Becoming Elite and/or Dangerous in time for Odyssey

Elite Dangerous: Odyssey is just around the corner, bringing with it the nigh unthinkable — a space game where you can exit the craft and walk around on foot. No longer for all practical reasons a remote controller for a semi-automated spaceship, you will be a person inhabiting the universe. A subject of space! A… Star… Citizen…

Anyway, having played Elite Dangerous before, I knew that if I wanted to get back into Elite for some on-foot action, I’d be best served by getting a grip on how to play the game again now. Because Elite Dangerous can be… tricky.

It came back to me pretty quickly. I’d setup Voice Attack, which is what I used for a lot of functions last time, but I think the release of the game on consoles forced Frontier to take a good hard look at their control systems. I wouldn’t recommend playing on console only — I am constantly using my keyboard for functions — but I think you could get away with it in a pinch.

So because the Controller and a few keyboard keys do most of the work for me, I don’t even need Voice Attack any more. It didn’t help that training my voice recognition software was lengthy and tedious, and when I didn’t do it my computer registered the clackity clack of my keys as the word ‘Gear’, so I was constantly going Gear Down in the middle of Bounty Hunt pursuits.

Lasers fire from a ship-deployed fighter in Elite Dangerous

What’s important is that you set up the keybinds yourself though. There’s a mnemonic element to going through keybinds and assigning them that you won’t get if you just leave it to the gods, and I also don’t think an entire face button on your controller needs to be “UI Focus”.

With the keys set, I was thrust quickly back into the action! I picked up right where I left off — I flew to a High RES (Resource Extraction Site) zone and I started hunting bounties. That was what I liked about Elite Dangerous way back in 2015 — I was a shark, swimming through space, hunting down prey and getting fed.

But, sharking it up as I was, I immediately noticed something odd. I was making money. Lots. Of. Money.

Here’s the thing about Elite Dangerous. Everything you do in the game revolves around making money. The primary measurement of success in the game isn’t a score, or a KD ratio or some massive screen declaring “Victory Royale” — it’s credits per hour. And if it’s not being measured in increments of tens of millions, ya aren’t winnin’, son.

And that’s sort of why I stopped playing. Not because I wasn’t good at making money — I’m a games critic, I know I’m not good at making money. No, I stopped playing Elite Dangerous a handful of years ago because I realised my favourite way to play the game was completely divorced from the ‘best’ way to play the game. Bounty Hunting, ship-v-ship combat, PVP in general was no way to make some scratch, unless you were talking paintwork.

But when I tried to play E:D efficiently, I just… didn’t have fun. It wasn’t my sort of game. The way to win at Elite Dangerous was Space Trucking. It was long-range goods hauling, picking up stuff from a space station in one area and taking it somewhere else.

Instead of fitting your ship with all manner of weapons, you’d spend hour-upon-hour fiddling with the balance between cargo-hold and jump-range so you could maximise your profits. You’d eliminate the Kill Warrant Scanner — a device you used to check if Bounties had outstanding warrants in any other systems beyond your current, a surefire way to earn a bit of extra money — in favour of a Fuel Scoop, because stopping for fuel was a huge time killer (and therefore profit killer).

A terrible shot of the undercarriage of an Anaconda in Elite Dangerous

Going on trucking runs, I could see the appeal. It’s very zen. There’s a great deal of focus required while you plot out your journey, but after that it’s pretty much auto-pilot stuff. Not quite actual auto-pilot, which is odd, because you’d think a spacefaring society would have a fairly robust concept of Automated Machine Intelligences, but it’s pretty simple. You could easily do it while paying attention elsewhere. Watching youtubes or the cricket or something.

But it didn’t make me feel Elite. It didn’t make me feel Dangerous. And then, having tasted the high life, the trucking life, the loading racks and making stacks life, I found that I couldn’t go back.

But here I was in 2021 making fat stacks of cash just for blowing dudes up. I’m not kidding. The Asp Explorer I was sitting in, that had taken me dozens of hours to afford and dozens more to fit out with halfway decent weapons and internals, it was worth about 12 million credits.

I made that on my first trip to the High RES zone. I made more than it, actually. I wasn’t actively measuring, but I think I was looking at around 10 mill an hour just sitting in space shooting lasers at pirates. And I hadn’t yet discovered Massacre missions, which increased those gains significantly.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not some sort of Skywalker-esque master pilot. Bounty Hunting is not a complicated profession, not in High RES space. The trick to it is to choose your targets carefully. If the space cops — the Federal Space Service ships that patrol the zone — have found a criminal, they’ll laser him to death real quick. So your job is to fly in their wake, to scan targets when you’re in range, and then, once those targets are nearly dead, to register a few hits on them to qualify for the bounty.

You’re less a shark and more a remora, one of those weird sucker-mouth fish that clean up sharks after they kill stuff.

But shit man, you’re still shark adjacent. You’re still in the frenzy, and it’s bad-ass.

And when I got Massacre missions, wow, my gains leapt up. Suddenly I was not just earning millions for those bounties I was sweeping up after — I was earning reputation… and even more money.

A player owned capital ship in Elite Dangerous

I capped out my gains at about 20 mill an hour. Before the weekend of my return to the game had finished, I’d made enough to buy a new ship. Not just any ship — a good ship. After a weekend of play, I had enough to buy a Mamba or a Python. Or a Fer-de-Lance. These things were the unattainables of Elite back when I’d been playing before.

But with 70 million credits in hand, I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d really be worth the dip.

I couldn’t help but think in incremental game terms.

Incremental games, Idle games, whatever you want to call them, they’re big business now. I love them. I’ve played most of them, definitely all of the good ones, and I find them engrossing. They’re skinner boxes in the most blatant manner, operant conditioning chambers where you press a button and a number grows larger. You click the cookie and you get more cookies.

What fascinates me about the genre is how transparent it is in its design. Most games can be boiled down to this basic concept — click a button, increase a number — but for Idle Games, that is all that there appears to be.

But they’re often a lot more. Even Cookie Clicker — not the pure originator of the genre, but certainly the game that made it big time — is more than just clicking cookies. Very quickly, it becomes a game about maximising efficiency. It becomes a game about analysing your rate of increase and determining how to ramp it up further. Is it clicking cookies? Buying grandmas? Summoning a portal to a Cookie Hell dimension? Once you start thinking in terms of cookies per second, it’s hard to go back.

And that’s something Elite Dangerous accommodates quite well. There are oodles of resources out there, created by intrepid spacefarers to support the way people play the game, and it’s very easy to fall down a rabbit hole of crunching numbers to work out how you can upgrade your acquisition rate as efficiently as possible.

That’s how I wound up realising that buying a Mamba, FDL or Python would be a huge waste of my time when what I could actually be doing is powering through to the real goal — an Anaconda.

The Anaconda is a thing of absolute beauty. A trapezoidal behemoth, it looks like something out of The Void. And it’s terrifying to come across when Bounty Hunting. When you encounter a pirate Anaconda, you don’t start trying to remora your way onto that thing until it’s below 15% hull health, because if turns its sights on you, you’re dead. It has one huge hardpoint and three large. With beam lasers it can melt through your shield, hull and soul in about 4 seconds.

And for $150,000,000 space bux it was never going to happen. Not for 2015 Joab, who looked at those numbers, looked at his woeful bank account and determined that it was an impossible goal.

But with $70,000,000 in my account from six or seven hours of play, 2021 Joab saw possibility.

Five or so hours later, and I’d reached my goal. And I’d done it playing the game I liked. It wasn’t, like I said, hardcore space flight stuff, but it was pretty bloody rad. There’s something terribly enchanting about flying around in space, about seeing the rings around a planet and then flying up so close that you can see the individual asteroids that make up those rings. Even if I was just jumping between the same two stars over and over, I still gaped each time my screen filled with those two balls of gas. I’d look about to see the way the sun banked off the inside of my cockpit, the different colours of the two stars I was bouncing between, the whips and whorls of each one’s prominences against the deep black of space.

The whips and whorls of a star in the Khaka system

And in the High RES zone, my bounty hunting had its own ebbs and flows. I died once trying to take on a Python. It was a huge error — I saw laser fire that was a stray streak past, and I thought the FSS had engaged. It deleted me before I could even start my Frame Shift Drive. I had one run where all I saw were Pirate Anacondas, which might have been scary if the FSS hadn’t brought their own fleet of giant machines. I started the notice the patterns and repetition in the naming habits of my bounties. I stood back and cheered on an unlucky Type-10 decked out for mining as it desperately tried to escape a swarm of Vultures, unwilling to step in and help myself until the FSS finally arrived.

And when I turned in after my last Massacre mission had finished — worth a cool 12 million on its own — I realised I had enough for my Ana. I jumped onto Inara, the website Elitists (???) use to get details of their universe, and I found where I could purchase her.

And so, as it is in any good Idle game, I entered the next phase of earning.

You see, the money you spend on the Anaconda, that 150 mill — that’s not even close to what it costs to get it running. To use the bloody thing. By default it comes with two lasers you couldn’t use to warm a meat pie, and the rest of its parts are worse than default. My Asp Explorer could beat a fresh new Anaconda in a fight.

But with a full complement of weapons on board and a power plant big enough to keep the lights on, you can take it straight back to what you were already doing. I could be the biggest damn remora the ocean has ever seen. And because my weapons were so much bigger than the old stuff, I even saw some improvements in my money per hour.

But I run into some problems. Like, I can’t land my Anaconda at the stations that give the Massacre missions. But just by lazily pewing pirates, I earned enough for a smaller ship. I couldn’t go back to the Asp because the nearest Anaconda dealer was four jumps away, but I earned enough for a Sidewinder in the time it took to read this sentence.

Suddenly I’m back to crunching those numbers — does the time to dock, switch ships and scoot off again impact my rate negatively? How negatively? Would I be better selling Ana and going for that Mamba I’d dreamed so small about?

And as I continued to build out the Anaconda, I started to notice those incremental improvements again. I was starting fights and winning them without FSS help, so I’d become the shark. There was a Hazardous RES site — more dangerous than High RES — near my favourite starport where the Bounties are worth more money and the number of ships is higher, which helped too. My Ana has a fighter bay, so I even had a remora of my own accompanying me on each sortie now.

Hours upon hours later, I’d amassed a billion or so dollars. I’d made it. My ship, it shreds. I mean, that’s not a gauntlet thrown or anything — there’s no need to come hunt me down to show me the folly of my hubris — but for my preferred method of play, it’s fantastic. I see a ship, I delete a ship. And I was earning at a rate fast enough that it was a worthwhile endeavour.

But the thing about Idle games is that they are, well, idle fancies. They capture your attention for a while, but generally they can’t forever. Depth in an idle game is a constant arms race between user and developer, where the users concoct more fiendish methods of realising peak efficiency and the developer desperately tries to craft new reasons to vie for higher and higher numbers.

Elite Dangerous has those reasons, don’t get me wrong. I couldn’t fly to a RES zone without passing a handful of player owned and parked Ship Carriers. Capital ships run by players. And there’s something called Engineering, and I know just after I stopped playing back in the day they were hinting at Alien space ships.

But I struggle to divorce myself from the hollowness of it. I think Elite Dangerous is a fascinating game, and I’m still playing it, still thinking about it constantly, but I don’t see much point in what I’m doing any more. I reached the top, and I had to stop, and that’s what’s bothering me.

But Odyssey is right there, just around the corner. On-foot space races. First person shooting. Landing on planets and walking about them. Stealth missions on space stations. There might not be much point to it, but it’s happening dammit. The goals set forth by Derek Smart’s Desktop Commander have never been closer to our grasp.

And in the end, is that not what man has dreamt of since first he looked up at the stars?

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