The Making Of…
How a plucky British studio enlisted players to help create a game on a galactic scale
How Frontier Developments enlisted players to help create an entire galaxy in Elite Dangerous
While celebrated astrophysicist and cosmologist Carl Sagan was working on science-fiction novel Contact in 1983, he documented an idea for how the story might be turned into a videogame. The project’s themes would deal with the development and preservation of galactic civilisations, but at its core would be a realistic representation of the nearest few thousand stars that would teach players about astronomy in a “context as exciting as most violent videogames”.
Sagan couldn’t know it, but at the time he was documenting these hopes, David Braben and Ian Bell already had a playable build of an ambitious space trading game called Elite. It launched the next year and, while it featured eight fictional procedurally generated galaxies each populated with 256 stars, it could hardly have been more inspiring to potential stargazers, scientists and explorers. It was also the first step on a three-decade long journey towards Elite
Dangerous, the most recent game in the series and the first full realisation of Braben, Bell – and, indeed, Sagan’s – early ambitions, featuring around 160,000 real star systems at the centre of a galaxy containing 400 billion procedurally generated celestial conglomerations.
“A lot of [the original Elite] was in the imagination,” Frontier Developments CEO David
Braben tells us. “And what [ Dangerous] enables you to do is take your imagination that much further. You can feel just how big planets are, and also how tiny we are at this scale. For me, it matters a lot that it’s real. I know to a lot of people it’s just a backdrop to the game, but to me it’s magical that on a clear night I can look up into the sky and see things that I’ve seen in the game, and vice versa. One day humanity might have moved into the stars, and the constellations they see from other stars will already have been named by people who played Elite Dangerous. Which is lovely.”
But a game of such inhuman scale, even with workload-easing procedural generation, is no small endeavour. Nor is it a sure bet, as Braben was keenly aware while speaking to publishers about the possibility of funding a new addition to a series that was last updated in 1995 with the shaky launch of Frontier: First Encounters.
“Making Elite Dangerous had been in the back of my mind for a really long time,” Braben explains. “Every week, if not every day, I was getting mail saying, ‘You must make this.’ The desire was there. But in a publisher world, I just know how easy it is to get derailed with these things. One of the things that typically happens is a publisher looks at other games that are similar and tries to make your game more like that. There’s an ethos that you only try to vary one thing. So if you want to push one aspect of a game, you take something that’s quite like another game, and you change that one aspect, because that gives them some idea of who it’s going to sell to, how well it’s going to sell, and what the shape of the sales will be.”
It’s an understandably cautious, if artistically neutering, approach, but one that runs counter to Braben’s own experience. “We’ve been involved in quite a few game releases where the profile of the sales have been very different to what the publishers might’ve expected,” he continues. “Dog’s Life had a slow build but huge interest, and actually sold out. It was something that caught people on the hop, and publishers don’t like to be caught on the hop. With Elite
Dangerous, I knew full well in the back of mind what would happen.”
Braben felt, at least among the publishers he spoke to, the general consensus was that the genre had had its time – a position that’s difficult to square with the buzz that surrounds highprofile space exploration games such as Elite
Dangerous, Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky today. While Braben agreed the genre was in need of a significant update, he had other ideas about how that should be done.
“It was this concept that to market it you’d need a focus, a character and a story,” he says. “And that’s why I think Mass Effect ended up the way it did. I don’t know the guys who made it all that well, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it started in someone’s mind as an Elite- like game, and then they added some story, and the story took control of it. I’ve seen that happen with other games in other genres, where you end up with something that… you have to constrain the game world. Mass Effect’s a great game, but it’s not the kind of game I personally wanted to be part of making. And my fear was it would be driven down that route and people would say, ‘Oh, it’s just a ripoff of Mass Effect’ [laughs].”
Behind the scenes, the studio had been committing what resources it could to skunk works projects that explored concepts and potential mechanics, along with the background story that would outline the political machinations of the ruling powers within Dangerous’s galaxy. But it wasn’t until Kickstarter came along, and specifically Broken Age (at the time known as
Double Fine Adventure) that Braben saw an opportunity to get the project off of the ground. “I remember seeing that game and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s fantastic,’” he says. “I wanted to do a Kickstarter there and then but unfortunately there was an issue in that the site was US-only. So we found out when Kickstarter was coming to the UK and got ready – we ended up launching it only a few days after.”
While the advantages of crowdfunding were obvious, the concept was new to games and there was a steep learning curve associated with managing a campaign, and sating an army of voracious – and vociferous – benefactors. “We had some internal tech tests and obviously had the Cobra engine, which gave us a hell of a headstart – it was already 64bit at that point so it was perfect for Elite,” Braben explains. “The problem was that people expect new videos to go up every day, and not just talking heads; I mean content that doesn’t take a day to prepare. Some things you can, especially
“YOU CAN FEEL JUST HOW BIG PLANETS ARE, AND ALSO HOW TINY WE ARE. FOR ME, IT MATTERS A LOT THAT IT’S REAL”
Horizons’ planetary landings are limited to airless worlds for the time being, but that’s set to change in the future