Elite: Dangerous, an epic space travel game resurrected

dave-eliteIf you are as old as I am (ancient), you may remember a classic space trading and exploration game called Elite, first released in 1984. The creation of Cambridge University undergraduates David Braben and Ian Bell, Elite was an iconic, computer gaming masterpiece. I was surprised and happy to discover last week that a modern follow up called Elite: Dangerous is being developed, a revitalized, enhanced version using the latest computing technology. After watching the development videos, reading the detailed plans, viewing awe-inspiring images and checking out game play footage of what has already been achieved, I'm blown away, enthusiastic about a computer game for the first time in years (being over 40, I'm not sure this is allowed).

While Braben is the CEO and Founder of his own game production company, Frontier Developments, he used a recent Kickstarter funding campaign to gauge interest and to make sure he could build the game his way, without relying on deals with major game publishers (games are not as cheap to make as they used to be). The Elite: Dangerous Kickstarter campaign was announced in November 2012 and successfully funded 5 January 2013. Over 30,000 backers (myself now included) have managed to raise over £1.83 million to date.

The original Elite featured revolutionary wire-frame 3D graphics with an expansive universe, giving players the freedom to trade, mine asteroids, explore star systems, become pirates, or undertake optional military missions, with plenty of surprises along the way. Elite: Dangerous appears to be all this and a great deal more. More complex, graphically superior and with a larger universe to investigate, the scope of Braben's vision is epic. It will be an online multiplayer experience (although you can still explore in single player mode if desired) and will be released on PC first, with an Apple Mac version to arrive three months later. Console versions I'm guessing will surely follow.

The depth of detail displayed in the development videos and accompanying material make me believe that this could be the game of the decade.

dockI remember playing Elite on a BBC Microcomputer when I was fifteen, thrilled by Thargoid appearances (an insectoid race with distinctive hexagon shaped ships), captivated by the space station docking procedure, and mesmerised by the graphics and game play. You could refuel your ship by skimming the surface of a sun, upgrade your ship with better weapons, take on military missions, or just explore the galaxy. The time spent engaging in interplanetary trade runs through politically dodgy star systems while trying to increase my rank to "Elite" was extremely engaging. My brother and I were obsessed. While I have played the occasional game since, from Call of Duty series to Portal 2, I've never experienced anything like the original. Even though these games feature vastly superior graphic engines, with budgets that could match the GDPs of small nations, they never captured my imagination in the same way. Perhaps it's the military obsession that most of these games appear to revel in (if I had wanted to join the army, I would have done so already!) or maybe it's the extremely limited freedom of movement. Most modern games must be completed in a rigid, predefined way, with cut scenes when certain points are reached. I'd much rather be playing the game than watching a half baked video clip. If you need a cut scene to get you interested in a game, it's doubtful the actual gameplay is that interesting to begin with. When you do have freedom to choose your gaming direction, it's usually in so called "death match" situations, random free-for-alls - enjoyable for a time, but hardly intellectually liberating and inspiring. I prefer games with mysteries to solve, new situations to explore, and plenty of surprises. Elite: Dangerous ticks all these boxes.

elite-boxelite2elite3There were two sequels to Elite in the early nineties, but these were marred by extensive coding bugs and a new flight system that made dogfights and space travel a lot less exciting: Frontier: Elite II arrived in 1993 and Frontier: First Encounters in 1995.

Since the follow ups, Braben has been trying to build a new version to match his game playing ambitions.

"Elite: Dangerous is the game I have wanted Frontier to make for a very long time," Braben writes on the Elite: Dangerous kickstarter site. "The next game in the Elite series - an amazing space epic with stunning visuals, incredible gameplay and breathtaking scope, but this time you can play with your friends too. I want a game that feels more like the original Elite to fly, and with more rapid travel (to allow for the multiplayer nature of the game) – so you travel quickly using local 'hyperspace' travel rather than by fast-forwarding time – but with the rich galaxy of Frontier – and more, so much more.

I'll be frank - we have had a couple of false starts on this over the years, where progress wasn't as good as I wanted. Also, understandably, other projects have been prioritised – projects with announced dates or other commitments. Up to now Elite has been worked upon by a small team as a 'skunk-works' activity in the background as availability permits. Nevertheless, we have been preparing; laying the technology and design foundations".

Just like the original games, Elite: Dangerous will make use of a procedural generation programming technique, where content is generated from rules. It's the only way to create a unique universe with billions of planets and stars I imagine without a planetary sized gaming budget.

Again from the Kickstart website:

spacelogo"Procedural generation... abstracts repetitive or arbitrary elements of content creation in a very efficient way. Imagine a medieval landscape. Laying out towns, roads, castles, farmland, forests and so on can be done by a system of rules – putting castles widely spaced out on vantage points, towns near rivers but under the protection of such a castle, roads between them, then with farmland to support them all. An artist can still design the castle, the houses in the towns, but this approach greatly magnifies the content that can be created. Frontier did this for the star systems, and planets, and with Elite: Dangerous, we will go further."

Apparently, the use of procedural generation in the original game created a few problems with Braben and Bell having to check that none of the generated system names were rude or unsavory. According to Wikipedia, they removed an entire galaxy after finding a planet named "Arse".

Below are a few of the standout videos, featuring new gameplay footage and Braben discussing the game's progress and philosophy. Clearly Braben and his team have already come a long, long way to achieving their goal. If you would like to support the project, you can still donate on the Elite: Dangerous Kickstarter page here.

space-ship-longA great deal has changed since the last Elite game was released in 1995 (over eighteen years ago!) but Braden's enthusiasm has not faded. As I write this, he and his team are building a new universe for all of us to explore.

Elite: Dangerous is scheduled to be released March 2014. I'll be waiting enthusiastically.

You can find the main Frontier Elite: Dangerous web page here.

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