I couldn’t tell you how much time I’ve invested in Elite Dangerous. Certainly more time than I spent playing EVE Online the one summer I was unemployed. During this time, I’ve done everything David Braben’s remake of the great-grand daddy of space trading/combat games has to offer: hunting bounty, piracy, mining, exploring, playing the commodities market, and alternatively harassing and helping other players. These adventures across the galaxy have led me to one conclusion; I really like Elite Dangerous, but I don’t think you, gentle reader, will feel the same way about it. And don’t get me wrong, not liking Elite Dangerous is probably the normal reaction to this game.
Perhaps, as modern gamers, we’re a bit spoiled with our endless tutorials and help screens. If I think about games that have challenged me in recent years, my mind goes to things like Dark Souls, Spelunky, and Risk of Rain. These games are unapologetic for being brutally hard, but they do have an achievable end-game. Elite Dangerous is equally brutal in its difficulty, yet lacking any purpose beyond amassing a shit ton of credits and earning the title of “Elite,” which instantly raises the question, “why bother?” Granted, Frontier Developments has promised expansions and better multiplayer interactions, but those things have yet to happen. This leaves me looking at the release build of ED and seeing it as little more than a very big, very beautiful, sandbox. It is the very embodiment of the phrase “A mile wide an inch deep.”
For weirdoes like myself, who find a subtle pleasure in buying cargo at one space station, flying to another, and selling said cargo, amid a sandbox that is literally the size of our galaxy, this is just fine. I like making spreadsheets to record my trade routes. I like listening to podcasts as I fly my ship about the cosmos. But let’s take a moment to work through the reason why I do those two things in concert with playing Elite Dangerous.
Someone on the Frontier Forum once said Elite Dangerous is only fun if you have something else to do while you’re playing it. I think this allegation is truer than most of us who play the game would like to admit. Space, as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tells us, is very big, and much of space is exactly that, space. Cruising about a solar system is often slow going, even at fifty times the speed of light. Elite Dangerous leans entirely toward reality in terms how it presents the galaxy as a 1:1 scale rendering of our own Milky Way. It’s technical achievement, to be sure. As a space nerd, it’s a total wet dream to pick a direction and see what’s out there. But if you’re somebody who wants a modern Wing Commander Privateer, Elite Dangerous can often be as much fun as getting hauled out on a drive through the country with your parents. Only in combat, docking, or scooping fuel from a star does ED demand a player’s full attention. This raises the question, are we actually playing a good game when we have to manufacture distractions from the extensive boring bits?
Then there are the spreadsheets. I love spreadsheets. I lovingly refer to EVE Online as Spreadsheets: The Game. Where my use of spreadsheets in EVE represented the game spilling over into my real life, I find that I’m keeping meticulous records of everything that happens to me in ED because the future is surprisingly inconvenient in its ability to manage data.
Suppose I want to visit station 1 in system X, it seems pretty pathetic that my ship’s computer can manage the math behind a FTL jump to get there, but can’t remember the prices of commodities on station 2 in system Y. Maintaining spreadsheets to manage the finances of a multi-player company in EVE is one thing, but having to keep records because Frontier Developments wants to insert an artificial barrier to success within the game’s trading system – which at the moment is the only way to make the kind of money necessary to buy the biggest and best ships in the game – seems to reflect some poor design.
Yet I keep going back to the game. I keep strapping on my mid-range cargo ship and scribbling down notes about low-priced tobacco and palladium. When I get bored of the scenery and podcasts, I switch to my hunter-killer ship, put on some Kenny Loggins and go blow up some pirates. While I enjoy myself in ED, I’m very aware of the fact I’m compensating for an imperfect game, which leans heavily on payer investment in Elite’s mythos, out-of-game social communities (e.g. the Elite Dangerous forms and reddit), and a player’s innate love of space.
Which brings me back to the biggest bug-a-boo of gaming: accessibility. While I would never argue that a game needs to be all things to all people, such that Elite Dangerous ought to cater to my mom’s gaming abilities, an appropriately accessible game is tailor made for anybody who wants to play it. This is where Elite Dangerous fails a pretty significant litmus test. Everything about Elite Dangerous, at the time of this review, tells me it’s catering to a very narrow niche of gamers and biting its thumb at everybody else, even if those players had a good time with Freelancer or Privateer and want a modern analogue. ED is out to initiate the hardest of the hard-core space junkies into its ranks. Once you’re in, the game comes off as a weird libertarian environment; it proudly pronounces anybody can succeeded in Elite, but only if they are smart enough to get there on their own. It forces me to look at out of game for support and advice on how to be successful. I wouldn’t be surprised to find a John Galt station out there in the ‘verse. Is this why we play games? To struggle to find a purpose and then to depend on the largess of others to succeed in said purpose? Here I thought we played games to get away from how life tries to grind us down with those things.
Thus we’re left with a game which is likely going to struggle to grow its base of players. This is a real shame, because Elite Dangerous is a genuinely gorgeous game. It’s a monument to how David Braben blazed trail for the likes of Origin Systems and Volition. Yet it’s a dick of a game that seems utterly indifferent to a player’s success. I consider myself a shrewd trader and an excellent shot and I’m still thirty or forty hours from buying a ship which that says “I wear long pants”. Still, I know I’ll go back to Elite Dangerous, because, for once, I’m part of the target demographic. I don’t mind making my own fun as I haul ass through the boring emptiness of space. Since there’s no free to play mechanic, I like killing an hour or two making fake money as the activity exists within a fair system. Be that as it may, I’m pretty certain I’m the exception to the rule in this case, and the rule is that Elite Dangerous is probably going to turn off more people than it draws in.