Take a ship and 100 credits to make money legally or illegally - trade, bounty-hunt, pirate, assassinate your way across the galaxy.
“Elite” has gone down in history as one of the most successful games of the 1980s. It was the first ‘open world’ game in which the player can freely roam a vast space. It was the first true 3D game too, and set many other benchmarks. Ian Bell and I set out to make a game for ourselves rather than for some imagined market. We were sick of games with three lives then a new life every 10,000 score; we wanted something new.
The original “Elite” fitted into around 22K of memory, out of a total of 32K on the BBC Micro Model B computer on which it was launched (8K was needed for the screen, 2K for the system). This is less than a single typical email today. In it were eight galaxies each with 256 star systems. Each planet in those systems had its own legal system, economy and so on. Clearly some magic had to happen to fit it into 22K, and that magic was procedural generation.
“Frontier” followed in 1993 on 16 bit computers, and pushed these procedural techniques further. In it I made a model of the whole of the Milky Way galaxy with all 100,000,000,000 or so star systems, and many more planets and moons, each of which you could visit. It is something I am really proud of, as it was as scientifically accurate as I could make it, and provided a great backdrop for a game. I loved the richness of the galaxy, but with the benefit of hindsight I think the way the ships flew detracted from the joyous immediacy of those in “Elite”.
Imagine what is now possible, squeezing the last drop of performance from modern computers in the way “Elite” and “Frontier” did in their days? It is not just a question of raw performance (though of course these elements will make it look gorgeous), but we can push the way the networking works too – something very few people had access to in the days of Frontier.
Frontier Developments, the company I founded in January 1994 (and whose first product was a version of the “Frontier” game for the CD32 console), is now a very well established game development company with 235 people in the UK and Canada, with its own technology and tools and a great team of game developers. We have a long track record of delivering high quality games on time and to budget, both published by ourselves and through big publishers like Microsoft, LucasArts, Atari, and Sony.
Elite: Dangerous is the game I have wanted Frontier to make for a very long time. The next game in the Elite series - an amazing space epic with stunning visuals, incredible gameplay and breath-taking 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 multi-player 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 for when the time is right. And that time is now.
We’re using Kickstarter both as a means of test-marketing the concept to verify there is still interest in such a game that extends beyond the individuals who regularly contact me about the game, and raising the funds to do so. There is also the fact that as long as we hit the threshold, it commits us to making the game. From where we are now, $2M/£1.25M will get us the minimum game, but I am hoping we can get more than that as it will allow us to be more ambitious with content and platforms; something the design decision forum members (the £300 reward tier and above) will be part of a discussion about.
We will rely heavily on artist-directed procedural generation, using techniques that are a logical expansion of what was done in the previous “Elite” and “Frontier” games. This will greatly reduce the required budget – bringing it to within reach of Kickstarter. It also means it becomes a viable project to avoid the conventional publishing route – something that I don’t believe can deliver a game like this successfully.
Procedural generation of content is a technique where content is generated from rules. It abstracts repetitive or arbitrary elements of content creation in a very efficient way. Imagine a medieval landscape. Laying out towns, roads, castles, farm land, 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 farm land 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.
In the game, you will of course begin with a spacecraft and a small sum of Credits. You will be able to trade, pirate, bounty-hunt, explore, and salvage your way to wealth and fame, building on those key elements of the previous games, and with sumptuous graphics only now possible with the performance of today’s machines. Only this time some of the ships out there will be other players like yourself – other members of a secret ‘Elite’ group of space-farers…
· Multiplayer: you will be able to control who else you might encounter in your game – perhaps limit it to just your friends? Cooperate on adventures or chase your friends down to get that booty. The game will work in a seamless, lobby-less way, with the ability to rendezvous with friends as you choose. This technology is already working, using a combination of peer-to-peer (to reduce lag) and server connections.
· Play it your way: Your reputation is affected by your personal choices. Play the game your way: dangerous pirate, famous explorer or notorious assassin - the choice is yours to make. Take on missions and affect the world around you, alone or with your friends.
· Trade: Buy low, sell high and discover the most profitable trade-routes. Keep an eye on the markets, supply and demand may create opportunities for quick profit. Unscrupulous players may even try distorting those markets.
· Fight: take on the pirates, or become one yourself. Engage in combat missions within a rich and dynamic simulation to earn a reputation, or perhaps you want to become a famous bounty-hunter – feared by those that you chase, but staying the right side of the law.
· Travel: Travel across star systems and between them. Risk leaving the relative safety of the Corporate-run space station to explore distant planets or stars. Space is big and you never know what you might find; perhaps a salvageable freighter wreck or some valuable asteroids? There are secrets and startling beauty waiting to be discovered by the intrepid explorer.
· Ships: save your credits and upgrade your ship. Get new weapons, engines and equipment and customize your ship the way you want it. Check out the body-kits and paint jobs on offer, give your ship that personal touch.
The game is planned to be released on the PC in March 2014. Make no mistake – this is a massive game, but by using procedural techniques that we have been cultivating over the years, a new approach to multiplayer, and bringing the raw power of today’s machines to bear, it is astonishing what is possible. This is your chance to help make it happen. Become one of “The Elite” once more.