I’ll confess I’ve got a new addiction — it’s Elite Dangerous. I grew up and started PC gaming in the late 90’s but I didn’t get to play the truly great space simulator games when they came out. I played and loved the Wing Commander franchise and a few other space combat games here and there, but the genre more or less died in the 2000’s when graphics and sound design really came into their own. It was a little surprising to me that the genre died down as it did because space combat games are some of the easiest games to make visually impressive — most the time you’re rendering a skybox, a few ships, and a couple of orbital objects. There is a reason why Eve Online has always looked so damn good. Speaking of which, Eve Online was my first MMO, not World of Warcraft, the game that has defined a generation of MMO gamers. I was continuously subscribed for six years, and addiction has been off and on since then. If I had to guess, I’d say the decline in space combat simulation games may of had something to do with the rise of console gaming and how these sort of games never really ported over well. With the advent of next-gen console fandom and the arguable decline of PC gaming during the early 2000’s, very few publishers wanted to make exclusive PC title releases — thus the space combat simulator died a quiet death.
But here I am today playing Elite: Dangerous and watching the resurgence of the space combat sims and Space Sim genres. With games like Elite: Dangerous and Kerbal Space Program leading the way, the specter of Star Citizen is reclaimed — publishers and gamers are once more reminded of the genre once forgotten.
Smuggling for Fun, and Some Profit
Commander’s Log: Stardate 11073300-2
Commander Backer’s cargo yielded three tons of palladium and one ton of gold. All are now safely resting in my Cobra’s cargo bay. I look over to my contacts panel, scroll down, and frown. The newly scooped cargo exceeds my frameshift drive’s optimal mass, reducing my jump range. I scroll through the local system looking for a small system outpost that might have a black market. The only thing that is a single fully blown orbital station.
I glance back at the systems panel and consider: I could dump some of my hard-earned cargo at a nearby hideout, or risk potential capture by federal security agents. My bounty rests at ten thousand credits, hardly a scourge of the space lanes compared to most. But If I’m caught with a cargohold of precious metals, the total value will be added to my bounty. I’ve managed to keep a low profile so far by only stealing cargo and not actually destroying ships. Still, I’d have to dump at least two tons of cargo to compensate, including one ton of the exceptionally valuable palladium.
I look back and select the station’s coordinates and begin to spool up my frameshift drive for FTL flight. What’s the point of being an outlaw if I’m not willing to risk the guns and fines of federation bureaucrats?
The frameshift drive propels me to FTL speeds and I feel the ship shudder. The computer displays on my canopy projects a simulated model of the solar system around me using sensors so advanced I can’t even begin to understand the science behind them. All that matters is that they work. I orient my ship towards Baker’s Dock and throttle up into the blue, giving me an acceleration curve that my ship’s computer has calculated.
Most of these stations have their docking bay entrance facing the planet, but Baker’s Dock is facing a gas giant, which means the doors should be facing either spinward or anti-spinward of its orbit around the gas giant. I frown as I consider and risk dropping out of FTL on my current approach vector. The stars’ presence flares as the projected simulation vanishes, and I’m greeted by the sight of a Coriolis Station spinning gracefully against the backdrop of a gas giant. Except I came out on the wrong side as red lights emit from the blackness, telling me the docking bay is kilometers away on the other side.
I com the station and request docking permissions. The operators direct me to land at pad eight, and my ship emits a boost to circle around the station before checking for customs. I look port and see my ship’s computer showing three federal security agents heading my way. Damn, I gambled and lost. Now its time for plan B for sneaking into the station. They must of seen my frameshift wake as I dropped out of FTL. I look starboard to my systems panel and engage silent running mode, then quickly toggle over to my modules and start turning off subsystems that I won’t need as I attempt to sneak into the station.
My ship’s cooling system closes and stops radiating head into space as my shields and major subsystems go offline. As the ship’s vents close, the excess heat from my power plant is diverted to the main heatsink. My thermal signature drops me off the federal agents’ scanners. The internal life support systems close and a timer appears showing my reserve life support system’s remaining breathable air. Five minutes. Should have upgraded that life support system when I had the chance.
The federal agents know a ship is here even if they can’t spot it in the blackness of space. Their ships make formation and begin a search pattern. A wry grin forms and I try not to think about the sweat forming on my brow. The ship’s getting hot inside now. My heatsink is nearly at critical — any longer and I’ll start to damage the subsystems.
Thankfully I’d installed a heatsink launcher system in my ship prior to this. I cycle to my heatsink launcher and activate it, and as the secondary initiates, my canopy frosts over and the inside temperature regulates — the ship whines and shudders as the burning hot heatsink launches into space.
The new thermal signature registers on the security forces scanners and they quickly turn to follow it, likely suspecting that I’m high tailing it away from them in an attempt to get into FTL before they close in. I grin and lower my main thrusters’ power to take advantage of the cooled state of my spaceship. I ease my way around the station and carefully glide through the docking bay doors, all too aware that my shields are down and that one wrong bump could land me an expensive repair job.
My ship’s landing gear meets with the docking pad and I watch as steam clouds dissipate into the station’s atmosphere. Now to start trying to make contact with a black market broker. I’m sure someone will be interested in buying my four tons of precious metals.
Thoughts on Elite Dangerous: Piracy, Smuggling, and the Black Market.
The above story is just an impression of what it can be like to play Elite Dangerous. The game heralds the return of the space combat simulation genre — it’s effectively sucked away hours of my life, not that I’m complaining. I’m excited to know what else Frontier Developments add to the experience prior to the game’s official release date on December 16th. At the moment, the team is more focused on fixing bugs than adding new features.
Pirating players (if you can find them) and NPCs is pretty easy and can be very lucrative if you’re willing to put in the time and effort. Just watch your ammo costs and make sure you’ve got a good hatch breaker if you intend to use one. Since I’ve learned about targeting subsystems, I’ve just been shooting out ships’ cargo bay doors and watching as cargo tumbles out. The game might benefit from a privateer system, where establishing a reputation with the Empire or Federation can in turn grant a license to pirate enemy owned ships and then sell retrieved cargo on the open market with a levy.
Smuggling can be rather exciting — with heatsinks only costing 14 credits it’s relatively inexpensive to use one to sneak into a station rather than try to speed into the dock before agents can catch you. The main problem is if you do get caught smuggling something you get charged the full value of your stolen cargo as a fine. It’s very punishing for new players who may have little in the way of assets.
The Black Market:
The Black Market is very rudimentary and gives a general idea of an underground economy — it seems to buy only at half the demand price. There should be a black market reputation system in place where the more you smuggle the better prices you can demand. After all you’re a skilled pirate/smuggler. Also I think goods that are “illegal” but not stolen as you’ve bought them legit in another system but they are illegal in the system where you want to sell them should sell for much more. Allowing for high risk, high value smuggling runs between systems that legally sell things like narcotics and to systems where narcotics are illegal but there is a huge demand for them on the market.
Elite Dangerous is a game that has totally captivated me. I enjoy piracy, smuggling, combat, and even trading. I love exploring and finding new and strange interstellar bodies. With Elite Dangerous, I can just imagine what it would be like to be the first human to lay eyes on an actual star system. But space is endless and life is far between, as is in Elite Dangerous — with 400 billion star systems in-game, I’ve only run into a few players a hundred or so light years out of the starting system I spawned in. There are few social tools and group activities, and I imagine the player base is going to quickly spread out among the stars. Elite might be the most massive and empty MMO in the history of gaming — however, it’s still in the beta release. Even the more well known Eve Online took until 2008 — five years after its official release — to fully populate. Elite Dangerous, with over 400 billion star systems, might take longer to fill out.
I hope Frontier also addresses so many quality of life issues before the game launches, like being able to store a flight path, or seeing what modules and ships a station sells after you purchase trade data. That said, the core gameplay is great, and anything they do now will only make the game better.
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