Nearly 1,300 years into our future the human race is divided, and not merely along philosophical lines. There are those who have stayed close to home, in and around the core systems of our sun, Sol. Then there are those who live their lives hundreds of light years away, separated from their brethren not merely by distance but by generations of time. Those pioneers are pushing deeper into uncharted areas to seek their fortunes.
This is the universe of Elite: Dangerous, the spacefaring simulation from the team at Frontier Developments, led by CEO David Braben.
It is here, on the edge of known space, where the bulk of Elite’s gameplay will take place. For more than a year, early backers of the project have been fighting and trading among the stars that make up Earth’s constellations and beyond. Their game space has been growing the whole time, albeit slowly at first. But on Dec. 16 — launch day — Frontier will have modeled our entire Milky Way galaxy and opened it to the gaming public.
Creating such a massive sandbox is a remarkable achievement for Braben and his team. Polygon sat down with the man behind the franchise to find out more about the procedural tool that made it all possible — the Stellar Forge — and to learn more about the lore behind Elite’s universe.
The whirling gyre
Elite: Dangerous is the fourth title in a series first launched in 1984. While those early games made passing attempts to simulate traveling through space, they’re nothing like the scale and depth on display in the new Elite. Players can travel to over 400 billion star systems, each of them realistically modeled to include planets, moons, asteroids and other more exotic astrophysical phenomena. Inside the game is a sandbox that is not merely an open world, but an open galaxy.
"I remember first playing the Grand Theft Auto games," Braben told Polygon. "I really loved San Andreas because I could recognize some of the buildings. They were very obviously taken, even some of the street scenes, from particular parts of LA.
"It felt really good. When you come along the coast road in Santa Monica, it really felt like that road in GTA."
If Grand Theft Auto could do it, thought Braben, why not Elite?
That experience of synchrony inspired Braben to push the boundaries for Elite. Using a procedural generation system called the Stellar Forge he and his team have, to the best of their ability, mapped our galaxy. As a result, players may be able to explore and discover worlds that really do exist, and just happen to be hundreds of generations beyond humanity’s current technological reach.
"When you look up in the night sky and think, ‘Wow. The real night sky matches our game’s night sky.’ I’m in the game, in a nearby star system, and I’m looking back and seeing our sun in a constellation it’s really there. Our players are just the first ones to see it from that perspective."
To create Elite’s gamespace, Braben’s team started with as much information as they could gather about 160,000 known star systems from our galaxy. The trouble is, so very few planets have been discovered outside our own solar system. To fill the gaps Braben’s team created the Stellar Forge, a methodology that uses procedural generation to extrapolate out the composition and orbit of all the undiscovered exoplanets in our galaxy.
Frontier has essentially used the same kinds of mathematics that power a game like Minecraft to cook up the entirety of our Milky Way. All it took was finding the right ingredients.
"From observation," Braben said, "we know the temperature of some stars. We know the size of that star, and we know something called its metallicity," or the types of periodic elements that make up the star’s composition. "Some of the older stars actually have very low metallicity, and we factor that into the elements that are there in that specific star system."
Given that information alone, the Stellar Forge then goes to work. It rolls time backwards toward the Big Bang, and extrapolates from there the composition of hundreds of thousands of celestial bodies using the first principles that astrophysicists believe govern our universe.
"Stars form out of star-forming regions where there are vast amounts of gas," Braben said. "Occasionally pressure waves going through these can cause the gas to coalesce into a star. And around that matter congregates.
Out pops a fully formed, stable star system for the team at Frontier to gingerly place into their game.
"Each system is evolved from a basic amount of material. So planets like the Earth are made up initially of lots and lots of what are called planetesimals, which is little sort of almost fluffy balls of something like cigarette ash — very low density. It’s never been compacted, but it’s matter that’s been stuck together.
"When two primordial bodies like this hit each other they would have just gently impacted. They wouldn’t bounce off each other, they would just gently crash into each other and stick together. So it’s initially just that stickiness that holds them together because their gravity is almost nothing."
Then, like a figure skater pulling in her arms during a spin, the Stellar Forge allows each of these accretions of planetesimal mass to spin.
"You end up with planets," Braben said. "And then we run those for a few orbits, because you can get what’s called resonances where two planets will come close to each other and they may well sling one out of the system, or sling the other into the star itself."
Eventually, out pops a fully formed, stable star system for the team at Frontier to gingerly place into their game.
"We’re reasonably confident that everything we do has some sort of scientific basis behind it."
Braben says that his team knows they’re on the right track because they have been able to account for the existence of known exoplanets, and their orbits, using the Stellar Forge.
The results of the work done by the team at Frontier have been surprising to Braben. For instance, binary solar systems — or solar systems with two suns — were known to be common in our galaxy. Braben says there’s even a system in Elite that has seven stars. Binary planets though — that is, two worlds that orbit each other and share a common orbit around their central sun(s) — were thought to be quite rare. But the Stellar Forge seems to say otherwise.
"It follows that objects in the same orbit tend to come together just because of the way that orbits work," Braben said. "Oftentimes they won’t be precisely the same radius, and they will end up smashing into each other and coalescing or smashing each other apart and forming lots of little bodies.
"But if they have a near miss they can actually end up in a sort of ballet." Braben says that the Stellar Forge has predicted these binary pairs of planets everywhere in our galaxy.
"They actually are pretty frequent. You typically get a binary planet on average once a system, or maybe more. And sometimes they can be quite beautiful."
The majority of Elite’s Milky Way is known only to the developers at Frontier. It’s up to individual players to discover things for themselves.
Out of these player-directed discoveries has emerged a growing collection of time-lapse movies. Virtual captains will park their starships in a single location for hours, sometimes days, and record hundreds of screenshots to create moving images.
Of course, the team at Frontier could be wrong. The Stellar Forge could be flawed, and evidence suggests that it is far from infallible. Occasionally when Braben’s team runs procedural generation for a system with a newly discovered exoplanet the wrong results fall out. There are already tools in place to allow the team at Frontier to override the Stellar Forge and make corrections.
"What I’m actually hoping is that we won’t need to do that very often after launch," Braben said. Given the pace of discovery, he said that his team is confident they can keep up with the one or two exoplanet discoveries a month for the lifetime of the Elite product.
"We’ll just change the name of something that’s there already. We then put that body into its system, in a sort of indestructible way [and run the Stellar Forge again]. We say, no no. This really is here. And then [the Stellar Forge] can still work out what is around it."
This busy monster
For all their efforts at galaxy creation, the richness of the Milky Way as envisioned by Frontier is merely a backdrop for the game’s overarching story. In Elite’s fiction the core worlds, locked in a strongly political Federation, are at odds with other bands of spacefaring humans. Separated by generations of distance, they are each dealing with the fallout from a conspiracy unlike any other.
"One of the assumptions that the Elite series makes is that the chances of life happening in our galaxy are really high if the conditions are right," Braben said.
"It looks like, on Earth, that as soon as the conditions were right, we had life, to as close as we can measure it. And by life, I don’t mean people chatting in bars telling each other jokes. I just mean green slime at the bottom of a pond. … The assumption in Elite is that life can evolve, but even the best of it won’t have evolved [by 3300].
"The assumption in Elite is that life can evolve, but even the best of it won’t have evolved by the year 3300."
"We think what will be most common is systems will have life, but it will be slime mold-type life. And so the assumption the game makes there is that humans would think, ‘Oh that’s quaint,’ but wouldn’t preserve it. Instead they would say, ‘Here’s a fantastic planet for terraforming.’"
Many systems in the game have planets that have been terraformed, where any indigenous species have been wiped out and replaced with Earth-like flora and fauna. And the cost has been high.
"I remember seeing a very interesting article about the Maoris in New Zealand and the Treaty of Waitangi," Braben said. "Apparently the Maoris systematically wiped out the people that were on New Zealand prior to them. They had only come to New Zealand 300 years earlier, but they decided, ‘No no. This is ours. We’re going to chase down every last one. We don’t want an argument in the future.’
"Later, the Maoris said to the British, ‘You should have done that to us.’"
People, Braben says, have the capacity to behave terribly towards outsiders, and so the fiction of Elite’s universe simulates those actions as well.
"A group of disaffected people in the early days of human expansionism just headed off as far as they possibly could into the unknown and settled around a star on a planet with a breathable atmosphere where … there was a sentient species. They wiped them out, and then covered it up."
"I think this is the sort of sentiment that got popular in the 15, 16, 1700s when the sudden exploration happened. You have this impression of plenty. Because if there are literally hundreds of billions of star systems, the presumption then is just because this is one of the first sentient species to have been found they must be quite common. It’s sort of like the person who chops a tree down in their garden because it makes their house look dark, not realizing that that was the last of that particular type of tree."
Just how much of the history of this mysterious precursor race will show up in Elite: Dangerous is unknown at this point. For now, it will be up to players to make their own journeys among the stars and see what they can discover there for themselves.
Correction: We've amended this article to reflect the scale of Elite is actually 400 billion star systems.