Elite Dangerous – Building a Rare Goods Trading Ship

I should be spending more time outside during my summer holiday. Instead, I’ve been playing around with some video games, Elite Dangerous in particular. Elite Dangerous is a space simulator MMORPG where players pilot spacecraft in a replica of the Milky Way galaxy, performing tasks such as combat, trading and exploration. In the several months that I’ve owned the game, I’ve clocked up dozens of hours hunting wanted NPC ships, doing missions for certain factions and an exploration trip to a couple of nebulae. Lately, I have been playing about with the Engineers expansion* in order to increase the interstellar jump distance that of my ships could travel. This is something that would be very useful for another exploration trip.

This is a game where other players have massive, heavily modified spacecraft, the result of hundreds of hours of grinding gameplay. Having high-end ships allows players to dominate community goals where large amounts of in-game galactic credits are awarded, which can be used to purchase more ships and equipment.  One cannot help but hark back to simpler times, carelessly gallivanting between systems in a basic ship.

One facet of the game which allows this is rare goods trading. Rare goods are products unique to a particular space station. The supply of goods is limited, so the additional carrying capacity of large ships is negated. The items command higher prices at stations that are far away from the point of origin. Subsequently, large profits can be made by selling a small number of items. Having taken part in a Santa-themed community goal which involved delivering gifts to a station, I thought that I would give rare goods trading a shot. How hard can it be?

First, I’ll need a ship. Then I’ll need to outfit it properly. The ideal ship needs three things:

  1. Jump range. This is the distance between star systems that the ship can travel. The higher the distance, the faster you will get to your destination.
  2. Total range. This is how far you can get between re-fuelling sessions. The higher the total range, the fewer fuel stops you’ll need to make. Subsequently, you may not need a fuel scoop (more room for cargo), or save time by not having to visit stations.
  3. Cargo capacity. You don’t need much, but too little isn’t ideal either. I think 20-25 T of cargo is appropriate.

There is the chance of getting attacked by pirates (real and NPC ones). I would recommend avoiding combat and running away instead, so maximum real-space speed is also another important factor. Anything over 350 m/s should be enough for evading NPCs. All of the ships that I’ll consider will have bare-bones configurations with no weapons and lightweight components (mostly D-rated items). This is to get as many cargo racks in as possible. They will have lightweight shields, more to help with running away from pirates and heavy landings rather than for combat. I plan on modifying the frame shift drive (FSD, the thing that allows the ship to jump between star systems) to grade 4, because getting grade 5 items makes me feel sad.

The jump range and cargo capacity can be easily calculated with the E:D Shipyard tool. The total range is more difficult because the ship mass and jump distance affect fuel consumption. A lot of little jumps covers a longer total distance than a few long jumps, but it is also time-consuming so don’t do that. The Coriolis shipyard tool uses fastest range as an approximation to how the ship will be used. The fastest range is the distance covered by making the maximum jump each time. Each jump in the series gets bigger as the fuel decreases. Once the amount of fuel is insufficient to cover a full jump, then the jump distance drops off. Coriolis doesn’t consider the effect of modding the FSD (actually it does, see update below), so I did it myself in good ol’ Microsoft Excel 2016.

I constructed a fuel curve (Figure 1) which describes the jump range as a function of the fuel level. Knowing the maximum fuel per jump, I subtracted this from the starting amount, recorded the distance covered by the jump and then recalculated the jump range with the remaining amount of fuel. This iterative calculation continued until there was no fuel left. All the jumps were then added together to give the total fastest range.


Figure 1. Jump range versus fuel level for grade 4 FSD modified Sidewinder carrying 10 T of cargo. Data in orange is for fuel levels below the critical amount for a full jump. Supercritical data is given by blue. Each region was fitted with the displayed equations

To get an equation to describe the fuel curve, I used E:D shipyard to get a few data points. I opted for a linear fit above the critical value where the amount of fuel was sufficient to make a full jump. I fitted a third-order polynomial to the sub critical data. I verified the result of my method for an non-engineered Sidewinder against Coriolis and the agreement with my model was excellent.

Repeating this for a series of engineered ships, I was able to find their respective fastest ranges shown in Figure 2(a). Other data from E:D Shipyard was collated to compare the cargo capacity, maximum speed and the in-game currency purchase price as shown in Figures 2(b)-(d).


Figure 2. Comparison of Elite Dangerous ship (a) fastest range, (b) cargo capacity, (c) maximum laden boost speed, (d) total cost of ship and modules.

In terms of fastest range, the Diamondback Scout and Explorer ships are clearly superior, however the Scout is limited by its relatively low cargo capacity and the Explorer is about three times more expensive than the next most expensive ships. The Cobra III and the Viper IV are very evenly matched in terms of range, cargo and price. These are both excellent all-round ships for rare goods trading.

At the low-end, the Sidewinder, Eagle and Viper III are all fast, inexpensive ships that are unsuitable for rare goods trading because of their limited range. The Adder and Hauler are slower with better cargo capacity and range. For a budget-conscious pilot, these would make suitable trading ships. The Adder could sacrifice a cargo rack for an additional fuel tank, it would have the same capacity as the Hauler, with a range comparable to that of the Diamondback Scout.

To conclude, the best ship for rare goods trading will be dictated by what the pilot values most. For those who have accrued a reasonable amount of credits*, the Diamondback Explorer is the best option. It has the greatest range, largest cargo capacity and a reasonable boost speed. It should come as no surprise that the Cobra III is also well-suited for this role because it is well suited for everything! Considerably cheaper than the Diamondback Explorer at the expense of ~100 LY in fastest range. The Hauler and Adder are small, inexpensive, have enough cargo to take the full allocation of most rare goods and offer reasonable fastest ranges.

As for what I’ll do, I could take the grade 5 modified FSD out of my Asp Explorer and fit it to the Diamondback Explorer for a ship with even better jump credentials than outlined here. However, I’ll probably go for the Adder for a bit of fun, which is of course why we play games in the first place right? If not, then I may as well go outside.

*The Engineers expansion is pretty much gambling. You give an engineer materials and they give randomly generated effects to a module. Try harder next time Frontier. They should probably be investigated for it.

UPDATE 2/1/17: Now I feel silly, Coriolis does in fact have the capacity to include engineered modules. While it gives virtually the same results as my method, it is much easier to use. Still, it was fun to play about on the spreadsheet for a while.

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