Colonia: Same as it Ever Was

Paramemetic 2016-12-09

Elite: Dangerous, Frontier Developments’ arcade spaceflight and galactic trucking simulator, had a promising launch in a simulated galaxy that promised players a persistent, multiplayer experience, where you could play how you want and be who you want – in space. Unfortunately, it has never quite lived up to the hype. Questionable design decisions like the use of peer-to-peer networking, the division of the game into “solo,” “private,” and “open” game modes that all influence the same background simulation, and a long history of catering to a cabal of low speed, casual gamers seeking an immersive “EuroTruck but with more wasted time and straighter shipping paths” space simulator, have all severely impacted what could have been an unchallenged king of the genre.

Nevertheless, Frontier hasn’t simply created a galaxy critics describe as “mile wide, inch deep” and left it alone. There have been attempts to build additional content and new things to do onto the truly robust framework: notably, PowerPlay and intrigue between the “galactic superpowers,” NPC lore factions, played out through community goals. Additionally, Frontier has been teasing the possibility of alien encounters at a thrilling pace usually reserved for pet rock races and mannequin challenge videos.

With the addition of PowerPlay last year, Frontier added a new option for grinders looking to fly their spaceships in mostly straight lines, and made these grinds extra-dangerous by ensuring that hostile NPCs would spawn to attack you everywhere you go, and legally, such that you would have to defend yourself from encounters that were in no way based on your experience or so on. This new game mode allows players to engage in essentially two activities on behalf of their fealty-sworn PowerPlay NPC master: either hauling macguffins to locations, or interdicting and blowing up enemy ships in certain systems. The macguffins that the NPC superpower asks you to haul of course require you to buy them, and do not pay out to you at all. This is a deliberate money-sink on the part of Frontier, which has historically struggled with the economic side of the game and continues to look for ways to make money matter after a certain point. The combat missions take a lot of time sitting in supercruise, and for not much benefit. Incremental changes in the PowerPlay experience have mostly centered around reducing the number of hostile encounters PowerPlay forced players into, as even unarmed ships engaging in actions having nothing to do with PowerPlay would automatically spawn enemy faction ships to attack them. This created a huge barrier to pledging to a PowerPlay faction.

And pledging was no small matter. To incentivize people to play the new activity, powers offer unique items only available to people pledge to that faction: after a literal one month wait, if the person has spent enough time grinding to reach Rank 5. The combination of both a participation-based check as well as a literal four-week timer before anyone can receive a reward for participating in PowerPlay (there is a cash reward, but it is less than the amount of money it costs to get it if you choose to haul macguffins), basically makes PowerPlay a nuisance that players must participate in to get access to a good, sometimes essential item. Making players wait an entire month of being pledged to a power, to prevent “window shopping” the faction rewards, is a colossally bad mechanic. And the truth is, most people play this game mode either as their primary activity, being part of the steering committees of the powers (herding cats on such as Reddit), or merely to get access to the power items. Factions with bad power items have always been the worst performers, so while there is something resembling a game here, it’s ultimately just a thin pastiche slapped over the same activities offered by the rest of the game: hauling some stuff, maybe shooting some things.

As for community goals, these are merely the same activities except with aggregate goals to be reached. They are always one of a handful of variations on the same activity, with a vague lore or plotline flavortext, seeking either to haul enough things to a place, collect enough bounties or combat bonds in a place, or occasionally, pirate enough of a thing. This last one of course never succeeds because the level of misery involved in actually doing piracy in Elite is so great even the most stalwart of EuroTruckers can’t tolerate it.

As an aside, the utter dependence on community goals as a vehicle for camouflaging grinds sends shivers down the spine when on realizes that even if Frontier ever gets around to revealing the aliens it has been teasing for years, we’re just going to end up doing CGs to fight them. “Collect combat bonds against aliens to defend a station! Haul some obscure item a long distance to a place nobody cares about to prevent it from being taken over by aliens!” Such exciting new gameplay surely justifies the months long out of game ARG that has teased it.

But now, it would appear Frontier has realized that, well, the new gameplay variations are just not that good. That’s why Frontier has introduced the Colonia Initiative, a mass migration of players from the populated bubble to Jacques Station, 22,000 lightyears away, near the galactic center! Colonia offers players the chance to fly freely away from the fear and uncertainty of the galactic powers and superfactions. In other words: you can now grind in Colonia’s whopping two stations under the banner of the player-named organizations that have staked their claim, rather than under the banner of the lore organizations. Will players be able to directly manage their organizations and directly square off against one another at Colonia? Well, no, probably not. First of all, Colonia remains a space station and a surface station, at neither of which one even has access to all of the ships and equipment Elite has to offer. Frontier has promised to expand the Colonia bubble, but only does so every few months, one month long community goal for hauling materials over 22,000 LY at a time.

Now, Frontier has made clear its plan to make 10 stations in the new Colonia bubble, naturally using a competitive hauling CG as their means. A recent GalNet news dispatch reads: “At the end of the month, the ten factions that have made the largest contribution will earn the right to settle in one of the specified systems. A new planetary outpost will be constructed in the system for the organisation’s sole use.”

Several organizations are working towards this now, and will undoubtedly earn the right to have a station in the middle of nowhere from which to do the same things. Frontier’s tendency away from any overt conflict in favor of passive CGs which sometimes pit factions against one another (such as the Dangerous Games) will ensure you can grind normally, without any fear of having to interact with other players in any way. If the last two years of Frontier’s gameplay has been exactly what you want, but with just a bit too much flavor added on top, you’ll love the new Colonia bubble, where you can get the exact same gameplay, but now with more player-generated flavor-text. We’re all so very excited.

Thanks, Frontier.

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  • Ryan

    I’d like to point out to the readers that even though we’re critical of Elite Dangerous, we genuinely want it to reach its potential, and I personally am excited to see what comes with continued development. A part of wanting something to be better is being unafraid to fairly criticize, and between this and your last article Paramemetic, you’ve delivered in spades.

    Here’s to 2017, and hopefully a better direction for the space games we play and love.

    December 9, 2016 at 12:44 pm
    • Bill Bones Ryan

      Frankly, you would make a better service if you hired someone who likes the game, rather than compare it to EVE Online’s social aspects.

      E:D is not EVE Online. E:D is what Elite was: Euroeffintruck in effinspace.

      You jump to a star, orbit around it scooping some fuel while you align to next star, jump to it, rinse and repeat. Maybe you struck a unexplored system an evaluate whether it’s worth a detour. What ship you fly? How much cargo? Could you defend if someone makes a stupid at the nav beacon? Or it would be you the stupid to show up there? At least you scan the star, then jump again. It’s relaxing. You could do it all day long. And you don’t effin need anyone.

      E:D is a beautiful game. Enjoy the sights. It requires a modicum of skill and to bring your own toys. Make a story. Why that passenger is wanted? Maybe he’s a terrorist. But you do it for the money, you want something. A better ship maybe? Or just buy a shipload of Powerplay tokens and finish fortifying an important system?

      There’s no hurry. You don’t need anyone. It’s a solo PvE game with little PvP.

      And yet, I’ve been ganked more times in E:D in 5 months, than after minng ice in EVE for 2 years. E:D is quite more dangerous than EVE. But so what? Play solo until you recoup your loss and then go back to open play again.

      E:D it’s a terrible PvP game (but I haven’t tried CQC) and it’s almost inexistant as a collective game (but then, there’s a lot of collective stuff going on, from Fuel Rats to Buckywall racing to the exploration of planet Jeffrey). There are no ingame rewards for being 1,000 dudes. But I don’t care.

      I play MMOs when I’m alone. They’re my “me” time. I deal with people all day, often they are more of a liability than an asset. The last place I want to be bothered with people it’s my playtime.

      So yes, I’m a content E:D player and a very disappointed EVE bittervet. I know E:D won’t last 8 years for me. So what? The bang per buck is great compared to EVE’s continuous drain of money, and it becomes better the longer I play E:D without extra expenses…

      December 9, 2016 at 9:59 pm
  • Duramora

    It would be nice if they duplicated the Outpost/Citadel setting mechanic in EVE. In such a large galaxy, that is almost necessary.

    That was one thing I really hated about the original PC version: There was a HUGE universe to explore, but unless you cheated, you could only explore a small portion of it. I always looked at all those distant stars and felt sad…

    December 9, 2016 at 2:31 pm
    • Sidrat Flush Duramora

      DBOBE doesn’t want to give players that much freedom though, hence why the limited game mechanics and the anemic Power Play modes.

      December 10, 2016 at 11:21 am
  • Sidrat Flush

    The game has ultimately been diminished by the blinkered views of an aging and quite poor game designer still stuck in the mindset of the very early 90’s.

    While in 2010 inventory management is a thing, under the direction of David Braben OBE (BDOBE), Elite Dangerous is stuck with the original Elite’s “bulk” storage slots on ships. There still is no way to empty your ships cargo in to a station in order to swap it to another ship in your possession. So while the larger hauling ships can carry several hundred units of items, most players start off with the cargo capacity of 4 or fewer. Any mission that needs more than your cargo hold has the capacity for can not be completed even if you were willing to complete it in stages.

    As noted in the article the game AI punishes you with its ability to perform maneouvers that are beyond the possibility of any player ship, causing your ship’ destruction in seconds.

    I wanted to play the 21st Century version of the Elite games I spent more hours playing than was ever wise for a growing lad, but I got a graphical masterpiece that didn’t grow up with me, and is so far behind in game mechanic terms that even older teenagers will be quickly bored by the experience.

    Under a better game designer and story teller, Elite Dangerous could have been a challenger to Eve Online. PvP in all it’s forms, combining player piloting skill and the total (almost) freedom of player activity shaping the universe would made for an awe inspiring experience.

    December 10, 2016 at 11:19 am