A Visit to Frontier Developments - Elite: Dangerous Preview

Sometimes, it's important to take a break from music to enjoy the other important things in life, like video games. I had the opportunity to sit down David Walsh, COO of Frontier Developments at the new Frontier Developments office in Halifax, which opened about 18 months ago to work in collaboration with their original studio in Cambridge. The Halifax studio started out with a release title for the Xbox One, Zoo Tycoon, based on Roller Coaster Tycoon. 

Now, Elite: Dangerous is the first original IP game from the Halifax studio, and it's based on Frontier's own game engine, designed from the ground up. What I found most fascinating about the concept was the all-encompassing nature of the engine's scope – games developed for not only console and PC, but for mobile platforms (Android and iOS) and MacOS as well. All platforms use the same underlying engine and assets, allowing the studio to develop multi-platform games and quickly share assets between ideas and developments.

 The primary difference between platforms is no longer based on their hardware, David says,
“The innards of these things are actually really powerful now.. they're catching up with consoles very quickly... (there's) really not much difference between them all - it's just about the UI and the audience.” Custom building an engine from scratch, rather than licencing existing technology, makes it easy for game devs to add new features demanded by fans and backers, such as support for the Oculus Rift VR headset. 

In light of the recent controversy, I asked David about their continue support for Oculus Rift, given their acquisition by Facebook. Frontier is not “prejudice one way or another,” he explains, “As a game developer, we're ... agnostic about hardware – the more platforms there are, the better, the more people playing the games the better, so we don't particularly mind which one wins” as they'll support the technology regardless. Support for Oculus Rift actually came from the kickstarter backers, so it's very clear that support for VR is driven by the community (Oculus Rift itself being a crowdfunded technology to begin with). 
Elite: Dangerous was shown off to the public a few weeks ago at GDC, but actually traces it's roots back almost 30 years to the classic game Elite, the 1984 game that helped influence most of the modern space fighter epics. We remarked on the seeming resurgence in space games after a lull in 00's, but the genre seems to be coming back into full swing, as evidenced by the kickstarter success of both E: D (with over 45 000 backers), and the upcoming Star Citizen. The games come from very similar backgrounds, and though arguably Elite is the grandfather of them all, according to recent ineterviews, there's no bad blood between Frontier Chairman David Braben and Star Citizen founder Chris Roberts, who seems themselves as both working towards the common goal of returning the space sim genre to the attention of the gaming public.

The game revived the “highest ever achieved ask for a Kickstarter game” and continues to fund through it's website, much like Star Citizen and other successful games like Terreria and hundreds of others. The first muliplayer test was completed in January, and has just released into another alpha Alpha phase for some of earliest backers. For those of us not lucky enough to be in the alpha, players start out alone in a fierce and often dangerous galaxy to try and eek out a living and earn much needed credits to upgrade ships, weapons, and eventually earn the rank of “Elite.” The game features 3 factions; the classic evil “Empire” faction; the noble and well meaning “Federation”; and the rag tag “Alliance.” It's not the freshest or most original concept, but generally players in the space sim genre are primarily concerned with the “space” and the “sim,” and E:D promises to deliver on both.

Above: Frontier's Greg Sewart demo's Elite: Dangerous

The game takes place in the Milky Way and features a realistic sky catalogue with “thousands of inhabited star systems” and the developers even predicted planetary placements before the Hubble telescope observed and confirmed the team's calculations in real life. The game also features both fly by wire (like a traditional flight sim) and advanced controls for more elite players, taking advantage of the real physics of zero-gravity dog fighting, to, for example, pivot the ship independent of forward speed to get the drop on someone chasing you. 

Trading, piracy, and bounty hunting are all in the game, and landing on planets is mentioned as well, though in the demo I play, it's strictly in-ship combat, so no word yet on what that will actually look like. I get a chance to look at two brief skirmish type missions. One has me in a more advanced fighter, speeding toward what looks like a giant freighter orbiting a planet. Enemy ships skitter around as I swoop towards them, lining up for a missile lock and unleashing heat seeking missiles as soon as the lock is confirmed. Stealth is another aspect that will be available in E:D, with the option to reduce your heat profile, making you harder to track and lock onto – but also potentially giving you less power in shields, weapons, etc. It's a trade off and every player will find their own balance of game play style.

Though my play was limited, and we only had the original Oculus Rift to play on (no HD version), the core game play was clearly very polished and rewarding already - even chasing one AI ship (which eventually out smarted me) in circles, twisting and turning and firing basic weapons were all very satisfying. In a fully fleshed out game, with multiple systems, enemies, and a mix of AI and human opponents, I doubt there will be any lack of depth in the game play. While I got to play on a fancy multijoystick setup, for the simpler gamer like myself, E:D will support keyboard and mouse and controllers for all it's gameplay functions. I also saw a few other options in the 3D support menu, so it looks like there may be other 3D options as well, but I wasn't able to confirm anything else for hardware specs just yet. 
Here in Halifax, Frontier Developments is currently recruiting for multiple positions in the studio, including programmers, 3d models, testers, and others. You can see the full list on their website at: http://www.frontier.co.uk/jobs/vacancies/halifax_vacancies/. 

- Dan Nightingale 


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