My name is Adam Shaftoe, but some of you might know me as Commander Adam Shaftoe. I’m what you call a combat pilot. Politics and ideology don’t really matter to me. Show me the credits, whisper the target’s name, and I’ll get the job done. To date, I own two starships, including a brand spanking new Core Dynamics Vulture, and I have about 10,000,000 credits in the bank. I know I’m not the most successful Commander in the Pilots’ Federation, but I’m no rookie, either.

It’s fair to say Elite:Dangerous pushes a lot of my buttons. It lets me tell a meta-story with other pilots in a vast, online universe. For a few hours every week, Elite: Dangerous lets me climb into the cockpit of a space ship and live out my childhood fantasy of blowing things up in space. Rick Hunter, eat your heart out.

This alone is enough to keep me playing Elite: Dangerous.

Mind you, when I’m not tearing around the galaxy, I like to think I’m a reasonably capable critic. The critic in me wonders why I’m still playing Elite: Dangerous.

As much as I enjoy being a bad-ass space pilot, I’m not blind to some of the serious shortcomings in the game – notwithstanding the lack of ownership as elucidated in this piece.

About two patches ago, Frontier Developments introduced community goals into Elite: Dangerous. Players could now work together on large scale projects that would carry forward within ED’s persistent world. My favourite of these community goals are combat operations, which are a lot like fundraisers only with more murder. The game keeps a running tally of all combat payouts a pilot secures within a certain operation. As all players involved in the community goal meet an escalating series of milestones, they qualify for a final payout commensurate with said milestone and their proportional contribution to the goal.

Here’s where things get weird. I worked for the Federation in a recent combat community goal. I supported this particular government within Elite: Dangerous’ political triad because I knew they would send a capital ship to the warzone. I then switched from open play, where I can interact with other human players – some of whom might choose to work for the opposing faction – to solo play, where it was me versus the AI.

A quick FTL to the warzone, and I was in the thick of it with the Federation fighters, a Federal capital ship, and the soon to be dead opposing force.

Experience has taught me to hang close to the capital ship during these situations. Rather than engaging in ship-to-ship combat, I set my ship’s turreted beam weapons to fire at will on any enemy who crossed my path. Meanwhile, the capital ship hammered away on everything within its combat radius. At the time of this post, Elite: Dangerous’ combat system is set up so that AI ships can’t collect combat bonds. Meaning, all I have to do is tag an enemy ship to collect the full combat bond when the AIs/Cap ship eventually take it out.  This system doesn’t always work, but it works more often than not.

I devoted about three hours of play time to this scheme. For my efforts I scored roughly 2,000,000 credits in combat bonds, which amounted to two-thirds of the value of the ship I was flying at the time. No small sum of money. Here’s the best part, my contribution to the community goal put me in the 40th percentile of all pilots working on the mission. This earned me another 15,000,000 credits.

This seems excessive even by the Federation’s standards. Within Elite’s lore, the Feds are a bloated and often incompetent bureaucracy. Don’t get me wrong, the mercenary in me is more than happy to take the Federation’s money. Yet as a critic, I have to ask if this is the game functioning as David Braben and team intended. Should I really be able to cheese my way to riches on something that feels like a design oversight?

I suppose it could be some sort of commentary on the economics of wealth. If it weren’t for the fact that I already had a ship worth 3,000,000 credits, which is a long way off from the Sidewinder I started in – market value 32,000 credits – there’s no way I would be able to milk the Federation for an easy 17,000,000. My wealth, in a game whose economy leans toward lassiez-faire, put me in a position to make literal fuck-tons of more money.

There’s simply no way a poorer pilot could have pulled off what I did. I have the disposable income to buy and sell ship parts without consideration. I don’t have to worry about losing a significant portion of my net-worth on insurance claims if I get blown up. And more importantly, my money bought me an engine that gives me access to the entirety of civilized space. No new pilot can claim those things. In Elite: Dangerous as in life, my modest wealth put me in a place to earn considerable wealth. Even though “considerable wealth” will reach a point where its windfalls no longer represent a meaningful percentage of my net-worth, for the time being my money makes me more money than my combat skills.

Is this side-effect of unabashed, unregulated, capitalism meant to be Elite: Dangerous condemning the status quo? Shall we put in a call to Thomas Picketty and his observations on a return to gilded-age economics? Am I meant to reflect on the fact that as a rich player, I now stand to get richer so much faster than when I started? Or is this an exploit to be patched in a future update? My inner space pilot doesn’t care, and my inner critic refuses to give up the game until he gets an answer. Either way, I keep playing.

If nothing else, it’s a hat tip to David Braben and his team for creating a game that makes me want to keep playing, even when my critical instincts say I should move on to something else. More on this story as I murder my way toward an answer.