“It’s like your kid’s first day at school” – David Braben on the Elite: Dangerous alpha

David Braben

Elite: Dangerous takes the honour of being our next issue’s cover game. It goes on sale in print, on iPad, on Google Play and on Zinio this Thursday February 13, and should be reaching subscribers today.

In the cover feature we visit Frontier Developments’ Cambridge studio, explore the game using Oculus Rift, take a look at the concept art that formed the foundations of Dangerous’ look and offer our first impressions of the game’s combat. It’ll be released on PC later this year. Here’s a snippet from that cover feature, a Q&A with Frontier Developments founder David Braben, co-creator of Elite and the man spearheading its return thirty years after the original.

How have you found the process of making a game in full view of some 25,000 Kickstarter backers?
It’s funny, during development you’re often concentrating on whatever feature isn’t working very well and you lose sight of the fact that actually you’ve got a lot of really great stuff under your belt. You wouldn’t think so, but morale can be quite low in the middle of the project: ‘We’ve got this to do, and this to do.’ But actually having to show elements of the game publicly that we’re already happy with is fantastic. It’s ‘Actually, it is pretty good,’ not ‘I wish we could sort this.’ It’s like your kid’s first day at school – you want to know how they react.

So it’s reasonable to say that you’re happy with the way the project is shaping up.
Now that the combat is sound, it will just keep getting richer. At the moment, [we have] a very narrow and well-refined scenario. Those scenarios are emergent things that come from gameplay – ‘I don’t want to be seen by him; I want to get out of here,’ so the objective is just to run away, which feels really weak. In the very early days of the first Elite, when we were doing it as a combat game, it felt very repetitive. But very quickly, once the context changes, you think, ‘Oh, Christ, I have to get this gold through. I’ve got such a good price on it. If I can get it to this space station… Oh, no, I’m being attacked!’ It contextualises running away and makes so much sense.

Presumably you have similar concerns of repetition within a procedural galaxy?
One of the challenges of the really big galaxy is geography, and, yes, the problem with sameness, where every location is the same as any other. So what you need is as many differentiators as possible – they can look different and have differently coloured stars, but what matters is what’s there. So planets might have agriculture or industry, or an expert who can tune your engine to make it more fuel efficient. And we looked at how to make trading itself interesting by making it really rich. That meant introducing all sorts of content, such as luxury goods that are location dependent; labelling and branding will be much more valuable a long way away, rather than just on the doorstep. If it’s wheat, it’s wheat – it doesn’t matter where it came from – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a specialist product that’s being made from a very fine version of it.

And how about the problem of griefing in a universe where violence is always an option?
One of the biggest worries with MMORPGs is gamer griefing if you allow PVP kills and the ways we can balance that. We’ve done that on several different layers. At the top level, the game rules make it harder to [be a griefer], simply because if you attack another player, you immediately become a pirate and then you get a bounty on your head, which means it’s fair game for other players to attack you. There’s already this top level of balancing, so it’s then how the game responds to that.

Subscribers are getting their issues from today; newsstand and digital editions (on iPadGoogle Play and Zinio) are released on Thursday February 13. To subscribe or buy an individual issue of Edge, just follow the links.