It’s been 30 years since Elite blew BBC Micro owners away with its sheer scope and ambitious design. Three decades on and Elite Dangerous is finally getting ready to dock after being successfully funded on Kickstarter. We speak to David Braben about his first steps in the games industry and what led him to creating his original sci-fi epic.
Let us start by going back to your days at school in the late Sixties and Seventies. Computers and gaming didn’t really exist, so what were your aspirations back then?
At school I was very much into physics and that was my major passion. I enjoyed seeing how things worked and I also loved making things. I felt fascinated by science, but at the same time, I enjoyed unleashing my creativity.
Were you considering a career in science back then?
I liked the idea of being a research scientist. You know, looking into… well, lots of different things, I suppose. It was very interesting. I have also been fascinated with astronomy for a very long time. I am amazed at how little we understand the whole shebang. I mean, I look up into the sky today and I realise that it was only quite recently in historical terms that we had any idea of what kept the sun warm. And you know, we still don’t understand gravity.
Would it be fair to say that you have a natural instinct to explore and discover?
I think so. There are a huge number of things that are out there that we have almost no comprehension of, you know? In fact, the things that we do have comprehension of are a very small percentage of what there is to understand.
How did you get into the development of games?
Well, I did sciences at university. I went to Cambridge to study natural sciences, which is specialising in physics, and in parallel I got a computer and started playing around with it. And I was fascinated by 3D graphics and put together various graphical things. I wanted to make a game because that seemed the best way to make use of graphics, if you see what I mean. It sort of started life as a hobby.
David Braben talking about game development at a GameCity event.
But if gaming hadn’t existed, do you think you’d have become an astronomer, perhaps?
Quite possibly, yes, but you never really know. You know, if that hadn’t… If games hadn’t taken my fancy, maybe something else would. Personally, that was the path when I went to university that I was imagining I was going to go down.
Can you remember the first time you played a game?
Well it wasn’t when I was a child because there were no such things at that time. When I went into the sixth form, games had just appeared in pubs and arcades. There were some Space Invaders cabinets from Taito – you know, the original Space Invaders. And then when I went to university, or maybe it was when I was still in the sixth form, I seem to recall seeing Galaxian and then Pac-Man.
Did they fascinate you?
The games then were very much centred around coin-operated machines. They weren’t in the home. I remember a machine came out at the end of the Seventies, where you had these six games and a machine that you plugged into the television. It would just make bleeps and it had rip-offs of Pong, Breakout, those sort of things. But, to be honest, computer games were just a hobby. They weren’t as engaging as they are now, if that makes sense.
So games didn’t particularly grab you right from the start?
These earlier games came along a bit late for me. I was already moving on by then, if that makes sense. I mean, we didn’t have a computer at school until I was in the sixth form. But I was always fascinated by the sort of clever things that these machines could potentially do.
David Braven and Elite co-creator Ian Bell pose for an early publicity shot.
It sounds as if you were more interested in how games were constructed rather than the games themselves…
Yes. I quite enjoyed subjects like maths. I was a bit of a saddo at heart [laughs] but I remember seeing an advert for an Acorn Atom, and you had to buy it as a kit and put it together. I remember being fascinated by the idea that you could build a computer to do things and I got very excited that using very, very simple logical steps you could make something really complicated.
Did this extend to your future in programming?
When I was a lot younger I had Lego and the mindset of making really complicated things out of things that were quite simple was really exciting. I think that’s what got me interested. I mean, the Lego had gear wheels with it and you could make really quite complicated machines out of what seemed quite simple things. And it’s that same sort of fascination, I think, with programming – designing things that could be exciting – but at the same time a way of trying out different sorts of technological solutions to things.
Given your love of physics and astronomy, it’s little wonder that you created Elite…
One of the very first things I wrote on a computer was an expanding star field. I wanted to actually be able to fly through a star field, and I remember writing this in BASIC. I was really crestfallen because I was expecting it to run really quickly because at the time I thought, ‘Oh, it’s only drawing a few dots’. But you had to draw them again and again in a moving perspective and it took 10 or 20 seconds to draw them all up, so I was really disappointed. I was expecting it to be magical, you know; something really interesting to behold.
Did you give up on BASIC?
I started learning machine code. But I suppose the link between astronomy and gaming was ironic in that my very early program was driven by my astronomical interest.
David now runs Frontier Games and is hard at work putting the
final touches to Elite Dangerous.
Was there something of a parallel between astronomy and programming? Were they both appealing because they allowed open-ended exploration and the pushing of boundaries, or is that a bit of a strained comparison?
That’s probably a bit strained. I think – and it’s not just astronomy but most science – that there are actually great vast areas that we know pretty well nothing about or we have various sorts of understandings of to some degree, but they’re not complete. And with programming, there’s just the fascination of what you can do with it. It’s like building a fantastic structure from bricks. Bricks are very simple but you can make amazingly complex structures, and I suppose one of the things I learnt then was that by very, very simple steps you can get things that appear to be extremely complicated. I don’t know if you know about mathematic functions like the Mandelbrot set, but I remember being amazed at how, with such a simple equation, you can get such a complex outcome. I think it’s a whole exciting, fascinating thing to do from a programming point of view. And what I’ll say is that the things that I was fascinated with back in the Eighties in terms of computing still exist. I suppose all of this is what’s behind the sort of things we know with the Elite galaxy.
How did you get started on Elite?
Well, I’d put a lot of time into playing around with 3D graphics and 3D spaceships, and how to draw them, and how to draw them very quickly, and then I met Ian Bell at university and he was working on a game called Free Fall with Acornsoft, and I thought, ‘Oh, it would be excellent to make a game from this and publish it.’ I showed him my spaceships flying around with sort of 3D star fields and things like that.
How receptive was he?
He was very receptive. But the problem we had was that, fundamentally as a game, it would just be too empty, so we just, you know, we talked about how we could make it more interesting, have a galaxy to fly around trading and all that sort of thing, and that’s where Elite was born. I mean, trading came from the need for an excuse, almost a justification for why the player was doing what they were doing. We didn’t want a game that just took ten minutes to play.
Did you feel it would be a success from the start?
Well, we knew it wasn’t similar to other games out there at the time and so when we came to getting the game to market, we started to struggle. We’d already been turned down by publishers and I think I’ve said a lot publicly about Thorn EMI rejecting the game. I think the point was the game was very different to what was out there and so we were confident that it was going to do really well.
David proudly poses with a recently won award.
What was your biggest fear?
I think really, certainly my biggest fear was someone else getting there first, doing a good 3D game before we did, and I was obviously delighted that it didn’t happen. But it’s one of those things that once it’s there, I thought other people would see it and go, ‘Oh wow. I will do one like that,’ and we would just be one of many. I think we were very lucky in that we had the field to ourselves for quite a while.
Can you take us through how you went about visualising Elite?
We didn’t really have any doubts about what we were doing because we were writing the game for ourselves and we were just hoping that there would be other people like us. That this was a game we would have liked to play was the point. The bigger doubts were either that we were going to get somehow ripped off, or someone else would do a similar game and come out before we did, you know, because why were we in any way special? We were lucky really. We thought maybe someone else had started before us and kept it secretive.
Was it difficult juggling programming with your studies?
Yes, it was a challenge because the masters for Elite went off for duplication about a week before my end of final exams. So that was difficult balancing priorities.
How did your friends react to the game and the time you spent on it?
They probably thought I was an idiot, but nothing changes. I’m sure they still do. [laughs] Good friends were supportive. They just thought it was a bit of fun – you know, a job on the side. I think they were mostly critical actually, but in a good way.
Notable David Braben Games
You can read the rest of our interview with David Braben in issue 74. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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