Over the next 2 months there will be more experimenting, and many updates about which direction I have decided to take my blog. As I said in last week’s post, my biggest problem with sticking to one topic is that I enjoy commenting on anything that makes me happy, or frustrates me in a way impossible to describe without diagrams and explosives.
I am currently toying with the idea of making a completely separate, humorous web-comic/diary type thing, written from the POV of a space traveller, but I am still considering other options.
This week though, I have decided to do a video-game preview, because not only is this game very close to my heart, but when my brother asked me on facebook the other day, if there was more to it than what was shown in the online gameplay videos, I found that facebook didn’t provide me with adequate room for a response.
Since I am of the first generation of computer gamers, there won’t be many people reading this who can understand what it is like to see actual gameplay footage of a game you waited 30 years for! To see the game you never ever thought would arrive, being played by real people! I have honestly only been this excited on 2 other occasions in the 40 years of my life. Christmas didn’t hold this much excitement when I was 6 years old. Generous and Jolly as Santa might have been, he’s got nothing on Mr. David Braben; one of the creators of the original Elite.
David Braben (left) and Ian Bell (right) in 1984
For those who have no idea what I’m talking about: Elite was to gaming what The Beatles were to music, and David Braben and Ian Bell were Lennon and McCartney. Elite came along, and the rules about what we could expect from computer games changed overnight. Every space-sim, RPG fantasy or sandbox video-game can trace its roots back to Elite. In fact, if you have ever played any open-world game, you have Braben and Bell to thank for it. No matter what any 30 year old hipster with an unhealthy love of the handlebar moustache might tell you, kids… Braben and Bell did it first!
In a time when video games looked like this…
Elite looked like THIS…
Okay… maybe that wasn’t really the best way to illustrate the differences. So, what do we do when a picture does not say a thousand words? We use a thousand words…
more or less…
…okay, definitely a lot more.
What you can’t really tell from the image above is that, firstly, Elite was the first real 3D game available for home computers. You could move around in 3D space instead of just walking/running/jumping over crocodiles/swinging from one side of the screen to the other. Now, in a hipster culture, where guys like to play retro games and tell you about the good old days of Mario; their fat little friend whose fault it probably is in the first place that an entire generation has returned to the the porn-style soup-catcher, and who probably knew even less about which end of a spanner to hold than they do… the difference between 2 dimensions and 3 might not seem like a lot. But for those over 35, who actually remember the dawn of computer games, this was a very big deal (I can never really understand why people who grew up in the 90s are nowadays considered to be the first generation of computer gamers… when the birth of computer games was actually about 15 years before that).
More so than the 3D though (at least for me), was that open-world angle. This was not a linear, upward/sideward-scrolling game, where safely crossing the road and jumping across a few logs in a river was all you had to do. The objective of this game was… pretty much whatever you wanted it to be, within reason. You started the game inside a space station, with 100 credits and a spaceship to your name, and the aim of the game was to earn a living, somewhere out there amongst the 8 available in-game galaxies, each containing 256 planets.
That’s over 2,000 planets to visit!
How you made your money in the game was very much a personal choice. You could trade goods; buying at one price and then finding out everything possible about the worlds within range, and gambling that certain goods might be in higher demand in certain places, and as such fetch a higher price. You could even trade illegal goods like slaves or narcotics, if you were willing and able to take on any law enforcement you might run into (which in the Elite world usually meant dozens of Viper police ships, spewing out of a space station as you approached it with a cargo hold full of illegal merchandise… or accidentally leaned on the fire button whilst coming in to dock). You could lurk about in dangerous systems, hoping to encounter criminals, whose charred corpses would then net you a healthy bounty. You could equip your ship with a mining laser and mine asteroids for precious minerals. You might decide to accept jobs for one or another military factions in the game. You could even just sit inside a space station and play the stock market; gambling on prices to go up or down over time. I’m fairly certain I never met anyone who would buy the world’s first 3D, open-world, sandbox space simulator and then do this, but the choice was there if you wanted it. The really unscrupulous types could lie in wait for innocent trading ships and blow them apart before using their fuel-scoop to pick up the cargo cannisters floating amongst the debris. They might cross their fingers and wait for the word LUXURIES or COMPUTERS to pop up on the screen; indicating what they had just collected. In fact the absolute utter bastards out there could use the same scoop to pick up their victim’s escape pod, and rub their hands together in supervillain-like glee, as the pod entered their hold and the word SLAVES appeared on the screen.
To drag players even further into the Elite experience, a novel entitled Elite: The Dark Wheel came packaged with the game. I still have my somewhat battered original copy, sitting in a box of books back home.
The scope of this game seemed limitless.
Of course, time and technology move on and people quickly demand more bang for their buck. Sure the game was big, but every system had only one planet with an orbiting space station. You couldn’t land on the planets, you couldn’t walk around in the space stations.
Answering at least some of these wishes, David Braben then spent 5 years creating a sequel, entitled Frontier: Elite II. In Frontier it was now possible to land on planets…
It’s like actually being there!
Take on crew members, like the dashing, if rather confused Mr. Dixon here; making this request on the bulletin board…
Space stations didn’t all look the same any more…
That’s no moon… it’s a Christmas tree bauble!
Planetary systems often had more than one planet to visit, and many of those had space stations of their own…
Welcome to the 30th annual OCD sufferers, planet arranging conference!
Although you still couldn’t actually leave your ship and walk around a space station, you could at least check the bulletin boards for jobs, and interact with the other people on the station…
And there was EVEN MORE space to explore…
One of the more exciting aspects of Frontier was that at least one of the planetary systems was a real one… ours! You could land on Earth, look up into the night sky, at the same stars you can see if you go outside on a clear night right now… pick one of those stars, and actually go there!
Unfortunately, this game was waaay too enthusiastic about the level of realism involved, and if your autopilot was damaged during a dogfight you needed to be a fucking astrophysicist to reach a planet… because of course all the planets and stars were moving all the time. So you couldn’t just point your ship at a planet and accelerate towards it, because it wouldn’t be there when you arrived. Your autopilot, as it turns out, was doing much, much more than simply keeping your ship in a straight line. It was plotting the speed of a planet through the cosmos; calculating orbits and axial rotation; calculating exactly how long your ship would take to accelerate to a certain speed, and at precisely what point you would need to start slowing down again, so that you weren’t going so fast when you reached the planet that you crashed into, or flew straight past it at 255,376 KPH and had to start the whole stupid business all over again.
Frontier then, although mildly successful, never quite reached the dizzying heights of the original… and the 3rd outing; 1995’s Elite: First Encounters, was a flop, mainly because the publishers GAMETEK, insisted on releasing the game before Braben and his development team had finished working on it, and it was consequently riddled with problems.
After First Encounters, David Braben became disillusioned with publishing companies and the world of Elite went dark.
Elite was the game I dreamed of… the one I always droned on and on about whenever conversations about computers and video-games would arise. I played the second game, but it didn’t really live up to my expectations. All I wanted was the original game, updated to account for advancements in graphics capability, with the possibility of landing on planets and walking around stations as a bonus… possibly a few more ship designs. But what the sequel delivered was too much complication. I watched and I waited. I grew up… a bit. I moved house… a LOT. I had many jobs in many places, and video-gaming fell from my mind. A new millennium came; I got married (for the first time), and discovered Sony Playstation. Games had moved on in bounds, but there was still nothing to match my beloved Elite. I inherited a step-son (Good old Richard), and taught him of the long-forgotten days of Elite: A more elegant game, for a more civilized age. Before the dark times… before the GameBoy. He often nodded and said “Cool.” before going back to his Pokemon.
In 2001 I discovered the internet for the first time. A friend of mine built me a PC out of old PCs and after writing and submitting endless short stories, and spending too much time in internet chat-rooms, talking to Australians (the only people awake when I was), I started looking for news that David Braben had decided to revive the Elite franchise.
I moved several more times, had a daughter, wrote a novel, and finally I heard news that David Braben would start working on a new Elite game in 2009. It never happened. I re-discovered film-making through the magic of YouTube… set up this blog and BOOM! My life changed so quickly and dramatically over the next 2 years that my head was spinning for quite some time. I got married again and moved to another country. And then… last year, whilst considering a blog post about video-games and how they had changed, I put those five letters into an internet search engine for what seemed like the hundredth time in the 12 years since I had first discovered the net… and the internet was suddenly alive with the word Elite again. And the new word after the little colon was: Dangerous.
Elite: Dangerous? What the hell is Elite: Dangerous? Can it be? Have my years of fevered dreaming finally sent me over the edge, or is this really a new Elite game? I clicked the link at the very top of the search page and arrived here.
David Braben; the patriarch of the 3D open-world adventure, and seasoned doubter of the games publishing industry had discovered kickstarter. At last he had a possible means to not only fund the Elite he always wanted to make, but to assure a market before he even began coding the thing, by asking the franchise fans to fund it. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that I didn’t hesitate to join in and pledge my support. True… Amki and I were mostly living on Marmite sandwiches by then, so I was able to pledge only the smallest amount, but I did what little I could, and the game is now in Alpha testing; to be released in completed form by the end of this year!
Following the kickstarter link in the previous paragraph, or any of the videos I will link from here on, you will see that Mr. Braben is not quite the fresh-faced Cambridge student seen in the black & white 1984 photo above, but he has certainly retained his boyish excitement, and what follows are just a few of the things that he promises to deliver with his new game.
The first and most obvious thing about Elite: Dangerous is how pretty it looks.
Flying inside the superstructure of a Capital ship
Even to a computer numbskull like me though, it is perfectly obvious that making this game look better than the original was not going to be very difficult. 30 years is a long time by any measure… in computer terms, it might as well be an ice-age. And, as my brother was right to point out, and as I tell myself whenever I am unfortunate to catch sight of myself in a highly reflective surface: Looks aren’t everything. I’m sure I don’t need to name names, if I refer you to the cautionary tale of a young film-maker who broke the science fiction mould and, in doing so, created one of the most revered film franchises of all time… only to return 20 years later and take a big, “pretty” shit, all over it and the cherished childhood hopes of his long-suffering fans, who quickly realised that giving this man total creative control was something which should never have been allowed, and scribbling all over something with 21st century crayons is no substitute for a damn good yarn.
Don’t think for one moment I don’t have this at the very front of my very tiny mind while awaiting the arrival of Mr. Braben’s new baby.
The cockpit looks very nice, and the flight controls seem fairly intuitive from the gameplay videos I’ve seen. The game will support Oculus Rift, allowing you to look around the inside of your cockpit, completely oblivious to the giggles of your wife and children, who are presumably busy uploading a video to facebook, of you looking like an intellectually challenged cyborg with the co-ordination of a character from an early Gerry Anderson show, and a visor that only picks up the porn channel.
But aside from the grand spectacles of the game, and the decidedly ugly ones prescibed for deeper immersion within it… what can we expect in terms of actual game mechanics? What will we be able to do? 2000 planets doesn’t impress anyone in 2014. Especially if they are only big red blobs on the screen.
Well, obviously you can’t make an open-world game these days which doesn’t support online multiplayer options, and this game has plenty of those, but it’s the little tiny bits of detail that have been put into this game already which excite me.
Cockpit design will be an indicator, to anyone viewing your ship from the outside, of which in-game company designed your craft. This is covered in more detail in this E:D newsletter. If you can’t be bothered to follow that link, here is a photo to give you some idea of what I mean.
Your cherished vessel will show signs of wear and tear as you go about your business, so viewing it from the outside will also give people an idea of what you and your ship have been through together. If you are the kind of pilot who upsets the harbour-master by scraping the side of the docking port on every landing, your ship will wear the signs of your carelessness all over its once pristine paintwork, as well as blast marks, which those regularly engaged in fire-fights will no doubt wear like a badge of honour.
Example of a well-worn Sidewinder fighter
But no matter how much you love the old bird, you aren’t going to get very far in the universe bouncing around in the same Sidewinder fighter with which you start the game. The Sidewinder is one of the many snake-monikered fighters which have been carried over from the original Elite, and extensively redesigned (save the basic shape) for the 2014 version… but we are promised a wealth of other choices, as long as you can stay alive long enough and make profit enough to afford one.
From heavy-hauling freighter workhorses…
…to all manner and shape of fighters; some familiar to players of the original Elite, and some new.
A new addition to this version of Elite, is that if you fancy the life of a luxury liner captain… you can even work your way up to that, as David mentions in this video.
But what about walking around outside your ship? I keep talking about what your ship will look like to others, but what good does all this prettiness and attention to minute detail do you? What about those long held dreams of walking around on the space stations?
Well, once again, a tremendous amount of thought has gone into all these questions over at the Elite offices, and the short answer is yes. This wonderful little docking animation shows how the game developers plan to use simple, real-world mechanics to add a level of realism to a game grounded very solidly in the world of science-fiction
But David Braben cautions people that this ability to walk around stations will not be available in the initial game release. Instead, these kinds of things will be released in updates and expansion packs for the game. Landing on planets is another long desired part of the Elite universe which he promises will come in time, but there will be many, many planets in a galaxy promising 100 billion stars… and even the detail of these has been carefully considered, to the point where, from the night side of a settled planet, you will be able to recognise the planet’s faction from orbit, by looking at the layouts of the cities far below.
Elite: Dangerous… putting a positive spin on light pollution since 2014!
Mr. Braben further promises that the Elite Galaxy will evolve over time. Not only with updates and expansion packs but through the actions of the players themselves. I will let the man explain for himself how the galaxy will evolve, with outer worlds becoming inner worlds; the frontier expanding (meaning you pesky pirates will have to travel further out to find lawless systems in which to lurk); planetary cities becoming bigger and bigger, and space stations growing from skeletons to massive behemoths, with all kinds of different modules attached, such as the ones shown here
Here he is, explaining these things in much greater detail, but this all seems very exciting to me.
Ultimately I think the measure of this game will be in the amount of thought that has gone into every single aspect of it, and 30 years is a very long time to think about the fine details of a game. The dynamics of hyperdrive alone are enough to make my mind boggle; with residual openings allowing hyperspace tail-gaters to follow you to wherever you planned to escape to, and damaged hyperdrive units, poor timing, tailgating, galactic map malfunctions, hyperdrive-slaved or engine damaged teammates, certain spacial anomalies and any number of other problems likely to cause a mis-jump that could leave you twisting in a complete absence of wind… out in the middle of backward-ass nowhere! The possibilities of that alone seem endless to me, and it doesn’t stop with interstellar travel…
Artificial gravity has been ruled out by big Dave, who apparently likes to stick with things that science at least has an idea how to do, in order to maintain some semblance of realism and a suspension of disbelief. With this in mind, stations with gravity will only be capable of it by means of enormous rotating sections, and therefore different types of stations in different parts of the galaxy will offer differing experiences.
As if walking around on a station wasn’t enough, we are promised you will be able to walk around your ship in later updates to the game; visiting the cargo hold to check on your goods
Or perhaps simply visiting the little astronauts room…
I could go on and on about this game for another 2 or 3 blog posts, but I’m not going to. If after reading this you still have the enthusiasm to find out more (or indeed the will to go on living), then visit the Elite: Dangerous website. Read more about it, visit the forums, read the newsletters, watch the development diary videos. Answers to every question you can think of are there to be found… Life-Support Systems, Trading, Bounty Hunting, Military Factions, Death-penalty rules, Capital Ships, Asteroid Mining, Passenger Carrying, Pirates, Cat Names… it’s all there.
This game obviously has a lot to live up to, and a very fine line to tread between immersive, and overly complicated. If you want to play a game that requires you to be accompanied by an accountant, a stockbroker, and an astrophysicist, look no further than Eve Online. But David Braben freely admits to treading dangerous waters, and is quite open and even outspoken about the problems that the game faces going forward from release. This could all end in tears. I will be more than happy if the game is a carbon copy of the original with slightly better graphics, so anything else is a major bonus to me, but I live in a time of much more discerning gamers than myself; moreover, ones who don’t have the same pair of rose-tinted 1984 specs that I do, so I fully expect that Mr. Braben and his team have their work cut out for them. But living in the shadow of The Phantom Menace has made us all cautious of expecting too much, and I don’t imagine that the thought has never crossed young David’s mind either…
And hey… If Peter Molyneux’s promises were anything to go by, the Fable franchise would have ended world hunger and created anti-gravity by now, and people still buy his games. Go and buy David Braben’s. I promise you it will be better.
If you don’t like this kind of game, fair enough. It’s certainly not my place to judge you for your empty, soulless existence. As for everyone else… keep an eye out for me at Lave station.
EDIT 3rd August 2014: You can now watch me play the game, in the 30 minute video below (or click this link to open in a new window), in which I cover the basics of flight, hyperspace/supercruise travel, trading, and docking.
P.S. I couldn’t possibly fit all the artwork I have on ED into this one post, but if you request it in the comments section, I will post a few dozen more in an image gallery post later this week.