Develop ’09: Elite vs GTA: Designer Mash-Up

Kieron and I have been expanding our minds and destroying our livers at the annual Develop conference in Brighton, Blighty for the last couple of the days. One of the highlights of the show so far has been David Braben, he of Elite fame, and Dave Jones, he of APB and GTA1 fame and their ‘designer mash-up.’ The concept – they play each other’s most iconic game, and provide retrospective commentary about their time making these two goliaths of gaming history. Some ramblomatic highlights below…

First up, Dave Jones grapples with the original Elite, running in a Spectrum emulator, while Braben takes the mic. (Important note – I caught a flash of his underpants while he was attaching it. It was the most erotic moment of my life). “It’s amazing how times have changed sice both elite and gta game up”, quoth he. “It’s interesting the criticism elite got at the time for being 3d.” It was made by two guys in 18 months, which is astonishingly far away from the dozens-strong teams of today’s blockbusters. “We were incredibly secretive about it because the expectation was every game was going to be 3d by the time we came.” Fortunately they weren’t.

Less fortunately, ” the publisher response was very negative. Most of the games on sale on the time were clones, basic ripoffs of Pac-man and Space Invaders. One of the publishers’ criticisms of Elite was they wanted 3 lives and a play time of no more than ten minutes. We just didn’t understand that.”

Meantime, Jones is making a horrible mess of things – “the joy of docking”, grins Braben. That said, he seems to have forgotten quite a few of his own game’s controls, so takes a while to help Jones out of his hole. Eventually, though, Jones manages to find a few pirates to tussle with. “It’s amazing how intelligent we were told the bad guys are,” says Braben, “when really it’s random numbers being told to attack you.”

As Jones suffers his first of several embarrassing defeats, Braben talks about Elite’s complexity. “We gave a whole load of features to the player, then took away lots. There were too many fiddly little things to do at the start, so we actually sold them back to the player.” He and co-creator Ian Bell were still concerned about the game’s appeal.
“We were afraid that we were up against very bright very colourful games. It actually takes some dedication just to get into the game. The advantage we had was they’d already waited 20 minutes for the cassette to load, so at least they were going to give us a chance.”

Meantime, Dave jones can’t work out how to turn right. Braben helps out, then rues that plenty of people struggled at the time too. “It was very much not a centre the sight the game. A lot of people’s experience was a strange triangle appearing on the screen for a second and then going away again.”

Dave Jones gets killed again. While he goes off in search of something to fight one more time, Braben goes more into the original motivations behind the game. “The fundamental thing both ian and I thought with games was if you’re just shooting to get a score it wasn’t very satisfying. What we wanted to do was to get some motivation. SotThe idea of trading came up. We actually though of rising through the ranks of the navy but that seemed to complicated, too much work. Then we realised that you could be a pirate as well as being pirated.” Which, in turn, led to concept of smuggling. “Quite controversially we put in various illegal goods that you could trade –slaves, firearms and narcotics. Which, given the fact this was a BBC computer…”

Fun fact time number one: “If you look at the games of the 80s, almost all of them are left-handed. It didn’t cross my mind that that was an issue, not until I saw someone at a show playing Elite with their arms crossed over.”

Fun fact time number two: “The whole of Elite is smaller than an average email” Hundreds of planets in 22K? It’s incredible, really.

Dave Jones suffers his final defeat and gives up. “It was an age where game designers were almost competing with players to make their games hard to play,” explains Braben. “In those days we were writing games for ourselves.
From a game design point of view there’s a danger of being too close to a game. You end up making it harder and harder because you no longer find it a challenge.”

Nontheless, this strange, proto-3D, punishing space sim was an enormous hit in Europe. “Acornsoft really put themselves behind it – the print run was 50k, even though their highest selling game to date was 30k. Those units sold out in less than a week.”

And now, GTA time – Braben playing and Jones speaking.

“We started this in 1995. It took about two years really. The initial idea for the game was you played the police – it was orginally called Race and Chase.” Fascinatingly, “one of the things that really insired this game was pinball.
What a lot of people didn’t realise was how you completed it. You just have to get 1m points and you finish the game, you win the city. BUtWe knew people probably wouldn’t want to do missions for a while, so we had things like you shoot a car with one bullet and you got ten points.” Whenever you won points, you’re shown an expanding number zooming out of your character. “The dotmatrix stuff was emulating pinball. I thought a pinball table was the seminal game design. It had immense feedback – one player, two buttons.”

Uh oh. David Braben has found some Hare Krishnas. Jones becomes excited: “Hare Krishna bonus! Kill the hari krishnas! Get them all in a line! We picked the people who are so peaceful… even though they’re upset, the krishnas don’t do anything about it.” The police do however, and Braben’s heat rating rises. We wanted some kind of comeback on you. Of course, that became a challenge for players – how long can I survive on maximum heat?”

Jones goes into some of DMA’s own challenges in making the game too. “Being an open world game design the number of problems you had to solve – you never really knew where the player is. For instance will a car’s doors open in a narrow street? Testing an open world freeform game is an absolute nightmare. The number of compound bugs you get: if you do this, if you do this…”

Then there’s the matter of the great controversy around the game. Very much deliberately courted, as it turns out.
“We actually employed Max Clifford [notorious British celebrity publicist]. He’s a very very smart guy. We described the concept to him and he said it was absolutely shocking. The when we showed him the game and it was this cartoony, top-down 2D thing he said that’s not very shocking. So, what said was describe the game to people but don’t show it. And 10 days later, we’re on GMTV.” Bingo – instant scandal. “When we finally let a few politicians see it, the look on their faces was a sight to behold.”

This prompted Braben wish he’d employed Max Clifford, and sharing some more anecdotes about how they promoted Elite at the time. That done, it’s time to drag myself off to a fascinating talk about architecture in games, despite my annoyance that our own Jim Rossignol (an occasional contributor to BLDGBLOG) hadn’t been asked to take part in it….


  1. Frye says:

    “joy of docking” indeed! After all these years i can still remember figting off wave after wave of pirates, finally reaching the planet but tearing off a wing because i didnt properly rotate along with the space station. It made it all the more satisfying to buy my own docking computer. (Didnt it play a Strauss tune while docking?) For me, the game’s true appeal was in the upgrades of my ship. I could stand any kind of grind since there were clear and useful rewards at the end. Any chance of getting an interview with Jeff Minter some day?

  2. Frankie The Patrician[PF] says:

    oh boy! We want to see the pictures!!!

  3. Batolemaeus says:

    Wait, Elite and no mentioning of Eve?
    The lack of Eve confuses and infuriates me!

  4. Jim Rossignol says:

    No one has played Eve. No developers ever talk about it.

  5. Hypocee says:

    No-one can ‘play’ EVE. One participates in it for a time.

  6. The_B says:

    The first rule of EVE is… ahhh fuggeddit.

  7. Lobotomist says:

    EVE is in fact nothing like Elite. Just roughly associated (Even CCP admit EVE is mostly based on Ultima Online , and much less on Elite)

    Its a wonderful game. But in my opinion looses lot of credit by being exclusively concentrated on war and aggressive conflict.

    If CCP added other possibilities. Civil branch of industry , tourism production….

    It would enrich the game many fold

  8. Στέλιος says:

    Yes, pics would be fab. And Minter. P.s. what about an extended article on DMA design, and/or other software teams & houses from the 8-bit & 16-bit days? Whatever happened to Ocean btw? I’d love a remake of Future Knight (yes, of all things, I loved that on my rubbish little CPC 464!).

  9. Στέλιος says:

    Oops. Mea Culpa. Gremlin was the purveyor of Future Knight, but still curious about Ocean. Sadly, I never got around to playing Elite. Was there ever a PC-friendly reissue or applet version (other than the later Frotntier game)?

  10. jsutcliffe says:

    Elite and Frontier combined ate over ten years of my gamerlife. They were good years.

  11. Marshall says:

    Proofreader taking the day off?

  12. Willy359 says:

    Ahh. Still got my original boxed copy of Elite and the C64 I used to play it on. Perhaps I shall get them out of storage.

  13. SuperNashwan says:

    Proofreader taking the day off?
    All that writing and the only comment you can muster is a snarky one about a few meaningless typos? The article is perfectly legible.

  14. Marshall says:

    I was simply struck by the number of odd punctuation and capitalization errors in the text, given the usual high standard of copy on the site.

  15. Alec Meer says:

    We don’t have a proofreader because we don’t earn any bloody money.

  16. joncfc says:

    Ive been waiting for elite 4 for years.

    did he mention it?

  17. Marshall says:

    I’d proofread for free.

  18. Frankie The Patrician[PF] says:

    I am a bit sad that this thread has got only 17 comments while the COD: MW2 has got over 140…

    I must say I really enjoy bullying the Krishna guys…especially scaring them shitless to “voluntarily” jump into the railway…

  19. Timofee says:

    Interesting to see how GTA was inspired by Pinball. I have to say some of the most fun I had playing GTA1 was on the timed demo where I think you had 10 minutes or something. Seeing how many points I could rack up in that time was great fun.

    The whole beating the points target for the cities was a little strange as I recall San Andreas’ was incredibly high which meant I only ever saw the Vice City level by cheating.

  20. Wirbelwind says:

    The hare krishna’s chant “Grand Theft Auto” I believe, at least that’s what I wanted to hear I guess.

  21. Trithemius says:

    You chaps should put up a paypal donation thing for the perpetually pedantic: that way they can pay you to spend time tediously proofreading if they want it so bad.

    Whee, the monetization of grammar. I need to take a shower.

  22. Trithemius says:

    And when we got tired of playing GTA “straight” we started inventing weird games to play competitively. Like doing laps of the most lap-like city map and having to change cars at each corner – then doing it with escalating warrant-levels.

    So I guess we “hacked” GTA1 to be multiplayer… Awesome…

  23. Owen says:

    @Frankie: Yeah but people complaining about stuff is nearly always going to equal more comments.

    Great write up though chaps. I really need to get Elite, or more likely Elite 2: Frontier, reinstalled. It’s been far too long.

    Oh and actually Alec I paid you a mighty $2 this month so surely you should be happy with your .50 share of that?!! :)

  24. leederkrenon says:

    my favourite thing ever written in a gaming magazine (possibly amiga power) was: “elite was pretty fronty! but elite II is even frontier!”

  25. MonktonGaz says:

    Elite took up far too much of my early gaming life. Along with Miner Willy’s adventures and Jon Ritman’s gaming library.

    I could have been Ruler of the World by now if I’d stuck to schooling and just turned the damn speccy off.

  26. PC Monster says:

    Here’s hoping Braben was taking notes about the unfriendly Elite control system. Elite IV, should it ever appear, needs a simple to use system with universal appeal.

    Lol, I made a funny.

  27. Hmm-hmm. says:

    Well, I guess now I know why I don’t like the GTA games. What I still don’t understand, however, is how other people can stand playing them.

  28. Anton says:

    Elite, on Spectrum, was the first game that shocked me into thinking, “hey, games aren’t just brainless timespent, they can be serious”.

    And I carry that notion to this day, though I am coming to realize that it does not depend as much on the game, as it does depend on the person. An acquaintance of mine dashing through PS:T in a day, and saying “it’s a silly little slasher”.

    If I saw GTA instead of Elite, I would think “games are a stilly timespent”. And would probably carry that notion to this day. It is a cool game, but one needs to have a perspective, certain readiness in mindless-er games, to be ready to really enjoy it.

    Too many words, I suppose. Which means I got really touched by the account above – *sniff* them were good old days *sniff*.

  29. Azazel says:


    That is sublime. Way below the lime.

  30. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    Hmm, am I alone then in loving both games? (or series of games I guess).
    Incidentally, GTA:Chinatown Wars is a great return to the overhead view, you should all go buy it.

  31. Rane2k says:

    Hell yeah, GTA 1, I can´t count how many days i sunk into this game. My favourite “map” was the first part of San Andreas, where you were working for some kind of Chinese mafia. :-)
    The multiplayer was also pretty cool, with the “Cannonball run” mode, which was a kind of race through the city for a number of checkpoints…. which obviously turned into total mayhem once the players met each other at a checkpoint, with the streets filled with burning cars and dead people. ;-)
    Also great fun to try to hit an opponents car from several screens away with a rocket launcher. Ah, great times.

  32. TickledBlue says:

    I’m still disappointed that the GTA franchise went on the become one of the biggest while Elite has been allowed to founder and die a slow death. To my mind Elite/Frontier were the better games. Don’t get me wrong I still enjoyed GTA & GTA 2 (and to a lesser extent their 3D counterparts – I still think Saints Row and Crackdown are more fun though) I just never got the same sense of wonder and being a small part of a huge environment like I did with Elite – liberty city always seems so small.

  33. George says:

    When are there going to be some British game designers who are famous for work they have done in the last 5 years? Or even a decade would be nice.

    Every other country has them. It seems to be only us Brits stuck saying “This guy (was one of two people who) made Elite (and now has spent the last twenty years claiming all the credit”, or “This guy (was one of a team of people who) made GTA (and has spent the last 3 years claiming all the credit)”, or “This guy made Populous”.

    It’s so embarrassing watching these people pouring over victories that are decades old, while the rest of the industry marches on creating the successes of today.

  34. terry says:

    Er… that would be typical Brit self-depreciation, no? I can think of plenty of UK gaming success stories that would seem pretty weak if we drew attention to them (that Tomb Raider company, who once made CHUCK MF’ING ROCK, the guys that proclaimed games to be “BRILLIANT” and “UTTERLY AMAZING” on their tape inlays even when they weren’t, and not forgetting that team that made a little game called Lemmings). I’m pretty sure the handwringing over this is overstated.

  35. terry says:

    Oops, missed the “even a decade” statement. Cheer up!

    Also, curses to the lack of edit and poor proofreading etc.

  36. Nick says:

    “When are there going to be some British game designers who are famous for work they have done in the last 5 years?”

    Ever heard of Rockstar?

  37. CdrJameson says:

    Well, I’m glad to say Elite had no lasting effect on me.