I’ve been filling my Twitter timeline with tweets about Elite:Dangerous lately and it occurs to me that most of my followers probably have no idea what it is or why I’m so passionate about it. People who know me know I’m not really into computer games these days. I can go months without ever playing one. So why has one computer game got me so excited?
Let me take you back to my childhood (when I was a lot more interested in computer games). We couldn’t afford a computer and so my dad used to borrow a BBC model B from work at the weekends for us to use. Computer games back then had moved on slightly from Pong but it was just platform games, space invaders clones and the odd blocky racing game. My favourites were Snapper (a Pac Man clone) and Frak! (a platformer). Then in 1984 I came across this game called Elite among the copied C90 tapes people passed round with the computer.
Elite was completely different to anything that had gone before. David Braben and Ian Bell had managed to fit 8 galaxies of 256 stars systems into the BBCs meagre memory (about the same as the average email takes up these days). You were given a space ship and a stingy 100 credits and told to go off and, well here’s the thing – there was no aim. You couldn’t win. There was no end. You decided what you wanted to do and how to achieve it. You certainly weren’t given much help – even docking at a space station took some practice and that was fundamental to the game!
That sounds strange even now when games all have a story line. Back then it was completely revolutionary. But it was Elite’s strength – complete freedom to do what you wanted and go where you wanted. You could trade goods, pirate other ships, bounty hunt the pirates, mine asteroids or just explore the vast universe. Or any combination you chose.
Elite was so good that I’m still playing a version of it (Oolite) 28 years later. As good as it was though, there were a few things that could have made it even better. I used to long to be able to play with my friends over some sort of network (the internet was only used by universities and large tech corporations back then). It always seemed odd to me that every star had one planet and every planet had one space station. And if I’m honest, the space battles were a bit one sided once you’d armed your ship to the teeth and learned how to shoot backwards.
Fast forward to 2012 (skipping Frontier Elite 2 and Frontier First Encounters) and Frontier Developments, the games studio set up by David Braben have announced they are Kickstarting Elite:Dangerous the sequel to Elite. From the information given so far this looks to be a game of staggering ambition and depth.
They’re procedurally generating a galaxy of 100 billion star systems and other astronomical bodies each of which might have planets. Then they’re procedurally generating the planets. Rocky planets, gas giants you name it. They’re generating the surface and atmospheric features of all these planets. Then they’re going to put life on them (I’m thinking evolving the life using genetic algorithms). That’s trillions of species. Some of those species will be intelligent so they’re generating the economic and political systems of hundreds of thousands (millions?) of inhabited systems. And each political and economic system will interact with other systems, forming alliances, having conflicts, blockading each other, providing humanitarian aid.
Then they’re letting us loose in all that again with a ship and 100 credits. To do what we want. Trade, bounty hunt, pirate, courier, run blockades, become a mercenary, whatever we can think of. We can help one side in a conflict. We can help both sides. We can profiteer from humanitarian crises or donate food for free. We can assassinate dignatories or escort them safely. We can join a band of pirates in a lawless system or hunt down notorious pirates for the bounty. We can find a lucrative trade route and defend it at all costs. We can opt for the quiet life of mining asteroids.
And yes, this time, it will be multi-player so I can play with my friends (and all Elite players are my friends). But not only can we play in this unimaginably huge universe, our actions actually affect how it evolves over time. We help one side win a conflict and that changes the universe for everyone. We dump a commodity on one trade system and the price is affected for everyone. We mine out an asteroid belt and it’s gone for everyone. If there’s a game that comes close to this depth, I’ve yet to see it. Elite:Dangerous will effectively be an immensely detailed and accurate galaxy simulator from the stars right down to individual lifeforms. I can’t wait for 2014!
And that’s why I’ve pledged more to this project than I’ve ever paid for a computer game in my life. That and I still feel guilty for not paying for Elite the first time around. Sorry B&B!