Never underestimate the power of an idea

Posted by on Jun 7, 2013 in Progress Report

Now that we’re ‘officially’ official I can use this…

Progress update this week – Still going great guns and the pace isn’t slackening. Big chunks of Chapter Nine are slotting into place. We’re at 57,167 words against a target of 56k, looking forward to cracking the 60k mark at some point next week.

In other news, I’ve received my Frontier contract back all signed and sealed. Since I’m now ‘officially’ official, I’ve updated the graphics to indicate this. I’m now legally entitled to use the Elite (and Frontier) logos, so there they are. Cool, eh?

Likewise the contract with my publisher is also signed and carefully filed away. With the legalise taken care of I’ve just got to get this first draft written and complete. The target for that is the end of August, which is a mere 11 weeks away. Just typing that was quite scary!

So – on to this week’s topic – the community of Elite.

This one is going to be a bit tricky to get a grasp of – where do you start? I think looking at it in chronological order is probably the best!

Christmas 1985 was just… awesome. 🙂

As I’ve mentioned before, I came across Elite in 1984, pretty much as soon as it came out. I saw it on the BBC and it was the ‘must have’ Christmas present for a young teenager. I clearly remember the thrill on opening the box, stuffed with books, manuals and keyboard overlays.

More than this though, we talked about it endlessly at school. My mates and I would discuss the relative merits of the different ships, the efficacy of the military laser, how on earth (in space!) the energy bomb actually worked.  We hunted for, but never found, the space dredgers and generation ships. We regaled each other at the next break-time with our exploits in the game against pirates and bounty-hunters, each story more unlikely than the last.  I even decorated the outside of my text books with wire-frame models of the Cobra Mk3. We were obsessed. Goodness knows what our teachers and parents thought about it. It was far worse than the earlier skateboard and Rubik’s cube.

We even wrote really bad fan-fiction (ghastly horrible teenage angst stuff for the most part) long before the term was coined, all based on Elite. I’ve still got my first ever written tale – it’s an Elite story. Kids, spending their play-time voluntarily writing – how unlikely was that? It happened.

I even remember being told off by my English Lit teacher at school for “Writing too many whoosh went the rocket stories.”

Schools in the 80s were just lovely, weren’t they?

“Elite was a refuge from a crappy day at school”. However bad school was we could go home and, at once, be powerful, significant; losing ourselves in an endless universe of adventure.

Somehow David Braben and Ian Bell bottled compulsion and obsession within 32 kilobytes of random access memory.  Looking back on it now, it’s not the 3D graphics or the procedural generation that were most dramatic – it’s that this game, and its sequels, moulded and shaped the minds of countless youngsters, something that had a profound effect on them as youths which has rippled into their adult lives.  I can’t conjure up the image of that spinning wireframe Cobra without a twinge of excitement. The moment I see that shape it’s 1985 again and I’m off for adventure amongst the stars. It’s burnt into my mind at a seriously fundamental level.

Iconic, captivating, legendary…

The internet didn’t (effectively) exist back then. Magazines and the occasional TV show, supplemented by the odd kid at the back of the class who always seemed to have some new bootlegged version on a dodgy C-60 cassette, were the only ways for the community to talk to each other.

Fast forward to the 21st century.  I made a career out of IT, which so many others of the original 8-bit generation also did.  I clearly remember getting one of the Palm PDAs of the time and being told it could emulate a ZX Spectrum. My first thought? I could play Elite on that…

What might have been…

It was trying to find a native version of Elite for the colour Palm PDAs that lead me back around to Elite. It never came to light unfortunately due to some licensing issues.  That led me to Oolite, which is now an amazing and extended homage to Elite. It has far surpassed Giles William’s (Oolite’s original author) intentions, who wrote it because (and I quote directly having met him) he ‘just wanted to play Elite again’ after all the hassle with the various versions that got pulled due to all that legal trouble.

The Tionisla Graveyard as realised in ‘Oolite’, a community add on, not part of the base game.

What happened there? A community took over. The Oolite community is focussed exclusively on the original ‘Elite’ and the game reflects that. Oolite is what Elite ‘was’ in our imagination, faithfully allowing the generation ships, space dredgers, the Tionisla graveyard and all the other things that were alluded to in Elite but never really made, to suddenly ‘exist’ and have a life of their own.

Reinventing the (dark) wheel…

I wrote my first Oolite fan-fic ‘Status Quo’ to play out in this new ‘Ooniverse’ and I’m humbled that it’s been adopted as Oolite’s  equivalent to the ‘The Dark Wheel’.  It’s 100% free, a  thank-you to ‘Elite’ for all it gave me as a kid.

Fast forward to recent times. Elite 4? No, it’s called Elite Dangerous. It’s a kickstarter… woah… is this really happening?  25,000 people pledged money for a game that hasn’t been seen since 1993. More than that, the kickstarter comments thread developed a bizarre and quite astonishing personality all of its own. Jonties,  Onesies, SPLs, Ganking – a whole new set of terminology somehow conjuring itself out of the ether. The infectious and compelling nature of the kickstarter, the compulsive pounding of the F5 key that so many reported, the tangible sense of loss when it all finished – almost as if it were some kind of illicit narcotic that could easily have been found in the 20 ton (unmodified) hold of a Cobra.

You’re listening to…

Lave Radio, Mobius’ signatures and artwork, EliteForever, EliteStories, Escape Velocity, LaveCon and all the supplementary writers’ projects; books, games, anthologies and chronicles plus a legion of fan websites, fiction and artwork that would be almost impossible to catalogue…

Dave Hughes (Elite Encounters roleplaying game), all kudos to him, spent literally years working out how to rationalise the completely disparate backstories of Elite, Frontier and First Encounters…

Why, why, why?

What is this phenomenon? What is this compulsive drive to research, collaborate, share, discuss, argue, debate, create, write, draw, record, illustrate, set to music and act out? Why is Elite so utterly compelling to so many of us? At the risk of getting lynched… it is just a game…

Even after all this time I’m not sure I can quite nail it.

It’s something to do with being impressionable youngsters at the time these games came out. Our minds were so open to influence in those early years, Elite became a major part of our adolescence, so it continues to resonate today.

You’re already humming that theme, I know you are…

It came at the right time too. Back then we had Concorde, the Space Shuttle – the first spaceship that actually looked like a proper spaceship – and the Voyager space probes. We had Star Wars and Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Space 1999, 2001, Battle of the Planets, Ulysses 31 and the rest. Space was in vogue and Elite paid homage to these influences. It took what it could aboard given the limitations of the game.

But Elite allowed us to be the pilot. Those films were great, but we got the opportunity to actually  be Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Captain Kirk, Starbuck or Sheba. This was our adventure, unfolding in real time, unscripted, unpredictable. Who couldn’t help but be sucked into a universe where you really were the hero or the heroine? Where what you did mattered, where you could defend or prey upon innocent traders, test your mettle against the worst anarchic pirates and face the dreaded Thargoid menace? Who knew what was lurking just beyond scanner range… the same thing that has tantalised explorers since time immemorial… what’s beyond that mountain?

Yes, it was just a game, but a game that fired the imagination, not a game that sequestered you into a narrow one dimensional series of cut-scenes with a linear story.

This community, of which we’re all a part, is a profound and special thing, a living breathing acknowledgement of the dramatic impact that a mind broadening event can have on the minds of youngsters, now playing itself out in forums, meetings, books, games and other products.

We’re all part of something very special. Long may it continue.

Make sure you take time to enjoy these brief fleeting months while we wait for the game and the books – because this is a going to be a significant moment that you will look back on with great fondness and nostalgia in years to come.

Hang on to your seats, Commanders. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

What do you think ‘makes’ the Elite community? Answers in the usual place, below.

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  1. Drew, I am not an English teacher nor am I a native English speaker but you sure as h*ll can write! Awesome blogpost once again. The way you captured the mid 80s there is really spot on. I’m from ’72 so I’ve been there as wel. C60 cassettes, the Space Shuttle, Voyager (my current Nickname in the game), etc… it’s all there 🙂

    Congrats with your book being official!

    Maybe a weird question and just a thought: What are your writing plans for after when you finish Reclamation? Do you have any scripts lying around. Has your Publisher been polling you with similar questions? Now, I know you’re going to play a game but surely you have a wish to do more writing?

    • Hi Jurriaan,

      This project ‘The Shadeward Saga’… >

      was put on hold due to Elite Reclamation. Currently I plan to return to it mid-next year. I need to have a chat with my publisher to see if they’re interested. 🙂 I currently have the first book draft written up to just over 70k words, all safely stored on my hard disk.

      Glad you enjoyed the 80s vibe – it was a fabulous decade.

      • Ah good, so there’s more to come from you 🙂 super!

  2. Great article Drew I think all of us can find elements there that ring true or mirror our own experience.

    I said on my interview with Kate Russell that David and Ian had managed to bottle escapism . It was amazing for us to be able to sit down and be transported to a completely new universe where you were in control, unlike real life where you under the influence of your parents, your teachers, the school bullies etc.

    From the Kickstarter this has and continues to be an amazing journey to the realisation of Elite 4, hopefully it will live up to our hopes and expectations, and on the off chance it doesn’t I’m going to embrace the mindset that “getting there is half the fun” !

    Write on Commanders. (A phrase you missed btw 😉 )

  3. Great update Drew.

    For me I’m loving the depth a breadth of the current Elite community, as well as reminiscing about the good old days. And your last image in the update has the sentiment that I’ve been gripped by recently. Mostly a need to create and to do things I want to do. Hence I’m about to take the afternoon off to do something that I love.

    Cheers, Steve.

  4. Another fantastic update Drew – you have written here, just what I would have, if only I could have.

    As a kid, I used to ‘escort’ a younger lad on the perilous journey to and from school. The upside was that he had a BBCB Disc version of Elite, whereas I only had the Electron tape. Thus was my first proper experience of the fully animated docking computer. It stuck with me to such a degree that every Friday night, as I drive past the top of his street (he moved over 25 years ago, by the way) I involuntarily think “docking computers” and smile. Can’t help it and not ashamed to share.

    Keep up the great work.

  5. Nice post, Drew.

    Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing: fresh-as-a-daisy memories floating around behind craggy faces that frown upon their now-crusty lives. Personally I hope Big Hair and huge shoulder pads will be back in fashion in 3300. 😀

  6. Nice update as always. However shouldn’t you be cracking on with writing the book rather than writing frequent updates? 😉

  7. Drew, yet another FANTASTIC update.

    I don’t know how you’re making the schedule and putting out this incredibly heartfelt content. And then it hit me. THIS is why Elite has had such an impact. THIS is why the community is filled with such passionate and forward thinking souls.

    It’s you Drew, and those like you, who take the community to heart and become beacons within it for those who feel the same way but can’t express how they feel.

    As your publisher I am obviously biased as I want the project to succeed, but much more than that I am a child of the 80s. Not the older brother at 15 and 16 who spent hours on the game. I was the younger brother, the 5-10 year old. The watcher. The admirer. I thought my older brothers were computer geniuses having been told that what I was seeing was ACTUALLY HAPPENING somewhere out there in the cosmos.

    From that point I was hooked and became the ‘oh, are you STILL playing Elite?’ guy at school.

    I can’t wait for the new game and I can’t wait for this wonderful and deeply passionately written book to accompany it.

    Keep up the great work Commander!

    (Your very proud publisher)

    P.S. I’ve already had a good look at the Shadeworld Saga… TBC 🙂

  8. Excellent post Drew,

    I relived all those years again. Probably I start over reading the Oolite Trilogy. It was Epic!. These days I find myself following multiple communities. With one leg firmly still standing in the Oolite Community and the other in the Frontier Forums. Also still following Pioneer. As Elite fans we must realize that today we are spoilt. We are able to play (emulate) the old versions of the game while at the same time we follow the newest game developments. The tension is high and everyone is expecting much from the new game (too much?) Anyway. These are exciting times!

    Looking forward to the game and the book 🙂
    P.A. Groove

    • Thanks!

      I’ll give some thought to Pioneer and FE2/FFE in a future blog.

  9. Hello Drew and publishers,
    First I’d just like to say I’ve enjoyed the updates and nostalgic photos and it’s great to see continued support for the novel.

    However I felt it important to make a point clear. 1. Elite Dangerous the actual game has had 7 newsletters and they have been more than enough to assure me, a supporter of the game that everything is going along really well and this new edition of the game looks set to be super tops fantastic to say the least.

    2. Elite: Reclamation, has had 57 update/news reports. While I can understand that perhaps publishers are chewing at the bit to get the novel processed and have updates, the fact remains that for each of those updates, that could have been 2 -3 pages of the novel(correct me if I am mistaken). Well there’s potentially 114 pages of the novel which as I’m certain you must be well over a third of the way there, would be a good step towards a rough draft.

    7 updates for the actual game which has LOADS of development time and is the product of hundreds of people, versus 57 posts for a novel, which besides editing requires 1 person?

    Anyway, all I’m trying to point out is that, I’d rather be reading the finished product than reading updates and that can happen a lot faster with more writing and less distractions. Fair enough?

    All the best,

    • Hi Sean,

      Good points, but let me explain from another perspective:

      1. My blog posts are not newsletters, they’re more akin to forum posts – newsletters take days to put together, blog posts take me an hour. Some projects have tried to create their own forums and are (mostly) watching the tumbleweed blow past. To me there seemed little point in going beyond a traditional blog. I have posted blog entries here and linked back from the various places (facebook/twitter/kickstarter etc) for a single reason. I can control the content and I can archive it myself for the future. As well as a blog on progress, this is an account of my process of writing a book and the ‘experience’ of being part of this ‘year of Elite’. This content could easily have been placed on the frontier forum, but that lacks flexibility and isn’t mine to control after the event. This year will be a story itself and I want to capture that.

      2. In my case, Blog updates do not equal ‘writing’. I write (by which I mean proper head down writing for the book) Monday through to Thursday, using the time on the train/commute. This is two hours a day. I zone out, headphones on, mp3 player at hand with a target of 1000 words per day, rigorously worked out according to previous experience and aligned with the plan I published in the Kickstarter. This is ‘work’. On Friday, I have to go to one of our satellite offices by car, I can’t write. All I get is a lunch-hour. It’s in the middle of an industrial estate, so there’s nowhere nice to go for a stroll, so I have a choice. I can vege out and watch youtube videos of cats (access to the frontier forums is blocked by company policy), or I can write ‘something’ easy which doesn’t require the quiet distraction free environment I need for serious writing. I’ve chosen to use that time, which is full of noise and distractions, to knock up a progress update and voice my opinion on the news of the week, Elite-wise. Saturday and Sunday are out – sacrosanct family time.

      I’ve fallen into a regular pattern. Mon-Thurs – slog away at the book. Friday, take time to breath and have a look around.

      The point being that I can’t write the novel any faster. All I could do is not write my blog posts, but that wouldn’t bring the novel to fruition any quicker. As it turns out, I’ve ended up plugged into the community at large and this has generated a role beyond just the ‘book’ itself. I feel I have a small contribution to make here, so here I am.

      Also bear in mind that even if the draft was finished earlier than planned, the book would not be launched early. It is planned to coincide with the release of the game itself. I need to run the Alpha and Beta versions of the game to see what the ‘feel’ is like and thus adjust the draft accordingly.

      If the regular Friday email bothers you I can take you off the list of course and you can come here at your leisure.

      Also, call me vulnerable, but I need the interaction with my supporters on a weekly basis to spur me on into the following week. This would be much harder without the weekly comments and acknowledgement that there are folks out there cheering me on.

      All the best,


  10. The ’80s certainly were something. Elite was one of the many games we used to discuss during the breaks, but for me it was one of the most important ones (others at the time being Pirates! and Ultima III or IV).

    Still, I must note that you left out perhaps a small part of the community: those who really got into Elite only with the sequels and might never even have played the original. These two bases of fans come from entirely different backgrounds, in this regard, and have highly different expectations. Personally, I enjoy both games, but lean more towards FE2/FFE.

    • Hi Marko,

      This is a good point and it’s not my intention to leave the FE2/FFE folks out. I’ve had to play those games since the Kickstarter in order to find out about them. I hardly noticed them at release time and looking at them now is a curious blend of moving forward from the old game and looking back from the current. I’ll give this some thought for a future update.

  11. Drew,

    I like the idea that you only have a limited number of words in you head and that if you “waste” them on a blog you could end up running out of words for your novel

    You can’t release you novel early, but what happens in the other case? There’s a good chance that you will finish at the correct time but the game itself will be late. Will all us readers have to wait patiently for all those books for fear of any spoilers?

    • Running out of words will never be a problem – writing good ones… that’s a different story. 🙂

      As to your second point, if the game is late I’ll have to make a call on it closer to the time. It rather depends on ‘how late’.

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