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

    
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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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Steve Cansler

This is the closest to actually living in a time where space travel exists. Imagine looking for a space port…. There would likely be a database that is being built as they are discovered. So the EDDB and INARA were born. As organic as it would have happened in reality. That’s what I love about this game.

Watch space movies and there will be scenes where the dialog goes something like: “Where are we?” “It’s not on any of the known charts”

This is what we have in ED. I love it. I love finding out that there a mysterious signal coming from the center of the galaxy. I love finding out that there are these techno beings called guardians. I love discovering. I love searching for the answer to the riddle: what or where is Raxxla?

It’s exactly why I bought it

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Axetwin .

Imagine a game like this, but with an actual story, and universe altering decisions. That’s what I want.

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PhoenixDfire

Welcome to the Galaxy, glad you made it. I’ve been playing this “dammed” game for the last six years now (Alpha Backer) and it’s still keeping me going. What I’ve observed is that most people will get forty or so hours in and then step away thinking that they’ve gone everything and gotten bored of the game loops (Mind you 40 hours for a £20 game is still good value for money I thought).

The main issue frontier haven’t sign posted the extra content that well, stuff like Guardian Ruins, Thargoid Bases and Combat, the hidden bases, generation ships and other storylines (heck you can even find the old voyager probes), and once you discover that, then the game opens up in different ways.

I know that people are scared of the open mode but I would say that as long as you flip over to solo mode around engineer bases and well known Ganking sites (there are a list of favourite hunting grounds for you to avoid), you’ll find open a rewarding experience, especially when you wing up (or multicrew – when it works!!) with other players. There’s a private multiplayer mode where you can only see the people you want to, so you can assault that planetary base with your friends without interruption by any gankers.

Flight Assist off is the closest to Newtonian Flight is the closest to the I-War games, which adds to touch of realism. They have restricted it a little for game play purposes, which does annoy some people, but on the whole it’s a better experience that the previous two elite games (Fronter and First Encounters) which used full newtonian physics and were not fun at all. I much preferred Wing Commander: Privateer and Privateer : The darkening at the time.

I’m not saying that this game is for everyone but I would disagree with the common complaint that it’s a galaxy wide and an inch deep. The depth is there but you actually have to go looking for it.

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Steve Cansler

It’s meant to be discovered. There’s all kinds of stuff in this game that we don’t know about. Have you heard about the encoded maps hidden in the audio that you can find with a audio spectral analyzer? It’s how the Thargoid barnacles were first discovered. That’s what I came for.

You’re right it’s not for everyone. My son would buy a new game and he would immediately go online and watch walk through videos. I’m like why would you do that? What’s the point of getting a new game only to be told where everything is? But that’s him.

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Oyjord

I gave ED a go a few times here and there over the years, really wanting to like it.

But I always got bored in a matter of minutes. There’s just not much to do.

I would then fire up No Man’s Sky and find myself with oodles of things to do.

To each their own, I guess.

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EmberStar

I’ve seen Elite: Dangerous compared to Euro Truck Simulator 2 or American Truck Simulater. Not in a bad way – my understanding is that both of *those* are really well made for what they are. (And they aren’t part of the crop of meme-Simulator games that popped up after Goat Simulator. :( ) Sometimes you want to play a game to be the Chosen One and save the universe. And sometimes you just want to listen to music or a podcast while you pretend to drive across a scale model of Europe.

Elite: Dangerous is apparently for when you want that, but in space and with the slight possibility of space pirates and the option to skim past a neutron star, or visit a system where two gas giants are in the process of colliding.

flatline4400
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flatline4400

Been a couple years since I played. I liked it but I found the *necessity* of external resources to be frustrating. Also it seemed like weekly just as I got word of some way to make some credits, it was deemed an exploit and closed by the devs before I could take part. So while everyone else was flying around in super mega ships I was still stuck in my newb ship shooting pirates in the nearest gas ring.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but I was unable to get at all deep into it. Unless you are (were) willing to devote hundreds of hours into it, it seems like the deeper gameplay is just off limits. Maybe that’s changed. As it was, I spent maybe a dozen hours in it doing space pew-pew and bounced.

I do remember my friend showing me the original Elite on his Apple back in grade school, and being pretty blown away hehe.

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dreamer

I’m sorry, there just isn’t enough sand in the box to consider ED a sandbox. So much of the content is gameified in such a way as to almost stop the player from “playing their own way.”

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Zero_1_Zerum

“Players who prefer the single-player/NPC only experience can play solo mode.”

Huh. All I ever heard about was the open PVP and the ganking, which is why ED was on my “NEVER, EVER, PLAY, NOT IN A BILLION YEARS, NOT EVEN IF IT WAS THE ONLY GAME IN EXISTENCE” list.

But, solo mode has me intrigued.

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M2xlypikMJ2 Hi

Gankers exist in Elite: Dangerous because they like to pick off easy targets to bring their combat rank up to the coveted “Elite” rank. However, you won’t ever get ganked unless you are in a super populated system, which is quite rare. You can tell between players an npcs on your radar. A filled in shape(rectangle/triangle) is an NPC, while a hollow shape is a player. If there are a bunch of hollow shapes, that is your que to change from open to solo mode.
That being said, if you do get ganked you’ll be fine. There is an insurance mechanic in the game where if your ship gets blown up, you’ll only have to pay a fraction of your ships value (about 5-10%) to get it back. This “rebuy” cost is displayed in the ship building menu, so it will tell you if you have enough to cover the cost of your ship or not. Because of this, you will always want to follow the rule “never fly without a rebuy.”

flatline4400
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flatline4400

There is a completely solo mode. It’s not “offline” as it basically stores your progress on the servers, and retrieves galaxy status, etc. But yeah there is no need to play with anyone else at all.

You can also join private groups. The one I’m in is called Mobius, and is dedicated to PvE… https://elitepve.com/ … so usually there’s a few people online in that so you can group up or do whatever if you like.

It’s quite flexible.

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lolzzer

Sandbox? Why would anyone mistake this game is a sandbox? It let’s you build … nothing at all.

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EmberStar

If I was ever going to play this, it would only be in Solo mode. I’m not going to mince words – PVP’ers who want to gank random strangers to “forge their own path” are welcome to FTL into a gas giant. Preferably in the real world, but in the game would be acceptable.

I am not even slightly interested in being someone else’s “content.”

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Rndomuser

into a gas giant. Preferably in the real world

Wishing death to people in real life just because they have different gameplay preferences. Ahh, the wonderful and oh-so-open-minded people who prefer PvE gameplay, you never disappoint ;-)

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EmberStar

I’m under no obligation to be “fair” or “open minded” when there exist players who will *HAPPILY* acknowledge that they have no other goal than to make my gameplay as miserable as possible. And that from their perspective, they “win” if I ragequit the game completely and never play again. Do reasonable, non-sociopath PVP’ers exist? Yes. And because they aren’t sociopaths, they aren’t the ones who’ll be attacking random other players for no better reason than to ruin their day.

So no, I’m not going to pretend I’m fair or even slightly unbiased about the kind of person who would attack another player just *because* they’re a player, and then try to justify it as “forging their own path.”

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M2xlypikMJ2 Hi

Gankers exist in Elite: Dangerous because they like to pick off easy targets to bring their combat rank up to the coveted “Elite” rank. However, you won’t ever get ganked unless you are in a super populated system, which is quite rare. You can tell between players an npcs on your radar. A filled in shape(rectangle/triangle) is an NPC, while a hollow shape is a player. If there are a bunch of hollow shapes, that is your que to change from open to solo mode.
That being said, if you do get ganked you’ll be fine. There is an insurance mechanic in the game where if your ship gets blown up, you’ll only have to pay a fraction of your ships value (about 5-10%) to get it back. This “rebuy” cost is displayed in the ship building menu, so it will tell you if you have enough to cover the cost of your ship or not. Because of this, you will always want to follow the rule “never fly without a rebuy.”

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EmberStar

Or I can follow the much more certain rule of “never play any game in a mode where PVP is possible.” Because I would 100% prefer to only play in single-player mode than deal with even the *slightest* possibility of another player attacking me. There’s usually a ton of other advantages too, such is in Ark where I don’t have to compete with possibly dozens of other people for a place to even build, or have to worry that they’ll decide to ruin a max level tame just for the hell of it. And in single-player mode, time stops when I’m logged out – I don’t have to worry about my base self-destructing if I can’t/don’t play for a month, nor that my pets will starved to death or be murdered while I’m logged out.

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Nim

This game is a themepark masquerading as a sandbox.