A New Frontier – Behind the scenes of Elite: Dangerous

Thirty years after Elite defined a generation of gaming, Frontier Developments are returning to that procedurally generated universe with Elite: Dangerous. We asked chief operations officer Dave Walsh how he tackled a galactic-sized challenge

Feature by Darren Carle | 28 Feb 2014

When the habitual ‘best game ever’ type polls inevitably rear their contestable heads, there is almost always a generational sized gap in their furtive pickings. Emergent 3D offering such as Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64 can almost always be found wrestling with genre-shaping behemoths like Halo and Grand Theft Auto III for top spot. Meanwhile, a steady trickle of ‘mature’ content via Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and even The Last of Us, seeps into the spaces in-between, presenting a broad spectrum of mainstream gaming at its best.

However, rare is the poll that plumps for a title from the 8-bit, eighties generation, despite being a bedrock for veteran players as well as a platform where many of today’s developers cut their teeth. Often, classics from that era have been roundly usurped by the technological heft of their progeny or are simply left wanting when doe-eyed, thirty-somethings load up on a nostalgia trip to their childhood. There is, however, always an exception that proves the rule, and in this case that exception is Elite.

The brainchild of developers David Braben and Ian Bell, Elite wowed players with its unique 3D vector graphics and huge, procedural universe. Ostensibly a ‘space trading simulator’, Elite pioneered open-ended, sandbox gaming before those terms were even coined and it did it all with less processing grunt than the mobile phone you currently use to play Angry Birds on. As a technological feat, it changed the industry and as a work of art, it enraptured a generation of gamers.

Now, six months shy of its thirtieth anniversary, Frontier Developments are set to release the fourth game in the series, Elite: Dangerous. Though coming on the back of 1993’s Frontier: Elite II and 1995’s Frontier: First Encounters, Elite 4, as it was initially codenamed, has been in ‘development hell’ since 1998. “There has been a distinct lack of space games in recent years,” begins Frontier Development’s Dave Walsh on the nineteen year gap since the last Elite game. “Publishers haven’t had direct commercial comparators to plug into their spreadsheets, making the business case for a space game hard to make.”

“We are presenting players with the whole 100 billion star systems of our very own Milky Way galaxy. The simulation is the most accurate we can currently create" – Dave Walsh

In what is becoming something of a sign of the times, Frontier took business matters into their own hands and skipped the publishing page of the developers manual, instead going straight to fans of the series who backed Elite: Dangerous to the tune of £2.1 million via Kickstarter. “The enthusiasm and support from the backers has been one of the stand-out aspects of the development for us,” says Walsh. “We're embracing the opportunity and have been running a 'Design Decision Forum' where we run aspects of the games’ design past backers to get their feedback. This has had real tangible benefits.”

Having eclipsed their original financial target and with Walsh claiming Frontier are also injecting their own cash into the project, Elite: Dangerous certainly has the scope to achieve the immersive element that is a pedigree of the series. Further to initial goals, the success of the funding campaign has led to a planned roll-out of add-on packs, notably more interactivity with planet surfaces and space stations whilst the player-backer input Walsh describes has helped streamline inter-stellar travel to allow for a more responsive, immediate experience.

Given that Elite was further praised for allowing player choice within the game itself, it seems fitting that such a notion is expanding into the development process of its third sequel. “I think the success of Elite has always been based on the freedom players are given,” agrees Walsh on the celebrated ‘role’ system of the original games. “It’s all about individual choice. Of course there will be some structure we provide in terms of missions being offered and the ‘galactic meta-game’ where people can influence the outcome of events in the galaxy by their own actions. But people don't have to take part in any of it if they don't want to.  It's about people's second-to-second behaviour rather than playing a 'role', whether pre-determined or not.”

As before, there will be ostensible roles of ‘trader’, ‘explorer’, ‘smuggler’ and such like, but Elite: Dangerous will not be so prescriptive this time and should allow players to blur these lines and even create their own roles. “We've seen very interesting and sophisticated player behaviour emerging already,” says Walsh of the alpha testing available to backers. “(There was) a group of players patrolling in Sidewinders together, waiting for others to kill miners and then collect the bounty on their heads. It’s another example of the huge value of the input of our backers getting involved during development. We're able to really drill down into the balancing (of these roles) to maximise the opportunity for such emerging behaviours. We expect to see a lot more of this in the future.”

Furthermore, Elite: Dangerous will provide quite a platform for these stories to be played out on. True to the original game’s groundbreaking ambition, this latest iteration will clock in on an astounding scale. “We are presenting players with the whole 100 billion star systems of our very own Milky Way galaxy,” claims Walsh.  “The simulation is the most accurate we can currently create, with systems using physical laws to govern their creation. In one of the previous Elite games, an exoplanetary system around the Fomalhaut star was predicted and was subsequently shown to exist by astronomers! The visual fidelity will be unprecedented too, so it’s essentially a ticket to explore the galaxy.”

It’s a ticket some 41,000 backers have already stumped up for, indicating that Elite’s online universe is going to be teeming with heroes, villains and everything in between right from day one of its worldwide release in March. Yet, with all that expectation, let alone living up to the legacy of its predecessors, Walsh claims the team at Frontier Developments are handling the heat with aplomb. “We're making the game we've wanted to make for a long time,” he points out. “So generally the mood is more one of excitement than pressure. Probably the biggest element of pressure we feel comes from the fact that we want to make fans of the series proud of what we’re doing. But even there, I think we’ve been able to channel that into a positive force to make sure we keep the quality up.”

Frontier Developments certainly seem to be succeeding in that regard and as the series’ title suggests, Elite: Dangerous looks like it will be in a class of its own. 

Elite: Dangerous will be released in March. http://elite.frontier.co.uk