When someone unfamiliar comes knocking on your door at ten o’ clock in the evening dripping with rain and weary after travelling the 300 miles from Liverpool to Cambridgeshire, you know you are in the presence of an obsessive. Questions including: ‘In which galaxy can the Generation ships be found?’ and ‘Just how many stars make up the whole game universe?’ only serve to re-establish the weird world of fandom which David Braben and Ian Bell, co-creators of Elite, must occasionally warp into.
Elite spawned the first ever Internet user group, and eventually docked on to 17 separate formats. The game established Braben and Bell as coding heroes to the next generation of programmers. It also brought them early fame, extensive news coverage and an amount of money no number of narcotic runs between Wolf II and Lesi could have garnered. But the Elite story began in a tiny dormitory at Jesus College, Cambridge, Earth.
“Elite was substantially written during the summer holidays when I was at university,” reflects Braben. “I was 19 and Ian 20. I wanted to do a 3D space game since time began and I had a little Acorn Atom PC that was largely built at home – I’d already programmed this 3D expanding star field which included a few spaceships.” Though Braben and Bell have since fallen out over the rights to the Elite brand, he is candid about their initial relationship and early friendship: “Ian was doing Maths and I Physics. When I saw his BBC Micro it was like, wow. We got really excited about programming and at that point he was already coding a game called Freefall.”
Bell’s recollection of the genesis of Elite is somewhat different: “David claims to have been planning a 3D space game on the Atom at the time,” he tells us. “Peter Irvin, who had written Starship Command, and later Exile for the BBC Micro, was talking about a space trading game. It was the obvious thing to attempt.” After lengthy discussions and some experimental coding, a 3D space combat game began to emerge. It would be called The Elite. Revolutionary vector maths, huge areas of space to explore and frenzied action, however, did not satisfy the two Cambridge undergraduates. “It felt very empty,” continues Braben. “When you played it for a bit it felt pointless. To make it a satisfying experience we had to have some motivation. That’s where the trading game came from.” Ironically, both Braben and Bell agonised over this aspect for a long time. “We were both afraid that it would actually be a boring component. But in a sense it gave you the contrast – the relief in between the tense combat.”
The game was rebranded as Elite and the real grit and grind of producing the expansive and unique game universe really began. “I suppose it was the real bedroom coding scenario,” recalls Braben. “We each worked separately on different sections and then amended sections by fixing or tuning.” Working in tandem speeded up the process yet the dangers of replicating key code had to be studiously prevented. “We were just very disciplined about keeping records of what we changed,” he continues.
The game naturally pushed the BBC Micro to its limits and the headache of compressing all the data down to 22K proved a constant struggle. Yet Bell recalls that first magical moment when he knew he had something special: “It was the first time when I tested the movement and rotation routines together with the tactics code and actually saw some Vipers moving in 3D – that was special.” Though Braben always considered Elite more of a hobby than a business venture, the toll of long nights at the keyboard did begin to eclipse his Cambridge studying. “I delivered the master disks one week before my exams,” he ruefully says.