Possibly one of the most unknown video game legends: this is the story of the author of Elite

Elite changed the video game industry when it came out in 1984. A groundbreaking title whose effects and influence we still feel today. A work that brought its co-creator to stardom, who recently announced that he is retiring from Frontier, the studio where he has brought great success games to life. This is the story of David Braben.

David Braben retires. Or not exactly. After almost thirty years at the helm of Frontier Developments, the co-creator of Elite has decided to leave his position as CEO of the studio, remaining in a special role, while his responsibilities are assumed by fellow veteran Jonny Watts. Although from his statements it is difficult to understand exactly what Braben’s new responsibilities will be, the news has shaken the PC Gaming scene. Since although his name may not sound familiar to many, the developer has been one of the main pillars on which the culture of computer video games has been built. Not only for having founded one of the most versatile studios on the market, but also for having revolutionized, from its very foundations, the history of the video game as we know it.

Braben was, along with his colleague Ian Bell, the developer of Elite. One of the most transcendental video games of all history. Its relevance is evident from the moment that big names like Sam Houser, David Jones, Jez San or the Stamper brothers, have recognized the influence of this degree in their professional careers. Elite has not only inspired the development of great epics like the recent Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky, which roughly follow its model, but it could even be argued that open world sagas like Grand Theft Auto would have been very different without the existence of Elite. this essential work.

Elite, which appeared in 1984, offered what no video game had dared to offer before: a real open world. So open that it didn’t even have a goal to accomplish, much less an ending. The most fascinating thing, however, is that its creators, Braben and Bell, had never considered working professionally as video game developers. They were Cambridge students, of natural sciences and mathematics respectively, who, due to their similar interests, ended up getting along. Among these, the futuristic science fiction of authors such as Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov, whose passion they reflected in two projects for their Acornsoft brand computers, very popular at the time in the United Kingdom, which reflected different situations in space. Comparing their notes, they realized the many points in common that their works had, so they decided to join forces in a common project.

At first, the project was not intended to be more than a space flight simulator. But Bell and Braben abhorred the scheme of the lifelong shooter, limited to quick games, strictly following the model of the recreational market. So in his simulator, the player could freely roam the galaxy, refining your technique along the way, and upgrading your ship by following the basic precepts of any RPG. A formula of the most common today, but that at the time did not have any reference. What’s more, not content with revolutionizing every known formula, Bell and Braben incorporated the possibility of embodying space pirates. And since there would be pirates, by the way they developed a complex economic model, in which the player could become a space trucker. The possibilities were endless. Almost as long as its universe, with over two hundred and fifty planets to visit, plus hundreds of space bases.

It was so groundbreaking that most distributors rejected the project.To say that Elite was ahead of its time is an understatement. It was so ground breaking most distributors rejected the project without thinking twice. It was finally Acornsoft itself, which then had its own software development department, which agreed to publish such an unusual project. Its director, David Johnson-Davies, became the main supporter of the project, assuring that “as soon as I saw it I knew I wanted Acornsoft to publish it”. His commitment is evident from the moment he published Elite in a spectacular package that included, among other things, a complete game manual, a poster, a card with which to record high scores and a novel set in his universe, The Dark Wheel. , probably the first novel inspired by a video game in history.

October 1984 advertisement for Acorn User Magazine. Image: Frontiastro.co.uk

Elite was slow to boot. Its beginnings were very lukewarm. But word of mouth did the rest. He took over the UK by force and even made news pieces on the BBC news. Conversions soon appeared for almost every system on the market; from the ZX Spectrum to the Amiga or the Atari ST. A version for NES was even about to appear, which never saw the light, it is assumed, due to its complexity. Unfortunately, a success. limited to Europe and specifically to their country of originalthough its influence would eventually permeate the entire video game industry.

Almost a decade later, the sequel to Elite appeared. It was in 1993, under the name Frontier: Elite II, which could be considered the first title of the Frontier Developments studio, although in reality it was formally founded a year later. A study erected solely by David Braben, since while he decided to dedicate himself fully to video game development, his colleague Ian Bell chose to continue his studies in mathematics. It is known that both tried to develop a sequel together, but preferred to part their ways, due to differences that they have preferred not to comment on. At the helm of the studio, Braben will develop two new sequels to Elite: First Encounters, which incorporated the procedural generation of planets in 1995, and the extraordinary Elite Dangerous, which has been in operation for eight years now, having amazed its millions of users for its faithful reproduction of the Milky Way, whose history is written every day by their own players.

Elite DangerousElite Dangerous

Elite was slow to boot. Its beginnings were very lukewarm. But word of mouth did the rest.Braben, however, was not content with just developing space simulators in the image and likeness of his first film. At the helm of Frontier Developments, he has led all kinds of projects. From Kinectimals for Xbox 360 Kinect, to construction simulators like the sequels of RollerCoaster Tycoon or Jurassic World Evolution. Even, in an unexpected turn of his career, in 2003 he directed Dog’s Life, a curious game for PlayStation 2 in which we embody a domestic dog.

The study is thus in good hands and with several projects in the pipeline, such as the imminent F1 Manager 2022 or the new expansions of Elite Dangerous. Although, knowing Braben, who has always shown a restless character, surely he will still have something to tell us before retiring definitively from professional development.

A reading:

  • Elite: Reclamation
  • I usually recommend books that talk about the history of the video game, but for once let me make an exception. Reclamation is a novel based on the Elite universe with an exciting story behind it. Its author, Drew Wagar, a fan of Elite since he was a child, organized a kickstarter to raise money with which he could pay for one of the milestones of the original Elite Dangerous kickstarter, which granted its patron the rights to write an official novel. The result, an interesting look at the lore of the game, which has continued in numerous novels, equally interesting, after the fact.
  • Buy the book.

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Possibly one of the most unknown video game legends: this is the story of the author of Elite