Words by Ben Maxwell
While celebrated astrophysicist and cosmologist Carl Sagan was working on science-fiction novel Contact in 1983, he documented an idea for how the story might be turned into a videogame. The project’s themes would deal with the development and preservation of galactic civilisations, but at its core would be a realistic representation of the nearest few thousand stars that would teach players about astronomy in a “context as exciting as most violent videogames”.
Sagan couldn’t know it, but at the time he was documenting these hopes, David Braben and Ian Bell already had a playable build of an ambitious space trading game called Elite. It launched the next year and, while it featured eight fictional procedurally generated galaxies each populated with 256 stars, it could hardly have been more inspiring to potential stargazers, scientists and explorers. It was also the first step on a three-decade long journey towards Elite Dangerous, the most recent game in the series and the first full realisation of Braben, Bell – and, indeed, Sagan’s – early ambitions, featuring around 160,000 real star systems at the centre of a galaxy containing 400 billion procedurally generated celestial conglomerations.
“A lot of [the original Elite] was in the imagination,” Frontier Developments CEO David Braben tells us. “And what [Dangerous] enables you to do is take your imagination that much further. You can feel just how big planets are, and also how tiny we are at this scale. For me, it matters a lot that it’s real. I know to a lot of people it’s just a backdrop to the game, but to me it’s magical that on a clear night I can look up into the sky and see things that I’ve seen in the game, and vice versa. One day humanity might have moved into the stars, and the constellations they see from other stars will already have been named by people who played Elite Dangerous. Which is lovely.”
But a game of such inhuman scale, even with workload-easing procedural generation, is no small endeavour. Nor is it a sure bet, as Braben was keenly aware while speaking to publishers about the possibility of funding a new addition to a series that was last updated in 1995 with the shaky launch of Frontier: First Encounters.
"To me it’s magical that on a clear night I can look up into the sky and see things that I’ve seen in the game"
“Making Elite Dangerous had been in the back of my mind for a really long time,” Braben explains. “Every week, if not every day, I was getting mail saying, ‘You must make this.’ The desire was there. But in a publisher world, I just know how easy it is to get derailed with these things. One of the things that typically happens is a publisher looks at other games that are similar and tries to make your game more like that. There’s an ethos that you only try to vary one thing. So if you want to push one aspect of a game, you take something that’s quite like another game, and you change that one aspect, because that gives them some idea of who it’s going to sell to, how well it’s going to sell, and what the shape of the sales will be.”
It’s an understandably cautious, if artistically neutering, approach, but one that runs counter to Braben’s own experience. “We’ve been involved in quite a few game releases where the profile of the sales have been very different to what the publishers might’ve expected,” he continues. “Dog’s Life had a slow build but huge interest, and actually sold out. It was something that caught people on the hop, and publishers don’t like to be caught on the hop. With Elite Dangerous, I knew full well in the back of my mind what would happen.”
Braben felt that, at least among the publishers he spoke to, the general consensus was that the genre had had its time – a position that’s difficult to square with the buzz that surrounds high-profile space exploration games such as Elite Dangerous, Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky today. While Braben agreed the genre was in need of a significant update, he had other ideas about how that should be done.
“It was this concept that to market it you’d need a focus, a character and a story,” he says. “And that’s why I think Mass Effect ended up the way it did. I don’t know the guys who made it all that well, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it started in someone’s mind as an Elite-like game, and then they added some story, and the story took control of it. I’ve seen that happen with other games in other genres, where you end up with something that… you have to constrain the game world. Mass Effect’s a great game, but it’s not the kind of game I personally wanted to be part of making. And my fear was it would be driven down that route and people would say, ‘Oh, it’s just a ripoff of Mass Effect’ [laughs].”
Behind the scenes, the studio had been committing what resources it could to skunk works projects that explored concepts and potential mechanics, along with the background story that would outline the political machinations of the ruling powers within Dangerous’s galaxy. But it wasn’t until Kickstarter came along, and specifically Broken Age (at the time known as Double Fine Adventure) that Braben saw an opportunity to get the project off of the ground. “I remember seeing that game and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s fantastic,’” he says. “I wanted to do a Kickstarter there and then but unfortunately there was an issue in that the site was US-only. So we found out when Kickstarter was coming to the UK and got ready – we ended up launching it only a few days after.”
"The Kickstarters that have had problems are the ones that set a limit of, say, £10,000. The nightmare scenario is it goes to £10,000.01 and then you have to deliver the game"
While the advantages of crowdfunding were obvious, the concept was new to games and there was a steep learning curve associated with managing a campaign, and sating an army of voracious – and vociferous – benefactors. “We had some internal tech tests and obviously had the Cobra engine, which gave us a hell of a headstart – it was already 64bit at that point so it was perfect for Elite,” Braben explains. “The problem was that people expect new videos to go up every day, and not just talking heads; I mean content that doesn’t take a day to prepare. Some things you can, especially if you’re using fast-and-dirty prototyping techniques, and we did all sorts of things quickly and showed them. That was very useful, because it doesn’t half help marshall your thoughts.”
Once launched, the Kickstarter campaign quickly gained momentum, initially thundering towards its £1.25 million target. Donations tailed off towards the end, but things picked up again and the total eventually soared to more than £1.5 million. But Braben’s belief in the project never wavered. “I was confident all the way through, and people criticised me for it internally,” he reflects. “But I think one of the things we’ve done at Frontier for a very long time is forecast our own games internally in terms of understanding who’s going to buy and when they’re going to buy. We saw it when we put [Elite Dangerous] season one on sale, and also with other games like LostWinds: you get a spike at the start of the sale period and then another at the end. We didn’t understand some of it, but the thing I’m really glad we did is set a realistic target. We genuinely wouldn’t have done it had it not reached that target. The Kickstarters that have had problems are the ones that set a limit of, say, £10,000. The nightmare scenario is it goes to £10,000.01 and then you have to deliver the game.”
Kickstarter wasn’t the only funding source – a fundraising drive on Frontier’s website raised more, and there was external investment to go with Frontier’s own resources – but it served as an encouraging, and non-anecdotal, measure of players’ interest in a new Elite game. But with the market’s existence proven, actually developing the game posed its own set of challenges. How do you go about managing a project of such scope? “Well, one of the advantages we’ve got is we’ve been around a long time by industry standards,” Braben says. So most of the problems we encountered [making Elite Dangerous] we had already encountered in a slightly different guise before. And interestingly, moving away from publishers means you find out if you have the discipline and the processes internally that put in place the checks and balances a publisher would.”
LostWinds, though significantly smaller, served as an evaluation of those systems, and Kinect Disneyland Adventures – whose dev team swelled to nearly 400 – proved that the more-than-100-strong Dangerous team was feasible. “It’s a real discipline, and because we’ve had a lot of people who’ve worked together for a long time, we’ve got a lot of internal tools and processes we can use to track things,” Braben says. “That sounds very regimented, but actually it gives you an awful lot of freedom, because without a publisher you still know what the requirements are, but you can be very flexible within that.
"Moving away from publishers means you find out if you have the discipline that puts in place the checks and balances a publisher would"
“There was a lot of discussion prior to and during the Kickstarter project as to whether you should be able to walk around in your ship. We looked at that in great detail. Ultimately we decided the arbiter has to be, ‘Does it make the game more fun?’ Because it’s a lot of extra work and it brings in more constraints. It’s something we will do, but it’ll be in a future update because we need so many things on a human scale for that to be additive and enjoyable.”
Another point of contention was the intersection between scientific accuracy and player-focused artistry. The team initially intended for space to be a realistically silent vacuum, but that proved problematic. “David was keen on us doing that because he wanted to stick with our scientific principles,” recalls Frontier head of audio Jim Croft. “We tried it and implemented a version and it was boring as hell [laughs]. There was no sense of motion through space and you didn’t feel connected to your ship. So we started again. We thought about the sci-fi stuff we love and have been informed by over the years: Ben Burtt [Star Wars, Indiana Jones, WALL-E], who did the pod racers, and the bikes in Tron. We had all those things in mind, and we wanted to bring some of that sexiness into it and have a go at doing something really different and interesting.”
Lead sound designer Joe Hogan concocted a recipe for the Sidewinder’s engines and, once refined, that template was handed out so other designers could work on the different ship manufacturers to ensure the craft had different qualities. “For us, the ship’s the player in Elite Dangerous,” Croft explains. “You’re flying most of the time through the blackness of space and you really want your character – the ship – to experience things like speed, acceleration and mass motion in different ways. We just found we’d hit on something really core to what the enjoyable experience of Elite is. And that’s quite unusual for a game – I’ve worked on a lot of games and sound is very important, but Elite is a very special vehicle for audio.”
At the end of 2015, Frontier launched Horizons – a second season for the ongoing Dangerous project – initially introducing planetary landings and Surface Recon Vehicles. It represents an opportunity to continue development. “It’s amazing,” Braben says. “No game is ever complete or perfect; there are always more things you want to do on it. There’s an amazing story about Turner sneaking into the Royal Society at night to add something to a painting he’d been itching to alter. With the original Elite there were things we wanted to do and we were constrained by both time and memory. So to be able to continuously update something is what I’ve always wanted – it’s a wonderful opportunity.
"No game is ever complete or perfect; there are always more things you want to do on it"
“Overall, there are a lot of things I feel we’re getting better at, but we’re still not there. Having a mission structure that works for everybody across such a giant galaxy, for example – we’re improving it in stages, and it’s getting better and better. And let’s face it, we got the learning curve side of things wrong – it was just too difficult.”
Along with finessing mission structure and adding tutorials, Frontier’s most recent Elite-related project, Elite Dangerous: Arena, attempts to help address that issue by parcelling up the moreish combat mechanics into a standalone, accessible CQC multiplayer game to function as a stepping stone to the full game’s greater complexity.
With each addition, Elite Dangerous grows in scope, and it’s clear Braben relishes the chance to indulge his ambitions. But even in a position of proven success, it’s no less nerve-wracking to hand your passion project over to players. “The game is building and improving, and doing it in the public eye is very interesting because it concentrates the mind,” he admits. “The Internet can be a cruel place, but there a lot of good, well-meaning people out there who want to make sure that we do make it better. Some of [those requests] are quite big asks, but we respond to most of them as best we can.
"Elite Dangerous has never been better, but letting go of a game is sort of like sending your child off to school and they get beaten up in the playground. You want to give them a baseball bat.”