David Braben on Elite: Dangerous and why the time is right for his space-trading classic to return
If any game series could be described as a perfect match for Kickstarter’s crowdfunding revolution, it is surely Elite. Fans of the first three games have been clamouring for a sequel for over a decade now, and with the launch of a Kickstarter campaign for Elite: Dangerous, they can finally put their money where their mouths are – all £1.25 million of it.
Elite’s curious gravitational pull is such that, should you mention it in the company of those who cut their space-trading teeth on David Braben and Ian Bell’s BBC Micro classic, it may as well have created a black hole obscuring the light coming from its successors. Even in the auspicious company of games such as Egosoft’s X series, Digital Anvil’s Freelancer and, of course, CCP’s Eve Online, Elite stands apart as the original and, some maintain, best.
But irrespective of the reverence with which it is regarded, the last Elite game was released nearly 20 years ago – the universe into which Dangerous will set out is unrecognisable in comparison. By building a massively-multiplayer take on Elite, Frontier Developments is pitching its game into direct competition with Eve Online and, presumably, vying for a portion of CCP’s ferociously loyal community.
“It’s a different take on it,” Braben insists. “We can have a lot of players, and I think by most definitions it will probably count as massively multiplayer, but we’re not expecting it to be played that way. If you look at the way people play World Of Warcraft, for example, you play it substantially as a singleplayer game until you get quite a way into it.
"Obviously, we use a technique that isn't a million miles away from Frontier's, just a lot more sophisticated." Braben says of Dangerous' procedurally generated universe. "And look at all the solar systems that have been discovered since that game was made and the amazing similarities they bear to the ones in Frontier!
“We’re expecting people to play with friends. It will be a different feel to it, but it will be a social experience. Just think of all the ways the gameplay changes if your friend says, “Oh I’m taking this much gold from here to here, can you please help me, I’m being attacked”. And then you can – that’s great.”
Much of the work to date, in fact, has been on building the technology behind the multiplayer, and while the game is currently playable in a very basic form Braben admits that getting the online aspects right has been a challenge. Using a combination of peer-to-peer and server connections, the development team is aiming to deliver a seamless, lobby-less experience. Too much time online, Braben laments, is spent waiting to find a game or connect, rather than actually playing. And with so many players, he believes, it’s becoming harder to keep up.
“I personally no longer really enjoy many of today’s games – they have become very, very niche,” he admits. “Even in something like Call Of Duty, it’s quite hard for someone who doesn’t play everyday to get in there and not get killed on the multiplayer.”
But surely a space-trading sim is just as guilty, if not more so, of being niche? “Yes, it is,” Braben tells us. “But it’s the niche that I want to be in. What I’m really saying is that there is no shame in being niche-like, if it’s something that you enjoy doing.