Designed in 2 Minutes?

Monday, December 06, 2004


Elite is a fantastic retro game which still holds my interest and is very playable, even 20 years after it was first released in the mid-1980s for the BBC Micro. Conversions have been made to many platforms and one of the most highly-regarded conversion was the one to the Acorn Archimedes running RISC OS. The RISC OS version packs a whole load more playability compared to the original BBC version, as well as giving solid full-colour graphics rather than the original wireframe design.

One of the key features of the RISC OS version is symmetry - you are not the centre of the universe (as in the BBC version, with everyone constantly trying to kill you) but rather you can see pirates and police engaging in their own battles, and Bushmasters mining deep into asteroids as you fly past.

My RISC OS-powered Iyonix PC is still able to run the game and it often takes up spare moments between lectures or lengthy periods at night...

The idea is simple, and may even seem tedious in the days of multi-million-dollar multi-mission blockbuster games, until you remember that this game was the first of its kind and introduced a revolutionary new style of gaming which is still being played today.

Put simply, you play the character of a lone trader in a world several centuries away where private spaceflight is available to all. It is up to you what you do with the rest of the game; it's very much open-ended (there is no end to the game!) and you choose what you do from the moment you launch from the space station orbiting around the planet Lave, the Santaari Galaxy's spaceflight training centre.

You can try to make an honest living by trading in simple goods, ferrying them back and forth between nearby planetary systems, but you will soon need to venture into the more dangerous systems governed in feudal or even anarchy states. In these systems, pirate activity is rife and you need to have a well-equipped ship to defend yourself.

The game is so well thought-out that this simple method of play on its own is more than satisfying. But because of the open-ended design of the game where all actions are up to you, a whole range of career options - none actually specified in the game - is open to you. You can deal in more contraband goods such as slaves, narcotics, Ulganian slug furs, or firearms but be wary of the police who will make it hard for you to approach a planetary system once you have a criminal record.

You can buy mining lasers and follow the Bushmasters around between asteroid fields, mining the lumps of rock and selling the minerals to the nearest industrial planet.

Or you can play vigilante and become a bounty hunter - going solo or following a police squadron around to find and destroy the pirates that group together at the edges of every system, perhaps even collceting their strewn cargo to sell at the nearest space station.

You can also go down the highly exciting route of becoming a pirate yourself - either through dealing in too many contraband goods and obtaining fugitive status, or by ignoring your conscience and blasting apart innocent traders in order to steal their cargo. But beware if you follow this career path - the police (who shoot first and ask questions later), gangs of rival pirates, bounty hunters, and scared traders will all fight back and you'll never be more than 5 minutes from another firefight.

Of course, you can try to clean up your act - but this can be very hard to do with police and traders constantly shooting at you. Killing innocents is seen as Very Naughty and will get you deeper into trouble. The only way to get out of trouble is to kill lots of pirates (this will get you favour with the police) and run away fast when the police themselves arrive so you don't have to fight your way out and get intro deeper trouble again.

Upgrading your ship
Ships can be upgraded with meaningful upgrades - not just bigger and bigger weapons as you may find in more modern games. The principle of Elite is that you attain a kill rating by simply being good enough. Buying 1000 heat seeking cluster missiles hardly shows a great deal of pilot skill, so the game encourages the pilot to develop their flight and combat skills in order to attain the status of Elite simply by surviving and being good at it.

It is this principle which makes the game so endearing as it's all about developing personal skill rather than making lots of money (it's perfectly possible to become Elite with a totally un-upgraded ship, just very difficult!).

Other upgrades are those which enable you to carry more cargo, recharge your shields faster, dock into space stations automatically using a computer, fire lasers from the side and rear parts of your ship, destroy enemy (and friendly) missiles, jump through wormholes to one of seven other galaxies, and collect solar wind streams to convert energy into free fuel (this also enables you to collect floating cargo cannisters and other debris). In some conversions of the game, such as Elite-A, you can also purchase and fly many of the different types of ships mentioned in the game (In Elite you're limited to just your Cobra MkIII which is arguably one of the better ships anyway).

In terms of revolutionary design, the game is one of the most important ever. It was the first to introduce a real-time 3D vector graphics engine to a home computer game, a model which is still followed today. One of the most instantly-recognisable features of Elite is its scanner. For a 3D real-time game its designers had to come up with a new way of describing the precise location of any nearby ship or object as 2D scanner displays used in most games at the time weren't up to the job.

screenshot of the game

The scanner David Braben and Ian Bell designed for their game consisted of an oval representing the space around the player's ship (actually a circle squashed by perspective, as you're viewing it from above and behind) where each object is represented by a green club. Imagine the club sticking up or down from the scanner, beginning at its tail. The very end of the tail of the club shows the x-y location of the object compared to the player, and the head of the club represents the height in the z dimension. Clearly a longer club indicates that the object is further up or down in space compared to the viewer than an object with a short club.

In the screenshot there are six ships besides my own represented on the scanner. As all the clubs have heads below the tails, the ships are all below mine in space. The exception is the 'dot' to the right of the central white dot in the scanner, which is a ship directly to my right, at the same altitude as mine. The blue Krait-class ship disappearing off the bottom of my screen is represented by the stubby blue club to the top-left of my scanner. Again the club head is lower than the tail, indicating that the ship is (just) below me.

Elite does contain a handful of prescribed missions, but in keeping with the open-ended design of the game they aren't forced on you in any way. One day, when docking after a routine spaceflight, you may receive an urgent message when you enter the space station. These missions do depend on a few factors - you having enough kills, being in the correct galaxy, etc. Missions range from dropping a supply capsule from low altitude onto a planet, to tracking down and hunting a merciless pirate and his gang of support fighters. Missions are definitely not part of the main fabric of the game though. You will have needed to play for many hours before being offered the first mission, and after they're completed there are no more. The main point of the game is still to explore and survive.

Miscellaneous information
The marketers of the original BBC Micro version of Elite took an unusual and bold strategy for introducing new players to the game. Instead of the usual "you are captain of a fleet..." two-page spiel they commissioned someone to write a short novel which was supplied with the game pack. The novella drops the player straight into a well thought-out universe full of amazing and exotic characters, all of which are superficial to the game, but the end effect is to immerse the player in this fantasy universe and give them some purpose of exploration as they play. It's since inspired many more novellas to be written by fans, and even a musical!

Types of craft
They also provided a full size wall chart of many of the different types of ships that can be spotted, with some elementary statistics and (arbitrary) history of its design. Some ships were deliberately left off this chart as a surprise for the hapless player, and rumours were placed in the Pilot's Handbook of gigantic dredger-ships the size of a city, and generation ships from many decades previously. No further mention is made of these ships and 20 years on no one has conclusively proved that they do or don't exist. My uncle claims to have seen a dredger in the outer reaches of Xeaqu and he's not alone in his claims. I've never seen one of these myself and many people have scoured the game's code in an attempt to find any references to the objects, with no apparent success.

Yet many variations of the original Elite were produced and distributed, and it's possible that there is still a rare variant out there which does contain the craft!

All of this adds such an amazing richness to the game that it's no wonder it has lasted 20 years and still has a strong cult following.

Simon Challands' Archimedes Elite pages
Ian Bell - one of the original authors
My own ArcElite tribute site


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