A short conversation with a fellow spaceship pilot this morning led me to ponder exactly what it is about Elite: Dangerous that I like, and what I don’t.
Not that I can blame him entirely: these are questions I’ve mulled on and off throughout my time playing – bearing in mind I joined in the Beta stage so have seen the game develop quite considerably in the meantime.
The main point of our conversation made this morning was in relation to the mission format in E:D. His feeling is that the missions we’re offered on the space station bulletin boards are a little flat; that they lack imagination and variety (those weren’t his words, I don’t think, but seemed to be his gist).
I’d have to agree with him, to some extent: it is a fact that, barring variations in location, cargo or target and payment offered, the missions fall into a very limited number of specific shapes. There are freight missions: take X commodity to Y station for Z pay. There are smuggling missions: take X commodity to Y station for Z pay, and don’t get scanned en route (this, quite rightly, usually pay more). There are supply missions: find X commodity somewhere else, bring it to this station, and receive Z pay. And there are recovery missions: go to X location, investigate Unidentified Signal Sources until you find Y item, and return it to this station for Z pay without being scanned (cargo picked up in space is always classified as stolen, thus bringing it into stations is smuggling).
Two different types of combat mission are available, too: Search and Destroy missions, whereby you’re paid a lump sum (plus any bounties) for destroying a certain number of a particular type of ship. This can be pirates, traders, system security, or whatever. And there are assassination missions, which give you a specific NPC to kill, and your job is to hunt them down and do that thing.
|This thing. I’m not proud.|
Occasionally, humanitarian or charity missions pop up, which simply ask you to do a thing but offer no pay (sometimes the thing you’re asked to do is simply to donate money). These obviously don’t increase your credit balance, but they do boost your standings with the offering faction.
And this is, pretty much, it. That’s the sum total of the mission types available, summarised in three paragraphs.
(Oh, I forgot mining: since 1.3, there are now mining contracts which you can take. Bring X amount of Y mined material back to the station for Z pay. So four paragraphs.)
I quite understand why my fellow commander feels these are limited. Because they are. Now it’s probably true that, for the most part, that’s true to life: there are only a certain number of types of things people probably want doing. Most of the world would involve corporate goings-on. Since Elite deliberately doesn’t mimic EVE Online, much of EVE’s corporate activity – corp management, business politics, research and development, even advertising and marketing – isn’t going to be modelled here. That sort of activity could be included, to some extent, but it’s not part of Elite’s ethos, which is that the player is a lone ship operator, not a CEO or a product designer. The player is, basically, a truck driver. The player can sell the truck and buy a tank, or a fighter plane or a bus (one day there may be passengers to ferry); but the option to stop driving something and go work in an office isn’t one that Elite makes available.
So I can carry things to and fro; or I can shoot things. Frontier could, perhaps, add specific exploration missions, as Pioneer has: go to this planet or other body, scan it, bring the data back for money. But that’s just one more mission type, and wouldn’t hugely expand the level of variety.
To some degree this is a consequence of procedural generation, and this is where I find myself in a grey area. Procedural generation means, potentially at least, that there can be an infinite amount of content: the game will keep producing new stuff according to the algorithms it’s given. In the case of Elite, this is enough to create 400,000,000,000 star systems and their associated orbital bodies, plus the NPC pilots we see, bump into and fight with. But while procedural generation can ensure a massive amount of breadth, as people on the forums are fond of pointing out, it doesn’t necessarily bring a lot of depth.
For people like me, that’s not a game-breaker. I’m someone who has a pretty strong dislike of linear gameplay. I don’t like being told I must do this mission, then that mission, then that, until I reach a ‘win’ condition. I like even less being told I must play this or that character, flying this particular ship, because of that pre-written background. So for me, the philosophy of Elite – play how you like within the constraints of this massive, open galaxy – is perfect. And I accept that, to an extent, that’s going to mean I lose a bit of depth. I can’t expect the game to write complex, immersive and detailed storylines for me whenever I pick up a contract from a bulletin board. I’m not saying that that’s what my fellow commander expects, either, by the way: he’s a realistic kind of guy, from what I know of him. But all considerations of realism aside, of course that’s what I’d like to see. Perhaps one day, some future game will be able to do that – but on that day, authors will become obsolete, so it’s a hell of a trade-off and not one I’d rush to make.
I’m quite happy to be placed in a sandbox and told to make my own fun. (I’m told by the forums that Elite: Dangerous doesn’t qualify as a sandbox because it doesn’t allow us much scope to alter our environment – we can’t build stations, design our own ships, craft stuff, whatever. Pfft. It’s a sandbox because it isn’t telling us where to go or what to do.) But if I were asked I might suggest a few things that could improve the mission structure a little bit.
For a start, if I’m playing as a charismatic (if scruffy) rogue operating in the blurry line between legitimate and illegal trade, then actually carrying things back and forth is actually only a reasonably small part of what I do. The bulk of what I do would involve networking, cultivating contacts, trying to stay on the right side of the crime lords while being honest enough to keep attracting work; staying off police radar well enough to keep my record clean so I can keep access to mainstream society, but engaging in illegal activity when it’s the most lucrative course.
Or say I’m a straight-out trader. I’m still going to need to network; strike deals, make offers, negotiate good prices. Haggle.
So, while interpersonal interactions weren’t part of the original Elite, shouldn’t they – and couldn’t they – be a part of this one? Every mission contract has to be taken from a person: that person can be spoken to, and dealt with, and influenced in some way. Perhaps through a simple dialogue-selection system; perhaps through something more complex like a minigame of some sort, or a range of minigames. And the main game keeps track of your relationships with all the mission providers, plus any other characters you might have dealings with, such as police officers, bounty hunters or pirates.
I’d like to see more mechanics introduced to create a sense of your character as a person dealing with other people. I know that wasn’t the point of the original Elite, but it’s far more plausible now than it would have been in 1984, and I think it would add a completely new dimension to the game. We don’t generally watch Star Trek or Star Wars just because of the ships – although I won’t deny they’re part of the appeal. But the main draw of these worlds is the people in them. And as lovely as a Firefly-class transport might be, Firefly wouldn’t have been worth a thing without those fantastic characters and their interactions. It certainly wouldn’t have netted the faithful following that it did.
And speaking of bounty hunting, why not make it something more than simple assassination? Take a bounty from the bulletin board; go out to the last known location and start hunting. Once you find the person, you don’t necessarily have to kill them by blowing up their ship. What about disabling the ship’s engines – perhaps by precision firing, or using some sort of bounty-hunter’s engine-disabling device, and then board the ship? Then it’s you and the suspect: again, your interpersonal dealings come into play. Can you persuade them to come with you peacefully? Or will you need to fight and bring them in under restraint? Personally, with a system like this, I’d feel a lot more like a bounty hunter, and a lot less like a murderer for money.
There are certainly improvements that could be made, and I’m sure everyone has their own ideas. It’s not necessarily the case that procedural generation must lead to bland and flat content. But for me, the breadth of the content will always be the first concern. I’m sure that scripted storylines and hand-crafted worlds make for great, detailed and engaging stories, but they also threaten limited replayability and they tend to restrict the opportunities for real character development. For me, those are the most important part. I want breadth first, and depth later, and then only if it won’t narrow the world.