Computer games

Return of the Elite

Why are Nav beacons still in the game? That’s the question. And if you’re interested, I will explain why. In my usual incoherent, rambly style.

About a year ago, at a time when I was absolutely hooked on the game, I wrote a blog post on Elite: Dangerous describing the good, the bad and the utter lack of anything ugly in the game I felt so strongly about. Since then I’ve kind of moved on, I got my Anaconda and combat elite rating so I had sort of reached my personal goals in Elite. I also had a few high workload games I needed to review, so I started spending less and less of my time in Elite, flying around shooting baddies and taking stuff from A to B. The introduction of new ships (that threatened to be bigger and better than my venerable ‘Conda!) and the Horizons expansion drew me back in, however, to see if things had changed significantly.

Well had they? Yes and no. As the hopeful side of me expected, there have been some major additions and necessary improvements to the game. However, the limits of what is possible with the design are looking more and more like impassable barriers just like my pessimistic side feared. Elite: Dangerous is a game for the long haul so it’s a bit early to draw final conclusions at the dawn of season two, but at least I can do some predictions and even if such predictions are by necessity inaccurate, the analysis itself might be interesting. And in the end we just might figure out what’s so important about those Nav beacons.

The damned Nav beacons

nav

Warning: vegans may need to close their eyes when looking at this image.

So, what are the Nav beacons anyway and why are they so important? First of all the important point about Nav beacons is that they are utterly unimportant and pointless. Back in the days of early betas they were apparently used for jumping into a system. Things changed, however, and ships simply started to appear somewhere next to the main star of a system already in frameshift when they jump in regardless of whether or not the system even has a Nav Beacon. This saves time and a bit of trouble and it’s not hard to see why the change was made. In the development discussion archives originally written by the game designers there were a number of ideas on how hyperspace jumps to uncharted systems would differ from jumping to the regular, populated sectors and Nav beacons could’ve played a part in that. In the end none of those designs were implemented and the beacons no longer have any function whatsoever in the game’s universe. Keep that in mind, this little fact will be kind of important later on.

For a while during the later betas the Nav beacons actually had a gameplay function, being pretty much only places where people could go and make a bit of war between Commanders without space cops interfering too much, like they would if you just started a fight right outside a major space station. Of course the beacons have also always been a spot where you could go shoot some AIs and maybe steal their cargo or collect bounties.

But what the heck are the AI doing there, then?

For once in my life I will keep things short and simple: they are there just for your pleasure, their utterly meaningless as well as pointless existence doesn’t require any kind of sensible context. As far as the AI are concerned (and they truly are not) they might appear and disappear at a Nav beacon, just as well as Resource extraction sites, random hyperspace encounters and wherever they may appear for your viewing pleasure. And that is still the biggest problem with the game, it hasn’t changed at all since early 2015.

There was once a great war, where nothing happened and it was one of the low points in human history. I took part in it when I found out that it would be a great spot for finally getting my combat elite rank thanks to a Federation capital ship that made sure its side always dominated the battle instance, providing an endless stream of stuff to shoot at without fear of having to run away to recharge shields every now and then. At least I fought properly, some simply hid inside the capital ship and tagged enemies to get kills when the big vessel blasted them out of the sky. That’s of Elite: Dangerous for you.

After we had completed the goals for one side we simply switched sides and kept fighting. And nobody cared and nothing mattered one bit. Not even the fact that during the war probably hundreds of thousands of ships were blown up and considering how expensive they are that would probably equal the entire galaxy’s production for how many years I don’t really even know. But since there’s no actual production or anything even remotely like that, things like that simply don’t matter.

When Frontier announced that the single player mode was cut people raged pretty hard, but I don’t think many even realized what was the truly significant loss. The message basically said that the feature was being removed, because the game was utterly incapable of doing pretty much anything on its own and it would take manual tinkering to make changes in the universe and add content. And this is where the atrocities as described above come from. Basically the idea of “content” seems to be hand-written excuses for grindfests that are otherwise completely disconnected from the game universe.

It actually sounds worse than it is in reality – there is some fun to be had despite everything – but in essence that is how Elite: Dangerous works. Somebody writes a bit of backstory and initiates a very simplistic grindfest with a few set parameters and then people flock to the grind depending on what the rewards are like. The universe itself is completely incapable of reacting to a player’s actions. Of course you could say that a single player shouldn’t have so much impact on anything – but I think my approximately 13000 victims and their families would probably beg to differ. At the level where single people matter nothing at all happens and even if you manage to blow up half of all the galaxy’s ships it’s still just a small statistic in a massive community grind.

During the war we did routine pit stops at a station owned by the opposing side where the clerks accepted our combat bonds with a smile, congratulating us for blasting another thousand or so of their ships out of the sky. And then I switched sides and shot down hundreds of Federation ships. I have to admit the Federation dudes are good sports, they didn’t even demote me for my actions against them. I can just imagine the exchange in the officers’ mess after the war: “Jolly good show out there buddy, we’re so glad you’re on our side and not killing us anymore .. right?” And of course it doesn’t bother anyone that I have a high rank in both Federal and Imperial navies, why would it? However, there is now one way to actually make someone get angry at you.

UNLIMITED POWAAAHH

The game itself has improved quite a bit during the one year period, which is of course nice. Group play works much better now with the Wings addition, Close Quarters Combat is a somewhat fun way to spend a few moments shooting space ships – and then there’s Powerplay, where you can either bend a knee to the Anime Princess or join one of the bad people. Or not.

And this is where my earlier fears about the game’s future (well it was the future a year ago) came true.

It is somewhat generally accepted that Elite: Dangerous is still very much in development and the optimistic side argues that what we have now is the beginning of a game and the content that will add depth to the beautiful universe is just around the corner. The reason I don’t consider myself one of the optimists anymore is that I believe that’s exactly what we don’t have. Instead of a beginning –  a foundation to build on – we have some of the middle bits that are basically tied together in the most basic possible way.

It’s like having chess pieces without the board. You can figure out things to do with them, maybe you try to throw the pieces as far as you can, bowl with them or whatever, but without the board and the rules it won’t be chess.

Imagine a world, where Elite: Dangerous started off with the concept of Powerplay as the basis to everything. We have different powers that compete between each other. The ways of competition could be direct military power, economical influence or for example cultural influence (yeah, I’ve played Civ games). The powers would mine resources, use them to build factories, ships and other units, trade and do all sorts of interesting stuff. Explore new places to colonize and spread their power.

Most importantly, all of these activities would be connected and they would have a visible, sensible and interactive representation in the actual game world. Systems would change owners in a number of different ways and for example disrupting mining operations would break entire production chains. Powerplay would basically define how the universe works and what is important and relevant.

Designing a game like this would not be easy, far from it. But something like this would be the beginning of a game, a framework that ties everything together.

However, if you have the middle bits in place and then try to add functionality that should have been the framework that binds everything in the game together, you get the Powerplay as we know it today. Chess could be described as a game where you move pieces on a board and although the description would be accurate in a way, everyone knows that in reality the game is so much more complex than that. In the same way describing Elite as a game where you shoot at stuff and take other stuffs from A to B misses some of the detail and depth in the game. But to be honest what should be a funny and sarcastic remark is actually a frighteningly accurate and comprehensive description of the game.

If you follow any discussions on the game you can’t miss the terminology full of “grinding”, “farming” and other references to monotonous repetition, because that’s basically what the game is about. Before Powerplay the game was all about shooting randomly spawning stuff and taking stuff from A to B. So that’s what Powerplay is as well. When you only have the middle bits of the game done and you try to add foundation level design later you look at the tools you already have and try to work with them. So when new content is required you shoehorn it in in a way that makes the most of the pieces you have: shooting at random stuff and taking stuffs from A to B. And when more depth is required, you add more grind. And that’s basically what Powerplay is and what I fear everything after Powerplay will also be.

Just a random thought regarding gameplay in Elite: if professional gold farming became a thing in the game, how would you differentiate the farmers from the people who are actually playing the game like they’re supposed to? I haven’t played World of Warcraft, but apparently there were at least some kind of ways of detecting farmers and banning them. So how would you do it in Elite?

This is why I think the game is in a bit of trouble. In the previous article I expressed fear that although there definitely are a lot of good things in Elite and I basically really liked to play it (and still do, at least occasionally), but I had some doubts about the game’s future. I’ll just let this guy explain, since he can do it quite elegantly in just a few words:

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Well, technically it is still possible and I’ve read some stuff from the developers (and of course the original design discussions still exist so I know they have the right idea) that implies that they want to add more persistence and actual cause-effect relationships into the game. And this is why the damned Nav Beacons become a potentially important predictor of the game’s future. But oh no, we’re not going to go there yet, instead we’ll take a massive detour across the universes.

There’s no limit

I’ve played so many indie games made by small groups or even individual people that I’ve become allergic to projects that have a touch of brilliance to them but eventually fail to deliver on the promise due to the development effort just becoming too massive for a small team. There’s a space game wannabe out there that in a way fits the bill perfectly, but although I think it’s questionable whether or not we’ll ever get to play the game, it has already given so much to the gaming community through incredible development update videos that it has justified its existence abundantly. Before it really even exists.

I’m talking about Limit Theory. It’s a game made (or probably not made as I noted before, but I digress) by basically one person and like the unfortunate projects I mentioned earlier it has a touch of greatness to it, but from what I’ve heard we might never see an actual finished game. And even if we did there’s so much more work to do that I simply don’t see one dude getting every aspect of the game done just right, this isn’t 1985 anymore. Of course I would absolutely love to be proven wrong – again.

What makes Limit Theory so special is the way this one guy has done exactly and I mean exactly what Frontier should have done years ago. And his superb and inspiring Development Updates describe my idea of a space game better than I could ever hope to myself. Seriously, go check them out right now, I especially suggest taking a look at this one. It’s a 20min video that will blow your mind if you’re an Elite player who is tired of the repetition of insignificant actions that is business as usual in E:D. If you have read my ramblings this far you have to have some interest in space games and I can promise you your time will be better spent if you stop reading this right now and just go watch the Limit Theory videos.

Limit Theory in its current(?) state is what the beginning of a game looks like. Now that‘s a framework you can build upon. You can start adding guns and ships and blow stuff up, add community goals and all the other things and have them actually have a clearly defined, wonderfully complex and diverse yet oh so logical meaning  and purpose in the game’s universe.

Of course you have to realize that Limit Theory is supposed to be a single player game and running it online would be a lot more challenging. Unfortunately it just might be completely impossible with the way Elite’s multiplayer is designed and that could be an impassable barrier in the way of adding true depth to the game, but that’s perhaps a story for another time. The “massively multiplayer” thing, as powerful as it sounds like, can actually be very limiting in many ways.

Considering how great many other aspects of Elite are it hurts my soul to think that because of some cosmic flaw in time-space continuum this one guy, this one corner piece of the puzzle, tried to make a game entirely on his own instead of helping make Elite: Dangerous an eternal legend of gaming huge enough to rival its grandfather’s greatness. He has the chess board and an idea of rules for a game to go with the pieces Frontier made. Of course turning it into a working game would still require monumental effort, but that’s par for the course when you’re creating an ambitious piece of art – which Elite is or at least should be.

But now, finally, the

Damned Nav Beacons

I would like to take a moment to thank Frontier Developments for some of the most jaw dropping moments I have ever had in computer gaming. The new planetary landing feature is as gorgeous as the rest of the game and that means it’s brilliant on a galactic scale. Flying the ships around in space and on planets and moons and whatnot is simply epic in the finest meaning of the word. Let it not be forgotten that I actually have enjoyed (and still do) many aspects of the game and I really, really appreciate a lot of the effort put into the game so far.

I can appreciate the immense difficulty inherent to ambitious projects such as Elite: Dangerous and the things I’m asking for are not only very important, but also very complicated. Also people who think that the game is still in its early stages and that we should give the team time to work more depth into it are not necessarily wrong even though I don’t quite agree with the part about the beginning. And it is entirely possible that Frontier actually manage to change the core framework even if it is difficult at this stage of development. They have already produced remarkable results in many ways.

However, as I already mentioned, all of my fears concerning the lack of comprehensive game design framework came true with the release of Powerplay. Then there’s the feeling that nothing in the game quite fits. That happens often when you don’t have a framework that would dictate how the different parts and actors of a game interact, but looking at Elite I can’t help but see an epidemic of small details that are just wrong – and worst of all, nobody seems to care about them being wrong.

I’m not a stranger to scifi, far from it, and I know exactly how illogical it can be – especially in gaming. For example I once had a bit of physics fun by calculating how deep a 100-ton Atlas ‘mech would sink standing on regular ground based on the model from Mechwarrior Online and it turned out that it had pretty much exactly the same kind of ground pressure as modern main battle tanks – precisely the thing it was modeled after. That was kind of surprising actually and probably more than a little accidental. However, for one reason or another the weight and size of the incredible ‘mech happened to be right in the ballpark of credibility. The real physics problem in BattleTech is actually the stress to the ‘mechs’ frames and especially the artificial myomer muscle joints, but those are exactly the kind of details I’m willing to forget to get some fun stompy robots action. Also I’m willing to just accept that the biggest guns only have a range of a few hundred meters because it makes for good gameplay.

I’m also willing to accept the fact that combat in Elite doesn’t happen at orbital speeds – in fact I’m very happy it doesn’t. I actually think the planetary landing stuff is quite elegantly done, since it provides a relatively seamless experience and gets nicely around the aforementioned speed issue that would otherwise make planetary flight impossibly slow. I also don’t mind lasers dissipating and bullets disappearing after a few kilometers in space, because it helps the gameplay. I have a bit more trouble accepting huge ships fighting like fighters because the game simply can’t handle large ship combat properly, but that’s a bit separate issue and I won’t go deeper into it right now.

The things I’m actually having problems with are a bit different. For example, take a look at a picture I found here:

1wic00v

Elite ships in correct scale and a modern vessel for comparison.

Unfortunately I don’t know who originally created this wonderful image (I’m probably just stupid in addition to being lazy), but it demonstrates beautifully how unbelievably light the Elite Ships are. The venerable Anaconda to the left rear of the USS Enterprise weighs a thousand plus tons fully equipped (the hull alone is some 400t), whereas the Enterprise itself is some 95 000 tons – a whopping hundred times as much. It is of course bigger and I would assume space age materials to be massively lighter than what the Enterprise is made of, but we’re at a point where the air inside the ship is a major factor in its weight. We’re actually uncomfortably close to the point where some of the ships would float like balloons in an atmosphere with pressure two or three times that of ours on Earth. That’s simply way too light. Since weight is kind of a thing in the game I would expect someone at some point to have sat down and spent a few seconds figuring out they need to add one zero into the weights of everything to make them credible. This is of course a small detail in itself, but the fix is dead simple and even the most basic sanity check would reveal something to be a bit off.

A more significant issue is how arbitrary everything else in the ship design seems to be. For example Battletech, the mother of all stompy robot games I mentioned earlier with all its general physical credibility issues has relatively complex rules for building robots – and those make complete sense throughout. In Elite weight seems to be pretty directly related to jump range, but otherwise things are a bit wackier. Unless I’m mistaken you can for example have a size X shield in one ship give a lot more protection than in other comparable ships regardless of their relative sizes and weights. Also a ship twice as heavy can be faster and more maneuverable than a lighter ship even if they both equip the same kind of thrusters. If you felt that my earlier point about incredibly light ships wasn’t terribly relevant you were probably right. But tell me how can the Type 9 heavy freighter (rear right of the Enterprise) with similar dimensions but fraction of armor and structural strength of the warship Anaconda weigh two and a half times as much (1000t for just the hull).

I consider internal inconsistency a somewhat bigger issue than unfeasible weights and such in general and frankly I don’t like the way the designers chose to start fudging numbers rather than creating a thoroughly coherent design. After all this is scifi so they can pull all the numbers out of their arses if they want to, they just need to be internally consistent.

Another small thing is the way we craft stuff by traveling across planetary surfaces and using the most modern scanners available to mankind to relentlessly hunt trace amounts of some of the most common substances known to man. I mean why on Earth (or well, space, actually) isn’t there exatons of lead, iron and manganese available on every market at every station out there? Again in itself an insignificant little detail that doesn’t hurt the gameplay itself in the least, but how come this doesn’t bother a designer enough to name the collected materials Unobtanium or use some other scifi-stuffish name so that it would make even a little bit of sense to have to search for a few bits on the surface of a distant planet?

Again, these are individually small to insignificantly tiny issues, but when they start appearing literally everywhere you bother to look it does start to add up, at least in my mind. But least of all (and here comes the bit about Nav beacons, pay attention now) I like how a designer at some point looked at a relic from gone ages, a sore thumb that screams pointlessness right at your face, and instead of thinking that it might be a good idea to perhaps do cleanup and remove them entirely, decided to add some “depth” to the game by introducing another variety of them known as “Compromised Nav beacons”.

Despite the amount of love I have for many of the game’s aspects I can’t help but read that and all the other individually minor issues as a statement declaring that things just don’t need to make any sense whatsoever in the Elite universe and Frontier are fine with it. Some of the physics oddities are a bit weird in a game that prides itself on a fantastically realistic recreation of the whole darned Milky Way galaxy, but … sorry I have to stop here and wonder for a moment.

The. Whole. Darned. Galaxy. That’s the kind of ambition some parts of the game radiate. Never forget that when discussing anything related to Elite: Dangerous. Some aspects of it are simply beyond epic.

Anyway, I can live with some physics oddities. I can’t say the same about game design weirdness exemplified by for example the Nav Beacons, however. A development team that needs to take big, difficult steps in order to take their game to the next level can not be ok with a design feature that screams nonsense right at their audience’s faces. To me it feels almost like they’ve given up hope of a coherent design rich in interactivity and cause-effect relationships that would make things really matter. So that from now on adding depth will mean more running around inside the identical, scripted missions and more ever so slightly different variations of the things we already have.

At one point during the great war I mentioned earlier there was supposed to be a Federation assault going on at a space station and a friend of mine decided to go take a look. We kind of expected there to not be much going on outside the station, but it was truly a low point in the Elite experience when he docked, rearmed, refueled and everything, absolutely everything, was business as usual. I can of course forgive this kind of behavior from a game that is just in the beginning. What I have trouble with is a game that has a host of design and development features in it that is clearly sending a message that this kind of fake and inconsequential meaninglessness is fine and ok and just the way the developers actually want it.

Still, when it was time to move on to the next ship I looked at the stripped down hull of my faithful ‘Conda and I couldn’t bring myself to sell it. The ride had had its ups and downs – including all the downright depressing stuff I’ve mentioned earlier – but we had been through a lot together, me and the ‘Conda. And despite all the meaninglessness, something had obviously left a mark deep within and what I had in front of me wasn’t just pixels and bytes to be turned into imaginary currency anymore. Despite the flaws you’d be hard pressed to go through the Elite experience without getting impressed by the true greatness in the parts that actually work.

There are some interesting additions coming up, the development is far from over and one of the more remarkable things we’ve heard about future plans promises more depth to the mission structure and even persistent characters. Done right, that could be a major milestone for the game. However, despite how much I love some aspects of Elite I can’t help but expect another lowest common denominator performance in a game of polar opposites, so full of the utterly amazing and the downright depressing.

So, despite all the good things I really like and despite how much enjoyment I’ve got out of playing the game, I don’t have very high hopes for its future. I still wholeheartedly recommend the game to anyone interested as they’re likely to get far more than their money’s worth out of it, but the game could have been so much more – the true value of art is never measured in money anyway. In fact this particular game should have been so much more – but I doubt it ever will be.

Prove me wrong. I dare you. Prove me wrong and make me the happiest gamer on Earth.

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