Why I Play: Elite Dangerous is the space sandbox we’ve been looking for


Elite: Dangerous was not on my radar when it appeared on the scene back in 2014. I had already spent my money buying a spaceship in another yet-to-be-released (incidentally, still yet-to-be-released) title and had little use for more than one sandbox-style space game. I heard a few people talk about how difficult it was to fly the ship with a mouse and keyboard (my only control method), so I put it out of my mind and eventually wrote it off completely without having any first-hand knowledge of it.

My attitude changed considerably a few months ago when I witnessed my son playing the game: whipping around star systems and pulling up holographic navigational HUDs. What I’d written off years ago looked really, really good. I purchased ED (before it was free on the Epic store – insert eye-roll here) with the intention of playing it once I finished up some single-player titles I’d been working on. I have not been disappointed.

As someone who grew up with the original Star Wars films, I’ve always had a soft spot for space adventure. As a kid, I imagined that by the time I was an adult, we’d be living on the moon and continuing our exploration to the far reaches. Of course, none of that has come to pass and much of the optimism surrounding the possibilities of space exploration died out with the close of the ’80s. Fortunately, the folks at Frontier Developments have created our future galaxy using a combination of direct design and procedural generation and given us the tools to venture forth.

I’ve been struggling to figure out how to describe ED in column form. In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve completely wrapped my mind around it, which makes it difficult to explain to others. Part of this stems from the fact that Frontier has made the game intentionally ambiguous. There is no main story. There is no one thing to do. “Forge your own path” is a mantra that the company puts forth repeatedly when describing it. In true sandbox fashion, even the tutorials focus more on mechanics (flying, mining, scanning, combat) than direction.  Some may see this as a failing on the part of Frontier, but I rather like the fact that so much is left to our own imaginations.

The game does include myriad different progression paths. Players can choose to progress through ships, each with different strengths and weaknesses, engineering tweaks, reputation ranks (for both major and minor factions), combat ranks, exploration ranks, mining ranks, or simply credit accumulation. My understanding is that the ship grind used to be a bit daunting, but as of now, some of the better starter ships are certainly readily attainable after just a few short mission grinds. I’ve purchased a Diamondback Explorer (DBX) and kitted it out for long-jump exploration while spending less than two million credits total. That’s not a lot, considering the top-tier ships can run into the hundreds of millions. I like the fact that I was not stuck in a starter ship for weeks enduring a subpar gameplay experience.

As with any sandbox, ganking can be an issue. Of course, from the viewpoint of the gankers, they’re simply roleplaying an experience, “forging their own path” as it were. Frontier has come up with an interesting workaround to this issue that has plagued us since before sandbox was even a common term. Elite Dangerous can be played in multiple modes, two of which are open play and solo play. Players can jump seamlessly between the modes simply by logging out and logging back in under a different game mode. Players who enjoy the thrill of not knowing whether they could be attacked at any moment can play entirely in open mode. Players who prefer the single-player/NPC only experience can play solo mode. I’ve read that most players flip between the two, enjoying open mode a bulk of the time but switching to solo mode when carrying an expensive amount of cargo or data prior to station delivery.

That said, in my exploration outside of the “bubble” (the most cultivated and populated part of the galaxy), I’ve never run into another player. This brings up the question: How much of a massively multiplayer game is Elite Dangerous? It’s massive, for sure, a whole galaxy’s worth of massive. But with the immense geography and option for solo play limiting the multiplayer experience, can it really be called an MMO? I think it can, and my reasoning lies within the massive community involvement that surrounds the game.

Possibly due to the size of the game, and partially due to intentional or unintentional confusing/lacking UI design, many outside resources are required for a less frustrating experience. For example, if you need to trade some raw materials, raw materials traders are only present on certain space stations. How do you find them? You could hop from station to station hoping to land at one with the appropriate broker. Or you could use one of the outside databases that has been cultivated by players over the past several years (INARA, EDDB, and EDSM are all massive external databases that serve specific and sometimes overlapping purposes). Some of these databases are being automatically populated by community-developed tools that run in the background while playing the game. Thus, as the galaxy is being discovered and mapped in-game, it’s quite literally being discovered and mapped IRL as well!

The Elite series dates back to the 1980s, so I’m sure there is quite a bit of lore associated with it. Personally, I know extraordinarily little. I know Mars has been terraformed multiple times. I know you need a permit to travel to Earth’s solar system (Sol). I know there was an ancient alien race called the Guardians and that the Guardians were at war with another race (the Thargoids) that survives. Beyond that, I haven’t uncovered very much, which leads me to believe that I’ve only scratched the surface of the Elite backstory.

This leads me to an interesting aspect of the game that I have discovered. Very recently, Frontier has once again begun to update Galnet, an in-game news service that delivers stories from around the galaxy. Some of these stories are simply to enhance the setting of the game. But some of them are tied into community events that players can partake in and potentially even influence the outcome of. Galnet stories are posted in the launcher, but for increased immersion they can also be audibly listened to via the spaceship’s playback system while gallivanting around. I love the idea of Galnet not only expounding upon but also describing the expansion and creation of Elite lore as it unfolds. According to Frontier, there is a complex series of story arcs planned all the way to 2022 that will be revealed via Galnet news, so fortunately it does not sound like this feature will be tossed aside again.

Lastly, there appears to be a lot on the horizon for Elite Dangerous. The announced Odyssey DLC will allow commanders to step outside of their ships for the first time in six years. Ground combat and exploration will expand upon the long list of things the game currently offers and is expected to drop in the spring of 2021. It’s difficult to predict whether these additional features will enhance or detract from the heavy emphasis on exploration, trading, and mining that are the current mainstays, but I’m optimistic. I predict continued space pioneering and a DLC preorder are both in my near future.

There’s an MMO born every day, and every game is someone’s favorite. Why I Play is the column in which the Massively OP staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it’s the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.
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