There is something disconcerting about sitting down for a chat with a man who admits to having thrown away whole galaxies because he didn’t like the look of them. It’s one of the reasons David Braben has become affectionately known as ‘The Creator’ on the Kickstarter forum dedicated to the 21st Century remake of his seminal space-trading game Elite, which when released on the BBC Micro back in 1984 was literally a game-changer for home entertainment.
I remember it well. I was an awkward teenager at an old-fashioned girl’s school, trying to balance society’s expectation of me to learn home economics and good deportment with wanting to be more like my older brother and just climb trees. Like so many from my generation, Elite gave me a reason to be interested in computers instead of getting into trouble. I remember thinking that it must be some kind of witchcraft for a vast galaxy, billions of star-systems across, to be living inside this box on the table. It turns out David Braben felt much the same way;
“Elite was famous because it had such a giant world to explore in such a small amount of memory – and even Elite II was a single floppy [disc] that contained our entire galaxy in great detail – from cities on planets all the way to hundreds of billions of solar systems throughout the galaxy. Even I remember thinking ‘this is witchcraft’; it was truly amazing that I, as a player, could explore a galaxy in a game that I had made without knowing what was out there.
“I remember back in the original Elite having beauty-parades of galaxies and throwing away the ones that didn’t look right or were a bit lopsided, or had evolved with rude planet names. We used this technique called ‘procedural generation’ where you generate the galaxy mathematically using something called a seed, and the idea is you just change that seed slightly and the whole galaxy is completely different. Someone who I was (and still am) a huge fan of is Douglas Adams and he was absolutely fascinated by this. The fact that you could explore a galaxy just from a single number is very Hitchhikers-esque in a way, and obviously calling the first two ratings in Elite ‘Harmless’ and ‘Mostly Harmless’ were a tribute to Douglas Adams.”
Elite went on to define an entire genre at a time when the word genre didn’t even apply to computer gaming yet, but the programming duo of David Braben and Ian Bell didn’t set out to change the world. All they wanted to do was make a game that they would enjoy playing. At the time personal computer games were mostly a rip-off of arcade titles with gameplay strongly motivated by the ‘coin-drop’ – in other words getting you to pump more money into the machine to keep on playing. They were all about three lives and high-scoring, with the average game lasting around ten minutes – fifteen if you were really good.
In contrast, Elite was an open-ended game, with no score, no levels and no bosses – just a vast galaxy you could explore in any way you fancied, picking up missions and gaining cash and notoriety as quickly and as honestly (or dishonestly) as you wanted. High reward = high risk and all the consequences that entails; it’s probably a shame more city bankers didn’t start their trading careers with a game of Elite back in the 80s. Today this type of ranging, open style of play is known as a sandbox game – Grand Theft Auto is a typical modern example if you don’t remember the original Elite yourself.
Fast forward three decades (which is an insane amount of time when you think about it in computing terms) and David Braben has his sights firmly fixed on creating the latest incarnation of his eternal classic; Elite: Dangerous – which from the screen grabs and teasers I’ve already seen looks like it’s going to be very much at home on the modern PC. This will be the third release in the Elite gaming series… Alright, so I know it’s officially going to be Elite IV, but as a self-confessed fan-girl I’m choosing to ignore 1995 and the release of the bug-ridden Frontier: First Encounters, which doesn’t even have Elite in the title and ended in litigation between Braben and the publisher anyway.
Taking on the new guard
Today Elite: Dangerous will be competing with quick-turnaround, high visibility titles like Call of Duty, which has already racked up more than double the amount of sequels in less than half the time. In a market like this it can be hard catching the attention of a big budget publisher, which is one reason David and his team decided to take the game proposal to Kickstarter instead;
“All games tend to use some previous game as a basis with [publishers] saying ‘We want one that’s a bit like that but a bit better’; then [they] can work out projections for return on investment to anticipate which game is the most likely to make a profit, which is a very clinical way of looking at it. Also games that are designed on paper are never quite as good as ones that you continuously adjust and tweak as you go through.”
So with the crowd behind him, David Braben thinks he has the best chance of making a sequel to really be proud of, in an ‘Empire Strikes Back’ kind of way. I was also keen to find out more about the multiplayer potential, which has always seemed like a natural evolution for Elite in today’s connected world;
“Multiplayer has always fascinated me and it’s always been the thing that I wanted to add next to Elite because it just enriches the gameplay so much being able to play socially. If you look at the way a lot of people play games like Call of Duty; they play it as a virtual playground game of tag, as a semi-social thing with friends. I think it’s that sort of spirit that I would really like to see in an online game, but not necessarily with the same sort of violent tilt to the subject matter that you see in Call of Duty.
“I always loved the idea of calling people in to help on a mission. But the thing that has always been an obstacle for multiplayer gaming is the lobby – which is the place in a game where you sign up for a session. You’ve really got to be in the session at the beginning to be able to play, but we’re designing Elite: Dangerous so that you can join in at any time to an existing game, and leave it seamlessly too.”
This all sounds very appealing to an aging gamer with a nostalgic bias towards space-exploration and strategy, but chatting with David I was forced to remind myself that I am just that – an aging gamer who sadly doesn’t have the endless hours she had as a teenager to devote to playing games;
“I would very much like to play a lot more games than I do as well, and not just our games but all games as I am a huge gaming fan, but the combination of kids taking time and work eats into gaming time. There are a number of different ways we are planning for this in Elite: Dangerous. One is the ability to join different groups that are tuned to different types of play so people can easily opt in and out depending on how much time they have. I like the idea of having a group that is called “People who are 40 and don’t have much time to play,” and then you’d also meet quite like-minded people who will tend to behave in the game much like you would.
“The other way of doing it is balancing different types of missions and objectives; one of the beauties with Elite and Frontier was that you can actually, in a sense, choose your difficulty because if you go to somewhere that is truly lawless, then guess what? It’s truly lawless and it’s much harder to get to a place and fight your way through.”
Dealing with death in a massively multiplayer universe
I have been known to play the odd MMO, and yes on occasion I’ll admit, somewhat obsessively. But as much as I’ve loved them one aspect of the genre has always left me cold; PVP, otherwise known as player versus player. I like a challenge and there is nothing quite like the challenge of pitting your wits against an unpredictable human opponent. But there is also nothing less fun in gaming than being repeatedly killed by a much stronger player, which can easily happen on public servers when there are too many teenage hormones involved. So what does David have planned for Elite: Dangerous PVP?
“On the Kickstarter site we’ve started detailing the ways we will be making PVP okay in the game without it being a real problem to the player. Firstly we’re still planning to have ‘save positions’, which feels really wrong in an MMO to a lot of people, but I actually think it addresses a lot of the issues and reasons why I don’t necessarily like MMO’s.
“If you think about a world like Elite, with bounties, if someone lets off a load of shots at you and you managed to not die straightaway, they become a pirate and you are then entitled to shoot at that player while they cannot shoot at you. So whoever shoots first essentially becomes the pirate. Plus the fact the cops will come after them, and depending on the relative ratings we will try and increase the punishment – so if a player with a high-end ship attacks a beginner they will get a much higher bounty on their heads than if it happened the other way round.
“This way, if someone is killed in a grossly unbalanced battle the victim could just go back to the ‘save position’ and lick their wounds, but the attacker will then have to deal with the consequences of what they just did. That’s what the alpha and beta tests of the game are for; to balance this sort of thing so that we get it right. What I want is the sort of game that you play with PVP enabled, so players can kill other players, but it happens only very rarely. I think in some ways that’s the best of both worlds because it balances having that feeling of danger and threat without the absolute of ‘players cannot kill players’.”
To me that sounds like the foundation of an excellent game mechanic – perhaps even genre defining again, although we’re going to have to think of a snappier title than PVP-games-you’ll-want-to-play-even-if-you’re-not-a-teenage-boy-driven-mostly-by-testosterone-and ego. And while the first release of Elite: Dangerous is going to concentrate on producing a 21st Century rendition of the classic space-trading and exploration game we know and love, David promises evolution as time goes on. There are even plans afoot to let players walk on worlds (if you’ll pardon the pun), with expansion packs being dreamt up that might offer new ways to explore inhabited planets teeming with rich life and adventure.
I’ve already confessed that I grew up on this game, so I’m obviously rooting for Elite: Dangerous to make the Kickstarter target of £1.25million it needs by January 4th. But the clock is ticking and looking at current the pledge trajectory rate it’s going to be a close-run race (and only for a game like Elite would such a thorough page of statistics be available). I wondered what would happen if this classic turns out to be a relic, falling short of the Kickstarter target so that none of the pledge money is collected;
“We will do a lot of head scratching if we don’t make it, because it will be a tragedy. I think at the very least [the game] would happen later. I want it to happen, but there’s no guarantee that it would happen. But I like to look at the positive and I actually think it is going to happen – let’s plan for success and if things don’t go that way we will deal with it when we have to. Certainly without Kickstarter it becomes a lot, lot harder.”