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Elite’s new exploration system brings even more real-world science into the game

Billions of new audio channels, courtesy of a British research team in Antarctica

Players exploring an asteroid belt in Elite Dangerous: Beyond. Frontier Developments
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Elite: Dangerous, the multiplayer spacefaring game from Frontier Developments, is on the verge of releasing its fourth chapter of new content. The update, referred to as Beyond, is adding nuance to the game’s exploration mechanic. The secret sauce is a dataset drawn from radio waves generated by our own planet, harvested from a remote sensor array in Antarctica.

When players begin their adventure in Elite, they’re deposited inside the “bubble” of human civilization within the Milky Way galaxy around the year 3300. From there, it’s on them to make a living, upgrade their ship, and participate in the game’s political struggles.

Or they can simply go exploring. One of the options for generating income is to journey out into the unknown, gather data on some of the game’s 400 billion procedurally generated star systems, and sell it back to characters in-game.

However, in order to turn a decent profit, some players make a habit of zipping through as many star systems as possible in the shortest amount of time. Once they arrive in-system, they simply hit the button on the in-game Discovery Scanner and move along. The process is referred to as “honking the horn,” because of the distinctive noise that the scanner makes.

With Beyond, however, Frontier has decided to add more granularity to the experience. Players can still expect the same kinds of payouts for long trips spent honking the horn, but those who choose to linger in a given system will be able to chart its planets and other features in much greater detail.

As a reward, they’ll also see higher payouts.

Ships around a supermassive white star in Elite: Dangerous.
Players who arrive in a new star system commonly “honk the horn” for a quick payout. Now there will be new tools to allow players to quickly identify all of the stellar bodies inside that system, and encourage them to linger and explore.
Image: Frontier Developments

Previously, honking the horn would return a list of the unknown stellar bodies within a system. To identify each body, players needed to fly close to each one and scan them by hand. With Beyond, players won’t need to go anywhere. Instead, they can just park in orbit around the system’s main star and pop open their Full Spectrum System Scanner, or FSS. By tuning their FSS to the correct frequency and location in-game, players will be able to scan a system quickly and better determine which planets, moons, and asteroids merit extra attention.

“People are very, very fond of what we have in the game right now,” Adam Woods, Elite’s executive producer, told Polygon. “But there’s actually quite a few different ways that people were using the tools that they already had. So we had to be sympathetic to try and allow them to still do those things, while also enabling gameplay that we hadn’t really envisioned when we first made exploration many years ago.”

Elite has evolved quite a bit since its launch in 2014. Horizons, a paid expansion released in 2015, added rovers that players can drive around on the surface of rocky planets. Frontier went on to sprinkle in mysterious alien structures and rework mining as well. All of these new gameplay opportunities require players to visit different kinds of stellar bodies, and the upcoming changes to the exploration mechanic will help the community to uncover more of the Milky Way than ever before.

The level of detail is extremely granular. Using new planetary exploration probes, for example, players will be able to map and share the location of individual surface structures on individual planets and moons for the first time.

To spice up the FSS itself, however, the team at Frontier is turning to an unlikely collaborator: Nigel Meredith, a space weather research scientist at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). With Meredith’s help, Elite’s FSS will feature the simulated sounds of the radio emissions from exoplanets. Their audio is directly based of the sound of radio waves generated by our planet Earth.

Meredith’s work with the BAS centers around the Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio receiver at Halley Research Station in Antarctica, a massive pair of antennas that literally records the the radio waves created by our planet. He tells Polygon that similar waves, which can be converted into sounds perceivable by the human ear, have been recorded all over our solar system.

“VLF signals that are generated in the Earth’s magnetosphere are also generated on other planets in the solar system,” Meredith said. “There have been probes that have gone to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and they’ve all discovered VLF waves. [...] So we know that any planet with a magnetic field that’s orbiting a star is going to have these kind of emissions present.”

Meredith pored over thousands of hours of recordings from the Halley Research Station in order to provide Frontier with a whole library of sounds, which in turn will be tweaked to represent various discoveries players can make with the new FSS in-game.

A diagram showing the visual feedback on the FSS in Elite Dangerous: Beyond.
CMDR Qohen Leth via the Elite Dangerous Wiki

“I really wanted to make sure that I didn’t leave any sound uncovered,” Meredith told Polygon. “Rather than just sending a selection of similar sounds, I wanted to get as much of a taste for the different and fascinating sounds that I could, so I spent about half an hour a day for about a couple of weeks at the end of every working day, just going through various days looking for sounds.”

The end result is that players will be able to use their own ears to quickly and accurately determine what kinds of stellar bodies are present in a new star system, even before the FSS provides a detailed reading.

Elite Dangerous’ Beyond update launches Dec. 11 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.

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