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In Elite Dangerous, humanity’s war against the Thargoids is going real, real bad

Numerous systems have been lost, and more will follow

A Thargoid ship moving through space in Elite: Dangerous. Image: 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.

A massive invasion by alien forces known as the Thargoids in Elite Dangerous has player-led factions scrambling this week. On Wednesday, designers at Frontier Developments released a clarification to how they’re running things behind the scenes. As a result, many players feel like the effort they put in during the first week of the invasion has been wasted. At least one player-led faction is telling its members to pull out of the conflict, and to busy themselves with other parts of the game until things even out.

The controversy surrounds timers, little in-game bars that count down or up based on player actions toward a shared goal. Initially, players thought that timers in the war against the Thargoids were functioning incorrectly. On Wednesday evening, Frontier issued a clarification. Timers may note how many weeks players have left to accomplish something in the Thargoid war, but those timers are in fact counting down as designed — and progress resets at the end of each week.

Basically, players went in to this war thinking that the game would work much like it has since launch — giving players multiple weeks, sometimes even several months, to reach a given goal. Now the clock is ticking much faster, and as a result, billions of nonplayer characters are dying as entire star systems fall to the alien menace.

My own time has been spent around a star system known as HIP 23716, where I’ve been embedded with an in-game group called Operation IDA. IDA specializes in moving materials across Elite’s virtual Milky Way galaxy, and has dozens of successful heavy lift efforts to its name. I’ve spent several nights in a custom-built blockade runner, flying through deadly Thargoid hyperspace interdictions and into bases actively under attack by alien ships. But shortly after noon CST on Thursday, Commander Light027 called for an operational pause.

“Due to the information released today,” Light027 said in a Discord announcement, “we have made the tough decision to discontinue tracking and no longer focus on support and relief efforts for HIP 23716, or any other thargoid war systems.

“We do not feel we can advise our members to spend their time and effort on this dangerous hauling,” Light027 continued. “After being given a timer showing 7 weeks, a vast portion of the community put their all into a single system, managing to move the bar to around 40% complete, yet all that work is now set to be erased.”

Other non-allied commanders are also sounding the alarm on the official message boards.

“This does not sound like a fun mechanic,” said one player, “given the difficulty and considering how we have no tools to track progress and estimate completion. [...] The difficulty as it looks now and [the] all-or-nothing nature of the weekly resets makes it impossible for groups and/or individual commanders to take on heroic efforts to defend systems they’re interested in and get any sense that they’ve contributed. It’s maybe possible to move 1-2 pips as a group, but it’ll just be reset next week anyway.”

This is all set against a backdrop of genuine peril for the fictional universe that Frontier has created since the release of Elite Dangerous in 2014. Developers have been clear from the outset: The human-populated bubble will be destroyed in detail if players do not react — up to and including the distant population centers in and around Colonia, some 22,000 light years away.

Now it’s up to those players to coordinate how they’re going to react. Efforts have been consolidated inside a new Discord channel called Defense Council of Humanity. There, representatives from dozens of player-led factions are engaged in a continuing dialogue on how to proceed — including members of the Fuel Rats, the Hull Seals, and more. It’s a great place for new players to get stuck in, with public channels that show an interest in helping players find their way in the notoriously complex spacefaring simulation game.

Meanwhile, several community goals are underway — and both should yield more powerful weapons to use against the alien menace.

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