Can Elite Compete?

In 1984, David Braben gave the world the first real-time 3D game. Now, a mere 28 years later, a new version of his sci-fi classic is coming. This is huge news, but can it be a success?

Alongside his cohort Ian Bell, the legendary video game pioneer David Braben revolutionised gameplay concepts in the 80s with the peerless open-world space simulation Elite. Now, a mere 28 years later, he has announced a Kickstarter project to produce Elite: Dangerous, a new version of his sci-fi classic.

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For anyone who played the original and its successors, Frontier and Frontier: First Encounters, this is huge news. It certainly is for me. As a schoolchild, I was obsessed with the universe of Elite. So inspired by the backstory of Braben and Bell’s creation, wonderfully given life by Robert Holdstock‘s novella The Dark Wheel, by the age of 10 I’d devised a rudimentary pen-and-paper roleplaying system, a play-by-mail game and a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story set on a Coriolis space station.

So I should be enthused by David Braben’s announcement and although it does indeed evoke an old passion, I find myself concerned. Like many treasured memories of eras past, revisiting them often produces less than desired results. I see many parallels between David Braben and George Lucas. Both were giants in their respective science-fiction fields in the latter part of the 20th century, but Lucas went on to prove that engineering a return to form in subsequent decades can be harder than expected. Many die-hard fans of the original Star Wars films (and the Indiana Jones series to a degree) would likely agree that horses were flogged and the more recent results were lacklustre.

Can a new Elite ever hope to aspire to the greatness of its forefather?

Which Space for Witch Space?

Whilst there has certainly been a dearth of open universe space games in recent years, that Elite still holds sway on gamers of a certain age is without doubt. Elite’s influence on gaming over the decades has been immeasurable. Its DNA can be found in many games written since, from titles like Egosoft’s X series of space trading and combat games, Infogames’ Independence War series and the last (space)man standing, the brutal MMO EVE Online. Also of particular note are the works of Chris Roberts, who gave the world the Wing Commander series, as well as Starlancer and Privateer.

Interestingly, Roberts has also recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring back his brand of sci-fi majesty with Star Citizen – another ambitious take on the freeform space exploration style of gaming. Notch, of Minecraft fame, is also producing a space sandbox game which is described on its Wiki as an “Elite-like space simulation”.

Clearly there will be direct competition for Elite: Dangerous, with Star Citizen aiming for the polished, triple-A experience and Notch’s 0x10c occupying a more esoteric sandbox space. What then will make Elite: Dangerous special and set it apart from its competitors?

Pushing the Frontier

Elite: Dangerous will certainly be born into a tougher, more crowded world where it will need to compete with its own progeny to survive. Can Braben’s Frontier studio pull off a market-dominating return to form or are they running on the fumes of yesteryear?

Their recent portfolio comprises smartphone and console games aimed at the family market, so they’ve hardly been building on their serious sci-fi gaming pedigree. Although for decades, Braben has been teasing us with concept art and suggestions of an Elite IV, at one point entitled Elite: The Next Encounter. Sadly, this has thus far been vapourware. Perhaps a return to their roots will awaken a sleeping giant.

The proposed approach to multiplayer gaming might hold the key. Information gleaned from Braben’s Kickstarter page suggests a more personal, customisable experience, with suggestion of co-operative game mode allowing selected individuals to participate in private versions of the Elite: Dangerous universe.

Specific details are light, but this would suggest a controlled multiplayer environment, with just a few friends interacting with the universe either separately or as a fleet. Perhaps competing gaming clans might share a server, with the game world becoming the backdrop for a galactic trade war. Such campaigns would clearly need a persistent universe, yet how so many such universes might be supported sounds like a difficult challenge for a modest Kickstarter project. But don’t forget that Braben once managed to fit a whole universe into 22kB, so let’s not write him off quite yet.

I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that Frontier Developments can do justice to the legacy of Elite and I will be having happy nightmares about Thargoids in Witchspace until the tentative release in March 2014.

Mr Braben, please don’t let my inner 10-year-old down. He’s still watching.

A Powerful Legacy

As an unashamed Elite enthusiast, I am certainly glad to read that the backbone of Elite: Dangerous will be closer to the principles of the first Elite, rather than its Frontier sequels.

I found Frontier to be a step too far toward realism over entertainment and I will be far happier to see Elite: Dangerous embrace dogfighting and hyperspace game mechanics of the original, peerless classic. Scientific accuracy be damned.

Elite: Dangerous Kickstarter Page

Frontier Official Website


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Author
Mat Westhorpe
Broken paramedic and coffee-drinking Englishman whose favourite dumb animal is an oxymoron. After over a decade of humping and dumping the fat and the dead, my lower spine did things normally reserved for Rubik's cubes, bringing my career as a medical clinician to an unexpectedly early end. Fortunately, my real passion is in writing and given that I'm now highly qualified in the art of sitting down, I have the time to pursue it. Having blogged about video games (well, mostly EVE Online) for years, I hope to channel my enjoyment of wordcraft and my hobby of gaming into one handy new career that doesn't involve other people's vomit.