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Elite: Dangerous and the curious case of the $150 beta

Today at E3 I played the beta of Elite: Dangerous, a space combat and trading simulation being developed in the UK. You can play it too. Right now. For the low, low price of $150.

The idea of paying for early access to a developmental build is a relatively new concept in modern gaming. Most of the break out hits that have used the model, such as Minecraft and Kerbal Space Program, began by selling access low and then slowly raised the cost over time.

David Braben, CEO of Frontier Developments, has done exactly the opposite.

When he launched his Kickstarter for Elite in late 2012 access to the alpha build of the game cost roughly $300. By the time his Kickstarter closed in January of 2013 he had earned more than $2.5 million from more than 25,000 backers. Among them was a core team of slightly more than 900 alpha testers.

That small group of highly invested players has been a boon for his team.

"The alpha backers have been absolutely brilliant," Braben said. "Very supportive for us getting the game [together]. They’re all aligned with us. We all want this game to be made really well. If you look at the traffic on the design discussion forum it’s brilliant. It’s really helpful. But it’s also been great fun."

Braben led me through a guided tour of the galaxy he has created - our galaxy, the Milky Way. It contains at this time a playable space with a volume of 200 cubic light years. His team has used actual star catalogs to create the 150,000 systems around our sun. Beyond that, his team has procedurally generated approximately 400 billion star systems, all which he one day hopes to open for play.

Since the end of the alpha phase, and through the ongoing beta, Elite’s population of players has increased to 15,000. Braben says that the high price point means he has to support fewer players, and that it’s been useful in solving some of the more complex networking issues encountered during testing.

"We’ve taken some flack for [our high price point]," Braben admits. "But I think the point really is, that we didn’t want huge numbers. We’re testing out our servers and all that sort of thing. We don’t want lots of people overloading them. This is a proper alpha test. And it’s been fantastic."

One star system I visited with producer Adam Woods actually exists, but would take several of my lifetimes to reach were it not for Elite’s simulation. Some day, actual humans may travel to the system, and when they arrive Elite’s players will have already named the constellations there for them.

One, Braben says, is shaped like a tea cup, saucer and spoon; an homage to the game’s British roots.

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