I’ve been playing Elite for nearly two years, and I run the logistics and human resources for one of the largest organizations in the game: the Diamond Frogs. I think Elite remains the best arcade space flight simulator on the market, and I think it will continue to be that for the foreseeable future. In truth, the fact that Elite is the best spaceflight simulator around really just adds to the tragedy of it all. You see, Elite is a game with a lot of potential, but I increasingly don’t believe Frontier has the ability to capitalize on that potential. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, let’s talk this out.
Elite markets itself as a massively multiplayer online space game with a burgeoning, to-scale galaxy modeled with great detail after our own Milky Way. It is a space flight simulator, offering the most compelling arcade flight simulation of a spaceship around. I say arcade spaceflight not as a dig – that’s what it is – but it’s good. It’s great, even. If you haven’t played Elite with a HOTAS or flight stick you’ve done yourself a disservice. I’ve heard it’s amazing in VR, too, and I believe it! The game looks good, it feels good, and it sounds good. But let’s pretend you’ve been doing that for a few months. You’ve flown a bunch of different ships. You’ve gotten an Anaconda. Maybe you committed to the grind and got yourself into a Cutter or Corvette. Now what?
If you ask the guys on Frontier’s forum: you fly your spaceship. You fly it from one station to another, hauling macguffins. It takes a long time sometimes because those same guys on the forums, waaaay back in Alpha, insisted that it should take a long time to get places (10 minutes from Sol to Pluto, was what overwhelmingly won the vote back when Frontier first made the mistake of listening to players instead of making a game that is fun). That’s it. That’s the game. You enjoy flying your spaceship. Because it’s immersive.
Frontier’s problem from the beginning has been that rather than designing a game that is fun, rather than designing a game that makes you want to play it, they have listened time and time again to very vocal players on their forums who value tedium more than fun. Getting credits shouldn’t be easy, the forums say. It should take a long, long time. If players find a way to make easy money, it is always reported by someone as an exploit. “You shouldn’t be able to make money easily in this game, it’s not immersive.” I could imagine the outrage if there was a real economic simulation in the game, if money was somehow a zero-sum game, and by amassing a lot for myself, I deprive someone else, but no. Elite is not that game.
What kind of game is Elite? Well, it’s supposedly a massively-multiplayer online game, but is it really? There’s no way to exchange resources aside from an extremely tedious dropping and scooping of cargo, so I can’t really share my wealth, or interact with others economically. Maybe I can shoot people? Well, I could, but there’s the problem of instancing, where two ships at the same station may not have an instance together and won’t ever see one another. Maybe if I team up with someone, I can shoot NPCs with them? I guess it’s possible, but since 2.1 the client crashes (Matchmaking error!) almost every time a wingmate enters or exits supercruise. And if I do find a person, of course, and they don’t want me to shoot at them, they can just log off, or kill the task, and that’s that. So it’s not massively multiplayer. It’s not even multiplayer. Not really.
Well, maybe it’s a single-player game, but you interact with the game’s storyline through your actions! You can work with others to change the course of the game by playing together, even if you never see one another! Well, no, it’s not really that either. See, the game’s storyline develops at a glacial pace. And I don’t mean modern, global-warming fueled sea-level rise-causing glaciers, but the old ones. The ones that you have to watch for years to tell they’re even moving. Elite’s longest running storyline has been being teased now for years, and it’s the alien first contact. But the storyline isn’t really being played out in game. You can’t go out and crack the clues in the game and cause it to advance. It’s being played out via an out of client ARG, and even that takes a very, very long time. Aliens were first hinted over a full calendar year ago. They don’t yet exist in game.
What about the Dangerous Games, though? Diamond Frogs were a big part of that! We got to compete to try to have an NPC added to Power Play and we’d kind of design the NPC a bit and make three selections about how our Power Play NPC would expand and reinforce and so on (they would have all been combat, like the winning EGP’s, because nothing else is fun, but that’s neither here nor there). That’s affecting the game, right!? Well, yeah, the only way Frontier seems to know how to get players to do a thing is through Community Goals, where Frontier sets up some arbitrary goals that the players have to meet, or not meet. In the Dangerous Games we got to . . . haul a lot of resources to a place, in a first-past-the-post race. Then we got to . . . pirate some “technical blueprints” by shooting NPCs just enough that they dropped them but not so much that they died. This mechanic, I will add, was so detested by players that when Frontier tried to run it as part of a normal Community Goal less than 100 people bothered and it didn’t even reach its first tier. Then, well, we got to solve an ARG-like puzzle, and whoever solved the puzzle first would easily be able to steal victory from the jaws of defeat! Except Frontier forgot to add the macguffins we had to collect, so despite solving the mystery in literally minutes from the CG beginning, we still sat around for a day until Frontier bothered to add the things in, by which time everyone else had also solved it.
But yes, technically, yes, Community Goals are a thing, and you can participate in them, and sometimes your participation or non-participation matters, sort of. Except, of course, when it’s not convenient to the storyline Frontier wants to promote, in which case they just kind of do whatever anyhow and make up some lore reason for it. “Welp, players did raise enough resources to change this outcome, but then pirates stole them all. Oh well!”
When it’s not Community Goals, Frontier does other things! Like the CQC Tournament! Oh, that was canceled. Hm, the Icarus Cup? Nobody’s heard anything about it for months. Welp.
But maybe I’m being unfairly critical of Frontier. I mean, yes, it’s a supposed MMO in which players cannot interact economically, or group together under the banner of an organization, or even generally play together for very long without a crash, but surely because of that the gameplay works really well, and new things are being added constantly! Well, yeah, sort of. For example, in 2.2 we got the addition of ship-launched fighters, and passenger missions. Ship launched fighters are really cool and good, but only a few ships can have them. Passenger missions? They’re just a re-skin of a fetch quest: Fly to a place. Scan a thing. Fly back.
We also got core gameplay components broken, for example the surface wave scanner, which you have to use to find rocks in order to harvest materials to get an engineer to buff your stuff. When you’re looking for rocks there used to be some visual and auditory feedback; now the visual feedback is broken, and the auditory feedback is quiet, so I hope you like listening to ticks and whirrs and not music when you play. Surely Frontier would hotpatch a fix for something like this? Well, it’s been a month, so maybe not. However, they have hotpatched out several “exploits” that those pernicious blokes on the forums whined about.
And speaking of them, we also got ship transfers and module storage and transfer in 2.2! After 3 years, you can now store modules that you buy or engineer instead of having to sell them permanently in order to switch equipment. You can also transfer those modules around. But not far, because there is a minimum 8 minute wait to transfer them even from right next door. If you want to transfer a large ship from the bubble to Colonia, the lovely single station Frontier put 22000 LY away, near the galactic core, it’s only going to cost you one billion credits and take three days. Why would they do that? Well, you see, Frontier’s playtesters tested it and determined that adding a wait to ship transfer added nothing to gameplay, and was unfun, and nobody wanted it. So Frontier announced they were going to do it, and, well, the Frontier forum crew whined. Oh how they whined! “You can’t transfer ships instantly, it ruins my immersion.” “Well, don’t use it,” Frontier sagely ans- no, no they didn’t. They made it a poll, gave terrible options, and then went with the results. Frontier literally ignored its playtesters in favor of people who post on the forums a lot.
Hey, Frontier, listen, you know how you guys are game designers, who make games for a living, who have ideas about what is and isn’t fun? Don’t listen to players when you’re designing games you idiots. You know better. I know you do. I know you do because it doesn’t take 20 minutes to build a coaster in Planet Coaster. It doesn’t take 20 minutes to build a coaster because that wouldn’t be fun. So why would you listen to people who deliberately want to create barriers to gameplay (a wait. An eggtimer) when making decisions about your game? Stop doing that. Sure, when you were still being kickstarted, you made some silly promises to be accountable to your backers, and that forced your hand a bit, but that was a full game release ago. This is Elite 2.0!
Multicrew is coming soon, supposedly, but I fear for it. I fear for it because there’s already people on Frontier’s forums complaining about how immersion breaking it would be if you can just show up in your friend’s ship. How you should have to fly to the same station at the very least. How you should have to do that both to board and disembark from your friend’s ship. I fear, more than anything, that Frontier is going to do what it always does, and compromise fun gameplay in favor of immersion.
But, of course, I’m probably wrong. These “realism” based, “immersion” based decisions are what’s going to bring players. The players don’t want to have fun, they want to have a job in space. They don’t want to interact with each other, they want to fly their spaceship in a straight line for minutes and sit back as their ship flies in a straight line for 45 minutes to Hutton Orbital and say “yes, I am a space trucker in real life now. I can feel it!”
As the Diamond Frogs chief of human resources, I’m responsible for recruiting a lot of players to Elite. I wish I didn’t feel so bad about that. Here’s hoping, someday, Frontier stops listening to its forums and makes a game where players can interact, transfer money, join organizations, fight each other, explore together, and so on. Until then, I’ll be playing something else.