Elite: Claims about numbers sold etc. (as claimed in a Guardian article, which is based on material by Francis Spufford, and it is very poorly researched, unless it was catastrophically mangled by editing)

In 2003 an article appeared based on material by Francis Spufford which was going to be published later in a book called "Backroom boys: The secret return of the British boffin". I was quite critical of this article, but with the article the paper says "This is an edited extract" and I know editing can really fook up the meaning of text. So I was a bit guarded in some versions of the title of this page about who is to blame for the errors/inaccuracies of the text. I later learned that Spufford was corrected about many issues, but he didn't have time to fix the issues before the deadline of the book. Now if I were to write such a book, I'd correct the errors and simply say to the publisher that the deadline has to be extended to rewrite some sections, but this is not what Spufford did. The research he did was apparantly not going through magazines etc., but interviewing people and/or getting them to write/tell him the facts. The corrections were also obtained this way. The problem is that not everyone has a very good memory, and some people twist facts (and sometimes even really believe those). This is why you need to do cross checking of information and original written sources (magazines or private stuff from the people you get information from) are valuable to prevent such things. Perhaps some of the details I complained about in 2003 are petty, but, they signify a problem at the base of the material: If various facts, some of which are extremely easy to check such as the startup screen of the Atom and BBC, are incorrect, how much then can you trust any of the material in the article and in fact in the entire book?

With only information from magazines (I had not tried to contact anyone working at Acornsoft) and my experience using the BBC micro and Acorn Atom, it was clear to me that a lot that was written in that article was not correct. Now there is a second issue, as I said, it is an edited extract, yes, but of which version of the book? The final version or perhaps a draft copy? If a draft then in the mean time perhaps corrections had entered into the book? This point seems moot: Even the final version was not corrected before printing of the book... I think my original assertion that Francis Spufford poorly researched the book, is the only right thing to say. He could have checked certain things easily himself, and he should have extended his deadline when he found out some of his information was in error.


Recently I got an email from Chris Jordan about the numbers of games of Elite sold, so I updated this page:

Update 2014-2-12: Numbers of sales of Elite (BBC micro and Acorn Electron)

Update 2014-2-12: I received information on the number of copies of Elite sold from Chris Jordan (Acornsoft), who wrote:

OK, from original records of the time, here are the official total all-time sales figures for Acornsoft Elite:

 BBC Microcomputer: 107,898 (1984-89)
 Acorn Electron: 35,294 (1984-86)
 
You can quote me on that.

And so I have :) So the total of copies for the BBC micro is a bit more than 100,000, but the total for BBC+Electron is close to 150,000. Perhaps this is why the number 150,000 crept up in some places, and it means that close to 150,000 copies of Elite by Acornsoft were sold (so not by other publishers for other machines). But if you count electron versions, you might as well add numbers of copies of the game sold for the C64, PC etc. But that doesn't make sense because they, as the Electron version, were not meant for the BBC micro, and the relationship 'number of copies of Elite (for the BBC micro)' : 'number of BBC micros' is what was in question in Wikipedia and other sources.

Micro Live said Acorn had sold 500,000 BBC micros by early 1985, so there was never a 1:1 ratio of 'copies of Elite sold (for the BBC micro obviously!)' : 'number of BBC micros sold'.

2014-2-13: I found http://sarevian.net/blogs/sarevian/files-2012/The%20legacy%20of%20the%20BBC_micro%20-%20Nesta%20report%20May%202012.pdf which is an interesting report on how the BBC micro influenced computing which references Spufford's book, and it says in the list of references on p.77:

100. Francis Spufford describes how Elite had sold 150,000 units by Christmas on the BBC Micro alone in Spufford, F. (2003) `Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin.' London: Howes. p.114.

Which is an even stronger claim than the one in the article, and this is even more wrong of course. Chris gave me another statistic of sales for Elite from his archives:

By end of 1986 BBC Micro Elite sales were no more than 70,000.

Note further that the Acornsoft software was sold by/published by Superior software from some time in late 1986 (correct?). So not all BBC micro version sales are Acornsoft-made copies, and these later versions are labelled as a joint Acornsoft-Superior software package.


The manual for Elite

Btw, I read somewhere as I indicated in my BBC micro mailing list posting, that Holdstock had written not just the novella "Dark wheel", but also the manual for Elite, but this was apparantly not the case. Who can tell me who wrote it?
When I was buying BBC micro stuff here in the Netherlands to try to get more original software and different versions of the BBC micro, I regularly came across loads of copied software including Elite, but usually, without manual never mind the novella. The people who played Elite this way really deprived themselves of a much better experience with the manual which I think is an invaluable part of the game which makes you feel even more that you are in a different world.


2014-2-12: Clarification on why the reason of undoing of my edits on Wikipedia about Elite was silly:

In 2010 I edited the Wikipedia page on Elite removing the claim that the same number copies of Elite were sold as BBC micros at some point, which I showed to be false in 2003, and I referred to my mailing list posting for details. 'Wgungfu' undid that editing of the Wikipedia page with the argument that references to mailing list postings are not allowed. Why not? There are archives of that mailing list on the www and furthermore, I can put up such a posting on a webpage and then suddenly it is allowed... This shows that the rules in Wikipedia don't make full sense, but especially the person enforcing it (in this case 'Wgungfu') doesn't understand that the essence of the posting is the naming of original sources, and the recipe in that posting of calculations to give estimates of BBC micros sold... Thus the mailing posting itself is not a claim of numbers sold, and it itself is thus not a reference, no, the essence of that posting is the reference. Using the sources mentioned and the recipe/estimates given anyone can come up with estimates of BBC micros sold, that will always show that the claim on that Wikipedia page (and elsewhere) was wrong. So this not-understanding of the posting not being a reference itself, but an intermediate naming the references and giving a way to estimate numbers of BBC micros sold, is why I was annoyed and why I wrote the commentary below, also in 2010, which quotes my mailing list posting for reference.

In 2010, in response to what happened on the Wikipedia page on Elite, I wrote this:

Due to undoing of editing I did on the Elite Wikipedia page (by a moron identified as 'Wgungfu'), I've added this page which contains a copy of my BBC micro mailing list post of 26 October 2003. My mailing list posting shows how nonsensical the claims in the Guardian article from 2003 are (using material about machines produced per month as published in magazines from the 1980s and early 1990s, e.g. "Micro user"; My estimate in produced machines (not necessarily sold machines), is not that far off from the number mentioned in the TV programme Micro Live from January 1985, in which Ian McNaught-Davis says 500,000 BBC micro's were sold up to that point (I saw this program a few years ago again (ca. 2007)), esp. when considering the difference between number of machines produced and sold. In general it was a very poorly researched article as I showed and assuming the editing of that wasn't catastrophical, it was in fact due to the poor research by Francis Spufford. The worst thing is that these claims about Elite keep getting used on websites and in TV programmes...

For more information on numbers of machines and the distinction between machines produced and machines sold, and more, see this discussion: Stairway to hell forums.

Oh btw, in my 2003 mailing list article I mention that all other sources I've seen (1980s and early 1990s BBC micro magazines in particular) say that 100,000 copies of Elite (for the BBC micro) were sold. Suddenly in the 2003 Guardian article, the number 150,000 appears. I've not questioned the validity of that beyond mentioning that that was the only source that mentioned 150,000 whereas all older sources say 100,000, but seeing as nothing in the Guardian article is properly researched, I now assert that that number is wrong too. I think it's made up or a wildly inaccurate claim by someone who has a poor memory. So, from 500,000 or more machines sold until late 1984, and perhaps 100,000 copies of Elite sold (but probably not until at least mid-1985, but I'll let that pass), suddenly it became such that 150,000 machines were sold and the same number of copies of Elite were sold, i.e. each owner of a machine had a copy of Elite. Bullshit! [ to be sure about the Elite number I will check some more in old magazines etc., I know someone from Acornsoft said in one article in late 1984 that there 'would probably be' 100,000 sold by the end of 1984. Were there that many sold? If so were any sold in large numbers in 1985/1986 or did everyone who wanted this game, have it already (bought in 1984 in that case)? ]

You can see how this sort of nonsense keeps going further and produces more nonsense, from this example:
    http://www.gameplanet.co.nz/features/131589.20080403.Top-5-best-games-in-the-world-ever/
where they say:

Incidentally, they actually sold more than 150,000 copies for this platform, which worked out to be more copies of the game than there were BBC B computers, giving rise to the theory that technologically illiterate people were purchasing the game without actually realising a computer was required.

I can only say one thing: What a load of bollocks!

2003-10-26: My posting on the BBC micro mailing list about the article in the Guardian about Spufford's book "Backroom boys: The secret return of the British boffin"

All right, here is my BBC micro mailing list posting dd 2003-10-26:

From - Sun Oct 26 16:52:49 2003
Message-ID: <3F9BFB90.FF6D5DF X hccnet.nl>
Date: Sun, 26 Oct 2003 16:51:28 +0000
From: "W.Scholten" <whs X hccnet.nl>
Organization: .
X-Mailer: Mozilla 3.04 (X11; I; FreeBSD 4.7-RELEASE i386)
MIME-Version: 1.0
To: bbc-micro X cloud9.co.uk
Subject: The writer needs to do some fact checking (Re: [BBC-Micro] Elite feature in today's Grauniad)
References: <C523625F87DC174AA6D00C3D0716C2C152C74F X bbcxuen02.national.core.bbc.co.uk>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=us-ascii
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit
X-Mozilla-Status: 0001
Content-Length: 5547

Tim Matthews:

> In the magazine section on today's Guardian there's quite an interesting
> articile about Bell & Braben and Elite.
> To think - we could have had 280,000,000,000,000 galaxies!!


tom X tomseddon.plus.com:

> It seems to be available on the web too!
> 
>     http://www.guardian.co.uk/weekend/story/0,3605,1064107,00.html

The writer uses "prose before facts" and the style is that of a novel...
yuck.

Examples of errors and omissions:


1 & 2
--------------
When you turned on the Atom or the BBC Micro, the ROM chip booted up its
two pieces of cargo and on your television screen appeared this: 

  BASIC
  >
and nothing else. The machine did nothing else, unless you made it. 
--------------

Which is *part* of what is shown when you start a BBC micro, but an Atom
shows
  ACORN ATOM
  >

Also, "The machine did nothing else, unless you made it" is of course
the case for any computer. If you want specific programs for a PC, you
have to buy them and install them, same as for a BBC. The only thing
that springs to mind is that a PC can play a audio CD usually without
installing extra programs. But still, the concept is the same: You want
to do something: You have to insert media (mp3s, CDs ...) and/or
install/LOAD programs.



3.
--------------
The classic action game of the early 1980s - Defender, Pac Man - was set
in a perpetual present tense, a sort of arcade Eden in which there were
always enemies to zap or gobble, but nothing ever changed apart from the
score.
--------------

Rubbish. The games get *faster* and for other games of that era, more
aliens come at you in the higher levels, therefore more difficult with
time. Also, movement patterns of the baddies usually vary per level. No
'perpetual present tense'.



4.
--------------
 Sales of Acornsoft's Elite would finally reach a total of almost
150,000. There were only 150,000 or so BBC Micros in the world at that
point, so the ratio was almost 1:1, one copy of Elite for every computer
that could run it. 
--------------

 At that point seems to refer to when the last copy of Acornsoft Elite
was sold, which would however have to be ca. mid 1986...


Firstly: this number of 150,000 machines is wrong whichever way you
look at it. I felt this had to be wrong, made a rough estimate based on
figures of 25,000 machines a month I've seen for peak production, which
confirmed my suspicion so I looked up some more detailed figures: in
Micro user vol 9 no4 jun 1991 it says:
-------------
In january 1982, production was 1000 a week; In February it went up to
2500 and in march, 5000. But demand kept increasing and by april the
backlog exceeded 20000. By mid-1982, the pressures on Acorn were
intense. Rapid expansion was brought in and by October 1982, the backlog
had almost disappeared with more buyers opting for the 32k model B in
preference to the 16k model A.
-------------

I assume 'weekly' is an error, and that 'monthly' is meant:
So, monthly production:
 1982 jan: 1000
      feb: 2500
      mar-jun:5000
      jun-dec: say. 15000 (in 3 months a backlog of 20000 removed, so at
least 70000 more than 5000)
 1983: say 20000
 1984: say 25000

Lets make a crude estimate of machines sold up to the approximate launch
date of elite. I will assume this is about 1 oct 1984 (first review oct
1984 AU, Nov AU bestselling charts page has a comment about Elite not
being in it as it was hardly available in the shops. Taking account of
publication delays and partial counting (software charts probably per
month, so mid-month release would give half the per-month number), 1 oct
seems a good estimate).

 
 1982: 1,000+2,500+5,000*4+15,000*6 = 113,500
 1983: 20,000*12 = 240,000
 1984: 25,000*9 = 225,000
Total: 578500 up to 1 oct 1984.

This seems to fit with total amounts of beebs manuafactured (rest of
1984:  25,000*3=75,000, 1985+1986 lets say 10,000 (reduced production
after finacial problems) * 24 = 240,000, total up to and including 1986:
893,500)

Now look at the following cases:
 - 1. Almost all copies of Elite ever sold, were sold in 1984
 - 2. Almost all copies of Elite ever sold, were sold in 1984 - mid-1986

(1) Machines sold until 31-12-1984: ca. 578500 + 25,000*3=653,500
(2) Machines sold until mid 1986: ca. 578500 + 25,000*3 +
10,000*(12+6)=833,500

Very very distant from a 1:1 ratio in either case.

Even if one considers half the BBCs went to education and striking those
(this is however inconsistent the article's 'BBC Micros in the world at
that point', but I'll give the writer a break), and then considering
model As not upgraded enough to run Elite (32k + user-VIA), a 1:1 ratio
is still nonsense.

Secondly, other sources say 100,000 copies of elite were sold. Where do
the extra 50,000 come from?


5. Where's information on Robert Holdstock's involvement? Apparantly he
wrote the manual (which is an essential element of Elite, without such a
well written and occasionaly humorous manual it would have been a much
lesser game), and I wonder why there wasn't a sequel to "the dark
wheel" (well, I couldn't find it in e.g. 'Books in print' long ago. Was
there one after all?).

There's some interesting information in the article, but how can I trust
any of it if the writer didn't do any effort to check basic facts?

@@ This is an edited extract from Backroom Boys: The Secret Return Of
@@ The British Boffin, by Francis Spufford,

I wonder what the editing did?

@@ published by Faber on November 6 at 14.99.

I'll pass.

Regards,

Wouter
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