June 15, 2014 · Gaming

My First Encounter(s) with bugs in games

Update, June 2015: I've made a few minor factual corrections, and added some more references, following correspondence from a source within the original Elite team.

Ever since my first personal computer (a black & white Amstrad PC 1512 with a single 5.25" floppy slot and no hard drive), I've always been a games player. In recent years, my tester's mindset has altered my gameplay style, and frequently I'll get distracted by trying to uncover bugs and raise these issues with the game's developers. These days, games are generally fairly high quality, helped by the fact that (particuarly for desktop and mobile apps) critical bugfixes can now be delivered quickly and seamlessly.

However, patching wasn't always as straightforward; as recently as the 1990s, if you experienced a game-breaking issue then you'd have to contact the manufacturer directly, or pick up the latest issue of PC Gamer to see whether its cover-mounted CD contained an update for your title. In fact, in the days before Windows 95 or "plug & play" device detection, it wasn't unusual to discover that the game which you had just purchased contained a fundamental flaw which meant that, for instance, sound didn't work.

One game which had a notoriously troubled existence was (and still is) one of my favourite games of all time, despite lawsuits, recalls and a common consensus that it was a bug-addled mess. That game was Frontier: First Encounters.

First Encounters title screen

First, a little history: In 1984, Acornsoft released Elite for the BBC Micro, programmed by Ian Bell and David Braben. It was technologically groundbreaking, featuring entire galaxies on a single disk, which the player was free to explore as they saw fit. You could be a pirate, or a bounty-hunter, or a mineral trader, or stumble upon an alien race; it was up to you.

It spawned a graphically-expansive follow-up, Frontier: Elite II (1993), and then - at the tender age of 14 - I stumbled upon its 1995 sequel, Frontier: First Encounters. It took the game's immersion to a new level - you could fly from outer space into the atmosphere of planets, down to their surface, swooping between mountains and landing in a lakeside space port. Just watching its title sequence, embedded below, is enough to take me back to my childhood:

Unbeknownst to me, there were massive efforts behind-the-scenes to resolve some of the more critical problems, which also involved the release of five separate on-disk patches for those who knew where to find them. But in these pre-internet days, most of us just dealt with the game that we were given; the bugs were just another part of the game.

One such bug involved the game's auto-pilot, which could accelerate time during monotonous long journeys. However, the AI (which I imagine bears a close resemblance to Holly from Red Dwarf) was notoriously slow to recalculate its trajectory at high speeds, giving it the uncanny knack of steering your craft directly into the nearest planet or space station. It was massively annoying and potentially game-breaking, but did it bother me? Hardly - I just learned to press QuickSave before engaging the autopilot. That way, when my hyperspace was interrupted by the sound of metal colliding with a neutron star, I could just reload and try again.

Although the game is open-ended, there are a certain number of core "story missions", most of which have to be triggered sequentially. Many of them contained bugs/anomalies which could not only prevent you from completing that mission, but also prevent you from unlocking the missions which followed it. On occasion, the fault was simply that a mission was badly-worded; for instance, you're asked to "bomb" a target when you're actually required to use a specific weapon (e.g. lasers or missiles); guessing the wrong weapon will result in mission failure and the need to reload a save from a couple of hours ago!

As such, it's perhaps unsurprising that it took me about a year to reach the meatier story missions which involved commandeering an alien spacecraft. It's not as if I wasn't loving the game - I was just having fun exploring the universe, rather than following the prescribed mission path. (A path which, as the conclusions of this FFE missions page points out, stops abruptly after these alien missions - another sign of a rushed release.)

Exploring the Solar System

The fallout

After being inundated with technical support queries, many concerning incompatibility with popular sound card drivers, Gametek took the highly unusual step of withdrawing the game from sale altogether, and commencing legal action against Braben himself.

The writ of summons (Gametek v Braben 1996) is a fascinating read; it speaks volumes about the immaturity of the industry that it features such gems as:

The writ also makes mention of a pre-agreed October 1994 release date, with financial penalties if the game was delayed by more than six months. With the game hitting shelves in April 1995, and with Frontier claiming that the game was released before the development team thought that it was ready, it's evident that the seeds of First Encounters' problems were sown in unrealistic and unachievable expectations which were laid down by people who were far removed from the development process.

The incident eventually reached a natural settlement, as Gametek went bust before the case reached court. Braben released a statement claiming success in "out-of-court" damages, though it's unclear what's being referred-to here, as Gametek were no longer in existence at that point. The press release also stated that the team would commence work on a sequel, Elite IV, in late 2000.

The follow-up

Things went quiet for a long time. The sequel struggled to achieve publishing through traditional means, where risk-averse investors are driven by recent franchise successes. The Frontier team finally struck gold with a £1.5m Kickstarter campaign, meaning that the crowd-funded Elite: Dangerous will soon be with us! (Interestingly, the Kickstarter pitch - which outlined the history of the Elite series - failed to make any mention of First Encounters, cementing its place as the black sheep of the family.)

The game was demonstrated at this week's E3 show in Los Angeles, picking up some prestigious "Best in Show" accolades along the way. The following is all in-game footage, and it's lovely:

At the moment, the game is progressing through a series of test phases. Games testing is always something I've enjoyed - as a tester who loves playing games, I'm always willing to give my time for free to assist games developers. However, there's a growing trend (thanks to the likes of Kickstarter and Steam Early Access) for people to pay for access to beta programs. It's a potentially dangerous path which could devalue the role of the professional games tester, although games producers will tell you that they're simply offering a reward for passionate fans to get games sooner. (It's the subject of a forthcoming presentation that I'm working on.)

To finish, here's a live demonstration of Elite: Dangerous that David Braben gave at E3. Even at this beta stage, the game is showing an incredible degree of polish and it's clear that Braben's passion for the game's universe is as strong as ever. Coupled with support for the Oculus Rift VR headset, there's a real possibility that this could be one of the most defining gaming experiences ever made.

Further reading/playing

For more reading about the history of First Encounters, check out this PC Zone article from September 1995; I'll apologise on their behalf for their horrific choice of main image.

Ironically, playing First Encounters today is as challenging as on first release! Boxed copies are like gold dust on eBay, often exchanging hands for upwards of £100. The full version can be downloaded, in shareware format, from various sites online, complete with a reasonable request to send £5 to David Braben if you continue to play it after 30 days. If you've ever used DOSBox to emulate old games, you should be able to get something running. Alternatively, there are some hi-def reskins available, such as FFE D3D.

If you like the idea of the game, but feel that it's too hard to locate or install, there've been a few half-decent attempts to mimic the formula of Elite, in the past two decades. These are some similar games that I've purchased/played in the years since: Privateer 2: The Darkening (1996), Hardwar (1998), X: Beyond The Frontier (1999), Freelancer (2003), and the multiplayer sensation Eve Online (launched 2003).

There are also several exciting-looking Kickstarter projects which I've backed: Drifter, Limit Theory and Star Citizen are all deeply infused with the Elite spirit.

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