Elite Dangerous: Doing the Second Ram Tah Guardians Mission

The latest update to Elite Dangerous (3.0: Beyond Q1) has been active for a while now. One of the marquee features was another Guardian ruins mission. I have been able to complete it at the cost of considerable joy and anguish.

But first, I’ll briefly mention that I like the changes 3.0 brought to the Engineers. I have been able to max out the jump ranges for my Asp Explorer and Anaconda for a reasonable material cost. However, for me the real standout change has been with material storage. In the past, players were limited to 1000 items, now there are limits for each material type. This means that players don’t need to delete items to make room for others, which can hinder the desire to go and pick up materials. I am now actually choosing to jump into signal sources and drive around on planets to pick up materials knowing that I have room for them. It’s amazing that such a small change has improved the gameplay dynamics so much. It demonstrates that getting the basics right is so important and should not be overlooked in favour of aesthetics or monetisation opportunities.

As the second Guardians mission shows, getting the basics right is not something that Frontier Developments is good at.

In the game lore, the Guardians are a mysterious extinct ancient species. The only trace left of them are derelict obelisk networks clustered on airless worlds away from human inhabited space. The Engineer Ram Tah has a quest for intrepid CMDRs seeking to learn more about our long-gone galactic neighbours.

Recap of the First Ram Tah Guardians Mission

A mission from the Horizons expansion had players scan these obelisks while carrying a combination of artifacts in their SRV in order to unlock tidbits of information about the Guardians. The mission was badly implemented in several technical ways:

(1) Obelisks were supposed to flash with symbols indicating which artifacts needed to be carried in order to unlock so information. Instead, incoherent noise was shown, giving no indication about what artifacts were needed. The playerbase used trial and error to produce a guide about what combination was needed for each obelisk. When 3.0 was released, the symbol issue had been fixed. All of the obsessive speculation about secret messages in the obelisk patterns was all bunk, yet Frontier never had the courtesy to tell players to find a better use of their time.

(2) Players in multiplayer modes with multiple CMDRs present reported getting random bits of information. Indeed to complete the mission in its entirety required getting some pieces of information this way. Tough luck for people like me with no friends in weird timezones :'(.

(3) AMD graphics card players reported a bug where the dirt mounds were enlarged, blocking access to the obelisks.

From a design perspective, the mission is also poor. We started out knowing one ruins site which only had enough obelisks to partially complete the mission. More ruins existed, but they had to be found manually! Elite Dangerous purports to be a full-scale replica of the Milky way (with faster than light travel to allow you to go places). That means there are a lot of places to look. To complete the mission, players had to look through spreadsheets to find the sites that gave out the data they wanted. There really should be a simple in-game way to elucidate all of this information. I didn’t complete this mission in full, I only got 60/101 data items. Did Frontier learn from their mistakes with the second mission in 3.0?

Getting Started on the Second Mission

Players can dock at any station in the Meene system that isn’t Felice Dock. They don’t need to unlock Ram Tah (I haven’t), or have done the other Guardians mission. When landing, they get a mission from Ram Tah inviting them to “Decrypt the Guardian Logs”. Like the first mission, the player is to scan obelisks, this time at “Guardian Structures” which are a new installation for 3.0. There are 28 pieces of information to find, with a reward of 1 million credits per item. A 30 million credit bonus is added if you get all 28 items. Before you run off to the Guardian sites, you will need the following artifacts:

2× Ancient Orb, 1× Ancient Urn, 1× Ancient Casket, 1× Ancient Tablet,  1× Ancient Totem, 1× Ancient Relic. I would advise picking these up from the seminal ancient ruins site in the Synuefe XR-H d11-102 system, planet 1 B. Orbs can be hard to find at other sites.

1× Thargoid Sensor, 1× Thargoid Probe, 1× Thargoid Link, 1× Thargoid Cyclops Tissue, 1× Thargoid Basilisk Tissue, 1× Thargoid Medusa Tissue. Get the Sensor from an alien crash site, the Probe from a threat 2 NHSS around an ammonia world, and the Link from a Thargoid Structure.

Note that Thargoid artifacts damage your ship, so you’ll need a corrosion resistant cargo rack beforehand. How to get one? Unlock it at the tech broker. All you need to do is hand in an absurd amount of items! This is where Frontier made their first fuck-up. Neofabric insulation is only available as a mission reward, but for a while, it wasn’t given out as a mission reward! Instead players could earn limpets, scrap, or biowaste; which is like a neighbour giving you a handful of Werther’s Originals for mowing their lawn. Following a playerbase uproar, the game was fixed, and I was able to get my special cargo rack.

Getting the tissue samples turned out to be great fun. Players had to encounter Thargoid ships which are incredibly powerful and aggressive, and use a research limpet to pinch a tissue sample from their organic ships. I used the cold running strategy by engineering my DBX to put out less heat (subsequently, I named the ship after the ELO song Latitude 88 North).

To encounter a Thargoid, I jumped in and out of an instance with the attacked megaship around Electra 6 until I had one of each sample. This strategy is not ideal as it is immersion breaking and repetitive. A deterministic way to encounter each Thargoid type would be great. The best parts were the heart-pounding moments evading an angry Thargoid ship, then cowering out of view behind the stricken megaship waiting for the limpet to collect the sample. This was great fun and kudos to the developers for getting this right.

Shopping Around for Data

With all my artifacts, I headed out for Guardian space. While Guardian structures show up on the navigation panel when you’re in-system, there’s very little in-game information to find the right systems. Fortunately, a Galnet article offers up three locations, which will give you a good chunk of the data required, but to collect the rest will involve either lots of searching, or a third-party guide. My advice: keep your sanity, follow a guide.

Once at the site, hop in the SRV and start looking for ancient obelisks. I made an embargo on spoiler videos, so it was a fresh experience for me. The sense of atmosphere was impressive. I felt like I was snooping through an alien graveyard. Out of the blue, I was attacked by a hidden autonomous Guardian sentinel. What a surprise! Some of the sites are perched on hillsides, so also have the whole mysterious Himalayan temple vibe about them. The symbols on the obelisks are easy to understand, but if you get the wrong combination of artifacts, you can try again without re-logging. Overall, these parts of the mission were very well done. The information is given as audio logs by Ram Tah, which is a nice touch.

Waiting Outside the Bank

Admittedly, it gets quite dreary travelling to sites to scan a particular obelisk while getting harried by sentinels. Once I was done, I returned to Weber Dock in Meene to hand the mission in. But nothing showed up on the mission board for me to hand in! It turns out that the station has been UA bombed. This is when Thargoid Sensors are sold at black markets and cause damage to stations that limit the services on hand. The lockdown at Weber Dock could be the result of griefing (in-game trolling), or just other commanders selling Thargoid items on the black market once they’ve handed in the Guardians mission (it’s what I would have done if I had the chance).

It reminds me of the economic crisis in Cyprus, where people were prohibited from making withdrawals from their accounts while the banks pilfered their savings. Players go and complete the mission tasks, but are blocked from collecting their mission rewards when the mission issuing station enters lockdown and the mission expires. This is a deeply unjust situation that must be rectified.

The solution to this problem could be one of many things. I don’t think UA bombing is particularly interesting, so I would like to see it removed altogether, or black markets could be removed from Meene stations. If we must have UA bombing, then we should also have the ability to divert to different unaffected stations and hand in missions there.

Since I was running out of time to submit the mission, I raised a ticket with support who kindly gave me the credits using their god-powers and let the mission expire. I think this counts as a moral victory. That I had to go to these lengths because of the negligent design of the game mechanics is outrageous.

At Frontier, Every Hour is Amateur Hour!

Another Frontier fuck-up that I have kept away from is the Guardian based items from Technology Brokers. These faced criticism on two fronts. (1) Collecting the required materials is a tiresome activity involving charging 6 pylons around a Guardian Structure while fending off annoying sentinels. This activity has to be repeated far too often to get the necessary items. (2) The FSD booster item that was added to the game was broken! The booster will be fixed and returned to players who had unlocked it, along with a refund in their materials. All very generous, but it entrenches an inequality induced by yet another Frontier fuck-up:

Redoing the pylon puzzle multiple times wasn’t the only way to get the required materials. There was a bug where the materials were given by obelisks, a much easier way to get them. I contend that many of the players who unlocked the FSD booster were beneficiaries of this bug. It’s not just enough to fix the broken modules, the path to unlocking it should be less exasperating and equal for all players.

In summary, the second Guardians mission had some great elements to it, collecting Thargoid tissues was scarily exciting and the eerie atmosphere of the Guardian structures was brilliant. However, these great elements are sullied by technical and design mishaps that added to the frustration of getting ready to do the mission, and collect the reward. Like many players, my patience with the developers is running short. I’ll be sticking to exploring and short missions until quality control is improved.

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Elite Dangerous Engineers Revamp: Many Steps in the Right Direction

Beta testing is now open (and free for all Horizons owners) for the first update in the Elite Dangerous: Beyond series. For me, the headline feature of this update was a revision of the much maligned Engineers which wasted player time with insulting random changes to module performance. I have had the chance to do some testing of the new system, and I am generally very positive about it. The changes are as follows:

Module Generation

When a module is modified at a certain grade, the negative effects are only added on the first roll, while the positive effect is still randomly generated. Subsequent rolls compound on the previous result until you reach the maximum positive effect possible. There is also the option to progress to a higher grade modification once the positive effect is large enough. Typically, one would need to only do a few rolls at each level.

The user experience was very different compared to the old mode. All you see is a blue ring gradually filling up, the oscillating sliders are gone. One could argue that this has removed any sense of occasion from using the Engineers. And they’d be right: going out to the casino for an evening of debauchery is a much grander affair than putting money in a vending machine, selecting a chocolate bar and picking it out from the tray at the bottom*. I don’t see this as a problem, after all Engineers is supposed to be a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Progression

The new system has received criticism since it is now mandatory to progress through all of the grades. One starts engineering a fresh module at Grade 1 and must have achieved most of the possible effect before progressing to Grade 2 and so on. For the second beta test, I engineered some 3A enhanced thrusters (for an 880 m/s Imperial Courier) starting at Grade 2. It took 11 rolls to reach Grade 5. I think this is a reasonable progression that’s not instant, but achievable with a small amount of work.

Secondary Effects

These used to cut both ways; a roll could be further improved, or the roll could be ruined by random secondary effects. Now secondary effects have been decoupled from the modifications. They may be obtained by additional materials.

I see two main uses for secondary effects: (1) Additional gain to a specific aspect of module performance, (2) Reducing the mass of modules for a higher jump range. And now that they’re a bolt-on feature, players won’t need to waste so many materials trying to get the perfect roll.

Materials Trading and Storage

These features are very useful, instead of storing a maximum of 1000 materials and 500 data (which fill up very quickly), each item has a limit of 100. Players can now collect and stockpile materials without agonising over whether they should pick one thing up and discard another.

If a particular material is hard to get, then players may use material traders to swap items they have for items they want. I have found this to be quite useful, particularly since I have no interest in grinding on the beta which is going to be wiped in a few days. The buy:sell ratios are a bit excessive and don’t scale the same if you are selling high grade items or buying low grade items (kind of like how the buy and sell prices for foreign currency aren’t the same). I think a ratio of 3:1 between adjacent grades in both directions would be ideal.

Irrational Playerbase Responses

There are two main ways to play Engineers: (1) briefly, where you do a few Grade 5 rolls (having ranked up to this level beforehand) and accept whatever results you get; or (2) obsessively, where you keep rolling until you get an amazing modification. Users may roll hundreds of times to achieve this. I’m somewhere in the middle, I want a powerful roll, but I refuse to collect enough materials to do hundreds of rolls. I would typically do 20 at the most before running out of materials and giving up in exasperation.

Group 1 are upset that they may need to do more rolls by having to start from Grade 1 for all new modules. Now players need to do 10-15 rolls to get to a full Grade 5 modification for every module, where they may have only chose to do one or two in the old system. I don’t agree with this assessment since low grade rolls were required in the old system to build reputation to reach Grade 5 in the first place. The clearer outcomes may encourage such players to get more involved than in the past if uncertainty was a big disincentive to use the Engineers.

Meanwhile, some who fit the category of Group 2 are affronted that their misguided past efforts are going to be supplanted by the availability of better modifications for less work. These players can go take a running jump. The RNG based system is incredibly unfair and puts optimal results out of the reach of casual players. I for one, am glad to see the back of it.

Power Creep

By changing the system to become deterministic while preserving outcomes from the old system, it is necessary to ensure that old modifications don’t have an advantage that is unobtainable under the new system. Hence the maximum effects in beta 2 are quite a bit higher than in the old system.

While power creep is viewed by some as a distortion, as an explorer I see it as positive and necessary. There are still systems that are inaccessible due to the distance between systems exceeding the jump ranges achievable. Sooner or later, there will have to be some mechanic to enable access to these systems (dockable megaships that can jump up to 550 LY are already available but not currently used for this purpose). Power creep means more opportunities for explorers** and thus should be encouraged.

Criticism

Ship statistics are still missing. This was most problematic when I was deciding between the increased FSD range modification secondary effects. Would a higher max fuel per jump or extra optimised mass give a higher jump range?*** There is no in-game display for this information before the modification is applied, which is unconscionable when third party websites such as E:D shipyard and Coriolis.io are able to provide ship stats for any hypothetical ship build.

The progress made in reaching the upper limit of a modification is still dictated by RNG. Sometimes the gain made during a roll may be marginal, which is as much of an insult to the player as the old system which would waste materials on poor modifications. A minimum gain should be achieved by a roll that is substantial enough that players don’t get discouraged.

Conclusions

The revised engineers system is a great deal fairer and more accessible than the old system. A clear path towards optimal results makes the grind for materials worthwhile and the new storage and trading helps address RNG-based difficulties associated with spawning materials. The power creep should be viewed positively as it will allow for better ship performance.

It’s a bit disconcerting to see a roll sometimes give minuscule gains, I think this should be tweaked. There is also still no way to tell in-game how the ship performance is altered prior to applying modifications. Presenting this information is not difficult, it should be in the game.

I have always seen the Engineers as a means to an end; enjoyment should come from the improved experience of having a fast ship, or a longer jump range, or more powerful weapons. The changes made by Frontier serve to make engineers better suited to this purpose (although I don’t think this is their intent). The game will be more enjoyable because of these changes for the better.

*assuming it doesn’t get stuck on the end of the rack!
**Better exploration mechanics are part of the Q4 update and are desperately needed.
***More fuel is better for class 4 FSDs and lower, more optimised mass is better for class 5 FSDs and higher, as outlined by a superb forum post.

Gambling in Games: Some Hope for the Future

Not long after I expressed my irritation about the random number generator (RNG) based gameplay in Elite Dangerous, the video game world was shocked by the release of Star Wars: Battlefront II. The game consisted of opening loot boxes with the possibility of  unlocking more powerful characters. Accessing loot boxes could be done either by spending a lot of time playing, or by purchasing more loot boxes with real money.

This was a slap in the face to gamers considering the price of the base game. EA’s attempts at damage control were a spectacular failure, they have since backed down and removed microtransactions (for now).

The whole affair caught the interest of regulators in Belgium, The Netherlands, Hawaii and Victoria, to name a few. The aspiration to ban loot boxes from the European Union by the Belgian Minister of Justice is particularly encouraging. It is a refreshing change from the prevailing viewpoint by regulatory agencies that loot boxes are not gambling, such as the ESRB, PEGI, and New Zealand’s OFLC.

Of course PEGI’s retrograde viewpoint on this issue comes as no surprise, I finally heard back from them following my complaint about the Engineers in Elite Dangerous (their bold):

the moving images must “encourage and/or teach the use of games of chance that are played/carried out as a traditional means of gambling”. This refers to types of betting or gambling for money that is normally played/carried out in casinos, gambling halls, racetracks. This does not cover games where betting or gambling is simply part of the general storyline. The game must actually teach the player how to gamble or bet and/or encourage the player to want to gamble or bet for money in real life. For example, this will include games that teach the player how to play card games that are usually played for money or how to play the odds in horse racing.
Elite Dangerous does not contain content that would trigger a PEGI gambling.

This definition is too narrow. Of course Elite Dangerous isn’t going to contain traditional gambling, it’s set in space 1300 years in the future! To me, it’s clear that PEGI isn’t that keen on protecting the public.

This comes as no surprise when one considers PEGI’s owners are the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE). The ISFE represents the interest of software companies, including members such as Activision, EA, SEGA, and Ubisoft. How can we trust a ratings agency created by the software industry to put the interests of consumers before those of their backers? As their response to the loot box saga shows, we can’t.

The IFSE sees PEGI as little more than window-dressing by working “to counteract negative connotations or moral panic“. It’s insulting that gamers concerns about quality gameplay and extortionate economic practices are dismissed as a moral panic. As I have commented before (in the context of television broadcast standards), self-regulation doesn’t work. Self-regulation didn’t stop loot boxes in Japan. Leaving it to PEGI and the ESRB won’t stop them either, there’s money to be made!

While the efforts of the aforementioned politicians are important steps in removing loot boxes from our games, people power still has an effect. Disney, the owners of the Star Wars IP, were allegedly concerned about trending memes associating “family-friendly” Disney with gambling (a brilliant strategy move) and may have had a role in canning the microtransactions. It’s important that society continues to let game developers know who is in charge.

Regarding Elite Dangerous, Frontier has revealed their plans for revising Engineers. I am broadly happy with it, it is more deterministic in the outcome and players have the choice of special effects. I am not too concerned with the progression, it’s better than gambling and material trading should soften the tedium of the grind. Bring on the Q1 update!

To conclude, fuck PEGI and the corporate interests who bankroll it. Public opinion is firmly against loot boxes and RNG gameplay; the sophistry about how it isn’t gambling hasn’t fooled anyone. Politicians around the world are taking action seeking to end the scourge of gambling in video games. My own complaint may have come to naught, but there’s a lot to be hopeful about.

 

I am Shocked, Shocked to Find That Gambling is Going on in the Engineers’ Workshops!

Having slogged through the stellar-dilute space far above the galactic plane while playing Elite Dangerous with my 52 LY Asp Explorer, I purchased an Anaconda with the aim of configuring it for an even higher jump range. Other players have reported jump ranges in the high 60s, I could do with that.

To get that far, one needs the Horizons expansion and needs to play the Engineers (update 2.1). The Engineers are a small group of characters littered across the Bubble who can modify ship modules to alter their performance (note that I used the word alter, not necessarily improve). The associated gameplay is objectively poor, engineers are unlocked by employing the services of other engineers and doing some mind-numbing tasks. Each modification requires the player to provide materials to trigger the random generation of new properties for the module (rolls for short).

Wait, did you say random? Yes that’s right: random. To modify a module to your liking, you may need to trigger the modification generation many times, costing you more materials each time. These materials are time-consuming and boring to collect. It comes as no surprise that Engineers is vehemently disliked by the Elite Dangerous playerbase. Other objections include:

(1) It was broken. For a while, there was a bug where players could get a powerful Grade 5 roll for the low cost of a Grade 1 roll, meaning that it was easier to get strong modifications since materials were easier to collect. This was largely kept as a secret among players and was widely used by griefers to engineer their ships. Crooked mods were even used to influence the outcome of an in-game event that would form the basis of a Frontier-sanctioned novel.

Like all secrets, it got out eventually and Frontier were able to remove all crooked modifications. I enjoyed the impotent outrage disseminated by the cheaters. It is nonetheless disappointing that a broken system, exploited by deplorables to ruin the experience of the game for decent people was allowed to persist for so long.

(2) It commits the logical fallacy of false balance. In order to pretend that The Engineers is a sophisticated piece of game design, a modification to a module will include benefits and drawbacks. Consider extending the range of an FSD for example: Improved optimised mass (usually) comes at the expense of power draw and integrity. Subsequently, I will get bad rolls where the optimised mass is lower than my existing modification, but with better integrity and power draw metrics.

Here’s the problem: I don’t give a damn about integrity or power draw, I just want the highest optimised mass so that my ship can jump as far as possible. Thus, many of my materials are wasted on modifications that are of no use to me.

(3) The outcomes are unclear. If one is extending the range of their FSD, they may want to know what the range will be once a modification is applied. Optimised mass, actual mass and max fuel per jump all matter and combine in a way that is hard to quantify. No new jump range information is given, you need to figure that out yourself. Not good enough Frontier.

Frontier has finally cottoned on to the awfulness of the Engineers. As part of the post-Horizons Beyond expansion, the Engineers will be revised. In Q1 2018, each successive roll will be an improvement upon the preceding roll.

This change is not fast enough, it could be up to 5 months away. I can’t see why it should take so long. I would suggest that instead of randomly generating an effect with a pseudo-random number generator, the effect should be generated using the equation that describes a first-order step response. Here, the independent variable is the number of rolls. The time constant could then be set to a certain number of rolls. Figure 1 shows the case when the time constant is equal to 1 roll.

Ideal Engineers Graph

Figure 1. Proposed function for generating an effect in Engineers.

In the example given above, I would only need to do five rolls to get the maximum optimised mass out of my FSD. Similar (decreasing) profiles would exist for negative effects. I would also know what the outcome would be prior to the roll, allowing me to make an informed decision about whether I want to spend time unlocking an Engineer and collecting materials.

These changes would reduce the fatigue associated with overuse of the Engineers mechanic and save me the grief of rejecting modifications which aren’t an improvement on the last roll. The reduced variability in modified modules would also make the game a more level playing field for player vs player (PVP) interactions.

Protesting the Age Rating

I decided to have a go at forcing Frontier to change Engineers now by protesting the age classification rating provided by PEGI. Horizons is currently rated PEGI 7 with depictions of implied violence. No mention of gambling at all. If Frontier wants to keep Horizons at PEGI 7, then Engineers must be changed (or removed).

As part of the rating process, publishers complete a questionnaire where they self-assess the nature of the game content. PEGI then cross-checks the information using submitted examination information. What does PEGI say about gambling? (my bold)

27: Moving images that encourage and/or teach the use of games of chance that are played/carried out as a traditional means of gambling

This refers to types of betting or gambling for money that is normally played/carried out in casinos, gambling halls, racetracks. This does not cover games where betting or gambling is simply part of the general storyline. The game must actually teach the player how to gamble or bet and/or encourage the player to want to gamble or bet for money in real life. For example this will include games that teach the player how to play card games that are usually played for money or how to play the odds in horse racing.

Let’s evaluate the Engineers against these criteria:

(1) Moving images. Check. When rolling for a modification, several sliders moves back and forth across the screen before coming to a halt. Each slider position represents the value of a property of the modified module. A gain on the starting value is represented in blue, while a loss is represented in red.

(2) Traditional means of gambling. Check. The mechanism in Engineers is analogous to that used by slot machines. Money (materials) are submitted, causing several reels to rotate (sliders to traverse). If the symbols on each reel match up (sliders land in the right-hand side of the image), then a monetary (ship performance) reward is issued.

(3) Encourage/teaching the use of games of chance. Given the clear analogy between the Engineers and slot machines, I think it is reasonable to say that Horizons teaches users how to play a slot machine. A player who has a positive experience with Horizons (i.e. some good module modifications without too much grinding) may have a more positive view towards slot machines, thus I also believe that players could unwittingly be encouraged to gamble.

A PEGI 12 rating would be more representative of the game’s content. With this in mind, I submitted a complaint to PEGI last Monday (23/10). I’ll post an update if/when I receive a response, although I would encourage other players who are sick of Engineers to lodge similar complaints in order to catch the attention of the PEGI staff.

In the event that the rating was to change to PEGI 12, I doubt that anything would happen since most people ignore the age ratings. However, I would hope that developers start thinking about developing substantial gameplay instead of a randomised mechanic which makes a mockery of the considerable effort made by players.

Frontier needs to show more respect to their customers by producing games with features that are fair and accessible.

 

Elite Dangerous: Getting to Those Hard to Reach Places

Slightly relevant music recommendation: Reach High, The Commodores.

You didn’t think with the election going on that I had forgotten about Elite Dangerous?  Of course not, I’ve had the time to take another trip to explore another part of the Milky Way. This time  I travelled in a direction normal to the galactic plane, i.e. I went upwards; or was it downwards?

Firstly, a bit of background to exploration: Whenever you complete a discovery scan (also called “honking” because of the noise made when the scan terminates), accessing the system map will give you the gamer tag of the first player who did a detailed surface scan of a body and cashed it in at a Universal Cartographics. An object which has never been scanned and submitted will have a blank space where the gamer tag should be. These systems are up for grabs by whoever scans them first. If you have even a gram of vanity, you will not be able to resist finding undiscovered systems so that you can get your gamer tag out there for all to see.

Around the bubble, virtually all unexplored systems will have been “tagged” by another player. For those starting out, it looks like a several thousand LY trip is in order. However, there is a trick. Most players tend to travel along the galactic plane, leaving many systems above and below the bubble uncharted. If one travels upwards and outwards, they will likely encounter undiscovered systems much sooner than if they just travel in-plane.

EliteDangerousNebulae

While doing another trip to a several nearby nebulae (clockwise from top left: Pipe (Bowl) and Pipe (Stem); Pencil Nebula; Eight Burst Planetary Nebula; Seagull Nebula), I identified a neutron star, PREAE THEIA QY-Y D1-0 A, a heady 1054 LY above the galactic plane during another sweep of the galaxy map. If nobody had been there before, then I could claim my first neutron star! It was also an opportunity to use the updated route plotter introduced in update 2.4 which can now plot routes up to 22 kLY in length!

While using the route plotter, I encountered a problem. A route could not be plotted because the distance between stars exceeded the ~52 LY jump range of my Asp Explorer. Away from the galactic plane, the density of systems reduces, making travelling between them either difficult or impossible. What can I do to get to my target system?

Fortunately, there are a few ways to temporarily increase the jump range of your ship. The first is using materials (i.e. atomic elements) to synthesise an FSD injection which can boost the range by 25%, 50%, or 100% depending on the materials used. Materials can be collected on planets while driving an SRV. The other option is to supercharge the FSD by flying through the ejection cone of a neutron star or a white dwarf star. The latter option was not viable since there weren’t any neutron stars along the way.

Twice on the trip, I stopped by planets that had Cadmium, Niobium and Polonium. Polonium was critical for synthesising the 100% boost which was the only viable option close to my destination. This means driving the SRV along the planetary surface looking for objects which yield the materials. Metallic meteorites give the best yields, I was lucky to twice encounter groups of three which gave me more than enough materials to do all the necessary boosted jumps.

One thing I learned to appreciate when travelling through the low stellar density region high up above the galactic plane was that the amount of fuel carried was an important factor. Jump range increases as fuel goes down, there were a few occasions where a jump was almost possible, but I was carrying too much fuel and had to use a higher grade FSD boost than I would have liked. Some kind of fuel dump mechanism would be a great addition to the game for when users are in these situations. Some creative players bring along a rail gun or plasma accelerator with an engineered plasma slug effect. Ammunition is created from fuel, one just needs to fire the weapon until they have the fuel level that they require.

Eventually, after manually navigating between  stars with the appropriate level of boost, I made it to my target. Given the difficulty associated with getting to it, I was pleased to find that it was indeed undiscovered. My commander now has a neutron star added to his collection of first discoveries.

EliteDangerousNeutronStar

One thing I noticed while parked near the star was that it made a ticking noise. Cool. It’s hard to tell looking side on, but the main jet in the ejection cone moves about in a precessing motion. Getting a bit closer, the helical form of the jet becomes clearer:

EliteDangerousNeutronStar2.gif

Nearby ~100 LY away (just within reach with a 100% FSD boost on low fuel), there was another neutron star, PREAE THEIA TJ-X D2-0 (1096 LY above galactic plane) which I also got to tag. It’s unlikely that these stars would ever get close enough to collide as we have just observed in real life. While I was up here, I got to admire the view of the galaxy below, or above? It reminds me of looking down at the luminous nighttime Christchurch skyline from Dyers Pass Rd:

Elite - Dangerous (CLIENT) 23_09_2017 12_21_51 AM

On they way back to the bubble, I found some more interesting nebulae in the galaxy map which I’ll be sure to visit in the future. Following my experiences way above the galactic plane, I went straight to purchasing and engineering an Anaconda, once done, it should have a maximum jump range of ~63 LY, which will be necessary for getting to even harder to reach places.

If you’re keen on getting some hard to reach discoveries of your own, my advice is: (1) get the longest jump range that you can, use a DBX, Asp Explorer or Anaconda for this and engineer the FSD. (2) Collect materials for FSD boosts and learn to supercharge your FSD in a cheap ship near to the last station that you docked at. (3) Be judicious with fuel scooping, too much fuel will prohbit you from making some jumps, while too little fuel will leave you phoning for help. Don’t let any of that put you off, as the Commodores song goes: you can get it if you reach high, all hands to the sky. You can make it, if you really try!

Elite Dangerous: Visiting Remote Asteroid Bases

While I enjoy much of the gameplay in Elite Dangerous, I still tire about travelling long distances in supercruise. Supercruise is the mode which players use to move about within a star system. This involves faster than light (FTL) travel, reducing travel times to a matter of minutes. For systems with multiple stars, you arrive at the largest star when you enter the system. Depending on where you want to go the travel time can increase to about half an hour, which gets pretty boring.

One way I like to spend time while in long supercruise periods is browsing the galaxy map. It’s neat to go to the galactic core where all the stars are really squished together, or looking for nebulae. One day while I was searching through nebulae, I noticed that some of the far out systems had economies. That means human habitation. What form would habitation take ~5000 LY away from the “bubble”? I had to go and find out.

I’ve talked about the 2.3 update before. Mega-ships and asteroid bases were introduced in this update, increasing the number of assets that players may dock their ships. It also included some modifications to the Diamondback Explorer, increasing the jump range to ~60 LY, second only to the incredibly expensive Anaconda (when engineered). I took the engineered frame shift drive (FSD) from my Asp Explorer, added to a Diamondback I had just purchased and outfitted it for exploration (fuel scoop, auto-field maintenance unit, scanners, and heat sink launchers). With a full fuel tank, I had a jump range of 52 LY, compared to the Asp’s 47 LY range. If you’re travelling long distances, that means there are fewer jumps that you need to make and less time staring at the loading screen. The time saving is slightly offset by the slow fuel scooping in the Diamondback, which can hold a 4A unit, compared to the 6C that I use in the Asp.

My first destination was the Jellyfish Nebula,which is further outwards from the galactic core compared to Earth. As I got close up, I took an image of the nebula, one can see why it was called the Jellyfish Nebula, with the cloud resembling the bell at the top and the tentacles beneath it.

Elite - Dangerous (CLIENT) 21_05_2017 5_01_37 PM

the system Jellyfish Sector FB-X C1-5 had an asteroid base (Beta Site) within the ring of the gas-giant planet 7. The asteroid bases are much like large starports, many of the assets are similar to any other station, just implanted into an asteroid. It’s a shame we can’t land on asteroids like we can land on planets. Here’s a photo of my Diamondback in the station.

Elite - Dangerous (CLIENT) 21_05_2017 5_15_03 PM

Understandably, the station isn’t as well stocked as one in the bubble would be, but a few more outfitting options would have been nice as I was regretting not taking an SRV. The next stop was the Rosette Nebula, which was a red colour as any decent rosette should be! I forgot to take any shots of the nebula itself, but there is this one from within it:

Elite - Dangerous (CLIENT) 27_05_2017 3_40_31 PM

Being 5000 LY out of the bubble means that there are many systems which haven’t been discovered by other players yet, so this was a good time to get my gamer tag added to many decent objects. I was able to filter a route that took me through A-class stars and above, which tended to yield many nice systems including many water worlds and Earth-likes. In fact I discovered 4 ELWs on this trip, which each gave a good payout when the time came to cash in the data.

earthLikeDiscoveries

Clockwise from top-left, we have: COL 107 SECTOR UE-P D6-98 A 8, COL 107 SECTOR SU-E D12-117 B 6, GLUDGAE IX-L D7-34 6, and GLUDGEIA DK-G C24-13 1 (not to scale). A detailed surface scan of an ELW nets players 600,000 in game credits, plus a 50% bonus if it’s a first discovery, that’s ~4 million credits for my commander. It’s not all about money, sometimes there are unusual and interesting things to find. For example, I came across a gas giant with an axial tilt of ~90°.

Elite - Dangerous (CLIENT) 8_06_2017 9_16_40 PM

The striped pattern of its gas clouds was perpendicular to the orbital plane as a result, unlike Jupiter, where the gas layers are roughly parallel to its orbital plane. Having seen some of the close-up images of Jupiter from the Juno mission, the in-game planet looks a bit bland by comparison.

Having returned to the bubble and cashed in my commander’s discoveries, I can conclude that the asteroid bases by themselves are not particularly groundbreaking. Nonetheless, it is definitely a good thing to increase the diversity of in-game assets. Placing bases in far-flung regions of the galaxy adds to the mystery of the in-game lore and is a great motivation for going on exploration trips. After all, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the places you’ll go while getting there.

Elite Dangerous: Going to “The View” and NSV 1056

I’ve been able to get a little more time in Elite Dangerous, the space exploration/trading/combat game that I’ve written about before. The latest update (2.3) was released a couple of weeks ago. There are now megaships and asteroid bases in the game, which are little more than rehashed stations. There is another passenger liner ship called the Dolphin, which is great fun to fly. Players can now join other players ships with the multicrew feature.

While very exciting in principle, multicrew has been very poorly implemented, with a combat focus. There is an exploration mode, but there is nothing for crew players to do but watch, e.g. they can’t use SRVs. The lack of things for crew to do stems from the lack of things for pilots to do while exploring apart from scanning systems, scanning objects and stumbling across points of interest on barren planetary surfaces. One can hope that the developers will get around to adding more gameplay sooner rather than later. I had a go with multicrew and my computer crashed after a minute of sitting in someone else’s ship. As with the rest of the game, Frontier needs to spend more time fixing the cause of these problems.

There is also a avatar creator, which is a bit of a lark. I tried to make a version of myself, but it looks like a fuzzy memory of myself in a mirror. Still handsome enough to pass muster. Other players have complained about the lack of body types (with a focus on certain areas in particular). The developers would do well to ignore these strange demands and focus on actual gameplay.

The avatar creator does highlight one of my biggest qualms about Elite Dangerous and modern gaming in general: microtransactions, where users have to pay for additional content. I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy, who remembers when you could pay for a game once and that was it. Sometimes there was free downloadable content (DLC), sometimes there wasn’t. Some of my favourite examples were:

  • BMW M Roadster and M Coupe additions to Need for Speed: High Stakes.
  • Porsche 928GTS, 959 and 911 GT2 and GT3 additions to Need for Speed: Porsche 2000.
  • The Classic2, Delta  and Gamma packs for WipEout Pure (the best game in all of human history), which nearly doubled the amount of tracks and craft available in game. There was also the Omega pack, but I found it so disturbing that I removed it from my Memorystick.

Things started to go downhill afterwards, some examples of paid DLC that I stumped up for were: the megapack for Test Drive Unlimited, which added ~45 cars to drive around Oahu; and the add-ons to WipEout Pulse*, which weren’t as plentiful as those in Pure. Elite Dangerous takes this to an obscene level, your ship is available in one colour, unless you pay for more skins for your ship. You have to pay to change the colour of the ship laser beams. You have to pay for avatar flight suits and tattoos.

Update 2.3 (which is DLC in itself) then took this to an even more ludicrous level with ship naming. Sure, you can name your ship. But if you want to display it on the exterior, you have to purchase a name plate with real money! This is pathetic, they advertise features coming to paid DLC which are only fully available as a further microtransaction. Disgusting!**

In my last Elite Dangerous post,  I travelled ~12 kLY to a pair of binary Earth-likes orbiting a neutron star. Following that, I decided to take a shorter passenger mission, this time to “The View”. Now this has nothing to do with the homonymous daytime television show The View. From the mission description it was not very clear what “The View” is. It was only 1000 LY away; after about 25 hyperspace jumps, I was there.

It turns out that “The View” is just an area of extreme natural beauty. An O-class star and a neutron star nearby each other. There is a tourist installation below (or above?) the neutron star, where I took the animation below using what is probably one of the best parts of 2.3: the camera suite.

Neutron

My ship isn’t actually in the ejection cone of the neutron star. The camera can now be easily moved to the right place. Think of it as one of those “holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa” photographs that annoying tourists take.

To finish the mission, I had to scan the appropriate tourist beacon. Unfortunately, it was on a 3.3g planet! I had to face my high gravity world fears to get to the beacon. I took it steady and came in to land like an aeroplane. I managed to land successfully, although I overshot the beacon by 65 km! I can see why they call it “The View”, there’s an O-Class star, a neutron star and a planetary ring all in one image.

Elite - Dangerous (CLIENT) 26_04_2017 10_44_22 PM

Once I had spent enough time looking at “The View” and taking jumps in the SRV (the boosters don’t get you very high obviously), it was time to leave. This isn’t as easy as one would expect. Pointing away from the planet and boosting would probably cause a crash at high g. I targeted a system just above the horizon, lifted off with vertical thrusters and slowly gained altitude. I yawed towards the target and then charged up the hyperdrive, which generated a lot of heat close to the planetary surface and set off all kinds of alarms, but I made it and jumped into the safety of hyperspace. To make it less stressful, I could have picked a system at a lower elevation angle before I launched.

It was then an uneventful series of jumps back to Conway dock, where I got to pocket a mission reward of several million credits.  Another tantalising mission was already available on the list. This time the trip would take me to a planetary nebula, NSV 1056. The tourist beacon was orbiting a volcanic moon. Once I had travelled further away from the system, I could get a better view of the planetary nebula. A pleasing radial iris of orange and blue.

Elite - Dangerous (CLIENT) 19_05_2017 11_27_59 PM

Want to know what it looks like on the inside? There’s a Wolf-Rayet star at the centre which I can jump to. Here’s the view from inside: It reminds me of the ripple patterns you can see looking at an outdoor swimming pool on a bright sunny day.

Elite - Dangerous (CLIENT) 19_05_2017 11_32_58 PM

And that’s just two places, there’s a whole Milky Way of wonders to travel to. These trips illustrate why I like the passenger missions, they are not combat focused, show off the best looking parts of the galaxy and they pay well. For all of the faults with update 2.3, passenger missions are well served by the new Dolphin ship and the improved camera suite. Frontier is annoyingly vague about what update 2.4 will bring. Atmospheric planets and bug fixes would be nice, but I know that is wishful thinking.

*In Pulse, you could even design ship liveries online and download them to your system. For free!
**As a protest, I have given my ships names such as No Microtransactions!, Not Paying for Extras and I Like Free Stuff. There’s also a 22 character limit, which is simply not enough for fans of Iain M. Banks.