computer games (6/6)

Peter Snow looks at the untold stories of British scientific innovations. In the final episode of the series, Peter traces the development of Britain’s £1.4billion computer game industry, which owes its success to the pioneering work of two Cambridge undergraduates.

In the early 1980s, computers were only just making their way into people’s homes. These simple machines were sold without software and had to be programmed by their users in a language called Basic. Those games that existed were primitive, 2-D affairs such as ‘Pong’ and ‘Space Invaders’, and were designed to be played for little more than ten minutes.

In 1981, teenager David Braben received his first computer, an Acorn Atom, for Christmas. David harboured a vision of creating a truly threedimensional computer game. “I thought, ‘Oh, it can’t be that hard’, as an arrogant teenager might do,” he recalls. “But the received wisdom of that time was you couldn’t do it on a home computer.”

The biggest obstacle was lack of memory. A modern mobile phone boasts a quarter of million times more memory than an Acorn Atom. The complex code required to create 3-D models would cause a home computer to seize up. Nonetheless, after months of work, David managed to create the 3-D image of a spaceship on his machine.

It was not until David went to Cambridge that he had the chance to develop his breakthrough. At Jesus College, he met mathematics student Ian Bell, and the pair began to develop a fully fledged 3-D world. Ian was able to expand David’s code into an outer-space environment of rockets and planets. “The reason it’s space is because space is easy to draw!” explains David.

David and Ian were convinced that a 3-D game could be developed for a home computer – but their ideas extended beyond mere graphics. Their vision was to create a game that required time and commitment from the player. This game would combine elements of storytelling and strategy with a fully functional world that could be explored over time. But to cram this world onto an 18kb hard drive, they had to spend hours writing and rewriting code to maximise the available memory.

The pair were also aware that any one of the big gaming companies could beat them to the punch. “We were terrified of someone else doing the same thing,” says David. “We weren’t so arrogant that we thought that no one else could do this.” At last they had a demo to show the computer game industry, but the question remained – was there a market for their product?

Early indications were not good, as one of the largest entertainment publishers of the time, Thorn EMI, passed on the boys’ work. “Everything we liked about it, they didn’t like,” says Ian. Thorn EMI failed to see the potential in a product that tore up the rulebook on what a computer game should be. Fortunately, Acorn Software was impressed by the demo and agreed to help turn it into a game.

David and Ian spent 18 months perfecting their baby. With the help of formulae developed by the 13th-century mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, they were able to expand the universe of their game to encompass a staggering 2,500 planets. In 1984, ‘Elite’ was launched onto an unsuspecting market with the help of an unprecedented publicity drive, including an event at a theme park and a tie-in novel. The game was a massive hit, selling 150,000 copies – one for every Acorn machine in the country. It revolutionised the way computer games were designed and played, and put the British software industry well and truly on the map.

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