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Elite Art

Month: March

Author: Cris Robson

I originally became a fan of the game Elite back when the Commadore64 version was released. My parents had bought me a second hand C64, which came with some pre-owned software like Pools of Radience, Battle for Midway and Elite. I did of course try Elite, as I had read the reviews of it in C&VG magazine when it had been released for the BBC, and had wanted to play it for some time. The problem was that C64 Elite was by far one of the most difficult 8 bit conversions available. For a start there was no cheat mode like the Sinclair Spectrum versions had, and it certainly wasn't as easy as the damn Amstrad version. I tried it, and then left it for an easier to play game.

Back in the mid 80s however, Elite was the game to play, and I soon decided to go back to playing it again. After a while I grew used to the control system, managed to stay alive long enough to afford a slightly better weapon, and from that point on I got hooked. Now, anyone who has played the C64 version of Elite will no doubt know of the major differences between the Speccy / BBC / C64 versions. Where I lived, there weren't many kids with a C64, and none of them whom I was a friend of. However, there was a community of Speccy and Amstrad Elite players, which I bantered with and exchanged unlikely tales of dredger hunting (I know you all did too).

This is where things got a bit tricky for me. I had been playing for months to try and get to the famous CLOAKING DEVICE. It was an item that all my other friends were lucky enough to have their ship fitted with, and something that I felt I could definitely enhance my game with. I spent hours every day, lurking in Tech 1 anarchy planets, taking out masses of FDLs, Cobras and so on, trying to increase my rank. Finally I got to Dangerous, a task you may scoff at with FFE, Frontier or your 'easy' versions of Elite. On C64 it took a LONG time. I got my first hard coded mission. It was something I really didn't expect either.

A mission appeared as I docked in a station in Galaxy 2. It said that a prototype Constrictor had been stolen, and could I please hunt it down. Naturally I chose the YES option and saved my game. I then started hunting the varmint down. This is where the trickiness of the C64 kicked in though. I thought I had to find him now, but the system would only release a new clue every "Right On Commander". After 4, I became deadly (it took a looooong time) and the clues on the trade screen came more frequently. Finally I came across the ship, after chasing it through 3 Galaxy jumps.

In the mission brief, the ship is supposed to have a new shield generating unit inside it that makes it impossible to kill without a Military laser. Needless to say, the prospect of owning this little beauty was a driving force. I would be virtually indestructable, I thought. I attacked the ship, and it was literally an Epic battle. I used an Energy Bomb, all four missiles and my ECM a lot, and finally had a 10 minute laser fight before I destroyed the ship...

There it was... The container floating in space. I carefully lined up, and scooped it into the cargo bay. 1t Food!!! WHAT???? I thought that maybe I had accidently destroyed the canister in the fight, so I loaded my last save postition, and started again. This time it was 1t Slaves.

Well, you obviously guessed it. There was no add on for my ship. MY chums meanwhile were flitting about in witch space (which the C64 didn't have), hiding from Thargoids and getting massive ranking increases.

I went back to the game, dejected. However there was a suprise when I did my next Galaxy jump. I was sequestered by Navy Intelligence to carry a parcel containing something the Thargoids didn't want me to deliver to a different Galaxy, (opposite end too). What could I say? Another mission! Naturally I did it. It took ages, I was attacked constantly by the Thargoids, I got 6 Right on Commanders, but my Deadly ranking didn't budge.

I played for a further 6 months on and off, trying to get the Elite ranking. Nothing. In the end, I gave up trying, and just went back to favourite sections of the game I had saved and re-played them again and again.

How does this link into Elite art? Well, when I realised I could go no further, I bought a big blank hardback book, and a lot of graph paper. In the book, I made up new ships, missions, designs, stations, galaxies, interfaces and so on, with the aim of eventually sending them to Bell 'n' Braben, so that they could include it into their next version.

It was a massive book, filled end to end, however I realised that Mr B & B were 'grown ups' and wouldn't want a big book or designs when they no doubt were getting things like that all of the time anyway from other fans. So I kept it, and over the years, I tried to make the models into 3D myself.

In '89, I was doing a computer course, and I did a vector graphics program to make a rotating Cobra model. It was terrible and written in basic, but it was my first step. As computers advanced, I learned to use graphics packages to recreate my old hobby. Finally three years ago I got my first 3D graphics package. I was originally using it to make childrens multimedia software graphics and interfaces However, I started using it for trying to recreate ships / stations / etc from Elite. I got better and better at making models, textures, effects and I started animating them.

I decided originally to make an Elite Movie, using the models I had made, with background music, as a showcase for my models. I worked on this for some time, before wondering if I could make the idea interactive and put the models into a game system...

I came up with Elite Tournament, simply as a way of taking my model design one step further. The 3D engine I chose was very simplistic and basic, yet it was multiplayer, and I could have two people fighting each other. Pretty cool - I was happy - and would have left it there probably. I made a slightly better copy, which I released as a Beta version, and released on my old website. I had told a few members of the Elite community, but this time I also released the information to the alt.fan.elite newsgroup too.

As I said, I would have left the game there, and not bothered to continue. However, some people on alt.fan.elite started whining about physics, the interface and so on. This made me very angry. I had spent time, on my own, with no help, making a multiplayer spaceship game. I had never said it would be Elite. But these people, who had sat complaining about other people's work when they had never done a single creative thing in their lives, were suddenly complaining about my hobby project, that I was letting them play about with because I thought that they would be interested.

Well, I am not a teenager. I have a fair few resources too, so I thought f--k them. I set out to obtain a good 3D engine, get better rendering tools and make a better system. I even considered licensing 3D code from a large US firm that many people will probably recognise, however, in the end, I was offered the rights to use a new Dutch engine free of charge for my game. I got permission from Frontier Developments and Ian Bell, and I went to work on my project.

Well, it's still a long way off completion. However, I got the first Multiplayer version out there before anyone else! I will also have Elite Tournament released this year, and if it is crap, so what? At least I will have followed through a childhood hobby at last. I will not announce it on alt.fan.elite of course.

Anyway, here is the reason for this story:

You may well be a fan of the genre, and have made graphics for your website or whatever, using Elite craft/locations/etc. You may look at what others have done and think to yourself 'Why do I bother to do this when X's graphics are so much better that mine?' (Or you may be X, sitting gloating at you skills of course!). And to this I say the following...

Elite Art is not about skill, it is about what you have put into it. It is not about realism. It is about style. I would judge ANYBODY who uses 2D tools, from pencils to JASC's Paint Shop Pro, over a 3D artist like myself, because you paint, I build.

3D art and 3D are worlds apart. The work of a 14 year old, using the line tool in PSP, can often give better effect than a 3D scene containing particle effects, glows, lighting effects and so on. What we are looking at is someone who has taken their time producing something they have imagined and want to visualise, compared to 3D, where the focus is on scene composition and getting the image proportions correct.

To all the Elite Artists out there, I salute you and your work.

Right On Commanders.

Cris Robson