Elite Dangerous: Arena is out. It's Elite Dangerous's existing Close Quarters Combat (CQC) mode re-packaged as a standalone game and being sold for £5/$7.50. Frontier hope that it'll act as a new entry point for players intrigued by Elite but intimidated by its size, and David Braben says he hopes "it'll bring a different audience to the game as well."
"We've done an awful lot of shows now, and what we've found works best is to actually set people up in Arena around a table against each other, either in teams or as individuals," says David Braben, Frontier's CEO. "They get into it really quickly, even people who haven't played the game at all."
Although Arena has been a part of Elite Dangerous since last year, Braben says that a lot of players skip straight past it. That's not a problem except that it can be a valuable step on the learning curve, giving players an opportunity to become accustomed to piloting ships and managing their power in a low stakes environment. For starters, if you've played Elite proper, you're not bringing your hard-earned ship into the combat arena, but instead are given a choice of four of Dangerous's combat-style ships. When you get destroyed, it simply respawns.
"It lowers the entry point," says Braben. "There are a lot of people who wouldn't play [Elite: Dangerous] who would go, 'Oh I'll play [Arena].' And there will be some who will want to carry on to Elite: Dangerous, and we'll have an offer where you can get your money back if you want to buy the full game."
The other half of the appeal is that Arena offers short bursts of play. Elite: Dangerous is a game where you might need to spend an hour or two with it to accomplish what you want, and much of that time might just be spent space trucking. Arena throws you in with a group of other players in team deathmatch, deathmatch and Capture The Flag.
"If you're thinking of having a session of Call of Duty or FIFA or an RTS or whatever, this is another alternative that you can put in the mix," says Braben. "The main game actually has a very steep learning curve, which is actually too steep for a lot of people. Whereas this, although it has a steep learning curve, it's not as steep.
"I think when you start to realise those levels of subtlety, as you build up through the levels - because we have explicit levels of progress, which open up certain unlocks - it let's you realise it's actually very rewarding the more you get into it. If you think of some of the things you do when you're building loadouts for Call of Duty or you're building your FIFA team, things that let you build up that richness."
Those unlocks let you customise the loadout of your Federal Fighter, Imperial Fighter, Eagle or Sidewinder ship, but just as in Elite: Dangerous there will be microtransactions to let you add cosmetic items. Braben is adamant, of course, that there's nothing 'pay-to-win' about it, though he won't rule out charging for future maps. "We haven't worked out the plans for maps. It's not out of the question, but we'll have to look at that," he says. "We haven't charged so far. We've already added two maps and we didn't charge." The current map roster includes four arenas, called Elevate, Cluster Compound, Asteria Point, and Ice Field.
I haven't had a chance to play Arena yet, and the CQC didn't appeal when it was a menu option in the main game. That's mostly because I'm into Elite: Dangerous for the space trucking, though. If you feel differently, Arena is available now from the Frontier Store and shortly from Steam.
Here are some more screenshots: