Frontier Developments' Adam Woods on Elite: Dangerous
Thirty years after Elite redefined what a videogame could be, Frontier Developments are returning to the iconic space simulator with Elite: Dangerous. As the long-gestating project prepares for take-off, we speak to producer Adam Woods about playing God
If the phrase ‘fitting a gallon into a pint pot’ ever needed an accompanying picture then a screenshot of the 1984 space-trading videogame Elite would probably suffice. By cramming an entire, procedurally-generated universe onto a BBC microcomputer, Elite bagged its status as one of gaming’s greatest technical achievements while its open world gameplay further marked it out as a pioneering title, one whose reverberations are still being felt today.
Not least of those influences is, unsurprisingly, Elite: Dangerous, the upcoming fourth game in a series now spanning thirty years. 1993’s Frontier: Elite II and 1995’s Frontier: First Encounters are the connecting dots, yet they still leave an unbroken nineteen year line of static in the Elite universe. Changing tastes and safer publishing deals may be partly to blame but, if the apparent upsurge in sales of PC joysticks is an indicator, it seems Elite: Dangerous is a sign of a changing tide.
“The sheer joy we see on players' faces makes the commercial argument for us; everyone gets excited by the chance to explore the Milky Way from the cockpit of their own ship” – Adam Woods
“We always believed there was a market for space-based games and our Kickstarter campaign certainly proved it,” says producer Adam Woods. Raising £2.1 million via the crowdfunding site last year ensured the roadblocks stopping Elite: Dangerous becoming a reality were bulldozed down overnight. However, according to Woods it’s not just the money that has helped spur on the team at Frontier Developments. “We’ve been surprised just how much support we’ve received since the Kickstarter finished,” he explains. “The sheer joy we see on players' faces makes the commercial argument for us; everyone gets excited by the chance to explore the Milky Way from the cockpit of their own ship.”
As with the original game, players of Elite: Dangerous are faced not just with the prospect of a whole universe to explore, but with a multitude of ways in which to do so. It’s also, understandably, the first in the series to be an online, massively multiplayer experience, something that opens up even more possibilities. “You can choose to play alone or in a fully multiplayer galaxy,” explains Woods. “Either way, you’ll experience your own story, whether you want to become a pioneer charting undiscovered star systems, steal loot as a pirate, hunt other players like an assassin or just make an honest living as a goods trader.”
Yet while players can become ensconced in their own little skirmishes and trading routes, the overarching universe will be overseen by Frontier themselves, and they are not planning on acting like ambivalent deities. “Everyone’s story is their own, but however you choose to play, your story will be impacted by the galaxy-spanning events we control at the studio,” says Woods. “Whether that’s interstellar war or market crashes, those events will affect allegiances, goods prices and your relationships with other players.”
However, while Frontier may have a degree of control over the universe they’ve created, that’s not to say that their loyal subjects are likely to behave according to their galactic rulebook. Players testing the current Beta version have put the studio's mooted ‘role creation’ opportunities to the test. “One of our star systems erupted in civil war,” recalls Woods. “We expected players to exploit the trade in weapons and medicine, but never expected one faction of players to blockade and demand protection money from traders hoping to sell goods at the starport. Those kinds of emergent behaviours are only possible in a connected galaxy, and we're constantly surprised by the things players do with the game's systems.”
In this way, Elite: Dangerous is living up to its legacy. Those who sat hunched over their keyboards fathoming out Elite’s complex world back in the 80s may well have been privy to some ludicrous playground rumours on how to connect their game to that of other friends. Sometimes a synchronous phone call would suffice, other stories told of an in-game space station that held magical capabilities. It was testament not just to childhood naïvety but to the sheer technical scope of Elite that these seemed like possibilities.
Now, Elite: Dangerous is delivering those fantasies to earnest backers with a full roll-out of the game expected this month. It may be some nine months behind its initial schedule, but Woods believes the extra processing time will speak for itself. “We've been developing Elite: Dangerous alongside our community and I think they’ll testify just how much the game has grown,” he states. “We released the Alpha to select backers and have since advanced through three Beta stages on our way to launch, with each step adding new ships, starports, star systems and game-changing features. The game that players will receive could never have been so complete without support from our testers and the time to implement their feedback.”
So, thirty years after the original game frazzled minds and, very nearly, frazzled circuit boards, can Elite: Dangerous live up to the expectation that has inevitably come with it? The Skinny’s hands-on time with it certainly seems to say so, with everything from the mundane thrill of docking to the boundless enthusiasm of exploration and the tense dogfighting all accounted for. Coupled with the new persistent online universe, Elite: Dangerous feels redolent with the kind of possibilities you could only imagine in the original game.
Woods is well aware of the challenge, but feels Frontier are on the cusp of delivering what’s needed, and then some. “Elite is the original 3D space adventure so we have a lot to live up to,” he acknowledges. “(It) redefined what gamers expected from the old BBC Micro back in 1984, and of course it's a challenge to have the same impact thirty years on. More than anything I hope Elite: Dangerous meets the expectations of everyone who backed our vision two years ago and everyone who’s joined us for the journey since. With luck, we'll blaze a trail of our own and see the game last, grow and thrive for years to come.”
SIDE-FEATURE: A Rift In Space
As if Elite: Dangerous wasn’t looking immersive enough, Frontier Developments are currently working on a fit for Oculus Rift, the upcoming virtual reality headset looking to revolutionise home gaming. Yet whereas other developers have categorically stated that Rift will be an uneasy bedfellow with their particular games, Frontier’s Chief Operations Officer Dave Walsh feels far more confident in the union. “As soon as we played the game with the Rift we knew it was a great fit,” he told The Skinny earlier this year. “First off, you are seated flying your ship, which plays to the current strengths of Oculus Rift. The freedom and extra information about the game you get simply by moving your head to look around and follow other ships during combat is a revelation; it transforms your perception of the experience. Elite: Dangerous offers players the chance to live on their wits in a gigantic, awe-inspiring galaxy. Oculus Rift adds another amazing layer of immersion into the mix.”