Elite, an Acornsoft game for the BBC Micro, is a game in space.

Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.
    -- Douglas Adams

There are a vast number of planets, resources, other ships... Elite, however, is small (in terms of program size). With so many planets that remain the same, and a detailed description about each, the data must be compressed somehow. How were resources compressed in Elite?


Elite used procedural generation. There's a good description of the algorithm on the Elite Wiki and although the original 6502 source code archives are available on Ian Bell's Elite site he also converted the procedural generation code into C for "Text Elite", so that's probably easier to read.

This extract from the book "Backroom Boys: The Secret Return Of The British Boffin" (by Francis Spufford) has a nice summary of how the game came to be. Here's a relevant snippet:

Hence the [Fibonacci] sequence's value to Bell and Braben. They could encode all the information on a particular solar system in a relatively short row of digits. That number, it occurred to them, wouldn't have to be stored if it were an iteration in a Fibonacci sequence - or a Fibonacci-like sequence, anyway. All you would need would be a starting point, a rule for doing the iterations, and a mechanism for extracting the information from the number.

Some digits controlled the physical specs of the system: the size, the location, the number of planets. Some determined local politics. Others grew into brief flourishes of verbal description - which always read a little weirdly, put together as they were from stray adjectives and nouns. Since the adjective list contained "carnivorous" and the noun list contained "arts graduates", it was possible to land on a planet where all the inhabitants were, yes, carnivorous arts graduates: a little swipe maybe at Cambridge - not random but pseudo-random. As the player entered the star system, then, it swelled into existence as if it had always been there.

David Braben talks about the "compression" and many other programming tricks used in this video.

  • 3
    "You'd type in a number, a birthday or something, and see what galaxy that came out with," Braben told the Guardian in 2003. "'No, I don't like that. No, I don't like that. That cluster looks horrible' [...] One of the first galaxies we tried had a system called Arse. We couldn't use the whole galaxy. We just threw it away!" (mentalfloss.com/uk/games/37075/…) – flith Oct 28 '16 at 6:01
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    The numbers were generated via this algorithm, but how were the names / descriptions generated? The goat_soup function in the C source of "Text Elite" looks to me like it's picking adjectives and nouns from a list, but I can't see where the rest of the sentences are. – wizzwizz4 Oct 28 '16 at 9:07
  • @wizzwizz4 Which sentences exactly? Did you look at the Elite Wiki? A few tables of strings are given there, though I haven't looked for them in the source. – Nick Westgate Oct 30 '16 at 3:31
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    @NickWestgate It's fine; kap's answer explains how the description algorithm (goat_soup) works. – wizzwizz4 Oct 30 '16 at 8:09
  • @wizzwizz4 The Elite Wiki page I linked to has a short description of the algorithm and an example of creating the planet description, and I've added a link to a talk by David Braben – Nick Westgate Oct 30 '16 at 8:53

The descriptions are computed via the method goat_soup which works recursiveley. The system description is set by mySystem.description = goat_soup("\x8F is \x97.",&mySys);

The description string contains two special characters, \x8F and \x97. Within gout_soup the available set of words and sentences is stored as desc_choice. The special characters are replaced via a random element in the list, for example "\x82 \x81 for \x8A" is a replacement of \x97. This is called recursiveley and now the new special characters are \x82, \x81 and \x8A.

An example for these recursive fillings for \x97 can then be very fabled and its \x83 \x84 when always the first element is chosen.

This continues now until no special character is contained in the string any more.

My example refers to a modified version of Text Elite I created for a project at university several years ago which is available here: https://github.com/kappmeier/mElite/blob/bfff7375bc85670250015437ac25b8e55ea5c58f/src/txtelite.cpp I do not know to which version of text elite on Ian Bells homepage this refers.

  • That's really clever; thanks for clearing that up. However, that C code is for "Text Elite". If you can read assembly (or have a good Find tool and patience!) you could add information about the original source code. – wizzwizz4 Oct 28 '16 at 12:06
  • My ability to read 6502 assembler is limited, so I will leave that to others. My understanding was that the C version is very near to the original. – kap Oct 28 '16 at 12:09
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    Your "modified version of Elite" is, as far as I can tell, actually a modified version of Text Elite. However your information is still useful. (By the way, I'd recommend reading the tour, just so you can say you've read it.) – wizzwizz4 Oct 28 '16 at 12:29

It wasn't compressed. The data was calculated using a Fibonacci Sequence. I don't know what seed numbers they used.

The new Elite Dangerous does the same.


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