Elite: Dangerous – one year on

SRV large settlement ringsYes, it’s now over a year since Elite: Dangerous (ED) left beta and went into retail release. In that time I’ve clocked up 489 hours, earned (and spent) hundreds of millions of credits and own multiple ships. I’ve had a good bash at every profession, taken part in community events, teamed up with other Commanders in war zones, had a brief fling with Power Play, driven on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, vaporised a gazillion NPCs, and completed a 3000LY round trip out to Bernard’s Loop and the Horsehead Nebula.

Yet, I still haven’t reached elite for any of the Pilot’s Federation ranks and the biggest ship I own is the Python (and a bloody lovely ship it is too). A play time of 500 hours may sound a lot (I have nearly half that in Killing Floor 2 and three times that in Battlefield 4), but the reality is that in more recent months I’ve only been dipping in and out of ED. And there’s the crux, I’m already getting ED fatigue and the forums tell me I’m not alone. Yet this is supposed to be a long-term venture, so what does its future hold and where does ED need to improve to keep people interested?

Well, it’s not that ED hasn’t evolved or expanded significantly since release and there’s certainly no denying that Frontier Developments’ (FD) have been working hard behind the scenes. We now have 29 ships available to fly and some more modules to play with. There’s a better variety of missions as well as points of interest (POIs)/signal sources, a separate game mode for some instant PvP action and an external camera for taking pretty pictures. Commanders can now hook up with other players and share rewards via the wingmen system. And the Power Play meta-game provides a much needed time and money sink.

Flying over large settlementPretty much all professions have been tweaked to bring them more in line with trading in terms of profitability. In particular, mining is far less tedious thanks to collection drones and yield-increasing prospectors, whereas bounty hunting is both more challenging and rewarding thanks to the introduction of more dangerous hunting grounds and a noticeably improved combat AI. There’s also been a lot of changes under the hood, including netcode and general performance improvements, a multitude of bug fixes, welcome tweaks to the UI and some rebalancing of weapons/equipment, such as a long overdue nerf to shield-cell banks. Plus we’ve seen the game ported to both Mac and Xbox, further expanding the player base.

Perhaps most significantly, the paid-for Horizons expansion has introduced planetary landing, surface travel and a simple crafting system. And the Horizons “season”, which will continue throughout the year, will not only expand upon these elements but introduce multi-crew ships, ship-launched fighters, looting, a Commander creator and specific mission contacts.

It all sounds pretty good, so what gives? Well unfortunately, like many open world games, ED suffers heavily from progression grind. Once the awe factor of space travel wears off the game largely boils down to grinding out credits by whatever means, upgrading, grinding out credits slightly faster, upgrading again, then rinse and repeat ad nauseam. Many such games have a central narrative, so that once you get bored of grinding or feel that you’ve upgraded enough, you can drop back into the story, complete the game and feel like you’ve achieved something. ED doesn’t have that and it doesn’t need to, but it suffers from two key interlinked failings.

Ganymede JupiterFirstly, there’s a distinct lack of depth once you scratch below the surface. Sure, there’s a lot to do in ED and it all looks stunning, but the mechanics of each gameplay element are generally quite shallow. Trading needs to be more nuanced and feed better into the background simulation (BGS). Mining should be more skill based and engaging than just shooting at rocks and collecting the fragments. Exploration desperately requires an overhaul – pilgrimages can be fun, but most systems look identical after awhile and scanning planet after planet from a distance is not my idea of fun. Bounty hunting still mostly revolves around farming kills at POIs, whereas missions are overly reliant on randomly generated signal sources and make little sense within the context of the BGS. We also need persistent NPCs that we can track down through clues and interaction with other other characters/players (e.g. threats, favours, bribery, etc). And piracy, smuggling and criminality are still crying out for some serious love. A good start would be to introduce two-way dialogue with NPCs and to make smuggling illegal/stolen cargo far more profitable and involved.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, there has to be more incentive to play beyond credits/ships/rank progression, with other things to sink time and money into. ED is reaching a critical point now where more and more players are attaining elite status and obtaining the top tier ships, so if ED wants to retain its player base then there must be other motivations to stay. Power Play is a nice idea in principle, but like many of the community events organised by FD, it comes down to either repeatedly delivering a single commodity to the same system or grinding out kills in specially-named conflict zones. While the narratives for both generally feel outside of the ED universe, having too little impact on actual gameplay.

For ED to succeed long-term, it is imperative that immersive role play, emergent gameplay and more meaningful interaction with both other players and NPCs is encouraged and facilitated. We need the power to create our own stories and events, to develop our characters and to build up communities around factions and regions. FD seem averse to the idea of official clans/guilds, perhaps in part because they see ED as a predominantly PvE title and they want to avoid a situation where individual players and player groups become excessively powerful (à la EVE Online), but I feel they need to be implemented in some form, even if fairly limited.

Python vs python jupiterOn top of this the universe needs to feel more alive, dynamic and reactive. Factions should feel less interchangeable and their expansion into new systems should be purposeful. And I want to see conflict zones/wars with actual military objectives, such as fighting around blockaded settlements, ports and assets (e.g. capital ships); or at the very least with some type of progress or reinforcement indicators. While naval ranks and player reputations need to have real weight, responsibility and consequence.

The economy, population, wealth and security of star systems should be better interlinked and in variable states of flux, reacting more logically to game events and the laws of supply and demand. I’d like to see new systems colonised and planets terraformed, perhaps as the result of player exploration and/or faction expansion. And a broader variety of ports, settlements and outposts with their own consequential specialisations wouldn’t go amiss (e.g. shipyards, mining facilities, factories, headquarters, hidden outlaw bases). Whereas criminality should be more than a minor inconvenience, it should be exciting and dangerous; I want to feel hunted and ostracised, but with juicy opportunities for those who choose such a peripheral existence.

Thankfully, FD are not totally oblivious to all this. Update 2.1 will bring specific contacts for factions and missions, providing some necessary personalisation. These will have an actual face and be consistent for all players, with your reputation determining who you deal with and the level of faction information you’ll have access to. And the expansion of the looting and crafting system will see the introduction of engineer characters, individuals spread throughout human space with their own personality, affiliations and specialisations. While looting itself will provide a useful distraction to grinding out credits. We’ve also seen official player-group factions being implemented, which have the potential to become actual powers. At the moment they function almost identically to regular minor factions, but it does go some way to establishing communities and their functionality may be extended in the future. And promisingly, FD have made sounds about both enhancing the BGS and increasing the transparency of its inner workings.SRV saturnOverall, I have to admit that I’m far less optimistic than I was a year ago and I think 2016 will be critical time for ED, especially with Star Citizen finally starting to take shape and the release of No Man’s Sky in June. To survive long term, ED must evolve/broaden its core mechanics, facilitate the creation of strong communities and significantly increase player interaction in a meaningful way. I do believe that one of ED’s biggest weaknesses is that it doesn’t know whether its a single player game or an MMO, failing to excel at either.

Personally, I feel that splitting the player base with the Solo, Group and Open game modes was a huge mistake and one FD may eventually come to regret. However, to get more players into Open, they need to find an acceptable solution to combat logging, clearly define what is considered as “griefing”, implement more meaningful punishments for murder and piracy, deal with perceptions of hacking and further optimise the instancing and netcode. That said, I haven’t lost all faith in FD and Elite: Dangerous still has the potential to become a truly great game, but the developers really need to grab the bull by the horns in 2016.

My own personal wish list (not in any particular order):

  • GTA-style wanted system; escalation resulting in hunted fugitive status and meaningful restrictions to docking and travel (obviously an appropriate level of decay will be needed for balance)
  • some persistent NPC ships and mission targets
  • communication with NPC ships
  • mugshots for all NPCs
  • NPCs on planets (SRVs and ships)
  • surface mining
  • some form of player bases/outposts
  • ability to store modules
  • taxi service for your other ships
  • missions that see you competing with other Commanders
  • co-op missions that partner you up with strangers
  • UI tools for making notes/bookmarks in game and recording prices of visited markets
  • more filters for the UI
  • temporary/nomadic and/or difficult to find space stations/markets/caravans/shipyards/outposts/bases/etc
  • random or semi-persistent sci-fi anomalies to liven up both inhabited systems and exploration of distant regions
  • more purpose/logic to nav beacons
  • and everything else mentioned in this article!!!

My other ED articles:

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7 thoughts on “Elite: Dangerous – one year on

  1. Pingback: Getting started in Elite: Dangerous – a guide | the cake is a lie: a nostalgic gaming blog

  2. It’s really funny thinking that NMS or SC some sort of “threat” to this game. NMS will be even more shallow and provoke the same complaints. SC is a trainwreck!

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    • There is a lot of hatred on the internet for Star Citizen and I think people actually want it to fail, but it is starting to move forward now and take some shape. It’s unlikely they will completely fulfil their ever expanding list of proposed features, but if it achieves half of what it sets out to do it could be one hell of a game. I think it’s a mistake to underestimate it – there’s a lot of support and money behind it (many times greater than that of ED). And I know quite a few people who have little interest in playing ED but are genuinely excited about SC.

      That said, I will reserve judgement on SC (and certainly won’t commit money to it) until I’ve seen more progress. And I must admit the potential PTW element (eg $1500 ships) does concern me, but again it remains to be seen if these uber-premium ships will have a significant advantage in game.

      I agree with you to an extent on NMS, I think it will be very pretty and fun for awhile, but ultimately a little shallow. But once again, I will reverse judgement until I’ve played it. And that doesn’t mean it won’t pull players away from ED.

      Besides I think competition is a good thing and it’s exciting to see the space sim genre being taken seriously again.

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    • While I don’t doubt the number of active players is steadily declining, these stats you link to are only based on people who play the game through Steam. Don’t forget that far more people bought the game directly from Frontier Developments. ED wasn’t even available on Steam until four months after release and reports suggest the game has sold around 1.5 million copies. As far as I know, FD have not published any data with regards to the active player trends, so it is only possible for us to speculate. However, judging from official forum activity, there is still a large hardcore of people who actively play ED.

      As for myself, I am playing the game less and less, and only really returning for the updates and the betas. The new update is definitely a step in the right direction in terms of improving the missions and combat AI, but many people will find the new engineers system just a another tedious grind and the update does not seriously address other core gameplay failings, such as exploring or piracy, which desperately need some love and attention from FD.

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