Elite’s Procedural Generation Algorithms Closely Predicted Real Extra-Solar Planets

Elite’s Procedural Generation Algorithms Closely Predicted Real Extra-Solar Planets
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I know Chris Roberts’ Star Citizen gets a lot of press, but it’s Elite: Dangerous from David Braben’s Frontier Developments that has me hot under my spacesuit. If anything, it’s Braben’s attention to detail and the depth of the simulation that intrigues me, so I wasn’t surprised to learn today that Elite has one of the most accurate representations of the known universe ever to feature in a game.

Before I completely explode from hyperbole, the game does of course take its own liberties for the sake of gameplay, but thanks to the power of modern PCs, rather than rely exclusively on clever procedural generation to create a varied, yet realistic representation of the mysterious black void we live in, Braben has been able to use actual scientific data for the next Elite.

This might sound counter-intuitive at first — surely more power means more complex algorithms? This is true, but when you’re memory-constrained, procedural generation is really the only option if you want to create a massive world with loads of variation. Once you have oodles of RAM and drive space to play with, that’s when you can add real data, such as existing star systems and galactic phenomena, to complement the fancy code.

According to an interview by Simon Parkin in The New Yorker, Braben hasn’t just cherry-picked the most interesting or pretty astronomical bodies either:

“I wanted to make the galaxy as accurate as possible so that the results of that exploration would make sense to people,” Braben said. “In the game, every single star in the real night sky is present, some hundred and fifty thousand of them, and you can visit each one. Even the clouds of stars that make up the Milky Way are included: some four hundred billion stars, their planetary systems, and moons are present, all waiting to be explored.”

Mind. Explosion.

But wait! Leave a few gibs for this next part, which is even more awesome:

Elite’s model has expanded Braben’s understanding of planet formation and distribution. Braben boasts that his games [sic] predicted extra-solar planets (“These were pretty close to those that have been since discovered, demonstrating that there is some validity in our algorithms”), and that the game’s use of current planet-formation theories has shown the sheer number of different systems that can exist according to the rules, everything from nebulous gas giants to theoretically habitable worlds.

Emphasis mine. The article goes on to mention that the game packs in “a great deal of up-to-date astronomical information”, so even if you’re not keen on the game itself, if you just want to fly through the universe as humans understand it, Elite is about as good as it gets.

The Video Game That Maps The Galaxy [The New Yorker, via Gamasutra]


  • I have been playing the premium beta for this lately, and the above article just has me itching for the full game even more.

    Even in beta with only 7 or so systems to explore, this is the most playable and enjoyable space sim I have encountered since the original versions of elite. To think I can visit hundreds of thousands of systems…. Just wow.

  • Rich me: “Why don’t you just step into my office and I’ll write you a a blank cheque.”

    IRL me: “Please…take what little money I have…”

  • I wasn’t surprised to learn today that Elite has one of the most accurate representations of the known universe ever to feature in a game. I was working on that as a base assumption since that was what Frontier: Elite II did back on the Amiga. Admittedly I’m hoping Elite: Dangerous is dramatically more playable than Frontier was considering it was at best overambitious and at worst pretty piss poor but the accurate galaxy… that they had.

  • Dont worry man. I have been playing even just the combat scenarios from the Alpha release.. Its goddamned astounding how much realism and detail theyve packed in.. yet its soooo much fun. The ship controls feel very intuitive and natural, combat and stealth is fun, space is beautiful, and it supports my VR HMD that comes next month.

  • Is it correct that Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous will eventually be similar games? That is my understanding at this stage. I am very interested in space simulation games (love kerbal space program), but am hesitant to get in involved with elite as I’ve already sunk money into Star Citizen. I don’t want to speak bad of Star Citizen as the two games are in different stages of development, but this looks seriously good. I hope that SC ends up being good. Time will tell.

  • Hehe. History time. =)

    When DB made the second Elite game, our knowledge about exoplanets, the rules of their creation and the variety that they could have was at best rudimentary. By 1992, there was only one confirmed discovery (of two exoplanets in the same system http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PSR_B1257%2B12_B and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PSR_B1257%2B12_C ).

    Now enter Frontier. DB, using our then understanding of planet creation made a set of rules affecting the procedural generation code for the Frontier game. The rules would govern all aspects of exoplanet creation, form, attributes and variance, from the distance to the star to temperature and semi-major axis, and from chemical composition to gravitational effects and actual mineral distribution inside the planet.

    The result was a playable 20ly vertical “slice” of our Milky way across the galactic plane, featuring half a billion unique star systems with many, many billions of planets, ranging from asteroids to brown dwarf substellar objects. The rules governed what was where, how it looked, how different star types or multiple star systems affected the distances between planetary objects, how moons of planets worked etc etc. You can view that as an educated guess, at a time where the only thing we could do as humanity was…guess. Some of the guesses were also very bold at the time made, since our scientific knowledge back then did not have a satisfactory answer for them. For example, it was believed that multiple star systems would quickly clean out their proto-planetary discs at formation, thus not allowing any planets to persist due to the two or more stars complex co-orbiting mayhem.

    Enter 2014. We now have the tools to find exoplanets with a bigger degree of accuracy, and also know a lot more about the way they are created and distributed. More than 1800 actual exoplanets have been found as of July 2014, including planets at multiple star systems and cold roaming bodies that have escaped the orbit of stars. As our degree of accuracy gets better and we are able to detect more, we see that planetary formation is sth rather common in our cosmos and many of the rules that govern it just…make sense.

    And the rules that govern it are pretty close to the assumptions DB did when making a game back in 1993, using 500kb of a simple floppy disc to portray a playable galaxy. In essence, the more we understand the universe that we live in, the more it seems that our own galaxy is but a wondrous and majestic experiment in…procedural generation.

    Hope that helps, cheers…C:

  • I’ve been on the Star Citizen bandwagon for sometime, and quite frankly I was a little disapointed in the Elite crowd-funding campaign, particularly as it seemed to be riding on the coattails of the hugely successful SC campaign.

    But, you know what, I’ve slowly started to become more and more interested in Elite, for the very reasons that have been outlined in this article. They seem to have put a heck of a lot of work into the world-building of the universe itself. I don’t know, perhaps SC has a lot of this sort of work done too, but all they seem to be concentrating on now is more and more ships, and how well they pew pew other players in dogfights. While certainly an important component of the games, frankly it worries me that they so far have ignored showing anything regarding an interactive, complex, immersive universe, which I feel is the biggest component of these games.

    But regardless, I’m excited to see these games finished so I can get lost in the universe 🙂

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