We chart the history of a Britsoft classic that remains a unique and uncopied experience to this day…
Estimated Total Unit Sales: 1.6 million+
Number of Iterations: Three games (and over 20 SKUs, many with minor alterations)
Game Release Timeline
1993: Frontier Elite: 2
1995: Frontier First Encounters
1984: Elite created by Ian Bell and David Braben.
1988: David Braben secures exclusive sequel rights to Elite from Ian Bell in return for ten per cent of David Braben’s net receipts from the first sequel. Subsequent sequel rights were granted by Bell to Braben royalty free.
1993: Frontier Elite: 2, the first official sequel to the original Elite, released.
1994: Frontier Developments incorporated, starts development of Frontier First Encounters, the first Elite title for which David Braben is the sole copyright holder. Ian Bell challenges David Braben over the ownership of the Elite IPR. This eventually leads to litigation by David Braben against Ian Bell.
1999: A new IPR ownership spat is initiated when David Braben challenges a website run by Ian Bell from which material from the original Elite can be downloaded for free. This is eventually resolved in 2000.
GAME INCEPTION AND GROWTH
Elite was created by Ian Bell and David Braben whilst they were undergraduates at Cambridge University.
The first version was written for the BBC Micro computer and was published by Acornsoft (maker of the BBC Micro) after it had been rejected by Thorn EMI. Elite was space-trading and combat game set in a colossal (even by today’s standards) game universe that comprised eight galaxies and over 2,000 visitable worlds. The aim of the original game was to advance characters through a series of ranks (based on ship kills), accumulating wealth and possessions along the way.
Unlike most games of the time, Elite featured non-linear gameplay similar to many role-playing games. This gave players the flexibility to explore the Elite universe, and reach new ranks and levels of wealth in whichever way they chose. Thus players could opt to pursue both legal and illegal trading activities, become a pirate or bounty-hunter or undertake military missions or even mine asteroids for valuable minerals. As such, Elite did not actually have an ending as players could continue to play in the game universe even after they had attained the highest rank. Elite is also noted for featuring a number of novel technologies including 3D (wire-frame) graphics, procedurally generated worlds (necessary for such an expansive game universe), and a living and reactive galaxy-wide economic model. The result was a remarkable feat considering the 32Kb memory limitations of the BBC Micro. The game received almost universal critical praise as well as considerable commercial success and, in subsequent years, the title was ported to 20 different platforms.
An aborted attempt at a sequel was started in 1985 but was shelved to allow Ian Bell and David Braben to focus on other matters, which in Braben’s case meant the development of other (non-Elite) titles. A sequel, developed by David Braben (but not Ian Bell who had signed over the sequel rights to David Braben several years earlier) was released nine years after the original Elite, following over five years of development and featured much improved graphics, the ability to visit planet surfaces and more accurate space flight physics. This too met with commercial success but critical praise was less universal.
David Braben almost immediately started work on a new Elite title, incorporating Frontier Developments in 1994 to handle the development. However, under pressure from the financially struggling publisher, Gametek, Frontier’s First Encounters was released before adequate testing had been completed and still had unresolved bugs. The game received a poor critical reception as a result and it flopped commercially despite further graphical and gameplay improvements over the previous Elite incarnation.
Frontier Developments explored the potential of an Elite MMOG in 2000 but the project failed to get off the ground. David Braben revealed his intention to start work on two Elite titles in an interview in 2006 (a single-player Elite and the MMOG version) although it is thought that no work would start until the release of Frontier Developments’ current major project, The Outsider, is finished (expected in late 2009).
COMPANY INCEPTION AND GROWTH
Frontier Developments Ltd was incorporated in 1994, ten years after the first Elite game was published, but it had existed informally before this point and had produced both Elite Plus and Frontier Elite: 2. The original Elite was jointly developed and owned by David Braben and Ian Bell. As was common for the time, they had personally entered into a contract with Acornsoft, ]’s publishers.
Recognising its quality and the potential for improving hardware sales, Acornsoft took a major risk investing in a high profile launch campaign and using comparatively extravagant (and expensive) packaging for the game.
The BBC version went on to achieve sales of 150,000 (representing a near 1:1 tie ratio of software versus hardware sales at the time) and this led to intense competition for the publishing rights to the title on other platforms. This was eventually won by BT Telecomsoft’s Firebird publishing label following one of the first games IPR auctions (handled by a games agent, also something of a novelty at the time).
The title went on to sell a reported total of over a million units. Following the aborted attempt at a sequel, Braben proceeded onto other games development projects, writing Zarch and Virus. He returned to Elite after securing from his former partner the exclusive sequel rights to Elite and the right to re-use material created for the original game in return for a ten per cent royalty (of net receipts to David Braben) for the first sequel. The sequel, Frontier Elite: 2, was eventually published by UK-based Gametek after the original publisher, Konami, had decided to withdraw from the PC publishing market and had subsequently sold on the Frontier Elite: 2 rights. It became Europe’s best selling computer game of 1993 notching up some 500,000 sales.
Buoyed by its commercial success, Gametek and Braben agreed to produce a further Elite title, Frontier First Encounters. David Braben established Frontier Developers to work on its development. However, its premature release in 1995 undoubtedly damaged both the title’s sales and the reputation of the Elite brand – no other Elite title has been produced since. Its botched release also lead to a protracted legal battle between Gametek and David Braben with whom the publishing contract had been signed. This litigation was eventually resolved in David Braben’s favour in 1999, a year after Gametek went into liquidation.
Frontier has gone on to become one of the UK’s largest studios, working on both original IP and third party licence development for major publishers.
Elite was a truly seminal games property that featured both technology and gameplay concepts that were not just years ahead of its time but in some cases have still not been emulated to this day. Whilst it did not mark the start of the space-trading genre it certainly popularised it far beyond any of the preceding space trading games, largely because earlier titles were text-only. It also went a long way towards introducing the concept of open-ended ‘sand-box’ gameplay, also a seminal development which was to be imitated widely in later years by games such as the Grand Theft Auto series and even massively multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft.
A number of titles based on space flight and trading have been released since the last Elite-based title in 1995, most noteworthy of which were Electronic Arts’ Freelancer and CCP’s MMOG Eve Online (which was launched in 2003, has some 230,000 subscribers and is still growing).
Elite is also notable for being a games IP over which several bitter and unnecessarily public legal battles were fought.
It appears that many of the legal problems that existed between David Braben and Ian Bell arose because of the continued failure to identify clear IPR ownership of the original title. The agreement between Acornsoft and the two Elite co-authors as individuals was not uncommon at a time when most games were developed by sole programmers or very small teams who mostly comprised people in their teens or early 20s.
It is still not entirely clear where the Elite IPR (as distinct from the original title copyright, which is jointly owned by David Braben and Ian Bell, and the sequel rights, which were conferred to David Braben via a legally-binding contract with Ian Bell) lies.
David Braben’s desire to avoid using the Elite name in sequels (he yielded to publisher pressure for the first sequel, but kept the name from the third release) could be interpreted to reflect the less than clear ownership of the Elite brand. As it stands, David Braben appears to retain the right to create further Elite games and a few years ago he even announced his intention to work on two new Elite games. More recent interviews, however, suggest these plans have once again become somewhat uncertain.
The value of the Elite IPR in today’s market is difficult to ascertain as it has been well over a decade since the last release. However, the popularity of Elite ’s core gameplay concepts in many of today’s best-selling offline and online titles and the failure, in critics’ eyes, of the market to produce a comparable Elite-style game that lives up to the original release would suggest that it still has considerable potential.
- Its game universe was unprecedented in scale
- The game was open-ended, with ‘sand-box’ gameplay featuring role-playing elements
- Elite was the first implementation of 3D graphics on a home computer
- The game secured the strong backing of publisher Acornsoft (whose computer, the BBC Micro, was the first platform Elite was created for) which included a high-publicity release and premium packaging
- (In the sequels) Elite was the first space-flight game to feature fully explorable planet surfaces, an almost unique achievement even to this day.