests that the then ITN News editor went down to the new room and found nearly every journalist playing Elite on their terminals. Braben replys the scene: "What the hell's going on?" asks the editor. "Don't worry, we're just playing a game." No, why is everybody playing the same game? This is a news item in its own right!"

The report was broadcast at peak time, and Braben acknowledges the boost it gave the game: "Both Ian and I were looking embarrassing in our student attire, but we got some brilliant quotes from it. Peter Warlock, who was then the editor of PCN magazine, said, 'It's the best game since... it's the best game ever!' That was really nice. He didn't imagine it being bettered in the sense of the impact it had."

When asked about the fortune made on the back of one of the most influential videogames ever, Braben remains predictably guarded. "It went from hardly having two pennies to rub together to talking about potentially very big money," he says. "Although people don't realise that it's actually a long time before the money actually followed on." In a brave and perspicacious move both Braben and Bell kept a firm hold on the Elite brand. The move would prove to be a foresighted business decision. "We gave Acotn the rights to just the BBC Micro platform," recalls Braben. "They didn't realise we were serious about it, because I withheld not just the game rights but the film rights too. I think that they had not realised quite how valuable the other platform rights would be."

Though the popularity of Elite seems not to have come as a huge shock to the two authors, the sudden media attention and change in lifestyle did take some adjusting to. "You see these programmes on TV about lottery wins and how people can't handle the change in lifestyles," ventures Braben. "There's truth in that. Elite was like a lottery win because although we had worked hard, it was still a hobby. It was never a money-driven thing. It eventually caused a rift."

The rather unconventional fame which came after Elite still remains with the two coders. Bell dedicates a web site to the game, and is still more than happy to indulge anyone still interested in queries about the space dredgers or how to avoid witch space. Braben, too, is sometimes uncomfortable with the attention over a 16-year-old videogame. "I was at a party a fortnight ago when comeone asked for my autograph and it's a bizarre feeling. Then two other people wanted it. As far as parties go, it's an hour - but it does begin to separate you off from the other people there."

It is unlikely that fanatics turning up on either programmers' doorsteps to discuss the finer points of this space trade game will ever really go away. The game was played by too many people for too many hours and at such a formative time for it to fade away into obscurity. One frightening thought is that Elite probably affected a huge proportion of the population at some stage and in some way. As Braben acknowledges: "So many people approach me and say, 'I failed my exams because of you'. But more say, 'I got into the industry because of you'."