David Braben
David Braben

The Elite series is legendary. Father to the modern Space Exploration and Combat genre of games, it hailed a new era of involved gameplay with adult themes and expansive universes to explore. Now, almost 30 years after the release of the BBC-B original, Elite: Dangerous promises not only to bring the series back with a bang, but also to allow you to explore it’s universe through the wonders of virtual reality.

Elite: Dangerous is one of the most promising titles yet to feature support for the Oculus Rift VR Headset and has been warmly received by the community that backed the project during a hugely successful crowd funding project last year. Frontier recently celebrated Elite: Dangerous’ Premium Beta release and you can still become a part of the universe with early access here.

David Braben, one half of the original team behind Elite, is behind the new venture and we asked him if he’d be willing to take your questions on Elite: Dangerous as part of a community Q&A. Gladly, he agreed and we asked you for your questions a couple of weeks ago via subreddit /r/oculus and this very website. The response was excellent and the quality of questions high. A selection of the queries you sent us were sent on to David for his replied, and here below are the responses.

John Horn (RtoVR): You’ve mentioned that planets within the Elite: Dangerous universe may feature wildlife. Will those be hand-designed or might you consider generating them procedurally?

David: We’ve not put a lot of thought into this yet, but certainly some elements should be procedural.

monographix (RtoVR): Do you think that, once people have spent significant time experiencing games like Elite: Dangerous in virtual reality, that it may alter our perception of the real world?

David: Just about any form of storytelling (ie games, films books) alter our perceptions a little. That is (partly) why we watch them. VR simply accentuates the experience, and I think in that sense it probably does accentuate the perception change a little too.

Just about any formof storytelling (ie games, films books) alter our perceptions a little. That is (partly) why we watch them. VR simply accentuates the experience, and I think in that sense it probably does accentuate the perception change a little too.

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George (RtoVR): Will the Oculus Rift be listed under “Recommended System Requirements”?

David: We already support various add-ons in the game like VR displays, 3D TVs, Track IR, a wide range of joysticks, foot pedals, control pads etc. Elite: Dangerous is a great game with or without these add-ons, and the experience you get with them is additive, certainly, but not essential. “Recommended System Requirements” for any add-on is perhaps taking it a little far, so no.

EdZ (RtoVR): In the beta of ED available to Kickstarter Premium backers, HUD UI elements are rendered inside the cockpit, causing convergence issues when focussing on targets. Will this be changed to infinite-depth rendering in the future?

David: We’re continually adjusting such things, so yes, they will improve with time.

John Horn (RtoVR): Will the planets in ED be procedurally generated using voxels, allowing terrain deformation and ‘digging’ for secrets?

David: No, that’s not the plan I’m afraid. We have considered surface damage to planets, but there are some serious network issues when syncing a whole planet full of voxels.

soap (RtoVR): Do you see many applications for virtual reality outside of gaming? What might those be?

David: Yes. Many. Medical – especially when allowing a doctor to see inside a patient when doing keyhole surgery, as a way of visualising information from an ultrasound scanner. Firefighters or bomb disposal or rescue or exploration – similar techniques using ROVs are already used, but VR might help improve this further. Military. Architectural. Espionage. Virtual Tourism.

I was interested to see the new Parrot AR Drone using an Oculus Rift to allow you to fly virtually.

Appellono (reddit): You’ve been involved in the Raspberry Pi project and bringing the technology into schools to enhance the teaching of Computer Science. Do you see any place for virtual reality in the classroom? If so, what?

David: It can help students visualise many things, so yes, I think there are many applications, much like my answer to the previous question!

chuan (reddit): Given the unfortunate fate of the shelved ‘The Outsider’ project at Frontier, is is likely that some of the ideas for the project might find their way into ED?

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David: Like with all our games, the technology is shared, so many elements have already been re-used in other games, and in Elite: Dangerous too, and perhaps more so, once you can walk about.

chuan (reddit): The original Elite was notable for many things, one of which being the longer simulation play time you could clock up which at the time was brand new. How do you feel VR might further alter player’s engagement with games like Elite?

David: It changes the depth of engagement more so than the duration. Personally I find I cannot play for so long with a VR headset, as I need to take it off after a while. I suspect this is more of an issue with the current generation than with the technology in general.

I didn’t like the way in most games in the early 1980s that the odds were hopeless, and eventually you were ground down in a war of attrition. It felt odd you couldn’t run away – but then the games were not designed to allow that.

chuan (reddit): I think it was David that came up with the original demo of a spinning 3D spacehip which lead to Elite being created. Can you briefly chat the conceptual leaps which lead from demo to full game?

David: I put together a simple 3D game shooting spaceships. It had four spaceships and felt dull and repetitive. I didn’t like the way in most games in the early 1980s that the odds were hopeless, and eventually you were ground down in a war of attrition. It felt odd you couldn’t run away – but then the games were not designed to allow that. You got a smart bomb every 5,000 points and an extra life every 10,000. It also felt odd you couldn’t choose. So these thoughts came together with the idea of ‘spending score’. Brainstorming ways of changing this pattern, Ian and I realised we needed to make the player need to finish a mission – even if it meant running from the fight – hence travel. Score being money was not such a big stretch (especially in Thatcherite Britain!), so trading seemed an obvious choice – though both Ian and I thought it might be a bit dull.

Apellono (reddit): With a reported 400 billion (!) star systems in the game, do these systems actually exist on a hard-drive somewhere, or are they all contained as possibilities within the procedural code? Does a star system actually exist before someone visits it?

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David: They exist, in the same way they existed in Elite and Frontier. If you simply consider Procedural Generation as a fancy form of compression, then yes they do exist.

beIIe-and-sebastien (reddit): Do you think gaming technology (specifically virtual reality) has now caught up to allow the realisation of your vision of Elite should be? If so, when did you realise this had become the case?

David: To be honest, I don’t think VR is essential to a game like Elite: Dangerous, but it is brilliantly additive. The technology simply continues to get better, so each year it is possible to fulfil more of the vision, and we will continue to do so through expansions and updates. Nevertheless, VR is very helpful in the immersion, especially the rapid spread of Oculus Rift.

Apellono (reddit): At what stage of development was Oculus/VR support included, and what design decisions got shaped or altered by choosing to support VR?

David: We already had some thought about VR, but it was the Elite: Dangerous backers asking for it – and us wanting it too – and the fact we were already well set up to support it through our own engine – that we added it to Alpha 1 on 15th December 2013 – as a sort of Christmas present to the backers, together with Track IR, 3D TV, and anaglyph stereo.

RtoVR: Do you have plans to include support for the Development Kit 2 and in particular positional tracking once it’s available?

David; Well, I did Tweet an image of myself playing Elite: Dangerous using an Oculus DK2… So yes, Elite: Dangerous already supports positional tracking, and DK2.

Thank you to David Braben for taking the time to answer the questions and thanks to you, the community for providing them. Our apologies if yours didn’t make it in this time.

We hope to catch up with Frontier and David Braben when the Road to VR team hits E3 next week, stay tuned for updates.

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Based in the UK, Paul has been immersed in interactive entertainment for the best part of 27 years and has followed advances in gaming with a passionate fervour. His obsession with graphical fidelity over the years has had him branded a ‘graphics whore’ (which he views as the highest compliment) more than once and he holds a particular candle for the dream of the ultimate immersive gaming experience. Having followed and been disappointed by the original VR explosion of the 90s, he then founded RiftVR.com to follow the new and exciting prospect of the rebirth of VR in products like the Oculus Rift. Paul joined forces with Ben to help build the new Road to VR in preparation for what he sees as VR’s coming of age over the next few years.
  • Thank you David for answering these questions. You’ve been a massive influence in my life ever since I’ve played Frontier: Elite II. Playing Elite: Dangerous in the Rift DK1 is already a great experience, it shows how much effort you and your team have put into it. Good job!

  • John Horn

    DB is one of my all-time favorite developers. I’m so glad he’s getting to fulfill Elite 4 after 20 years of waiting.. It feels like I’ve waited a long time. But he who waits for something good… doesn’t wait in vain.