Article in Acorn World (Part of Acorn Program) December 1984 - pages iv, v

Limitless horizons for the Elite Team

Nicole Segre sets out to discover what drives two top flight programmers who are finding fame and fortune as authors of the new chart-busting space odyssey from Acornsoft

FROM THE MOMENT the trading ship Avalonia slipped its orbital berth above the planet Lave and began to manoeuvre for the hyperspace jump point ... So begins the 50-page novel which accompanies Elite, the latest and most ambitious game produced so far by Acornsoft. Greeted by rapturous reviews, the game has already exceeded the company's wildest expectations by rocketing straight to the top of the popularity charts and selling 13,000 copies within two weeks of its launch. Forecasts for sales during the Christmas period are in the region of 100,000 - more than double those of any other Acornsoft game so far. A complex combination of an arcade shoot-out and an adventure, Elite is already said to have stopped work for weeks in more than one department while highly-paid programmers struggle to improve their status as trader-ship commanders - from 'harmless' to the coveted 'dangerous' or even 'deadly' level. Behind what promises to be a sales record-breaker are two unassuming undergraduates at Jesus College, Cambridge, 20-year-old Ian Bell and 19-year-old David Braben. The pair wrote Elite in the spare time allowed them in pursuit of a natural science degree and mathematics degree respectively.

Hideous Shortage

The original idea was from Bell who had already produced one successful game for Acornsoft, Freefall. 'I wanted to follow that with a 3D simulation game and it seemed logical to set it in space," he says." Then Braben added the trading ship scenario and things just developed from there." The result of their combined efforts puts the player under the guise of Commander Jameson at the helm of a Cobra Mark 111 trading and combat craft. Setting-off from the planet Lave, with its famous rain forests and its human colonials governed by a dictatorship, the aim is to achieve fame and fortune by exploring distant planets where goods, weaponry and possibly even slaves can be bought and sold. The choice ranges from places like Riedquat, inhabited by harmless rodents and noted for its fabulous cuisine, to the tedious industrial corporate state of Zaonce. Many more weird and wonderful worlds lie outside Commander Jameson's initial fuel range of seven light years. Besides fine judgment in deciding which purchases to make before starting on the inter-galactic trail , the player also has to display considerable arcade skills. Space travel in Elite is beset by danger as piracy and bounty-hunting spreads through the universe. Each battle against marauding craft is influenced by the specifications of the craft in question. On reaching a planet, the pilot must also dock the ship before any trading can be undertaken, a task which may require hours of practice.

The huge variety of planets, aliens, spaceships and weapons, as well as the complexities of space flight, offer almost endless scope for play. Fortunately the game can be saved and resumed later, allowing the poor addict time for rest and refreshment between bouts of hard flying, fighting and trading. The graphics, too, seem set to earn favour among games buyers, as simple dots, curves and lines convey speed and movement in a startlingly effective way.

There is even a choice of views from the front, back or sides of the spaceship and control panels At the bottom of the screen supply vital information about the player's position and fuel level.

Bell and Braben explain the wealth of detail in the game, an impressive achievement considering what Braben calls the "hideous shortage of memory" of the BBC, by saying that they started writing it and continued until they had to stop. "If the BBC had more memory, we would probably still be writing it, ",says Bell. "As it is, there is not a single free byte in the program." The authors agree that careful, economical programming enabled them to squeeze much more into the program than they would have thought possible originally. "The main thing is to make sure that every instruction is a useful one," says Braben.

It is astonishing that Elite took them only a year to write, during which time they also had to attend to what Braben calls "little things like college work and end-of-year examinations". Of that time, about half was taken up with writing the program and the other half with finding and eliminating. the bugs, some of which, like one particularly elusive semi-colon, were infuriatingly difficult to trace.

"We think we have got rid of all of them" says Bell, "but you can never be sure." Their working association began as a simple friendship, struck up at dinner in Hall at Jesus. "It took us some time to admit that we were both interested in computers," says Braben. "At first we were too embarrassed."

Both had owned computers since their, final year at their respective grammar schools - Braben owned an Acorn Atom and Bell a Tandy TRS-80. Neither, however, has had formal tuition in programming, except for one term of 'computer lessons' which Bell had in the lower fourth. "They had no computers at school in my day," says Braben, who learned to program from the Atom manual. Both taught themselves machine code, for which Bell recommends "poring over other people's listings."

Utmost Secrecy

Besides Freefall, Bell had already written one professional game before embarking on Elite, a version of Reversi for the BBC Model A which was marketed by Program Power. "I do not think it was a great seller," he says. Of all his forays into authorship, he has enjoyed Elite most. "It was rather an effort to finish Freefall," he says, "but Elite was sufficiently interesting to keep us hacking away happily."

For Braben, Elite was his first professional effort and his first game for the BBC B. Soon after the pair started work on the program, they took it to Acornsoft and the company was sufficiently interested to supply Braben with a BBC micro.

According to Bell, their close association with Acornsoft, which is based in Cambridge, is nothing unusual. Peter Irvin, author of Starship Command, another Acornsoft production, and a friend of Bell, is a student at St John's. BBC micros are much in vogue among the undergraduate population and micro clubs flourish. "People take their micros with them at the beginning of term," says Bell. "I suppose they just like to mess around with them."

They finished writing Elite in January, 1984. "Then we finished it again - and several times more after that," says Bell. Throughout the operation, Acornsoft insisted that the utmost secrecy be maintained; somehow it was, although many of their friends knew what the two authors were doing. They also managed to remain on the best of terms. "We never bickered says Braben. " If we did, we would never have finished the program." According to Bell the secret of good relations was that "whenever we disagreed, we would blame the assembler, not each other."

Having shared the work of writing the program, the two will also enjoy an equal share of the proceeds from the game, which already promise to be considerable. Bell thinks he will save his money for the future, while Braben likes the idea of buying a car. Neither has plans to throw everything aside and embark on a lucrative career as programmers.

"It is still a bit of a hobby," says Braben, who hopes to continue to write programs while doing postgraduate studies. Bell says he would not recommend programming games as an easy option. "It is still a good idea to learn- how to program," he says, "but games will become increasingly difficult to write, with the market becoming more competitive and machines becoming more sophisticated."

Nevertheless, the two have what they call "bold plans" concerning their future productions but neither is revealing those plans.

Judging by their performance they will no doubt manage to combine some ambitious programming project with everyday activities such as studying, playing squash and tennis in Bell's case, or sailing in Braben's, and reading science fiction. Fortunately, neither is an avid games player and although they try their hand occasionally at Elite, they have not progressed beyond the "competent" stage. Braben sensibly limits his playing to an hour "to see how far I can get."

With no such time limit on their programming, it seems likely that both will go a long way.