- Elite (video game)
Cover art for Firebird releases of Elite
Developer(s) David Braben and Ian Bell Publisher(s) Acornsoft (Acorn/BBC)
Designer(s) David Braben and Ian Bell Platform(s) BBC Micro, Acorn Electron, Apple II, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, MSX, Tatung Einstein, IBM PC compatible, Acorn Archimedes, Amiga, Atari ST, Nintendo Entertainment System Release date(s) 20 September 1984 Genre(s) Space trading and combat simulator Mode(s) Single player Media/distribution Cassette, Floppy disk, Cartridge
Elite is a seminal space trading computer game, originally published by Acornsoft in 1984 for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron computers. The game's title derives from one of the player's goals of raising their combat rating to the exalted heights of "Elite." It was written and developed by David Braben and Ian Bell, who had met while they were both undergraduates at Jesus College, Cambridge. Non-Acorn versions of the game were published by Firebird, Imagineer and Hybrid Technology.
Elite was one of the first home computer games to use wire-frame 3D graphics with hidden line removal. Another novelty was the inclusion of The Dark Wheel, a novella by Robert Holdstock which influenced new players with insight into the moral and legal codes to which they might aspire.
Elite's open-ended game model, advanced game engine and revolutionary 3D graphics ensured that it was ported to virtually every contemporary home computer system, and earned it a place as a classic and a genre maker in gaming history. Elite was a hugely influential game, serving as a model for more recent games such as Space Rogue, Eve Online, Freelancer, Jumpgate, Infinity: The Quest for Earth, Wing Commander: Privateer, the Escape Velocity series and the X series of space trading games.
Influences, development and launch
According to Braben and Bell, Elite was inspired by a range of sources. Much of the game's content is derived from the Traveller RPG, including the default commander name of Jameson. The developers also cite 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the original Battlestar Galactica as influences. Braben also cites the works of Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert L. Forward, Isaac Asimov and Orson Scott Card as influences.
When the developers met at Jesus College, Cambridge, Bell was already working on a game for Acornsoft called Freefall. Braben had started writing a game called Fighter, but had not yet completed it. The two projects were sufficiently similar that Braben and Bell compared notes, and after seeing Star Raiders on the Atari 800 they decided to collaborate to produce what eventually became Elite. The project was initially offered to Thorn EMI, with whom Braben already had a contract, but was rejected. The developers went to Acornsoft instead; although a project such as Elite was very different from the company's usual fare, Acornsoft's managing director David Johnson-Davies agreed to publish it.
The game took two years to write and was written in machine code, allowing much tighter control of memory usage than using a compiler, as their computer had only about 14 kilobytes of memory. Much care was given to maximum compactness of code. The last part added was a 3D radar display fitted into the last few unused bytes in their computer.
Elite received very good reviews on its launch and sales of the BBC Micro version were exceptional, eventually reaching 150,000 sold copies, a respectable number compared to the number of BBC micros that were sold, though far from the same as some sources claim. The game's popularity became a national phenomenon in the UK, with reports airing on Channel 4 and elsewhere. The great commercial success of the BBC Micro version prompted a bidding war for the rights to publish Elite in other formats, with British Telecom's software arm, Telecomsoft, eventually winning the rights. It was eventually ported to virtually every contemporary home computer system and even to the NES console. Bell estimates that approximately 600,000 copies were eventually sold for all platforms combined.
In 1999/2000, a dispute occurred between Ian Bell and David Braben regarding the former's decision to make available all versions of the original Elite. The dispute has now ended; the various versions are available on Bell's site. The two Frontier games are available for download from Braben's Elite Club website.
Elite has often been treated as the yardstick by which subsequent space trading games have been measured. However, it was not the first such game; the genre-defining Star Trader had been written as long ago as 1974. The space trading genre combines space-borne combat with a "buy low, sell high" freight transport system and the ability to use the profits to purchase ship upgrades.
The player, initially controlling the character "Commander Jameson", starts at Lave Station with 100 credits and a lightly armed trading ship, a Cobra Mark III. Most of the ships that the player encounters are similarly named after snakes, or other reptiles. Credits can be accumulated through a number of means. These include piracy, trade, military missions, bounty hunting and asteroid mining. The money generated by these enterprises allows players to upgrade their ships with such enhancements as better weapons, shields, increased cargo capacity, an automated docking system, and more.
Instead of complex planetary systems, stars have single planets separated by interstellar distances and each planet has one space station in its orbit. Travel between planets is constrained to those within range of the ship's limited fuel capacity (7 light years) and fuel can be replenished after docking with a space station in orbit around a planet which is a challenging task without a docking computer, as it requires matching the ship's rotation to that of the station. Players can upgrade their equipment with a fuel scoop, which allows raw fuel to be skimmed from the surface of stars—being described in the manual as "a dangerous and difficult activity", but in reality a simple process—and collecting free-floating cargo canisters and escape capsules liberated after the destruction of other ships. While making a hyperspace jump Thargoid (antagonist race) invasion ships may trap the player, forcing his ship into "witch-space" to do battle.
An extremely expensive one-shot galactic hyperspace upgrade permits travel between the eight galaxies of the game universe. There is little practical difference between the different galaxies. However in some versions it is necessary to travel to at least the second galaxy in order to access the missions.
The game includes several optional missions for the Galactic Navy. One requires tracking down and destroying a stolen experimental ship; the other involves transporting classified information on the Thargoids' home planet, with Thargoid invasion ships doing their best to see that you do not succeed.
The Elite universe contains eight galaxies, each galaxy containing 256 planets to explore. Due to the limited capabilities of 8-bit computers, these worlds are procedurally generated. A single seed number is run through a fixed algorithm the appropriate number of times and creates a sequence of numbers determining each planet's complete composition (position in the galaxy, prices of commodities, and even name and local details— text strings are chosen numerically from a lookup table and assembled to produce unique descriptions for each planet). This means that no extra memory is needed to store the characteristics of each planet, yet each is unique and has fixed properties. Each galaxy is also procedurally generated from the first.
However, the use of procedural generation created a few problems. There are a number of poorly located systems that can be reached only by galactic hyperspace— these are more than 7 light years from their nearest neighbour, thus trapping the traveller. Braben and Bell also checked that none of the system names were profane - removing an entire galaxy after finding a planet named "Arse".
Originally there were 3 versions of Elite released: Acorn Electron Tape, BBC B Tape and BBC B Disk. The BBC version used a split screen to show four colours; the upper two thirds of the screen were displayed in Mode 4 while the lower part was in Mode 5. The Electron version ran entirely in Mode 4, and therefore displayed only black and white. The Electron's limitations meant several game features were cut including Thargoids and suns. Neither the BBC nor the Electron tape versions featured missions. The BBC B Disk version, referred to as Classic Elite, would load a new set of ships after every hyperspace jump or space station launch, meaning a larger number of ships were available. The disc version was enhanced a couple of years after release to take advantage of the BBC Micro Model B's successors including the BBC Micro Model B+, Master 128 computers or an optional second processor unit or sideways RAM, if they were fitted. In this case, the game used Modes 1 and 2 to make more colours available.
Elite was converted to a wide range of home computer platforms, including the Amiga, Atari ST, Apple II, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, MSX, Tatung Einstein and IBM PC compatible. The only console version was released in 1991 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Some of the versions had slightly altered gameplay or other characteristics, such as the number of missions offered to the player.
The Amstrad CPC conversion (itself a port of the ZX version) has fewer ships than other platforms, lacking the Anaconda and Transport, along with some minor differences in missions and titles.
The Commodore 64 conversion introduced Trumbles (creatures based on the tribbles in Star Trek: The Original Series). Also, when the docking computer is activated in the Commodore 64 version and some other versions, a musical rendition of The Blue Danube Waltz is played, which is a nod to a space docking sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. This music was arranged by David Dunn.
The Acorn Archimedes version of Elite (written by Warren Burch & Clive Gringras and regarded by some as the best conversion of the original game) added intelligent opponents who engage in their own private battles and police who take an active interest in protecting the law. As well as such gameplay enhancements, the version also exploited the more modern hardware by using polygon mesh graphics in place of the wire-frames. The game world no longer seems to be centered around the player; freighter fleets with escorts go about their own business, pirate formations patrol lawless systems looking for cargo to loot and mining ships can often be found breaking up asteroids for their mineral content. Unlike the mythical Generation Ships of the original, rare occurrences of other non-pirate entities mentioned in the manual really can be found in the Archimedes version: geometric formations of space beacons; hermits living among the asteroids; abandoned ships towed by police (although Dredgers and Generation Ships are confirmed not to exist in Archimedes Elite). The Archimedes version of Elite was originally written to be a space trading game called Trojan - however the obvious similarities eventually meant that to avoid a potential lawsuit Trojan had to become an official Elite conversion.
Many attempts to develop clones of Elite have been made, but most have been abandoned before completion or have otherwise failed to come to fruition. The open source Oolite is a notable exception. Elite: The New Kind, was developed by Christian Pinder by reverse-engineering the original BBC Micro version of Elite, but was withdrawn from the main distribution at David Braben's request.
In 2004, a commercial product called Elite Starfighter was released in Germany. Starfighter is an Elite clone that features modern graphics. Since it duplicates the original gameplay, it has been criticized as being somewhat dull by today's standards, but is recommended to Elite enthusiasts who might consider taking a look.
Packaging and marketing
The Dark Wheel
Top: the novella as included with the Firebird publication of Elite. Bottom: alternate cover
Author(s) Robert Holdstock Country United Kingdom Language English Genre(s) Science fiction Publisher Acornsoft, Firebird Software Publication date 1984 Media type Paperback
Acornsoft set in motion a large-scale publicity campaign and commissioned a presentational package for the game that was far more elaborate than normal. Acornsoft packaged Elite in a box larger than their usual releases, complete with a novella by Robert Holdstock called The Dark Wheel, Space Trader's Flight Training Manual, function key strip, reference card and a ship identification poster.
The Dark Wheel was the first novella to be included for distribution with a computer game. The story tells of a young pilot, Alex Ryder, whose father Jason is killed when their merchant ship is attacked by pirates. In trying to understand and avenge his father's death, Alex encounters the basics of the Elite universe - including combat, hyperdrive and hyperspace, the Thargoid - and discovers the truth about his father and his combat rank. He also learns who the "Dark Wheel" are and what it takes to join their ranks. The original Acornsoft version promised on its back cover that "[a] sequel to the novella is planned for publication in 1985", but no direct sequel was ever written. A second novella, Imprint by Andy Redman, was included with the IBM PC release of Elite Plus, but despite being set in the same universe it is in no way connected to the original story.
Marketing activities included a launch party at the Thorpe Park theme park (holding such an event for a computer game was almost unheard of at the time) and a competition to be among the first to achieve the status of "Elite."
Reception Review scores Publication Score
Elite is credited as being the breakthrough title that defined the modern space flight simulation genre, as well as being influential upon gaming as a whole. It was named one of the sixteen most influential games in history at Telespiele, a German technology and games trade show, and has been credited as being the first truly open-ended game and opening the door for future online persistent worlds such as Second Life, World of Warcraft and EVE Online. Elite is one of the most popularly requested games to be remade, with some arguing that it is still the best example of the genre to date, with more recent titles—including its sequel—not rising up to the same level.
Elite was named #12 on IGN's 2000 "Top 25 PC Games of All Time" list, the #3 most influential video game ever by the Times Online in 2007, #6 "Greatest Game" by Stuff magazine in 2008, #1 "Top Retro Game" by Retro Gamer in 2004, and #1 "best game of the 1980s" by Next Generation Magazine in 2008. The game was posthumously awarded 10/10 by the multi-format magazine Edge—together with only 2 other games— and is being exhibited at such places as the London Science Museum in the "Game On" exhibition organized and toured by the Barbican Art Gallery. In 1984 Elite received the Golden Joystick Award for "Best Original Game". In 1985 the game was named "Best Game Overall" for that year by readers of Crash magazine, and "Game of the Year" by Computer Gamer. Elite's sequel, Frontier: Elite II, was named #77 on PC Zone's "101 Best PC Games Ever" list in 2007. Elite is listed in Game On! From Pong to Oblivion: The 50 Greatest Video games of All Time (ISBN 0755315707) by authors Simon Byron, Ste Curran and David McCarthy. In his review of the game for Beebug Magazine in 1984, reviewer David Fell called Elite "the best game ever" for the BBC Micro.
The game was a significant source of inspiration for later games in its genre. In interviews, the senior producers of CCP Games have cited Elite as one of the inspirations for their acclaimed MMORPG, Eve Online. Thorolfur Beck in particular has said that Elite was the game that impacted him most on the Commodore 64, and that it was the prime motivator behind Eve Online. The developers of Jumpgate Evolution, Battlecruiser 3000AD, Infinity: The Quest for Earth, Hard Truck: Apocalyptic Wars and Flatspace have likewise all credited Elite as a source of inspiration. Similar praise has been bestowed elsewhere in the media over the years.
A pseudo-sequel, Elite Plus, was released for DOS in 1991. Whereas the original Elite for the PC used CGA graphics, Elite Plus was upgraded to take advantage of EGA, VGA and MCGA. It was coded entirely in assembly language by Chris Sawyer, who later wrote RollerCoaster Tycoon. Elite Plus had a ninth galaxy and a new title, "Archangel", for the player to earn. Archangel is reached by undertaking a special mission to destroy a space station in a system invaded by the Thargoids. The player's reward for completing the mission is to receive the title Archangel and obtain a device that is capable of emulating anti-ECM broadcasts. The ninth galaxy can only be reached by hyperspacing into Witch Space. Elite Plus was published by Microplay.
A variant of the original BBC Micro Elite with many extra features, originally titled Elite III but now known as Elite A to minimize confusion, was created by Angus Duggan in the late 1980s by disassembling and modifying the 6502 code from the commercial release. It includes many more ship types, more ship types flyable by the player (who begins in the less capable Adder), cargo delivery missions, some extra equipment items and numerous gameplay improvements. Elite A was released publicly in 1997. Like the original game, it can be downloaded free from Ian Bell's web site and played under emulation.
Two official true sequels were created: Frontier: Elite II (1993) and Frontier: First Encounters (1995), both produced by Braben's company Frontier Developments. Bell had limited involvement in the first sequel, and was not involved in the production of the second. Both games were a considerable advance on the original Elite, with filled 3D graphics, missions and a complex economy. This time, the player was not confined to orbit but could land on and explore or mine planets. The number of flyable ships was greatly increased, and a new political backstory was introduced enabling the player to gain ranks in competing interstellar empires. The games appeared on the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST and IBM PC.
Both games were, however, significantly flawed in a number of respects. Both games had many bugs, First Encounters in particular, due apparently to being published in an incomplete state, and First Encounters had to be extensively patched; this became the subject of a three-year lawsuit between the publisher — GameTek — and Braben.
The sequels employed a realistic flight model based on Newtonian mechanics rather than the original arcade-style engine. While this was more realistic, many players also found it frustratingly difficult, particularly in combat. Most space trading games since Elite have stuck to an arcade-style flight model, in which the ships behave as though they are flying in an atmosphere.
A new sequel, Elite 4, has been in a lengthy development phase since 1998, and is currently eight years overdue from its original scheduled release date. It is not currently scheduled for release, with Braben stating that full production will commence after the release of The Outsider.
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- The Elite Home Page by Ian Bell
- Frontier's Elite Website
- Elite at MobyGames
- Elite at World of Spectrum
- Gamasutra's The History of Elite: Space, The Endless Frontier by Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton
- Masters of their universe - an excerpt from Backroom Boys: The Secret Return Of The British Boffin, by Francis Spufford.
- GDC presentation Postmortem of Elite by David Braben
Developers See also Acornsoft Games ApplicationsLISP · Logo · ViewSheet
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