David Braben

EliteFirebird Software LtdSinclair ZX Spectrum1985
Elite (Master 128K)AcornsoftAcorn BBC1986
VirusRainbirdIBM PC1989
ConquerorRainbow ArtsCommodore Amiga1990

Company History


From Then to Now


Added: 9 Mar 2013
2007 Interview with Stuart Goodwin


When did you first come across an Acorn computer? What did you make of it?

An Acorn Atom at the end of 1980 (I think). This was a time when you were expected to be able to solder in order to use a computer (most machines came as kits). The Atom was a delightfully simple machine that came with 2K of RAM, expandable to a massive 12K. For it's time it was a fantastic machine, as it also had the ability to do 'proper' graphics (as opposed to the teletext-style graphical symbol characters used by machines like the Commodore Pet and TRS-80 of the time). One advantage of this kit mentality, is machines had very open designs (ie circuit diagrams were freely available), and so expanding them in unconventional ways was quite practical. Pretty soon my machine was twice the original speed (ie the same speed as a BBC Micro), and had 48K of RAM!

At what point did you decide to try your hand at programming? Pre-Elite, were there any other titles you'd worked on?

Almost immediately. There was practically no software out there to buy (at first). There were quite a few programs to type in, from the excellent book "Atomic Theory and Practice" written by David Johnson-Davies, that came with the machine - some of which were written in assembly language.

My first game was called "Nuclear War", and was partly written in BASIC, partly assembler. It was a view of the Northern Hemisphere of the Earth from space (created by drawing on the screen in chinagraph pencil, then writing a program to help transcribe this as a digital image which was then loaded in from cassette tape). It was a two player game, Russia vs America, where each side had eight cities. You could choose to fire nuclear weapons at the other guy's cities, and the weapons would then gracefully arc up into space before raining down on the city - meanwhile you could fire your weapons into space, to prevent the other guy's missiles raining down on your own. It was a little like two instances of "Missile Command", but it had quite rich tactics - as one player tended to end up heavily on the defensive.

I wrote other games too, and started experimenting with 3D. I wrote a 3D space game called "Fighter", which showed a lot of promise, but was actually pretty dull, but it was from this that the ideas for Elite were born.

Elite was one of the earliest games to really push the limits of the BBC - was there anything you would have liked to have incorporated into the game that there simply wasn't space for?

Yes. At the end of development Ian Bell and I were scratching around for single bytes so we could add features. A particular feature might require six bytes to implement - so we would spend ages poring over code, looking for possible savings.

The Electron and BBC tape versions of the game were more restricted than the disk version - how satisfied were you with these versions?

Also, a few programmers I've spoken to have mentioned occasional frustrations with coding for the Electron, particularly when they'd initially started working on a Beeb. What were your experiences of working with the Electron?

The BBC tape version was only slightly restricted - it missed a few of the ships and other minor bits and pieces - but the Electron version was a lot more restricted. The video hardware on the Electron was very poor (compared to the BBC), and we couldn't do some of the trickery we did on the BBC to save memory (this is also why it was black and white on the Electron). So yes, I think we were satisfied with the BBC version, but the Electron version was missing quite a lot of the nice touches, so this was a little frustrating.

By the way - we never bought an Electron - one was loaned to us pre-release by Acorn, and when we finished, we attached a not to the inside of the case, saying "Elite" was written on this machine, and we both signed it, so somewhere hopefully this note is still there in someone's machine.

Did you ever make use of the BBC B+? Were you ever approached to program an enhanced version of Elite for it?

It was something we looked at, and may even have started, but I think this got subsumed by the Master and Master Compact versions.

Many people think that the BBC Master versions were the best Acorn versions of Elite. What do you make of them?

Yes - they were a lot better; both faster, and with some nice little extras.

Between Elite on the BBC and Zarch on the Archimedes, and besides the aborted Elite II, were there any other Acorn titles you worked on?

I wrote quite a number of demos for the then prototype Archimedes machine, and also a game called "Lander" which was a demo, given away with the Archimedes, which was a predecessor of "Zarch" - with large meteors falling from the sky. I think "Lander" was the first commercial game to feature real time lighting and shadowing.

Gremlin's short-lived Star Clash was notoriously similar to the original Elite. What was your reaction to this game, and how was the situation eventually resolved?

It did look a little like plagiarism to me. I even saw a bug in it that I knew to be in Elite, and asked Gremlin (the publisher) if we could have a neutral party compare the source code of the two games. It was withdrawn shortly afterwards.

What are your memories of working with both Acornsoft and Superior Software?

Acornsoft were fantastic and a joy to work with. They were both gamers and huge fans of all the technology behind games. They weren't the only people we showed Elite to - it is amazing the contrast between Acornsoft (run by the same David Johnson Davies that wrote the "Atomic Theory and Practice" book), and other publishers - where the people making the decisions were more talking about demographics and sales forecasts of 'the product' rather than really caring about what they were really talking about. Acornsoft stuck their necks out for Elite and printed more copies on the first print run than they had ever sold on any other game - and I am eternally grateful for this as it brought the level of success to Elite that might not otherwise have happened.

Superior Software came along a lot later, but were still good to work with.

While all the other programmers were playing Elite, what were you playing?

I was doing my University finals!

Were there any other programmers for the 8-bit Acorns that you particularly admired?

Yes. Peter Irvin - he wrote the excellent Starship Command, and also "Exile" with Jeremy Smith.

Do you still own any of your old Acorn machines? Looking back, which was your favourite and why?

Yes. I have given a number away, but I still have the original BBC Micro, Second processor, Acorn Ethernet server and 'Winchester' disc, and a prototype Archimedes, and an A4000. All sadly pretty worthless now I imagine, but my favourite probably has to be the original BBC Micro.


Interview by Stuart Goodwin, Autumn 2007.

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