David Braben on the return of Elite, crowdfunded and unsullied by publisher influence

David Braben

A new Elite game would have looked very different had it been funded and shaped by the old publishing model, says Braben.

Deep space. That’s the heart of Elite: Dangerous. As with the original and its two sequels, Frontier Developments’ new Kickstarter-funded space exploration game will ask its players to absorb themselves deep within its systems – not just of stars and galaxies but of navigation, combat and trading. Speaking to Braben about the game recently, he repeatedly returned to the notion that Dangerous was a game whose intricacies must be learned over time.

It has taken time to get a new Elite off the ground, too. It is no secret that Braben has wanted to make this game for years – perhaps even since the release of Frontier: First Encounters in 1995. Braben says the old publisher-developer relationship would have seen Frontier’s vision of what the game should be compromised. Now, through Kickstarter and Frontier’s own fundraising efforts, the Cambridge studio now has over £2.2 million with which to make that game a reality.

“Working with a publisher would give a very different end result to the one we have planned – mainly as there have been few open games like the one we are making in recent years,” Braben tells us. “We had watched the rise of Kickstarter in the US and went on there with Elite: Dangerous as soon as it came to the UK – it provided a was a great validation of the interest in the game for us, and the funding helped us move into full production with the game.”

Alpha backers are playing the singleplayer game now, with online features still to come.

Those backers that have paid £200 for Alpha access have been playing the singleplayer game since the middle of December. The next step is to open out the social and crowd-effect elements of the game, with Braben promising an Elite universe which will evolve over time and allow Frontier to continue to polish and add in features whilst it is being played.

“Strangely, singleplayer was always designed to feel like you were in a world with other, similar pilots doing other, similar things. The difference now is that really is the case,” says Braben. “One of the biggest changes, and biggest challenges, is getting the game to work symmetrically between AIs and players. We’ve seen some amazingly skillful play by on the alpha already – for example turning off flight assists and flying their ship unaided to get that extra edge in combat. We won’t be having the AI do that, as this would make it way too hard for most people.”

When the online elements are added it turn into a game of constant flux, says Braben, with power struggles between player groups making the game feel alive. “There will be changes over time, influenced by the players,” continues Braben. “Smaller factions may emerge or disappear, and the large factions may lose influence in a particular volume, all based on player actions.”

The detail and complexity of the game’s mechanics are designed to allow for a multitude of ways to play the game. Should you wish to play the game stealthily, for example, you must lower your ship’s heat signature to avoid being detected by only using certain weaponry, lowering your shields, using thrusters sparingly and carrying (and then ejecting) heatsinks.

Elite: Dangerous is designed to be a slow-burn experience, its players steadily learning more about the complexities of their ship and the gameworld.

The player’s ship is intended to be complex; Braben wants Elite: Dangerous players to augment their space trading, navigation and combat skills at a gradual pace, gaining new skills and feeling out boundaries with each stretch of play. “Over time, players will learn to use all the different facilities of their ship – and indeed improve those they rely on by upgrading them in-game. A beginner-level confrontation will probably not include use of power distribution, boost, careful balancing of throttles, and will include some element of panic, but with time this will change. We are taking the same approach with the AIs, where ‘beginner AI’ – for example that used by a trader that frequents ‘safe’ space routes – will also not tend to use these features.”

Trading, another notion fundamental to the original’s success, will return in a similarly nuanced way. Illegal goods, like narcotics or firearms, remain part of the game but players will have to build up relationships with people who specialise in those fields before you can trade in contraband. Some goods could also be legal at one end of a journey, but illegal at another.

It’ll be possible to take out assassination contracts, both against AI and other players, but it’s something Frontier is still looking at, wary the ways in which that system could be used and, more likely, abused.

Dangerous has considerable financial backing, but it also has stiff competition in its field. Cloud Imperium Games has raised a breathtaking $36 million to make its own space exploration games, Star Citizen, and Hello Games’ unexpected foray into the genre with No Man’s Sky is, at first glance, a thrilling prospect. So it’s strange to find that after so long without a space epic like Elite, we begin 2014 with several of them on the horizon. Elite: Dangerous has history and nostalgia on its side, and has inspired a raft of other games since that pioneering 1985 debut. Now it is tasked with reclaiming its place at the summit of the genre it created.