It is rare for me to venture outside of my zone of survival horror, adventure and platforming games, especially when it comes to the topic of sandbox titles. Games without strong goals tend to leave me befuddled, purposeless and wondering how I should invest my time. Ultimately, these games tend to lose my interest rapidly, and I move on. There have been a few sandbox titles that have held my interest, most notably would be David Braben and Ian Bell's Elite.
Elite came to fruition on the campus of Jesus College, Cambridge. The then college friends Braben and Bell were both budding software developers eager to design games. At the time, Bell was working on a title named Freefall for Acornsoft, while simultaneously Braben had began work on a game he titled Fighter. After a short discussion, they decided that their games were sufficiently similar to one another, and that their work should be combined into a single project. The pair wrote a proposal that was presented to Thorn EMI where it was promptly rejected. Eventually, they would return to AcornSoft, and though the title was not of their average fare, they agreed to publish the title.
After two years in development, Elite was finally completed. In an unprecedented maneuver, AcornSoft had arranged for the game to be launched from Thorpe Park. Fanfare of this level had never been given to a product like video game software. The game came in a small box with a BBC software cassette tape, chart, some stickers, a manual and a novella titled The Dark Wheel. The Dark Wheel provided an insight into the world of Elite, and the general political climate of their universe. The game was critically praised, and later received major news coverage for selling over 150,000 copies. The game was later ported to nearly every system known in the early 80s by Firebird.
Elite pulled the majority of it's inspired by Game Workshop's Traveler RPG, 2001: Space Odyssey, Star Wars and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It is best described as an open ended space simulation wherein players take the role of Commander Jameson. The goal of the game is non-specific other than attempting to increase your resources and your reputation. Players choose their own goals and simply play, regardless of whether they focus on exploration and trading, or piracy and villainy. Elite's major game play components consist of a large, procedurally created universe with hundreds of active economies, free travel, trade, and a peppering of hostile, friendly and neutral ships. No parameters on how to interact with these environments are set, which makes Elite one of the first, true sand-box titles.
At the time, Elite featured revolutionary graphics. It featured a real-time 3d wire-frame engine, with hidden line removal, large planets and relatively fast game play. The 3d view also offered the player the capability to pilot their space-craft with complete freedom. Players could set off in any direction they wished, giving them the ability to fly into the black nothingness, planets, or wherever else they desired. Players were assisted by an automatic navigation computer that assisted with docking, landing on planets and jumping in and out of witch-space (Elite's hyperspace). The downside to this was that players would have to control a craft that could fly in any direction, which creates an enormous learning curve.
Docking on space stations, or landing on planets, provides players a means of commerce. These markets could be used for trade, ship upgrades and maintenance. These areas were one of the few places where players were given a menu of options (driven by text) rather than having to pilot their ship. Additionally, these areas offered players a basic military mission system. These missions generally consisted of destroying a ship, or transporting goods or information.
Between the years of 1999 and 2002, developer Christian Pinder's love of this game led him to recreate Elite. This recreation was not just a simple observational port, he set out to rebuild the game from the BBC Micro version. After years of painstakingly reverse engineering the game from it's binary form, he rewrote the game in the C programming language. Titled Elite: The New Kind, it is easily portable, and offers for an updated graphics engine. Eventually, this allowed for the game to be ported to more moderns systems like 32bit Windows, Linux and the Gameboy Advance. Unfortunately, David Braben was still half owner of the intellectual properties of the game, and he requested for Pinder to remove his version from circulation. Copies and decendants of New Kind can still be found today, and his original source is still being recreated for new systems.
By today's standards, Elite offered only very basic game play. Elite does not require much of it's users, for it is essentially a simple commerce system combined with a basic 3d combat simulation. The enjoyment comes from allowing users to decide how they want to play. Missions can be ignored, and players can simply operate as a merchant, or worse, a lawless space pirate. Elite is still one of the most influential games to date, having inspired EVE Online, Freespace, Jumpgate, Homeworld and a handful of other space titles. I myself have had a strange obsession with this title, although I've never been particularly good at it. Elite went on to receive a handful of sequels, Frontier: Elite II and Frontier: First Encounters, although neither achieved the level of success garnered by the original.