Elite- Docking is Difficult

docking is difficultGollancz is thrilled to welcome guest blogger Adam Whitehead of The Wertzone back to the blog. Adam discusses just how difficult docking really was in the Elite games. 

They say that docking is difficult, and they’re not kidding.

I was six years old when my dad came home from work one night, excitedly brandishing a copy of a new computer game he’d picked up. We’d had our computer – a mighty BBC Micro Model ‘B’ with a vast 32K of memory – for a few months at that point. In theory it was for my dad to manage the household finances and track his business contracts, but most of the time it was put to the much more important use of playing games.

Elite was a different kind of game. It came in bulkier packaging and had the best cover art I’d ever seen for a bit of software. As well as the manual the game came with a keyboard layout guide and a short novel. The cassette tape took an eye-watering seven minutes to load. When it did finally load, it threw up something I’d never seen before on the computer: a 3D, wireframe starship spinning in space. It looks primitive today, but in 1985, compared to the other games on the system, it looked like a vision from the distant future. “LOAD NEW COMMANDER Y/N?” the game asked.


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Hitting “Y” resulted in the start of a new game. This stuck you in a spinning space station high above the planet Lave, equipped with a Cobra Mk. III spacecraft and a measly 100 credits. This was just enough to buy a modest amount of cargo. A local map allowed you to look at neighbouring star systems and see what commodities were in demand. By matching supply and demand you could make a decent profit on a cargo run. All fairly basic, but at the time it was mind-blowing. Every other computer game I’d played up to that point had been based on the idea of linearity: you finish one map, section or level and progressed to the next. Elite had no interest in telling you what to do. It wanted you to tell it what you wanted to do.

Blasting free of the space station had our ship plummeting towards the surface of a planet (a transparent sphere). My dad turned the joystick left and…the ship rotated on its axis. I was confused that it didn’t move. Of course, in space there is no air to use for banking. Thanks to gyroscopes (the manual informed me) the ship could spin around, but not bank. It could, however, dive and climb. Eventually we brought the gigantic space station back into view and flew towards it. I assumed, with confidence, that if we touched the space station it would automatically dock.

Instead our ship crashed into the side of the station and exploded instantly. The game manual cheerfully informed us that this was a common occurrence but it was okay, as the station’s shields were so strong that we didn’t even scratch the surface. We restarted the game and set out again, this time to try docking properly. We flew out, looped around and head back for the docking tunnel. We tried to match rotation and hold the ship steady during its final approach…only to lose control and smash into the side of the station again.

During the next few years, I’d return to playing Elite on a regular basis. I’d make hyperspace jumps to distant stars and engage in tense dogfights with pirates or – even worse – the engimatic and powerful alien Thargoids. I’d hunt down and destroy asteroids for a modest bounty. I’d shoot down missiles trying to blow me out of the sky. And almost every single time I tried to dock, I’d die horribly.

A few times I’d get lucky and actually pull off a docking manoeuvre. It felt like winning the lottery. I’d actually get to sell my cargo and make some money. I’d feel like I was on a roll. I’d even save the game (itself a laborious task involving a second, blank tape). And on the very next trip my ship would explode in a massive fireball whilst trying to dock with the next station.

It didn’t really matter. I came back to the game for the combat, the ambience and the feel of flying a spaceship in the distant future. In my teens, playing the game on a Commodore Amiga (with a staggering 1MB of memory and filled-in 3D graphics!), I finally mastered the art of docking. But then the inevitable sequel arrived, with its much more comprehensive and realistic galactic map (you could visit Earth and fly over London), its much vaster scope and more comprehensive features. Most importantly, Frontier gave you a docking computer from the very start, an acknowledgement by David Braben that perhaps, yes, docking had been just a little bit difficult in the original.


All three Elite Dangerous tie-in books are out now in ebook: Elite Dangerous: Docking is Difficult, Elite Dangerous: NEMORENSIS and Elite Dangerous: Wanted

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  • dave wright

    Ah great days great days indeed

  • Elite: Dangerous finally makes it easy – but I still had trouble at first. I arrived at my first space station from the wrong side, and didn’t realise there was only one entry point – I saw a trench in the surface and thought that might leave inside, but as I bounced against the structure of the station time and again I got the impression that I might have been wrong.

    30 minutes and 4 docking requests later, I finally made it inside!

  • Alex

    I have been playing in the Elite universe since 1990 (Elite, Elite+, & Frontier) and strangely, docking is the one thing I have never struggled with. (auto docking aside).

    I bought commodities but sold them at a loss, not taking into account supply and demand. I was awful at combat – just awful – but I could run away like an Olympic Sprinter from a dope tester.

    I was a pretty good courier though, and once I got my Imperial Courier ship and upgraded it fully (admittedly, this took me nearly a year to achieve) I finally became a force to be reckoned with.

    But no, I never had any problems docking.

    Taking off in Elite: Dangerous is proving a challenge though! Only last night I took off from a station, accelerated too quickly and ploughed into the top of the access port! But give me some credit, I’d only been playing the new game 20 minutes!

  • Alex

    I fact, to show you just how bad I am at the game, I upgraded the weapons, shields and thrusters on my Sidewinder last night and then took up a Bounty Hunter contract to kill Dan Johnson in some random star system.

    I travelled to the star system, located Dan Johnson, and positioned myself right on his tail. Then I deployed my weapon systems…

    …and watched in dismay as my shields, engines and life support all stopped functioning. The weapon systems utilised all available power just to come online – but I couldn’t shoot as I didn’t have enough power to activate them. I watched helplessly as Dan Johnson escaped into hyperspace.

    I limped to the nearest star port and docked (easily), then spent the next few minutes fuming that they didn’t have upgrades/downgrades available.

    There should be a rank below Harmless for inept pilots like me who screw up like this!