Title: Elite: Dangerous
Developer: Frontier Developments
Original Release Date: December 16, 2014
Mechanics and Explanation
Elite: Dangerous is a space adventure exploration game where the player is free to explore scale replica of the Milky Way galaxy consisting of 400 billion unique star systems. The game doesn’t have much of a story to speak of but that is fine because it quite frankly doesn’t need one. Players have 100% freedom in the game and may fight, trade, or explore to their heart’s content. What little story there is mainly consists of space station requests taking the player to new star systems resulting in them learning about the current system and the previous system through the messages they receive from NPCs they encounter while on their travels. Player pilot a ship through space seeking combat, exploring star systems, completing missions for space stations, and trading for profit. The player is also free to engage in military operations and pirating if they so desire. The ships are controlled using a somewhat complicated set of key and mouse inputs thought the player is provided with the option to use a flight stick if they desire. The cockpit of the ship presents the player with myriad information. Moving from left to right, top to bottom, the player is first presented with their communication panel (closed in this picture) and then their information panel (again closed in this image. They are then presented with their target data next to a target image (the small blue planet). Next to the target data is a small circle with a white dot in it. That is an orientation gauge that helps the player align with their target in 3D space. In the center of the screen is the radar. It displays all contacts in 3D space within sensor range. On the left side of the radar is the player ship’s heat gauge. To the right of the radar is the throttle and speed indicator. To the right of that is the players shield and hull display. The blue rings are the players shield and the orange bar below it is their hull integrity. The three vertical orange bars to the right of the player ship status display is the ship power settings. The power settings consist of System, Engine, and Weapons in that order. Finally to the far right is the player’s fuel gauge and their cargo, landing gear, and mag lock indicators. All of this is just the basic interface the player uses on an ongoing basis. Additional panels are found on the far left and far right of the main screen which contain much greater detail and functionality for the player. A major part of the game is managing and mastering the dozens of systems involved with controlling the player ship. A secondary goal of the game is mastering the flight controls of the ships in the game. Each ship handles differently from the next. The game also allows players to choose from two methods of flight. Assisted flight aids the player in controlling the ship by forcing it to handle similar to an airplane. Unassisted flight allows the player to fly their ship with 6 axis – 360 degree freedom. While unassisted the player ship will retain all momentum applied to it just as a true spacecraft would. Unassisted flight allows the pilot with some freedom that assisted mode does not such as rotating 180 degrees while maintaining forward momentum. Control of the player ship is a core mechanic of the game. In Elite: Dangerous if a player’s ship is destroyed it is gone forever. Players must use the credits they earned while playing to either re-purchase a similar ship or settle for the starting ship which is available for free but is not great at any specific task. Players are also given the option of taking out a loan with the game to purchase a ship similar to their destroyed ship. The player will have a fee deducted from their earnings automatically every time they are LEGALLY paid. Another very interesting mechanic of the game is the bounty system. Player who engage in hostile actions against other players earn wanted status. Wanted status makes system authorities hostile to the player until they have either paid off their debt or they have been destroyed. The interesting thing is that players can see the wanted board while they are in a space station and they are informed of the player’s current bounty and their last known location in space. This leads to some intense player vs player combat situations.
Elite: Dangerous is almost completely decision based. The amount of decisions available to the player are almost endless. The player sets their own goals in the game. They determine if they want to participate in the universe in a legal and respectable manner or in an illegal hostile manner. After making that decision players need to determine what they need to do to reach those goals. Typically this starts out with making money to purchase a different ship and then outfitting that ship with the proper equipment for the task. After a player has determined what they want to do in the game they typically search for a sector in the galaxy that allows them to engage in their preferred method of play with impunity. Determining a solar system or solar systems to operate out of is a major decision. Most of the sectors are controlled by a major governmental faction that polices its sectors vigilantly. Players who engage in unauthorized combat in protected sectors run the risk of being intercepted by the authorities in the area. Because of this, players who decide to engage in pirating typically hang out in sectors that are out of the jurisdiction of the major powers.
Players are responsible for starting their ships, managing power, managing weapon systems, landing, docking, equipping, upgrading, painting and flying their ships, choosing a faction, associating with a government, engaging with an interstellar allegiance, increasing or decreasing their influence, managing their state affiliation and handling relationships with all of the major and minor entities within the game. Players also have to choose a ship that is appropriate for their intentions. Some ships are better for combat while others are good for transporting large amounts of goods. One more decision to be made by players that is of merit is the type of influence they wish to have on the galaxy. If players decide to spend their time exploring the galaxy they will be rewarded with credits from the Universal Cartographers for their exploration data. If the player is the first one to ever visit a solar system, explore it, and return the data to a space station that accepts cartographic data then they are also provided with a unique reward. Their name becomes permanently associated with the systems they discovered.
Pacing, Flow, and Interest Curves
Because the game’s pace is largely determined by the player’s actions it is tough to decipher and translate it into a quantifiable value. Therefore I used my own experiences with the game to determine the values for the chart below. Due to the nature of the game the chart only reflects my experience and will likely be invalid for almost any other player. Some players will see peaks in their interest for things like trading or exploring but I prefer combat situations.
Interest is initially provoked by the startup of the game. The player is introduced to the cockpit and its many controls via a short tutorial during which time the player runs systems checks on their ship, powers it up, and launches from the docking bay for the very first time. Player interest quickly drops as they begin learning the complicated and varied controls for their ship. The steep learning curve associated with the controls is not quite enough to force a player to quit but it can be very frustrating. Interest slowly increases as the player becomes comfortable with the basic controls and begins flying for the first time. As the player begins exploring and engages their frame shit drive for the first time their interest begins to quickly rise. The player is being bombarded by some amazing visuals, the vastness of the universe, and some very delicious music during their first exploratory flight. After learning the basic flight and exploration controls the player is introduced to combat. Interest in the game peaks for a player like me here since combat is the pinnacle of fun. After the player has successfully dispatched their first foe they have a greater understanding of the controls of their ship and their own abilities. The player is then faced with the task of docking their ship, on their own. The final task is difficult enough to keep the player’s interest high enough that they are willing to embark again on another adventure through the Milky Way.
The learning curve of the game starts out fairly steep. It then levels out for a while and again rises when the player experiences combat for the first time. The difficulty increases yet again as the player learns to dock, which in itself can be daunting the first time a player attempts it since the player can and will die if they do not dock properly.
Since the game in its current state does not have a true storyline it is difficult to determine the pace of the game. The pace in the chart above is equivalent to my perceived pace of the game during a typical play session.
The flow of the game follows a very well defined flow channel. The ship controls initially increase difficulty followed by another slight increase in difficulty when the player begins flying the ship. When traveling to the next location the player activates their frame shift drive. The game takes over for a short period of time allowing the player to relax. Before boredom sets in the player reaches their destination and begins manually flying again increasing difficulty and allowing the player to practice the skills they have mastered. The player will always travel to a new area when seeking combat resulting in a period of relaxation before they are incited by combat.