On 25th April 2017, Cambridge-based developer Frontier released patch notes for its two-and-a-half year-old space game Elite Dangerous. Buried within those patch notes, under the section "General Fixes & Tweaks", was a line that set the game's vociferous community alight:
- Farmed salt from the community for usage later.
It was a joke, clearly, but like the best jokes it had an edge to it; a whiff of animosity. Frontier's relationship with its fans has been a fractious one ever since Elite Dangerous launched back in December 2014. But in recent months the debate has been particularly lively.
The recent release of update 2.3, dubbed The Commanders, added some cool, long-awaited features to the game, such as Holo-Me, multicrew and megaships. But in true Elite Dangerous fashion, not everything about the update worked out quite as planned. The Commanders launched riddled with bugs, some of which players had flagged up during the extensive beta. Multicrew didn't seem that interesting in the end. And there was little in the way of genuinely new, developer-crafted stuff to do.
And so, the debate rolls on. Speak to a handful of Elite Dangerous players and you'll get a dozen different opinions about the game. Each balance tweak, game update and business decision Frontier makes falls under intense scrutiny from a community that devours new features in the blink of an eye. Elite fans are a special breed, and they have high standards.
Perhaps that's born out of Elite's place in the pantheon of landmark video games. David Braben and Ian Bell's groundbreaking open world space game is remembered fondly pretty much by all who played it back in the 80s. Elite Dangerous, which was successfully Kickstarted to the tune of £1.5m back in November 2012, promised so much. But has it delivered? Can it ever deliver?
It is with this question in mind that I spoke with a raft of prominent Elite Dangerous players to get their take on the game as it faces perhaps its greatest challenge yet - boredom.
"There's a mood among the players of, yeah, Holo-Me is great, and adding new ships and new types of stations is great, but really people want action," says Dr A.
Dr A, or Dr Arcanonn, is one of Elite Dangerous' most famous players. He is founder of The Canonn, a 2000 player-strong group dedicated to unearthing Elite Dangerous' secrets. He's also the first player ever to have a base, called Arcanonn's Legacy, named after him. In short, Dr A knows Elite well. His opinion counts.
Dr A's call to action is echoed on the Elite Dangerous forum and its subreddit. It's a desire from many for, well, more things to happen in the game and more interesting things to do. Elite Dangerous is vast, but it is for many sparse. Sure, you can do combat, explore, gather resources and trade, but you won't find much in the way of cutscenes or setpieces. It can feel, at times, like a grind. It can feel, at times, a bit boring.
Players have, over the years, filled in the gaps themselves, and one of those plot holes looks like it'll soon come to fruition. The Thargoids, Elite's evil alien race, are coming - and the players are desperate for them to make a big splash.
"We want Frontier to be brave, and don't worry about harvesting salt from the community," Dr A says. "Shake it up. Take risks. Make people unhappy. Trash their bases. Trash our systems. Give me some drama. Give me some crisis. We want them to be bold. They've created this thing, let's trash it. Let's set it on fire."
But would the expected introduction of the Thargoids to Elite Dangerous be too little, too late? If Dr A is Elite Dangerous' most famous player, CMDR Harry Potter is its most infamous. The superstar griefer, a prominent member of the Smiling Dog Crew group of players, has made a name for himself by trolling others, disrupting their experience and even making a mockery of big in-game events and charity streams. Harry Potter, aka British college student Josh Chamberlain, believes players are losing interest in Elite Dangerous simply because Frontier takes too long to make significant changes to the game, and when it does, many of the features it adds fall flat.
"There used to be a lot of sympathy for Frontier," CMDR Harry Potter says. "But a lot of people are starting to lose faith and are getting a bit fed-up.
"It doesn't help that when they put new features into the game, they don't connect to anything, so everything feels very disjointed. To a new player it's like, well you can do this, you can do this, you can do this, but nothing's cohesive. Nothing fits together. It's like several games disjointed. It overwhelms the player."
To understand Elite Dangerous is to understand instancing. Elite Dangerous does not run on dedicated servers. Instead, it uses a peer-to-peer network to create instances, so multiple players can be and play in the same space - a bit like World of Warcraft players are instanced into a dungeon. The only problem is, it's not the most seamless of systems. Most Elite players I've spoken with reckon its instancing doesn't work particularly well. Some think it's the worst thing about the game.
Bruce Hermann, aka CMDR Nightshady, is leader of a PvP Elite Dangerous group called 13th Legion. It's fair to say he has a thing or two to say about instancing.
"The instancing is still broken," he says. "We enjoy big wing fights with four versus four, eight versus eight, and that can be a huge headache. Getting everybody together can be real hard. Even sometimes just four on four can be tough. We have said from the beginning that should be ironed out. It's improved some over the years but still needs improvement."
The problem with instancing is indicative of the Elite Dangerous experience. It is a complex game. It is, after all, a hardcore space simulation. The learning curve is steep. Even docking your spaceship is a challenge for most. Elite Dangerous does not welcome new players with open arms. It throttles them by the neck, shakes them to the core and screams: this isn't a game! This is space!
"The learning curve for this game is steeper than any game I've ever played," CMDR Nightshady says. "If you just put somebody in front of a computer and say, play this game, they probably wouldn't be able to get their ship out of a station. And if they did they'd probably do something wrong and get killed."
Another common complaint about Elite Dangerous is it's, well, boring. There's not a lot to do in the game, save a seemingly endless grind. With little or no endgame to speak of, Elite Dangerous can sometimes feel like a commute - albeit with a stunning view.
Perhaps space games just have to be this way. The universe is, after all, a gargantuan place packed with huge chunks of nothingness in which not a lot goes on that we humans would consider particularly interesting. In real space it takes a really long time to get anywhere. So it goes in Elite Dangerous. Look at it sideways and Elite Dangerous sparks an existential crisis. Commanders fly from here to there, trawling cargo, trading, parking, taking off, and occasionally shooting this and that into bits. It's real life, the video game, but in space. In this sense, Frontier really has nailed the universe, hasn't it?
CMDR Nightshady, though, has little sympathy for those who call Elite Dangerous boring. Only boring people get bored, he suggests.
"People say there's nothing to do in the game," he says. "Right now we're involved in a PvP league. We practice for that. We design ships for that.
"If you're playing by yourself in solo, yeah, there's not a lot to the game. You fly and you take stuff from here to there. You blow up NPCs. But you have to be engaged with the game to get back what it has to offer. If you just jump on and fly around aimlessly, yeah, there's not a lot to do.
"The people who say that are probably looking for a more, I'm going to hold your hand game where, okay, this is A, then you have to go to B, then you have to go to C and then you have to go to D. I like more sandbox games where I create the content, or someone else creates the content and we try and disrupt them or help them."
CMDR Nightshady's point is that despite Elite Dangerous' issues, the game can be an incredible one when played with others. I've reported extensively on a number of cool player-driven events that have emerged from Elite Dangerous, and am always on the lookout for more.
Perhaps the most interesting in recent months was the occasion some 3000 players came together to influence an in-game event designed by sci-fi author Drew Wagar. The idea was that players would either kill or protect an in-game character called Commander Salomé, who was desperately trying to expose some vast conspiracy. Of course, this being Elite Dangerous, the whole thing descended into chaos as the game's instancing system buckled under the weight of what players were asking of it. In the end, Salomé died, confirmed killed at 20:49 game time on 29th April, 3303. She succumbed to hostile fire from, you guessed it, CMDR Harry Potter. Harry Potter had infiltrated the player group that had set out to defend Salomé. He chased Salomé down and made the kill for in-game credits.
I love stories like this, the kind of player-driven events that you sometimes hear come out of the likes of Eve Online. But the thing about them is they're driven by the players, not the developers. Sure, Frontier lends a hand, but it's not crafting this content. This is emergent gameplay.
All this is not to say Frontier doesn't lift a finger to make Elite Dangerous a more vibrant virtual world. Perhaps the best example of its support for the game are the Community Goals. These in-game events are an attempt to drive players to a particular space in an attempt to create some kind of conflict or coming together. When CGs, as they're called, are good, the community loves them. Frontier is even running a CG for The Canonn to be the first player group to get a megaship of its own, with other groups to be offered similar opportunities in time. Clearly, Frontier is committed to the Elite Dangerous community. It's just perhaps not committed as quickly as players would like.
Elite Dangerous is two-and-a-half years-old now, but for Frontier it's a long-term commitment. It is, like it or not, still a work in progress. The question is, can it live up to its potential? Can Elite Dangerous ever be the game players imagined when that Kickstarter first sparked into life?
"There's a danger that it loses momentum and people go off and play other things before it reaches its potential," Dr A says. "For me, the whole potential of this game is aliens and the alien invasion that seems imminent. That's where the potential of the game lies."
"The game has massive potential," CMDR enthuses, "but they don't capitalise on that potential at all. They just try and build new features nobody wants or asks for. Powerplay came out of nowhere and it didn't work, it wasn't connected to the game. Multicrew is much of the same. Even when it works it feels disjointed for most people.
"It's a shame, as the game has loads of potential. It really does."
Amid the conflicting demands, opinions and complaints, there is one absolute truth: there's something special about Elite Dangerous. Even as I interview players for this feature they are playing the game - exploring, travelling, working on improving their ships. It's that kind of game. It gets under your skin. Sure, there's not a lot happening, but who cares? You're in the cockpit of a spaceship and the galaxy is your oyster.
"It's a fantastic game," CMDR Nightshadey insists. "We have our complaints, but this game is amazing. I've been playing it for two-and-a-half years solid, and I would argue with anyone who says it's not a good game."
Even CMDR Harry Potter, Elite Dangerous' most cutting troll, agrees.
"There's no other game like it, where you can play in the cockpit of a spaceship - other than Star Citizen, which isn't around yet," he says.
"I really like the simulation, the cockpit, the buttons you can press and the intricate systems. I love space games and I love simulation. It's a win win for me.
"Then there's the planetary gameplay. I find myself driving around odd planets for hours on end, just aimlessly looking for stuff. Obviously I'm never going to find anything and never have, but it's the idea you've got an entire world, 3000 kilometres, it's a very big play space to explore, and it's something you can leave on a whim and come back to later on.
"Other games just don't do the things Elite does."
I put the same question to each of the prominent players: if you could ask one thing of Frontier boss David Braben, what would it be? Each came up with a different suggestion.
"Thargoid invasion, yesterday!" Dr A says. "Let the galaxy burn. Go for it! Don't hold back. Be brave. Trash the whole thing."
"Progress the story substantially faster than it already is," CMDR Harry Potter says. "Even PvPers are interested in how the story is progressing and where it's going to go. We're all anticipating there's going to be some massive war, and that's going to benefit everyone. The explorers get to meet the aliens, PvPers get to shoot stuff."
CMDR Nightshadey has a particularly interesting suggestion, one that reminds me a lot of a raid in an MMO.
"PvE Wing Missions," he suggests, "where you have to be in a wing to accomplish a goal. Maybe that goal is you go into an instance and there is a capital ship that deploys a bunch of fighters. And so the mission is to destroy the capital ship. You have to have one ship that's tanking, ships that are doing damage to take out the fighters, and maybe even a healer to keep your shields up.
"It would be fun to build ships specifically for tackling a really tough NPC, like a boss level character. It would give more depth to the game."
Meanwhile, as Elite Dangerous hurtles toward its third birthday, Frontier continues to work on the game, plotting its next update, fixing bugs, signalling Community Goals, putting the final touches to the upcoming PlayStation 4 version and of course, farming salt from the community for usage later. The question is, will players stick around to see Elite Dangerous through to the bitter end?
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