GDR Masthead

The Ian Bell Interview

by Michael McCarthy

Ian Bell is co-author of a game that defined its era and layed the basis for a whole genre of games, the space-sim. Together with David Braben, he wrote Elite and fitted it in 32k of memory on the BBC micro. Other games he wrote are Acornsoft's Free Fall and Program Power's Reversi also for the BBC. Since then we haven't heard much from him, unlike his former partner, David Braben. That might change, as you can read in the following interview.

1. How did you become involved in writing games, and what do you regard as your greatest achievement in the gaming industry?

I played around with computers as a kid, and realised there was money to be made in games for the BBC micro. My greatest published achievements technically would have to be fitting BBC Cassette "Elite" into 32K of RAM including the screen, and later the Nintendo Entertainment System conversion of "Elite" that used a character mapped display and a single NES controller. The NES is my favourite published conversion and was not thought technically feasible until we'd done it.

2. When you co-wrote Elite, the gaming industry was still in its infancy. How does today's industry compare, and how did it develop to its present state? What do you think the future holds for it?

I don't follow the industry much. I seldom read the magazines or attend the shows because as a rule I tend to find it all rather depressing and also somewhat boring. The games industry has been developing on very predictable commercially orientated lines for years now. The technology is improving but game designs simply recycle the same themes, concepts, and methodologies again and again, though increasingly distastefully in some cases.

3. What do you think of the British gaming industry? Does it have an independent future?

I don't know the answer to that. I like to think that the cyber underground is strong in this country and that we will see some of the more alternative stuff coming through from here, as with music.

4. Why haven't we seen a game from you for so long, and will we see games from you in the future? If so, could you lift a tip of the veil about them?

I worked with David Braben on Elite 2 for the BBC Micro for a while, but when it became clear that we were just not going to be able to do what we wanted on the eight bit platforms I decided not to work on it anymore but to concentrate on other interests. I worked on various 6502 conversions of "Elite" and got involved with OXFAM designing an adventure game putting the player in charge of a Central American country in the Nicaraguan mould. The aim was to educate the player in the realities of third world issues, especially with regard to the outrageous behaviour of the USA, which is basically a force for evil in the developing world and i wanted to get that across. I let the project collapse when my associate on it was summoned back to Singapore because it was just too ambitious. The nearest I've seen to what I was trying to do is "Hidden Agenda", which is excellent.

But throughout this I've also been working on a game that was originally based on the martial art "Aikido". It's now becoming increasingly psychedelic since this is the way my own interests are going.

5. What parts of Elite were you responsible for?

David and I wrote and designed the original 6502 versions. My contributions to the 6502 versions were:

The flight control and combat systems. How your ship behaved, how enemy ships behaved, including when and how they attacked. Missiles, docking, scooping and so on. Moving and rotating things generally.
The graphics for planet, the sun, and the star fields. David did the ships plotting.
The scanner (though this was David's idea and his ellipse design)
The secret missions.
Game save.
Various ship designs, the Asp was my favourite of these.

6. What influence did Elite have and in how far does it still influence games even now?

Because "Elite" was first it "claimed" a lot of territory. To me, the game concept just seemed obvious, especially given the SciFi RPGs that were coming out around that time. Other games designers have had to find new slants just to be different to it which must have been annoying. If "Elite" did anything, it invented the "open" game but not many people have taken up this challenge. Games these days are often "big" but that is not the same as open. In big games you just do the same thing for longer, five hundred levels or six thousand rooms or whatever. Open games are ones you exist in and play many roles.

7. What was your involvement in Frontier: Elite 2? What did you think of that game as a whole, and what do you predict for David Braben's new company, Frontier Developments?

I've not actually seen F:E2. [STAEMENT DELETED] and I decided it might be better if I could honestly claim never to have seen or played the game. I understand he simulated the entire galaxy using astronomically correct models and that I have a lot of respect for. It's a very aesthetic thing to have done, though it doesn't necessarily make for a fun game. However, what I've heard about the combat and flight system does not sound encouraging. I think David wants everything to be "realistic" but that's just not the right way to go IMO. If you are writing a simulator that's one thing, but games are meant to be played and play is about fun not realism.

My coding involvement was mainly supplying algorithms for drawing planets and suggestions for control systems. I gave permission for Elite materials to be used in the game in exchange for a royalty, ten percent, of what David got after "reasonable expenses".

His company? Time will tell I guess. I expect they made a lot of money from "F:FE" despite its quality.

8. Why is there a dispute between you and David Braben over Frontier: First Encounters?

Well there's there are legal and moral issues here. Firstly, he's used materials which are our joint copyright while claiming them to be entirely his. I really can't see why he refrained from the simple courtesy of putting "Elite elements copyright Bell and Braben, used with permission of the authors" on his Frontier titles. [STATEMENT DELETED]. Morally, he's not giving credit were credit is due, either for the sake of self-aggrandisement or to somehow try and erode my joint ownership of the materials.

The second issue is less clear cut. I gave him the right to produce add ons and mission disks to the Elite sequel royalty free because I expected such to generate sales of the base game and also felt that such addons would be genuinely new materials for which I was not morally entitled to a percentage. I also agreed that a further sequel would be royalty free because at the time his plan was, or so I thought, to do addons for quite some time and any further sequel to be a wholly new concept. Shortly after "Frontier:Elite 2" David announced an extension disk "Frontier - The First Encounter" (CTW May 2 1994) but then this suddenly turned into a "sequel" to "F:E2" which to all intents and purposes replaces it. So suddenly the sequel to Elite on which I'm getting royalties is going to be replaced by a rewrite on which he proposes to pay me nothing while still using the Elite materials.

I think the reason he did this was that "F:E2" did not have the expansion potential for handling mission disks because it was rushed. I think David realised he had to effectively rewrite the game engine to give it proper expendability. He realised while doing so that by making it a sequel he'd get to charge more for it and could also take advantage of the sequel clause in our agreement to save paying me my share. [STATEMENT DELETED]. Chris Sawyer's PC source was, I'm lead to believe, used as the basis for the conversion that earns him no royalties.

I'm still surprised at David's behaviour here. He could so easily have come to me and said "I'm going to significantly upgrade F:E2. I think a lower royalty would be appropriate.". I'd probably have accepted 5% pre development costs. But he just tried it on from the start.

The lesson I've learnt from this is that I'm a poor judge of character.

9. [I'm sorry if you regard this as a private matter...] Did you earn enough from the success of Elite not to have to write games for a living

It's still selling well, but I really ought to get something published soon if only to keep me in trance CDs :-).

10. Do you think you could have created a better successor to Elite, and why didn't you?

I think I could, but then talk is cheap isn't it? The reasons I didn't stay with Elite were that I really didn't want to keep working with David; was more interested in trying to create a new concept than repeating a past success; and was fed up with the 3D space game arena. Only one of those statements is still true.

11. What is your favourite type of game? What is your favourite game ever?

My favourite type of game is whatever type I'm working on at the time. I don't play games much at all, I prefer to enjoy myself away from the keyboard although I've been active on the net a lot lately. I like games with smooth flowing motion. I played "Swiv" for a while a few years ago but my favourite game ever is "Chuckie Egg" on the BBC. I can't remember who wrote it and technically it was poor but it was such fun to play once you knew what you were doing.

12. What are your hobbies and interests?

I research the Occult and technoshamanism. I enjoy raving and UV body painting, DJing electronic music, juggling, massage, martial arts. I love programming as a creative activity but hate having to use crap tools and software. Take C for example. The entire industry uses a one pass compiler! Is it any wonder so much software sucks?

Note from Ian:
"A letter from David Braben's solicitors has brought to my attention the possibility that one sentence in my reply to Q8 above could, when read out of context, be misinterpreted to mean that David Braben has stopped all royalty payments due to Chris Sawyer for writing the Frontier: Elite 2 program. My meaning in this sentence is that in changing First Encounters from an extension disc requiring purchase of the Frontier: Elite 2 program written by Chris Sawyer and on which royalties were paid to Chris Sawyer, to a "sequel" on which, despite it containing a conversion of Chris Sawyer's program, royalties were not paid to Chris Sawyer, David Braben stopped those payments of royalties to Chris Sawyer that Chris Sawyer would otherwise have received as a result, whether direct or indirect, of sales of First Encounters. The meaning of the statement is not that David Braben has stopped payment of royalties from sales of the program under its original title 'Frontier: Elite 2'".

[Navigation Bar]