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.


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.


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.


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.

BallisticNG: My Impressions

As a latecomer to the WipEout franchise of anti-gravity racing video games, I was born too late to play the earlier games. To my surprise, it may not be too late since BallisticNG by Neognosis is available on Steam.

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Lining up at the back of the grid at Marina Rush. From here, the only way is up. The spectators get a great view from the glass-clad art gallery, or the viewing pods.

BallisticNG bears a strong resemblance to Wip3out in terms of graphics and gameplay. It is developed by a small group of enthusiastic developers. It was originally free to play, but the increasing workload of development meant that it has transitioned to a paid game (only $6.29 NZD). I can understand the motivation for doing this and I was only too happy to re-purchase the game to support the developers.

Let’s start with the positives:

  • Despite the similarities to Wip3out, the ships and tracks are original and satisfying to race in their own special way. My favourite track is Arrivon XI (video by developer Vonsnake), which has a very fast, twisty downhill, followed by a sharp turn with a narrow exit. It’s very rewarding to get this bit right. My favourite ship is the Nexus, which is essentially a fast FEISAR.
  • The pick-up items have some great features, such as firing missiles backwards, and a shield that deploys automatically if you are attacked while carrying a shield pick-up. The autopilot also includes a shield and will stay engaged during corners so it won’t timeout in an awkward position.
  • The BNG modding scene is very healthy, there are lots of great fan-made ships and tracks that have been added to the Steam workshop. These include ports of WipEout ships. And nary a microtransaction or loot box in sight!
  • The unique soundtrack is great and adds to the atmosphere.
  • The game loads very quickly and my computer runs very quietly when the game is running, in part because the graphical processing requirements are quite low.
  • The custom races are highly adaptable. There are a range of speed classes to challenge all types of player, different levels of AI difficulty. I especially like the ability to set extra AI, and extra laps. Two different physics models are available: 2159 which is like the older games, while 2280 is reminiscent of WipEout Pure and WipEout Pulse. There’s something for everyone.
  • The drag ships and tracks are a creative addition where ships race at supersonic speeds around large open circuits (with great sonic boom sound effects). I prefer to do drag mode with 2280 physics since wall contacts are much softer, but there is the risk of falling off the track.

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Going for a supersonic stroll through the Lujiazui Park track in Shanghai. The buildings in the background are (L to R): Shanghai Tower, Shanghai World Financial Center, Jin Mao Tower.

Speaking of walls, here are my criticisms:

  • Wall contacts are very unforgiving with 2159 physics. You can scrape along the walls with no problem, except for the awful sound it makes, however collisions send the ship ricocheting between the barriers, eating away precious shield strength. This problem is infuriating in the drag ships and needs to be corrected.
  • The 2280 physics mode includes more forgiving wall collisions, but this is outweighed by being able to go through walls and fall off the track. The ship is stationary when it respawns; I would prefer that ships respawn at speed so that you can carry on without losing too much time. Even better, make it so that the ship CAN’T GO THROUGH FUCKING WALLS!
  • The campaign includes mirrored tracks. I can’t stand mirrored or reversed tracks!  It’s really confusing to learn a track one way, only to have to race it in another way.
  • Energy walls launched by opponents are really frustrating and disrupt the fast flow of the game, I would prefer them to be removed from the game.
  • The AI in the Campaign mode are all over the place. In the knockout modes, the AI is far too powerful and I’m unable to complete these challenges in hard mode.
  • For the 1 lap 1v1 races, I’ve found that you need to get in front very quickly and the AI will fall behind you. If you don’t, then it rockets ahead into the distance. Use the shield draining speed boost at the start to get the upper hand. Be prepared to restart these challenges a lot.
  • In the endurance races, the AI is unbeatable for the first 5-6 laps, but you can then reel them in the last few laps. While this is a very nice turtle/rabbit story, it’s quite unrealistic. If I can maintain a steady pace for 10 laps, why shouldn’t the AI?
  • For 2159 physics,  you get a boosted start if the throttle is at ~75% when you start the race. Since the AI get this automatically, I think the boosted start should be standard.

While there are a lot of criticisms (mostly to do with the campaign mode, and wall contacts (or the lack of them in some cases)), BNG is still an enjoyable game when you set it up to your liking. It’s still in early access, so there are still changes that will be made. In particular, wall collisions need to be made more forgiving. If you’re adept with the WipEout games, interested in AG racing on the PC, and looking for something that’s quick to load up and get racing, then I can highly recommend BallisticNG to you.

Adults in the Room by Yanis Varoufakis: My Impressions

A while back, I had dinner with an old friend who works in the Wellington beltway. He had recently gained a small amount of publicity for a study into the then government’s 90 day “fire at will” employment policy. The Tories sold this to the public under the guise that it would create jobs by encouraging employers to take a chance on people.

My friend’s research showed that the policy failed to increase the hiring of workers. We then joked about how then Prime Minister John Key tried to dismiss his findings by  using anecdotal evidence!

I also remarked that it was fascinating that academic economic research tended to support many left-wing policy viewpoints in contrast to the right-wing framing of concepts presented at the level of ECON101. I saw it as a sign of the validity of the political left, much to the amusement of my friend who would never deal in such broad generalities.

This attitude explains my interest in Yanis Varoufakis, the academic economist-turned Greek Minister of Finance following the 2015 election victory of the left-wing SYRIZA party. In principle, having an academic as a government minister to implement evidence-based policy is ideal. Varoufakis’ 2017 book, titled Adults in the Room explores his time as Minister of Finance, and reveals that things aren’t so simple.

The book makes clear the horror of the debt repayment/austerity regime imposed by the EC/ECB/IMF troika. Austerity has eliminated Greece’s ability to repay its debts, and despite the sacrifices made by the Greek people, the repayment bill keeps growing. As Minister of Finance, Varoufakis seeks to reverse this disastrous course of action. But he has an almighty struggle ahead against intransigent EU functionaries.

Perhaps Compromise isn’t so Bad After All…

Moderation and compromise formed the backbone of Varoufakis’ negotiation strategy with the troika. However, he was clear to highlight the difference between compromise and being compromised. When the troika refused to budge, the answer was not to make more concessions, but to be prepared to proceed with a deterrent preferable to staying in the debtor’s prison.

This approach simultaneously confirms and challenges my uncompromising attitude to politics. I now appreciate that compromises may be necessary as part of reaching a very specific end goal. Similarly, I felt vindicated in my belief that genuine compromise with authoritarians is impossible since total acquiescence is what they are looking for. Credible threats against their own interests are required to progress.

Varoufakis knew this and had a strategy in place to haircut SMP bonds held by the ECB, a move that would have legal ramifications for the ECB in its attempt to save the Euro by purchasing debt. A parallel currency would also be introduced to buy time should Greek banks close. Varoufakis has a great capacity for self-reflection and even identified when he should have put this plan into action (following the teleconference ambush on 24 February 2015).

We Haven’t had Enough of Experts!

The strength of having an academic as Minister of Finance was evident in some of the innovative plans that Varoufakis drew up to counter tax evasion, contingencies in the event of Grexit and reassuring Chinese investment in the Port of Piraeus.

If Varoufakis represents one side of the expertise coin, then the other Eurogroup ministers, the ECB, and the IMF belong on the other side. As I see it, these functionaries were able to mask their lack of expertise by stonewalling, or by instantly dismissing all of Varoufakis’ proposals.

Some interesting examples of troika incompetence include the German double act of Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble. Schäuble is impervious to reason, sees Grexit as inevitable, and ultimately wants the troika in France. Merkel is more focused on progress being seen to be made and makes disjointed interventions for the sake of seeing progress. She was able to win the confidence of Prime Minister Tsipras, which eventually caused SYRIZA to surrender to the troika.

Varoufakis relays one instance which beggars belief. The troika used the outputs from an economic model to justify their demands for austerity (in this case increasing VAT). The problem was that they failed to account for price elasticities. A superior model was developed by Varoufakis’ team that incorporated this assumption, arguing that VAT should be reduced to discourage tax evasion. Of course, it’s not enough to be correct when you are arguing with the troika and Greece was imposed with a VAT rate that made its tourism sector less competitive at a time where tourism revenues are crucial to the Greek economy.

Whose Side is the Troika on?

The demands that Greece should prioritise debt repayments over pension payments to it’s citizens, and the Bank of Greece engineering a bank run in anticipation of SYRIZA’s election win were just two examples to show that the troika was not on the side of the Greek people. The troika’s loyalites are made clear when one spectacular act of economic self harm was committed following Varoufakis’ resignation:

To combat the endemic tax evasion that was hindering Greece’s recovery, Varoufakis introduced a scheme where electronic transactions were analysed to flag up undeclared income. Following Varoufakis’ resignation, the MoU for a third bailout loan included the elimination of the algorithmic hunt for evasion, which was about to net billions in revenue for the Greek government.

Hanlon’s razor comes to mind: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. Given that the counterproductive actions of the troika always benefit the Greek oligarchy at the expense of European citizens, it is fair to describe the troika as not only incompetent, but also malicious.

Summarising Thoughts

Even though Varoufakis is no longer an MP, he is still campaigning to bring about constructive change as a co-founder of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25, which regular commenter Old Deuteronomy has mentioned before). Opposing the ascendant far-right does not require alignment with an uncaring establishment, instead left-leaning collectives such as DiEM25 offer a participatory approach for citizens to reclaim the dignity of all their European compatriots. Adults in the Room perfectly illustrates the need to take action to secure economic and social justice for Europe.





Formula Fusion: My Impressions

It was a sad day when Sony closed down Studio Liverpool in 2012, the games developer who had produced highly regarded titles such as the early to mid 2000s Formula One games (but not the abomination that was F1 Grand Prix for PSP) and the WipEout series. The WipEout games were futuristic hovercraft racing games, where players piloted anti-gravity (AG) craft around a variety of challenging circuits. The games were particularly unique for their electronic soundtracks and superb visual design that extended to AG craft sponsors and advertising around tracks. For me the portrayal of the future in the WipEout series was alluring , the racing was frenetic, and to this day WipEout Pure remains my favourite video game of all time.

The closure of SL means that there are no more installments in the WipEout series. In its place similar games such as BallisticNG or RedOut have been released. Joining them is Formula Fusion. Formula Fusion makes a convincing claim to assume the mantle of spiritual successor to the WipEout series; R8 Games has ex-Studio Liverpool staff and The Designers Republic was involved with the graphic design. While it has been in development for a while and I have been playing the early-access version for a few months already, June 1 marked the release of the full version. Below, I’ll list my impressions of the game, starting with the positives:

  • The graphics are superb, the craft and track assets are very well resolved (I’m playing with “high” settings). The sense of speed is immense as surroundings whizz by when I boost down the straights of Midtown at 600 km/h. I also enjoy the glare when I exit the tunnel in Niagara.
  • The ships have very different personalities. The Vixen is a good all rounder, with predictable turning behaviour, the Sabre feels more “pointy” and I can dart it about to get onto speed-up/pick-up pads. The Python is very floaty and slow to respond, so forward planning is needed to keep it out of the wall. Such diversity in ship handling is good, it allows players to work with a ship that suits them and introduces an element of strategy where ship benefits and drawbacks need to be weighed against each other.
  • Customisation. The ship skins can be changed (without any microtransactions, take note Frontier) and modifications can be made to make the ships faster, handle better or give them superior offensive/defensive capabilities.
  • Race results. This was a weak part of the WipEout games that I played. You never got to see the results at the end. This is addressed in Formula Fusion, the results are given in real time and at the end of the race. Furthermore, the lap times of each AG-craft are displayed in bar-graph form making it easy to identify how I compare to my opponents.
  • Replays. These can be set to auto-save and can be viewed under the “Records” section. When viewing the replay, you can switch between the AG-craft and camera views. You can even change the zoom and orientation of the camera in one of the modes. This feature is great for making videos to share online, or reliving past glories.
  • Game Modes: The elimination mode isn’t anywhere near as fun as the similarly named mode in WipEout Pulse, which was all about racking up kills. Here it is the more traditional “last place is eliminated each lap” approach. The endurance mode is interesting. The shield/health drains at an increasing rate as the laps go by, the challenge is to go as far as possible before the ship explodes. This requires a balance between outright speed and collecting shield pick-ups to prolong your time on the track.
  • Double Boosting. Fly between two adjacent speed-up pads and you can get twice the boost compared to going over a single pad. This feature is useful for speed runs, race strategy and improving the precision of one’s piloting.

Now for some negative aspects:

  • The game isn’t as smooth as it should be. There are jitters in the frame rate, which is an issue when precise movements are needed. This was improved by a patch released not long after the release of the game, but it still isn’t perfect.
  • The music seems quite dull and repetitive. More variety in this area would make things more interesting.
  • There was a cockpit view during early-access, but this isn’t in the game now. While I wouldn’t use it, it was nice to have the option. From what I can tell, it will be back in a later update.

All-in-all, Formula Fusion is a welcome addition to my SSD. I don’t bring out the PSP to play WipEout much anymore, so it’s great to have something that can run on my PC. From a graphic design and lore point of view, it offers a fresh break while demonstrating the same attention to detail that endeared the WipEout franchise to me. The ships are great fun to pilot and the tracks are well-designed and very rewarding to fly when one gets everything right. That feeling and new content including free tracks and craft will keep me coming back to Formula Fusion for a long time to come.

Here’s a video of what it’s like to play:

Apologies for the pixelated appearance, I’m new to video capture. I recorded the gameplay with OBS, the footage looked great. Then I had to truncate it in Blender, which is where the quality was lost. With practice, I’ll hopefully find some better settings.