It is a rare thing indeed for a modern-day videogame to be critically accepted as truly 'groundbreaking', despite the number of times that particular adjective is abused by games mags and websites the world over.
Yet TechRadar has just been treated to a talk by two designers of the British games industry's biggest games of all time.
David Jones and David Braben, both recently voted into a list of the top 10 greatest developers, were giving a short presentation at this year's Develop conference, each playing the other's best-known game (Grand Theft Auto and Elite, respectively) and sharing their thoughts on what made both games legendary.
Both games – despite being from different eras - featured huge open worlds that gave the player a sense of total freedom to do what they liked, to create their own stories and inhabit their own, fantastically escapist alternative worlds.
And both games inspire that look in the eye of gamers of a certain age...
"Elite was criticised back in 1984 for its 3D graphics," admitted Braben. Ironic really, when you consider, as David Jones does, that the original GTA also received flack from games publishers and hardware manufacturers in the late 1990s for being "a 2D [top-down] game in the 3D world of PlayStation."
Elite took Braben and his partner eighteen months to complete from start to finish, which he admits "felt like a very long time back then", but publishers were not initially overimpressed with the pair's immense space-trading 3D fantasy game.
"The initial response from publishers was very negative," he recalls. "At that time  there were lots of Pac-Man, Galaxians and Space Invader clones on the market. There was a 'coin-op mentality' whereby if a game didn't have a playtime of ten minutes max, with three lives, then publishers weren't interested."
Not bad, really, for a game that went on to sell more copies than there were BBC Micros on the market at the time. "Kids were buying them and taking them to school to play at their computer clubs," Braben fondly recalls.
The joy of docking
As David Jones clumsily flies an Elite Ship near to the anarchist planet of Riedquant, there is laughter from the Develop audience at the fact that he is having trouble making the ship go left or right.
Which reminds us of one thing: games were loads harder back then!
"It takes quite some dedication to get into a game of Elite," admitted Braben. "But then again, after waiting twenty minutes for the cassette to load, gamers were perhaps a little more patient than they are now!" he jokes.
In addition to fighting enemy ships, all of which were named after various snakes ("they had the most types in the Thesaurus" says Braben) the other key mechanic of Elite was having the ability to scoop up your enemies cargo and also to trade in a number of both legal and slightly dodgy cargo.
"The fact that you could also choose to become a pirate and a smuggler quickly became a central mechanic," says Braben. "Controversially, particularly because this was the BBC Micro, we put in slaves, firearms and narcotics."
Still, despite all that, and despite the fact that Elite went on to become one of the biggest selling games in history at that point, there was little controversy around the game. GTA however...
"Oh the controversy aspect [of GTA] was completely built-up," admits David Jones. "It was used as marketing for the game. We employed Max Clifford who, once he saw the game, was a little bit disappointed [with its cartoony style]. So he just never let us show the game."
"He told us that he would just tell the politicians all about it without showing it," Jones recalls. "And, to his exact word, we were on GMTV within one week. One hour of prime-time television talking about the game. Just as he had said!"
Games PR has become increasingly (and often rather annoyingly) savvy to the ways of controversy, so it is strange to recall that Jones' first GTA was the controversial sensation that it was, a mere twelve years ago.
David Braben is almost jealous-sounding when he recalls how little negative press response his game received. "There was not even a bleep," he says. "Maybe we should have employed Max Clifford!" (Though he does then tell us that Elite was the "first game to ever do a press launch" - at some frighteningly in-the-dark rollercoaster at Thorpe Park, apparently!).
Elite did get a slot on ITN back in the day, although that was only because the news editor at the time had realised that all his staff were obsessively playing Braben's game on ITN's BBC B's in their downtime.
Elite was made for the 32k BBC Micro. "Well, around 22k when you take off the screen," recalls Braben. "Most emails you send these days are in the 30k mark," he says – an amazing fact which really does show how far we have come in 25 years.
The whole, immense galaxy of Elite. Less than an email.
Explaining the clever math behind this, Braben adds that the first version of Elite that he showed to publishers had "two to the power of forty-eight" galaxies. In the end, they settled on eight.
They also had to be careful about the self-generated names of certain galaxies as they "were noticing planets in the game that had names like 'arse'!"
"In those days we were really writing games for ourselves," says Braben, which is quite possibly why his early games were hilariously difficult at times. "There is that danger of being too close to a project... when you test it and test it and it becomes too easy for you."
Initial seeds of inspiration
So what were the original inspirations and 'eureka moments' behind GTA and Elite? Were there any?
"Initially, it was the tech," says Jones. "Once we had that isometric top-down view of a city and we knew we could zoom in and out and so on... then it was a case of ;wouldn't it be great if we could do?... It was a very iterative design process."
Jones and his team also had "the initial idea to play the police [in GTA]... basically we just wanted huge maps and an open and freeform playing area.
More than anything, Jones recalls that GTA was inspired by pinball. "You just have to get 1000000 points... plus all the dot matrix stuff in the game was emulating pinball. And each time you completed a mission it was effectively the same as giving yourself a multiscore bonus."
Braben echoes this idea that it was the technology that drove his inspiration. He also remembers having a lot of pressure for his game to "have an ending" and freely admits that he never, ever imagined gamers would actually put the time in to achieve the legendary status of being Elite.
Liked this? Then check out The evolution of gaming graphics
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