When Elite was released in 1984 for the BBC Micro it became an instant classic, one that in spite of its age remains the benchmark in free-wheeling space adventure. Close to thirty years on and with a long-awaited sequel due in 2014, Richie Shoemaker travels back to tell the story of Elite’s wonder years.
Elite was big. Hugely, vastly, mind-bogglingly big: From the Faraway jump in the Lave system where wide-eyed rookie pilots would begin their quest, it could take the committed traveller hours to journey to the furthermost edges of the galaxy. Equipped with an early start, a packed lunch, credits for fuel and enough battle experience to frustrate the attentions of pirates and bounty hunters, one might reach the outer lying world of Ribilebi – famous for its goat soup – in time to watch The Dukes Of Hazzard. To hop off at each of the other 255 no less bizarrely noted systems in the galaxy would take a great deal longer. And let us not forget that there were another seven galaxies after that.
As if 2000-plus detailed star systems weren’t enough to inspire awe in those that played it, Elite’s gameplay was so far in advance of the competition that it appeared to those that first encountered it as if forged upon another world. With it’s smooth 3D graphics, intense dogfighting and seemingly endless avenues of play it offered a new interactive dimension in which to escape where all most games of the day could offer was a simple diversion. Little wonder that sales would go off the chart, through the roof and into orbit through what would come to be recognised as the ozone layer – what was left of it, at least.
Similarly stratospheric became the status of it’s creators Ian Bell and David Braben, whom in credit of the games ambition, execution and success were featured briefly on the Channel 4 News. They became by default the first reluctant celebrities of the British gaming industry, which then wasn’t really much of an industry at all… another indirect consequence of Elite, perhaps: That during the course of it’s translation from the BBC Micro to every other computational platform worth bothering about, it shadowed the growth of a commercial art form from what was a bedroom hobby to what is now the richest seam of popular entertainment on the planet.
As with all things that grow to be big, Elite began as a very small thing. Early in 1982 the Big Bang that was the first meeting of minds between David Braben and Ian Bell had yet to occur. Blissfully unaware that their paths would cross, A’ Level student Braben, the proud engineer of a new kit-built Acorn Atom, was at his home pushing his already obsolete computer to it’s limits, whilst, taking a year out before university a nineteen year-old Ian Bell was working by day on the computer in a science lab, making similar advances into the whys and wherefores of the digital mind.
Created in isolation their first self-taught lessons in mastering the dark art of game-making produced crude results. After programming character generation routines for pen-and-paper RPGs at school, Ian Bell’s first efforts were in imitating early arcade games like the 1977 cowboy dueller Boot Hill – only instead of pushing crude sprites around a makeshift cactus, he had to make do with monochrome text characters. Later on came a computerised version of Reversi, an attempt at programming that might be considered regressive in terms of offering exciting gameplay, but to Ian Bell it was a chance to program strategies, explore basic computer intelligence and, more significantly, make some money. Not much, even by 1982’s standards (“It sold a few hundred copies”), but enough to want to continue making computer games for the BBC Microcomputer.
David Braben’s initial forays into games programming resulted in a homespun take on another arcade classic. “I had worked on a number of games already, for my own amusement.” He remembers, “One of the first was a game of nuclear war, a little like two versions of Atari’s Missile Command side-by-side.” Suitably invigorated by his own efforts and dismissive of the commercially available software for his computer at the time he pressed on.
In their next respective efforts Bell and Braben were much more ambitious. Outer space was to be the setting for both Ian Bell’s Free Fall and David Braben’s ‘Fighter’ but in terms of gameplay and technological ambition both were polar opposites, yet, in light of how Elite would soon come into being and evolve, both games, or at least the spirit in which they were attempted, would be the driving force behind Elite’s incredible ambition and enduring appeal.
More original that most games at the time Ian Bell’s Free Fall was a far more complicated design than his previous release. In it a lack of gravity and an abundance of deadly alien creatures conspired against an unarmed spaceman trapped in the void of a cavernous space station. Using thrusters to propel himself across the faux 3-D interior, the astronaut would spin and rebound off the walls of the octagonal orbital, carefully trying to line himself up so that he might flick out an arm or a leg to banish any aliens from whence they came. Ian Bell teasingly calls Free Fall the first beat ‘em up. Certainly it was first to be set in a weightless environment. Weaponless, treed and tethered to a control system that was defiantly complex (it required eight different keys just to move and ‘fire’), clearly Ian Bell didn’t like gamers to have it too easy. Similarly Bell was becoming irritated by games whose sole reward was to transmit an ever-increasing score in the corner of the screen. Why, he questioned, should an arbitrary number judge a player’s success and therefore be the only incentive to keep playing? It was an aggravation Bell would soon be able to turn his attention to resolving. In the interim Free Fall’s score was only marginalised position-wise and as a result, perhaps unintentionally, the score didn’t seem to impose on the instinct to survive.
Meanwhile David Braben had more obvious advances to pursue. He wanted to more fully explore the box into which the television screen furtively peeked. Where in Space Invaders, Galaga and every other save-the-world-from-alien-attack derivative bug-monsters would slip down from the top of the screen, he wanted to chase them back beyond it. He saw the screen as a window into a fully realised 3D universe that could be explored in all directions.
3D wasn’t a new concept in 1982 of course; first-person vector graphics had already permeated the arcades. Battlezone was a massive hit that Atari quickly followed-up with Red Baron, an arcade flight game that allowed players to explore the skies above the sparse, but nonetheless 3D, terrain. On the early microcomputers too 3D was taking off, literally: Already the best-selling Apple title of all time was SubLogic’s Flight Simulator, then about to start it’s 25 million selling run on the new IBM-PC. Closer to home Geoff Crammond (who would later find fame on terra firma in games like Revs, Stunt Car Racer and F1GP) was fine-tuning his early simulation credentials with Aviator, a 3D flight game that Acornsoft would publish early in 1983. Not that David Braben could have known of these developments, and besides; his ambitions flew far beyond this island Earth. The problem was, on his senescent Atom, he wasn’t best equipped to realise them: “I had found a way of doing solid 3D shapes using line-drawn graphics, with early versions of what became the Boa, Cobra, Sidewinder and Mamba (but then called Ship 1, Ship 2, etc)” From these basic building blocks Braben created a rudimentary game on his Atom, “It was simple and pretty dull – 3D space and little else.” He remembers, “By then, though the Acorn Atom was yesterday’s machine and very non-standard as I had got at it with a soldering iron, and so the game was not commercial, and in any case not finished.”
Nevertheless David Braben took his ‘fighter’ demo to a publisher, Thorn EMI – then known for light bulbs and signing the The Sex Pistols, less well known today for being a games publisher (or indeed a computer manufacturer). Thorn were impressed, but not enough to publish what little of a game there was, especially one so machine-specific. Nevertheless they saw potential in David Braben and offered him a job. He politely turned it down. “The irony is,” he says today “if I could have afforded a BBC Micro I’d probably have finished and sold the ‘fighter’ game and Elite might never have happened.”
Ian Bell and David Braben finally met in October 1982, two of the ten-dozen-or-so new undergraduates admitted that year into The College of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and the glorious Virgin Saint Radegund – more commonly referred to as Jesus College, Cambridge. They settled in quickly and finally exchanged words at a formal dinner in the old dining hall with the impasto eyes of old masters bearing down on them. It was, probably, a terse and embarrassed encounter, but once they had discovered what A’ Levels the other had passed, they uncovered a shared interest in science fiction and computers. As Ian Bell happily recalls: “We got on well; fellow nerds you might say.”
Equally nerd-like was their interest in role-playing games, not the ubiquitous Dungeons & Dragons, but the futuristic worlds of Traveller (Bell’s RPG of choice) and Space Opera (Braben’s). They discussed the books of Larry Niven, Harry Harrison and Keith Laumer, films like Star Wars and 2001 and Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. (“Not the inferior TV version” says David Braben.) When they turned to the subject of programming, it seemed obvious that science fiction and the desire to explore it within the framework of a computer game would fuse.
“The idea was around in our circle,” Remembers Ian Bell. “David was developing 3D graphics on his Acorn Atom. Peter Irvin, who had just written the 2D space game Starship Command, was talking about writing a 3D one…. It was an obvious possibility,” although no-one was entirely confident the BBC Micro was up to the task. After all, if it couldn’t display 3D shapes gracefully and in significant numbers, there wasn’t much use in following the idea through.
“We had a number of very productive brainstorming sessions,” remembers David Braben. “The basic idea just evolved in a couple of evenings and, particularly as the scope of what we planned seemed pretty daunting at the time, we agreed to work together.”
As quickly as it had begun, the first term at Cambridge came to an end. David Braben returned home to his trusty Atom and quickly set about adapting his ‘fighter’ code to run on Ian Bell’s new BBC Micro. It did, eventually, and when the pair met again in the new term Ian Bell had set David Braben’s once-static spaceships flying in the firmament of the heavens. Elite (or whatever it was going to be called) was alive and achievable. And they saw that it was good.
As with most students on their first year at university, the two hobbyist programmers had a lot of time on their hands. Bell and Braben found their studies easy to cope with and neither of them needed to seek employment in order to fund their extra-curricular activities thanks to decent-sized grants – at least, compared to today’s students. They were both able and happy to plunge themselves into their 3D space game without much thought for formal design, after all, the hard work as they envisaged it – the 3D space, shifting perspective and moving spaceships – had already been done. “We discussed and planned a little but pretty much just wrote the code.” Says Ian Bell casually. “Getting the ships rotating and flying was the prime milestone. After that, things just slotted in.”
And so they continued slotting in ships, missiles and explosions. The elegant flowing docking sequences from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey inspired the duo to include docking sequences of their own (which in later versions would be accompanied by Strauss’ Blue Danube, though scored using computer boops and beeps rather than anything resembling a concert orchestration). However, despite these advances, the swimming wire-frame ships, moving star fields and gently circling space stations, it was still basically an arcade-style experience where the aim could so easily have been to destroy unending sequences of spaceships. The vector graphics would have undeniably been impressive and the game required skill to shift the view in order to target and destroy enemy ships, but it remained a game where enemy spaceship after enemy spaceship had to be destroyed it remained, unlike the view on-screen, thoroughly one-dimensional. What was needed was an incentive, some mechanic that would spur the player on to higher rewards.
In pen-and-paper role-playing games like Traveller and Mercenary (and D&D for that matter), experience points could be earned and traded in for predefined levels of progression, each one imparting greater skills and abilities. Perhaps, thought Bell and Braben, in their computer game the player could also earn experience points for destroying ships and from them attain new levels of skill and earn special abilities. Seeing as the ship represented the player, that is what should develop: Each kill would earn the player a reward in intergalactic credits that could be spent on better weapons, special shields, heavy armour or faster engines… currency was now a factor in the game. Taking further inspiration from their role-playing experiences, it was only logical that player would be able to buy other things; commodities that could be stored in a cargo hold, ferried to distant galaxies and sold, hopefully, for profit.
When the thought came to allow players the opportunity to trade as well as fight it was undoubtedly the game’s eureka moment. Trading would eventually provide a method for players to gauge their own success and a way to advance that was both useful and meaningful to their in-game persona. As soon as the idea was mooted and approved Elite became from that point a game as multi-faceted as the view if offered on it’s growing universe; no longer a simple set of rules that defined what the player couldn’t do, but a set of guidelines for what they could do. Bell and Braben were in their own eyes simply creating a universe; it was up to the player to define their own game experience. The trade-off was that to get anywhere in the game the player would have give up more than a few minutes of their time.
Heads bursting with ideas and with the software to back them up, Ian Bell and David Braben decided the time was right to find out whether others would see the commercial value in the world they were quickly bringing to life. It was time to make a pitch.
Keen to secure the backing of a company with the independence to pursue Elite onto as many home computers as possible the more commercially astute David Braben took the lead and once again courted Thorn EMI, hoping that after being suitable impressed with his old ‘fighter’ demo, a smoother, faster and more interactive 3D space adventure would be much more appealing to them. “The games people loved it,” Remembers Braben, “but the management report said ‘It doesn’t have three lives… it takes too long to play’ and they rejected it.”
Having recently published Ian Bell’s Free Fall Acornsoft were the obvious next publisher-of-call. Based locally, Ian Bell had already sampled their casual manner and relished the fact they were staffed by ex-graduates rather than business suits. Even so, Elite was an entirely different proposition to Free Fall. For a start the game was not in the marketable state publishers in the early 1980’s expected.
“When we first it, there was little of the gameplay that made Elite great.” Recalls Chris Jordan, Acornsoft’s Chief Editor. “It consisted of just the in-flight section. There was flight, and basic combat.” It was clearly unfinished, a risk. Acornsoft had other concerns: “The game was being written by two people. I think Elite was the first Acornsoft game developed by a partnership. All previous had been one-man projects. I was doubtful as to whether this would work practically, but they divided the work very efficiently and manage to put it all back together to work perfectly. Very impressive in those days!” Of course there was no question Acornsoft were going to pass-up the opportunity to publish the game. “I realised it was very different from anything we had seen on the BBC Microcomputer up to that point.” Recalls David Johnson-Davies, then the Managing Director of Acorn’s software division. “Previously all the games were based on one concept. Elite would feature several – flying, fighting, trading, and docking – and incorporate these into a coherent story. Plus, it had real-time wire frame graphics, which we had not seen before in a game on the BBC.”
Having agreed a deal whereby Acornsoft would publish the game for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron Ian Bell and David Braben continued developing their software, buoyed by the confidence that Acornsoft had in them. Ian Bell’s Beeb was upgraded and, with a new BBC of his own, David Braben retired his Atom. It was time to make real the ideas they had promised. However, almost from the moment they had their ships flitting through space they had realised they were left wanting, not in ambition or talent, but in all-important hardware: Despite it’s rugged reliability, versatility and raw processing power, the BBC Micro was lacking in one vital area – memory. The game had to fit into the 32 kilobytes of RAM that came as standard and of those 32,768 bytes, a third were needed by the computer system in order to carry out basic functions before it could process the instructions to create and maintain the Elite universe and everything in it. After some clever manipulation of the BBC’s screen management routines the two managed to scrape together a total of 22KB, a measly amount in which to squeeze an entire universe – a sliver compared to modern computer games that are frequently a million times bigger.
“It was lack of RAM all the way.” Recalls Ian Bell. “The problem was having too little room to do what we wanted, not that what we wanted to do was too difficult. It was the cassette version that was hard; the BBC disk version had bags of room in comparison. It would have been possible to do a complete rewrite and save a lot of memory but that would have taken too long, so we had to refine endlessly on a small-scale.”
The game was already lean but to make the game they envisaged meant trimming out every non-essential fleck of memory. As Ian Bell would reveal soon after release, there was not a free byte left in the program.
As a consequence of memory restrictions the pair had to be clever. Initially Elite’s universe was to be hard-coded; that is to say each system, star, planet and station was to be made to order. It was quickly realised to do so would be wasteful, wasteful of time and certainly inefficient in terms of the frugal amount memory available. A handmade universe would surely have made for a more rich and detailed environment but it would also have been a very small one. The answer, it seemed obvious, was to ‘grow’ the universe rather than build it. Just as they were creating one game that would hopefully find itself being played across any number of computers, they needed to find a way to produce a universe from a just a single point of reference. The difference was, each system in their universe had to be different.
“We knew we needed a ‘random’ number generator to create the universe so I went into the computer science section of Heffers (much smaller then than now) and looked up random number generators in a book.” Remembers Ian Bell, “The first thing I read was ‘Fibonacci numbers are an extremely poor source of random numbers’ and I thought ‘Ah yes, Fibonacci numbers will be prefect’”.
A Fibonacci sequence is where each number in the sequence is the sum of the preceding two numbers (e.g. 14, 21, 35, 56, 91, 147, 238, 385, 623). All Bell and Braben had to do was come up with the first two numbers and adapt the formulae so that only the last two digits from each number is kept. The result was a string of numbers that appeared to be random. These numbers, depending on where they sat in the sequence, would then correspond to values for the type of system, it’s government and even it’s name and description. To use another analogy Ian Bell and David Braben were creating a tiny programme of DNA, whilst the computer simply followed the instructions held in the chromosomes. When the game booted into life, so did the universe. The DNA was just six bytes, from it a universe of billions upon billions of galaxies could have been created within the BBCs memory. Bell and Braben wanted billions. Acornsoft didn’t and they settled instead for just eight – 2048 solar systems.
Despite the odd disagreement on minor issues like the size of Elite’s universe the relationship between it’s creators and publishers was from the beginning a relaxed one. Acorn’s software division was, according to David Johnson-Davies, primarily made up of “avid games players rather than programmers or businessmen,” In spite of the studious and professional image of their computers.
“We were all University of Cambridge science guys, they still students, we only recent graduates.” says Chris Jordan, “In term-time Ian and David lived only a few minutes walk away and so could easily pop-in to show us progress, and to come out to lunch with the team in the local pizza restaurant, or off to the pub to play the arcade machines. We got on well and had a good, productive, trusting relationship. It felt very much a positive-sum game.”
“I think we encouraged Ian and David to squeeze every last drop of capability from the game.” Says David Johnson-Davies. “We helped them in technical ways too, such as with the unique split-mode display, which allowed them to have a high-resolution monochrome image on the top three-quarters of the screen, and a four-colour lower resolution display for the navigation controls on the bottom quarter of the screen.”
“They found bugs well.” Remembers Ian Bell of his old publisher. “Much of the stuff we did was fairly radical for the time, we just presented them with it and argued till they saw it our way, which I think they always did in the end.”
“There was no thought of us interfering with the game design.” Says Chris Jordan. “There was very much the feel that it was an integral creative work and we’d bought the package – imposing piece-meal changes would have destroyed it. Only when one could travel between the systems, upgrade their ship, explore the planet types and economies did the depth of the game really become apparent. Only then did Acornsoft decide this was something really special, worth pulling out the publishing stops for.”
By the early months of 1984 Elite was near complete and instantly recognisable as the game of 3D space combat, trade and exploration that would soon blaze through the software charts. However, the cycle of freeing up valuable bytes continued apace. Ian Bell and David Braben were locked into speeding up the graphics and fortifying the code to ensure that where corners had been cut to allow for new features, bugs wouldn’t fall though. Sometimes, they’d even find a tiny pocket of slack coding they could make room for a new ship or secret mission for the player to discover. A byte could mean a new laser, four bytes however could make way for something different… like, say, fuel scoops, that would allow players caught in the depths of space to head for the sun and skim off burning plasma and thus save themselves the inconvenience of docking and the expense of fuel. It appeared an innocuous addition, but mankind always seems to find diabolical applications for such things and Ian Bell quickly applied himself.
“The idea of enemy ships discharging cargo canisters when destroyed which could be scooped up came to me surprisingly late in the project when we already had trading and police and so on well established. This meant the player could be a pirate as well as a trader/bounty hunter, which wasn’t something we had originally planned. It’s one of those ideas which seems totally obvious in retrospect, but if we hadn’t had fuel scoops already I wouldn’t have been trying to think of an alternate use for them.”
Although looting the corpses of slain vessels and selling trade items bought by others was a new development, Elite always had a darker side to it: “The ability to trade in illegal goods was in it from the start,” he insists, “the player was always intended to adhere to his own moral code rather than have one imposed by the scoring system. I like this idea because it raises interesting questions about what it means to be moral…. The player is endlessly confronted with choices no one of which is ‘right.’”
In line with Ian Bell’s long-held aversion to scoring the game did not award ten points for killing a Sidewinder or a hundred for dispensing with an Asp. Intended to trigger special missions, there was however buried deep within the code a variable that kept track of how many ships the player had destroyed. Acornsoft, keen to have some way for the players to judge their own progression in the game universe, insisted some use be made of it. The solution was simple and elegant; the number of kills would correspond to a rating, an experience level similar to those in role-playing games. A new pilot, on his first journey out from Lave station was rated ‘Harmless’. Two kills and they would be promoted to ‘Mostly Harmless’. Eight kills made you ‘Poor’. The bar for each rank was raised exponentially; ‘Average’, ‘Above Average’, ‘Competent’, ‘Dangerous’, ‘Deadly’, then, after 6400 kills – representing perhaps many months of trading and combat – the player could finally call themselves one of the ‘Elite’. And there too Ian Bell and David Braben had found the immodest, apt and obvious title for their collaboration – far preferable to the name it had gone by in previous months, ‘Bell’.
“Our biggest worry of the project was that someone else would get a 3D space game out before us.” Reveals Chris Jordan. “There had already been 3D-ish games on the BBC Micro, including our own Aviator, and it seemed an obvious step to take wire frame polygon 3D graphics to space. Unlike any of our projects before, Elite we guarded in great secrecy. It was known internally only under the code-name ‘Bell’ and all testing was done under strict confidentiality by our most trusted people – a far cry from the usual, where our demos would be spread all over the place. We gave no press previews or demos, we held everything back.”
“We were afraid of someone stealing our thunder,” added David Braben, “especially as it didn’t seem too difficult to make at the time.”
As spring gave way to summer it became clear that time should be called on development. Apart from the fact that end-of-year exams were looming, the game had been under construction for far longer than any in Acornsoft’s history. The last six months – during which time a capable solo programmer could perhaps release two games of commercial quality – had been spent in the exclusive pursuit of bugs and spare bytes. There were things that they wanted to put in; more varieties of police ships, some sort of congratulatory screen for those who reached Elite (an honour guard of Vipers was disputed) but there was no more time and, in the cassette version of the game at least, no more space to fit it in. “I was sad to have no mining and so few ships in the BBC cassette version,” recalls Ian Bell, “and in my view the secret missions, though few, did round the disk version out nicely.”
“Nothing really significant was left out.” Says David Braben. “Perhaps the one that annoyed me at the time was the messages to hackers buried in the game. The lawyers insisted we remove them.”
There was one last problem to deal with however: The two flat radar panels that sat in the lower corners of the screen were crucial in orienting the player but were too awkward to offer assistance in the heat of battle. Something was needed that could be read and understood at a glance. David Braben had the idea to merge the two radar screens into a single a flat isometric disc. The player’s ship would be in the centre and any contacts would be represented with stalks that originated on the flat plane and extended up or down relative to the player’s position. It was a tactical display worthy of real-world application and despite being an easy code change so late in the day, it was one that would define for many the image of Elite for years to come.
Similarly iconic was the artwork that would adorn the packaging. Up until Elite you pretty much knew what you were getting with an Acornsoft game, at least you could get a pretty good idea by the picture that decorated the box. The cover for Ian Bell’s Free Fall, for instance, followed the standard Acornsoft design rules to the letter. It was functional and not very exiting; a black backdrop, a screenshot, a title and the promise that the game would sit unobtrusively on the shelf next to all your other Acornsoft games. Although a screenshot would have been impressive enough to ensure sales, for this one game Acornsoft were going to go to town: Phillip Castle, known for among other things his Clockwork Orange and Flash Gordon poster artwork, was commissioned to create Elite’s impressive cover; a Cobra Mk III approaching a Coriolis station, perched over by the indomitable Elite ‘eagle’. It was the first time players would see their ship and a manifestation of what they were aiming for and it looked cool.
“On the game development we had left them to it.” Says Chris Jordan, “On the marketing, we got on with it without much involving them. Both sides were very happy with the process and with the outcome. They in particular with the packaging, including that great artwork (has there ever been game artwork as great since?) and Robert Holdstock’s brilliant novella (likewise).”
‘Pulling out all the stops’, as Chris Jordan put it, wasn’t simply about placing the game in a nice box in the hope of guaranteeing a few extra sales. Inside was the full gamut of paper-based paraphernalia anyone fan could want; a poster, a manual detailing the Elite universe complete with Janes-style ship glossary and seemingly insignificant embellishments that has since fostered so much of the myth and legend that has grown up around the game. Perhaps most notable of all was the novella, The Dark Wheel, by science-fiction author Robert Holdstock. Celebrated today for his mythic fantasy novels Celtika, The Iron Grail and the award-winning Mythago Wood cycle, his brief work on The Dark Wheel was a memorable and unique experience.
“Harry Harrison had been offered the project, but was too busy.” He remembers. “He recommended me to the company producing Elite and I was contacted almost immediately, I’m not sure by whom, but very soon I was invited to Cambridge to meet Ian and David, and to see the game in action. I recall David Braben fiddling with the Acorn computer, on which the game was being demonstrated, so that I could become ‘Elite’ very quickly. Even so, I failed. I was a science fiction writer, moving into mythology and fantasy, and had no understanding of computers whatsoever. David, Ian and I had a splendid lunch, but I confess I mugged my way through it, nodding when I thought appropriate, and spinning out novella ideas when I caught a glimpse of what they wanted. I’m sure they saw through me, but since I’d honestly said that I was simply an imagination man, and was very interested, they had no hesitation in accepting me on to the project. I was the fiction, they were the software.”
The magazines were carefully seeded with ads and the boxes that lined the shelves were bursting with riches; the novella, the Space Traders Flight Training Manual, a poster, badge and a competition entry card for players to fill in if ever they managed to earn themselves the title of The Order Of Elite. The curtain was ready to be pulled back on Acornsoft’s secret project.
The first time Ian Bell or David Braben could fully comprehend the scale of their accomplishment was at Alton Towers, which had just opened the first underground rollercoaster and the venue that Acornsoft had hired to promote the game to the computer press. “That was the first time I saw people’s reactions who were fresh to the game.” Recalls David Braben. Chris Jordan is equally reminiscent “the expressions of stunned amazement on the games journo’s faces…” he recounts. No one could quite comprehend the scale of the game, or that a modest home computer was capable of delivering it.
Finally released in September 1984, Elite was lavished with praise. Beebug magazine summed it up best as ‘a masterpiece of programming’, which it undoubtedly was. “The reviews were all ecstatic so we knew we’d made it creatively, which was important to us,” recalls Ian 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.”
Sales figures were just as encouraging. Despite costing a whopping £17.65 for the disk version – approx £40 today, within a few short weeks Elite had sold 50,000 copies and was predicted to double that figure by the New Year. Bell and Braben were even featured on TV when the Editor of the Channel 4 news walked into the studio to find his staff all playing the game. It was a similar story in school computer rooms across the country; pupils who had no interest in studying computing but played games on their Spectrum at home would book themselves in after school and play Elite, some would even buy a copy of the game, just to play it at school, in a few cases, just to own it.
Part of the enormous success has been attributed to the competition entry card that was included in the Elite package and intended originally to dissuade playground pirates, one that players could once they’d reached ‘Elite’ could fill in their details and could claim a coveted Elite badge and maybe some free games. Acornsoft expected that perhaps a few months a few dozen people would have sent their entries in, but within a month of the game going on sale over 400 people had been returned their cards. Soon it would be thousands.
David Braben: “The first time I appreciated the scale of the success was seeing a room piled high with competition entries– neatly sorted into bundles of 100 – and each of these had reached ‘Elite’ or ‘Deadly’ representing hundreds of hours of someone playing the game. It was then that it really hit me how much time people were putting into the game, and it all seemed worthwhile.”
As 1985 begun Ian Bell and David Braben were well into their third and decisive year at Cambridge. Elite was a runaway success for Acornsoft and it’s parent company to the degree that the game was driving sales of the BBC Microcomputer itself. It was the computer’s ‘flagship game’ – it’s ‘killer app’. Soon it would be just as important a title on other machines too, as British Telecom swooped in to sign up the rights to produce the game for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum – the two dominant machines of the day. However despite increasing academic pressures Ian Bell and David Braben continued to work on Elite, opting to code the C64 edition themselves as well as begin work on a full sequel for the BBC Micro. “We had assumed a disk drive for Elite 2 but that was only realistically accessible when docked or hyperspacing so memory was still very tight. I had rewritten the existing Elite universe generation, added rotating gun turret views, which then necessitated recoding the dust particle starfield; rewritten the tactics code to allow for wingmen and smart target selection in big battles; and coded ‘crescent’ planets. For 6502 Elite 2 I was envisaging something that played and fought like Elite 1 with wingmen but with a far greater plot complexity.”
But development on Elite 2 did not progress far. David Braben attributes some blame to the work that was poured into the many various conversions they were duty-bound to create. Even when they weren’t directly involved with coding they would have to provide assistance to those who’d been commissioned to convert the game. Soon after the Commodore version in May came the Sinclair version in September, then a version for the Apple II arrived early in 1986. Blame too would fall on their obvious academic pressures, and of course being young men, as the pair prepared for the larger would it was a simple fact that they wanted different things from life. According to David Braben, Ian Bell had simply lost interest in a sequel. For Ian Bell, it was more that he had other interests away from games to pursue. Perhaps for one of them games development was always a hobby, whilst for the other maybe Elite cemented a desire to make games a career. It’s easy to overlook also that in 1986 Acornsoft, who had been such an effective and supportive part of the Elite team, were being disbanded and sold off. For Chris Jordan and David Johnson-Davies Elite 2 was no longer a concern.
The threads of the Elite story continue in many directions and on all platforms. It was a success on every computer it was released for. Even when in 1987 the game was upgraded and released for the Atari ST and Amiga – 16-bit machines capable of delivering a far more dynamic experience than 8-bit processors were ever able – the game still captured the hearts and minds of those that ventured out in Elite’s black depths. Unsurprisingly arguments still continue as to which was the best version. Undeniably the original had the most impact and whilst it was superseded on many levels over the years, it is perhaps only fair that the game would end up where it began, on an Acorn computer, the Archimedes, published in 1991 by Hybrid Technologies – the company set up by Chris Jordan after he left Acornsoft. ArcElite as it’s commonly known is considered by many to be Elite at it’s most evolved.
All told the game was released in 22 different formats and sales have been estimated between 700,000 and 1.5 million in total – not a vast number in today’s global market, but a very impressive figure for a very British game released originally for a very British computer. It could have sold more. It could still be selling today on PalmOS and PocketPC – just two of the many versions of the game, both unofficial and official that for various reasons never quite made it. And of course there are the sequels, legal threats – all stories for another time, perhaps – and the ceaseless wait to explore Elite’s next frontier, a game that we expect and hope will be just as hugely, vastly, mind-bogglingly big as the original.
In 1988, after completing Virus for the Amiga and Atari ST, David Braben wanted to try again with an Elite follow-up, this time for the 16-bit machines that by now were the dominant gaming platforms. Ian Bell, although happy to contribute to new versions of the old Elite, didn’t want to be involved and so it was agreed that David Braben would continue the series alone.
Five and a half years later Frontier: Elite II arrived – nearly a full decade since the original. Like it’s predecessor it was a game of immense scale, offering a universe far larger and just as economically coded as the first Elite. It was also a game that offered unparalleled realism for a sci-fi game, Braben had simulated the entire galaxy with planets, moons and star systems mapped out to scale. But five years was a long time in the rapidly accelerating world of computer games and Frontier was a disappointing game graphically. On the Amiga it was slow, whilst the version for PC – coded by Chris Sawyer – just looked old next to the new space adventures promised by the likes of X-Wing. David Braben concedes the game was lacking: “Frontier managed to deliver much more than Elite – it just didn’t cut it in the fun of the combat; largely down to the conflicts between the simulation and game aspects.”
Almost immediately David Braben embarked on a follow-up, only this time he wasn’t going to work alone. He formed Frontier Developments and First Encounters took two years and was released as a full-price sequel in April/May 1995. Again it was an impressive achievement, the graphic were far improved, the gameplay offered a structured mission set and the game had the vestiges of a plot that Frontier had lacked. But it was released too early and bugged.
“The publisher support and nurturing that Elite received (particularly the nearly six months testing and tweaking), was never given to the sequels – they were rushed out in comparison, and suffered as a result. Nevertheless I am very proud of Frontier. I think it achieved a great deal and personally really enjoyed the sense of exploration – as I hadn’t seen all the systems either, as they were computer generated.” Ian Bell wasn’t a fan of either of the Frontier games, but concedes he hasn’t played them. “Though I respect the attempt to simulate the real physical universe I think it was a mistake.” He says
As to the games, Elite fans are divided, between those that love the original Elite and those that prefer David Braben’s Frontier sequels, for some it’s simply a generation thing, between the thirty-something’s that played on the BBC and it’s rivals, and the twenty-something’s reared on the sequels. For others it’s the balance between perceived realism and perceived fun, the simulation of physics, inertia and gravity in Frontier, compared to the more immediate fun and intensity of the original game. And whilst it appears the Bell and Braben will remain forever divided – particularly over the second Frontier game – it appears that Elite IV (currently due sometime in 2014 for PC), will offer a return to the gameplay of old; fun and accessible, rewarding and deep and with enough realism for Frontier fans to get their teeth into. We live in hope.
The original version of this article was first published in Retro Gamer magazine in 2004.