Do you know the way to Sagittarius A*? In Elite: Dangerous, a space sim whose marquee feature is a complete and as-far-as-we-know-realistic simulation of the Milky Way galaxy—all 400 billion stars of it—Sagittarius A* is the supermassive black hole at the center. Grit your teeth, and you might make the journey from civilized space in 13 hours. Pack a fuel scoop.
While version 1.0 released in December 2014, Elite: Dangerous is, and will be for some time to come, a work in progress. Most recently, 1.3 added an extra layer of interstellar politics that pits "Powers" against each other, each made up of continuously shifting minor factions vying for control.
Elite: Dangerous is also beautiful to look at. But as the game continues, it’s evolving and adding even more material, and recently, Frontier has announced Horizons, which will give players planetside action in a Surface Recon Vehicle. We spoke with creator David Braben about Elite: Dangerous, his original space sim Elite, and what the future holds. <CoughThargoidsCough>
What goes into building a star-spanning sci-fi universe?
We’re trying to simulate the real-life galaxy as accurately as we can. It’s not drawn by an artist. [A computer is] rendering everything that’s in the world, [including] the right amount of dust.
Actually, we know very little about specific stars in the galaxy. You don’t see them individually; you see them as a sort of smoke. So what we’ve done is we’ve populated those areas to get the right mix of stars, using fancy algorithms to distribute them in space, at the right number, at roughly the right density.
Apart from the solar system, we’re actually evolving each system from the materials in the primordial mix of gases. We know whether it’s a Population I star or a Population II, in terms of the chemical mix [and] of the metallicity of the system. We use all that to put together the data of the planets.
The planets we then coalesce from that material. We work out the age of the system, so we know roughly how long they take to stabilize and model all their orbits, the radiation from the star. We’ve also got in the game all the exoplanets we know about. So hopefully we’ve got a pretty thorough simulation.
What are the game's sci-fi movie/TV influences?
When I was a young kid, I really loved reading science fiction and digested it avidly. Television didn’t excite me so much. But what hit me first as being credible outside books, which I absolutely loved, was Star Wars. It felt believable. It felt rich. It felt wonderful. And that really engaged me.
We try and follow what’s often called hard science apart from one big exception, which is you can travel in hyperspace. And the reason for that is if we restricted travel to sub-light speeds, it would take a generation to go to a star and come back again, even with a technology that allows you to accelerate at the sort of speeds you’d need. I think that would spoil it.
What about the game will entice sci-fi fans who aren't gamers?
There’s a lot of rich sci-fi built into the game, in addition to the game aspects of it. You can see weather patterns on the surfaces of planets. You can look at the chemistry there. And just the sheer beauty of it, seeing an eclipse in a distant system, looking at a constellation that no living human has seen outside a simulation … that includes the sun seen from a distant star.
You can play the game without necessarily fighting. You can play the game as an explorer, so you can go out and see what is out there. You can also discover things. You can be the first to see a system, and your name will be forever associated with it, if it’s an unexplored system that no one has seen before.
What did you learn from creating the first Elite game?
Ian Bell and I at Cambridge University started the first Elite back in 1982 and released it in 1984. The constraints on the machines then was astonishing. We launched on a computer called the BBC Micro, which had 32K of memory, of which 22K was available to a game. It’s bonkers looking at that now, because a typical email is bigger than that. We agonized over 1 or 2 bytes and how to save them and what we could do if we did save them.
We have different kinds of restrictions [now]. We have performance, we have networking restrictions, what we can send back and forth over the network given modern network constraints. But the restrictions now are way less than they’ve ever been. A modern PC or a Mac or an Xbox One is a really powerful machine in terms of computational power and what it can render.
Does Elite: Dangerous have a plot?
To me, story is as much about the world you’re a part of than it is about what individual characters did or said. To me, narrative and story are two different things that are often mixed up. When you’ve got a million people playing in a world at the same time—currently, it’s over half a million—it’s a lot of people, is the point—and if you have half a million princesses being rescued, it suggests that the princess isn’t such a rare deal. It doesn’t make sense.
We’re trying to do a different kind of storytelling. We sort of [have a plot], but it’s been created by the way the players interact. We’ve created all these different powers for people to take part in. The players can take it from there. We don’t really know what’s going to happen with players. But in the early days of the game, people were really positive toward slavery, but now they’ve switched. The game is bringing in these sort of moral questions.
Also, every individual player has their own narrative which builds into this overriding plot. Essentially your narrative is “I managed to get this good ship, and I joined this organization, and together we managed to overthrow the government.” The player can actually have a big influence and in aggregate that feeds into the power becoming a lot more successful.
How is this different from other space sims?
We’re out now.
We’re set in the real world. We all do it in a different way. We have a completely different take on it, a different level of cynicism, different things the player can do. It’s what style you prefer, really.
There will be other [space sim] games as well, probably five or six I’ve heard of in the last six months. This genre has been dead for so long, it’s a real shame we didn’t get more of these games spread out over the previous decade, because we would have enjoyed them more. But it’s good. It’s a genre that’s come back.
First-person shooters have been the thing for probably 10 or 15 years with games like Call of Duty and Battlefront. It’s not to criticize those games, but I would much rather see more varied games. We’re starting to see that now, particularly indie games coming out that are really quite different, and I think that’s exciting.
Where do you see space sims going in the future?
Certainly they’re becoming richer and more sophisticated.
If you’re looking at where Elite: Dangerous will be doing one year, two years from now, we’ll be doing amazing things. We’ve got going down to planetary surfaces to come, we have more richness on planetary surfaces, vehicles on planetary surfaces, getting up out of your seat, walking around in your spaceship, boarding other ships, walking around inside stations. Potentially walking outside your ship, all of it on the surface of planets as well. There’s so much to do.
Each one of those is like a whole new game in terms of the content that’s needed to make it compelling. And so we don’t want to rush in to them. We will be pacing ourselves. We will be releasing those features over time, and they’ll be great, and they’re create whole new ways to play the game.