Sunday, 3 February 2013

Kickstarting: Elite Dangerous

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away... a space fighting and trading game was born. Created by David Braben and Ian Bell, Elite was a game like no other that I'd played at the time. It started you off with a basic spaceship, a handful of credits and a galaxy full of planets to explore. The entire galaxy was procedurally generated, so they could create a vast number of star systems very easily. Each star system had a different number of planets and space stations, which all had things they wanted to trade for. Your status was defined by your combat rating, from harmless to elite.

The first version of Elite was made for the BBC Micro in 1984, but my first experience was with Elite Plus on the PC in 1991. This version had 256 colour VGA graphics as well as new sound and music. Elite would later be followed by two sequels, Frontier: Elite II (1993) and Frontier: First Encounters (1995). Each sequel had a graphical upgrade, as well as adding several new features, including an attempt to make the space travel and combat more realistic. The Frontier games added factions and basic quests, to allow you to gain notoriety and money through other means other than combat and trade (although a combination of these was often the most useful course of action).

Elite: Dangerous is an attempt by David Braben to re-capture some of that magic, and create an improved, bigger, better and shinier Elite for the modern audience. It will retain a lot of the charms of the previous games, while also taking the series into a new direction: Multiplayer. Personally, I'm hoping for a good single-player experience, as I've never been much into multiplayer gaming, but it will certainly be interesting if he can pull off even half of what he's suggesting.

At the forefront is the same procedurally generated content, only this time with the extra capabilities and storage of modern computing behind it. This should give us a rich and detailed environment, hopefully with plenty of appreciable differences between star systems. The videos have all been very optimistic and impressive so far, and the game engine certainly looks good.

What we have yet to see is any of the mechanics of the game, which is understandable given the early phase of development that it is in (such are the perils of backing Kickstarter projects!). What David wants to do is allow the player to influence the galaxy as much as possible. Trade prices should reflect the scarcity or surplus of resources on any given world, which should change given various factors. There will be wars between different AI factions, in which the player (or players) can influence the course of the fighting, or just profit from it through trade.

He also wants to implement a mission system which takes into account events in the galaxy. You might be asked by one faction to destroy an ambassador's ship, while the opposing faction may ask you to protect it. If you choose to destroy the ship, you might profit from increased arms sales, but on the other hand protecting it might lead to benefits in other ways.

If this is done well, the single player will certainly be interesting. However it's the multiplayer that's the biggest gamble. With these systems in place it is hoped that you would have players on all sides of a conflict, some attacking, some defending, some delivering arms or aid.

The one thing above all I'm hoping for is a move towards a more "Elite"-like space physics model, rather than the one used in "Frontier". The former (albeit unrealistically) allowed for dogfighting, similar to that which you might see in various films and TV shows. Frontier went for a more realistic model, which I found almost impossible. WWII-style dogfighting, despite being inaccurate for space, just feels more exciting to me. Too much Star Wars perhaps, especially the excellent X-Wing and TIE Fighter games.

I backed this at one of the lower tiers, as I didn't really want to gamble too much money away on something that might not work out. David Braben can certainly be very convincing in his presentations, and it's easy to get carried away by the promises. However, it's important to remember it's very early in the production process for this game, and we've only seen a bare minimum of what they have pledged to create. I am cautiously optimistic though, with the emphasis on cautious!

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