Art by Empanada
Elite Dangerous boasts an immense and complex reproduction of our own Milky Way galaxy, and within a small part of it, a bubble of populated systems which serve as the backdrop for most of the game’s systems. This backdrop is commonly referred to the background simulator, or BGS, and for many of Elite’s players, it is the main focus of in-game activities. Through manipulating the background simulator, it is possible to achieve tremendous victories. Of course, it’s also possible to face crushing defeats. In the end, when it comes to the background simulation, whoever is willing to grind the hardest may always win.
Last year, the Diamond Frogs became the first player faction to directly wrest control from another player faction. Elite’s background simulator does not allow players to create their own in-game entities or to directly align with factions. However, some years ago Frontier provided the option for players with active groups to have their own groups names inserted into the game. Through completing missions, shooting security ships, and ratting, players are able to increase or decrease the influence of specific factions, and even expand them into new systems.
The Diamond Frogs were among the first generation of player factions, making their home in 63 G. Capricorni. A few systems away, in the popular trade hub Xihe, Space Poultry were seeded in the second generation of factions. Unfortunately for Space Poultry, the Diamond Frogs had always considered Xihe part of their own space as part of what is termed the Goat-Xihe Cluster, which lies within the greater Goat Sector (GoatSec). Months of meticulous planning and grinding at the BGS placed Diamond Frogs in Xihe in November of 2016, and after months of grinding and counter-grinding, Xihe was won in March of 2017.
On June 17, 2018, Zhen Dock, the controlling station in Xihe, fell back into the hands of an NPC faction.
The War for Xihe
When the Diamond Frogs first arrived in Xihe in November of 2016, attempts were made to contact the seemingly defunct Space Poultry. None of these attempts were answered, but in January, when Frogs began the invasion in earnest, Space Poultry leader Hipster Cutthroat made an impassioned appeal to the Elite Dangerous official forums for help against insurmountable odds. Among those that responded was CMDR Bearcat Wilkerson, a gentleman warrior who found, in Xihe, a long-term goal in Elite worth achieving.
Space Poultry did not contribute much to their own defense, but with Elite existing in a state of permanent content drought, mercenaries working originally under CMDR Vin Delanos continued the fight. Communism Interstellar leadership provided instruction on how the war might be won, but, eventually, Vin and many others realized that the war could not be won in a fun way. Bearcat Wilkerson, however, was not to be deterred. He knew the odds, but also knew that Elite’s mechanics were such that the only real war was the war of attrition.
Enter: Galactic Patrol
Bearcat Wilkerson, along with CMDR Roman Eagle and later CMDR TCHeightyeight, rebranded as Galactic Patrol, with a mission statement of resisting anarchy factions, like the Diamond Frogs, wherever they should take hold. Together with an undisclosed, though relatively small, number of determined PvE players, they dedicated themselves first to restoring Xihe to NPC control, if not to Space Poultry.
Bearcat had read INN’s previous coverage on the war, and knew that the Diamond Frogs considered long-haul BGS operations a chore. The Galactic Patrol had its strategy: commit to a never-ending war of attrition, keeping the Diamond Frogs faction in a perpetual state of war, which blocks expansion, and contesting wherever the Frogs seemed to be heading.
“I figured it would take about three years,” said Bearcat Wilkerson in an interview shortly after Xihe control was restored to an NPC faction last month.
War Without End
Bearcat Wilkerson and Roman Eagle are nothing if not perseverant. For a year, they constantly ground out influence in systems, setting up wars for the Diamond Frogs. “We both spend 50-60 hours per week in game,” Bearcat told INN. For a while, the strategy did not seem to work. “It was the worst kind of grind you can imagine,” said Bearcat. “Very disheartening and discouraging and depressing because we lost every battle.”
Bearcat and Roman Eagle, eventually joined by TCHeightyeight, continued this campaign for months without interruption. For a few months, Bearcat was sidelined due to a wrist injury. In January, however, something changed. “We started in where we left off, and we noticed that we started taking systems. I don’t know what happened exactly, but we knew something happened on the Diamond Frogs side because we suddenly started winning.”
The Diamond Frogs had been pushed to their limit with BGS operations. Defending systems requires constant maintenance work to counteract a natural inertia. In the end, the game itself was causing Frogs to leave, with a vanishing PvP scene and a tedious and repetitive PvE game. Beyond that, the Anarchy government type that had been Frogs’ shield (Anarchy factions don’t have police forces, and so cannot be easily targeted through killing security ships) became their Achilles’ heel. As Bearcat told us, “For an anarchy faction like the Diamond Frogs, all their missions suck: all the illegal, time-consuming type.”
But the real cause of the Diamond Frogs’ failure may have been down to a lack of gumption. “Nobody can outgrind me and Roman Eagle.”
Spam and Exploits
One criticism leveled against Frontier routinely is the lack of transparency in BGS mechanics. The rules governing what may be the only compelling gameplay are hidden within a “black box.” Recently, a furor was begun on the forums as major player groups interested in the BGS revealed a powerful option for the willing grinder: transaction spam.
Each interaction with the BGS server is a “transaction.” According to players in major successful groups, it is not the size of bounties or war bonds turned in that most influences the BGS, but the number of transactions. When fighting a war, the most fun thing to do is to enter a conflict zone and zone out in an orgy of space violence, murdering ships until ammo, damage, or boredom leads one to turn in their bonds. On the other hand, the optimal way to influence the BGS, according to these player groups, is to kill a single ship, return to base, turn it in, and repeat.
Frontier has denied that players properly understand the BGS. In a discussion with Diamond Frogs’ best minds, Frontier claimed the mechanic was not so simple, and that players simply don’t understand how it works–no fault of the players, given a refusal to provide documentation or corrections.
I asked Bearcat whether the war for Xihe had been won through transaction spam. “No, nobody can play like that.” Instead, Bearcat, Roman Eagle, and a handful of other members of Galactic Patrol dedicated themselves to turning in massacre missions, a wartime only mission type which provides +5 influence for the faction. “Each influence bar counts for a transaction,” says Bearcat. Thus by completing hundreds of massacre missions, it is possible to have a much greater influence on the BGS than even single ship spam.
Beyond that, according to Bearcat, when a native faction resists a non-native faction in a control war, the native faction will be given these missions, while a non-native faction will not. INN was unable to confirm this effect with Diamond Frogs High Command.
Despite all, while Diamond Frogs worried about one kind of transaction spam, it turns out another effect had worked against them. It’s unclear how the June 25 patch affecting war missions offering influence rewards may change Bearcat’s strategies moving forward.
The loss of Xihe was a blow to the Diamond Frogs. “After the loss in Frog (another system the Diamond Frogs recently lost control of), I knew the game had changed,” Diamond Frogs High Command member CMDR Motorocker told INN. “It was almost a given we would win any war we were engaged in, up until that point.”
But the Frogs are not down and out. Since the loss, they have recommitted to democratizing game content. Participation in BGS activities is optional, and the daily orders have been changed to no longer create the appearance of an unending forced march against the BGS. As for the future of Xihe, the Diamond Frogs faction remains in the system and in control of several stations there. It’s not impossible that it could be taken back, in what would remain some of the only content to be found in Elite’s vast, empty galaxy.