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Remembering 'Elite', the Most Important Game of the Early 80s

Elite was the first of a long and proud line of space simulators.

by Presented by Halt and Catch Fire
May 27 2015, 5:00am

In today's video game world, where players can enjoy the vastness of EVE Online and the alien sexual diversity of the Mass Effect series, it's easy to delve into expansive virtual universes featured in mainstream and independent contemporary video games. Little do most young players know, this well sought but hard-to-get surreal gaming experience was available to any owner of a BBC Micro or an Acorn Electron since 1984.

Elite was the first of a long and proud line of space simulators. Ian Bell and David Braben's creation was the main source of inspiration for games such as Echelon, Space Rogue, Microsoft Space Simulator and Freelancer. It also popularized game design elements that are used to this day and is considered the granddaddy of Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft, Second Life, Wing Commander: Privateer and a whole bunch of persistent open-world 3D games. Elite had such a great impact in the 80s that it is arguably the most influential game of that decade.

So what makes one of the titles that defined the aesthetic of future generations? Elite established three big staples of modern game development: The open-world format, wire-frame 3D graphics, and procedurally generated levels.

Players start at a space station with just 100 credits and a rad spaceship. All you needed to know is that you had to sweat out some credits, whatever the means. But when you get out there into open space, you realize: there's no straight line to follow. You have to live on this universe on your own.

You can mine giant asteroids, trade stuff with ships (or steal other ships), get military contracts, and also go on bounty hunting missions. Having multiple quests to choose from is pretty much the starting point of most open-world games out there, but that feeling of freedom right at the beginning was something special back in those days.

Then there's the graphics. In the 80s, the vast majority of games were composed of typical 2D designs, with either side scrolling or overhead points of view. Think how Pac-Man was the most successful game of that generation, yet its 2D perspective is far from anything in real life.

That design is due to the hardware limitations of the time: It was easier to move sprites over a static background than make all the elements on screen work independently. But then, in 1983, David Braben developed a quick prototype that could draw up to four 3D spaceships using wire-frame graphics.

Braben and Bell weren't the first ones who developed a 3D animated game. If we're talking wire-frame vehicles, Battlezone was released four years prior, in 1980, much to the amazement of everyone who thought they would see pixelated characters in video games for the rest of their lives.

But the effortless way Elite was designed so you could move your ship on the Z, Y and Z-axis was an extraordinary novelty for that era. The mobility of Defender and Asteroids' ships was ridiculous compared with the power to roll, yaw and pitch your spaceship in any way wanted. Not only you had a huge open universe to explore, you could do it in a 3D animated way.

And let's not forget the groundbreaking procedurally generated levels. Elite had eight galaxies with 256 single-planetary systems in each of them. The developers knew these planets had to be really unique, with specific economies and kinds of governments, so they could show how diverse the universe of their game was. If you could take jobs from mining to pirating, from bounty hunting to military service, Elite's universe had to show that same variety of lifestyles through its planets.

Even if you are bad at math, it's easy to comprehend that this is a lot of information to store in a 80s game cartridge. Braben and Bell's solution was simply genius.

If you want to understand it more thoroughly, I recommend reading Jimmy Maher's The Digital Antiquarian historical analysis of Elite's development. But basically, taking inspiration from the Fibonacci sequence, the developers figured out that all varying characteristics of a star system could be manipulated using six hexadecimal numbers. Fixing a random sequence for the starting point would set the parameters for the first system, and all the other star systems in that playthrough would be defined by a predetermined way of reading and continuing that one sequence. That initial star system information would only take six bytes out of the memory cache and it could be used to form almost an infinite number of different planets.

After months of fine tuning the code, Braben and Bell went after a company to publish their game, finally stopping at local software company Acornsoft's doorstep. The developers smartly asked for a non-exclusive agreement, so that way Elite could be ported to any platform they wished after being promoted on the Acorn Electron. The first alternate version was made for the BBC Micro along with the game's official launch, but Elite was eventually ported to a handful of consoles and computers, such as the Apple II, the Commodore 64, the MSX, the Amiga and even the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Well, it makes sense, though. If you have the most fantastic game of the 80s in your hands, you definitely should shove it on the face of every single nerd with a home computer out there to show who's the real boss of open-world, procedurally generated fictional universes. That's what Elite was all about.

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