Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Elite

Or, If I made Elite (which I am not doing) it would be like this. The video below shows a small demo/mock-up I made up with Processing already some time back. It incorporates only a small fraction of the game, basically the spaceship motion, game world (sun+planet+space station) and some shooting elements.




(Warning: This post is a bit long.)

When I think about whether Elite needs to be re-made, and what it would be like, my starting point is the ZX Spectrum version. I never thought that games look "worse" or "better" now than they did in the 1980s. It is mostly the inconveniences arising from poor framerate and storage schemes that need to be rethought, and not so much the overall look and sound of the game. For example, the elaborate dashboards in 8-bit games (such as Elite) were part of the character of the game, and making the game full screen with an overlaid display would compromise Elite for me.

Despite what I said about 8-bit visuals, I’d be interested in a bit higher resolution than the 256x192 available on the ZX Spectrum. I would still keep the amount of detail and information on screen about the same. What I mean, if the resolution is double of the original, such as 512x384, the graphic lines would also be doubly-thick, but there wouldn't be more of them. All the line thicknesses would be in proportion to the lines in the original. I did make the objects with filled polygons, but this is only apparent when objects pass each other.
Left: ZX Spectrum Elite. Right: The Processing mock-up. (The radar looks a bit dull and the font is incorrect)
Of course, there was a sequel to Elite, called Frontier: Elite II. But to cut a long story short, Frontier is to Elite like Encyclopedia Galactica is to the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy: More accurate and brimming with detail, but bureaucratic, pedantic and dull. Much like many others have already said, Elite is first and foremost a game, and only superficially a space simulation. 

To keep Elite the game, one has to accept that the player has an unique, privileged position on the game board. Enemy ships die from a few shots, but the player has strong, regenerating shields. The enemies cannot exploit strategies that the player can and do not work in the universe as the player does. I feel that Elite as a game, rather than a simulation, is a more fruitful starting point for inserting more and varied content.

Here's what I think about some themes:

Multiplayer? I’m not saying multiplayer is impossible (after all, board games work very well with multiple players), but it would need to be thought in so different terms that it would “break” the original Elite rules. The unique position of the player would be lost, and the game logic would have emerge very differently to the original. Maybe multi-player dogfights and skirmishes could be additional content rather than the main game.

New buyable ship types? A
lthough this seems like an obvious addition, I feel it is problematic to allow the player to simply buy a new ship type.

In Frontier:Elite II, the player was instantly allowed to trade the ship for a cheaper one, which left the player with a large amount of surplus credits with which to buy weapons and cargo. The otherwise inferior ship could be almost fully equipped, which largely removed the satisfaction of gradually acquiring new weapons systems. The player could sample different new weapons without having them as "rewards" of continued game play.

Possibly, if some other mechanic than simple buy/sell would be introduced for acquiring the new ships, it might work. Perhaps a ship trading license or licenses for new ship types could be introduced as an element to the later game, to renew player interest. 

Another reason for not including other player ships is a bit "philosophical". If the player can change ships, why can't he leave the ship altogether? Or buy a space station or an apartment? Where does this end meaningfully? One way to define the boundaries Elite is to limit it as a game about one particular space ship type. As arbitrary boundaries are set in any case, why not set the game boundary to just "Cobra mk. III simulation", just like subLOGIC Flight Simulator was a Cessna simulation? Focus on doing that well, just as it was in Elite. If we take Elite to be a game, then it has set, arbitrary rules, and this single-ship rule can be one of them. Again, it's not a simulation about living your life in the 25th century.


Galactic chart and the local chart from the ZX Spectrum version.
Expanded universe? The galaxies of the original Elite are a fairly uncontrolled random-generated mixture of dangerous and safe worlds. Some structure arises as routes through the galaxies are constrained by the hyperspace range of the Cobra. This range cannot be changed during the game. 

Here the game might benefit from a bit more structured universe, mostly as a way to control the game difficulty curve, but also to give a bit more character to the localities. In my mind, there could be larger dangerous and alien zones that contain numerous planetary systems. Whole galactic regions might be excluded from a player who does not have enough hyperspace range or well-equipped ship. Portions of the galaxy could remain effectively “locked” for the newbie.


Planet data and market data from the original Elite, mostly an obfuscation.
New tradeable goods? I kind of like what Braben suggested in his Kickstarter pitch for Elite:Dangerous, that there would be uniquely local products that have somewhat different trade logic than the bulk wares sold and bought throughout the galaxy. At the same time I do not think having a longer list of tradeable items would improve the game greatly. It might even make it tedious. 

What would be welcome is a closer integration of the planet data, description and the available and desired goods. What passes for spices in one system might be a narcotic in another. If a planet is engaged in a “brutal civil war”, player could profit greatly with selling weapons to that system. On the other hand, selling weapons to that particular world might be deemed highly illegal by some institution, an act that might have influence somewhere. 

New missions? Certainly. But I dislike the banal generated missions of Frontier: Elite II. I would still keep the missions as fairly rare occurrences, only something that spices up the game now and then and helps maintain an illusion of a limitless universe where anything can happen. Some of the new equipment would be available through successful completion of these missions, just as in the original game. Adding dimensions to the ordinary game content (Such as the civil war scenario above) would perhaps remove the need of having any generated missions anyway, as interesting situations might rise up from the plain gameplay. Admittedly, perhaps more than with my other suggestions, this is kind of easy to say and harder to put into action.

New weapons? Only in a limited way. I’m not so sure if there is even need for more missile or laser types. Upgrading the ship with the fairly closed set of weapons was part of the well-working interest curve of the original game. After acquiring military lasers, electronic countermeasures and the docking computer there was very little to do expect to grind to the “Elite” rating. Adding more levels inside this progress does not necessarily make it more interesting. 


There might be room for some special weapons, but these ought to trickle down very slowly to the player as very rare items, after having made most out of the basic upgrades. This would hopefully keep the game interesting after majority of the content has been revealed. Having hundreds of different items pop up at all time would, in my mind, dilute the effect of any special equipment, no matter how exceptional they are. 

More realistic flight model? No, not really. This is one of the key elements for keeping the game as a game. However, I don’t think the realistic flight model was a 
failure in Frontier: Elite II, on the contrary, it was very fascinating to explore the gravitational effects of planets. The problem was more with the way combat was then arranged around this concept, and the result was mostly unsatisfying long distance one-on-one fighting. For this reason I would keep the flight style fairly similar to the original because the game play becomes easier to manage. 

There is also something detracting about the way time could be "skipped" in Frontier, which in contrast to the realism of the idea actually tended to undermine the player's sense of "real time". I much prefer the idea of a jump drive, as in the ZX Spectrum Elite.


This is about as close the enemy ships should get in effective, normal combat situations.
I've not played the new Elite:Dangerous, but as the game has become closer to completion, the play videos seem to reveal that the combat takes place at fairly long distances. This is not what i would expect. The tracking gimbal-mounted lasers seem especially troubling, as to me Elite is about maneuvering your ship much like in a World War I aeroplane combat, no matter how unrealistic that is. Routinely reversing your ships thrust should also be discouraged.

The combat system can cheat and deceive to make the combat more interesting. The combat system needs to provide constant intimate situations Elite battles were made of. Possibly this can be achieved in having the perspective and coordinate space "close" to the player. Again, multiplayer hinders this possibility.

NPC and enemy interactions? The encounters with the other ships could be a bit more richer than in the original: Enemy ships could occasionally fight each other, and even use the hyperdrive to escape. Many Elite remakes make use of this. Adding these elements ought to be made carefully, though. For example, the game can still create new enemy ships "out of nothing", when the situation so requires. In any way, coolness and narrative engagement should trump reality.

What else? As an additional point, I also think the player should not be forced to read much more during the game than in the original. It should not incorporate “scripted storylines”, or sprawling radio discussions with the NPC ships. The exception could be the missions, but even there the text ought to be quite terse and to the point.

So, there were my thoughts about what would make a good Elite.


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