David Braben on Arena and the future of Elite Dangerous

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Elite Dangerous: Arena is a standalone version of the main game’s arena combat mode, formerly called CQC. It’s a session-based multiplayer game that focuses entirely on ship-to-ship combat. There’s no exploration, trading, or missions, and it’s available on Steam now for £5. I sat down with Frontier boss David Braben to talk about Arena, alien barnacles, and the future of Elite Dangerous.

“Elite players get very attached to their ships, and they don’t want to risk them in PVP,” says Braben. “You’ll play against Elite Dangerous players in Arena, but you won’t mind risking your ship as much as they might. You’ll push it right to the edge, but in the main game you’re less encouraged to take risks.”

I ask Braben who he thinks Arena will appeal to. “A whole new set of people,” he says. “We don’t know how many there are, but my gut feeling is that there are quite a lot of people who want to play a session-based game like this. Some will move over to the main game, but a lot won’t.”

“It’ll be interesting to see how people respond to Arena,” he continues. “The low price will bring new people to this type of game. Especially different age groups. People who only play Call of Duty with their friends might play it, for example.”

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Elite Dangerous is a game that requires a lot of time investment, but Arena is the opposite. I ask Braben about how accessible he thinks it will be to new players. “It’s a relatively steep learning curve, but nowhere near as steep as the main game. In a 15 minute session we found people at events like PAX were able to get into the game, even if they’d never played it before.”

“But there’s depth to uncover,” he adds. “Like managing your ship’s systems and things like the heatsink, which lets you hide yourself from other player’s scanners.”

Braben thinks anyone daunted by the prospect of Elite Dangerous might be lured in by Arena, although he doesn’t see it as a ‘gateway drug’—it’s very much its own thing. But he does predict some players will transition from Arena to the main game. “I’ve bought cheap games like this that I’ve ended up really liking,” he says. “I bought the original Geometry Wars and thought, well, this looks a bit weird. And I ended up loving it, and I went on to buy the sequel.”

Frontier are running a tournament with a $100,000 prize pool, and players of both the main game and Arena will be able to take part. Heats will run throughout the year, and they'll be picking the best players and flying them all to a secret location where they’ll fight each other until there’s one left standing.

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He mentions that separate tournaments will be running for Xbox and PC. I ask if this is to even the playing field for pilots with gamepads and those with full stick setups. “Playing Arena, you can spot the players using flight sticks,” he says. “They can reverse quickly and things like that, because they’re able to reconfigure their controls. But you can reconfigure the gamepad too, and some players are amazing with it.”

“Should we separate them?,” he adds. “It’s an interesting question. We’ve chosen to, just because we want to avoid criticisms like that.”

Recently, players have discovered weird alien-like ‘barnacles’ on planet surfaces. Braben didn’t reveal anything about what they are, but did tell me that he took a trip to see one for himself. “I was delighted when I went out to see one,” he says. “There were loads of ships parked around it, and I even had FRAPS running because I was expecting to get killed, but no one did. We just chatted, it was great.”

“When I got to one, it was destroyed,” he continues. “People can’t resist shooting things. Which isn’t that far from real life. If you look at the history of encounters with new populations, like the Australian aborigines, how many of them didn’t start shooting? It’ll always end in a dispute, whether it’s over food or land.”

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I ask Braben about the state of the game today, and whether there’s anything that he thinks could be improved. “There are a lot of things wrong with the powers,” he says, referring to last year’s Powerplay update. “We’re close, but the details stop it from being great. But we can improve it, and we will improve it.”

“There are missions out there I know almost no players have seen,” he says. “But we haven’t communicated it properly. There’s so much in there, and what we see from play patterns is that many do the same thing over and over. In that cycle, they just don’t get to see some of the variation. I’m not blaming players. We got it wrong.”

Braben adds that even when he was playing the game in a certain way, he wasn’t seeing everything. “I wasn’t making friends with the minor factions. I was missing out on missions. And most players do that,” he says. “It’s a shame, because the missions actually drive you around the galaxy. But if you keep going back to the same place, you won’t venture very far. We need to change the way we communicate that.”

But, at the same time, Braben doesn’t want to be telling players what to do. It’s a difficult balance in a totally freeform sandbox game like Elite Dangerous. “We have all kinds of players,” he says. “There are those who just go out and explore and are hardly ever in the human bubble. And there are people who spend all their time bounty hunting.”

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“I’m happy with that, but I want people to know that there are other things you can do,” he adds. “There’s a lot in the game, but you just have to dig for it. I like that in games. I don’t want to feel like I’m on rails.”

The latest version of the game, Horizons, is what Frontier are describing as a ‘season’ of updates. Now that planetary landings have been added, the next step is crafting and looting. This update will be called Engineers, and will come with other tweaks and updates, including revamped missions.

“You won’t know where the engineers are,” says Braben. “Even finding them will be a challenge. And they might not want to talk to you at first. We’re expecting players to share this information on Reddit and on our forums.” When you interview David Braben, you’re almost guaranteed an interesting historical anecdote, and he had one to compare these mysterious engineers to.

“There was a guy in the Vietnam War, an engineer, who worked out how to adjust the engine on Huey helicopters to give them 10% more power,” he says. “This makes take-offs safer and faster, and makes sure you’re not the last chopper left on the ground.”

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“He kept it quiet, though. It wasn’t allowed. So whenever a helicopter was due for a service, you’d have to let him know so he could change it back. The military didn’t like it because it used more fuel and shortened the lifespan of the engine, but the pilots loved it because of that extra burst of power.”

The engineers will have their own personality and history, he says, which will determine the benefits of dealing with them. “They have specialities,” he explains. “But they need special stuff too, which is where you come in.”

The planetary landings introduced in Horizons are incredibly impressive, although at the moment there isn’t much to do on the surface. “We want to add more interesting stuff and give players more to do,” says Braben. “With regards to looting and crafting, one of the great things about planets is that anything floating in space tends to end up on the surface. So there’ll be wreckage to scavenge and things like that.”

For high level Elite players, credits flow like water, but loot is always going to be valuable. This gives the people at the top of the food chain something to shoot for. And the crafting system means mission rewards will be more interesting, earning you materials and other things rather than just cash.

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“I love it when people discover new stuff,” says Braben when I ask about the response to Horizons so far. “It’s always interesting to see people’s reactions. The planetary landing stuff makes the galaxy feel even bigger. Even a Sidewinder, when you land and leave the ship, you realise how big it is. You think of it being a tiny little thing the size of a Mini, but it’s actually like a Boeing 737.”

“We used to talk about draw distances in games,” he adds. “But now you can see for a thousand miles. We’ve got an amazing team, and the tech they’ve created is wonderful. It’s a joy to behold. It’s amazing to see a valley, and fly closer, only to see that there’s valleys inside valleys.”

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.