I began with a basic navigation/combat tutorial. The control setup consisted of a right stick to control pitch, yaw, roll and weaponry, and a simple left throttle control. My ship sat inside a field of “ice-steroids,” and this gave me an opportunity to practice flying and not crashing into things. A full complement of gauges helped me determine my position and speed, while a radar display kept me apprised of potential enemy craft. Learning to fly was surprisingly easy (granted, flight assist was on) and soon enough, I was ready for battle.
It's easy to imagine players getting attached to their ships the minute they see the inside of the cockpit. Its slick, holographic displays were razor-sharp on the nice, high-res monitor, and from a utility standpoint, very well designed. The radar was unusual in its horizontal orientation, but very effective in helping me read my position relative to enemies in 3D space. Once I had the hang of reading it, I was quickly caught up in the dizzying reversals and near misses that happen during an asteroid-strewn dogfight.
Flight and combat in Elite: Dangerous is pretty thrilling. The realism of flipping the safety off my weapons, throttling up, and pursuing an enemy ship in deep, star-strewn space was pretty great for a sworn sci-fi geek like me (especially with my long-held fantasies of Viper-piloting, Battlestar-like greatness.) It was all over too soon, but once I'd dispatched my impromptu nemesis, I did get to take him out all over again wearing an Oculus Rift headset.
If any game was made for use with Oculus VR, it's Elite: Dangerous. The second I put on the headset, the interior of the cockpit jumped into place all around me. It was easy to believe I was really inside my ship, especially because the Oculus display included virtual hands that moved when mine moved, on controls that looked just like the ones I was using. Space too, benefited highly from the jump to 3D. The only disappointment in fact, was that Oculus technology just isn't up to snuff yet, resolution-wise. Going from an extremely sharp, high-res monitor display makes the Oculus display look downright grainy. Ah well, one day Oculus will look as good as most HD monitors, and that will be a good day indeed for Elite: Dangerous.
When the dogfighting was done, I interviewed David Braben himself, who thirty years after the first Elite, is just as enthusiastic about space trading and as obsessed with the stars as ever. During our chat, we talked about the game, the stars, history, aliens, the state of computer science studies among today's school kids--well, why don't you read for yourself.
INTERVIEW WITH DAVID BRABEN
MMORPG: Tell us about the game's story.
DB: The game is set in 3300. Humanity has spread from Earth, but a thousand years earlier, a group of disenchanted individuals, as soon as space flight was possible, in the 24th century, headed out into the unknown. They got as far as they could go, which was a hundred or so light years, so nothing on the galactic scale. They formed the Empire, and they formed it on Roman principles, you know, patronage and based on a slave economy as well. Very much concentrating on the arts and culture and honor. So if you imagine Imperial Japan, some aspects of the British Empire as well. Mainly though, it's based on Roman culture at the time of Julius Caesar, Caligula, Crassus, all plotting to take over because the Emperor is sick and the succession isn't clear.
There are four or six parties, depending on how you look at it, all with claims to the throne. Game of Thrones is probably based on something similar. We're setting up the story so that that can go forward. One of the senators is a very rich lady who's made her money in slaving. She is so wealthy, anyone who supports her she will lavish gifts on so she's naturally very popular. There's another guy, Senator Patrius, he makes his money by stirring unrest abroad. He loans vast amounts of money to governments and then will sell them military equipment, essentially creating lots of local conflict.
Proxy wars and things like that where you can join in, especially if you align yourself with these people, they will give you all sorts of things to forward their aims, but it's a bit morally bankrupt, a bit shady. The great thing about this is we don't know exactly how the story will unfold. What we're doing is we're putting in place all of these pieces and then it's up to the player actions. So when you run guns to the rebels or whatever, the rebels or when you fight on behalf of the rebels or the government, we score that, and that will eventually determine who wins.
MMORPG: And this scoring is all behind the scenes?
DB: Yeah. And that I think, is interesting. We did that during the beta, There was a rebellion in a city where the Federation has raised taxes, and the rebels are objecting to this. They want to secede, they want to become independent. During the beta, lots of the backers were supporting the rebels. They were running guns and supplies to the rebels and fighting for them—the Federation brought in a big battle cruiser—until the rebel leader made a speech saying “Comrades, excellent, we're winning the battle against the Capitalist oppressors!” And it was very clear from his language that they were Communists. Now, everyone knew they were Communists, but they hadn't really realized the connection. After that, all the backers started supporting the Federation. (laughs)
MMORPG: So how long do each of these story events go on?
DB: It's up to the players. That one went on for two or three weeks. The idea is [the issue] flips between states. The way people see these states manifested is through missions, in trade goods, in descriptions in the news feeds. For instance in the rebel instance, the rebels started doing terrorist-type activities trying to bring down the government, and one of them was—Progenitor cells were one of the most profitable trade goods. They're bought by rich people to help prolong their lives. The rebels poisoned a few batches so this trade good was suddenly illegal but it was only illegal for about three weeks, until they discovered which of the batches were poisoned. However, players—even on the forums—were objecting, “You can't do this! This is the most profitable trade good!” Then they realized they could make a lot more money trading them on the black market.
MMORPG: So there is a black market? What happens (if anything) to people who trade in illegal goods?
DB: There's the occasional stop and search by police, part of that's reputation-based. If you're stopped, they'll scan you, and you get quite a warning, you can tell they're scanning you. So you can choose to run at that stage, or if you don't, they can attack you. You can be fined; most of them end up in a fine.
MMORPG: If you end up fighting, can you lose your ship?
DB: Without insurance, yes. But we've brought out the idea of non-lethal combat. People can jettison their cargo and run away. We've also got non-lethal weapons for instance, the Cargo Bay Limpet which is a thing that attaches to the cargo bay and basically cuts it open and then the cargo starts falling out.
MMORPG: Speaking of the black market and weapons, are there black market mods for your ship?
DB: There isn't at the moment, but there's the concept – specialists around the galaxy who can tune your item to make it better. There isn't currently black market weaponry.
MMORPG: Players being competitive, will likely want to can get their hands on something that's better than everyone else.
DB: As you make money, you can improve all the different parts of your ship. You can spend way more than the initial cost of the ship on goodies.
MMORPG: So is that the primary way people will be able to show off their experience and status? Ship upgrades?
DB: I think that's part of it. They can also display decals on their ships. Your decal can be your rank.
MMORPG: The game encompasses 400 billion star systems. How is that possible?
DB: We know the distribution of stars, we know how many stars there are, we just don't know their exact positions. We know by looking at the night sky—if you think of procedural generation as a tool to use, how to populate things—throughout the galaxy we can see a lot of Type O stars. And they're super-bright. They give us the shape and the density and how they move gives us the gravitational forces. We then use that to populate the area of stars around them.
MMORPG: Is this choice to focus on the stars a personal obsession?
DB: Well, yes. (laughs) I've always found astronomy fascinating and I've been a bit depressed how in the last decade or so, how introverted we've become. It's the equivalent of looking at our shoes. No one's looking at the stars and going, “Isn't that amazing?” I'm also co-founder of Raspberry Pi, a little computer for $25 to help educate children. Kids were just afraid of technology and that's shocking. They are completely familiar with it, but when it comes to taking things apart--”Oh, I wouldn't do that, it'll break!” You've got to understand these things if you want to have a career in them one day. In the U.K., the number of kids wanting to go into computer science had dwindled and we've got it back up again. The other agenda here is to show how exciting and interesting space is, and how big it is, and how tiny we are.
MMORPG: What's your goal for multiplayer in Elite: Dangerous?
DB: People grouping together, I think that's great. Players cooperating—cooperative gameplay for me, is always better than PvP because PvP always ends with at least half of the people getting upset. So we tried to tweak the game rules and we created the Pilots Federation. All players are members automatically, of the Pilots Federation, and when one of its members is attacked, there's put a big bounty on the head of the person attacking. Once you've got a bounty on your head, other players can attack you and because we have local news feeds, we'll actually tell you that there's someone with a bounty on their head near you.
MMORPG: You've mentioned players making their own stories. Are there actual mechanics in-game to do that, or do you mean it's an emergent thing that just sort of happens?
DB: Well yes. Your own story is who you side with. You build reputations with local factions and get more involved missions once you've got a good reputation with them. And you can easily destroy that reputation as well. And we've got the over-arching story which we've already talked a bit about. I like the idea of your moral behavior sticking with you.
MMORPG: I've heard there's a guild already, that's determined to find the end of the galaxy.
DB: The Great Expedition.
MMORPG: Right. What might explorers like them find at the end of the galaxy?
DB: Well, the most valuable things are Earth-like worlds and also metal-rich worlds because they're quite rare. We modeled every star system from First Principles so they're hopefully, quite real. If you find one of these, you can photograph it, using a scanner, and you can bring back that information and people will buy that information from you. So you can make money exploring that way. But it's quite interesting. When you go off into the unknown to find things that haven't been discovered and you see another player out there, you have an interesting dilemma. You think, “They're probably an explorer as well, I wonder if they scanned that planet? Wouldn't it be a shame if they didn't get back?” (laughs)
MMORPG: That definitely ups the risk factor, the fear of going out there.
DB: Or you can hail them and do a deal, saying “I'll take it to the Federation, you take it to the Empire.”
MMORPG: You've mentioned an interest in realism. With that in mind, would you ever go out to one of these star systems and find some kind of alien life?
DB: You might.
DB: Mm hm. The premise behind the game is that there's lots of alien life. We tried to make it as scientifically accurate as possible. There's a strong indication that's there's lots of life out there, but most of it is of the slime-mold variety. Not all of it is water-based, carbon-based.
MMORPG: Once the galaxy—or at least part of it—has been mapped, will players be able to build some kind of outpost?
DB: It's probable these worlds are terraformable. Part of the story from the previous game (the original Elite) is that a group tried terraforming a planet where there was life. There was an alien race called the Thargoids that's really...interesting.
MMORPG: Elite: Dangerous is a paid game, right?
DB: Yes, you buy the game. The story and all that will be updated into the game automatically. We will do paid expansions. Some people have those already as benefits from backing the game. You can also buy vanity items. Those will help keep the servers running.
MMORPG: It looks like we're out of time, but I want to thank you for meeting with me today. Good luck on the 16th.
DB: Thank you!
Elite: Dangerous goes live this Tuesday, December 16. For more information about Elite: Dangerous, visit the game's official website.