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Back To Front(ier): Pioneer

On The Fan Sequel To Elite II

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I was sat on a beach on Zanzibar this summer, watching a lunar eclipse. The moon’s light dimmed and winked out, the sky filled with stars and I could see the edge of the Milky Way. As spectacular as the view was, my mind briefly turned to Elite II: Frontier, when I was up there in those stars, hunting and hauling. I wanted to be back. I’ve found out how. Pioneer is free sort-of remake of the classic space sim. Every time I load it up it *feels* like the game I lost months to, but the development team aren’t stopping at a perfect recreation: this is Frontier being reborn. I chatted to some of them, a group of passionate fans spread all over the globe, about how you build a universe.

RPS: Why Frontier?

Ziusudra: History. Our project founder is Tom Morton of GLFrontier fame, an OpenGL port of the original Frontier. Our other project lead, John Jordan, is the JJ in JJFFE. I think most of us have some history with the Frontier games, even if it is just having spent months or years playing them.

Rob Norris: I lost months of my teenage years to Frontier, and nothing has ever come close. I was investigating porting JJFFE to the Nintendo DS so I could take Frontier on the road and stumbled upon Pioneer. After that there didn’t seem to be much point trying to coerce the original to do my bidding when I could have something better!

Brian Ronald: Frontier helped my university studies go down the toilet. I knew Tom Morton on Usenet back then; when I found Pioneer, it was with a jolt of recognition at his name.

Kimmo Kotajärvi: I’ve traditionally thought of myself as a big space sim fan, but recently I have felt that the games focus too much on economics, multiplayer or just don’t have that “spacey” feeling to them. Frontier and FFE had a really nice balance of realism and fun. I found Pioneer when some random person linked it in a RPS comment thread back in 2010, so thanks, random person!

Dan Bennett: (Warning: Rose-tinted glasses are being worn at this point) FFE and Frontier are the only true space games as far as I am concerned. Anything else is either a true simulator (not a game) or not really about space at all, since space is about vast open spaces, limitless possibilities and incredible speeds. JJFFE, the wonderful version by John Jordan, kept me sane when I used to live in Spain with no internet connection. And as a kid I played FFE a lot round at a friend’s house: he made the mistake of lending me his copy and I still have it.

Brian Ronald: I joined this project late. I worked with Egosoft on the X series because there was nothing forthcoming from Frontier Developments to satisfy my addiction. X was my methadone to Frontier’s heroin. Now Pioneer is here, I’m off the X.

RPS: So what relevance does Frontier/Pioneer still have in a world with games like X, Eve, Freelancer… ?

Brian Ronald: I used to work on the X games! Pioneer is free. Its license allows it to be improved, shared, ported to other systems. I’m a big proponent of free software. Pioneer will never become abandonware as long as there is any interest, because there will always be the freedom to pick it up and continue its development.

Kimmo Kotajärvi: The free-ness is indeed remarkable. And even when compared to commercial efforts, you’d be hard pressed to find a single player experience with this mix of simplicity and gigantic scope. Except Frontier.

Dan Bennett: An entire galaxy modelled rather accurately. Not hundreds of systems or dozens of sectors, but billions and billions of stars and millions and millions of sectors, and trillions of worlds to explore. As few arbitrary restrictions as possible. I always felt there was something wonderful about the old games simulating an entire galaxy. So it has a lot of scope, it is *big*.

John Bartholomew: There’s plenty of room for variation within the genre, and compared with more mainstream genres (for example, first person shooters) the design space hasn’t even been scratched. I enjoyed Freelancer a lot, but it certainly has a different feel to Frontier and to Pioneer. Pioneer feels like real space: I can orbit the moon and watch the Earth rise from the horizon; planets and solar systems feel realistically vast (because they are realistically vast). As a non-commercial project, the driving forces are somewhat different from the games you mention. For me, I work on it because I enjoy working on it. I want it to be a good game of course, but its relevance in a commercial, market-oriented sense is, well, not very relevant.

RPS: For me, everything else complicated. There’s a simplicity to Frontier. It’s more of a framework for player expression than anything. I’d think the hardest part of remaking a game is capturing the original’s feeling. That muscle memory the fans have. So, on that note, what are you keeping from the original, and is there anything that you’re jettisoning?

Brian Ronald: At the moment, Frontier is still our primary guide to what we’d like to see. Ships don’t use fuel for their rocket thrusters at the moment, and there’s some debate as to if that will happen, and if it does, how. We have kept the general look and feel. We’ve ditched Frontier’s flat galaxy map in favour of one with real stars in their actual relative locations.

Rob Norris: I suppose you could say we’re inspired and informed by Frontier, rather than simply cloning it. We try to remain faithful to the original, but we’re not afraid to diverge if we think we can do better. This occasionally causes friction among the developers and the players but so far everything has had a very positive response!

Brian Ronald: The friction is occasionally from players who never knew Frontier. One of them got quite a start when he tried Frontier in DosBox for the first time!

Kimmo Kotajärvi: For areas to improve on, I don’t think anyone will praise combat in Frontier very much. Small usability improvements here and there will also go a long way.

John Bartholomew: Apart from the realistic scales and “plausible” space flight, I think one of the most important aspects of Frontier was that it made you a small fish in a big galaxy and let you find your own path. It didn’t feel like everything in the galaxy was laid out waiting for *you*: if you didn’t take that assassination mission, someone else would. But if you took it and only just survived then you’d feel great and have a unique story. Those are feelings that I hope we can recapture in Pioneer.

RPS: Are you looking to create a universe as large as Frontier’s? Is there a point in doing so?

Brian Ronald: Yes. In fact, it’s significantly larger, because Pioneer’s galaxy is about the same size and shape as our real one.

Kimmo Kotajärvi: Might as well. We developers like to be surprised too, so it’s good that there are enough places to go.

John Bartholomew: For my part, I’m hoping for a galaxy that is not only as large as Frontier’s but also a galaxy that feels more populated and shows more varied human activity. Sure, space is big, and therefore mostly empty, but that’s only an average. We have hugely more computational resources available than Frontier had (even on low-end systems), so we should be able to have a lot more going on in space, with lots of ships near space stations, and trading convoys and mining operations and so on.

RPS: All I wanted was an exact copy of Frontier playable on modern systems, but you guys seem to be keen to expand on the template. What’s the most interesting additions you’re bringing in?

Brian Ronald: For me, it’s the scripting system. The game is far more extensible than Frontier was.

Rob Norris: Indeed. In a lot of ways we’re building Pioneer into a development platform so all sorts of missions and other player interactions can be made. We’re doing everything we can to encourage a vibrant and innovative player community.

Ziusudra: Extensibility in general, with scripting, ship and station models, and custom systems. All of these can just be dropped into the proper folder and the game will use them.

RPS: And the least interesting?

Brian Ronald: It does physics properly. Orbital mechanics is fun, but Frontier cheated very much in order to keep the hardware requirements down. I love that, but it does bring out a great big “meh” from others…

Rob Norris: It does keep us honest though. Any time we consider doing things that have realism considerations like fuel models or teleporting things around you can count on Brian to tell us where we have it totally wrong. That has helped us make choices that are at least consistent with other mechanisms in the game, even if they’re not possible in the real world.

Kimmo Kotajärvi: All the plumbing, of course. For example the recently added RPG-like character system opens up interesting possibilities, but from a player’s point of view you will likely not see the stats and dice rolls!

RPS: Are those additions motivated by being a fan or a game designer?

Rob Norris: Mostly we just love Frontier and want to recreate the experience as well as add all those “I wish we had …” things that every player dreamed of. We do have a few contributors that have done “real” game development work, but we’re all here out of love.

Brian Ronald: It’s the perfect marriage of fandom and development. I get all teary-eyed thinking about it.

John Bartholomew: The desire for extensibility is partly motivated by the nature of open source development, I think. All contributors make the game their own to the extent that all work is self-driven, not assigned to people by some central authority. Driving a lot of the higher level game behaviour (missions, NPCs and so on) through a scripting system makes it easier for people to make the game their own by getting involved and adding features that they want.

RPS: Tell us a story about your time in the original game.

Brian Ronald: I learned to land manually in the biggest ship in the game (a Panther Clipper) in order to have a go deploying the MB4 mining machine. It yielded water. It never paid for itself, but the skills learned made the game more fun; I used the autopilot a lot less afterwards.

Rob Norris: Starting at Lave, trading the Cobra for a Viper with a 1MW laser, flying many many trips to Reidquat to get my combat rating to something half decent, then doing as many assassination missions as I could to pay off the large fines with the Federal and Imperial police. That game was epic, and I grew to love that ship.

Dan Bennett: Flying to the centre of the galaxy in FFE in search of the fabled blackhole with the Thargoid ship, actually reaching the core only to have the drive die on me. Ah and fighting at Phekda, or trying to survive. It was a great place to raise your rating and collect bounties. Until of course an Imperial Explorer found you with its Large Plasma Accelerator… The blue beam of death.

RPS: And is that possible in Pioneer?

Brian Ronald: With the exception of the mining machine!

Ziusudra: For now, there has been discussion of adding something like it and more.

Rob Norris: Sort of. You can do assassination missions but we don’t really have crimes or factions sorted out yet. Combat is also quite difficult at the moment – the AI is often just too good!

Dan Bennett: Yes you could fly to the centre of the galaxy and not only that but you would also find a black hole this time around, if your drive could last the duration that is. I just did some checking, it turns out we don’t have Phecda or Phad or Gamma Ursae Majoris (all different names for the same star). But this will be rectified.

RPS: How are you handling things like planet generation? Is every one a beautiful and unique snowflake?

Ziusudra: We have a dozen or so planet types with each instance having its own seed for the PRNG (pseudorandom number generator). Each system also has its own seed. This means every time you visit a system it will have the same planets and those planets will look the same each time. While different planets of the same type may look similar but have different details.

Dan Bennett: Variety between worlds is something with which we can far surpass the originals, not only do we have various planet types but each type can change and scale certain conditions depending on the values generated from the system seed, for truly vast amounts of variety. This means that no two planets of the same terrain type will be identical, each world can have its own unique features, however due to the complexity of our terrains most planets should have a large amount of unique features, I have used the extreme variety of our own planet as a guide to this.
And, as Ziusudra mentioned, the use of seeds per system and planet mean that cool hill you found by the seaside will always be there no matter what you do during the game. Not to mention the leaps in computer speed since the originals, it means we can truly create believable worlds all generated by a string of numbers. The use of scaling values also opens up possibilities for the future for planets to change dynamically over the course of a game.

RPS: Same question, but for missions.

Brian Ronald: We have many of the missions from Frontier, including delivery of people and packages (although in Pioneer these can be planet to planet, rather than interstellar), we have assassination missions. We have those dodgy guys that buy illegal goods but might turn out to be the police. A recent addition is a character-based system, where the names and faces you see on the bulletin boards might return in future missions. This could easily lead to missions being chained together.

Kimmo Kotajärvi: For a number of players Pioneer is a space sightseeing simulator, so missions built around exploration would be nice to have. Landing on backwater planets and selling scientific data would be one good reason to go out and explore.

RPS: I was pretty amazed to see the undulating planet surfaces that I can fly over before leaving the atmosphere, day and night cycles. Then I flew to Saturn and saw the shadow of the planet being cast on the rings and was totally blown away. Where would you suggest people visit for spectacular views?

Rob Norris: Ringed giants are great, as you’ve seen. Volcanic worlds like Io have some amazing canyons. Stars look pretty good these days with sunspots and other colour variations.

Brian Ronald: Not visually spectacular, but Venus’ atmosphere is as dense as it should be, and we discovered that its possible to make an unpowered descent from orbit in a small ship, landing on the surface alive, if a little battered. Falling from space to the ground without engines is freaky but cool.

Kimmo Kotajärvi: Remember that everything is subject to change in future versions as the underlying systems are refined. So enjoy the sights today, tomorrow you might have a slightly different universe to explore.

RPS: How much has been done?

Rob Norris: Most of the game was written by Tom Morton. The guy is a genius and got most of the core game spot on, but the breakneck pace left quite a bit of weirdness in the code and a few things are still unfinished. We’ve spent a lot of time this year refactoring and stabilising the code and fixing a lot of the common crashes. The most recent releases are incredibly stable. They still have known crash bugs but they usually only happen when a combination of edge cases appear at the same time. We haven’t made a significant dent in the balance issues yet, though we of course know they’re there. Most balance issues should start to sort themselves out once we get a political and economic model into the game. Once we have that we’ll be able to have concepts of supply and demand between worlds and systems, per-faction ship types and so forth. This is a long way off yet but is something we discuss quote often.

Kimmo Kotajärvi: The game world needs to have gradually more life breathed into it. That means more NPC ships going about their business, functional economic and political models and of course more mission variety. For visual parts, the rate of improvements depends on how many more experienced contributors we can get!

John Bartholomew: A lot has been done, but we have a way to go before Pioneer really feels like a complete and cohesive game. Given the scope of the game, there’s always a lot that can be done that’s clearly necessary or beneficial without always bringing the game closer to completion. We are now getting to grips what we need and want to make Pioneer a full game. Of course, it will never be “complete” in the sense that it will always be possible to improve it or add more content, but there’s a certain point at which the scope of the core design has been defined and filled in, and there aren’t any pieces that are obviously *missing*. We’re not at that point, but we are just starting to pin down where it is and how to get there.

RPS: I haven’t found any military missions, yet. Are they, and the Empire, likely to make an appearance?

Brian Ronald: They will, although we don’t know whether it’ll look exactly the same. The political parts of the game have had the least work. We want to get the design right. Hengist Duval might not be back.

RPS: Pioneer development team, thanks for your time.

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