From Harmless To Elite: A Thirty Year Journey Through The Stars...

The original box of the game Elite courtesy of
A little more than thirty years ago in 1984 a phenomenon was started. It was inconspicuous and innovative and years ahead of its time. It was a software program first of all created by two programmers (David Braben and Ian Bell), one a Physicist and the other a Programmer. The software ran on little more than 40 Kilobytes and fit on a low density floppy disk (or tape if you had a tape drive).

It was the first three dimensional polygonal game ever written. Not only that but it was also the very first graphics based open world simulation.

It fit 1800 star systems with orbital space stations, 3 dimensional flight mechanics, hyperspace, trading, bounty hunting, interstellar piracy, asteroid mining and space station docking (both pilot flown and automatic pilot) all into this seemingly small and innocuous application.

It was simply called Elite.

I remember working a job at the time while attending a training program for computers. I asked my foreman to stop at a computer shop just so I could buy this little heard of game for $69.99 Canadian. It came with a great novella that introduced you to the concept of the game and a short manual with keyboard shortcuts. I spent hours with this game and this is where I fell in love with 3D and simulation. I'm still waiting on my order for a simulated girlfriend and successful career. Maybe a few million simulated readers of my books too <smiles> so I can donate a few million simulated dollars to some simulated charities. If you're going to dream, you have to dream big.

It existed long before 3D hardware and accomplished all of its' 3D rendering through fixed point math and hand coded machine language (with a macro assembler). There was no shading of any kind, just wire frame polygons that described the geometry of whatever they depicted.

At the time it was a hit amongst gamers (a relatively small group by today's standards). That group became a hardcore group of followers loyal to their origins playing that game until this day.

In 1993 the sequel to the game was released. It was called Frontier: Elite II and capitalized on the success of the original and augmented it a thousand fold by simulating the entire Milky Way Galaxy with three space empires and a whole host of ships, space stations and planets all that could be installed to a computer from a single 720 Kilobyte floppy disk.

The biggest feature though about this game (simulation really because it transcends the idea of a game completely) was that you could actually land on planets without transitions between outer space and the ground landing. No pauses for loading. You could literally hyperspace from one planet to another, dock with a space station or if you wanted to, descend onto the surface of a nearby planet (and mine it if you wanted to). Then you could start your engines and take off right back into space to sell your extracted ore. It simply was the most incredible nerd experience of its kind. It completely integrated relativistic principles all into a game that fit onto one disk. An entire galaxy simulated on a home computer complete with non-transitional planetary landings in 1993. That's something that hadn't even been approached since that time until Google wrote Google Earth a decade later.

In 1995 the game was followed up with the game Frontier: First Encounters. It too incorporated the same formula and advances made in the series and expanded it by adding procedural texture mapping and gouraud shading all without the benefit of 3D hardware (this is still before the release of Windows 95 keep in mind).

All without the benefit of advanced hardware this game had single handedly (with other games by programmers like Peter MolyneuxJohn CarmackChris SawyerSid Meier and William "Wild Bill" Stealy) had brought about a revolution in simulation and gaming. Open world games had been conquered by David Braben and Ian Bell long before Morrowind or the Elder Scrolls had graced any computer screens. Technically Bethesda's first open world games were the Elder Scrolls series started by Arena and then by the 3D game Terminator: Skynet based upon the Terminator franchise started by James Cameron and Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The game featured a 3D multi-kilometer sized world you could explore and scavenge from while fighting the 3D machines of SKYNET including our favorite killer cyborg, the T800 Cyberdyne Systems Model 101.

Thirty years since the release of the first Elite and computers and hardware have come a long way since the first 8 bit x 8 and 16 Kilobyte desktops and home computers first arrived. Those systems have long gone but the spirit of exploration always finds its way back into our being. Its a part of us whether we like it or not and it feeds our being in every way whether reality or simulated. Simulated is just as important as reality because it gives us a chance to practice for the real thing some day as a civilization. With that said the phenomenon has once again arrived and its called Elite: Dangerous. Did it achieve the hurdle of meeting all that hype? No. Not even close. It exceeded it by light years and is still going strong.

Elite: Dangerous Trailer 2014 with game play footage.

The visuals of the game itself are absolutely stunning, even on my relatively modest hardware. The game and presentation scales well and without nonsense. You as the pilot experience the whole adventure from the cockpit of your spacecraft which you fly from system to system to trade and accomplish missions if you so choose. Of course you are free in this game, so if you'd prefer just to explore you can do that too (as long as you're earning something to pay for the fuel and firepower you'll need to defend yourself. In this game world you are free. Free to explore. Free to do as you choose within it. You can explore star systems and then sell the data you collect about unexplored systems to universal cartographers in space stations across the galaxy.

Courtesy of
What has the latest version of Elite brought to the table this time around? It's massively multiplayer. That's right. You can now share in your stellar experiences with your online buddies just as you would any other MMO except you have a galaxy of 400 Billion stars to explore and fight over if you so wish. The galaxy evolves as a result of player interaction and activities and this influence cascades to other systems in the galaxy just like the Butterfly (Dragon?) effect.

The controls and the interface are all seamless and need little tweaking from the start. Your mouse can toggle easily between looking around in your cockpit (which you need to do in order to access all of the interface functions of your spacecraft). So setting a navigation point to another star system can easily be done while you browse bulletins on the space station bulletin postings for jobs. If you get to know trade routes between systems you can just go directly to the commodities market to trade and haul items to your content. You can get involved in black market goods as well or you can act as the police force collecting bounties for those who trade in illegal goods. If piracy and murder is more your style, you can wait near common hyperspace jump points for unsuspecting players to arrive and ambush them with your wing mates. Alternately you could form a wing of pirate hunters to protect other players. You're free to blaze your own trail and there's set path for you to follow. It might seem a bit overwhelming at first but once you grasp the possibilities you'll be in for good.

What's gone from this version? Unfortunately planetary landings did not make it into this latest version but low and behold arriving just in time for the holiday season is Elite: Horizons, the addon for the game that allows you to land directly on planetary surfaces and even boot around on planetary speeder vehicles. Added as well is the ability to edit your pilot's appearance (female or male). So its great for all of you Ellen Ripleys or Han Solos out there just hoping to blast some aliens to smithereens or smuggle some life saving medicine to the local freedom fighters. More information is available on the Elite Horizons forums page.

Wanting a bit more of a Star Wars or Star Trek like experience in your game of Elite? There's Power Play, which brings galactic powers fighting for control of the galaxy through trade, coercion, diplomacy and military might to the table. You can join one of the different factions of which there's ten and help them to overtake the others by nearly any means you choose. Keep in mind there's other players with the same thing in mind. Joining a faction comes with its own benefits and detriments (for instance affecting you stance with other factions). You could always just go it alone if you wanted to as well. Its really up to you. Keep in mind that all of this is available for you to experience with your friends and theirs as well. Its all for you to decide.

I can't say enough to express just how good the graphics are and how smooth it all runs. The ships handle well and the mechanics of game play will leave you with little to complain about. There's some occasional glitchiness when it comes to setting navigation points for your jump drive but they're only very minor and seldom result in loss of time or effort. The upgrade options for your ship is absolutely mind boggling and if you grow tired of it you can always buy a new one. Some start at the modest price tag of 32,000 credits and that price rises up to 149,000,000 and beyond for some of the other larger ships. With the addition of the coming expansion Horizons, you will be able to hire a crew of other players to help you manage large craft or man the guns and positions on your craft.

I could go on forever about this and there are many people whom would likely ask was it worth the wait? Absolutely and it far exceeded what I'd hoped for. Maybe something like this will be the much needed addition to our culture of media inspirations like Star Trek, its cast and creators and Star Wars and its cast and creators, Battlestar Galactica and its cast and creators and of course one of my favorites, the Right Stuff and of course my all time favorite Contact, all being the driving force towards the next level of humanity taking to the stars for real. Our concepts are there for certain after all, we're getting the practice of doing so now by experiencing our simulations (via media and gaming). It has entered into the social consciousness and perhaps that will be the push that we need to make it happen for real. Modular engineering, crowd funding and outsourcing can help us to overcome the engineering and materials limitations required to accomplish such feats. Maybe we're just around the corner from traveling to Alpha Centauri? If so we have the inventive thinking of the pioneers of imagination and simulation to thank for the push, and engineering to thank to for the shove. Until then try Elite: Dangerous. You'll believe its possible when you do and nothing can prepare us for the reality better than simulation and just like the long wait between the first version of Elite and the modern incarnation Elite: Dangerous, when we do take our first steps to the stars, it will exceed our wildest expectations.

Brian Joseph Johns
Shhhh! Digital Media