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The History of Elite: Space, the Endless Frontier

April 7, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next
 

[In the latest in a series of Gamasutra-exclusive bonus material originally to be included in Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton's new book Vintage Games: An Insider Look at the History of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario, and the Most Influential Games of All Time, the authors look at one of the most influential games of the '80s -- one that hasn't perhaps had as much press as it deserves, in recent years, as Americans, and consoles, have been ascendant.]

Elite, released in the United Kingdom in 1984 and the United States a year later, was the first major entry in a genre now called the "space sim."

Developed by Ian Bell and David Braben for the BBC Micro, Elite made a big impact in the United Kingdom, the only territory where Acorn's BBC Micro and compatible budget-friendly Electron computers had a presence.

Bell and Braben's masterful coding for the original Acornsoft version extracted every ounce of juice from these modest machines, wowing gamers and reviewers alike.

Although publisher Firebird's ported versions may have been less groundbreaking than the originals, Elite still made an impact in the United States, becoming a fan favorite on the Commodore 64 and other popular platforms like the Apple II.

Indeed, in March 2008, Next Generation declared it the #1 best game of the 1980s, calling it "the spiritual predecessor of everything from Wing Commander through to the Grand Theft Auto series."[1] But what is it about Elite that deserves such high praise and justifies such bold claims?


The player controls a single character in Elite. Similar to a CRPG, the goal is to slowly improve the character by purchasing ship upgrades and destroying enemy ships, which gradually raises the rating attribute from "harmless" to "elite." BBC Micro screenshot shown.

Although some fans exaggerate its novelty, Elite is actually a hybrid of two distinct genres that had been evolving since the earliest days of home computing: the space trading game and the flight simulator (a.k.a. the flight sim).

The space trading game can trace its origins back to games like Edu-Ware's Space (1978) and Empire I: World Builders (1981)[2] for the Apple II, as well as FTL's SunDog: Frozen Legacy (Apple II, 1984; 1985, Atari ST)[3] and Omniware's Universe series (starting 1984; Apple II, Atari 8-bit, and others).

All of these games offered many of the tropes seen in Elite. There are the same economic imperatives to sell cargo between and among countless planets, purchase upgrades for your ship, and the chance to battle as or against space-faring pirates.

One recurring theme across this genre is the open-ended "sandbox" style gameplay that is most often associated with the slightly more rigid Grand Theft Auto series (see book Chapter 9, "Grand Theft Auto III (2001): The Consolejacking Life") today; players are mostly free to choose their own way to accumulate capital and judge their own success at the game.

There is no one right way to play these games, and plots (if they exist at all) have little bearing. All of these games are highly detailed and complex, requiring comprehensive manuals and rigid study.


FTL's SunDog: Frozen Legacy, took a different approach than Elite by featuring a much smaller, but more detailed and interactive universe. However, perhaps FTL's most overlooked achievement was what they referred to as "ZoomAction Graphics," which was an innovative close-up view of the player's main activities that still provided the player a larger frame of reference. Back of the box for the more advanced Atari ST version shown.

Besides its excellent implementation of wireframe 3D graphics, where Elite really set itself apart from these other space trading games was its procedurally generated universe, including planetary positions, names, politics, and general descriptions.

Although this procedural generation technique would have allowed for trillions of different galaxies, in order to hide the limitations of the game's algorithms while still creating an impressive universe, the final design was purposely limited by Acornsoft to eight galaxies, each containing 256 planets.[4]

The only major downside to this technique was the occasional generation of difficult-to-reach star systems that a predesigned universe could have avoided.


This chart shows one of several galaxies that the player can explore in Elite.


[1] See http://tiny.cc/DpKCJ.

[2] Empire I: World Builders was the high-resolution graphics-enhanced replacement for Space when Game Designers Workshop sued Edu-Ware for copyright infringement.

[3] Although SunDog: Frozen Legacy was much smaller in terms of the size of its universe than Elite, it one-upped its more popular contemporary by featuring an innovative drag-and-drop windowing interface and the ability to exit the ship and explore populated, interactive cities.

[4] See http://books.guardian.co.uk/extracts/story/0,,1065455,00.html. A few other games in the same basic genre, such as the more RPG-like Starflight (1986, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, and others) from Electronic Arts, would also use procedural generation to great effect to create its hundreds of explorable planets. Of course, Will Wright's creature creator and life simulation, Spore (2008), also from Electronic Arts, takes this technique to its ultimate level with content that is almost entirely procedurally generated.


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Comments


Matt Barton
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Hi, guys, if you'd also like to my video review of Elite check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=igY4DURfb08

Roberto Alfonso
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Thank you very much for the article. Elite is one of the best PC games I have ever played. You need very specific tastes for this (like dungeon crawlers), but if you match them, it is awesome. You may be going in a direction and may not hit a planet in several minutes. You never knew what to expect in that planet either, it was all about exploration.

Andy Krouwel
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Nice try, but Elite's trading system is almost a direct lift from GDW's Traveller RPG from 1977.



Other games may have borrowed similarly.



CdrJameson

Andy Krouwel
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(Space was so borrowed from Traveller that it caused the legal action listed above, but this was slightly different aspects of the game - character generation, if I remember)

Bill Loguidice
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Thanks for the further input, Andy. Traveller is certainly mentioned in the article and was a key influence.

Jonathan Hartley
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> Elite adheres to realistic physics.



It's worth clarifying that the controls aren't Newtonian though. Speed (not acceleration) is proportional to current engine thrust, and direction of travel is always in the direction the ship is facing - so rotating to face in a different direction will modify your direction of travel without any apparent thrusters firing - not very realistic.



> Players can also make special maneuvers based on the gravitational force of planets or bodies.



I don't remember this? Did the single planet or sun in each solar system even have a gravitational field? I suspect not.

Gerard Gouault
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Elite (C64 version) was the very first video game I ever played.



A feature that the article doesn't mention is the ships AI. I remember that each enemy ship having snakes names and behaving as their counterparts. The Boa being slow and weaving left and right while the Vipers were very fast and sneaking behind you. etc..

A feature that was missing in the later "improved" versions.

Owain abArawn
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One of the first things I noticed when I starting playing Eve was that, in many ways, it was just an updated Elite. They added the skill sets, better graphics, and such, but otherwise, it Eve is much the same.


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