On Jan. 13, players in Elite: Dangerous came together to embark on the most ambitious expedition in MMO history. It was an incredible event, albeit one fragmented among dozens and dozens of in-game instances. In the middle of the festivities, the servers themselves crashed spectacularly. But by the dawn of the next morning, a new community nearly 12,000 players strong has sent itself hurtling into the void together on a mission of peace and exploration.
The expedition, called Distant Worlds 2, hopes to recreate the journey taken by a player who goes by the in-game handle of Commander Erimus Kamzel. In January 2015, Erimus was the first player to reach the most distant star in Elite’s complex simulation of the Milky Way galaxy. The game’s creators at Frontier Developments chose to honor him by renaming the system, originally called Ceeckia ZQ-L C24-0, after his ship, the DSS Beagle.
The 65,279-light year trip to Beagle Point is widely considered one of the most dangerous journeys in already challenging game. Distant Worlds 2 adds to that complexity by bringing along thousands of like-minded players.
No one even considered at first that the fleet would get as big as it has. Announced more than one year ago, the roster for Distant Worlds 2 slowly filled to over 3,000 — nearly three times the size of Distant Worlds 1, which embarked on a similar trip in 2016. Then, in the final few weeks before launch, it swelled to over 11,800 participants in total.
To accommodate players joining in from around the world, organizers established three different launch windows throughout a 12-hour period. Regardless of how they split up the fleet, however, launch day was destined to be a technical challenge for the now four-year-old MMO.
After weeks spent outfitting my ship, I logged in on Jan. 13 around 3:15 p.m. ET and headed out toward a navigational beacon orbiting the central star in the Pallaeni system for the European launch. Once I arrived, I was greeted by more than two dozen other commanders who had also landed in my instance of the game to prepare for a ceremonial mass jump.
Silhouetted against the system’s red-orange star, it was an incredible sight — especially inside the Oculus Rift.
Unfortunately, that’s when the game’s AI started reacting strangely.
Because it’s a designated tourist beacon, the navigational marker we were using as a rendezvous point normally spawns in a few massive, cruise liner-sized spaceships in the background. With dozens of players in the same place at the same time, just as many cruise liners began to drop out of hyperspace all around us.
While players danced and spun, busily typing greetings into the local chat, another pair of cruise ships dropped out of hyperspace every few seconds. There was a thunderclap and then a whoosh of expelling gas as the big things throttled down, plowing into us.
As the AI and human players tried to maneuver, there were multiple collisions. Before long, my display alerted me that system security forces would be on the way to maintain order. Some small AI-controlled fighters were already firing on another ship just a few kilometers away.
Before things got truly out of hand, the final countdown for the mass jump began on Discord. Thousands of players throttled up at the same time while the count wound down, each one winking out as they jumped into hyperspace.
The jump you see embedded above is a bit longer than usual, a sign that the servers behind the scenes were straining to keep up with the load. Estimates are that between 2,000 and 3,000 players participated in the European launch, scattered across dozens if not hundreds of separate instances of the game.
Right after I arrived at the other end of that jump, the game crashed hard, kicking me and everyone else out to the main menu. It took the better part of an hour to sort things out and get players back into the game.
Inside the Discord channel, spirits were high, despite the crash. No one really expected the servers to hold up anyway. What was truly surprising, however, was that they did hold up for the next two launches later that day.
After Europe crashed out, both the Americas and Oceania had successful departures. That was likely due to fewer players showing up to participate. But it was also thanks in part to the dedicated effort of a small team at Frontier that spent its weekend making corrections and adjustments behind the scenes. Organizers of the expedition said several members of the staff were on hand in the Distant Worlds 2 Discord server, sharing technical updates in real time.
The Elite franchise’s co-creator, David Braben, came to Twitter early this morning to wish the expedition good luck and applauded the event. He also posted a screenshot of a traffic report from the Pallaeni system, automatically generated by the game itself, showing proof that 10,330 players had already passing through it on their way to Beagle Point.
Only the beginning
For my part, I stepped away from Elite for the afternoon to run errands with my family. When I came back just around dinner time, I was able to log in and return to Pallaeni to take part in the second mass jump. After that, I put the pedal down and started out on my way to the first waypoint, more than 5,000-light years away.
Since Erimus’ original journey in 2015, only a fraction of the Elite player base has actually made it out to Beagle Point. Even fewer have made it back. What is amazing, however, is how much data he and other travelers have brought back from previous expeditions.
The fleet isn’t just wandering blindly into the black. Instead, they’re taking in some of the most spectacular sights that Elite: Dangerous has to offer.
The Distant Worlds 2 fleet receives waypoints one at a time, each peppered with points of interest along the way. The first part of the journey runs through a region known as the Inner Orion Spur, and will take players past the black hole Thor’s Eye, into the Lagoon Nebula, and through the red-tinged cloud of gas known as the Cinnabar Moth. Each one is a location stumbled upon by previous explorers, now shared so that thousands of other players can visit them for the very first time.
In just a few hours, with the help of Erimus and the fleet’s other more experience commanders, I’ve already jumped further from Elite’s starting point than I have ever gone before. I’ve already seen things that I never thought I would see.
When I logged out late last night, I left my ship parked on a tiny grey rock spinning around a blue gas giant. The star system is called HR 6164, but explorers refer to it simply as The View.
The View includes a bright blue central star and two deadly black holes. The real gem, however, is a volatile neutron star caught in a slow, elliptical orbit. For my first landing zone, I found a clear spot on an airless world where that shimmering ball of superheated gas casts a flickering, purple light all around me.
I can’t wait to go back.
- HR 6164 includes a high-gravity world, also known as The View. Landings there are extremely difficult. Stacking your SRV on top of your ship is challenging under normal circumstances, but particularly dangerous here. Commander BlaesTheKerbal
- A major goal of the expedition is to survey parts of the galaxy that players have never seen before. The location of this newly discovered Earth-like world will pay off well when the data is turned in at a star base. Commander Utsuho
- Elite: Dangerous now features geological and biological features on planet surfaces and in space. Rare deposits are reported to fleet organizers, who may task scouts within the fleet to double back for further study. Commander DarkStarSword
- Some players, like Commander Raz81, are participating on PlayStation 4. The fleet is spread across PS4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. Elite’s Distant Worlds day 1. Some players, like Commander Raz81, are participating on PlayStation 4. The fleet is spread across PS4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.
- Two surface vehicles parked at The View. Commander Parabolus