How to make an iconic videogame

Elite's and GTA's designers reveal their secrets

"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!).

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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.

Memory overload

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.