The current coronavirus pandemic, and the extended lockdowns faced by communities across the globe, have left a lot of people with a lot of time to play a lot of games. Some are using that time to build capitalist empires, some are replicating real-life hangouts to facilitate virtual reunions with their much-missed friends, and others are using the time to spread a little bit of human kindness, in a bid to alleviate some of the stresses of isolation, in any way they can.
One such merry band of joy bringers is the East India Company Gaming, a close-knit group of Elite Dangerous players founded on "principles of tolerance and helping others". Its members spend their time engaging in a broad array of activities across the galaxy, but their most notable endeavour is the delivery of rare and mineable commodities to help others mitigate the arduous grind of Engineer-based ship improvements.
It's a trading service the group (whose name makes a certain thematic sense, given its alignment to Elite's Empire faction) has been providing in exchange for select in-game resources since 2017 - but in the spirit of giving that's been reflected across many gaming communities during the coronavirus outbreak, it's currently waiving that fee.
"It was one of our chairpersons, Icarus Smith, who first put forward the idea," explains Mags, one of the group's managers, over email. "We wanted to 'give something back' [after] all the panic-buying and displays of utter stupidity and selfishness we were seeing... I would say we were all shocked at the baseness of it all and the lack of care for other people on display... In a very small, in-game, way we wanted to make a gesture to the Elite community, to show that not everyone is like that, some people do things because they can and want to help other people."
With the threat of lockdown looming across the globe, the group reasoned a lot of players would likely soon be turning to Elite Dangerous "to pass the time with the pubs shut and no toilet roll", and so its fee-waiving Operation: Helping Hand was born.
The East India Company Gaming has been in existence for almost half a decade, and, as with other player-run factions in Elite (the Fuel Rats being one of the most widely known), the group has carved a particular in-game niche for itself since its inception, harnessing its members' deep love of the space sim, and a bit of mechanical and logistical ingenuity, to bypass the game's limitations and do something for a community it's passionate about.
In the case of the East India Company Gaming, that "something" was the establishment of an on-demand Trading Post service to provide players with the resources needed to unlock the best ship upgrades - be they the fastest engines or most powerful weapons - from NPCs known as Engineers, in order to be sufficiently equipped to tackle what many consider to be Elite's most-engaging end-game content, be that Thargoid hunting or PvP.
It's a process that can take weeks, if not months, of dedicated drudgery and toil, which, as Mags readily admits, isn't everyone's cup of tea. "There are certain gameplay loops [in Elite] that are repetitive and, to some, boring", he explains. And while Mags doesn't necessarily agree with that criticism ("Personally I love the game," he tells me, "When I first saw Star Wars, I wanted to fly the Millennium Falcon [and] I get to, sort of, do that every time I start the game"), he believes the group's efforts ultimately help people enjoy Elite without it feeling too much like work.
"I honestly believe we play a part in keeping people playing the game who might otherwise stop", he says, making it easier for players to become the "the dealers of death, explorers of new worlds, trading ships, mining ships and canyon racers they want to be."
These days, the East India Company Gaming has around 50 active members (and is always recruiting for more). Ages range from 18 to "it's impolite to ask", hailing from all across the globe and from all walks of life. "We have taxi drivers, truckers, IT people, high powered corporate managers, chefs, photographers, students, and someone who is retired who does a lot of jobs around the house and garden for his boss (his wife)," explains Mags, "Pretty much all of them have had some part to play in the Trading Post and EIC's presence."
Those eager to employ the services of the East India Company Gaming will need access to Elite Dangerous on PC (Mags says the group would love to assist console players, but will first need to get its numbers up in order to "run the operation and work out the logistics"), then they'll want to visit the EIC's Discord server, known as the Trading Post, accessible via its website.
Here, players are able to request the specific commodities they require, whereupon an EIC trader will go pick up the items from the group's stock - a usually fairly brisk process, but one that could take between 24-48 hours, given members' real-life commitments. Once everything is prepared, it's just a short trip into Elite's Open mode, where both parties wing up, the customer rendezvous with the trader, and limpet drones are used to facilitate the exchange of goods for an agreed payment of in-game commodities, when applicable.
Due to a quirk of Elite, one of the most convenient, easily sourced payment commodities in-game are Imperial Slaves (which official lore takes great pains to describe as voluntarily indentured workers, should you feel an eyebrow raising), and while it's the EIC's preferred method of payment, Mags tells me the group will soon be expanding its options to include Low-Temperature Diamonds and Void Opals for those with moral or role-play objections.
All in all, a trade usually takes 5-10 minutes, and the process - despite Mags' observation that "a lot of people play Elite Dangerous after a few/lot of beers" - generally goes without a hitch.
He does, however, relate one story in which an EIC security detail (all transactions unfold in the presence of a combat-equipped group member for client and trader protection) went rogue, deliberately opening fire on their charges during a trade. It later transpired the pilot was auditioning to join a different, piracy focussed Elite Dangerous faction, unbeknownst to Mags, who admits a grudging respect for the role-playing element of it all.
"To date this is the only time we've lost a customer on a trade", he says, "and we compensated them with Void Opals to cover their ship re-buy and a free trade to get the Engineer unlocked... I certainly learned a lesson in regards to making sure our security is trustworthy."
The EIC has been waiving its usual fee as part of Operation: Helping Hand for around a month now, and, unsurprisingly, community response has been tremendously positive. It's brought some comfort to those in the East India Company Gaming family itself during lockdown too: "It helps me to forget the real grind of life and work (I am lucky enough to be able to work from home right now whilst a lot aren't)," says Mags, "I get to sit back in the corner of my front room where I game and just enjoy the virtual company of others".
When I spoke to Mags, the East India Company Gaming had already assisted around 87 players during the operation, almost double its usual monthly trades. "In a game with the player base Elite Dangerous has," he says, "we're very proud of those numbers". In fact, the endeavour has been so well-received, and feedback so positive, it's already been extended once to 31st May, and may be extended further "depending on how things pan out around the world."
And given the success of Operation: Helping Hand, I ask Mags if he has any advice for players thinking of doing something for their own communities, particularly in these strange, often difficult times. "Do it," he says, "Show your communities it's not all about hoarding bog roll and beans. It only takes small things to show we are a community and that we care for one another and want to help each other.
"That stuff matters as much in games as it does in real life. It's important to look out for one another and not be a selfish dickhead in all parts of our lives and more so at this time where people are struggling for money, feeling isolated and, in some very sad cases, losing loved ones... We're all in this together. A Helping Hand (shameless plug) is always a good thing."