Here's how Frontier rebuilt a galaxy's worth of planets for Elite Dangerous: Odyssey

Elite Dangerous' next expansion, Odyssey, is getting ready to touch down on all sorts of new land-based adventures. But beyond making footfall on frontier towns and dusty gunfights, Odyssey is also rebuilding all of the game's existing landmasses—and adding in a whole load of new ones.

Generating a galaxy's worth of planets is no easy feat, mind. In an hour-long stream this Friday (handily summarised on Steam), lead render programmer Dr Kay Ross explained what's changed since the game's first planetside expansion, Horizons.

"The system we made for Horizons was good for Horizons," Ross explained. "I'm very proud of what the team did and the results you can get from it. But to look forward to whatever comes next for Odyssey, I wanted a system that was robust enough to handle things without having to do another remake of any of the tech, that's why it's changed and we have all that detail."

Elite uses something called a Stellar Forge to generate its stars, planets, and galactic phenomena. Previously, world terrain was generated entirely through maths—but this time around, a whole list of variables including age, geological makeup and gravitational stresses go into determining what kind of terrain will feature on a planet.

"Horizons was a fantastic and heavy undertaking to introduce full scale planets, which people don't tend to do because planets are hard! When it comes to Odyssey, we've got a framework there of how to make a planet and surface, but the process in which the shape of the surface is decided, how the resources are streamed in and out, and combined, that's also a large undertaking! It hasn't just been a weekend or two's work!"

What this means is that there should be a greater variety of world geography come Odyssey, with more believable regions and features. The goal with Odyssey's approach is also to make more terrain details readable from afar, scaling down consistently as you approach a world's surface.

Of course, every system has its issues, and Dr Ross explained one prickly issue that often pops up when trying to create planets. 

"In generating the surfaces of the planets through Horizons, Beyond and Odyssey, things can be sensitive when inputting data! If something gets inputted wrong, what we have ended up with is essentially a very hairy planet to show the very frustrating Hairy ball theorem! There are tiny spikes everywhere and it looks really fuzzy - it's a very expensive way of rendering fur and we don't recommend it!"

It's a fascinating Q&A, and one I definitely recommend watching if you want to find out why, say, larger worlds can't support the kinds of extreme geography that defines smaller planetoids, or how the game populates these rocks with settlements. We'd previously also been given some gameplay insight into Odyssey's new worlds, revealing who gets first step credits if two people land at the same time. Only one of you gets to be Armstrong, sorry.

Elite Dangerous: Odyssey comes out on Steam this spring for $40/£30.

Natalie Clayton
Features Producer

20 years ago, Nat played Jet Set Radio Future for the first time, and she's not stopped thinking about games since. Joining PC Gamer in 2020, she comes from three years of freelance reporting at Rock Paper Shotgun, Waypoint, VG247 and more. Embedded in the European indie scene and a part-time game developer herself, Nat is always looking for a new curiosity to scream about—whether it's the next best indie darling, or simply someone modding a Scotmid into Black Mesa. She also unofficially appears in Apex Legends under the pseudonym Horizon.