With Elite: Dangerous just around the corner, we’re happy to publish our account of a talk we had with series co-creator David Braben recently. Read on to find out what he had to say about the technology involved, the space trading/combat genre and what to expect from Elite: Dangerous when it releases on December 16.
Elite has been pushing the boundaries of technology for 30 years now – how are you doing that with Elite: Dangerous?
Something that’s new to the series is full support for joysticks like the X52, but we’re also supporting Oculus Rift and 4K. You may have also seen 8K screenshots, or even 16K. Even with 4K the models have to be of very high fidelity, and that demand only increases with 8K or even 16K. Now that may seem very silly, but it’s amazing how quickly the future arrives – and that’s something we plan for. When we released Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 in 2004, people said, “What’s the point in using pixel shaders?” because only the really top workstations had those things. We also supported really high resolutions when things like 1080p were seen as unheard of and “not needed”. But at the end of last year we were number one in the budget chart even though the game is 10 years old. That’s because the workstation of 2004 is the laptop of today, and having the detail sliders go all the way up worked out great and will future-proof Elite: Dangerous as well.
Won’t the sheer size of the Elite: Dangerous universe be overwhelming to players?
This is the sort of game we wanted and we don’t necessarily want players to be all that comfortable – we want something that’s exciting. This is why we’ve put so much complexity into the game – because we like that, and I like that as well. One of the things we’ve seen in console games is that they’ve been a little bit dumbed down over the years. I like the fact that there’s no tutorial in Elite: Dangerous. Look at kids playing games now, it’s funny. Quite often when they get slightly stuck, they just fire up youtube while still playing for a “how to” – I imagine there will be plenty of those here as well.
With this great open universe and the computing power available today, how do you limit yourself?
We’ve got to be disciplined. The important thing is to deliver a great game, and the real danger is that you can bite off more than you can chew if you’re not careful. With Elite: Dangerous we’ve been very careful to do each stage one at a time in a very directed way. We went live with the combat test in the alpha, because it’s really important that the moment-to-moment gameplay is good since that’s what the game is built on. Then we added all of the networking to get things working in the real world environment. It’s easy to get it working on a LAN, but it’s much harder to get it working over the internet. The way I liken it is to building a house. We’ve put down the foundations, we’ve built the walls, we’ve plastered the walls. And for the past few months we’ve been putting in all the furniture. Putting in more missions, putting in more things to discover. So over time, sections of the game that first felt a bit empty started to feel more and more rich, more and more busy.
Now there’s also Star Citizen coming out, as well as Star Conflict – why the sudden reemergence of the genre?
I think it’s more a case of them being suppressed because the richer market was controlled by publishers up until recently. Only in the last couple of years has it made sense for a big game to go online and that has freed up so many opportunities. Kickstarter’s arrival has helped cement those opportunities, so now we can publish the game directly without any publishing support. That’s been enabled by Kickstarter, it’s been enabled by online – and it’s just a wonderful alignment of the stars. And so we’re able to do the game I’ve always wanted to make with the quality that people are expecting. Hopefully people are pleased with the quality they are seeing – it’s a really rich world. Absolutely huge, the whole galaxy, every star in the night sky – all of those things. It’s great… it’s exciting!
Elite stays true to its roots, whereas the genre moved more towards Hollywood-esque storytelling in the mid-nineties…
I think that development spoiled it for me. It brought in new genres, with games like Wing Commander and Mass Effect where the story became the dominant theme. You had very long cutscenes and events directing your path through the game, and to me that took away the freedom I wanted in the first place. Mass Effect is a great game, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a different game that’s very scripted – and I didn’t want that scripted nature. When you go down to the surface of a planet, you always see the same thing. You land, walk by some things, get to a building, shoot the guard, reach a checkpoint. But I want the freedom to say, “No, I want to land on that island over there instead”, even if there’s nothing there! I might just want to hide something over there, because I’ll recognize that spot when I come back, and hopefully no other players will have seen me so it’ll be safe.
Surely the gameplay in Elite: Dangerous has also changed from what we saw in previous games?
Absolutely – it’s a whole new game in terms of richness, even though we have a lot of echoes of the themes that were in the earlier games. Some things don’t change that much, but you’re right – we have had to move forward and put in multiplayer, and that changes the game quite a lot. I think one of the challenges for us was that expectations were sky high, because it’s been so long since the last game (1995). So I wanted to make absolutely sure we could do something that was top notch. That was one of the reasons we went with Kickstarter and not a publisher, because I know a publisher would try and nail us down on all sorts of things. Publishers haven’t been very interested in space games for a long time, probably because of caution – and understandably so. I think the last AAA space game was probably Freelancer, and that didn’t do very big numbers. So they’re very weary with that, and so we went to Kickstarter – and now some publishers are suddenly very interested because of those big numbers they saw.
What marked the moment for you to return to Elite?
We had a lot of fun during the Kickstarter, for instance when there was a dogfight that we filmed. I remember that that was actually great fun, even though we had only just gotten it working and it was flakey. It was running on our LAN, but it was great fun and I think that was one of the first moments that it really started to feel alive.
However, we’ve been playing around with the idea for a very, very long time. Looking at designs, looking at concept art and looking at how we solved some of the big problems – because a multiplayer game has a lot of problems. I wanted to make things real in terms of size and space, but that means it’s very hard to find other players. So what we’ve done is to enable people to travel faster than light in order to bring people together. When someone’s under attack, you can quickly go over there and meet them by traveling faster than light – even though that’s scientifically inaccurate.
How important is accuracy to you in a sci-fi game?
Elite: Dangerous is hard science fiction and I love the accuracy. I love knowing that all the stars in the night sky are there. I love thinking, “Oh, I’ve been to that one.” It adds to the richness for me. Why not make it as real as we can? All of the exoplanets are in there and you can go visit them. We’ve used procedural generation where we don’t have data, because even Hubble can only resolve small red stars up to about 40 to 50 light years away. Beyond that, they just appear as a sort of haze or dust. But we know they’re there, so we’re creating them procedurally. I’m confident it’s very, very close to what’s out there, and as we get better space telescopes I’m sure we will be able to resolve more in the future.
So astronomy and science are important factors for you?
I guess so. For instance, the whole gravity thing. The idea of artificial gravity just annoys me, because it would be SO energy-intensive, whereas you can just rotate things, and then you’ve got artificial gravity. Why not let that determine your design ethos? I love thinking about those things. What would really happen in space if they built spinning space stations? It would make sense if they did, but where do you dock? In the middle of the station, because if you’re lifting a ton worth of cargo over your head it’s safer to do it in a low gravity environment.
When landing your ship you want to do so in .1 gravity instead of 4G, but then outside the space station you want the luxury of 1 gravity – or do you? In some of the stations we’ve put in the game, we’ve put a half G ring – because we read people could fly in half a G. If you strap on wings, and you’re fit enough – you could actually do it. Isn’t that great?!
Our thanks to David Braben for his time, insights and enthusiasm!