Taking a quick look at the state of Elite Dangerous
Now that the dust around the latest patch and various bugs has settled, it's time to take a quick look at the state of Elite and the way it's heading…
Last week the game received the first small patch of the current season (if we can even call it that way). As announced, no major updates will be added to the game at least until the end of 2020. while the current small patches would focus on existing features and new player experience.
So once the patch notes got published, no one was surprised to see the changes made except one small detail no one asked for, nor it was ever even considered for discussion among the players. Of course, we’re talking about the drag munition update that now completely disrupt your boost capabilities making your ship basically a sitting duck against the attacker.
This small change alone renders a lot of PVP fits completely useless and literally adds no quality changes what-so-ever. Furthermore, Frontier never talked about it nor they explained why did they make a drastic change like this in the first place. To top that, they even snuck in an undocumented change and simply cut down the canopy structure down by half! Why!? Just to make more explorers blow up for bumping into stars? Gee… thnx!
The communication level from Frontier has been bad (to be modest) over the years but this reaches a whole new level, and since this patch had no beta testing – no one even had the slightest idea of the incoming change.
The good thing is that after the community uproar – Frontier decided to revert the changes made to the drag munition, yet – they still never explained why it was implemented in the first place.
Turning over to the rest of the update changes… we can see an actual decent improvement for newer players. The various UI changes in the form of icons, helpers and links between the various panels will certainly help new commanders as well as the game immersion. The addition of a set of “newbie” zones that are locked behind a permit also provides a better sense of security and disables griefing of new commanders (to a point).
However, even after all this – Frontier didn’t make sure that the actual missions available to those new commanders actually fit their new status. Even though the initial station you spawn at gives out low-level missions, all other stations in the new player zone offer regular missions that most of them will just not be able to take on by themselves making the whole thing potentially as confusing as before.
Which brings us to the actual subject of this article… Development pace, the quality of delivered content and most importantly – communication.
Development pace & content quality
If we step back for a short moment and look at the whole development of Elite post-launch, we can easily spot one constant running through each patch – bugs! Bugs everywhere! But most importantly, the lack of clear communication that always comes down to one same thing: Frontier telling us how they have a lot of “exciting” plans in the works for the game. Yet we witness patch after patch how they implement half-baked features littered with bugs that get patched later on or simply completely abandoned due to said features not being as popular as expected (CQC anyone?) which is, again, caused by the fact that it’s either half-baked, not convenient or simply not working. And so the magic circle turns…
When was the last time you requested a ship transfer? You know – that thing that the game charges you an insane amount of credits AND makes you wait while doing nothing? When was the last time you jumped into someone’s ship via multi-crew and actually did something meaningful apart from shoot a turret? But most importantly – when did you do something in multi-crew that actually felt rewarding or simply required a wing that’s not shooting Thargoids? This is supposed to be a multiplayer game!
So much potential, but so little results.
My biggest issue with this design is the lack of any form of dedicated roles. Even though ships hint that some of them might be better in some roles than the others (exploration and hauling is the most obvious example), that so-much-loved combat in Elite simply boils down to who has the bigger and better-engineered ship. Such player will always win simply to ship stats having bigger numbers.
Let’s look at EVE for a moment and see how they handle such things. First of all – small ships are very agile and fast. This makes them very difficult to lock and track from a larger ship. This also means that a few small frigates can easily wreck a ship of a higher class simply because that big ship will have issues tracking small craft flying circles around it. This also brings tactics to the battlefield and roles. Fast, small ships that will interdict your enemies and hold them in place until the rest of the fleet comes in.
Now let’s try and imagine such a scenario implemented in a random Elite mission. The example I always mention is a “Pirate station attack”. Imagine picking up a mission saying there’s been a large amount of smuggling reported, and a pirate stronghold was detected at the edge of the system. You would then be given multiple objectives that only specific roles could tackle.
Smaller ships (or SLFs piloted by multi-crew members) would have to fly through the station (CQC style) and disable shield generators or communication arrays from within (you know… as much as you love that Corvette – you can’t fit her inside a small gap). At the same time – the station calls for reinforcements and tosses waves of ships at you – ships your wingmen would take care of from outside in bigger ships. Unless the small ships destroy the communication array, those waves just keep getting bigger and bigger.
Maybe even require coordination between wingmen – like timed attacks on various POIs of the station to open/close specific corridors with access to modules you need to destroy so everyone gets a challenge.
Not only this would promote teamwork, usage of various ships and sizes, this would also be a large boost to mission replayability. One time you’re in charge of the defenses, the other time you’re flying through a station Star Wars style! As for rewards – Just toss in some unique cosmetics and I’m sure people will flock to it like crazy! Stop milking the damn store with skins that can barely qualify as such… (just for reference – check out this article from over a year ago where Frontier promised frequent in-game earnable cosmetics)
The best part – they already have assets and tech to make this possible! What about Thargoid bases? Why were they implemented anyway? Sure, it’s a cool place to visit, the SRV puzzle is fun and looks amazing… but then what? The story stopped years ago (see here), bases didn’t change, Thargoids never interacted with them after… Nothing happens. Imagine a scenario built around those! Scouts flying all over the place attacking commanders, wingmen defending the area so SRVs can finish whatever needs to be done underground to finally destroy or neutralize the whole base.
Which brings us to the final subject – development competence. Now, Frontier has stated on numerous occasions that they have hundreds of people working on Elite, which – to be honest, is a laughable statement for the state and the dev pace the game’s been through. However, do not dismiss the capabilities Frontier actually has when it comes to development power and knowledge. They have proven time after time that they can deliver amazing and fun games in a short time. Just look at other titles from the same studio: Planet Coaster, Jurassic World, Planet Zoo, LostWinds… Not to mention their sound and graphics department that is just stellar!
Can we get some beefy content?
So why are updates for Elite delivered at a crawling pace? Why are they keeping all communications to a bare minimum at all times? Well, it could be a simple fact that the space sim genre is a very niche game genre and Elite literally has no competition. If you want to play a modern space sim where you actually actively fly your ship – you have no other options. EVE is magnificent but it’s more tactical, it offers no hands-on approach to flying your ship. There are X games but those are all single player titles that focus on empire building. There’s No Man’s Sky which is a pure arcade more similar to Minecraft in space than a space sim… There are multiple smaller titles like Everspace, but yet again – it offers no depth to the game except fantastic visuals and a quick fix to a space dogfight. There’s also Star Citizen… but we all know that’s not coming out any time soon. When you notice most of those are PC only titles, it leaves us with Elite being the only viable option.
With no competition, there’s no reason to push themselves and deliver anything at a faster pace which is a damn shame since the player base is literally crying for more each day. And if we really want to dig deeper into real-life reasons – there’s always money!
A game like Elite in its current state is probably maintained by either a skeleton crew or by a bunch of seniors in charge of interns. Anyone that’s ever been in active software development can notice such a thing simply by looking at the development cycle and the quality of delivered code/features. No Man’s Sky was the biggest flop in gaming history, yet a team of dozen people keeps pushing huge FREE updates every few months. NMS got far more features in a year than Elite’s gotten since launch.
And since Elite’s still active enough to cash in tons of microtransactions and pull in newer people – the low dev cost makes it perfectly justifiable. This is why bigger features like player owned carriers, spacelegs, atmospheric landings and such got postponed and will be charged extra. They need the manpower of their actual dev team that delivers! Especially after almost a 2-year break from any major features. Frontier simply must not allow this to be a flop. Unfortunately, I have a lot people on my friends list that haven’t logged into the game for ages – over the course of the next year and a half, I’m sure a lot of commanders will join them. That final “big” update will have to be ground-breaking to pull back everyone in.
You see – spacelegs, or atmospheric landings will bring ZERO gameplay on its own. Yet the implementation will cost years of dev work. Sure, you’ll be able to walk around your ship… but then what? You’ll be able to land on an earth-like world and take fantastic screenshots… but then what? Elite is not a walking simulator. All new features need gameplay loops and mechanics behind them to make the whole thing worth the initial dev-time investment. Something players will pay for and not treat it like a novelty for a week or two and just move on because there’s nothing to do.
With such a huge time gap until that happens – it puts even more pressure on Frontier’s shoulders, making the 2020. update probably the breaking point for the game. It will either fall into the abyss of permanent maintenance without any major content or bloom into the best space sim on the market that will just melt all competition which, by the end of 2020, just might become a bit bigger than what we have right now.