David Braben on the ambitious future of Elite: Dangerous

Andy Kelly

“There are over 100 billion star systems,” Elite creator David Braben tells me when I ask if that number could possibly be true. “In fact, it's closer to 400 billion. It's a very silly number anyway.” Elite: Dangerous is the modernised sequel to the classic freeform space sim, and there's no faulting developer Frontier's ambition. The game sees you, a rookie pilot, set loose in a vast celestial sandbox with 100 credits in your space-wallet and dreams of achieving the ultimate pilot rating: elite. How you do this is up to you, whether you become a trader, a pirate, a smuggler, and many more jobs besides.

Braben compares his vision of the Milky Way to the California gold rush of the 1800s. “When there was a gold rush in San Francisco in 1849, many of the people who made money didn't mine a single piece of gold. What they did was take a cargo of spades and things like that, and sold them at stupidly inflated prices. Our galaxy will be continuously evolving. You might get the occasional gold rush, which changes the status of a particular place. Players will be running in to try and get some of the gold that's been discovered in some outlying system. But what else will happen is that a whole raft of other things will be in demand. The need for food and equipment will skyrocket.”

“If you look at our galactic map, all the human activity takes place in one pixel. So we're talking a hundred thousand systems or thereabouts where human space is occupied. But some players will head out into the unknown, but there won't be anything like the rate of things happening in it. If you think of a map of the UK, and you imagine something happening somewhere, you can get to it quite quickly because it's a much smaller area than the whole of the planet. Most of the action will take place in human space, with occasional events that take place just outside of it.”

“The end result will be that human space extends further into the galaxy. These are the worlds that we're calling the frontier worlds. There isn't much settlement or law, if any, or many people. A player will take their scanning devices and discover, say, gold, but will keep it secret. Then another player will say, how come this player has a cargo hold full of gold coming back from the unknown? Maybe I'll try following them. In the 1849 gold rush, when the first discoveries were made, it was a number of weeks before the information leaked out. Apparently, by contemporary reports, some guy got very drunk in a bar and spilled enough of the beans that people could work out what was going on.”

Gold rush

“There'll be players trying to be the one who finds a nugget of interest in the unknown. A lot of systems won't have anything of relevance. There might be a beautiful sunset, but fundamentally we can't have every system being full of gold. It would just destabilise the world. But occasionally we will destabilise it intentionally so players can pile in and take advantage of it. Players can be one of these explorers who goes out and discovers things for the first time and does well from it. This is where space is at its most interesting. Where there is no law and you can just be attacked without real recourse. We'll see a lot of player collaboration, where players will band together to protect each other.”

Interestingly, missions won't just be picked up from NPCs at stations. As you explore space you'll find yourself stumbling into dangerous situations that you'll be able to exploit financially. “There are different categories of missions. There are ones you actively get and accept. There are also things that can turn into missions. If you come across a shipwreck, there could be a lot of things behind it. You could search it and find something interesting, but it might also be a trap. Or it might be that there's something very bad indeed there, whether it's a disease that later gets spread, or something that's a threat to your ship. But you won't know which one of those it is without investigating.”

Docking is fairly easy in small fighters, but try squeezing a big cargo ship in there.

But you won't be the stereotypical RPG jack of all trades, able to accept any mission type you desire without the proper experience. “One of the things I was always uncomfortable about with Frontier was that you could get to do illegal stuff straight away. That doesn't feel right. If someone wants you to do something a bit shady, they would want to trust you first, so you'd have to earn that trust. It's this idea of working your way up the different organisations and earning various rewards from it, which isn't always money. Some of the spaceship types, for example, you can only buy if you're with the faction that makes them. So you can only pilot the top-end Federal ships—some of the biggest in the game—by joining the Federation or the Empire. They're rewards for helping their military.”

“There's a huge range of ships. There are 25 you can pilot, ranging from very small ships—smaller than the Sidewinder—going up to bigger ones like the Anaconda. Big ships can carry other ships, so you'd be able to launch a small fighter from it, which is more nimble. We've got ships that are glorified Transit vans. What I mean by that is they can't take much damage, and don't have many hardpoints, but they have cavernous cargo holds. The Sidewinder and Anaconda are multi-purpose ships. They're reasonable at everything. But we'll also have specialist ships. Military, trading, and so on.”

Take damage and your cockpit spits sparks and spews smoke.

Factions are important in Elite: Dangerous, and choosing to fight for one side will alienate you from the others. “If there's a situation where two huge cruisers are duking it out, you can accept what we're calling a combat bond from either side. They say, look, we need your help, you go in and fight on our side and we'll reward you for it. Some will give you a reward for every kill or every other metric that's important to them at the time. With that you sign up to it, you go along, and you help them, earning a reward which is variable depending on how well you do the task. In other missions you'll get a one-off reward for taking something dangerous to a place.”

“These may seem like traditional single-player missions, but they can quite easily involve other players. You can contact your friends and say that this is going to be really hard, can you help me with this? And you can share the spoils once it's done. So there are official missions, but you might also get a message from another player asking for help escorting a ship through dangerous territory. So there are these 'unofficial' missions started when friends contact you.”

“We have news tickers in the game where you'll see the changing state of systems. If one enters into a civil war, there'll be a demand for weapons that you can take advantage of. Or you could be running guns through blockades if they become illegal. When you think about what a mission is, it's being paid to do something for some other character. The complexion of the mission depends on who you're doing it for. The emergent missions you stumble into while exploring are the most fun, when something comes up that you can take advantage of. That can be very exciting.”

Any game with systems like this will inevitably be exploited by players, but Braben isn't just anticipating it, he's encouraging it: “With a game like this, one thing players will want to do is break the system. It happens in real life. A load of players will get together and all buy food at the same time to drive the price up or down and manipulate the stock market. So we'll be putting in automated mission generation that will trigger when that happens. That feels natural. There will be advantages to co-operating with other players to break the system and mess with the stock markets.”

“Other events will be triggered by us. We'll make it so that in one system there's a natural disaster, which there'll be no warning of. If there's a part of the galaxy where very little is happening, suddenly there'll be an earthquake, or a virus, or a star will start flaring, causing real problems on the planet that orbits around it. These events will create opportunities, and players will flock to them. What we'll do is change it from an agricultural world to a world in a state of famine or revolution, and that immediately triggers appropriate automated missions.”

Rank and file

As for the fabled 'elite' rating, Braben thinks it's practically achievable, but will still be rare enough that any passing elite-ranked player will make you quake with fear and/or gaze in awe. “The people who've managed to get the 'elite' rating are quite few and far between. It is a very difficult thing to get, and it takes a long time. If you've got this unusual group of people who've managed to do this, they'd also be extremely wealthy because they've been successfully playing the space lanes for a very long time.”

“If a president wants me to escort his daughter, he's going to want an elite pilot, because this is a world that's dangerous. But someone who's super rich might not want to take on such a mission, so we have this concept that, within the pilot's federation, elite pilots can 'bless' other pilots with lower ratings, but who they feel are of the same quality and ability as one of the elite. They just haven't got the rank yet. So they're 'elite dangerous' as in not actually elite, but they're allowed to use that rank. I think a large number of players will eventually get the elite rank, but it will take a long time. It'll be a very small percentage, so it'll still have a wow factor for other players.”

The lighting—especially the glow of other ships' engines—is fantastic.

The big question is, how the hell do you navigate 400 billion star systems? “People will spend most of their time looking at their local area. It's like comparing a trip down to the shops with walking from Paris to Moscow. You would walk from Paris, to a small town outside of it, through Munich… you'd look at a map and plan your route. People will see a mission come up on their ticker and say, well, I'll go via this point and this point, and on the way I can sell off this cargo, or pick up this other thing. So you'll probably come up with a less direct route that's more efficient for you. You can set a filter to say you only want to go through systems that have a reasonable level of law enforcement, so there's less chance of being attacked. But that might mean that your route ends up being longer.”

This idea of a shifting, dynamic galaxy—especially at this scale—is incredibly compelling. Braben talks about these grand ideas with total conviction, and I really hope his vision is realised. The alpha is encouraging, with weighty, tactile ship handling, dramatic combat, and a brilliant update of the famous Elite docking sequence. “Even though we've put a lot more money in than we raised, Kickstarter has shown us that there's a huge market for the game out there.” Elite: Dangerous has just entered the beta phase of its development after a number of alpha builds, and although no official release date has been set, Frontier say the game will be released sometime this year.

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