The Mak­ing Of…

How a plucky Bri­tish stu­dio en­listed play­ers to help cre­ate a game on a galac­tic scale

EDGE - - CONTENTS - For­mat PC, Xbox One De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Fron­tier De­vel­op­ments Ori­gin UK Re­lease 2014

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

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