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Elite’s Distant Worlds 2 expedition: Packing for a trip to the edge of the Milky Way

The largest player-led event in the spacefaring MMO’s history marks a new beginning for its community

Commander Dr. Kaii via Twitter/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.

An ambitious, 200,000-light year expedition within the world of Elite: Dangerous is about to take flight. After it kicks off Jan. 13, Distant Worlds 2 will take players roughly eight full months to complete. In reality, the expedition is best compared to a communal roguelike adventure: One false step could mean the loss of weeks or even months of in-game progress, with literally nothing to show for the effort. It’s why thousands of players are banding together to help mitigate the risk.

I began preparing for the journey a few weeks ago, upgrading and outfitting my ship at the cost of millions of in-game credits and hours of my personal time. The effort has proven to be an adventure in and of itself, one that’s shown me the limits of the four-year-old, massively multiplayer spacefaring game.

It has also showed me how the game’s most dedicated players will help to push its narrative forward.

Just how Dangerous?

In the fiction of Elite, it is the year 3305. Humanity has colonized the stars with the help of a remarkable technology called a “frame shift drive,” or FSD. According to the fan-made wiki, an FSD “moves space around a ship to allow it to travel faster than light without using extreme amounts of energy or experiencing time distortion.” The technical details aren’t really important for our discussion, however. Just know that an FSD is a bit of hand-wavy, science-fiction-y kit that allows the game to avoid the inconveniences of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

An Asp Explorer in Elite: Dangerous scooping fuel around an M-class, red dwarf star.
An Asp Explorer scooping fuel around an M-class, red dwarf star.
User Kaardio via the Elite Dangerous wiki/Frontier Developments

What is important to take away is that, thanks to FSD technology, long-distance travel in Elite is performed in a series of hops. Unlike the technology in Star Wars, where they just pop in the coordinates and make a single jump to their destination, explorers in Elite must make dozens and dozens of jumps to get where they’re going. Since Elite models all 400 billion star systems in the Milky Way galaxy, that means traveling to and through many uncharted systems.

In gameplay terms, players target the largest point of mass in a neighboring star system, spool up their FSD drive, and leap into the unknown. Waiting in that other star system is, more often than not, an indescribably hot ball of gas called a star with a potentially deadly gravity well. Move too close to that star and its gravity will pull you in. Once you’re trapped in orbit, it’s a hair-raising effort to pull yourself out of a terminal dive before your ship blows up.

Of course, there is often more than one star in a star system, and you never really know where the smaller stars are going to be relative to your direction of travel. Here’s what it looks like when you practically fly through the second star of a binary system, captured from third person by the exceptionally skilled YouTuber SushiCW.

Making things even more exciting, every once in a while players will stumble upon something much more deadly than a star: a black hole. Sometimes they even find more than one.

When that happens, it’s the work of a few moments to point your ship in the wrong direction, wander too close to the event horizon, and cook yourself alive.

Raising the stakes for the Distant Worlds 2 fleet is the fact that when you die in Elite, your body respawns at the last star base you docked at, effectively bringing your long distance journey back to its beginning.

Making things even more treacherous is the fact that FSD drives must be refueled by skimming particulate from the corona of a star. That means after every five or six jumps, players need to fly closer to the star they just jumped in on, heating their ship dramatically, in order fuel up and be on their way again.

The wear and tear on ships, even those piloted by the most skilled players, can be extreme. Unfortunately, not every repair can be performed on your own. If you damage the hull, you’ll need another player equipped with the right modules to patch you up.

Packing light

The best way to keep your ship in good working condition is to use it as infrequently as possible. That means making fewer jumps between stars.

In order to make fewer jumps, I needed an FSD drive that would fling me further with each departure. Not only will I spend less time commuting over the eight or nine months that the Distant Worlds 2 expedition will take, but a better FSD will also give me my choice of cooler, less dangerous stars to refuel at along the way.

In order to get the best FSD in the game, I had to work closely with a non-player character named Felicity Farseer. In the fiction of Elite, she’s an old hand at exploration and one of the leading designers of cutting edge FSD tech. In game terms, however, she’s the end-point of a handful of annoying fetch quests. It took me a few days, but once I satisfied her requirements, I was able to more than double my FSD jump range, from 22 light years per jump all the way up to nearly 48.

Felicity Farseer, at Farseer Inc. in the Deciat system.
Frontier Developments

But the outfitting didn’t stop there.

As it turns out, the stars in the northern part of the Milky Way galaxy in Elite are particularly far apart. Without a jump range in the neighborhood of 50+ light years you simply can’t make it all the way to the edge. Some players rely on “jumponium” to boost them along. The FSD additive can greatly extend your jump range for a short period of time. Best of all, it can be synthesized from resources found on planets along the way. But scavenging for those resources brings its own kind of risks.

Instead, I opted to minimize my ship’s weight, bringing only the barest essentials along for the trip. The biggest loss was my ship’s armored plates, which among other things help keep you from getting cooked if you get too close to a star.

Helpfully, Felicity is also good at tinkering with shield boosters. With her help I was able to strip off dozens of tons in weight and replace it instead with a nearly weightless pair of shield boosters. Those modules will help keep my shield fully charged for a longer period of time in an emergency situation, helping to protect me from bumps and bruises along the way.

After another few days of grinding resources, I now have a maximum jump range of 59.75 light years — more than enough to make it to the edge.

Part of registration for Distant Worlds 2 is adding your ship type and jump range into a massive dataset maintained by expedition organizers. The most common jump range right now is 50 light years, with nearly 500 of the 7,496 commanders participating meeting that mark.
Commander Qohen Leth

A great migration

My single greatest resource throughout this entire process hasn’t been Elite’s in-game tutorials. It’s not the official, three-volume set of outfitting guides produced by the leaders of the Distant Worlds 2 expedition either. Rather, it’s been the other players inside the expedition’s official Discord chat.

Even as the roster has swelled from 4,600 players to nearly 7,500 in the last few days, there have always been a few helpful voices to answer my stupid questions about ship building, no matter the hour of the day.

There is an energy and a feeling of goodwill powering this adventure unlike anything I’ve seen in a video game community in a long time. Other players are being generous with their time and their knowledge, so much so that I feel like I’ve learned more about Elite in the last two weeks than in my entire three years of play.

Whatever I’ve needed, as far as resources go, someone has been able to tell me exactly where to find it in the least amount of time. Of course, that’s because they’ve been there themselves and they’ve done this all before.

A collection of player ships backlit by a sunset and a purple nebula. On the left-hand side of the frame a giant rock explodes with a jet of fire.
Cracking open an asteroid in Elite: Dangerous. A major part of the construction of a star base at Sagittarius A will be the efforts of a contingent of specially-outfitted mining ships. Thousands of shiploads of resources will be needed to build the structure in the remote center of the Milky Way galaxy.
Image: Frontier Developments

Soon, veteran and rookie players alike will be on relatively even footing, hurtling through space far from the creature comforts — and friendly NPC repair depots — of home. Distance is the great equalizer. That’s what makes this expedition so exciting to be a part of.

Along the way to the far side of the galaxy, the Distant Worlds 2 fleet will be constructing a remote star base. Thanks to some help from the developers at Frontier, that star base will be situated smack dab in the center of the Milky Way galaxy in a system called Sagittarius A, in orbit around a supermassive black hole.

Making it to the star base at Sag-A in one piece will make an inspiring goal for players coming to the game for the first time in the years to come. But it will also provide a high-level playground for the game’s most experienced players.

In the fiction of Elite, the reason for the new star base is to allow for scientific exploration of Sag-A’s black hole, as well as its neighboring star systems. It will be the jumping-off point for the next great era of human exploration, charting the way forward into 3306 and beyond. But, that star base will also mean a new beginning for the Elite: Dangerous community itself.

Rather than the well-worn paths to success that have been discovered around our sun, Sol, since the game first launched, players will have to grapple with an entirely new set of challenges around dozens of unexplored worlds. They’ll have to do it in an impossibly remote and deadly part of the Milky Way galaxy.

And they’ll have to do it alone. Together.

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