The last year or so of Elite Dangerous has been the most dramatic since the game launched in 2014. The most recent update to Frontier Developments' epic space sim, Update 13, saw the conclusion of the story's Azimuth Saga, culminating in a disastrous attempt to stop the incursion of the Thargoids – Elite's hostile race of insectoid aliens. It's an event that has already had a major impact on Elite's universe, and Frontier are excited to discuss the studio's plans for the game and its narrative as it pushes into a new phase for the galaxy, simply known as "Aftermath".
But the drama surrounding Elite Dangerous isn't limited to the game's overarching story. As I gear up to chat with lead game designer Luke Betterton and senior producer Samantha Marsh, the Thargoid in the room is Elite Dangerous: Odyssey. Launched in May last year, Elite's second expansion was, to put it lightly, not well received by Elite's community. Complaints ranged from extensive bugs and performance issues to more fundamental criticisms about the implementation of the expansion's on-foot exploration and FPS combat. Over a year on from release, the expansion still carries a "Mostly Negative" rating on Steam, standing in stark contrast to reviews for vanilla Elite Dangerous (now bundled with its Horizons expansion), which remain firmly positive.
When I broach the subject of Odyssey, Frontier are keen to stress that it is fully aware of player grievances. "The thing I would say is that we're listening to that feedback. It doesn't fall on deaf ears. We want to continue to make the game better," Betterton says. "There's never a day that goes by where we don't have a conversation about looking at this thing and going: 'We can still make this better. There are things that we could do better here.'"
Betterton doesn't provide any specifics about Frontier's plans for Odyssey. But the response to the expansion has already resulted in some significant rethinking at the studio. In March this year, Frontier cancelled all console development of the game to focus on Elite and Odyssey. A few weeks ago, meanwhile, the studio announced it will soon be expanding access to Elite Dangerous 4.0 – a version previously exclusive to Odyssey players – to everyone who owns the base game. This lets all players engage with a host of Odyssey's features, such as planetary settlements, four-player multicrews, and a major graphics overhaul.
Does this mean Frontier are planning to integrate Odyssey into the base game, or perhaps phase out the parts of the expansion that players don't like? Betterton says no. "We're not trying to be done with Odyssey," he says. "Odyssey is a bit of a platform that allows us to be able to add more content to the game. It allows us to work in new ways. It allows us to give players new ways to interact with the game, and it has done a great job of that, I think."
Instead, Frontier explain that universal access to Elite Dangerous 4.0 has two purposes. The first is simply to make its development easier and more efficient. Since the launch of Odyssey, Frontier have essentially been supporting two different builds of Elite, but all the focus for the game's future updates is on 4.0.
"We work in 4.0" Betterton says. "[It includes] a lot tools we have available to us, on the development side, to be able to create things, do things at a faster speed, do things at a higher quality." Marsh adds that 4.0 is also crucial to the "balance of the team" and "making sure that we can really gear up on the fixes and content that we can provide."
There are a couple of important clarifications here. The update to 4.0 doesn't provide vanilla Elite players access to everything in Odyssey. Elements like on-foot exploration and combat will still be exclusive to expansion owners. Moreover, the code alignment won't enable Horizons and Odyssey players to play together. "In terms of them being together, either Odyssey players need to join the Horizons players in Horizons, or Horizons players will need to upgrade to Odyssey to instance with obviously players in Odyssey," Marsh explains.
On top of this is a concern. If the most common complaints about Odyssey related to bugs and performance, doesn't pushing version 4.0 across the whole of Elite risk extending those problems to all players? In response, Marsh notes that 4.0 is in a "significantly better place now" than it was on launch, and that Frontier will "continue to optimise" this version of the game.
Betterton, meanwhile, points out that Elite Dangerous is nearly eight years old at this point, and Frontier want to keep the game visually up-to-date. "It's still going to be an upgrade," he says. "Elite's been around a while now. Horizon's been around a while. Tech's moved on a little bit, and we still want to keep Elite looking fresh and new and shiny and whatnot. 4.0 is part of that."
"We still want to keep Elite looking fresh and new and shiny and whatnot. 4.0 is part of that."
The other key reason for Elite's code alignment is narrative-based. Frontier want to ensure that all players can partake in the narrative, and since the studio wants to consolidate development to version 4.0, it makes sense to open the version up to all players. That said, I was curious as to how Odyssey's still-exclusive mechanics fall into this. For example, what happens if part of the story requires players to explore a planet on foot?
There will be some elements that Horizons players won't be able to engage with if they haven't got Odyssey," Marsh says. "But I'm not sure that they'll ever be in a situation where they're not able to join in, in some form, with the narrative content."
Moreover, as alluded to earlier, much of the work Frontier have been doing on 4.0 is to Elite's backend, a substantial portion of which relates to how the studio presents the game's metanarrative, with a new focus on showing players events rather than simply telling them about them. "One of those we showcased recently with the ability to put a cutscene at the start of the game and load in something that we've been working hard on for the last few months," Betterton says. "Previously, where you would have heard about something that had happened, it's nice to actually put players in the thick of it and get them engaging."
This adjustment to storytelling started with Update 13, focused on the failure of the Proteus Wave (a superweapon designed to put an end to the Thargoids) in the star system HIP 22460. Marsh references the destruction of the Capital ships amassed in that system as part of the Proteus Wave event. "Experiencing that battle alongside a capital ship against the Thargoids was something that was using a pre-existing toolkit that we had, but was such a different feel, and as such unique situation that players were then a part of this story, as opposed to hearing about that happening."
Indeed, one thing Frontier want to do as of Update 13 is give players a more palpable sense of participating in the story. Players have always had the ability to influence Elite's simulation through trading, exploration, and so forth. But Betterton notes that player actions can also affect the direction of Elite's narrative, and have done for a while. "A lot of that went into the last two years of making this story. So although it might seem like it was quite curated, actually a lot of this was dependent, pretty much on what players did for some of those key beats," he says.
The Proteus Wave event wasn't simply a one-off spectacle, either. The failure of this anti-Thargoid weapon has shifted the balance of power in Elite, making the aliens a much tougher in-game foe than they were previously. "Humans have been top of the pecking order for some time," Betterton says. "But the change in HIP 22460 has given [the Thargoids] a ton of tools to be able to shift that balance. There are players currently in that system struggling to survive, who previously would call themselves veteran anti-Thargoid pilots."
As well as heating up the conflict between humanity and the Thargoids, Marsh says that subsequent updates will provide new content that makes more effective use of Elite's toolbox. "There'll be a combination of re-engaging with things and areas and features that players are familiar with now," she says. "But there's also going to be some situations where there are new features as well for players to engage with." According to Marsh, all of this "feeds into the escalating Thargoid threat."
"The galaxy will never be the same again."
Going forward, Frontier want the relationship between players and the broader story to be even more direct, with further twists coming in Update 14. "The galaxy will never be the same again," Marsh says. "We're going to reward players who invest their time to explore and finds things to reengage again with the sort of content that we have. There's going to be new things to play with, new toys. We're very much looking forward to seeing what happens."
Frontier haven't announced a release date for either Update 14 or the 4.0 code alignment, although Marsh says the latter is "on track for the next few weeks". How the changes will affect the community's feelings about both Elite and Odyssey is hard to gauge. But as Marsh points out, the game has been changing ever since it launched. Alongside Destiny, which released in the same year, Elite Dangerous is one of the pioneers of live-service gaming, and none of the game's ideas and features, whether loved or hated, are set in stone.
"With some of the thoughts on the on-foot gameplay, nothing to announce, but as is the nature of Elite, we can't rule out any changes," Marsh says. "It is a constantly evolving living game, really, which is part of what makes it so exciting and refreshing."
Elite Dangerous is available on Steam, Frontier Store, Epic Games Store and Humble for £20 / €25 / $30, and the base version of the game continues to be one of the best space games you can play on PC today. You can also play it through Game Pass until August 31st 2022.