The above is my attempt to draw a screenshot of Elite: Dangerous.
Stories can be split into acts, with each act break marked by a moment of character growth. Games can be similarly segmented by the steps of growth players go through. A Platinum Games’ fighting system unfurls as players master the basics of timing and blocking; Diablo 3 swaps focus from click-happy monster mash to theorycrafting and character building; Counter-Strike trades the pure challenge of aim-and-shoot for more nuanced environmental awareness, forcing you to time routes and know the movements of enemies even before you’ve seen them.
You likely don’t need me to tell you this. The need for games to be not just long but deep, and to appeal simultaneously to new and inexperienced players as well as thousand-hour experts, has created a common language to explain these divisions: early game, late game, end game. Still, I think the ebbs and flows of player envelopment in a game account for a lot of differences in opinion over their quality, but are invisible enough that it’s not often clear.
Instead, I say I think that Elite feels empty and shallow and half a dozen people agree, while a half dozen others think we’re infuriatingly incorrect. It’s not necessarily that we’re all looking at the same picture in a museum and seeing something different; we might all enjoy lasers and spaceships and trading equally. It might instead be that me and people like me have fallen through the floor of the museum like Indy at the start of Fate of Atlantis, only the next floor hasn’t caught us yet. We’re still falling.
This is how I feel about Elite Dangerous, a game I have played and played but never fully enjoyed. I think it is empty and shallow, not all the time, but at certain points during the player’s progression through it. Especially if you’re interested in anything other than combat.
The idea of Elite, for me, has never been about fighting other ships. That’s what X-Wing or Tie Fighter was for. Elite was about forging your own path through a vast galaxy, and finding a role to play among it. I have a preference for trading games and driving games, and so Elite Dangerous’s seeming allowance for life as a trader seemed particularly well-suited to me. When I started it up over Christmas, then, I decided I wouldn’t kill anyone. No fighting, no firing, only freight, and long haul journeys to ferry goods wherever they needed to go.
As it turns out, the game doesn’t adequately support this in-game lifestyle at any stage. As a trader, you’ve two choices in activity: taking missions from the space stations you dock at, or playing the commodities market and trying to find profitable trade routes between systems.
The former is undercooked. When you begin, your ship has a cargo hold with four slots, which instantly makes most trading missions unavailable to you. That would be fine, if those small missions that your starter ship could complete were available from every station, but they’re not. It’s common to fly for long stretches and not find anything you can actually do. When a mission is available, it’ll sometimes still require you to first purchase goods you can’t yet afford (with no warning of this to new players), and will in any case only offer a pittance in return for hours of work.
The commodities market, meanwhile, is willfully obtuse. This is the way to make big, (moderately) quick money in the world of Elite, as the market swells and declines depending on the opaque machinations of the playerbase. If you can find a good trade route between single-jump systems, trading something high-value like rare goods, then you can make decent money even with small cargo holds. Unfortunately, the game makes it as hard as possible to find these routes. There is no way when at one station to check the prices of the commodities market of another station, even if you’ve just been there. Instead, your best bet is to either find routes by trawling Reddit or by trawling the galaxy map, following certain principles based on station types, and taking screenshots of each market screen you find.
Imagine making a game with as slick and impressive an interface as Elite, and then creating systems that all but require players to alt-tab over to a screenshot in order to play.
Glumly grinding out the funds to get a larger hauling ship – necessary if you’re going to make properly good money – is an exercise in grim frustration. It’ll take you hours just to assemble enough cash to to buy a 60,000 credit Zorgon Peterson Hauler. That doubles your hold capacity and gives you the space to buy the modules to carry more, but the next hauling ship up costs around 6 million credits.
With the in-game experience doing so little to support the fantasy of being a trader, the game then becomes about the few physical interactions you have as a non-combative ship pilot: lightspeed jumps, interdiction avoidance, and docking. The first is programmed via the galaxy map and requires you to rotate towards your destination, press a button, and throttle up; the middle means keeping your mouse pointer in the center of a moving HUD element, like a browser game that wouldn’t hold your attention for more than a minute; and the latter is a genuine thrill, a rare moment of grandness and scale in an otherwise empty universe, and difficult enough to make mastering it feel like an accomplishment.
Then once you’ve mastered it… Well, see the graph above. I now have enough credits that I could even automate the docking process, but if I do that it’s not clear what game I’d be playing. Now that I’ve become well-experienced at completing those early challenges, no floor of more complicated interactions with the game’s systems have come up to catch me. I’m still falling.
I could jack in the hauler for a life as a space pirate, since I hear that combat has similar problems but at least gives way to greater depth and excitement among its capital ships and PvP. I’d be a little sad, though, to not keep on truckin’.
Here is how I’d prefer my screenshot of Elite looked.
There, I fixed it for them.
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