"Open world" games don't come much more open than Elite: Dangerous. Indeed, Elite is so expansive that such a title doesn't really apply; it’s more “open universe”. Frontier Developments’ game simulates a galaxy roughly 100,000 light years across, containing 400 billion star systems. To give you an idea of how large this virtual space is, if each of the game's 500,000 players explored a new system every day, it would take 2,192 years for every star to be seen by human eyes.
This vast and largely uncharted game space has attracted thousands of aspiring pioneers, all wanting to make their mark on the game's galaxy map. Player excursions range from lone adventurers striking out in a random direction, to carefully organised expeditions involving hundreds of players. Their experiences tell us much about the nature of the game; what makes it such a fascinating creation, and also what makes it a flawed one.
"I have a love / hate relationship with exploration at the moment," says Erimus One, creator of the YouTube series Distant Suns. "There are some wonderful sights out there. My personal disappointment with exploration though comes from how shallow it all becomes after the initial wow-factor wears off. The only real challenge at the moment is one of endurance: how long can you stay out there? How far can you go? That's one of the reasons why I set myself challenges of voyaging to the most distant places in the galaxy. To see if a ship was able to do it, and to see if I had the patience and endurance to see it out."
A fan of Elite since the original released back in 1984, Erimus was a backer of the original Kickstarter, and recorded his first video series on the game, New Horizons, during the Gamma phase prior to the game's full release. "Exploration was always the thing that intrigued me the most – much more than getting rich from trade, or combat."
New Horizons involved a round trip of 29,000 light years, and the feedback Erimus received spurred him to do another, much larger expedition. "I used the in-game map to pick out some points of interest along a route that would take me through the galactic core, and out to the unexplored far side of the galaxy." Over the course of three months, Erimus travelled over 130,000 light years on a journey that took him to the very edge of Elite's galaxy.
"Erimus travelled over 130,000 light years on a journey that took him to the very edge of Elite's galaxy."
Although Erimus had a specific route in mind, an expedition of this scale inevitably had its fair share of surprises. "The Dryao Chrea stellar remnant was something I had no idea existed until I caught a glimpse of it outside my canopy window, some 500 LYs away – a small blue haze off in the distance," he says. "It ended up being one of the most beautiful locations I passed through." But his favourite discovery was the Greae Phio stellar forge. Located just shy of the galactic core, it was the subject of an entire Distant Suns video. "With millions of tightly packed stars around you, with tens of thousands embedded within a vast nebula, it's the most visually stunning place I've seen so far."
This is arguably the strongest aspect of Elite's exploration,: it's less to do with discovering specific stars or planets, and more about how the galaxy gradually shifts around you, the way its colour palette changes as you drift into a nebula, or the contrast between the brilliance of the galactic core and the inky black of deep space. The star-pocked sky isn't a flat, static backdrop: it shifts and changes as you push further and further from the home systems.
"When I reached the far side of the galactic rim, some 65,000 light years from home, the sense of remoteness was something I thought I'd never feel in a video game," Erimus explains. "Seeing the centre of the galaxy, 35,000 light years away, as just a narrow band of light, with little colour or structure, and realising home was yet another 30,000 light years beyond that! That was an impressive feeling of scale."
It's in offering these less tangible rewards that Elite: Dangerous truly excels, and Erimus is by no means alone in his desire to share them with others. Tane Piper, better known by his online handle Titus Balls, has been chronicling his own experiences in Elite with his "Wonders of the Galaxy" Series.
Unlike Erimus's project, where he set out with a specific goal in mind, Piper's videos came about almost by accident. "I had recently joined TEST [an Elite: Dangerous Community] and was talking to one of the members, who brought up the point that you could use the Sidewinder ship to get an unobstructed view of the game. After playing about with some screenshots I moved up to recording video footage. I noticed I was able to do some movements to get things like sweeping and panning shots, and from there the series was born."
It's worth noting that until the recent "Wings" update, sharing experiences in Elite came with certain limitations. Pilots were locked into their ship's cockpit view, so taking screenshots and recording videos could only be done through the ship's canopy. This meant players who wanted to show off their discoveries in a more stylistic fashion essentially had to develop their own filming style. "One challenge is trying to capture other ships – both NPC and PC. Because you have to move with the lateral thrusters of the ship, it means you can't go as fast. Also it means you can have accidents," Piper observes.
Piper's videos are less about highlighting the farthest reaches of the galaxy, and more about showcasing Elite as a living universe. They also track the gradual evolution of the game right back to the Beta stage, when the galaxy was a mere fifty systems in size. "This was one of my favourite times," Piper says. "Exploring the small sector felt a lot grander. A lot of emergent gameplay happened then too, with consensual and non-consensual PVP happening at Freeport station".
Piper's fond memories of the beta also hints at the problems that Elite Dangerous currently faces. Frontier's game might be able to instil a powerful sense of grandeur, but it's also a vague one. Piper identifies this as a lack of meaningful content. "In psychology there is something called "The Ikea Effect". It's a cognitive bias that occurs when you place a disproportionately high value on products you partially create. Because everything is NPC controlled, and driven by the black box that Frontier call their background simulation, the game feels like any effort is just about tipping numbers from one end to another."
This is a problem which Erimus also recognises. "There is only so much scanning you can do before the novelty wears off, then it seems to become another credit-grind and a race to get your name tagged onto a system." A big issue is that the galaxy can often feel fairly lifeless. There are no alien races to encounter, while random finds like rare artefacts are reduced to cargo that can be sold. Elite has plenty of wonder, but little mystery; everything is quantified by its monetary value. Meanwhile, Frontier's approach to story is very dispersed. You often need to be in the right place at the right time, or it can feel like there isn't a story going on at all.
Lastly, exploration doesn't involve much in the way of skill. Instead, exploration prowess is mostly reliant on the discovery scanner you can afford. The most advanced of these will highlight every object of interest in a system instantaneously. "There is no real skill involved in pinpointing that Earth-like world, or detecting that neutron star. It's all there for you to see on the system map once your scan completes," Erimus says. "Where is the satisfaction and art of 'discovery' in that?"
Frontier is aware of many of the game’s problems, and is updating it on a regular basis. The next update "Power Play", will focus in part on the game's procedural mission system to expand the variety of missions on offer and cater better to more experienced players. Whether this will affect the exploration side of the game is yet to be seen.
For now, Elite's exploration side relies largely on the community's ingenuity. Fortunately, this isn't in short supply. The most ambitious exploration attempt to date comes in the form of the First Great Expedition, which sees 1,000 players banding together with an aim to explore Elite's galaxy in its entirety.
Yet what impresses most about The First Great Expedition isn't so much the scale of the effort, but the almost military-level of organisation going into it. TFGE is taking advantage of the recent "Wings" update to band explorers together into co-operative teams, and determining "base-camp" systems for players to rally around.
"For now, Elite's exploration side relies largely on the community's ingenuity. Fortunately, this isn't in short supply."
"When we set out, we will be moving from base camp to base camp, letting members explore around each area," says CMDR Wishblend, one of the lead administrators for the expedition. "When the time comes to move forward we will announce our next base camp system that our pathfinders will have located, and either members move in a big group of smaller wings on the day or they set out ahead of or follow on behind the main expedition."
As hinted at by the game's title, this won't be some merry tourist trip around the galaxy. There's a genuine risk of expedition members having their ships destroyed or being stranded in some remote system, devoid of fuel. What's more, currently it isn't possible to have multiple characters in Elite. So once you're in the expedition, you're in. "If your ship is destroyed you respawn at the last station you docked at, which could be many thousands of light years away. At that point you've got the choice of trying to catch up with the Expedition, or calling it a day," says Steve Wilds, the expedition's founder.
There are a host of other problems too. Losing a player mid-expedition could cost the team millions of credits' worth of exploration data, and they constantly have to update their plans and goals as the game updates and new events play out. A recent community goal resulted in a million newly discovered systems being added to the GalNet by random players joining in. "Given the rather chaotic splurge of exploration this represents we are having to constantly reassess what the Expedition can or should do," says Commander Reighdar, a fellow expedition administrator.
The organisational effort of The First Great Expedition is mightily impressive, as is the commitment of Elite's most intrepid explorers. One determined fellow going by the moniker R4nger0 recently crossed the entire galaxy in a Sidewinder spacecraft, the equivalent of traversing the globe on a skateboard. If you fancy exploring in Elite, there are some astonishing sights just around the corner from Earth to whet your appetite, like the enormous S-Class star HIP 40977, or the beautiful contact binary system S-Antliae. Both of these are real systems less than 300 light years from Earth. Alternatively, just pick a direction and see what's out there.
Space might be largely empty, but it's also filled with wonders.