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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Elite required the antithesis of todays ex-factor, instant success mentality. You had to work bloody hard to succeed. I was weaned on Elite and even convinced my parents at the time that I needed a BBC micro for school, just so i could play it. However, I then went on to work in the Games industry for over 10 years then became a graphics lecturer, so I guess in a round about way it worked out!

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Is it just a coincidence that David Braben looks like Arthur Dent (from the original TV series) ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    I grew up with Elite and i have the best memories of it. However, remakes of classics don't always get the best results.
    I've been playing EVE for 5 years now and to go to another spacesim, it'd have to be exceptional in every aspect and it's features to surpass any expectations.
    I wish the project goes thru, of course i'll try it but by no means success is guaranteed based just on the name.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Elite is a classic, I still have a copy somewhere. It was highly rated by 10 year old boys in the '80s, not only because it was a cracking game because it was so difficult to get into the code!

    We used to play til 2 in the morning sometimes, we just got hooked. Hope the funding can be found for the new version.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Elite was the only game about which I have ever really been obsessive. It was a fantastic game ( I got to be Elite and Extremely Dangerous)
    The descendents of Elite ( eg Eve, say) have never done it justice really and I'd love to see it done well. However, that was then and this is now...

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Kickstarter is interesting, but don't lots of them look like projects that are never going to make money? I suppose lots of the stuff has to do with the arts and being a fan of the particular thing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    KickStarter certainly has the potential to shake-up our economy... trouble is, do we really need it shaken even more?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    I am aware that addiction is built into some games and it worries me that so many people spend so much time playing them.
    Today I heard that a game was being made for the 40+female in mind. the sale of ready meals will go up."

    Weird comment, I'm an avid PC gamer (it appeals to my imagination), a professional scientist and a keen cook, what makes you think you are so clever?

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Frontier is a self-important company that doesn't really care about the community that support its games, as is evident with the fairly mediocre rewards they're offering on the KickStarter page, and David Braben has a history of abusive and obnoxious behaviour. So as much as I want to see a new Elite game, I won't be supporting this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    All of this virtual reality world will simply vanish when the equipment and electricity are no longer available in the post-pandemic era lying ahead of us. Enjoy it while you can - or better still lay in stores for at least two years while the shops are still stocked up...

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Isn't the real problem there are no new ideas for games just variations on themes? If only the basic underlying mechanics could just be issued freely so the public could create their own graphics, and episodes/levels on proper pc games. Strategy to shooters to driving, trading etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    How did you lot find out I had been reborn?

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    there is already a perfectly proper freeware version - Oolite (in Objective C) written to encourage the young learn to code. Perfectly playable - and about as boring as the original. Unless you start cheating...

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    I played elite on a spectrum 48, wire graphics did not detract from a massive game, I loved it and was only just recently wondering why they had not brought out an updated version for all the consoles of today, I predict that it would be massive again today. A space GTA with bits of Red Dwarf, thrown in. Elite by name, simply says it all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.


    "...Is software not part of technology then?..."


    Well, printing is a form of technology, but publishing a particular book I'd say was not.

    It can sometimes be similar with software.

    My point is that almost everything on this page is social software, games etc.

    Technology is an extremely large sphere, of which IT is but a small part.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Back to the good old days when floppy disks were really floppy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    Urr famous? Admittedly I stopped messing with computer about the time of the BBC micro (got fed up with the limited nature of the things, and the limits of people who run things. eg How about using the PC as an oscilloscope? Oh no, it'll never be fast enough. How about making a record player that uses lasers instead of a stylus (in order to archive old recordings) Oh no, who'd want it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    69. Perivale Elvis

    "I thought Elite was boring, even by 1980's standards of gameplay."

    I thought the 80s was a far better environment for games, the consumer pressures of today, i.e. knock out as many cheap games as possible to maximise profits on multiple platforms has killed quality gaming.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    @73.Eddy from Waring
    "Another example of what Rory calls "technology"..."

    Is software not part of technology then??

    It is as far as I am concerned and you cannot ignore the release of such a well-known, well-liked seminal game such as Elite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    I was at a job interview for Frontier a few weeks ago. The re-release for Elite is very much underway and as a big fan of the original game, I cannot wait for the new modern version to come to market. I still have a copy of the original game in my loft.


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