Elite. The most ground breaking computer game ever?

By The Helpful Engineer / On / In People & Media

Elite game
Elite game

The computer game that made the biggest impact on me was Elite. I first saw it in a friend’s house when I was a child. It was unlike anything that came before it as it used 3-d wire frame graphics and had a vast world to explore. The game box contained a world of information including a poster, a novel based on the game, a large instruction pack, a competition entry form and a keyboard paper cut-out pattern that was designed to be laid on the keyboard to show key commands. All this meant that players could really immerse themselves in the game and set the game apart from other games available at the time. It was released in 1984 and changed the world of gaming for ever.

While it was one of the first 3-d games, using wire frame graphics, it also used an open ended playing structure within a massive play space, so that the player themselves could decide how to play it and where to go. Previous computer games at the time required the player to a follow a specific route and if they were killed (or after losing their lives), they had to replay the game from the start. By contrast Elite allowed the player to save their position to disc.

Playing the game. The game begins with the user playing the role of the commander of a basic space ship, The Cobra Mark 3, and with 100 credits in their bank account. The object of the game is to explore the universe by buying goods in one planet and selling them in another, hopefully at a profit, while trying to survive pirates and avoid crashing into space stations while docking. With increased funds the player can purchase upgraded weapons and equipment for their ship. The player can decide on more profitable ways of playing the game by trading illegal goods or destroying other ships and taking their cargoes. This however means consequences with the law enforcement officials. The player

Designing the game. From a software engineering point of view the game was incredibly creative as the programmers managed to overcome the limitations of computers at the time. The programmers were limited to 22k of code and so to allow them to create a vast universe they created a procedurally generated gaming world. This was quite a leap of imagination at the time. As a result the original gaming universe created could have been virtually unlimited in size; however it was cut down to 8 galaxies of 256 planets each prior to release to give it a human scale. This is a great example of engineers thinking ‘outside the box’ and allowing their imaginations to become a reality by overcoming technology constraints.

The game programmers. The programmers were David Braden and Ian Bell. They met and wrote the game, part time, over 2 years while attending Cambridge University in England. The game was released on the BBC micro and eventually sold close to 1 million copies which made Braden and Bell wealthy men. Later updated versions of Elite were released on other platforms. Elite possibly represents the high point of the British computer gaming industry, when they led the world. I hope that the original game is released on android as I think it would be a prefect game for smart phones, especially considering its small file size.

One of the authors of the game, Ian Bell, has an interesting website about the game which contains a lot of information. To visit, click here.

Elite game screenshot

2 thoughts on “Elite. The most ground breaking computer game ever?

  1. A few years ago I had the pleasure of watching David Braben docking a Cobra Mk-III into a space station on a BBC B. It was one of the more memorable geek moments of my life.

    The sheer scale of the game was amazing, especially as it had to fit it in 32k (including screen memory). It is hard to believe exactly how advanced it was, but all you need to do is compare it to contemporary games. It was the only game in which you could truly set your imagination free as you played, especially during those interminable minutes as you waited for the tape to load…

    I can honestly say that Elite led me into a career in embedded programming; I was soon coding rotating wireframe cubes on the school’s computer. Hidden line removal soon followed. As this was slow in BASIC, I just had to teach myself 6502 assembler.

    It’s all Elite’s fault. you see.

    1. Hi David. I can understand that. The fact that something as unique and great as Elite was created by just two young guys in their spare time is really inspiring, and certainly was for you. Modern computer games have lost some of this magic by contrast as they require hundreds of people with various specialties. I am envious of your computer skills, my knowledge of basic at thethat time was very basic. something along the lines of:
      10 print ” i love elite”
      20 go to 10

      or something like that. But i still got a thrill from it though.

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