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Elite Dangerous History: Frontier Elite 2 (FE2)

Posted by on 12:43 pm in Lore | 10 comments

This is one of a series of guides to the Elite Dangerous Universe. You can read the others here.

In this second of series of history articles, I take a look at the second game in the Elite series. Frontier Elite 2, commonly abbreviated to ‘FE2’, came along almost ten years after the original game, being published by Konami in 1993 (rights later sold to GameTek) and primarily written by David Braben, although Ian Bell provided some algorithms for drawing planets and design work on control methods.

Frontier Elite 2

Some work on ‘Elite 2’ had started long before this, with both Ian Bell and David Braben involved in creating a possible sequel to the original game on the BBC and C64 microcomputers in the late 1980s.

Reports differ on why this didn’t come to fruition, though it seems that the 8-bit hardware was too limited and enthusiasm for the project, with other interests taking their toll on time, ultimately put paid to the work.

When FE2, the second game, finally did appear, it was exclusively a 16-bit affair, being made available for the major platforms of the time, the PC, the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST.

It also featured one of the most cinematic game intros that had been seen up until that point. It’s still worth watching today, to get a feel of how the game introduced itself.

Some original music, particularly the intro theme tune featured above, was composed by David Lowe. For many this is still the definitive ‘Elite’ theme. Other classical works featured in the game too.

The game featured considerable advances and changes over the original. Gone were the simplistic wireframe vector graphics, replaced by fully filled polygonal spacecraft with moving parts and articulated undercarriages.

It is very… blue, in space.

The universe was now semi-realistic, with ‘real’ stars, orbited in real-time by multiple planets simulated with real astronomical detail and a nascent 1:1 scale galaxy convincingly represented – although space had turned ‘blue’ for some reason.

A political background was introduced, with the game having a particular date it was set in, the year 3200 (the original game had no fixed date but has been assumed to have been set in the year 3125. In FE2 you played a great-grandchild of the original player). The Federation and the Empire appeared as two galactic superpowers vying for territory, the player able to rank up with them. This was a significant departure from the original game which appeared to be set in an imaginary series of ‘galaxies’ controlled by the mysterious Galactic Cooperative or ‘Galcop’. This was, perhaps, the first major ‘retcon’ of the Elite universe.

The FE2 Galaxy map

FE2 did include a small subset of the original game systems, collectively known as the ‘Old Worlds’. Players will still be familiar with Lave, Diso, Riedquat, Reorte and Tionisla. There are a number of others from the original game still featured in Elite Dangerous even now. This led to the lore that marked the demise of ‘GalCop’ itself, which was explained as a socio-economic collapse of that political entity sometime prior to 3200. Players had the option to start in the Lave system as in the original game, but had to pay a fine if they wanted to enter the territories of the Federation or the Empire. Another option was to start on Mars. Most players would start the game on the ice-moon Merlin in the Ross 154 system, with a basic Mk1 Eagle.

FE2 also featured a game engine capable of rendering travel through astronomically accurate and realistically sized space and down to a 1:1 scale planetary surface which, though sparse in detail by today’s standards, was convincingly represented with billboards, roads, houses, mountains, clouds, craters and rivers. You could land on all planets with solid surfaces, regardless of whether they had an atmosphere or not.

Analogue clocks were still popular in 3200 AD 😉

Various planetary and stellar types were represented, with different effects being applied to atmospheres, gas giants, and even planetary rings. The same engine was able to render a clock tower (with a working clock) at point blank range. The game also featured a sophisticated external camera.

Most controversially of all, the flight mechanics of the game were based upon newtonian physics rather than the traditional ‘airplanes in space’ trope common to most space flight games. This certainly gave a sense of realism, but was a controversial choice for game-play, often leading to a ‘jousting’ style of combat and a certain difficulty in flying your ship, necessitating the almost mandatory use of an autopilot for navigation and docking for most players. Alas, the autopilot was not all that reliable, meaning that a fiery death dive into a star or planet was a frequent occurrence.

The Orrery has yet to make a return

The mechanics of space travel were also quite different. Gone was the space-skip or Torus drive featured in the earlier versions. Ships in FE2 travelled through space in real-time, taking days or weeks to reach their destinations. This was rendered playable by use of the ‘Stardreamer’ which accelerated time from the perspective of the player. Ships travelled in hyperspace or traditional space using their engines, accelerating and decelerating to their destination by use of their main thrusters.

The player could now change their ship and many of the ships from the original game were featured, along with new ones, though only one ship could be owned at a time.

Remarkably, and once again due to the magic of procedural generation, all of this was contained on a single floppy disk (around 720 kilobytes on the PC version). The game originally being written in 250,000 lines of 68000 assembly code (native for the Amiga and ST) and ported to the 80286 processor for the PC by Chris Sawyer (Anyone familiar with these two processor architectures will appreciate the herculean task involved!). The game taxed those early machines, with performance being quite poor on the early iterations, particularly on the Amiga and ST, though later editions of the hardware solved this successfully. The Amiga version had the virtue of the best music rendition and sound effects.

Stories of life on the Frontier

Once again the game was accompanied by works of fiction, a collection of short works entitled “Stories of life on the Frontier.” and a gazetteer of particular worlds.

There was also an interesting flaw, the so-called ‘wormhole’ bug. Due to a miscalculation of jump range, the player could jump multiples of 655.35 lightyears without using additional fuel. By clever triangulation, vast distances could be covered by judicious plotting.

Thargoid ships at a military base…

There were some curious omissions too. The ubiquitous bad guys, the Thargoids, were almost totally absent from the game and none of the original mysteries such as Raxxla and the Dark Wheel were expanded upon.

Whilst the open ended nature of the game was true to the original, there were no obvious scripted missions present in the game, though there were various simple missions ranging from assassination contracts, passenger missions, to military photographic reconnaissance.

The FE2 BBS

These missions were given by ‘photofit’ style individuals, and the player had a series of prompted responses they could give to queries. Also introduced were new bits of technology such as the ‘hyperspace analyser’ allowing you to track ships and intercept them at their destinations.

Most reviews of the game were positive, with many citing the scale, realistic physics and sheer ambition of the game. A few commented to the effect that gameplay was ‘boring’ as a result of the newtonian mechanics. Certainly some of the visceral nature of the combat from the original game was missing, though it definitely has its loyal fans. Somewhere near 500,000 copies were sold. For many players this was their ‘first’ Elite.

It would be followed by another sequel within two years…

 

Elite Dangerous History: The original ‘Elite’

Posted by on 2:53 pm in Lore | 20 comments

This is one of a series of guides to the Elite Dangerous Universe. You can read the others here.

This is a rather ambitious series of articles, and will probably see some updates as folks let me know of all the bits I’ve missed along the way. Strictly speaking this isn’t a ‘lore’ document, as it is the history of the Elite games in ‘our’ universe. I haven’t seen a complete series charting this story from beginning until now attempted anywhere else, so I thought I’d have a go.

The Original Elite, 1984 – 1992

The original Elite by David Braben and Ian Bell

It’s hard, at this stage, to return to the pre-Elite days of computer gaming in the early 80s. Back then games were largely simplistic, clones of arcade games or following very closely in their designs. Games were specifically designed to play through in a few minutes, featuring ‘lives’, ‘scores’ and ‘levels’. There were games that broke this mould, but they were few and far between, and often easily forgotten.

The Acorn Computer BBC Microcomputer System (the ‘beeb’ or BBC) was the ‘posh kids’ computer and heavily geared to educational use (benefiting from government subsidies, and thus appearing in many schools in the 1980s). Gaming was certainly not something its creators had as a primary design goal – it had no sprite hardware like the later Commodore 64. It was expensive (£335 in 1981 – the equivalent of around £1,400 today).

The story starts with Ian Bell having brought such a machine with him to Cambridge university where he was studying Mathematics in 1982. There he met David Braben, studying Physics. Both were computer aficionados of a type becoming common in the 80s. At that stage, Ian was working on a game known as “Freefall”, which was later published by “Acornsoft”, a relatively small publishing house, compared to Thorn EMI, in 1983.

David had a written a demo of 3D wireframe spacecraft, and a scrolling starfield on an Acorn Atom (a more primitive precursor to the BBC). This led both to discussions on the limitations of ‘then’ current game design. They were not the first with the 3D ideas, but they were the first to couple the idea with a purpose, a goal and something beyond just a score and ‘another go’.

Elite was born out of the dissatisfaction with the confines of traditional gaming. With no score, what was the purpose? The Thatcherite years of the 1980s provided the answer – money. But money isn’t a score, you can spend money. On what? On upgrades… so your ship had to be inferior to start with. What would be the purpose of upgrading your ship? To defeat other vessels. Why would those other vessels attack you? Because you carried a cargo… so trading was required alongside piracy. There was always a reason for the game mechanics, and the concept developed from there.

The true genius, however, lay in providing the player with choices. Yes, there were pirates out there, but you could become one yourself if you so desired. You had moral choices in the game, with no predetermined path.

The 2001 docking sequence that inspired Elite.

The 2001 docking sequence that inspired Elite.

Inspiration from Star Wars and 2001:A Space Odyssey are obvious in the action packed combat and more reserved, if very tense, docking sequences. Even Douglas Adams gets a nod with the “Mostly Harmless” rating – a microcosm of 80s zeitgeist.

Adams would probably have been quite enchanted with the other bit of genius design. Applying the limited, but still effective, power of those early 8-bit computers with the observations of one Leonardo Fibonacci (1175 – 1250) provided a means for a convincing representation of thousands of planetary systems using a technique later dubbed ‘procedural generation’ – far more data than the machines could actually store in their memories, but repeatable on demand.

Elite, now a working prototype, was pitched to Thorn EMI, one of the biggest games publishers at the time. The result was a disappointment (and a mistake on Thorn’s part similar to the chap from Decca who failed to sign up the Beatles). David and Ian were sent away with the recommendation that they simplify the game, something which would destroy the very essence of what they were trying to achieve.

Elite on the ZX Spectrum

Elite on the ZX Spectrum

Their next stop was the aforementioned Acornsoft, with whom Ian already had a relationship. They were a small outfit, but to their credit, they grasped the genius of Elite. In a canny move, David arranged for Acornsoft to only have rights to the BBC version, allowing the possibility of lucrative ports to other platforms once the BBC version was released.

The game was refined further, and the only real goal, that of becoming ‘Elite’, was added at this stage. The game was originally to be named ‘The Elite’, but in conversation it eventually found its ultimate form. Simply, Elite. The cleverly realised scanner-scope was a last minute addition that required late-in-the-day alterations to the game manual.

Two missions were added, giving a taste of the sort of in-game story telling that would pave the way for future games. One was to hunt down a stolen ‘Constrictor’ spacecraft, the other to ferry some top secret documents across the galaxy.

The Dark Wheel, by Robert Holdstock

The Dark Wheel, by Robert Holdstock

Added into this mix was packaging that was significantly more ambitious than was normal for a computer game. Acornsoft really went to town with a manual, keyboard overlays, ship identification charts and even a specially commissioned novel by Robert Holdstock written to set the scene. The Dark Wheel was the starting point for the legends of Elite such as Raxxla and the Tionisla Orbital Graveyard.

Development stopped at some point during the summer of 1984. Thorpe Park (a small amusement park in the UK at the time) was hired out for the launch. It was well in time for Christmas that year, the 22nd of September 1984. It garnered gushing and ecstatic coverage in the popular press and television. Success was virtually instant.

Elite on the Commodore 64.

Elite on the Commodore 64.

Ultimately 107,898 recognised copies were sold for the BBC B Micro alone and eventually the game would go on to sell something like 600,000 to 1M copies across all the platforms it was eventually ported to, including the popular home computers of the time such as the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and the Amstrad CPC. David’s foresight in reserving the rights for other platforms paid off in a big way.

The ZX Spectrum version was ‘ported’ by Torus and published by Firebird (a brand of British Telecom) with the Commodore version being undertaken by David and Ian themselves. The Commodore version introduced ‘Trumbles’, a nod to Star Trek’s Tribbles, along with the familiar Blue Danube music when docking. The Spectrum version featured 5 new missions involving Supernovas, Rogue Asteroids, Thargoids and Cloaking devices. Each version of the game had its own unique foibles and differences to the original BBC version.

Ports continued, with the new and more powerful 16-bit machines of the late 80s getting their own versions. The Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, the PC itself, the NES console and (full circle) the Acorn Archimedes. Apparently there were 16 ports in the end, perhaps one of the most ported games in the history of gaming, lasting into the early 1990s.

You can see the details of these ports on the excellent FrontierAstro site.

Arguably one of the most significant computer games ever, Elite changed the face of computer gaming dramatically with its combination of believability, considered design, compelling gameplay and longevity. Many have tried to ape it, copy it, improve upon it, but an actual sequel didn’t arrive until 1993…

…and when it did, it was a very different beast indeed.

The 100k Barrier

Posted by on 2:00 pm in Progress Report | 6 comments

Something of a milestone in the writing this week, the first draft of Elite Dangerous Premonition has hit the 100k mark against an approximate target of 140k.

Now some folks will point out, quite rightly, that word count isn’t everything. The old writing cliché – “Don’t worry about word count, worry whether your words count” may apply. Is the story working, is the plot sound, are the characters appropriately differentiated? All good questions. I’ll let my previous track record in writing speak to those points, I don’t intend to disappoint my readers. You can assume that is all in good shape, though there’s plenty of work left to do.

I use word count as a progress indicator because it’s straightforward and easily accessible. It works for me. Sometimes an author has the luxury of putting out a book ‘when it’s ready’, but often I see that as an excuse for ‘late’ or ‘never’. I find I work best under pressure, so I set myself word count targets and track progress against them. So far so good.

100k is a good slug of work and with just over 70% of the draft written it’s appropriate to ask “So how’s it going, Drew?”

On balance, I think it’s coming together well. I don’t encounter ‘writers block’ myself (I put that down to good planning), so I’ve been able to continue on at pace. I’ve been capturing player events as they occur and usually get to write those up a week or so after the event. My biggest concern at present is two fold.

The first is the character arcs. There are quite a few in Premonition by necessity and I need to ensure they all make sense and have a purpose. This isn’t currently the case in many places. It’s an editing job, but a big one.

The second is ensuring I wrap up certain threads in-game and from my previous book in a satisfying way. I’ve made a bit of a ‘rod for my own back’ on this one, because I weave in multiple meanings and layers and like to leave readers with a few unanswered questions. The trick is finding a balance between how much to reveal directly, how much to leave for readers to infer and how much to leave unanswered.

I will say, however, that this has been a much tougher assignment than my previous Elite Dangerous book ‘Reclamation’. That felt, at the time, quite ambitious, but it’s child’s play compared to the task of ensuring that ‘Premonition’ works well. Premonition is not only a book, it’s part chronicle, part lore repository… but it has to excel at all three without compromise. Polishing this up to a real shine is going to be a hard job.

Here’s what I’m juggling at present in addition to all the ‘normal stuff’ required to produce a book:

  • Monitoring social media and forums for updates about events occurring in game, summarising the important ones and deciding whether to (and how to) incorporate them in the story
  • Liaising with Frontier on story elements to ensure they’re correctly realised in-game, catering for delays resulting from bugs and planning in order to align with their release dates (in-game changes may require server and/or client updates to ED – which can only happen at certain intervals)
  • Contacting individual players and establishing information on their CMDRs so they can accurately be covered in the story
  • Maintaining a list of significant player impacts on the story, and re-writing elements to cater for their actions
  • Liaising with player groups who have been impacted by events in the story and providing them a little guidance on what that might mean for them
  • Taking time to join in twitch streams and podcasts, partly to promote the book, but mostly to stay in touch with the player base.
  • Generating GalNet articles to align with player events and overall story arcs and then going through a review process to ensure they tally with other GalNet content (this has to be done in way in advance)
  • Checking, and occasionally revising, lore in regards to Elite Dangerous, publishing what I can here when time allows
  • Playing the game to ensure I’m au fait with what’s going on and am familiar with new features
  • Maintaining an occasional presence on the forums etc.
  • Doing stuff which which I’m not allowed to talk about 😉

And don’t even mention the day job. 😉

Fortunately, being a ‘planner’, I’d worked out what this was going to look like before I started so I was ready for it, but it’s not been easy and, truth be told, I’m quite looking forward to it coming to a close. I’m not scared of hard work, but constant 60+ hour working weeks do take a toll. It has been a tough assignment, quite draining and stressful at times – and not just for me. My family deserves a huge vote of thanks for accommodating me whilst doing this, as do the all the fans who’ve cheered me on.

A point is approaching where the book must end. I expect the first draft to be complete at the end of March. This will be the end of ‘Premonition’ – a title which was chosen with great care to reflect the mood of ‘what happens next’.

Beyond this point the story of Elite Dangerous will obviously continue, as to whether that gets chronicled or not, we’ll have to wait and see. Feedback on how well ‘Premonition’ is received and the approach I took in creating it will doubtless have a bearing on how Frontier approaches such projects in the future.

For now though, I continue to write on, Commanders!

Elite Dangerous Lore : Hyperspace

Posted by on 11:49 am in Lore | 12 comments

This is one of a series of guides to the Elite Dangerous Universe. You can read the others here.

Hyperspace. Precisely how it works is something of a mystery, certainly by the time of Elite: Dangerous it appears to be part of the dual function ‘Frame Shift Drive’, operating in a mode which allows you to travel the, literally, astronomical distances between stars in just a few seconds.

But it wasn’t always thus in the Elite Dangerous universe.

Hyperspace was discovered in the 2200s. But it wasn’t until the 2800s that consumer ships began to take advantage of the technology in large numbers. Over the centuries hyperspace technology has been refined.

Circa 2800 AD – Faraway Jump (Hyperspace Type 0)

The original hyperspace systems that were made commercially available were known as the ‘Faraway’ Jump systems. It took centuries for the complex series of monitoring satellites, branch lines, stop points, and rescue stations to be built using sublight technology along the major routes. Ultimately these hosted hundreds of channels, ‘lines’ for ships to travel through.

The ‘Faraway’ jump system was noted for its complexity in operation, requiring extensive pre-jump configuration by station based “Faraway Orientation Systems Controllers” (FOSC or SysCon). Hyperspacing ships required external help to initiate the jump. They were known for a certain sensitivity in operation, with the dangers of a misconfigured jump being listed as ‘atomic re-organisation’ and ‘time displacement’. Unsupervised jumps were extremely dangerous.

It was around this time that the phrase ‘witch-space’ entered the Commander’s lexicon. Its precise origin is uncertain, but it seems to stem from the risk inherent in the early hyperspace technology.

Witch-space referred to the ‘corridor’ or ‘transit tube’ through which the hyperspacing ship travelled during the jump. Many traders of the time believed that witch-space was ‘haunted’ – by “the ghosts of the early ships that went in to Faraway, and didn’t come out again.” Certainly a large number of ships never arrived at their destinations, their fate unknown even today.

It is worth noting that Thargoid vessels were known to be able to ‘hover’ in witch-space, and ambush vessels in transit. Mis-jumps, due to poor calculations, were a constant worry for travelers in those times.

The system did have the advantage of a rapid transit time, the entire process taking mere seconds once the jump was successfully initiated. It was finally retired in 3122 and the complex support infrastructure was entirely decommissioned by 3125.

3125 AD – Quirium (Hyperspace Type 1)

By the time of the original game hyperspace travel was ubiquitous, though the equipment was bulky and smaller ships were unable to host it, having to be carried through the jump by more capable ships.

The ‘Faraway’ system had been retired in favour of autonomous mechanisms that could be triggered aboard ship with no external assistance.

At the time, hyperspace jumps were limited to 7 lightyears in any particular direction, requiring multiple jumps for even relatively short hops between systems. The mechanism had its own unique fuelling system, independent from other ship’s systems.

Those original hyperdrives were powered by a fuel known as ‘Quirium’, a fuel that was unique to the Galactic Cooperative.

Unfortunately the secret formula for the manufacture of this high energy density material appears to have been lost in the collapse of the Galactic Cooperative and the Quirium hyperspace technology became obsolete as a result. Rumours abound that Quirium fuel was reverse engineered from captured Thargoid vessels.

Unusual modifications to these systems provided rapid transit to other parts of the galaxy, some even claimed they allowed you access completely separate galaxies. Little is now known about these so called ‘Galactic Hyperspace’ units, though they were reportedly expensive and in short supply.

The system was similar in operation to the Faraway jump drive, with an equivalent rapid transit time measured in seconds.

3200 AD – Cloud (Hyperspace Type 2b)

With the demise of the Quirium based hyperdrive technology and the collapse of the Galactic Cooperative, hyperspace capabilities regressed somewhat. The Federation and the Empire possessed inferior technology which, whilst certainly more reliable and less prone to ‘mis-jumps’, was noticeably more pedestrian in performance.

Fuelled by common hydrogen, these jump systems often took many days to transfer ships between two points, sometimes up to an entire week. Pilots, crew and passengers were fortunately able to take advantage of the ‘StarDreamer’ technology introduced in 3145 to remove the tedium of long term spaceflight. ‘StarDreamer’ compressed time from the perspective of an individual, by slowing their metabolism, giving them the impression that time was passing far more quickly than normal.

These hyperdrive mechanisms scaled to the size of vessel they supported, in some cases requiring many tonnes of shipboard space to be consumed during installation. Various sizes (or classes) of drive were available, but ship size still limited their installation. Jump range was proportional to the size of the drive and inversely proportional to the mass of the ship. Hyperdrives ranged in size from the class 1 at 6 tonnes, to the enormous class 8 at 600 tonnes.

Ships also needed large reserves of hydrogen fuel to power the drives. This could be stored in the conventional cargo space, rather than the specialist fuel tanks previously required.

A variation on these hyperdrives was the ‘Military drive’. This provided a vastly improved jump range per unit of installed equipment, but with two major downsides. 1. The equipment was very expensive and consumed a specialist ‘military fuel’ and 2. The fuelling process itself generated a by product in the form of radioactive waste that was costly to dispense with, though nefarious Commanders would dump the waste in uninhabited systems.

A major disadvantage to this Type 2b drive technology was that the ship involved in the jump would leave behind a conspicuously visible hyperspace ‘cloud’ at both the entry and exit point from hyperspace. With appropriate technology these ‘clouds’ could be analysed and the destination or arrival point inferred. This gave the opportunity for faster ships to arrive at the destination earlier and ambush the slower vessel as it arrived.

These type 2b hyperspace mechanisms did have one advantage over the previous types however, jump ranges were extendable by class of drive, far exceeding the 7 lightyear limit. Ships were able to travel dozens of lightyears in a single bound.

In rare cases it was noticed that these hyperdrive mechanisms were able to take advantage of strange undocumented wormholes in space. It has been reported that jumps of distances of over 655 lightyears were achieved by judicious plotting.

Research into better forms of hyperdrive technology were underway throughout this period. One event stands out as particularly poignant. The Antares was a starliner fitted with a prototype fast hyperspace drive. It launched on its maiden voyage in 3251, but was lost on its inaugural hyperspace jump and never heard from again and no wreckage has ever been found. The loss of the ship, the resultant investigations and the application of safety recommendations as a result, delayed the introduction of the current hyperspace technology for many years.

As an historical note, Sirius Corp claimed to have discovered the wreckage of the Antares in January 3302.

3290 – Frame Shift Drive (Hyperspace Type 3)

In the late 3290s a fast hyperspace mechanism was perfected that immediately made the Type 2b systems obsolete. Jump times were restored to mere seconds, but the advantages of longer range jumps retained. This was based on the, previously discredited, fast jump system developed for the ill-fated starship Antares. By 3300 virtually all of the type 2b drives had been decommissioned, with the loss of a number of ship classes that could not be retrofitted with the new systems due to design constraints.

These new drives required large quantities of the element Tantalum as a raw material in their manufacture, causing something of a ‘Tantalum rush’ in the closing years of the 33rd century. This precipitated a number of hostile land grabs in systems where Tantalum was discovered or known to exist, including the well documented Reclamation of the Prism system by Lady Kahina Tijani Loren.

Jump ranges greater than 50 lightyears are now possible, and transit times remain within mere seconds. The result is that the galaxy has been dramatically opened up to explorers at much lower cost than before. The Frontier has been pushed back, and systems that used to be on the fringes of civilisation have found themselves in the suburbs of the Core Worlds once again. Trips that were hitherto considered impossible have now been achieved in relatively modest vessels. Notable journeys have included visits to the Sagittarius A blackhole and crossings to the far side of the galaxy itself. This technology has caused significant upheaval in the Core Worlds and the major powers, as the tactical situation with respect to the ability to deploy ships has dramatically changed.

In recent years it has been discovered that the Frame Shift Drive can be significantly enhanced by the injection of rare materials – a technique provided by various ‘engineers’ located around the core worlds. They can also be ‘supercharged’ by entering close proximity to the fierce emissions of White Dwarf and Neutron stars. Many organisations are researching frame shift technology. One such company, Meta-Drive, was recently acquired by Sirius Corp after financial irregularities. It appears the type 3 technology still has considerable development potential ahead of it.

Even after all this time, hyperspace is still not well understood. The witch-space tunnel that is traversed still hosts inexplicable lights and structures within it. It seems hyperspace will hold its mysteries and allure for centuries to come. Perhaps witch-space really is haunted…

Elite Dangerous Lore: The Thargoids

Posted by on 11:35 am in Lore | 29 comments

This is one of a series of guides to the Elite Dangerous Universe. You can read the others here.

The Thargoids need little introduction to those well versed in Elite lore, but not all players of Elite: Dangerous may be au fait with their complete background. What I have attempted to do below is summarise information on the Thargoids and set it in context within the known game Lore (Elite, FE2, FFE and ED). There is a lot of fan produced content on the Thargoids, and I have deliberately not referred to it here. What is below is, as far as I’m aware, established canon. I reserve the right to edit this if I’ve missed something, or new information emerges.

Summary

2850 – Unconfirmed suggestions that some kind of covert war was started with Thargoids, ostensibly by a trigger-happy Fleet Commander.
3125 – Thargoids alleged to be ‘ripping’ ships out of witchspace and destroying them. Thargoid ‘warzones’ widespread
3200 – Thargoids reportedly retreat from human occupied space for reasons unknown
3255 – Reason for Thargoid retreat was reported to be down to human-engineered ‘Mycoid’ virus which impacted their hyperdrive capability
3302 – Reports of curious wrecks of unknown vessels.
3303 – 8 sided alien ships rip CMDRs out of witchspace (hyperspace high wake)

First Appearance, the year is 3125.

captureIn the original game of 1984 the Thargoids appeared to be the classic villains of the piece, the indefatigable evil of the spaceways, plucking ships out of witchspace and despatching them far from the safe zones of human habitation. The year is 3125. The Thargoids make their first appearance in the original game manual, and are referenced as “Thargoid Invaders”. Later on we are informed that their “Captains have had their fear glands removed.” and are thus fearsome combateers.

An encounter in the original game was fast and brutal. You were lucky if you survived the experience. Thargoids ships were fast, heavily armed and deployed remote controlled ‘Thargons’ to supplement their fire power.

There were, reportedly, 50 war zones between humanity and this “insectoid” race. They were also believed to be able to “hover” in witch-space, ambushing human spacecraft whilst using their hyperdrives to travel between systems. It was speculated that they existed as a “group mind”. Thargoid spacecraft were large, swift and powerful with multi-axis symmetry. They had no obvious drive outlets as still required on human vessels, leading to speculation that Thargoids had mastered inertialess drive technology, otherwise known as the ‘spacedrive’. It appears that Thargoid technology was significantly more advanced than ours. In-game, Thargoids tended to ambush human players during hyperspace transits, pulling them out of witch-space and attempting to destroy you with no preamble. They attacked on sight. Throughout the original game it was claimed we were “at war” with the Thargoids. Incidentally, it is alleged that ECM technology was reverse engineered from captured Thargoid ships and many other technologies may have also been Thargoid derived.

There was also another race mentioned in “The Dark Wheel”, known as the Oresrians. These were portrayed as a peaceful offset of the Thargoids, but very similar in overall appearance, albeit with a warning to Commanders to “Check the thorax markings and the shape of the fourth joint on each hind leg before jumping to conclusions.”

75 years later. The year is 3200.

Curiously, by the time of the second installment of Elite (Frontier: Elite 2) the Thargoids appear to have retreated from human space almost completely. The only reported sightings of vessels within this timeframe were captured Thargoid vessels held at secret research bases across the galaxy. Other than these tantalising hints, it appeared that the Thargoids were gone. There was no record of them. They retreated from the war, they stopped ambushing ships. They had abandoned this area of the galaxy completely. We had no idea where they came from, what they wanted, where they had gone, or what they even looked like. They remained a complete mystery.

Another 50 years passes. The year is 3250.

Nothing new was heard of the Thargoids until the launch of the next game in the series, Frontier: First Encounters (FFE). Records indicate that the disappearance of the Thargoids might have been down to a covert operation undertaken by the Intergalactic Naval Reserve Arm (INRA). They had been infected by a virus and a particular type of virus at that. It was known as the ‘Mycoid’ virus, and it was produced by humans. The Thargoid hyperdrive technology was rendered useless (the virus attacked plastic polymers in the system) and there are indications that the Thargoids were also impacted, as their exoskeletons were composed of polymer like material. There were accusations that INRA committed genocide on the Thargoids. Regardless, the Thargoids disappeared. The report was dismissed as a conspiracy theory by leading political leaders.

53 Years later. The year is 3303,

Whilst alien wreckage had been spotted in various locations within Elite Dangerous, it wasn’t until January 5th that n encounter with an ‘live’ alien vessel occurred. Are these new ships the ‘Thargoids’ of old? Their similarity in behaviour, form and function to the old stories cannot be denied, but there are major differences too. Perhaps they could be the warlike Thargoids, the Oresrians, the Klaxians… or something else?

The alien vessels in question were able to interdict a human vessel directly out of witchspace (hyperspace high wake) and disable them. The alien vessel directed a beam of energy at the beleaguered human ship which appeared to move it backwards and possibly scan it. The alien vessel then departed, employing an unknown form of hyperspace technology, rotating rapidly as it did so.

What we know

  • Thargoids are insectoid and if it is true that they come from ammonia-based planets, their physiology is dramatically different from humans. For example, ammonia boils at -33 degrees C. Thargoids may well be acclimatised to temperatures far lower than humans.
  • Thargoids have demonstrated some kind of instantaneous long distance jump technology, which may allow them to move rapidly across the galaxy, across otherwise impassible rifts in space, or perhaps even between galaxies.
  • Thargoids can interdict vessels in Witchspace (hyperspace high-wake) and disable them at will
  • Thargoids are universally female.
  • Thargoids have been in space for ‘Millennia’.
  • The so called ‘war’ was likely a ‘skirmish’ from the Thargoid’s perspective. Thargoids are divided into more than one group. We know of the Oresrians and the Klaxians.
  • T. James official book “Out of the Darkness” gives the following brief (and only known canon) description of the Thargoids: “Low calibre weapons do no damage to Thargoids, even at point blank range. They have six ‘legs’ and two ‘arms’ and are strong enough to dismember a human with only their claws.”
  • Whilst their true technological capabilities are unknown, it is safe to say they are more advanced than humanity.

Signing off for 2016

Posted by on 1:04 pm in Progress Report | 2 comments

dsc_0107

Drew’s ZX Spectrum adorns his study wall, a little homage to those early days of computing in the 1980s.

It’s been such a busy year! When I entered 2016 I was putting the finishing touches to the second book in the Shadeward Saga, Exoneration and planning to start work on the third.

Since then my plans for the rest of the year were majorly disrupted (again!), by not just one but two new official books drawing the inspiration from halcyon days of the 1980s.

First up was Lords of Midnight, the epic game by Mike Singleton. I’ve been fortunate to be working with Chris Wild, who was responsible for the iOS and Android ports of the game and was a close friend of Mike Singleton.

Lords of Midnight was my second favourite game from those early days of computing. A game that showed real genius, flair and innovation in its design. An entire world, with characters, adventure and drama which allowed you to explore its every nook and cranny.

And the opportunity to work once more with Frontier Developments: David Braben, Michael Brookes and the rest of the hardworking team there to tell the story of Elite Dangerous and what its players have done since the game was launched back in 2014. Premonition is on its way.

I consider it a huge privilege to be working on both of these projects, though it’s often difficult and painstaking work.

I was there when both of these games were first launched. 1984. I played them both, unaware as a wide-eyed 14 year old that I was taking part in a bit of history, a very special formative time in computing history in the UK. The ZX Spectrum that my parents bought me in 1983 now has pride of place on my study wall, reminding me of how much I collectively owe the writers of those games and the designers of that 8-bit computer, with its 48k RAM, cassette interface and ‘high resolution’ colour graphics. Not only books, but a career in computing too.

But with both books in flight, I owe more nowadays to the fans of what I’ve written. I’ve been delighted with the response to my original Elite book, Reclamation. The fact that there is another book on its way is very much down to readers of that first book making a groundswell of noise and demanding that the story continue. You can very much thank yourselves that another book is on its way.

So many of you have said “It couldn’t be in safer hands.” Thanks for that. The fans made it happen and I’m very honoured to be asked to do it on your behalf. Rest assured I’m doing my very best to make sure it’s worthy of that trust.

Lords of Midnight? We’ll, if I didn’t have a reputation for making a good story out of a computer game, that likely wouldn’t have happened either. Thanks again. Those reviews you’ve left me? Gold dust.

Drew's original copies of Elite and Lords of Midnight

Drew’s original copies of Elite and Lords of Midnight

Whilst I am looking forward, embracing the new and ensure the stories are fit for the 21st century, it’s worth a moment to consider their origins back in the attribute clashing days of the early 1980s. I’ve been uniquely privileged to be able to contribute in a huge fashion to two formative experiences of my childhood. The 1980s were quite bleak in many ways, but here was escapism and adventure. Now, 30+ years later I’m able to put something back into both of them and, I hope, give some joy and fun to a whole new generation.

2017 should see both of those books available. After that… well, who knows what else may come my way. I will be writing and you can expect to see more high adventure stories from me. Quite what they will be though, I wouldn’t like to predict!

But for now, adieu. Thank you to all the support and encouragement, for all the emails, twitter and facebook mentions, the twitch and youtube streams, the interviews and podcasts. Thanks for all the creativity you have generated around my stories: the new factions, the fan-fiction and the forum debates for and against the ongoing story.

I wish all of you a very merry Christmas and a happy, adventurous New Year. See you in 2017!

 

It is nine score and four days since the writing began…

Posted by on 9:00 am in Progress Report | 4 comments

c_freehA year from now we will be launching the novelization of Mike Singleton’s epic game, the Lords of Midnight. Here at the Winter Solstice itself, it only appropriate to have a little bit of a status update. How are things going? Are we still utterly invigorated and confident that victory will go to the free?

In short. Yes!

Progress has been very good. We’re on track with the novel. I have been writing as fast as I can. Chris gets a version of this whenever I save it out, via the magic of Dropbox, and I thus get feedback on the new sections within days – very handy.

At the moment we’re sitting at just over 56,000 words. I’m aiming for a finished first draft in the order of about 140,000 words, so with a bit of deft calculator action that means we’re about 40% of the way through that.

The first draft is only half of the work though. There will be a second, third and probably a fourth draft. Editing isn’t nearly as much fun as the initial creative work, but an essential part of the process of turning writing into a finished novel.

c_wisehThere are no shortcuts here. Characters have to be checked for consistency, plot-holes eliminated, pacing, tension, dialogue and all manner of other essential components reviewed, adjusted and tweaked. It’s never really ‘finished’, but my personal litmus test is to keep working until I really find it a chore and I can’t stand the sight of it anymore – about then is when the book is ready!

As I mentioned before we’ve had to take a long hard look at all the elements of the story. Lords of Midnight was created in the 80s, but we’re now putting this together for an audience of fans from that time and new readers here in the 21st century. In the same way as a stylistic choices, enhancements and tweaks have been made to the original games in order for them to be ‘acceptable’ to modern gaming tastes on Android and iOS, we have had to consider how readers will respond to this story with modern eyes.

Diversity is a bit of a problem. The Lords of Midnight is unremittingly male dominated in its original incarnation, with a series of Lords who are superficially identical. In the same way that the Hobbit faced the challenge of differentiating between a collection of Dwarves, we have a similar problem with Midnight. We have solutions however!

For original players we have the challenge of writing a story which will entertain and delight, despite the fact that the players know the ending. We don’t want to change the established facts (in fact we can’t if we want to go on to write sequels) so we have to accommodate the known ending. There’s a danger that the book is a little too obvious. We’ve been working to ensure that is not the case.

c_feyhFor folks new to the story, we have to craft something that can be read without knowledge of the game. That means we need to introduce the magic of Midnight and the background to the races, the artifacts and the story to them. This needs to be balanced so it doesn’t slow the story down and doesn’t irritate those who do know the lore.

All this has to be done without destroying the magic of what Lords of Midnight is. We’ve also looked very carefully at what it is the differentiates Lords of Midnight from other games, from other stories. This quality is very elusive, but everyone who knows the game will notice if it isn’t there. We have to capture the essence of the game.

We think again…

So, it remains a challenge! We’re in good shape though. For the next few months we’re going to concentrate on editing up the work completed to date, so the word count won’t rise so quickly. I have to divert more of my time to the Elite Dangerous book that is in the works in order to ensure that is completed on schedule ( a schedule which is rather more aggressive!). Fear not though, Lords of Midnight will arrive as expected. I have never failed to get a book out on time and don’t intend to start now.

c_doomguardhSo here, at the darkest day of the year, the doom of the Witchking of Ushgarak is not yet at hand. His power waxes to its greatest extent and Midnight remains locked in snow, ice and fear.

Yet the moonstar flickers brightly in the easterly sky. Hope ripples through the people of the Free. The Wise stir in their towers and the Fey waken to snatches of new songs borne upon the winds.

Something approaches that was long ago promised and yet failed to appear. This time hopes will not be dashed.

Night has fallen and the foul are abroad. Dawn is still far away, but there is a glimmer on the horizon to the east.

For this time, a novel set in the Land of Midnight is utterly certain.

 

Roleplaying in the Elite Dangerous Universe

Posted by on 2:15 pm in Progress Report | 8 comments

Characters already exist, soon they will have faces too…

I recently had the privilege of being interviewed on Lave Radio after a gap of about three years. If you haven’t listened to it you can catch it here thanks to the wonderful Chris ‘Fozza’ Forrester.

We only had an hour or so, not much time to delve into the detail of the topic at the end. I’ve been giving it a little thought since.

Back in 2013 when I original wrote Elite: Reclamation I was aiming to produce a very traditional outcome. A book. A novel. A story. My original plan was simply to produce an ebook and I was mostly concerned with the quality of the story, paying homage to the previous Elite games, giving something back to the fan community (as it was then) and doing my best to look forward to what Elite: Dangerous would become. I hoped to write a book that Elite fans would look at and go “Yes, Drew nailed it.”

During the writing of that first book, I only had reference material, not the actual game itself, until very late in the process. I got the ‘Alpha’ drop of the game in the closing stages of editing and made a few changes as a result.

Many things happened in the following year. Fantastic Books Publishing raised the profile of my book and many others, turning them into paperbacks, hardbacks, special editions and audiobooks. This far exceeded my original plans.

But the story hasn’t stopped.

Whilst there are many fans of the original Elite games still represented in Elite Dangerous, I’m pretty sure that the overwhelming number of players today have joined the adventure since the advent of Elite Dangerous itself. They have embraced the background and features of the game and shaped how it has evolved since.

Back in 2013 there were no minor factions, no game communities, no reddit fora. Since then we’ve seen the rise of prominent youtubers, twitchers and facebook groups. Many player factions have their own websites and forums – there are literally hundreds. Today the expanse of subsequent activities that orbit around Elite Dangerous is enormous, certainly beyond my ability to catalogue. Some are funny and mischievous, others are deadly serious.

Elite: Reclamation has been available for two years now.

My initial aim was merely a good book!

I was quite overwhelmed with the response to my book at the time of launch, but the reaction to it and the characters within has only increased since. Reclamation was a point in time, but the story I told and the idea that it was connected to a game in which players could begin to tell their own stories… the sheer possibilities that transpired from that were beyond my imagination.

Which brings me to my topic.

I’m not talking about RPGs (RolePlaying Games). If you want that you need to check out Dave Hughes’ Elite Encounters. There’s another ED one in the works too, if it achieves Kickstarter funding in January.

No, I’m talking about players of Elite Dangerous role-playing in the main game itself. Not quite MMORPG, but I hope you know what I mean.

I knew of this activity, but the sheer scale of it hadn’t been obvious to me until I started work on Elite Dangerous Premonition. Until I started adding new GalNet articles into the canon of Elite Dangerous I hadn’t appreciated the sheer amount and enthusiasm the player base does have for the story and the content in the game.

Some player factions have completely ‘blazed their own trail’, others have taken up initiatives based on in-game events such as Beagle Point, Jacques Station and Colonia, others based around the scientific mysteries in the game, others forming around the major factions and some simply exhorted the virtues (or otherwise!) of PVP and PVE. Most gratifying for me is that there are dozens of player factions that have associated themselves with the events of my book and based their own fiction and roleplay upon it. The sense of community and shared ideals is palpable. There are too many to mention and to single out a few would be unfair, but I admire them all.

Blaze your own trail... and you have!

Blaze your own trail… and you have!

Thus the Elite Dangerous universe is now full of activity, characters, events and happenings which the players have created themselves which relate back to the book I wrote. These are not my creations, but they’re no less important than anything I have added. It’s hugely gratifying to me to see them come into existence and have a life of their own. Some work to further events from the book, some seek to destabilize or deliberately frustrate those efforts. Some ally themselves with the Elite Reclamation characters, some are openly hostile to them. Real drama, playing out inside a computer game.

I’ve been privileged to see player groups writing fan-fiction based upon Elite Reclamation and also see the in-game roleplay that these groups undertake. The enthusiasm and energy with which they engage with their own stories is remarkable and, for me, very humbling indeed. I’ve seen them attack Capital ships, work PowerPlay for and against, embargo systems, go on lengthy exploration trips… all because they care about the characters and mysteries I put into my original book.

I’m fortunate now to be in a position where I can return the favour a little. As these various groups interact with the story in the game, they continue to influence the outcome of that story, weaving new threads and nuances into the overall flow. Subsequent GalNet articles have had to be tweaked, or trashed/completely altered because of player interaction. Elite Dangerous Premonition will chart some of this activity (alas I can’t do anywhere near justice to it all!) and I hope lead to further roleplay opportunities. Even better, in some cases, player groups have been forced into morally difficult decisions with uncertain outcomes, unsure if they are the ‘good guys’ or not.

conversation

Player groups have been presented with morally ambiguous choices with uncertain outcomes…

In no way was this activity planned out, but it’s the sort of thing I hoped would happen. This truly is emergent gameplay, with more lore generated by these player groups than can (probably) ever be documented. To those who have created it I can only offer my admiration, respect and thanks  for the efforts involved. There’s no greater reward for a writer than to see your work built upon and expanded in all sorts of unexpected directions. This makes it endlessly fascinating to me, because some of the stuff that results is far better than anything that I would have come up with!

Many have said they’d like to see a film made of my book, or perhaps just based upon Elite Dangerous itself. I’d love to see that too, but in someways this is better. The story continues, it never stops. It’s happening right now, across different time-zones, countries and technical platform. It seems you really can’t stop the signal. 😉

I’m convinced this is something quite unique in both the writing and game-playing domain. I can’t think of another example where a game franchise has resulted in books which has then resulted in widespread player interaction with a story that then gets wrapped up in another book…

It’s weird, it’s wonderful (it’s causing me to pull my hair out at times)… and it’s thanks to the fabulous Elite Dangerous player community.

Right on, Commanders!

 

 

 

Thoughts on dialogue

Posted by on 5:39 pm in Progress Report | 1 comment

I’ve blogged before on some of the differences between sci-fi and fantasy. There are many of course, not least the source material itself and the sorts of rules and ‘laws’ which govern the two genres. There is overlap too, both deal with the ‘fantastic’ and pushing the boundaries of the imagination.

I’ve majored on SF to date, with my current WIP Lords of Midnight being my first major foray into the realm of fantasy. To squirrel down on the genre a little more, this is a form of ‘High Fantasy’, involving, as it does, the affairs of an imaginary world, featuring creatures and races native to that world. They are similar, but very different from our own.

Part of the tone of any story is the dialogue, the prose which the characters use to communicate with each other (and tell the story to the reader). In SF this is typically not so much of an issue unless too much techno-babble is employed, or a large number of conspicuously made up words are introduced.

In fantasy there is a tenancy towards ‘epic-ness’. Characters may strike a rather old-fashioned, perhaps even ponderous, tone in their style of speech, with the author hoping that lends a sense of occasion to the proceedings. Often characters will avoid contradictions (e.g. saying “can not” rather than “can’t”). Less familiar words such as “Verily” or “Yonder” may be employed. This may give a flavour, but unless you know what you’re doing it can come across as rather false and stilted, particularly to more modern readers.

Some of this depends on the ever changing arcs of fashion, with prose styles falling in and out of vogue depending on the views of fantasy panelists or reviewers.

It has also been argued that you can either write as if you are listening into to a conversion in that world, in which case employ the style of that world (medieval or otherwise), or you can argue that you are transcribing the dialogue for your reader, thus you should write in plain english. Is Shakespeare ‘best’ in the original prose, or a modern translation? It depends on your definition of ‘best’.

There’s also the problem of being true to source material. Take the Lords of Midnight  as an example. Here is a piece of dialogue uttered (said?) by a character from the second original novella “Doomdark’s Revenge”.

“I bid you welcome, sir, to the Forest of Dreams. Will you not tarry a while? ‘Tis a long and lonely road you follow.”

Now that piece is attributed to a young Fey girl, her age unknown, but assumed to be 18 or thereabouts. Clearly that’s not how a contemporary piece of dialogue would look for a teenage girl. That would be something like this…

“Yo wassup, you in m’forest man! Hanging out here? Where you been?”

Yes. I’m kidding. 😉 Straight forward English would be something like…

“Welcome to the Forest of Dreams, sir. Will you stay for a while? You’ve had a long and lonely journey.”

It’s the same message, but it lacks the sense of being in a feudal or medieval world and feels too ‘modern’. The trouble is, writing dialogue as in the previous example is rather long-winded and is fraught with the risk of ‘over-cooking’ it and may alienate some readers. Of course, if the readership expects that dialogue, they may be disappointed by the characters not speaking in the fashion to which they’re accustomed. Something of a catch-22.

For Lords of Midnight, I’m trying to tread a middle ground. The dialogue will have a little ‘epic-ness’ where I think it adds to a character’s personality and standing, or helps to drive the tension in a scene. By contrast, I will avoid ‘epic-ness’ when I deem it is unnecessary. My approach on these things, rather like description, is to use it as a garnish in the cooking, rather than mixing in great dollops of it, hoping the recipe works at the end.

It’s a difficult choice, but one the writer has to make on behalf of the reader. Needless to say I’ve given it some serious consideration for Lords of Midnight, conscious of both a traditional and modern readership.

It’s not at all easy, forsooth. 😉

 

 

Fantasticon Readings!

Posted by on 6:12 pm in Progress Report | 0 comments

Hi Folks,

A bit of a delay on the blog I’m afraid. Not only have I been rather busy with the prep for Fantasticon, writing the novels and the day job – I’ve also been off sick this week, which has put a bit of a crimp in my plans, and slowed down progress. However, I’m on the mend and should be back up to speed next week – though I’ve lost a bit of time and am now a little behind schedule.

Nevertheless, the weekend just gone was significant as I was able to launch my latest book, Shadeward: Exoneration and give exclusive readings of two upcoming books, the first volume of the Lords of Midnight and, of course, the Elite Dangerous novel, Premonition.

These were supposed to streamed live, but as is often the case with these sort of things, technical gremlins conspired against us. They have now been uploaded to youtube and will give you the benefit of hearing them at a much higher quality than on the day. 🙂

So, with no further ado. Here they are!





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