Friday, July 29, 2022

Game 327: Elite

Download any number of versions of Elite from Ian Bell's home page here:

There aren't many genres extant today where you can so clearly identify a single game as the template's originator, and fewer still where that originator came out in the early 80's, has no obvious predecessors, and feels complete in the sense that no crucial elements of the genre's modern form are missing. What Wikipedia awkwardly dubs the "Space trading & combat simulation," though niche, is such an example, and Elite is its comprehensive ur-text, offering an open-ended universe of galaxies and systems, a market-driven commodity economy, a variety of ship upgrades, weapons, and gear to suit different playing styles, a quasi-Newtonian 3D flight model, and lots of potential for space laser battles against pirates, renegades, aliens, and sometimes police and bounty hunters if you're naughty enough. Wing Commander: Privateer was my first (and until now) only example of this genre to go on, but apart from storyline, Elite did everything that Privateer did, did it nearly ten years earlier, and even had 3D polygonal graphics while Privateer "downgraded" to scaled sprites.

I'm a little surprised that David Braben and Ian Bell chose the BBC Micro as their lead platform rather than the comparatively democratic ZX Spectrum, which it did indeed roll onto the following year with a few bells and whistles, though at the cost of some performance. Coming from a US perspective, the education-oriented BBC Micro is a weird platform that draws parallels to the Apple II that dominated American public schools of the day, like an upgraded yet cheaper model that doubles the CPU speed, adds superior color and resolution, but can't really take advantage of them thanks to a lack of RAM. If it weren't for Elite, possibly the only game to originate on it and become known outside the UK (albeit entirely thanks to its many ports), I don't think I'd have any reason to touch it.

The system's multicolored, multisized text abilities are very impressive for 1981, but no graphics are possible when using them.

Elite uses a medium-res monochrome mode and a low-res color mode simultaneously, and its 3D graphics are software-rendered by a 2MHz 6502.

Like The Lords of Midnight from earlier in the year, Elite comes with a novella titled Elite: The Dark Wheel, which tells the story of pilot Alex Ryder and his quest to avenge his father's death, which he achieves mainly by trading goods on various planets and collecting bounties until he can upgrade his Cobra into a proper death machine. And like The Lords of Midnight, it's not particularly well written, coming across at times as gameplay instructions awkwardly composed as narrative (e.g. The Cobra on the screen ducked and weaved. The temperature of his forward laser began to rise dangerously. The Cobra ahead of them launched a missile at them and Alex shot it, not even bothering to program the ECM. ) It does, at the least, establish some backdrop for the otherwise generic spacefaring adventures you'll have in the same universe as Alex, but I feel the manual does a better job of illustrating it with personal details as well as outlining their relevance to gameplay when applicable.

Venturing into the world of BBC Micro emulation, BeebEm is my emulator of choice here. With some difficulty, I was able to get a joystick working, and to my surprise, the game was responsive to analog input! It's not as precise as one might wish, but it's better than digital.

The adventure begins docked in a space station orbiting Lave with no immediate objectives except to make money.

Medium-orbit zone of Lave, the starting world

I started off by visiting the surrounding worlds to observe their prices and to see if I could establish a pattern. The manual tells us that the economy type is the prime determiner of supply and demand - agricultural worlds produce cheap food for instance, and rich agricultural worlds such as Lave will pay high prices for luxury goods that are produced more cheaply on industrial ones, but I wanted to see if I could find something more concrete.

What I found, after sampling prices on each of the starting worlds and doing some analysis is that, for the majority of trade goods, if not all of them, "economy" is in fact treated as a single-dimensional attribute rather than a two-dimensional one, going on a scale from "poor agricultural" to (presumably) "rich industrial." Food, textiles, and radioactives consistently fetch the lowest prices at the most agricultural worlds and the highest at the most industrial, while luxuries, computers, and machinery are the reverse.

I also found that Riedquat is a horrible place where anarchy reigns and swarms of pirates will invariably pick your under-armed Cobra apart for scrap metal.

Another wimp eats flaming plasma death.

Testing a linear regression schema where "poor agricultural" worlds are assigned a value of 0 and "average industrial" (the most industrial in the immediate vicinity) have a value of "6," some of the price ranges, like luxuries, fit a linear slope almost perfectly, even with such limited data.

Slave prices, on the other hand, fluctuate wildly.

And narcotic prices, as one might expect, are all over the place.

I did entertain the idea that government type affects prices, and, at least for slave prices, this seemed to hold some merit. But with limited data to support this theory, without a single corroborating commodity fitting the same pattern, not to mention the moral and pragmatic (the law will frown on this) reasons to avoid dealing in the slave trade, I'm regarding it as a weak and unproven hypothesis for now.

People aren't cargo, mate.

I made a rough goods price analysis breakdown based on the data available, and they are presented in order from least industrial to most industrial.

  • "Base price" represent the average cost on a poor agricultural world.
  • "Industrial mod" is the amount to adjust the price for each level of industry in a world. E.g. - a poor agricultural world with no industry won't use it at all, a rich agricultural world will raise (or lower) the price by this value multiplied by two, and a rich industrial world would multiply it by seven.
  • "Average flux" is the average price deviation I've seen from the linear slope. This is certainly at least partly attributed to a  random factor, but may also be attributed to certain variables that I just haven't discovered yet.

Base price Industrial mod Average flux Notes
Furs 51 5 7%
Slaves 8 2 38% Illegal
Liquors 21 2 8%
Radioactives 20 1 3%
Food 2 0.8 5%
Textiles 6 0.3 3%
Minerals 10 0.3 8%
Alloys 40 0 12%
Gold 38 0 2%
Platinum 70 0 6%
Gemstones 19 0 12%
Luxuries 101 -3 7%
Machinery 66 -3 2%
Firearms 88 -5 2% Illegal
Computers 101 -6 2%
Alien Items 65 -6 2% Never sold
Narcotics 88 -9 20% Illegal

Following this analysis, for example, we would expect furs to average 51cr ±3.6 on a poor agricultural planet, and 81cr ±5.7 on an average industrial one. This fits my observations, where they were seen as cheaply as 47.6cr, as as expensively as 80.4cr.

Armed with this data, I bought 16t of food and 4t of textiles on Lave, filling my 20t cargo bay, for a total of 81.6cr. I took them to Zaonce, an average industrial world where they'd fetch the highest price, and sold for 139.2cr. After refueling, this granted about a 50cr profit - not a bad margin, but not nearly enough to buy a meaningful ship upgrade, which started at 400cr.

The next logical-seeming thing to do was to haul two computers, costing 69.2cr each, back to a poor agricultural world. Lave would have paid 89.6cr each, but a poorer world might offer around 100 for a 61.6cr profit minus fuel.

I did this, and selected "Isinor," a poor agricultural confederate world as my next destination and hit the hyperdrive.

Unfortunately, something interrupted my jump. Something which, going by the manual lore and novella, was probably a fleet of nasty thargoids. Now stranded in the middle of space without enough fuel to start the hyperdrive a second time, I had no option but to fight my interceptors, futilely.

I was too surprised to take a screengrab so here's another shot of my wreckage. Iron ass indeed.


  1. If any 1984 video game deserves a hook, its this one

  2. The C64 version used a lens-locked copy protection scheme. Basically, they would display two oversized letters on the screen, with the letters chopped up into vertical strips and rearranged. Holding the included Fresnel lens against the screen allowed you to to optically de-scramble the strips and enter the correct answer before proceeding. Unfortunately, my oversized monitor was incompatible with that copy protection, so I couldn't use the program that I purchased legally! This motivated me to create a modified floppy to remove that copy protection. At last! The Firebird Elite, accessible on my own non-standard C64 system!

    I still have that original Firebird/C64 boxed set, plus my floppy copies with Lenslok removed :)

    1. I'd heard of Lenslok and how it was a weird copy protection mechanism that needed a game-specific lens that might not even work if your screen wasn't the right size, but I didn't understand how it worked until your comment. So thanks for that. Sounds very irritating.

    2. Here's an image of the offending device:

      PS I'm really enjoying your blog. Thanks so much for the really great coverage of these early games!

  3. As I understand it, David Braben and Ian Bell were commissioned by Acornsoft, (the software ARM of Acorn, so to speak) to develop products for the Acorn BBC micro to support additional sales, so not a surprise that this was the lead platform. The BBC micro performed a similar role to the Apple 2 in the USA, most people had exposure to the machine via education but expensive to personally buy. In my school year of 1984, only 20% of people who had a computer had a BBC micro, the children of a pharmacist and an accountant.

  4. Of the UK 8bits, the Acorn BBC micro was a well-designed computer with many highly regarded technical innovations, good keyboard, good development tools and early access to disk drives, so a good platform to work on.

  5. Ian Bell's Elite page has C source code for "the classic Elite trading system in a text adventure style shell". I don't know if this is of any use in trying to understand exactly how prices are generated. I haven't tried it myself.

    It's at in all its early-web-with-eye-bleeding-backgrounds glory.

  6. "I don't think I'd have any reason to touch it" -- it's funny you bring up Wing Commander, since other than Elite, I think the BBC Micro is most notable for being WC auteur Chris Roberts' original gamedev platform (for eg. Strykers Run). Plenty of worthwhile games (I personally have a soft spot for Imogen), but no whales to be found here.

    1. Oh, really? Then I may well be touching it again in the future, as an ancestor to a Chris Roberts whale (likely Times of Lore).

      I played a Windows remake of Imogen way back in the early 2000's. Back then I hadn't even heard of the BBC Micro.

    2. Ovine By Design did great work on that remake! It took me years to unearth the name of the game vaguely remembered from a holiday to the UK, and having a remake to parachute right into instead of having to learn the vagaries of an emulator and the system it emulated was really handy.


Most popular posts