The Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin Cover

Elite: How a classic game introduced 3d graphics, virtual goods and computer generated worlds

For me, Facebook is gaining ground on Twitter for surfacing interesting reading. Wish I could remember who posted the somewhat ancient (2003, kids) Guardian Weekend piece about the pioneers of British game developers.

The computer games industry is worth billions. Grand Theft Auto alone is expected to make £1bn. Teams of 100+ work for years crafting intricate game play, dizzying visuals, head-spinning mathematics to make it all work. In 1982, computer games weren’t very good.

Two Cambridge grads with a passion for coding on the, then new-fangled, home computers changed everything. Their desire for a 3D adventure game, set in space, with on-going gameplay and computer-generated worlds led to the creation of Elite.

When they took their idea to the leading games publishers of the day, Thorn EMI and Acornsoft, the main concerns were why anyone would want a game that lasted more than 10 minutes, and how could the publishers trust a game that wasn’t written by a single person. How would it ever get finished?

How times change.

Their innovations were radical, and now, they’d be taken entirely for granted: a computer-generated world, quests, virtual currency, buying virtual goods, multi-session gameplay, 3D gameplay and most surprisingly, fun,

“They kept asking: “Will this be fun?” They didn’t want the fun to be presented to the player as a set of arbitrary demands, a series of hoops you had to jump through just because that was the game and your score went up every time you got it right. They wanted the flying, the shooting and the trading to be fun in a way that respected the integrity of the experience you’d have when you were playing, that went with, rather than against, the deeper grain of your imagination.”

The game was released for the BBC Micro, which at the time had around 150,000 machines in use. How many copies of Elite were sold? About 150,000.

Read the full story in an extract from Francis Spufford’s book The Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin published in The Guardian waaay back in 2003.

Wanna play? There’s Elite emulators available for Raspberry Pi, Java, BeebEm (emulater for Unix, PC, Windows). Elite software for BBC Emulator.


Inquisitive. Hopeful. Jovial. Cantankerous. Digital marketer. Event organiser. Long-time fan of tech, collaboration and innovation. Exploring digital, social, business, technology, society, psychology & startups. Founder Chinwag, Digital Mission, Pitch NYC, ChinwagPsych. Former Exec Dir, Social Media Week London. More short stuff @toodlepip on Twitter.

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