In-game news tickers will report the changing state of star systems. “If one system 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 this, 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 cooperating with other players to break the system and mess with the stock markets.”
Other events, he says, will be triggered by Frontier themselves. “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.”
As for the fabled Elite combat rating, Braben thinks it's practically achievable, but will still be rare enough that any passing Eliteranked 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.”
An example? “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 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 one portrayed on 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 famously tricky 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.