TelecomSoft outbid rival publishers for the rights to publish Z80 conversions of Elite in September 1984, before the Firebird label had even been officially launched. Signing the rights to other platforms followed over the next year or so, under separately negotiated deals.
The original BBC Micro and Electron versions of Elite had been massive sellers for Acornsoft – selling 108,000 and 35,000 copies respectively – and the conversions published by Firebird introduced the game to a much bigger audience. There are plenty of tribute sites to Elite on the web that detail the game’s origins better than I can, including co-author Ian Bell’s site.
Firebird published seven conversions of Elite in the UK and Europe for the Commodore 64, Sinclair Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, MSX, IBM PC, Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. The Apple II/IIe conversion was written by Ian Bell specifically for the US market and was published by Firebird Licensees Inc. in the States. An enhanced IBM PC version called Elite Plus was released in 1991 under the Rainbird label, long after BT had sold both Firebird and Rainbird to MicroProse UK.
The first TelecomSoft conversion was for the Commodore 64, written by the original authors Ian Bell and David Braben and featuring the infamous Trumbles which didn’t appear in any other version. They needed a little bit of help to begin developing the C64 version, and that help came in the form of PDS (Programmer’s Development System). The very first public demo of the C64 Elite was shown in February 1985, and was running on a Commodore 64 linked via a discrete cable connected to a BBC Micro running PDS.
Torus handled the Z80 conversions (Spectrum and Amstrad CPC) whilst Mr Micro wrote the MSX, Atari ST and Commodore Amiga conversions. Realtime Games got the IBM PC conversion, which ran in CGA (with just a four-colour palette to choose from and a very small screen resolution).
Torus only had an annotated 6502 dump of code to base their conversion upon, but decided it would be quicker to play the BBC original to death and then make the Spectrum version mimic the original as much as they could. What they had hoped would only take 3-4 months to code eventually took them a whole year! The CPC conversion took much less time thanks to PDS.
The 48k Spectrum release also saw the debut of a new ‘anti-piracy’ protection device called Lenslok. This device was subsequently used in a number of other Rainbird and Firebird titles, but was ultimately replaced by other techniques (mostly novella based) after a series of problems. The new 128k Spectrum arrived in early 1986 and that had some incompatibility problems with Lenslok, so a 128k version of Elite was released that was nothing more than a few bug fixes minus the Lenslok!
After the problems with Lenslok, Firebird could have done without the bug that crept into the initial cassette release of Elite for the Amstrad CPC. The game would lock up after a few hours play. Torus tracked it down to the disk drawing routine that they had used in both Gyron and the Spectrum version of Elite. Marketing Manager Phil Pratt took the decision to offer a £2.00 money-off voucher to all Amstrad owners who had to send the cassette back so that it could be replaced with a new version (labelled ‘METROPOLITAN’ and using a white label to distinguish it from the bugged version).
Approximately 15,000 Amstrad CPC black cassettes were shipped on release, and around 6,000 had been sold when the bug was reported. The remaining 9,000 unsold tapes had to be destroyed.
The Marketing Department came up with a neat publicity campaign leading up to the release of the 8-bit conversions of Elite. The original 8-bit magazine adverts consisted of four panels, with each panel on a different page showing a different person (Girl, Boy, Granny, Punk). Each person had a different elite status which was at odds with their appearance and/or personality. For example, the punk looked quite nasty but above it said This Man is Harmless, whilst the granny advert stated This Lady is Deadly.
My involvement with “Elite” at Firebird was as part of the bug testing team who worked on the ST and Amiga 16-bit conversions by “Mr Micro”. I was also one of many who manned the phones when customers called asking for help in any of TelecomSoft’s games, including Elite.
We had a couple of typed ‘crib sheets’ that we could refer to if anyone called up, and I vaguely remember that they included cryptic rumours of a ‘ninth galaxy’ as well as mentioning the possibility of experiencing a hyperdrive mis-jump. I’m not sure who wrote it, but I could hazard a guess if I had to!
It’s probably better to admit up front that I didn’t like the 16-bit conversions much. I thought the graphics were far too garish, and the game didn’t look anywhere near as good as it could (or should) have done. I can remember complaining in my bug reports that the launching/docking sequence looked terrible (the concentric boxes effect) and that the cockpit graphics for the Cobra Mk III were very poor. At the time I thought that the artist might have been overly influenced by the colourful organic graphics of Captain Blood (by Exxos, who eventually became Cryo), as that game had been out for maybe 6 months when 16-bit Elite was being developed.
I’m not sure if ST players were aware of this or not, but the cockpit graphic could be amended quite easily -it was nothing more than a standard ST picture file. However, not many people would have been willing to write back to a disk that had just cost them £25 without knowing for sure that they weren’t going to ruin the game in the process!
The development period for the 16-bit conversions was troubled at times. I can remember Mr Micro being burgled and an Amiga A1000 – that had only just been loaned to them from TelecomSoft – being one of the items stolen. Not a good start! For a while it also looked like the developers were going to go out of business before the conversions were finished.
At one stage the 16-bit conversions were going to have quite a few extra missions. The Project Manager (Colin Fuidge if I remember correctly) asked a few of us to come up with new mission ideas. I can remember suggesting one that relied solely on the player’s use of the scanner. Unfortunately, the extra missions were never implemented and the game went out with the same five missions that the latter 8-bit versions had.
Although Firebird was the winning bidder in the Marjaq auction, the rights to develop, publish and distribute conversions of Elite became a much more complicated issue soon afterwards. Other costly negotiations with Acornsoft had to be entered into before the situation was resolved and the Firebird versions could be started in earnest.
Joss Ellis was Firebird’s project manager for some of the 8-bit conversions of Elite. The original implementation of the Lenslok code didn’t work properly in the Commodore 64 version, so Joss had to rewrite some of it. There’s also a curious message hiding within the main C64 code that says “Keyboard Overlay Ripped Off by Jocelyn Ellis”.
Queuing for Elite
In 1988, the TelecomSoft Marketing Department spun out a press release to CTW and the computer magazines, proclaiming that people had queued up to get their hands on ST and Amiga Elite on the day of release. That was true… well, sort of. Let me explain. A couple of us had visited the Virgin Megastore (in Oxford Street) that lunchtime and walked past the counter in the games section as a few (2 or 3) customers were waiting for the staff to unpack the delivery of Elite that had just turned up. Fast forward a day or two and the official press release embellished the story somewhat in comparison and gave the impression that people were queueing round the block!
Well over a year after MicroProse UK bought the TelecomSoft labels from BT, they decided to publish a new spruced up version of Elite for the IBM PC to take advantage of the newer EGA and VGA screen modes on the more modern PCs of the day. Chris Sawyer was given the job of enhancing the game, and so Elite Plus was released in 1991.
Although this website is specifically only for titles signed by or published by TelecomSoft, Elite Plus is included (on a technicality) because it is based on the original CGA Elite source code, written by Realtime Games for TelecomSoft.
Frontier: Elite II
1993 saw the release of Frontier: Elite 2 and a year or two after that, Frontier: First Encounters – both published by Gametek. I got involved with play testing Frontier: Elite 2 on the Amiga original when it was still a Konami title, as well as originally plotting the star chart that was included in the box. But that’s another story for another website!