This is a platform for User Generated Content. G/O Media assumes no liability for content posted by Kinja users to this platform.

Elite's New Frontier - Part 2

Not only was Elite the first “open-world” videogame [cit.], and changed the way games could inspire stories, but it was also a hit - the game captured the imaginations of consumers and in it’s native United Kingdom it was a national sensation, with shows about it on Channel 4 [”Making of Elite” EDGE Online] of people everywhere playing the game; but some were playing for a purpose.

Acornsoft had also included an entry card for a competition* to be the first to reach the game’s eponymous combat rating of Elite, only making the fervor stronger. Each month for the first six months following release, Acornsoft published a leaderboard in a videogame magazine* of those that were the closest to earning the UKP 1,000 prize*. What was interesting about this contest was the entry card was in the game’s packaging right next to The Dark Wheel - the only way to enter the contest was with this entry card. Kids and other computer-savvy players that had illegally copied the game also reached high ratings in the game and wanted to enter the contest for their shot at the prize, but now needed to go out and buy a legal copy of the game in order to enter - David Braben recalls, “It was very interesting actually, chatting to people who had entered. I asked them, ‘Did you buy the game?’. ‘Erm, no,’ they said, ‘but when I realised I was in with a chance I thought, right, I can do better than that’. They went out and bought the game just to get the entry card.” [Making of Elite, EDGE Online p.2]

Porting the game to consoles beyond the ZX Spectrum kept Elite’s life going for the first few years after initial release, but Braben had more in mind. He was not satisfied with the artificiality of the “galaxies” contained in Elite and wanted to base the game in astronomical reality - he wanted to play in the “real world”.

Bell and Braben began work on a sequel, holding on to all the core tenets that made Elite so efficient and vast, but expanding the scope to the billions and billions of stars that they knew they could generate procedurally. They had confidence that so much “space” would not feel exhausting or daunting to the player, so they began to model the Milky Way Galaxy in its approximate size of 65,000 light years in diameter.

The size and scope possible with this sequel also came a name that would define what David Braben wanted his career in game development to be: Frontier. He would later start his own company and call it Frontier Developments.

With only minor limitations, the Assembler code Bell and Braben produced had accomplished the unbelievable once again - a dynamic, working Galaxy of 100 billion stars, planets, and objects, all in “actual size” with a Newtonian-based flight model of 31 flyable ships, and an even richer economy and governmental system, and dynamically-lighted, full color, NURBS-based modeling of cloud-covered planetary cities, dome farms, and working clock towers - all in a single, 770K executable file. The details, right down the wireframe landing gear, cemeteries behind the churches, and procedurally-generated character faces that displayed as you communicated with friendly docking agents, police, and even criminals at starports, made a believably living, breathing universe.

This new world, linked to our own, gave the team more opportunity to expand on their narrative they built from the first game. Instead of a single story like The Dark Wheel, they included a novella depicting eight interlinked short stories of “Life on the Frontier”. Tales of betrayal, wanderlust, intergovernmental espionage, and high adventure all met to link this much bigger world to a much richer narrative - this was no longer about the player setting out to make their own story - this was now the player taking their role in a vast and constantly moving world, part of a bigger place with stories in every bulletin board. Players were not just making a single story for themselves, but could experience multiple careers during their game time; everything from tranquil mining and exploration to bounty hunting, targeted assassinations, cargo and passenger smuggling, and even self-structured, criminal piracy and murder.

As for targeting “real” criminal activity (piracy), the manual for the game was printed. like the original Elite, as manual for the ship itself, and was also the copy protection scheme: from time to time, docking at a space station would initiate a “security check of ownership”, asking for the first letter of a specific word in the manual. Searching through its in-world text would satisfy the officer making the request, and failing a certain number of times would result in ship destruction and the end of the player’s game.
Owning the manual became an essential part of the game experience, and prior to the widespread sharing of printed or copied materials, was a relatively effective method* of combating early piracy efforts.

Additionally, a Gazetteer containing descriptions of many star systems in the game was included - astronomical information, political information, even flora and fauna not mentioned anywhere in the gameplay are listed in this travel guide, but it gives players context for specific places they can visit on their journeys. Finding those places was made easier by the inclusion of a large, A2-sized map of star systems displaying a small area of the game’s starting point. (The map shows about 180 square light years of the approximately 4,000,000,000 square light years the game contains.)

Critically, the game met with very positive reviews, however some players found the game “boring”* and lacking varied activity types and player agency. Reception of the Elite series of games has been very dependent upon the player’s willingness to understand what the game is providing the player - the purpose of much of the additional narrative material was to provide a backdrop for self-guided play. This need for self-guided player agency is a major reason this type of game received the moniker of “sandbox”. A literal sandbox has no inherent agency; it is a blank tool whose output is a function of what is brought to it.

If Elite and Frontier were a new kind of tool for play, then the books and maps included in the box were intended to demonstrate to the player how to use those tools.


Share This Story

Get our newsletter