Back To Front(ier): Pioneer

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.


  1. Richie Shoemaker says:

    I did wonder when I first encountered it whether Pioneer was to Frontier what Oolite is to Elite, and that indeed seems to be the case. Great read.

  2. Durkonkell says:

    I thought “This could be pretty awesome when it’s further along in development”, and then I remembered how much fun I’m having in KSP which has no missions, story or persistence and only one planet and a moon. I might download the alpha version just to fly around the galaxy, even if there isn’t too much to do right now.

    • Galaxy613 says:

      Oh there’s stuff to do, but I’ve found the pay to be WAY less than what’s fesible. People will pay you about chum change to transport a package 15~ light years away in like 7 days but it takes much longer than that to reach with your starting ship. You’re stuck with making your own barely lucrative trading routes or taking tons of interplanetary package delivery missions. :S tl;dr: Grind grind grind.

    • Shandrakor says:

      “You’re stuck with making your own barely lucrative trading routes or taking tons of interplanetary package delivery missions. :S tl;dr: Grind grind grind.”


  3. Faldrath says:

    Looks very interesting… how difficult is it to learn, for someone who didn’t play the original back then?

    And, er… girl in bear suit?

    • sinister agent says:

      That’s one of them psychological test things. Some people see a girl in a bear suit; some people see a bear wearing a girl’s face.

    • TheBigBookOfTerror says:

      I see soon-to-be wife #2.

    • Wulf says:

      This reminds me of the bears high-fiving in New Vegas.

      It was totally bears high-fiving, damn it!

  4. wodin says:

    Elite on the BBC B 32k was the first game I was addicted to…oh the pain when after a year or more of constant playing my save game tape was chewed by the machine…my first game rage!

    The wireframe graphics where amazing at the time as it recreated 2d, infact I found Elite 2 to looks worse and would have still prefered the wireframe graphics as 3d wasn’t that great when forntier came out. ELite was a massive sandbox game aswell and fire dof my imagination more than many games since.

    Had a go of oolite…and don’t know whether it’s my age or what it just didn’t give me that buzz that Elite gave me. Oh to be cynical,old and jaded.

  5. Brun says:

    Definitely going to pick this up – reminds me of Noctis IV but with stuff to do.

  6. Prime says:

    About time this was given some RPS love, instead of having to be mentioned in the comments of every space game featured here! :)

    @Kimmo Kotajärvi – Could have been me in one of my previous guises. I’ve been pimping Pioneer here since the very earliest Alphas Tom posted on SpaceSimCentral, before development shifted across to JJ.

    Pioneer is an amazing piece of work. I look forward to the 1.0 release (Feature parity with Frontier, as I recall), which shouldn’t be too much longer. Forget Braben: the future of Space Exploration Gaming is with Pioneer.

  7. Megadyptes says:

    What’s up with the furry?

    • Wulf says:

      That’s not furry. I suppose you could loosely call it kemonomimi if you wanted, though.

      I’m actually mildly confused and amused by it, in equal amounts.

      It looks like an alternate Universe Kenny fangirl.

  8. JackDandy says:

    I heard about this. I like Space Games, but this one seems a bit dull. Haven’t tried it yet, so I guess I can’t already decide on that.

    Will give it a go!
    EDIT: Wait- I see it isn’t even out yet. Do they have an estimated release date?

  9. vecordae says:

    I never played any of the Elite games, though it sounds like I probably should have. Is it a one ship sort of deal like Wing Commander: Privateer or can one eventually be the commander of their own fleet like in the X games? I will derive maximum enjoyment if I go into it with realistic expectations.

    • Prime says:

      You are very much a solo explorer, limited to one ship. The original Elite lore had a young pilot inheriting his father’s old spaceship and a handful of credits, and simply made his way from there. Pioneer is very much in that tradition. Forget the X series. Those games aren’t helpful comparisons, and this pilot never goes anywhere near forming his own corporation/company or business. He’s a Free Trader. A pilot. An explorer. Whatever he wants to be that means he’s his own boss and gets to travel the galaxy.

      One man. One Ship. One Destiny. One Galaxy to Explore.

  10. weego says:

    can i buy a panther clipper, load up on beam weapons and go hunt pirates? If so then awesome. If not… make it so.

    • Prime says:

      You absolutely can! Most of the Frontier ships are present and correct: a few have even been significantly upgraded, and of course there are lots of cool new ships to try as well. :)

  11. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    This made me think whatever happened with Vega Strike (link to, an open source game in progress. It was pretty cool, with AI governments fighting one another and capturing systems and the like. I’m reading the dev blog and there is work being done on it, but I think it was stalled for quite a while.

    Well, at least with it being open source it’s not going away in a hurry.

    • Wulf says:

      It’s still being developed, it just moved away from the public eye, as many open source projects do for a while when they’re undergoing huge amounts of renovation. You’ll still find some fairly recent builds filled with all sorts of crazy, new stuff. Just don’t expect them to be too stable.

      Same thing’s happened with Exult and more projects than I could be bothered listing, here. It’s common. Due to complaints open source projects just tend to go into hibernation and only release when they feel they have something that’s stable enough and worthy enough to make a big, public fuss about.

  12. squareking says:

    I’ve had the Pioneer site bookmarked forever, but I haven’t yet given it a shot. It looks incredibly promising. If it looked like Terran Conflict, I’d have my dream game and could die happy.

  13. Robsoie says:

    What hooked me immediately in Pioneer is actually the more than amazing streaming terrain tech for planet, moons and asteroids surface, it actually is so good that i spend much time exploring them, flying around rocks and canyons instead of actually going to stations and trade.

    And very impressive how smooth this can be on older systems too.

    With Pioneer and Orbiter, my space needs have been very well taken care of.

  14. s20dan says:

    Thanks a lot for all your interest in Pioneer :)

    Its very exciting for all of us.

    “Definitely going to pick this up – reminds me of Noctis IV but with stuff to do.”
    As a Noctis fan its great to hear you compare Pioneer to that classic. But I’ll be honest, we have a fair way to go until we approach the sheer variety and coolness factor of Noctis ;)

    “And, er… girl in bear suit?”
    Hehe, yeah its something of an easter egg. It was made as a joke by our facegen dude (Tim Jones) and we all loved it so it stayed. :)

    “Wait- I see it isn’t even out yet. Do they have an estimated release date?”
    We have a release on the second friday of every month, but as for a completion date… Pigs flying comes to mind ;) What I mean is its likely someone will always be hacking and improving pioneer so it probably will never be truly finished.
    But depending on what you want to get from Pioneer, it could be considered quite playable. If exploration is your thing then there’s a lot of content there. As for balance, we realise there isn’t much yet :)
    Remember if trading and missions become a bore, you can always press Ctrl+M (money cheat) and buy a nice ship to fly about and explore.

    “With Pioneer and Orbiter, my space needs have been very well taken care of.”
    :) Don’t forget about Spaceway though, thats another promising looking sim/game.

    Thanks everyone for the nice comments.

    Dan Bennett. (s20dan)

    • Brun says:

      Ha, glad to know there are some other Noctis fans out there – this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned it on RPS but it’s the first time anyone has picked up on it. If you’re still looking for a fuel system you might look into what Noctis did (intra-system travel did not consume fuel, inter-system did; you could only refuel at a specific type of star).

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      Regarding combat, it was ok in the original once you got a decent laser, but I was thinking that you could perhaps add a futuristic device to the game that allows you to “hook” other ships that are in range and force them to engage you somehow.

      It could be tractor beams that make the target expend more and more energy as it tries to get away from you, or some kind of space-bending local anomaly that creates an arena of sorts. Said arena could just be a sphere inside which the rules of athmosphemic dogfighting apply, or would mimic the vicinity of a gravitational well, or something more devious – pilots would presumably use measures and counter-measures to try and shape the arena to their advantage.

  15. El_MUERkO says:


    • Llewyn says:

      Yeah. I’d not really noticed this game other than occasional comments (by Prime?) about it here, but now that I’ve read this… oh my. I daren’t download it, at least until after Christmas.

  16. jimbobjunior says:

    Umm, someone should also mention the cross-platform goodness (Linux, Mac client)

    • Brun says:

      Woah! Might have to fire up my old laptop for the Linux client. That makes me quite happy.

    • Wulf says:

      Such are the joys of open source. If you open source it, people will port it…

      It will be ported to every damn system it can be. You should see how many devices that ScummVM has been officially (and unofficially) ported to. It’s incredible.

  17. aircool says:

    I never managed to work out how to hit another spaceship in Frontier. They seemed to zoom in and out of range extremely quickly giving you a window of about one billionth of a second to shoot.

    I did enjoy landing on planets that were completely unexplored, but never found anything of interest.

    Then my gf gave me loads of hassle as she somehow presumed that I had to spend all my time with her.

    • Andy_Panthro says:

      The combat was a big failing for me, I spent just long enough with Elite to be able to get a half-decent rating (my brother was always better though!). I could never manage Frontier’s combat, getting wasted by the most minor space banditos.

  18. Ravenger says:

    To be honest, though I loved the exploration aspect in Frontier I hated the flight model because it was too realistic. Specifically the combat turned into high velocity jousts, with none of the exciting (though non-realistic) dogfighting of the original Elite.

    It’s all well and good being a space simulator, but as a space game it fell well short.

    I’m still in awe of the way the universe was created and depicted in Frontier, but it definitely lost a great deal when they ditched the original, perfect Elite combat flight model.

    • terry says:

      Terrible confession time – I turned on the autopilot for most of the fighting. It would swing you round to face your opponent and you could (in theory) deactivate it and destroy your opponent before mashing into him at 2.7AU.

      What? I was a trader, don’t judge me >:(

    • Prime says:

      Yeah, that’s the way a lot of people did it. Hitting a ship with your lasers was a tedious jousting tournament that could last forever, or at least until they whittled your ship down to scrap. Most people simply worked to afford a big ship, splurged on shields and used the autopilot for collision purposes. My Puma had shields that not even GOD could breach.

    • MrPyro says:

      My little combat cheat to fight irritating small ships in Frontier:

      Buy ship with turret. Fit turret with beam laser.
      In fight, pause the game as the enemy ship does a close fly past.
      The turret can traverse even though the game is paused, and you can even fire the laser, but it does no damage (enemy ship seems to be treated as having an infinite shield) and generates no heat. So you can get the laser locked on, hitting the enemy ship, and then unpause the game while holding the fire button. Game unpauses, enemy ship explodes.

  19. Moth Bones says:

    Had a quick go on this earlier – just tripped from Earth to Mars – and thought it looked just WOW. Looking back on Earth as I pulled away from it at any one of five different speeds, being able to switch from manual to auto-pilot at the drop of a hat – simply awesome! And they have a whole Milky Way in there… I’m guessing most of the fun is in the exploration right now, but that suits me just fine.

    I loved Elite but never got to play Frontier; this what I imagined Frontier to be like. Very chuffed :)

  20. Spakkenkhrist says:

    Frontier is probably my favourite game of all time, I used to play the openGL version mentioned in the article too, played this last night and it shows a hell of a lot of promise.

  21. Ovno says:

    Frontier is still my favourite game of all time and this looks like a great new version of it :)

  22. Wooly says:

    I realize this is a bit late, but could someone direct me to a guide on how to play Pioneer? This coming from someone who’s never played a space sim in his life… It took me ten minutes to figure out how to take off…

    • Davie says:

      Yeah, it’s a bit on the obtuse side, isn’t it? Fun, for sure, but anything beyond crashing headlong into the moon is still beyond me at this point.