Frontier: First Encounters is the sequel to the best-selling Frontier: Elite 2 (FE2), which itself was the sequel to the legendary Elite. Published in 1995 by Gametek, it initially shot to number one in the charts in its first few weeks, but was found to have a large number of bugs. Because of this, sales began to fall dramatically with many copies being returned, and Gametek withdrew the game from the shops. A number of patches have been released, the latest of which, V1.06, fixes almost all of the most obvious bugs.
In terms of gameplay, FFE is a lot like its predecessor, Frontier, but with improved graphics, most noticeable of which is the 3D planets and terrain. Set 50 years after FE2, there are a number of new ships, new equipment and even rumours of the possible return of some old friends who were sadly (!) missing from FE2. There are now five newspapers, which report events in the galaxy in their own styles and from their own viewpoints, and often keep an eye on your actions too.
The above two paragraphs, for many years, made up virtually the entirety of this page. My assumption was that people using the site would be familiar with the background to the actual computer game and its predecessors and therefore I didn't need to spend much development time on adding any additional info and would instead concentrate on other areas of the site.
Time has, alarmingly, flown by and it's now been more than twenty years since FFE was released! While I sadly no longer have enough time to play Elite: Dangerous (or indeed FFE), I'm aware that a number of the more experienced commanders on the Internet have from time to time kindly pointed players new to the series this way for more info. Right on Commanders!
Given this, and the increasingly high probability that a number of the newer readers may have never have even heard of FFE, I've decided to mark the Twentieth Anniversary of FFE by clashing together a potted history of the game, in the hope that it will prove of interest.
The following information has been compiled from my own memories of the time and with the aid of an assortment of sources I have collected over the years or which are still available on the Internet. While the longevity of my website and the esteem in which some may hold it could give the impression of my having inside information I feel it only fair to make it clear, for the avoidance of doubt, that I am not and never have been an employee of any company or person connected to the development of Frontier: First Encounters or any other game in the Elite series. As always I welcome comments and corrections via the usual channels.
It's worth taking a moment to consider the nature of the computer platforms involved as the industry now is much different to the early to mid 1990s. There were a number of different types of micro computer, which had their own largely incompatible operating systems and architecture. The Commodore Amiga and Atari ST were based on Motorola's 68000 processor architecture. and were initially 16-bit (compared with the earlier generation of the 80s which were 8-bit) with later machines being 32-bit. The CD32 was a development of the Amiga 1200 and was a games console with a built-in CD drive.
CD-ROM drives were still relatively expensive and not particularly common so other than a few titles most software shipped on 3.5" floppy disk on all home computer platforms. Where a release is described below as being "for PC" this was the version on floppy disk. Not all games were available on CD although as drive prices fell during the late 90s the format would eventually become ubiquitous. While Windows was increasingly common the majority of PC games were designed to run in DOS mode. Sound on the PC was usually provided by dedicated sound cards, the clear market leader being Sound Blaster.
With regard to the Internet, the World Wide Web had recently been launched but home usage was still quite rare and most players got their news from magazines or teletext services. Magazine publishing lead times would typically see feature writers working on articles three months before the cover date and the amount of time allowed for play testing would sometimes only be a few days.
The publisher Gametek consisted of the US parent company GameTek Incorporated and their UK-based European subsidy GameTek (UK) Limited. The rendering of the name seems to have changed on occasion, for consistency I have gone with Gametek in the style used in the manuals for FFE and FE2 and applied an appropriate suffix to denote the area of operations of the relevant entity.
The majority of events related below took place in the UK and I will therefore not state locations for brevity, exceptions will be noted where appropriate. As far as I can recall the European releases occurred at the same time as the UK release.
Elite was first published by Acornsoft in 1984 for the BBC micro. It was a massive critical and commercial success and was rightly seen as a major innovation with its groundbreaking 3D graphics and freeform gameplay. Over the next few years it would be ported to virtually every 8-bit platform that existed and later 16 and 32-bit systems culminating with the release of the Acorn Archimedes version (AKA ArcElite) in 1991.
While players hoped for a sequel nothing would emerge for several years other than an occasional rumour. Meanwhile the original co-authors David Braben and Ian Bell went their separate ways and pursued their own interests. There would be no new Elite game until 1993, nine years after the BBC version had first been released.
Frontier: Elite 2 was released in October 1993 for Amiga, Atari ST, and PC. It had been written by David Braben himself, with the PC version being converted by Chris Sawyer (who would later create Transport Tycoon). The game would prove a major departure from what had gone before. It offered a much more detailed depiction of space including a realistic (although somewhat flattened) star map based on actual astronomic charts and theory together with three dimensional star systems containing multiple bodies rather than just one sun, one planet, possibly with a moon, and a space station.
In addition to the usual combat and trading Frontier also had a bulletin board system where it was possible to take contracts for a range of missions for various people including the two new superpowers the Federation and The Empire. It was possible to gain military rank with the superpowers and be awarded medals.
The biggest change when compared with Elite was that the game now had a flight engine based on Newtonian physics. You could now fly around the star systems from planet to planet and perform manoeuvres such as slingshotting around stars. It was even possible to land on planets, either through docking at starports or even rough landing in open country having flown from space into atmospheric flight. It was also possible to buy different ships, part-exchanging your old ship for the new one.
As with the original game Frontier would prove to be a major commercial success. While some people would complain that the new flight engine made the game too hard, particularly in combat, this didn't have too much impact on sales. Frontier shot to number 1 in the UK charts in the month of release and, other than 4 or 5 weeks, stayed there until July 1994. Despite being released relatively late in the year it was the highest selling game of 1993.
Rumours that there was going to be an expansion pack for Frontier began to circulate in early 1994. David Braben was in the process of founding a new company, Frontier Developments, with the aim of producing future products related to Frontier: Elite 2. In an interview with Amiga Format in March 1994 David Braben said that he had no plans for an Elite 3 but was likely to produce an add-on with more content set in the existing Frontier universe and that would feature a major alien race and missions involving them.
An article in CTW in May 1994 reported the foundation of Frontier Developments and revealed that the add-on would use the same technology as Frontier. It would be more complex and effectively an extension of Frontier rather than a brand new game. It would be called The First Encounter and the release date was planned to be October 1994.
In an article in PC Player in July 1994 it was confirmed that The First Encounter would have a number of improvements over Frontier and see the introduction of an alien race, aliens having been conspicuous by their absence in the sequel. The article also said that Frontier Developments were planning further enhancements to Frontier including graphical updates.
By August it was becoming apparent that The First Encounter was no longer going to be an expansion pack but would instead be a sequel. Publishers Gametek UK cut the price of Frontier in the UK from £39.95 to £14.99 for all versions including the CD ones. The move from an expansion pack to a sequel would trigger a dispute over royalties and credit for Elite materials between original Elite co-creators Ian Bell and David Braben that would continue for a number of years.
The 5th of September 1994 issue of Computer Trade Weekly covered the announcement from Gametek UK that the new game, now to be called Frontier: First Encounters, would indeed be a sequel and would contain a "host of new features". The game was planned for a November release, in time for Christmas.
The article also covered the ongoing dispute between Bell & Braben and said that Bell was considering legal action but was waiting to see what form the finished product took. For his part Braben asserted that he had stuck by the agreement and was disappointed that the issue had not been resolved between him and Bell in private.
An article in the 31st of October issue of Computer Trade Weekly revealed that Frontier: First Encounters was not now going to be released in November but would instead slip to the first half of 1995 when it would be Gametek UK's flagship launch. The reason for the delay was cited as being due to a change in game design with a further 2-3 months of development planned mainly focusing on graphics and the game's user interface.
The release date was now going to be during February 1995 and the formats were confirmed as PC, PC CD-ROM, Amiga and CD32.
Gametek UK put out a press release on the 6th of December 1994 which gave a detailed summary of what was going to be in the game. There was considerable attention given to the upgraded graphics, in particular the changes to the rendering of planets which were now at a scale of 1:1 and were totally 3D with hills, valleys mountains and oceans. Everything would be texture mapped. The user interface would also be upgraded and easier to use and ship interior graphics much improved. The PC CD-ROM version would have full motion video on the bulletin boards.
The game would feature more equipment and new ships, and refined combat. Five journals with their own points of view would give the player news about what was happening in the galaxy and would also provide hints for the new hand coded missions which could be done, sometimes with the player even being mentioned in the press. Lastly, there would be the return of some old alien 'friends' (the press release mentioned them by name however I've chosen not to).
The release date was now described as "early 1995." The target platforms were similar to those previously revealed however the Amiga release would now only be for the A1200 and A4000, the A500 and A600 not being powerful enough to run the game. The press release said that they were having speed issues and there was still a lot of optimising to be done and therefore the Amiga version would come out a while after the PC.
Frontier: First Encounters was finally released in the UK and Europe, for PC and PC CD-ROM only, at the end of March 1995. The press advert featured surgeons cutting an umbilical cord between the game box and an unseen mother, with the caption "like all babies, this will keep you up all night." This would prove oddly prophetic, but perhaps not quite in the way Gametek UK and Frontier Developments had expected.
Sales were at first very good, Gametek UK reporting that 60,000 copies had shipped before Easter and the game spent three weeks at the top of the UK CD and PC charts as well as being in the top three of the All Formats Chart. Interestingly, the game had been released before any magazine or other news outlet had carried a review.
During April 1995 there were increasing numbers of reports that the game had shipped with a large number of bugs, some of which were serious enough to cause the game to crash altogether. On the 17th of April Gametek UK placed an advert in Computer Trade Weekly apologising for incompatibility problems with Sound Blaster sound cards (at the time this type of card had a very large market share and some players expressed surprise that no issues had come up during pre-release testing). Gametek said that the problem had now been fixed and players could contact them and they would send out patch disks.
A number of magazines reported on the issues and Gametek at first denied there was a major problem and claimed that only a minority of systems were affected, blaming an error in duplication. They repeated their offer to send out patch disks to those affected and said that copies in the retail channel would be replaced with ones with updated code. One suggested remedy was that players switched their sound drivers off until they had patched the game!
Despite the problems with bugs that players were encountering in increasing numbers one of the first reviews that came out, in the May issue of PC Gamer was very positive. The main area for praise was the improved gameplay, the main negative was that they didn't think that the graphics had improved enough. No mention was made of the bugs. "A worthy addition to the Elite series and a must for existing fans, marred only by the poor presentation." They gave the game 87%, described it as "limitless" and gave it the title "Recommended."
By way of contrast, Digitiser on Channel 4's Teletext (in the UK) offered considerably less praise. Reviewing the PC CD-ROM version, priced at £40, they gave quite a lot of coverage to the various bugs and expressed astonishment that the game had been released in that state with clearly inadequate testing, mentioning in particular the issues with Sound Blaster cards. They too mentioned the dated appearance of the graphics. On the positive side they did like the improved combat and felt that the journals and missions had added a lot of depth to the game. Considering that they used a bleak summary line of "A way of life just died" they gave the game a surprisingly generous 82%, having said in the review that they were prepared to accept it would eventually be patched up.
As May continued so too did the reports of issues with bugs in the game. The Digitiser review above had mentioned that at the date of review two patches had already been released but there were still lots of problems. A chart rundown on Digitiser on the 9th said that sales were still high despite this but a number of retailers had withdrawn the game from sale due to an increasingly high number of buyers demanding refunds.
One of the earliest FFE websites, Darren Edmundson's Frontier First Encounters WWW Homepage and FAQ, was busy collating a list of reported bugs and possible workarounds. It became clear that of the two PC versions the CD-ROM one was considerably less stable. Darren said that he'd try to feed back bugs found to Gametek.
The May 1995 issue of PC Gamer featured an interview with David Braben about Frontier Developments and FFE. In it, Braben talked about his reasoning behind going from being a lone programmer as he was with FE2 to the new approach of having a team. He said that FFE was new code and was "sodding huge." He made comparisons with Frontier and acknowledged that the graphics in the earlier game had been a bit primitive and that was one of the areas he had particularly wanted to improve in FFE, as well as giving the game more depth with a storyline and missions. No mention was made of bugs. Ironically the interviewer, Gary Penn, had been a freelance tester on FE2 until being released by Gametek when the publication of the game transferred to them from Konami while FE2 was still in development.
Meanwhile, on the 12th of May, Gametek released a further statement regarding the bugs. They again apologised for the inconvenience and said that Frontier Developments were continuing to work on producing a new patch. Some workarounds were given for some of the more common bugs but they advised that they would not be fixing the joystick support for the time being and said that the game was designed to be played with a mouse. They hoped the patch would be released the next week and said that when the retail product was remastered a corresponding patch would also be available. They concluded by saying "once again we are sorry you have had problems and are grateful for your continued support. We will persevere until we get it right."
By the end of the month the CD version had dropped to number 3 from top in the UK chart, and in the overall All Formats chart it had fallen to 8 from 3. Digitiser's Chart Cat observed that FFE had had "no repeat of its mama's success."
More reviews came out during June and July 1995 and the majority of them did now mention the bugs. It seems that the patches were beginning to have an effect in that where the reviewers did mention problems they also said that the game was still mainly playable. Some reviewers expressed surprise that the game had been released when it was. One, in PC Power, even commented on the lack of reviews so far and said that he'd been led to believe that the game would be out in May.
Aspects of the game which were generally praised were the improvements in gameplay, particularly with regard to combat, and the improved graphics. A number of reviewers also felt that the addition of the journals and hand-coded missions was welcome.
Other than the buggy state of the game, there were a number of issues brought up. Some reviewers felt that the graphics still weren't up to the standards they'd expect of a modern game. The FMV on the CD-ROM version was generally ridiculed, particularly choice descriptions including "some of the worst video I've ever seen on the PC" (PC Power) and "to be brutally frank, this doesn't work at all, and if anything, is embarrassing. You only turn it on to show your friends how poor it is." (PC Review). Some reviewers expressed the feeling that in gameplay terms FFE wasn't that much of an advancement over the previous game.
A selection of review transcripts can be found in the Extracts from the CIX Frontier Conference file on my Downloads Page
FFE appeared in the United States a few months after it had come out in the UK and Europe and was a 'remastered' version that had already had the patched code incorporated. The press reception was generally poor, particularly since even with the remastered version there were still a number of bugs.
A scathing review in the August issue of Computer Gaming World by Jason Kapalka observed that "for the fact that the North American release of FIRST ENCOUNTERS is playable at all we have a legion of unpaid beta-testers to thank: the entire game-playing population of the UK, who were sucker-punched by an initial release version so brutally, unplayably buggy that doing something as simple as looking at Mars could crash your computer, corrupt your save files, and dial up two hundred dollars worth of bills to a phone-sex line in the Dominican Republic."
The Amiga and CD32 versions of FFE had still been in Gametek's release schedule despite having been postponed four times. In mid-August Adrian Cale of Gametek said "there have been considerable problems with the development of Frontier: First Encounters, and after discussions with the developers, we have decided we shall not be releasing the Amiga version."
Given the ongoing difficulties with the PC version it was perhaps inevitable that this would happen. Even before the game had come out the press release of December 1994 had referred to considerable optimisation being required. Gametek would not comment on whether another publisher would take on the game and in the end the Amiga and CD32 versions would never see the light of day.
In August 1995 the website Games Domain carried a detailed interview of Ian Bell by Michael McCarthy. A range of topics were covered including the original Elite game, his thoughts about the current games industry and what he was currently doing. There were also a couple of questions about Frontier: Elite 2 and Frontier: First Encounters, in his answers to those Bell expanded on the concerns he had expressed earlier in the year with regard to credit to Elite materials used and the payment of royalties.
Computer Entertainment News revealed on the 15th of September 1995 that Gametek US (parent of Gametek UK) had encountered financial difficulties. "The latest figures, for the third quarter that ended April 30, showed a net loss of $5.7 million on net revenues of $6.2 million. This compares with net income of $1 million on revenues of $13.6 million for the third quarter of 1994." During 1994, the Florida-based company had embarked on a major expansion of operations including opening an office in California.
In December 1995 Gametek announced the release of the V1.06 patch for Frontier: First Encounters. It was compatible with all released versions of the game including the remastered version V1.05. It fixed a number of the outstanding bugs but the joystick support remained broken. Gametek said they would supply it to people requesting it shortly. V1.06 would be the last official patch released for the game and while it did ultimately greatly improve stability it was too late to arrest the slump in sales as more and more retailers decided to drop the game.
On the 6th of December 1995 the late edition of the Cambridge Evening News reported that David Braben had issued a High Court Writ to Ian Bell for libel, over the latter's interview with Games Domain that had been published in August of that year. It was reported that "the writ accused Bell of 'falsely and maliciously' writing and publishing defamatory statements on the Internet relating to Braben's part in the creation of the [Elite & Frontier] games."
The article went on to say that "Braben claim[ed] that as a result of what was written, his character [was] seriously injured and his credit and reputation lowered. No date [had] yet been fixed for hearing of the action."
The case was potentially the first Internet libel action and it is notable now that Braben's legal people had claimed that the article could have been read by any one of the estimated twenty million people on the Internet (all services and not just the World Wide Web) in late 1995.
The case would not go to court, however, as Ian Bell announced on the CIX Frontier Conference. "I am pleased to announce David Braben has agreed to drop his libel action against me, as a result of an out-of-court settlement on mutually agreeable terms. So that is the end of that, thankfully." The interview was amended to remove the most contentious statements and add a clarification of one of the points relating to royalties for FE2.
Intelligent Gamer Online reported on the 11th of July 1996 that Gametek US had "posted a loss of $2.95 million on revenues of $3.3 million. Comparatively speaking, this is much better than the company was doing at the same time last year, when they lost $5.66 million. Kelly G. Sumner, GameTek's chief operating officer, expressed optimism that the company would return to profitability within the next year, assisted by eliminating their Florida location and consolidating operations at their California office." The Florida office referred to was their original location and the California one part of their presumably very expensive expansion during 1994.
The 9th of September 1996 issue of Computer Trade Weekly reported that Gametek UK had decided to sue David Braben in the High Court for damages of nearly £750,000 relating to the troubled release of Frontier: First Encounters. Braben's response was to file a defence in the High Court stating that he had made Gametek aware that the game was not ready for release and also commenced a counter-claim for unpaid royalties for Frontier: First Encounters and Frontier: Elite 2.
In July 1997 it was announced that US publisher Take Two Interactive Software had purchased a number of assets from the still-struggling GameTek Incorporated (Gametek US). Among these was Gametek (UK) Limited, which was renamed Take Two Interactive Software Europe Limited.
By taking over Gametek UK, Take Two also inherited the continuing lawsuits with David Braben over Frontier: First Encounters. The cases would eventually be settled in October 1999, a statement on the website of Frontier Developments reading as follows.
"David Braben and Gametek have finally settled their differences over the infamous 'First Encounters' game. Following a protracted combined law-suit and counter-suit Braben has accepted substantial out of court damages from Gametek in settlement of the case."
"David Braben is happy with the settlement, and he and his company Frontier Developments are now free to proceed with the long awaited Elite IV, development of which is set to start in January 2000."
The damage to the reputation of Frontier: First Encounters proved irreparable despite the V1.06 patch and the game was eventually withdrawn from sale in early 1996. Even before then several retailers had decided to cut their losses and cleared their remaining stocks by heavily discounting the title - it was from one of these bargain bins that I would buy my own copy of the game in late 1995 or early 1996 despite not having a PC at the time.
Despite their sale of assets to Take Two, Gametek US filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection later in 1997 to gain time for further restructuring. They ceased trading in July 1998.
Take Two Interactive Software Europe Limited, formerly Gametek UK, are still trading and some of their regulatory submissions can now be viewed on the Companies House website (the regulator for companies in the UK). Their company number is 02739756.
Frontier Developments PLC are also still trading (company number 02892559). They released a number of games on many formats over the next few years and there were of course several rumours and announcements of an Elite 4. Eventually, in November 2012, Frontier Developments announced a Kickstarter project whereby they would develop the sequel provided that the fundraising target was reached. It would be called Elite Dangerous. The campaign proved successful, and backers were able to play pre-release versions of the game from December 2013. The game was released, initially for Windows, on the 16th of December 2014 - just over 30 years since Elite.