Ridealong: The Flotilla That Will Cross The Galaxy

900 pilots in Elite: Dangerous have banded together to undertake a three month expedition to the far side of the galaxy. But such a long journey into deep space has its dangers. Breakdowns, accidents, fuel shortages and even player-led pirate gangs will mean many of the pilots won’t make it. In this Ridealong, I met up with the organisers on the day of departure to witness the huge fleet launch into the deep unknown.

It’s six hours until departure and I’m flying around a backwater space station called Zillig City, idly piloting my new ship. When I nearly crash into the station by accident, I’m warned about loitering and quickly boost away. I don’t want to revive my criminal record.

“Do you know what,” says Dr Kaii, over the radio, “you can easily get any bounty you want. Because after this trip they will all expire. Twelve weeks is great, I might just go on a killing spree and be completely absolved.”

I laugh. Dr Kaii is one of the organisers of Elite’s most ambitious player-led expeditions so far. He has put the trip together in partnership with Commander Erimus, a famous explorer among the players. Although the Doctor talks of getting a bounty, I find it difficult to imagine him waging war. He has the kindest voice and most polite manner of any hardened spacer I know. I think he is joking about the murder spree.

“Yeah, I mean, if you murder someone, you are basically in trouble for a week but if you can evade capture then nobody cares anymore. That’s the great beautiful world of Elite: Dangerous.”

There will be plenty of time for the lawmen to forget about the exploits of any renegades taking part in the expedition. The whole trip is estimated to take three months – and that’s just the outward journey. Officially, the expedition ends when the flotilla (or what’s left of the flotilla) reaches Beagle Point, a distant system on the farthest spiral arm from Sol (here’s a map of the journey plan to give you some idea of the distance). After that, the explorers are free to go wherever they want. Many will stay and explore the virgin systems of the far reaches. Some will simply head back to the “bubble” – the tiny region of space inhabited by humanity and populated with stations like Zillig City.

“What happens when we get there is not an official thing. Basically that’s the end of the official expedition. Erimus wants people to stay there and look around but that’s entirely optional. We want to try and map out the area as a group, we can get a lot more done as a group. I’m personally probably going to head back at full speed because I really will be missing the bubble at that point.

“That’s my main hesitation at the moment. I’m actually quite nervous to go on this trip because it’s so long. Can you imagine? Four months. Three months getting there and I’m gonna come back in around a month. And I really, really will miss all my ships, I’ll miss the stations…”

We decide to go to the Pallaeni system, where the expedition is taking off at 8pm this evening, to see if anyone is gathering yet. Erimus tells the Doctor over comms that he has just accidentally collided with a police vessel and taken 9% hull damage. “A great start to the expedition,” he says.

Erimus himself has already done this trip three times in his ship the DSS Beagle (Beagle Point, the final destination, is named after his first journey). This makes him one of the most prolific trailblazers in the game. Dr Kaii hasn’t gone further than Sagittarius A, the system in the centre of our galaxy that houses the supermassive black hole he describes as “the anchor of the galaxy”. But even this is an incredibly long journey to undertake. He says it is worth it to see the “anchor”.

“It’s basically the same as every other black hole except it’s huge. And you can perceive that by the way it distorts the world around it. But it’s not dangerous, it’s just stunning. And it feels very good to arrive there.”

But can you even get a sense of the scale of it?

“Yes, you can. Because it does manifest differently, unlike stars. The large stars and small stars basically look the same because of the distance you can get to them. Sagittarius A is different from other black holes. It definitely feels bigger and you can get a lot closer to the event horizon.”

We arrive in Pallaeni and head towards the planet where the flotilla will be gathering. There are people on the surface already, ships settled at a base camp near one of the planet’s manned facilities. The planet itself is misshapen and lumpy – it looks more like a potato than a sphere. I pull into the wake of the DSS Beagle and begin an orbital descent, following Erimus, ever the trailblazer, to base camp.

I haven’t done many of these planetary landings but the planet’s low gravity (it is about 0.02 the mass of earth) means I am unlikely to crash. My ship pulls out of orbit and enters the “gliding” phase, which is effectively a superfast free fall. It is the most worrying part of landing. As the ground rushes towards me, all the fine details of the surface spring up. At this point you are supposed to glide as far down as possible, so you get to the ground faster. But I pull up and abort the glide 30km above the surface, just to be on the safe side. I start trundling toward the camp. Erimus and the Doctor are already on the ground.

When I get closer to the surface I see three black diamonds come into focus. They are Anacondas parked in the camp. It isn’t long before one of them is balancing on its nose, doing a handstand against the dusty surface.

“This is part of the fun that’s going to ensue on this trip,” says the Doctor. “People are just mucking about. I’m going to do a flip. Are you near here? Because you can watch me. I’m gonna do a flip.”

But we aren’t in the same instance. Elite’s multiplayer netcode strikes again. It takes us a few minutes to get reunited and when I arrive back the amount of ships on the surface has increased. It is 5 hours until the expedition is scheduled to officially depart, yet more than a hundred people in the group are already online, dozens of them gathering at this basecamp. I fly low, circling the ships gathered on the planet. There are massive Anacondas, bulky Asps, even a sleek, giant Imperial Clipper joins eventually. A few of the commanders are out in their moon buggies, frolicking on the rocky surface. The local chat channel is beginning to liven up.

“Look at that cute Diamondback,” says one of the commanders. It takes a moment for me to realise they mean me. My new ship is a Diamondback. It is about a quarter the size of the next biggest ship in this ad hoc parking lot.

But that doesn’t worry me. I will only be travelling with the group to the first waypoint on the journey, to an area known as the Fine Ring Sector, a region of space where a small purple gas cloud hangs nearby. This cloud is the nebula of a system called Shapley 1 and from earth it looks like a tiny ring of smoke. But from the basecamp they have set up out there, it reportedly looks like a the sky has a black eye. The basecamp itself is called “Laika’s Rest” a much more memorable name for the first planetary stop-off than its official astronomical designation (Fine Ring Sector JH-V C2-4, planet A1). Although Laika’s Rest is about 1000 lightyears into unknown space, it is nothing compared to the 81,500 lightyears the fleet will be travel before eventually reaching their destination. I am essentially walking the flotilla to the door.

To give you some sense of just how little of the trip I will be taking part in, here is the distance between the launch system and the first waypoint at Shapley 1, when you examine it closely on the game’s map:

The red symbols on the left are the in the bubble, the green symbols to the far right are fellow travellers at the first waypoint. Now, here is the distance between the two on a galactic scale:

Waypoints like this have been established to make things easier for the pilots. They will meet at camps on planetary surfaces like Laika’s Rest to catch up with other pilots for a day or two. Then head on their way. Exploring has always been a boring occupation in Elite because of the long periods without stations or human activity. The Doctor and Erimus are hoping that keeping people more or less together and having these small gatherings will keep spirits up. And thinking about it this way, seeing the circle of ships at the Pallaeni base camp reminds me of sitting at a bonfire in Dark Souls. The pilots are isolated out here, but they are also together.

“Boredem is quite a weak word for what I’m expecting it to feel like,” says Kaii. “It’s more like complete tedium. It’s going to be very important to break it up. That’s why we’ve got all these waypoints along the way that are incredible locations, getting out in the buggy, bombing about. You can do like 100, 150, 200 jumps maybe and then take a nice break at the waypoints. That’s basically how you have to do it. Not all of us have the patience and fortitude of Erimus, who can do that trip in the space of a month.”

The Doctor and I are messing about on the surface, driving around in the space buggies from Elite’s newest expansion. He revs up his buggy’s thrusters and leaps from a mound of dirt, doing a flip in the low gravity. I would attempt a stunt of my own but I have learned the hard way not to try and emulate the maneuvers of professional pilots.

On page two, what it takes to prepare for such a long journey, and the risks that face the pilots along the way.

51 Comments

  1. DevilishEggs says:

    This is awesome. How will they stay snyc’d up? Will they just be traveling during a set time each day?

    • DevilishEggs says:

      From the forum (linked above): “It is unlikely that this will be achieved as a single flotilla of ships moving across the galaxy as one. Lots of factors will scupper that plan so the idea is to have a set of waypoints along the route and a day and time for players to rendezvous at those waypoints to begin joint exploration of the surrounding area, including planetary surfaces, before moving on. This will allow plenty of flexibility for stragglers to catch up, and give time for trailblazers to scout out interesting surface features for the bulk of players to check out as a group.”

      I hope the spies are summarily executed. Space spies are worst spies.

      • Premium User Badge

        phuzz says:

        “Space spies are worst spies”
        The Mittani sends his regards.

    • Sakaki says:

      It would be awesome if it wasn’t for how bad Elite handled multiplayer interactions or how heavily instanced the game is.

      A 900 player flotilla setting out on a journey kinda loses a lot of it’s impressivness when you end up only seeing 3 other players at a time.

    • mascarpwn says:

      Well written article as usual, but seriously, wat you describe sounds incredibly boring; Going from A to B with barely any manoeuvring for 3 months? It’s like playing ETS2 with the truck set to auto-pilot. The goal is even less impressive. You’ll be far from where you where, true, but it will all look the same anyway: a big back emptiness, with scattered stars and planets using the same boring textures you’ve seen a hundred times before.

      • aleander says:

        You know that people sometimes spend time exploring the Mandelbrot set? In fact, considering the nature of ED’s procedural generation, both activities are quite similar.

        And hey, if you don’t do it too much, it’s quite nice.

      • daggerbite says:

        It’s more like “travel A to B” (boring bit) then “explore B before setting off for C”.

        Where “explore” often means crazy acrobatical stunts in low-g

  2. ironman Tetsuo says:

    Great piece on a great community driven event! I love Elite but I don’t overplay it, stuff like this makes me appreciate it more

  3. TK-093 says:

    Great read. I’m generally a single player guy, but stuff like this is very neat and makes me want to check it out. If only my time wasn’t running out… I need more time….

    Sounds like they may be twitching as they journey. I’ll have to check that out.

    • J. Cosmo Cohen says:

      “If only my time wasn’t running out…”

      Sorry to read this. How long?

    • TK-093 says:

      Sorry, it’s just a South Park reference. :)

  4. caff says:

    Awesome read!

  5. Captain Deadlock says:

    “Complete tedium”. Yep, that’s Elite: Dangerous in a nutshell.

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      Harlander says:

      This whole endeavour sits on the peculiar intersection of tedium and fascination for me. It’s like a Coen brothers movie in that regard.

    • Arithon says:

      I would have said complete tedium is trolling every Elite story on RPS when you don’t even play the game. But each to his own.

      • Cinek says:

        I like how there’s always Arithon there to defend Elite. lol

    • Chalky says:

      Plenty of people don’t like plenty of games. Space exploration is slow paced and relaxing. Some people call that tedious, some people say COD is a game for people with ADHD.

      Lets all play games we enjoy rather than shitting on what others like?

      • aleander says:

        Lets all play games we enjoy rather than shitting on what others like?

        No. Playing games we enjoy is what’s killing the video game industry. Also causes global warming, reinforces global capitalism and income inequality, and draws random large asteroids towards my favourite restaurant. So please start playing only games you hate.

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          Harlander says:

          What if denigrating other people’s forms of enjoyment is your favourite game?

  6. Zallgrin says:

    This is a great article and a highly interesting topic to me. I hope you’ll keep us updated on the journey of these brave souls!

  7. Sinjun says:

    I don’t get the appeal. I really don’t. Even with VR this is just a novelty experience, not a video game. There is no soul, no purpose to doing anything. A timesink at it’s core.

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      Serrit says:

      Well, it comes down to personal philosophy, but you can argue what’s the point of anything compared to the vastness and majesty of the universe we exist in?
      Exploration, community, a sense of the unknown and a desire to reach out to it, these are core parts of human behaviour that have led t2o how we are today.
      Sure, this is only virtual, but to those of us who love to engage in role playing, this can be just as real, just as valuable (on a personal and selfish level), and just as exhilarating as the real thing. (Time to go load up the choral version of Barber’s Adagio for Strings and think of the Homeworld).

    • Blackcompany says:

      I get to fly a ship. In space. Using an actual joystick and throttle, and trackIR to look around. (Its that last bit that makes the big difference to me; if you made me play the same game while only looking ahead of me using an XBOX pad I would look at you like you were nuts, and then go watch the grass grow). For me, personally, this is enough; just flying around taking jobs, shooting pirates, exploring and scanning – its enough.

      I can however understand how and why its NOT enough for many. I really can. Because mechanically, beyond the flight sim, Elite is a terrible game. Its full of soulless time sinks and little else. To be honest, if No Man’s Sky supports the same simulator tools I use in Elite I will probably move on when its released. We will see.

      So yeah, for me, the flying sells it. But I can certainly understand why others would need more, believe me.

  8. Ufofighter says:

    “Boredem is quite a weak word for what I’m expecting it to feel like,” says Kaii. “It’s more like complete tedium. It’s going to be very important to break it up.”

    Lol! Where do I sign? Wait I’m probably half the way in, I left my ASP floating in Sagitario A around March 2015 for this exact reasons…

  9. Monty845 says:

    3 months sounds like a very long time, but how are you measuring? You say the one person could probably get there in a month, but again, a month of what? An hour or two a day? 16 hour days? When there are hardcore players that can and will play a game 12-16 hours at a sitting, and other casual players where 60 minutes is a long session, measuring time in calendar months really doesn’t tell us much.

  10. Kerr Avon says:

    Oh yeah, “great” fun! “Like, totally”. Haplessly following a group of morons around the galaxy like sheep, “trundling about” on a moon around a circle of barnacles or whatever, just looking at each other. Essentially, the same group of awkward nerds, crashing bores and “interesting” weirdos standing around a room at “Rick’s party” sheepishly holding a pint gazing at the floor in silence. While being forced to listen to the “music” of Cliff Richard. Suddenly, to break this Olympic Cringe-O-Thon session in Hell, Ade Edmonson bursts into the group, drops down prone and starts doing “press ups”. Or should I say, an “amazingly cool” CMDR decides to balance his ship on its nose proclaiming “hey everyone! look at me! I’m gonna do a flip!” with Rik Mayall shouting “Yeah! Right On, Commander! Now we’re REALLY having fun!”…

    I’m not saying I hate Elite Dangerous. No. I just hate the people who play it that way. The “just mucking about” is killing the game. You know, if more people played it in the style of Isinona, the multiplayer would actually be bearable. The very thought of playing Elite in any other way to me is horrifying. So, have a good think “commanders” and decide for yourself which style is genuinely more fun, alright?

    link to youtube.com

    • DevilishEggs says:

      It’s confirmed then. Space games are the new hipster.

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      Phasma Felis says:

      TL;DR: “Stop liking what I don’t like”

    • aleander says:

      So, have a good think “commanders” and decide for yourself which style is genuinely more fun, alright?

      Not Isinona’s, not for me, but good to know you hate me so much. Now excuse me, I have to go kill the game a bit more.

    • ironman Tetsuo says:

      Much teen
      Such angst

    • kael13 says:

      I thought it was funny. I also mostly agree.

      • Kerr Avon says:

        @kael13 yes, although it has been well established that Isinona’s playstyle is by far the best attitude of playing Elite, as we can see above, the “morons in outer space” who go against our playstyle remain ever present regardless. This is why people like Isinona and ourselves shall remain the 1% Elite in society while the idiots who play the game in the way of the above article shall remain as the dumbed-down unwashed masses. I guess at least we can enjoy killing them in the game and know we’ve done a good deed.

    • Hebrind says:

      Woah, intense, dude. Like, totally.

  11. Stevostin says:

    That article really convey the sense of scale, loneliness, emptiness of space. I just hope the game lives up to it.

  12. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    This was the most interesting thing I’ve read in quite some time. I hope there’s a follow-up of some sort, I’d love to know how everything turned out.

  13. Doubler says:

    I’m currently nearly 13000 LY away from Sol on my own little trip to Sagittarius A. Took a weird route to avoid the main thoroughfares leading to almost exclusively unexplored systems along the way. Started off dutifully scanning everything that wasn’t a pebble or a snowball, but now, just past the halfway mark, exhaustion is really setting in.

    I will probably reach my destination on willpower alone and then take the shortest route home to Nehet. I can’t even fathom the dedication it’d take to reach Sag A, and then commit to journeying yet again as far, and then some more to top it off :P

    On the other hand, despite the tedium, taking this trip was a great idea. I frolicked among barnacles and filled my hold with exotic alloys. I left the wreckage of my SRV (that spontaneously combusted) on a planet no other human had visited. I have the dust of multiple nebula on my hull. I will stare into a black hole. I have -seen- things…

    It might have mostly tedium, but somehow it was a welcome change and has had its rewards.

    So greetings from CMDR Doubler aboard the Leaping Llama, signing off from the black.
    link to images.akamai.steamusercontent.com

  14. Atomica says:

    This is a really well written piece.

    But I’m still on the fence with the game. It seems like a baked cake, but freshly out of the oven–a bit squishy in places–and still in need of decoration.

    I’ll wait a bit and watch.

    • Captain Deadlock says:

      This would only be an accurate analogy if the cake was made entirely of shit.

    • Ufofighter says:

      More like those cakes with a striper inside. But without the stripper.

      • Sakaki says:

        I’ve never heard anyone sum up anything so succinctly as that analogy sums up Elite.

  15. Razumen says:

    This sounds like it would be fun, IF you did the trip as a small group with friends, and IF there was the chance of discovering something actually new and interesting out there than other than just more procedurally generated stars and planets.

  16. NephilimNexus says:

    All I have to say is… don’t let Goonswarm find out your route. Because you know what will happen, then.

  17. apa says:

    Extreme space desert bus endurance rally. They just need to deliver champagne in advance to the finish line!

  18. daggerbite says:

    So far its been a blast, I’m now 8177.97LY away from SOL. Tonight we blast off for stage 2 and from this point we really are a long way from home