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Elite’s Distant Worlds 2 expedition: How do you keep 8,000 players safe in a PvP MMO?

Managing security for the largest spacefleet in MMO history

A ship taking part in the Distant Worlds 2 expedition in Elite Dangerous arriving around a neutron star. Commander Qohen Leth
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 is an elaborate spacefaring game played online simultaneously by thousands of people around the world. While most players primarily engage only in player-versus-environment battles, Elite’s simulation of our galaxy is also a known hangout for small but dedicated groups of highly skilled griefers. There are entire clans formed around a desire to exploit the game’s systems, or to team up and embark on game-breaking raids.

Of course, the ability to let groups of players cause chaos in the game is an intentional part of Elite’s design. But, later this week, more than 8,300 players will be taking part in a peaceful mission to the far side of the galaxy conducting exploration, but also having races and other little planned, player-led events along the way.

Distant Worlds 2 will be the game’s single largest fan-made event, but the risk for an individual player is high. One false move could wipe away months of in-game effort. What’s more, the vast majority of participants — including myself — aren’t even bringing any guns along for the 18-week, 200,000-light year journey in an effort to make their ships faster.

So how to you keep thousands of unarmed players safe in a game that allows, even encourages, other players to blow them out of the sky?

One of Salomé’s conspirators, Raan Corsen, photographed in real-space from the bridge of a Premonition Allied Coalition escort ship.
In 2017, a notorious player inside Elite: Dangerous named Harry Potter outwitted more than 3,000 other players engaged in a community event. Together with his in-game conspirators, he effectively stole the prize in a massive, player-organized space battle. Polygon was embedded within that event, and you can read the whole story here.
Premonition Allied Coalition

Polygon sat down with Distant Worlds 2 organizers Commanders Erimus Kamzel and Dr. Kaii to find out their plans for keeping the largest spacefleet in MMO history safe.

The simple answer is that the expedition isn’t designed to take place in the main game world at all.

The infrastructure of Elite is unique among MMOs. It’s divided into three communities of players, one each on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. When players log in to the game on each platform, they’re presented with a choice of open, private, or solo play.

In open play, there’s a chance that you’ll bump into other human players on your platform. With 400 billion star systems in the game world, it’s a rare event when it actually happens. But for Distant Worlds 2, organizers are asking all 8,300 participants to gather around the same star to begin the journey, and to meet up each week around the same few planets. That creates an amazing target of opportunity for griefers.

So, Distant Worlds 2 will be taking place in a private group called FleetCom. Those who sign up for the expedition can ask to be invited to the group and, if it happens to fill up, there’s also a backup. After years of continuous play, organizers know about many of the bad apples already. And, if anyone does open fire on another player in the group there are processes in place to report them and kick them out.

Finally, the truly paranoid or those just looking to spend some time alone can make the entire journey, or any part of it for that matter, alone in solo play. Then there won’t be any other human-controlled ships in their galaxy at all.

All three modes of play — open, private, and solo — will allow players to complete the expedition. They can even bounce between them at any time, and their progress will be maintained.

Since Elite can only support a few dozen players in the same instance at the same time, global communications will take place on a dedicated Discord server.

That being said, if someone is blown out of the sky by a griefer, Erimus and Kaii encourage them to remain calm and report the action directly to the game’s developers at Frontier using a standard customer service request. While they can’t make any promises, they’re confident that so long as players don’t hit the button to “rebuy” their ships to respawn their avatars back at the starting point, Frontier will make an effort to attempt to restore their progress. But only if the cause is aggressive action by another player, and only if it takes place in the FleetCom private mode.

“It takes a lot to make me nervous,” Kaii told Polygon in an interview via Discord. “I didn’t quite realize how serious this [expedition] was until I saw how seriously [Frontier] was treating it.”

A Krait Phantom inside an asteroid belt in Elite: Dangerous.
Ideally the only dangers on the Distant Worlds 2 expedition will be those inherent to space travel itself.
Commander Qohen Leth

“This is big for them,” Kaii continued, “and they’re doing a heck of a lot behind the scenes, as well as in front of the scenes, to make this expedition as good as possible.”

Finally, Distant Worlds 2 organizers aren’t making the various waypoints public until the last possible moment. Each week they’ll be unveiled, one at a time, along with recommended partial waypoints along the way. As it turns out, that effort has very little to do with keeping players safe. Instead, keeping the waypoints secret is their way to keep all 8,000 participants together, to prevent single players or small groups from rushing ahead.

Outpacing the fleet is bad for two reasons, they explained. First, much of the path that the fleet intends to take has been unexplored. When players identify a new star system or other, more rare in-game phenomena they are rewarded by having their in-game name attached to it. If a small group moves faster than the others, there will be fewer things available for the slower ships to find.

Beyond that, however, it’s about building a new community in deep space. Organizers refer to it as “fleet cohesion.”

“Distant Worlds 1 worked well because we did pretty much the same thing,” Erimus told Polygon. “The fleet stuck together and they tried to complete the journey as a mass community event. There were only one or two people who rushed ahead and finished the whole event, and it wasn’t what Distant Worlds was about. It’s about a community. It helps to stick together as a team as one fleet, and not fragment it.”

Distant Worlds 2 leaves from the Pallaeni system on Jan. 13. Details on where and when to show up, if you’re interested in participating, are at the expedition’s official website.

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