In space... well, maybe someone can hear you scream and come to your aid. Maybe it's not all just enveloping darkness, punctuated by the occasional pirate cruiser swinging by to punch you in the face and steal all your goodies. Maybe it's not all lonely hopelessness as you're cast adrift in a vast, uncaring galaxy that will suck you in, take all that you've got, and offer nothing but the promise of a dried-out corpse in return.
Oh, sorry, got a little melodramatic there. Still, that's long been my opinion of “space sim” MMORPGs, colored heavily as it is by Eve Online. It's a spacedog-eat-spacedog universe out there, and if you can't fend for yourself, you'll be nothing but scrap metal, cast adrift like so much space junk. I don't have three lifetimes' worth of spare time to devote to making such a game a worthwhile investment for me, so I've only looked on from the station viewport, content to read the occasional story about other people's daring exploits – or the endlessly entertaining Star Citizen drama.
So I went into my meeting/interview with Frontier Development and Elite: Dangerous without a great deal of enthusiasm, figuring I'd just walk away with a few standard answers to standard questions and then stop thinking about Elite until next year's PAX South. Instead, Community Content Manager Edward Lewis, had enough enthusiasm for the both of us, and he might have just changed my opinion, if not of space sims in general, then at least of this one.
Elite's been reported as having 1.4 million copies sold, and Frontier couldn't be happier about the game's steady growth. The first expansion, Horizons, came out in December, adding planetary exploration to the previously space-only gameplay. I watched a couple videos about the new content before my trip to give me an idea of what that was all about, and while the explorer in me ooh-ed and aah-ed at the sheer vastness and prettiness of it all, one of the main gripes I see from Elite players is that there's not much else to do other than drive around and, as I put it to Lewis, “dig up rocks.”
Without outright admitting that the expansion was incomplete, Lewis told me that there was more on the way, and that he viewed Horizons as more of a “season pass” than an expansion, per se. There are plans to introduce a comprehensive crafting system this spring, that will allow you to bring your “rocks” to engineers in stations, who will create for you newer and cooler equipment for your ships – the rarer the materials, the better the stuff you get. These won't be vertical upgrades – you won't get better lasers, for instance – but rather cosmetic upgrades, like different colors for your lasers. Can I get mine in plaid?
Now, when I heard “season pass” and incremental upgrades, my BS meter started ringing. Horizons costs $60, but of course Frontier Development will take your money now while delivering all parts of the expansion later. The expansion is described on Steam as being in early access, which sets off even more alarms. As I thought about it, though, I didn't see how it could be done any differently. If Frontier charged incrementally for each bit – say, $15 each for four upgrades over the course of the year – it might be viewed too much like a subscription or nickel-and-diming players. Or they could wait until everything was totally ready – probably sometime late this year – and then charge $60, but then it would seem like too long a wait for new content. Really, the up-front cost and “free” content later seems like the best approach. The only issue I can see is that you need to have purchased Horizons to get all those updates, but I suppose that's the difference between an MMORPG expansion and a season pass.
After chatting a little more with Lewis about the game's vast scale – remember, it's got hundreds of billions of stars, and, with most of them having planets, probably over a trillion-plus worlds to explore – I was briefly handed off to Erik Marcaigh, representative of the Hutton Orbital Truckers, a helpful band in Elite that promotes PwP – that's “player-with-player,” as in cooperative ventures – gameplay. As he regaled me with a tale of how the Truckers took on the Code, a pirate group, I also took another run at a PvP skirmish in the game itself.
News flash: I still can't fly worth a damn. The controls and the readout still confuse me, which is a point I brought up at last year's PAX South interview. After a little more of a chat with Lewis, I might have traced it down to the controller setup issue. The default controls put ship rotation on the left stick and turning on the right, which is completely opposite from every other game I've played. I'd like to give it another shot, with those controls reversed (or a keyboard where I can WASD to my heart's content). If I do pick up Elite, I'll be content to spend most of my time on planets or running away from space battles. I can accelerate just fine.
And if I do pick it up, how quickly will I get smoked? That was the next-to-final question I posed to Lewis, again drawing the comparison to Eve Online and its notoriously murderous learning curve/new player experience. He told me about the Galactic Academy, a hand-selected group of players whose role is to guide newbies around and help them with the game's first steps. They even have a Teamspeak set up and no, they won't lure you into a trap to steal all your stuff, Lewis assured me. But that's what an evil player-killing pirate would say...
Paranoia aside, Lewis and Marcaigh might have done enough to convince me that I could actually enjoy myself in Elite: Dangerous, even if all I do is “dig up rocks” and perform transport missions with the occasional PvE combat to spice things up a bit. It's a big universe, and I feel like I could sneak around enough to avoid getting mugged (at least too often), there's a vibrant economy, and the exploration aspect really gets me going. It just seems a little friendlier than the cutthroat world of Eve that always gets reported on. If combat's your thing, you can probably find plenty of that, but that's the key to a sandbox game like this: Everyone finds their own way to enjoy it.
Oh, and I asked about the aliens. Lewis just smiled smugly and told me to look up what's been discovered. He's probably an alien himself.