Elite is a seminal space trading-game, originally published by Acornsoft in 1984 for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron computers and subsequently ported to many others. It was written and developed by David Braben and Ian Bell, who had met while both undergraduates at Jesus College, Cambridge University.
Elite was one of the first home computer games with wireframe 3D graphics. Another novelty was the inclusion of "The Dark Wheel ", a novella by Robert Holdstock which influenced new players with insight into the moral and legal codes which they might aspire to. It elevated the technically brilliant software beyond the pigeon-hole of "game".
The object is to reach the exalted height of "Elite" status by any means necessary. It provides a virtual universe to explore, with over 5000 planets to visit. The player, Commander Jameson, starts with 100 Credits and a lightly armed trading ship, the Cobra Mark III, to his name. Most of the ships that the player encounters are similarly named after snakes, or other reptiles. Wealth can be accumulated through a number of means. These include piracy, trade, military missions, bounty hunting and mining asteroids. With the credits generated by these enterprises, the player is able to upgrade the ship with such enhancements as better weapons, shields, increased cargo capacity and a docking autopilot.
Elite's open ended game model, advanced game engine and revolutionary 3D graphics ensured that it was ported to virtually every home computer system of the day, and earned it a place as a classic and a genre maker in gaming history. ArcElite, the port to the Acorn Archimedes, is widely regarded as the best conversion of the classic game, adding intelligent opponents who engage in their own private battles and police who take an active interest in protecting the law.
Two official sequels were created: Frontier: Elite 2 (1993) and Frontier: First Encounters (1995), both produced by Braben's company Frontier Developments . Bell was not involved in their production. Both games were a considerable advance on the original Elite, with filled 3D graphics, missions and a complex economy. This time, the player was not confined to orbit but could land on and explore or mine planets. The number of flyable ships was greatly increased, and a new political backstory was introduced enabling the player to gain ranks in competing interstellar empires. The games appeared on the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST and IBM PC (the latter versions being coded entirely in assembler by Chris Sawyer of RollerCoaster Tycoon fame).
Both games were, however, significantly flawed in a number of respects. They had a copy prevention system which was, remarkably, even more user-unfriendly than the infamous Lenslok device used on the original Elite. They had many bugs, apparently due to being published in an incomplete state, and had to be extensively patched; this became the subject of a three-year lawsuit between the publisher, Gametek, and Braben. The gameplay was certainly more sophisticated than that of the original Elite but was nonetheless somewhat repetitive.
In addition, the games included a realistic flight model based on Newtonian physics rather than the original arcade style engine. While this was certainly much more authentic, many players also found it frustratingly difficult, particularly in combat. Most space trading games since Elite have stuck to an arcade-style flight model in which the ships behave as though they were flying in an atmosphere. (Curiously, most film and television depictions of space flight have also done the same; this perhaps demonstrates that earthbound humans seem to have difficulty in adjusting to the mechanics of Newtonian space flight.)
A new sequel, Elite 4 , is currently under development. Many fans of the series are sceptical that it will ever be released, or believe that it will be greatly delayed. (See: Vaporware)
In 1999/2000, a dispute occurred between Ian Bell and David Braben regarding the former's decision to make available all versions of the original Elite on his personal. The dispute has now ended; the various versions are available on Bell's site. The two Frontier games are available for download from Braben's Elite Club website.