Atomic chats with the legend behind Elite and Frontier.Elite. To many, this word means little (which is odd because it actually means ‘great’). To others, hardened by phosphor and repetitive strain injury, it is a game. A ‘great’ game. We chatted to David Braben, one of the men behind Elite, to find out why it was so, well, elite.
Atomic: How do you spend your time these days? What have you done since Elite?
David Braben: Sailing, playing both computer games and board games. I’m currently enjoying Oblivion on 360.
Since Elite, I’ve started the company Frontier, which employs more than 100 staff, and written or designed many games since. These days I am part of a larger team, with games such as RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, and Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the WereRabbit under our belts. We’re currently working on Thrillville – a console based rollercoaster theme park game, and The Outsider, a thriller.
Atomic: Do you watch or have an interest in sci-fi? If so, what’s your opinion of shows like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly?
David Braben: Yes, though most of the sci-fi films I’ve seen lately have been poor.
Atomic: With the advantage of hindsight, what are your final thoughts on Ian Bell, the lawsuits and the falling out? Is there anything you would have done differently?
David Braben: Perhaps. At the root of the problem, or the falling out if you like, was Ian’s unwillingness to continue working. This created an asymmetry in what had been a good partnership. The best thing would probably have been to have a clean break much earlier on.
Atomic: What do you think of the genre that Elite created?
David Braben: The many games that followed, from Federation of Free Traders onwards, mostly didn’t capture the feel of Elite for me. Pretty soon I stopped playing them. Interestingly, one of the producers on Frontier: Elite 2, Gary Penn, went on to produce Grand Theft Auto with DMA Design – which he described as ‘Elite in a city’. For me, this captured some of the spirit – perhaps more so than many of the games that more overtly tried to follow Elite.
Atomic: Elite and Frontier made extensive use of procedural content generation to squeeze an entire universe in a few kilobytes (or a megabyte in the case of Frontier). Can you explain how you came to the decision of using procedural coding, how much it influenced the game, as well as the pros/cons?
David Braben: It wouldn’t have been possible to get a game of the complexity of Elite and Frontier on those machines otherwise. Procedural generation is nothing to be afraid of. In many ways it made the game production process much easier – imagine in Frontier designing and testing 100,000,000,000 stellar systems, each of which had up to 100 planets. Clearly you wouldn’t have that many – and they perhaps wouldn’t have been so ‘samey’ – but at least with procedural generation, you know what the bounds of what you are going to get are.
Atomic: What do you think of the commercial, freeware, remakes, and open source re-creations that Elite inspired, like Vega Strike, Privateer, Freelancer, Hardwar etc?
David Braben: Some are good, some less good, but they are still remakes of a game that is more than 20 years old! I think the sad thing is – more often than not – that they add little new to the mix.
Atomic: Would a future Frontier game still make use of procedural content, considering how far technology has come? Or would it use it in a different way, like generating graphics?
David Braben: Frontier used procedural generation differently to Elite. Absolutely, it would be used in a different way. We already have a number of technologies working, planned for Elite 4 that use procedural generation.
Atomic: What makes an open-ended game in your opinion and how difficult is it to achieve this?
David Braben: It is very easy to write an open-ended game, but very hard to make it compelling and fun. The challenge with genuine open-endedness is making sure that either there is the density of ‘content’ in there so that going in any direction is interesting, or that the player does know which way to go to achieve particular objectives.
Atomic: Do you play Eve Online? Do you believe there will ever be another single-player Elite-style game?
David Braben: No I don’t play Eve. As for another ‘Elite-style’ game, it depends what you consider makes Elite, but certainly we will be making a single player Elite game.
Atomic: At the dawn of gaming Elite created a desire for games that allowed the player to explore an unlimited world without specific goals. Why do you think there have only been a small handful of such games in all the many years since?
David Braben: Marketing departments seem to hate the idea of a game without specific goals. Received wisdom is that such games don’t sell, and that those that do are lucky aberrations. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, of course, as the marketing people do make a big difference, and if they are not behind a game, it may bubble under for a long time before it is truly successful – or disappear altogether.
Games like Elite, RollerCoaster Tycoon, The Sims, all were games that only got reluctant publisher support initially, but went on to stellar success. It makes you wonder what other games never saw the light of day but fell into this category.
Atomic: The simple graphics of Elite and other early games forced or allowed the player to use their imagination. Do you feel that current games rely way too much on pretty graphics and fail to develop game worlds with any substantial creativity?
David Braben: No. Modern games are much better. It is very easy to adopt a rose-tinted view of the past. It is true that a great deal was left to the imagination, but the imagination is still there. Just because more of a scene is fleshed out doesn’t prevent you using your imagination still.
Atomic: Kittens or puppies?
David Braben: Puppies.