Elite: Dangerous — World PVP, Split Modes, and Specific Suggestions for Frontier

So first things first, I’m going to be attempting to dive fairly deeply into some fairly complex topics about a relatively niche game. I think the core of what I’m discussing is universal, but the examples I’m using and how to fix them are going to be specific to Elite: Dangerous (ED). I’m going to try and split the difference and explain the context of these discussions so people with little to no experience with Elite will be able to understand what I’m talking about, so if you’re a fan, bear with those and if you’re not bear with me because I think the overall discussion is going to be worth it.

A Brief Introduction to Elite: Dangerous

Elite: Dangerous is a game about being a pilot in space. The entire game as it stands right now takes place within the cockpit of your ship (or SRV, which you can use to drive around planets, but it’s still essentially just a ship). Humans have spread out and colonized a relatively small portion of the Milky Way, but the entire galaxy is there for you to explore. There are major and minor factions vying for power and dealing with the difficulties of this life on the vast frontier that players can directly influence. There’s a fairly robust trade economy with rare goods, and even certain commodities that are illegal in certain areas that you can sell at a black market if you’re lucky or skilled enough to get them by security. Furthermore, the galaxy is filled with deadly pirates and criminals, far too many to be kept in line by law enforcement leading to a prevalence of bounty hunters. There are asteroids to be mined, star systems to explore that literally no one else has ever seen, and ships of all sorts to buy and upgrade and customize to your hearts content.

But it’s mostly a game about flying through a vast and mostly empty void on an endless quest for numbers to go up so you can get a better ship that makes the numbers go up faster.

Don’t get me wrong, despite me being a relatively casual ED player, it’s one of my favorite games. But in between the thrill of jumping out of hyperdrive and seeing a pure white star like Altair for the first time, or the adrenaline of narrowly triumphing in a fight with a wanted criminal and seeing my money nearly double thanks to their particularly large bounty there’s a whole lot of me just pointing my ship in the direction of an orange circle for a few minutes and waiting to get there. The thing is, I like that part too! I find ED in those moments to be quite relaxing, and the downtime makes the moments of action or discovery more exciting. The sense of scale derived from realizing just how much space there really is between all the stuff in our galaxy, and realizing how much of that stuff is actually there is well worth some downtime to me.

Elite: Dangerous is also not the most welcoming game to new players. There are some tutorials to get you started, but they, and the game itself really do a poor job of helping you figure out what you should be doing at any given moment. They just sort of throw you into the universe with a hundred different buttons that do a hundred different things and expect you to figure it out as you go. For those that manage to persist through the steep learning curve, the result is a feeling of control over your ship. It’s one of the few games I’ve bothered to adjust the default controller configurations of, and recently I spent several hours customizing a Steam Controller configuration from scratch because none of the community provided ones matched how I wanted to fly my ship. If it clicks with you, the level of complexity and breadth of the systems involved is amazing, if it doesn’t you’re just completely lost.

For this and many other valid reasons. ED hasn’t resonated with many of the people that have tried it. Others have heard the complaints of those who have abandoned the game and written it off entirely without giving it a fair chance. The result, to my observance, is a niche community of dedicated fans of the game, all of whom acknowledge there are many things that need to be fixed about the game, but many of them disagreeing with exactly what those things are.

An Explanation of Split Modes

Elite: Dangerous has three separate modes of play, Solo, Private Group, and Open. They’re all fairly easy to understand:

Solo

You’re playing alone, you’ll never encounter any other real people, just computer controlled pilots

Private Group

These private groups can be just groups of friends, or large groups of people. There’s currently a group formed around not allowing player vs player combat called Mobius that has over 20,000 members. When playing in a private group, you’ll still encounter computer controlled pilots, but also potentially whoever else has access to that private group.

Open

You’re playing with everyone else playing in Open Mode (and obviously still computer controlled pilots as well).

The Problem with Split Modes

Frontier has been very clear that their intention is to keep all of these modes as part of the game, and also all have them sharing the same persistent galaxy. This has led to three main complaints:

The only real way to play is in Open, anyone playing in any other mode is basically cheating.

This might seem like hyperbole on my part, but I assure you, after reading most of the recent comment threads on reddit about this subject, it really isn’t. I have yet to see an argument made for this mindset that has any merit. In my opinion, people bought the game to play the way they want, and the modes have been in the game from the beginning. I don’t disagree that Open is the ideal way to play and that more needs to be done to encourage people to play in open, but people should be allowed to play the game they bought the way they would like and if for whatever reason that doesn’t include dealing with other people I’m glad the option exists for them.

World PVP is fun, and allowing for three separate play modes with no real incentive to play in Open has fractured the community of a game that’s already impossibly spread out, making world PVP encounters painfully rare.

This is the more reasonable version of the above argument, and I think ultimately what most of the people making the above argument really feel. There’s actually a lot to unpack here, so I’m going to split this into a couple different ‘sub-arguments’. But before I do a quick aside: I know that World PVP is a vestigial term, and that CQC isn’t really a valid comparison to the Battleground system in WoW or the Crucible in Destiny or the [fun term for instanced and regulated PVP] in [other game]. But it’s a valuable shorthand. For ED, when I’m talking about World PVP, I’m using it as a shorthand for combat scenarios that are essentially player generated. I don’t really consider Conflict Zones or HazRes to be effective examples of World PVP as they exist right now.

No real incentive (and real disincentives) to play in Open has fractured the community of a game that’s already spread out, making world encounters of all sorts incredibly rare. I agree with this. I think there needs to be more incentives (and less disincentives) to playing in Open. I think the fact that many people avoid Open entirely or don’t use it as the default for most situations is a design issue with the game that needs to be addressed and I have some suggestions for this which I’ll detail further on in the post.

World PVP is fun. This is a tricky and very divisive topic. If the argument here was that world PVP can be fun. I would have no debate here, and I realize that may seem like it’s largely a semantic argument, but I don’t think it is. It’s important to realize that when talking about ED or games like it, that the “dream of World PVP” which is to say, emergent battles between real and mostly equally skilled players erupting unexpectedly and creating dynamic stories that people will remember forever, is a misrepresentation of the way that World PVP typically works in Elite.

The way that World PVP often works in Elite are people preying on weak and new players, making their already difficult climb to the top even harder and driving them away from playing the game in Open, if not away from playing Elite entirely. Getting interdicted by someone in a much more powerful ship when you’re new and just learning the game isn’t fun or challenging for either party. If you truly value World PVP it needs to be fun for both the people that win and the ones that lose or you’re going to end up with a mostly empty sandbox. People will either leave to play in Private/Solo, or if those options aren’t available they’ll leave for another game. Either way the result will be the same, and it won’t be the one you want. It won’t be the one I want either, Elite is the sort of game that begs to be played with other people. It’s the sort of game that seems constantly poised on the brink of PVP encounters that are complex and exciting and tactical, and in the instances where that happens, you can start to see the potential for a game that could generate the sorts of stories that EVE does. A lot of people never get to see that side of Elite, and it’s because the PVP scenarios they encounter are only the sorts of one sided encounters where losing and often dying is a terrible experience.

You may counter at this point that losing is never fun, but I disagree. Taking a risk and having it come back to bite you is a very different feeling than dying with the realization that there was little to nothing you could do differently to survive, or avoid that situation. Knowing you’re flying into dangerous territory and encountering danger is a different feeling than having no idea where to go or what to do to protect yourself from danger. I’m guessing that if you’re a person and you initiate combat with another CMDR and they manage to get the upper hand on you you’re probably leaving that encounter feeling energized and determined, not defeated and helpless. Maybe saying “it needs to be fun to lose.” isn’t fair, but it certainly needs to not be miserable to lose. That being said…

World PVP Encounters are too rare. No disagreement there. ED would be a more fun game for everyone if there were more opportunities for emergent World PVP encounters, and more people populating the galaxy in general.

Actions people take in Solo Play or Private Groups affect the same galaxy as in Open Play, giving people playing in Solo/Private an unfair amount of influence because they don’t have to deal with PVP combat. (And also don’t allow us to kill them for contesting us).

This is, in my opinion, the most valid critique of the solo/private group/open play system. I don’t necessarily agree with it, as it’s essentially grounded in an argument that this is unrealistic to the simulation, but there are many ways in which the game would continue to be unrealistic even if people were playing in Open that would deter people from blockading stations or hunting down people in a system they’re trying to influence in a particular way. Either way, I think the answer to this is providing more of a reason for people to default to Open, and as the trolly sorts of World PVP that are too common in ED are the largest thing pushing people towards Solo/Private. I think proponents of Open play for the purpose of World PVP are often shooting themselves in the foot by engaging in the sorts of scenarios that drive people away from playing with them.

That being said, I don’t think this is really the fault of the people that are looking for World PVP. Elite doesn’t, as it’s currently designed, really allow for any other sort of emergent PVP scenarios. You find someone, you interdict them, you fight them. In an empty universe where you’re lucky to find anyone at all that isn’t an AI, if you find anyone and you’re looking for a fight, chances are, you’re going to fight them. The fact that the only way to create any emergent PVP scenarios is kind of a shitty and inadvertently trolly way is a design problem. The fact that the only way people have to be safe from these sorts of inadvertently trolly encounters is to retreat to solo/private groups is a design problem.

How I’d Fix the Problem

Now I’m not a game developer by trade, but I do have enough development/coding experience to know how difficult seemingly simple solutions can be to actually implement. I don’t think any of these fixes I’m suggesting wouldn’t require significant amount of time and effort on the part of Frontier. However, I did make an effort to think them through enough that I believe they should fit fairly neatly into the systems that already exist within the game and shouldn’t compromise the design intentions Frontier have approached ED with, as far as I can understand them.

Safe(r) Space

Of all the suggestions I have, this is the most essential. Rumblings about 2.1 suggest that Frontier is looking into determining more popular travel routes and adjusting encounter rates proportionately along those lines. They’re also working to improve the Galaxy Map to more clearly communicate information about systems and I think that’s a great start. What I’d really like to see is them going a few steps further.

As an aside, I’m hoping that these travel routes feel populated in more ways than just more signal sources appearing. I hope there’s lots of npc (and actual) pilots flying along these routes. I hope they feel like busy highways with the glowing light of hundreds of ships in super cruise travelling along the same pathway that I am. A lot of these systems have populations in the billions, it stands to reason that a lot of them might be flying at any given time. I’m not sure how easy generating hundreds of NPC travelers along these routes would be, but I really hope there’s a way to make this happen.

Back to World PVP, I think that systems should be marked on the galaxy map based on their relative safety. It makes sense to me that the Pilot’s Federation would be able to generate this information, and Frontier should be able to utilize the same information they’re using to determine popular travel routes to also determine safe travel routes (they should be exactly the same routes in systems that have a government in place and aren’t in a state that would make them unsafe for some reason). It should be incredibly risky for criminals to attempt to target people that are travelling along these safe routes. They should be well policed by security officials, and it should be almost guaranteed that any attempts to interdict people along these routes will be met with several security ships jumping in to help the person that was interdicted. In addition, any interdiction should create a specific signal source, and any player that happens to be close enough to jump in to assist should be able to tell who initiated the interdiction regardless of wanted status.

The roles should be reversed as people travel outside of safe space. If you’re interdicted in an unsafe system, it should be much less likely that NPCs are available to help you, but as a result stations should pay an additional bounty for trade/missions to offset the danger of travelling there. It should be very clear to players when they are venturing outside of safe space, and that they’re being paid to offset that risk. Generating credits should be significantly faster when taking these risks (assuming you survive, of course) so there should be plenty of people willing to make those trips, but they’ll have a place to retreat to that isn’t Solo/Private when they want/need it that makes sense within the universe and still leaves them connected to the rest of the players in the world. New players should start out in populated areas with plenty of safe routes to travel on and plenty of missions and opportunities that don’t require them to leave, but the promise of danger and excitement and greater rewards always encouraging them toward venturing out into the lawless and brutal areas of the galaxy.

Player Generated Conflict Zones

Adding the potential for NPC assistance against interdictions in safe space, and allowing players to jump into the fray quickly and easily is essentially a form of player generated conflict zones, but I think that it should go one step further. The issue with current World PVP is that, with few exceptions, it only exists for the sake of PVP itself. Powerplay is obviously an attempt to address this, but I don’t think it goes far enough as it still keeps these encounters isolated to brief fights between two people/wings, or in conflict zones that aren’t initiated by players and as a result don’t feel particularly dynamic.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t feel like Conflict Zones in their current implementation count as World PVP. Not only is there no guarantee that there will be any other players there, but players have no control over where conflict zones appear. One of my fondest memories in Vanilla WoW was joining a group of people together to attack an enemy capital and watching other players rush to defend against this sudden and unexpected assault. Obviously ED is a very different game than WoW, the idea that things would respawn after a few minutes of being dead, and that it would ultimately have no impact on the world at large would ruin ED, and without those things, events of that magnitude are by necessity effectively (if not literally) impossible. However, I think there’s an underutilized asset already implemented in the game: capital ships.

Capital ships represent a resource that’s both very difficult to destroy and feasible to renew. A fight against a capital ship should require a coordinated assault of many players, and it should still be a long enough fight to give people spread out around the galaxy an attempt to intervene (or assist). Ideally Frontier should create additional tiers of capital ships as necessary to allow for encounters of different group sizes. These could feasibly use the same models as the existing capital ships and just outfit them differently and give them different classifications/color schemes to reduce development time (though I would obviously prefer unique capital ships with vastly different mechanics for each different tier of difficulty). I also want to clarify that I don’t necessarily think all capital ships should be combat outfitted, though they’d likely have at least some NPC guards unless there was a good story reason why they didn’t, but they’d all be bullet sponges that take a long time to kill and valuable targets if you manage to kill them.

Obviously the impact for assisting in the destruction of a capital ship should be astronomical (pun apologetically intended). I’m not sure how you could go about rewarding players unaffiliated with a particular power, but perhaps just rewarding them a huge chunk of credits (and obviously a massive bounty from the power who they attacked) would be sufficient, and I would imagine that these sorts of encounters would be difficult enough that people would be at the level where they’d be affiliated with an opposing faction before attempting to take one on.

This would also require capital ships to appear regularly outside of conflict areas and not planning for a fight. On patrol in systems/near stations that are on the borders of a certain faction’s territory would be an obvious solution, but larger capital ships could also be guarding/ferrying important officials from each faction further into their territory, and Galnet or more nefarious inside sources could be used as a great source of information on where and when they’d be stopping, so opposing factions could pool information and determine the weakest spot along their route.

A fight against a capital ship obviously wouldn’t begin as a pvp encounter though, but it should ideally quickly become one thanks to…

Improved Communication

This is another big one. One of the biggest reasons big, fun, unexpected PVP encounters don’t tend to happen reliably in ED is that there’s not a real good way of knowing there’s an encounter even happening. Nor is there an easy (possible?) way of tracking down/joining that encounter. As of right now, you pretty much have to be in a wing already in order to have a chance at an emergent World PVP scenario that isn’t just you being massacred. My idea at a solution for this is basically a hybrid of the ping system in HoTS and Twitter, and would exist as a communication system alongside of GalNet. I propose the name FedNet, but I’m not in love with that. The way I imagine it working is that you can send various different pings on FedNet that are actionable. You’d be limited to only sending one message every five minutes or so and the messages you can send would be basically pre-composed. Here’s a couple ideas for message types I had:

Distress Call — Behind the scenes a lot of work would go into generating this Distress Call but from a player perspective it would seem pretty simple. For the player initiating the distress call, they would just be able to press a single button. After it’s pressed, their ship would determine the current number of potential hostile threats and allies in the area and calculate an approximate estimated survival time. The only people these Distress Calls would appear for are those within range to theoretically intervene in time. If a distress call appeared on your FedNet timeline selecting it would automatically target the area where the battle was taking place (or plot the fastest route if you’re a couple systems away). From there it would behave like any other signal source (minus having to fly around aimlessly looking for it). If you’re currently in supercruise and not being attacked and trigger a distress call your ship would automatically block the message from going out to prevent spamming FedNet.

Hiring Protection — This one is a bit more tricky to deal with success/fail criteria but I think I have an idea of how to address this. If you’re looking for protection, you’d specify a protection amount (light, medium, high), a duration, and the amount you’re willing to pay. From there the message would be sent out. Anyone looking for work would be able to receive the message (I imagine looking for work would be a toggle). From there, the amount of protection you can provide would be assessed based on your ships current loadout and your combat rating with the Pilot’s Federation.

So lets say someone’s looking for high security for an hour. That could be accomplished by maybe two combat equipped Anaconda’s flown by people that are elite combat, or 5 decently equipped Vipers with fairly skilled pilots. So if you’re flying a fully equipped Anaconda, you’d account for 50% of the team, and each of the five vipers would account for 20%. So you’d get a message indicating the reward was for half or 20% of what the player initially offered. If your power level doesn’t account for at least 20% of the power requested, you wouldn’t see the message, and you’d only see these messages if you’re within a predetermined range of the requestor.

Once a group is assembled that reaches 100% they would automatically be joined in a Wing with the person that hired them (if they are already in a Wing and not all the members joined in, they’d be prompted first). Then they’d get locked on to the customer and be given a time limit within which they’d have to meet up with them or the customer would have the option to kick them and start looking for someone else. Once everyone has met up with the customer the timer starts. If the timer runs out without the customer dying, the funds are automatically exchanged. If the customer completes his job early he’d have the ability to pay out early as well if he so desires. If the customer dies because of any hostile engagement, you either get nothing or only a small percentage of the initial offer.

Sorry, that ended up being a more complicated explanation than I originally intended, but the point is, it’d be an in game system to dynamically set up a group of people to help provide protection and automatically regulate their payment in a fair and reasonable way. This would encourage group play in a way that’s not competitive and doesn’t rely on a pre-existing group.

Call to Arms — Any time a capital ship or an important objective in your chosen faction is attacked, you’d get notified if you’re not massively out of range (the longer battles against capital ships would allow for this). These Call to Arms messages would be generated automatically. Ideally I’d like to see these objectives be large enough to have their own Nav Beacons, allowing you to jump right into the battle (provided you’re within jump range obviously). So it would be much quicker to enter the fray and escalate the battle. In addition, any time you choose to attack an enemy capital ship you can choose to send out a call to arms. The rewards will be divided amongst the amount of people that show up though, so if you’re brave enough to attempt to take on a capital ship alone (or confident that not a lot of people will show up to defend it) you might not want to send this message out, but if you wait too long, you might end up paying the price.

I would ideally like to see all these messages appear even in Private/Solo games, but engaging with any of them would prompt the player to join open and automatically switch them over if they don’t refuse.

There’s probably more types of pings that Frontier could set up, but these would help make the world seem more alive and encourage people to interact with each other in both combat and non-combat scenarios without resorting to communication platforms outside of the game. It would also encourage more people to join the action happening in Open, fit within the existing mechanics of the game, and be fairly easy to trigger using a gamepad, which is especially important for the console versions of the game. All without really allowing any room for the spam and harassment that often accompany any public communication platforms in games.

Predators Become Prey

Ultimately though, a lot of the game in Elite Dangerous takes place in mostly unpopulated and lawless portions of the galaxy. Meeting other people should be uncommon out in the wild, but not so rare that things get boring. The idea of fearfully looking at your radar as you see another target appear behind you, and knowing no one will come to save you if they have ill intentions shouldn’t go away, it should just be confined to the portions of space where that makes sense. However, another problem with ED is that there currently is no effective way of hunting down people that choose these sorts of careers, and there should be. Being a criminal shouldn’t just be getting to prey on the weak with impunity unless a bounty hunter happens to be lucky enough to fly past you and notice you’re wanted. If you develop a reputation for being a criminal, and as the bounty on your head grows, it should be possible for bounty hunters to track you down. Word should get around where you tend to be, and this should happen in the game. Ideally with contacts at certain stations. Obviously there should be plenty of ways of outsmarting this, the galaxy is a big place, but it would make sense that the more nefarious you get, the harder it would be for you to hide. Bounty Hunters should be able to select targets with a high enough value from a list, and clues should come in to their whereabouts if they’re scanned/detected/docked somewhere. Obviously lawless/criminal systems should have a much lower chance of reporting you, and unfriendly scans should almost guarantee it, but the game shouldn’t have to rely on community generated events in order to get revenge on criminals. I’d also love if nefariousness was a stat that was similar to, but independent from current bounty. It makes sense that a law abiding citizen or even a small time criminal might be able to slip by without notice, but chances are people would talk if a known mass murderer showed up in their station regardless of whether or not they’ve paid off any bounties against them.

I could elaborate further on many of these ideas/issues but I’ve gone on for way too long already. I hope this adds to the ongoing discussion about PVP and Open vs Restricted game modes and gives some practical suggestions for how I think the design of ED could improve to mitigate some of these concerns and create a stronger sense of community and more opportunities for player driven stories in the game.

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