'Life, The Universe And First Encounters' - PC Gamer (c) , Issue 18, 1995
There was a time when teams of programmers were the exception, not the rule. In the formative years of interactive entertainment, solitary figures wrestled with simple home computers in the discomfort of their own homes, burning cigarettes and the midnight oil to prove a point on their way to making their first million.
Some developers made it big through the press or their publisher's sales abilities. A few left their product to do the talking, and a minority of those have become programming legends; David Braben is undoubtedly a member of that elite group.
With Ian Bell he created Elite - on the face of it, nothing more than trading and combat in space, but it so quickly evolved into so much more. It's extremely rare for a humble computer game to have subtlety, true depth, and a long-term following; to be capable of generating its own myths - and sub-culture. It's a far more common occurrence in the more established media, with directors and actors and films and characters to suggest something beyond what is seen and heard.
Elite represents a milestone; its sequel, Frontier, a former milestone - a very lucrative one, mind you - for its lone author. Frontier effectively took one man in the region of five years to write; its sequel, First Encounters, has taken around ten people a little over one year to complete, from scratch. Or rather, it was written from scratch using the Frontier design as a template. Whereas Frontier was a conversion of an Amiga original, First Encounters has been built specifically for the IBM PC compatibles and is, in Braben's words, "sodding huge", with over one million lines of code. The "tons" of programming is a co-operative effort from Jonathan Roach, Ran Mokady, Peter Elliot-Green, Andrew Dunn and freelancer Mike Edie. And, of course, a little help from Mr Braben.
It was Braben's Frontier experience that led to the formation of the Frontier Developments team. Braben explains: "The first thing I was thinking was that there was absolutely no way I was going to spend five years chained to the same game - you get to hate it so much and don't enjoy the process. Also, to not have all my eggs in one basket, to be able to do more than one project in parallel... There's a danger of things getting stale if you are on the same project all the time.
"Certainly the reason for starting Frontier Developments was not just Frontier. There are projects I want to do in the future involving things like an..." he hesitates. "Projects that are a lot more ambitious, and it would not have been realistic to contemplate them as an individual."
Braben's choice of 'hard-men' coders rather than game designers was to avoid "a certain way of thinking. I was looking for people who were good programmers, but also people with other useful skills. There will always be people who work freelance, but they become a smaller part of the whole; the expectation of the whole is so high now. There's a lot more to getting something out than innovation."
I am hoping that First Encounters will satisfy a lot of the people who
thought that Frontier looked shite. It looks a whole lot more impressive
As an innovator and a pragmatist, he's in a position to understand that. And, while he's proud of his work to date, he's also aware of its shortcomings - not that Frontier 's flaws have stopped a bulk of its audience from playing and enjoying it. "There's still quite a lot of interest for people who have Frontier, and it's obvious they have played it and are still playing it because you need a high rank to play some of the later missions. It's heartening getting regular calls from people asking questions...
"I am hoping that First Encounters will satisfy a lot of the people who thought that Frontier looked shite. I can see it did, but I had the graphics system finished in '88 at which time, in comparison, it was surprisingly good, but everything else got better. First Encounters looks a whole lot more impressive."
It certainly does. The planets are now elliptical and more detailed - "they no longer look like pool balls; it all looks much more real" - with contoured and textured landscapes accompanied by a plethora of pretty effects and atmospherics, including hazy sun rises and mist, for example "After having tested First Encounters, when you fire up Frontier you think 'Oh my God, that's awful!' It's funny, when you play First Encounters, and you might think 'That's a bit like Frontier ', but when you play Frontier it's clearly not. It was the same looking back at Elite.
"The idea with First Encounters was to take the bits that worked out of Frontier and make them better. In a sense, the game is a platform for adventures. The way the game's put together, there are similarities. But if you look at the difference between Elite and Frontier, and then compare Frontier with First Encounters...
"It's taking, fundamentally, the same idea - you are in space and given a space ship - but at each stage more and different things have been added. In the same way that Frontier had the majority of Elite in it for continuity. First Encounters has a lot of Frontier, but the points, anything that didn't work so well in Frontier has been improved. Now we have a major storyline. There's the fact that there's now a lot more for the dedicated player."
The player's ship orbits a Federation planet
There's a lot more for the novice, too. "It's easier than Frontier to pick up. If you have played Frontier, then it will be all the more obvious. I didn't want to completely hack around with Frontier world because I felt it worked quite well, mostly, but there were a lot of things I didn't like about the way Frontier worked; for example, the scanner disappeared in combat. Now what you get is a fixed scanner and two modes - normal navigation mode and combat mode - so you can switch between the two. There are now two targets, a combat target and a flight target, controlled separately, so you can use the autopilot while flying in combat. It makes life a lot easier."
And a lot more enjoyable - even though Braben's a stickler for accuracy. "The attitude this time around is to concentrate on what is fun, like, getting behind another ship is great fun. Trouble is, to be absolutely honest, I don't reckon that would happen in space. Your speeds are so great - you approach each other at 10,000 kilometres per second - that you wouldn't be together for very long. There's now a degree of fudging. To make life a lot easier, when you enter into combat, we bring the speeds down - you can still run away, but it makes the combat much closer, it means you can see things like what missiles are up to... There was a programmer's aid in Frontier, which I subsequently took out, where the camera could track a missile. This missile view now appears in First Encounters - it isn't a lot of use but it's quite fun."
The idea with First Encounters was to take the bits that worked out of
Frontier and to make them better. In a sense, the game is a platform for
There are now some 50 different ships to fly, and around 20 of those have been carried over from Frontier. "There are a load that you can't buy, a load that you can't fly, and some that you can only get as a result of a mission - quite a few actually. Only through certain routes will you get to see certain ships. There's a lot of hardware, all sorts of things, some slightly inconsequential, some you can't buy but are given through missions, perhaps in order to complete the later stage of a mission; things like tracking devices and all sorts of magic toys.
"There are some normal toys, mainly to avoid a preferences stage. I have always felt uncomfortable about preferences screens in games (it's not very natural) so what we have done is added more useful ship equipment. A lot of it is weightless, like the autotargeter: the first object to go through that is targeted. The navigation computer helps the player to a destination; a list of local destinations are shown on screen, you select one and it sets it all up for you. The idea is we might as well streamline it. It's a matter of freeing up the player's time to enjoy playing."
First Encounters is easily the biggest, deepest 'space opera' to date, and while the task of finding and solving bugs and quirks in the program is all the more onerous, the increase in size makes for far greater disaster potential than undiscovered needles in giant haystacks. It's of crucial importance to ensure that the action is suitably balanced and the player is encouraged to make progress.
"A lot of the balance comes naturally, but there is some manual toning down or upgrading. One of the things that is always a problem is you put in lots of different ways of doing things, but then there turns out to be only one you play, so there's no point in doing the rest. You can either make that one harder, or leave it to people's discretion.
"Like before, you can let the entire world pass you by. You can play the game like you played Frontier, and if you do that, it will have a lot in common but with pretty graphics, maybe extra missions and extra jazzy bits of equipment. That's one extreme. The other extreme is someone who's played Frontier before can concentrate on the missions and very quickly you are into something very different."
Very. The title First Encounters refers to the player's first direct encounter with 'those naughty old aliens' namely the mysterious Thargoids from Elite. Their presence is a vast can of worms just waiting to be opened...
"Part of the alien thing is that the explorers have gone further out and suddenly come across these interesting worlds which have obviously never been explored before... The other thing is, the way the alien stuff works, there are a lot of small missions that join together in different ways. It's still completely freeform, in that you are still in the Frontier world and you can drop in at space stations and go here and there and run missions, but the main mission threads are much more directive. The point is, at the end of the game you can end up with a completely different game. You can either end up with Thargoids everywhere or completely gone, and it's entirely up to the player - if they get good enough.
"There are the same two superpowers, but things have moved on a bit. They are less unhappy with each other, and there's a third one called the Alliance - there were various anarchy worlds in Frontier which have now allied to form this power. There were also various other secret organisations in both Frontier and Elite - like the Elite Federation Of Pilots, the people who give you the Elite ratings - and there are various undercover military things... The Federation and the Empire, before they came at each other's throats, had this group called INRA - I can't remember what it stands for now, but it's basically a group of mad bastards, the name given to the combined brigade fighting the Thargoids. The player will gradually get to find out the things that went on which weren't entirely above board. It's all been covered up but it starts coming out. While you are doing other missions you get little news items that come through, and it's useful to have read them so you can guess what's going on."
That's Milton Keynes down there, honest!
The news network is a collection of purchasable on-line journals running through a spectrum of quality, from Sun-sational tabloids to the more upmarket reads and a scientific publication - but most of them with a political bias. "Unlike Frontier, there's an element of deception in that what you read in the on-line journals is often complete lies. The reason why you don't start the alien missions for a while, a game year roughly, is that there are loads of other things to do, but also because with the alien thing we wanted to give the player the idea to read between the lines, to gradually build that up. Hopefully we have got that right.
If you look at the different threads, you could be looking at many tens of
different missions, or one very, very complicated mission. It's going to take
a lot of playing to get through it
"It helps to build up background information in the game without it being stilted. There are elements of history within the game and all these possibilities, but to put up a big banner to say 'THIS IS THE CASE' would be too obvious. Also there's the way it presents mission hints - there's a bit of humour in there as well, and there's a perverse level of reward, of getting your name in the papers. It also means the keener players can get more out of it."
And there's a lot to get out of First Encounters. "It's artificial how many missions there are. Once you have played First Encounters for some time, you get sucked into the adventures, and, depending on how you look at it - if you look at the different threads, you could be looking at many tens of different missions, or one very, very complicated mission. It's going to take a lot of playing to get through it.
"You could count up the different basic missions - something like 87 - but then people notice the sameness of it. In Frontier I suppose there were 10 or 12 different types with variations of each one, say, taking a package from A to B there's something like 32 variations, some with no effect other than a financial reward, some you end up being chased by assassins... That's all still there in First Encounters. With Elite it was basically just trading; with Frontier the trading was something to do while doing missions - there's some space in your hold, so you take some cargo. We have done almost no work on the trading for First Encounters because it's not the focus of the game. "The player's objective is to have fun; to explore; to..." Boldly go where? "find out what's happening with the aliens. We haven't really thought 'this is what the player has to do'. The player gets to meet the aliens. How and what they do to achieve it will depend on how they play. It will unfold and become obvious. The point is, you have the option to co-operate or not, which leads to very different outcomes. Certainly if I were playing without knowing the game, I'd try out all the different possibilities. Even with the special hand-coded missions, you won't have seen everything once you make it through - probably half or less.
With First Encounters we have gone to another order of magnitude; there's
a lot more there for the dedicated person
"What I'd probably do is co-operate with the aliens first to see what happens, then play it again from a different perspective - perhaps go out to get them, and end up seeing very different things happen. Maybe I'd get mixed up with the big military forces... It's the wonder of a saved position. If there wasn't a saved position, players wouldn't be so bolshy. Also when the nice parts happen in First Encounters, when people first meet the aliens, they will keep their saved position to show others. We hope that people will blow our trumpet for us. We put all these things in - some of them seem a bit stupid after the event; with Frontier, I put in a screen saver but then took it out. It's in First Encounters, because it will be lovely to perhaps post pictures on a bulletin board system, say, a picture of meeting the aliens, so people will want to know where it happened...
"There are a lot of things in Frontier that come up on bulletin boards and so on, but they aren't really there. There's a rumour of Mirage ship - we haven't tracked down where it started, I reckon someone said it as a wind-up. No-one has actually seen it, but no-one likes to admit they haven't seen it. I think it's absolutely great. There are a lot of things that people have seen that are in there. I like the whole idea of getting involved in a world, and you put in lots of little things to keep that going.
"With First Encounters we have gone to another order of magnitude; there's a lot more there for the dedicated person. I'm always conscious that the cost of games is spiralling. There are all sorts of levels, including the completely superficial to make sure someone says 'that's nice' when they see it. However, I like to think that we have spent the effort underneath that, so that you will notice it when you get the game home. Word of mouth is what sets things like Frontier apart from... others."
Braben literally has little time for the work of others, but he does take an interest in life outside the Cambridge area. "Some of the Bullfrog projects are good - I quite like the look of Magic Carpet. Also, I like Chris Sawyer's Transport Tycoon approach - that's a healthy direction, not relying on rendered graphics; it's an old style of computer game but taking advantage of massive amounts of processor power for a more involved simulation, not following that tacky, me-too flavour of the month which seems to go through six-month phases. I did for one nasty moment think that there would be one with space games, but it never quite got there. I'm seeing more space games come out, and I think 'Is this competition?', but in practice it's not. Wing Commander III is a very different sort of thing, and personally it doesn't appeal."
Something else that holds little appeal to Braben is the current fashion for using pre-rendered animation and digital video at the expense of playability. "Pre-rendered stuff is okay in its place; I have no objection to rendering the dashboard in 3D Studio, even doing little animations for it, but what I really don't like is the 'your computer is a video recorder for the next 20 seconds'." First Encounters features a smattering of digital video - on the CD version, at least. It's regarded as nothing more than an attractive replacement for the hand-drawn faces in the floppy disk 'original', and in no way impedes the flow.
"The thing that I really don't like," concludes Braben, "is these beautiful pre-rendered sequences then CLUNK! bitmap graphics CLUNK! pre-rendered - it's such a jarring contrast... There is a dangerous frame of mind you can get into, thinking, this equipment is really expensive, we should use it for lots. We probably will get SGI kit, but not to use it for the things for which other people are using it, but because they are quite nice machines to develop 3D shapes.
"People going down the video route are going to get bitten by the people not liking rendered sequences, because the computer business has not really gone general public yet; it might well do in the next few years, and then it will get slated. Something like Frontier, it's not as if it's pretending to be something it isn't - you look at it and it's obviously a computer game." But not to its admirers: it's a way of life.
'Life, The Universe And First Encounters' - PC Gamer (c) , Issue 18, 1995