Elite reborn


Rory Cellan-Jones talks to Elite co-creator David Braban in his Cambridge offices

Thirty years ago a young man called David Braben arrived at Jesus College, Cambridge to study Natural Sciences. But he ended up spending most of his time building a video game with another undergraduate, Ian Bell.

What they built was a 3D space trading game called Elite. It was unlike just about every other game - "It didn't have a score, it didn't have three lives, you had to play it for a long time," says Braben - and proved to be a landmark for the young video games industry.

Three decades on, David Braben is still in Cambridge, and his company Frontier is unveiling something that will excite tens of thousands of 40-somethings who played Elite on the BBC Micro many years ago.

Elite Dangerous is the seminal game reimagined for the 21st Century - but it will only be built if it finds an audience first. The crowdfunding site Kickstarter is being used to attempt to raise the £1.25m needed to bring the game out in 18 months' time. If the quest succeeds it will be evidence of how the industry has changed again.

Back in the 1980s, bedroom developers like Braben and Bell could get a game off the ground for virtually nothing - though they needed a publisher to get it to the paying public. A chapter in a new and engrossing history of the UK games industry, Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders, gives an account of the birth of Elite.

We see Braben and Bell trying initially to sell it to the entertainment conglomerate Thorn EMI but there is a clash of cultures. "In EMI's world, entertainment arrived in three-minute consumable chunks and it saw computer games in the same way." Instead they end up with the Cambridge business Acornsoft, born out of the computer firm behind the BBC Micro - and their games sell as many copies as the Micro itself, or more.

Elite game tape box The first version of Elite was published on a cassette tape

Nowadays, David Braben's Frontier operates in an industry dominated by giant entertainment and technology conglomerates, from Sony to Vivendi to Microsoft, and it can be hugely expensive to create a new product. Look at Halo 4, which comes out this week and is rumoured to have cost Microsoft $100m to develop.

And for smaller independent players, having a relationship with the giants has been the only way to get to market. But that is changing. Casual games and mobile apps provide a new route for small firms - or even bedroom coders - to reach a global audience at high speed with a smaller outlay. And then there's Kickstarter.

The crowdfunding site which has just arrived in the UK promises an interesting new business model for the games industry. When I met David Braben in Frontier's offices last week he was excited about what it could offer: "What's very exciting about it is it brings the funding directly from the people who are going to play it," he explained. "We don't have a publisher in between who's saying what is the target market - the target market are the people who sign up for the game."

It wasn't immediately clear to me why, with all the credibility he has built up over the years, he couldn't go to a publisher with Elite Dangerous. "The current publishing process isn't very friendly to those sort of games," he explained. "It's the sort of game which is very hard to make through the traditional publishing process - because publishers want to see the end result before they move forward. The sort of games that do get made tend to be sequels to games that have been very recently successful so you get lots of games that look the same."

Now, although I got a glimpse of some early work on the game by the small development team, there is no guarantee that Elite will be reborn. David Braben is asking for a large sum for a game that won't be ready for 18 months - by which time the games world will have changed again. Maybe he has overestimated the size of his potential audience or their appetite to hand over cash in advance.

But given the popularity of a number of other gaming ideas on Kickstarter that seems unlikely. Ouya, a tiny Android based video games console, has proved the most successful project so far, raising nearly $9m. Perhaps the rebirth of a British video game classic can break that record.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    just some bloke
    "Why not use the crowd to fund it and then use the crowd to create the universe in which users will play. If they create some great design tools and possibly an API then perhaps it could be amazing"

    I had a similar idea, how about some basic building units users can "lego together" to make cities, and populate a multiplayer universe? Remember the PC version of Battlezone?

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Best news I've had all day, can't wait for this to be released if they get all the funding they need.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    X3 and freelancer are much more in the same vain as Elite.

    Eve is just a Spreadsheet simulator.


    The violence in FPS's are exaggerated-- you can get through most modern military shooters without emptying a single magazine now a days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Surely the most suitable medium for a remake of a game like Elite would be on Smart Phones / tablets? Games like Angry Birds show that simple ideas can work well on a device where the user does not expect expensive 3GL game play. The development costs would be a lot lower as would time to market.If the games was as addictive as it geriatric predecessor it would develop its own momentrum.

  • Comment number 60.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    OMG - I used to love this game!! bring it back whatever it costs!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Hmm, looked at what's on offer based on number of £££s offered and ecided i wouldn't put a chunk of cash into this. I don't want dinner with a bunch of blokes the same age as me in Cambridge, got better things to spend £5,000 on. For my £1k, £10k whatever, I would expect royalties as a direct percentage of my contribution. £1.25M would be no problem then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    @51 "Surely that's what first person Skyrim and Fallout are about? They are just Elite on foot and some of the biggest grossing games of recent times."

    I used to play Skyrim, then I took an arrow to the knee :

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Its simple, Elite took me months to complete and cost less than £15.
    Call of Duty took about 2 days and cost £45.

    Elite showed that regardless of computing limitations you can create great games. Sadly mostly if not all current games built on more powerful machines do not push the boundaries. They are limited by poor game play, terrible story lines. Graphics are not everything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Great to see this return - it was one of the best games ever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Great game.

    I agree with the comments re: single player sandbox rather than MMO, so a 40-something like me can avoid being laser fodder for a 19-year-old souped up on pro-plus who's been playing for 48 hours straight. Far too many games these days are simply arenas for online play, with single player missions an afterthought.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Check out Dust 514

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    I still have my old Amiga 1200 alive and kicking. Amongst other games installed on there is Frontier - Elite II. I played it for hours and still can!

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Still in Belfast
    @Bubonic, but would the X-Box generation raised on FPS type games really care for the long term trading and exploring style of Elite?"

    Surely that's what first person Skyrim and Fallout are about? They are just Elite on foot and some of the biggest grossing games of recent times. Anyway, IMO the next great development would be a fusion of the two genres (Space sim and FPS)!

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    @48 Eve requires a huge amount of hands on skill and overall pvp knowledge, it's difficult which is a good thing because it keeps the xbox generation away.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    I they are remaking old games, for nostalgia's sake, i would love it if they remade and remastered
    "C-12 Final Resistance"

    It sold well on release and has a lot of potential.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    @25, admittedly the combat in Eve is not as hands on as Elite but then Elite was not all about combat, it was all of the other aspects of a freeform universe that made it great. Eve does that part very well too.

    Thats not to say I wouldnt welcome an up to date version, being mid 40's I remember the BBC version and the Amiga Frontier outing and played both to death.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    +1 I like this.
    I was searching for exactly this type of game experience about 4-5 years ago, I ended up playing another (similar) mmporg from a small indie developer with a loyal (but small) following.
    I will buy.
    Please please make sure it works on Apple Mac OS X intel pcs, not just windows. You know it makes sense.
    looking forward to it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    @Bubonic, but would the X-Box generation raised on FPS type games really care for the long term trading and exploring style of Elite?

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Yep, playing games sounds about right to me (NOT).
    What a fortune is spent on games, and for what?
    What the economy gains in inventing, re-inventing, etc. plays no role at all in improving the general economy - except sales to juveniles. What is learned? What is improved?
    What is lost in real productivity.


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