The floating space head of David "Orson" Braben is transmitting more details about Elite: Dangerous. This is a particularly important dev diary, because it announces the alpha stage of the game. The backers who pledged to be part of the alpha will be getting the first new taste of Elite in nearly two decades this December. It's not the whole game, though: the alpha will be a series of test segments, enabling Frontier to tune parts of their space epic before the general public is allowed in. The first test will be of the combat systems. Being two months away from new Elite got me a bit excited, so I asked a courier to deliver a package of questions to Braben's home system, and he delivered it on time. Braben's space responses, and the alpha dev diary, are below.
RPS: The alpha is the first time the public will be playing a new Elite in nearly 20 years, which means you have both a legacy to live up to and a clean slate to start over with. How has that driven the design?
Braben: The main factor for me is creating a compelling ‘world’ – ie a galaxy – that I want to explore and inhabit. The ambition for me is just as it was with Elite and Frontier, but now we have far more capability to do things that we couldn’t even consider before.
Fundamentally it has been a balance between the ‘clean slate’ and embracing the heritage. The latter has provided a great framework, and we have expanded this hugely with a very rich tapestry to the world – something we didn’t have before – detailing everything from how food is made, transported, consumed, how electoral systems work, what is in people’s homes, who the corporations are and what they do, in addition to the obvious elements like what the spaceships look like and what goes inside them, the technology of the time and its underlying physics. This may seem like superfluous detail, but it helps provide invaluable information for the associated fiction, for the subject matter of missions, and also in the whole immersion of the worlds.
RPS: Actually, given how long ago it was, and how the space genre waned over time, how many people on the team have a grounding in Elite and space games?
Braben: Many of the team have a grounding in either “Elite” or “Frontier” – take a look at the ‘Meet the team’ interviews on our forums for more info, and the few that didn’t – they do now!
RPS: What role do you play in all that?
Braben: My role is to champion the game as a whole. To look at individual design decisions, and to try to make sure they are going to work well together – and that the eventual game will be one we will all want to play.
RPS: Any difficult decisions you've made? Cutting something the fans of the previous games might expect to be included? Will we all still be chatting on an intergalactic BBS system?
Braben: We make difficult decisions every day!
I think the most controversial is not to include landing on planetary surfaces in the first release. This is because as a player you expect there to be so much there; bustling cities, rich vistas, verdant forests full of exotic creatures, and so on. You expect to be able to get out and walk around. All of those things we want to, and plan to do with time. But not at first release.
RPS: And a sort of mirror of that question: with your initial design goals, has any part of the game expanded beyond how you initially envisioned it?
Braben: Yes. Just about everything has expanded beyond our original design plan – but that is the process of making a rich game.
RPS: I understand the design forum has seen a lot of discussion between the team and the community. How much information have you given them? How have you been using their feedback?
Braben: It’s been incredibly useful. We have changed features, reworked features, and tweaked features. We have even added whole new sections of the game. I called out ‘Super cruise’ in the latest video where players want to be able to experience travelling between planets in a similar way to the way they could in Frontier using fast forwarding of time – clearly something not possible in a multi-player game – but we have come up with a method where it can work – and this will now be in the game, as we think it is a valuable addition – but it has meant large elements of the game have had to change as a result. And it will be better for it.
RPS: I think the most exciting thing for me is being able to play the game with friends. Will the alpha have multiplayer or co-op?
Braben: The first combat test build will not, as we want to test combat with AIs first, but multi-player testing is a key priority for us so you can be sure we will get onto that soon.
RPS: What sort of uptime can people in the alpha expect? I understand you'll be testing various components. Will it allow people to keep playing (through the alpha and beta) to launch?
Braben: Yes – people should be able to play pretty much throughout – though through the alpha a big portion of what we are planning are stand-alone feature tests, and also there may not be continuity of data structures across the alpha and beta - ie you will probably not be able to save data from one and reload in the next – for some stages at least.
RPS: What about ships and customisation within the alpha. Will people have the opportunity to choose their ship and how it'll be fitted, or is that separate component for testing at a later date?
Braben: To some extent – more details to follow.
RPS: Will it be available to all alpha-backers at the same time?
RPS: Was the alpha access always scheduled for a year after the Kickstarter? What's the projected timeline for the beta and release date?
Braben: Yes. It was always scheduled for December 2013. Thereafter we will take an ‘it’s ready when it’s ready’ approach. As we’ve seen with the DDF input, it’s incredibly valuable to get feedback from players, and we are trying to take full advantage of the opportunity we have here to get the best possible end result, so we want to have the flexibility to react to feedback for the overall good of the game.
RPS: How playable is the game? Any interesting stories from your time with it?
Braben: As I said, it’s not a coherent whole – yet. Elements are playable, others are not. For me it is a fantastic release to be able to start doing the things I have wanted to do for a long time. One example is improving on the planet generation in Frontier – building a rich galaxy with an accurate night sky, where you can visit every visible star in it. There are already billions of stars in the game, created with careful attention to detail so that they match real life physics, including the approximately 120,000 stars that comprise the ‘night sky’ as seen from earth with the naked eye and telescopes.
RPS: Thanks for your time.