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Elite’s Distant Worlds 2 expedition proves the game is wildly unbalanced, and that’s OK

Two different groups are working at cross purposes, and both seem to be having a great time

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.

The old adage in gaming, attributed to Warren Spector during the development of Deus Ex 2, states that “anytime reality gets in the way of fun, fun wins.” For companies that develop MMOs, however, that’s not always good advice.

Players should be allowed to feel powerful and encouraged to get rich in an MMO, but only within reason. If power and wealth swing way out of balance, then virtual economies crash and the player experience suffers. An MMO must, in theory at least, always be grounded in its own internal sense of reality. Otherwise it just doesn’t feel fair.

It’s a constant tightrope walk, one that Frontier Developments, the team behind Elite: Dangerous, has cleverly managed to sidestep. The result is a game that, in its current iteration, is a bit like the old television show Whose Line Is It Anyway? Nearly five years after its initial launch, Elite is a game where “everything is made up and the points don’t matter.”

It’s just that Frontier’s show is set in a fictional version of the 34th century and within an accurate model of all 400 billion star systems in our Milky Way galaxy.

What’s more interesting is that the majority of the game’s community both acknowledges these imbalances and actively works to ignore them.

Elite: Dangerous is imperfect. And most people seem OK with that.

But not everyone.

The Rusty Net nebula, one of the points of interest on the way to Waypoint 4 in Elite’s Distant Worlds 2 expedition, is a striking planetary nebula. This unique perspective shows it from a full light year away from its central star.
The Rusty Net nebula, one of the points of interest on the way to Waypoint 4 in Elite’s Distant Worlds 2 expedition, is a striking planetary nebula. This unique perspective shows it from a full light year away from its central star.
Commander Jaimes

Suspension of disbelief

There’s no better example than the ongoing Distant Worlds 2 expedition.

More than 12,000 players, the largest flotilla of ships in the game’s history, are at this very moment embarked on a 65,000-light year journey to the edge of the Milky Way. The first half of the trip will take about 18 weeks, and somewhat less than half of the participants are expected to even make it that far before having an accident or turning back.

In order to keep up with the massive migration of players and provide coverage for Polygon, I’ve had to upgrade my ship. What was the most reliable method of upgrading that ship? It’s called “board flipping.”

Essentially, I landed at a particularly juicy loot cave and turned the game on and off again until enough goodies fell onto the ground to satisfy my needs. Then I went to an in-game store and cashed out.

To prepare for Distant Worlds 2 any other way would have taken me weeks or months, maybe even longer had I actually relied on the in-game fiction to guide me. The community has, by and large, come to accept these kinds of incongruities that bend the game’s rules. Frontier itself hasn’t made much effort to stop the practice of board flipping. None of the Distant Worlds 2 organizers were railing against board flipping inside the private Discord server. In fact, some of them actually taught me how to do it in the first place.

They taught me, and thousands of other players, because they were more concerned about getting as many people as possible set up to participate in exploring Elite’s fearsome beauty together. They were more concerned with creating a movable feast of community-generated content, something truly unique.

What’s a little game-breaking if that’s your end goal?

Effectively, players are at the same time heavily invested in the fiction of making this perilous journey across the Milky Way and perfectly accepting of the fact that they must break out of the internal logic of the game world in order to do it in an epic fashion.

That same kind of suspension of disbelief applies to virtually every other aspect of the game at this point. It’s a fact that Frontier’s own server infrastructure has enabled it from the very beginning.

When Elite first launched, Frontier chopped it up into three fully functional and nearly identical game modes. There’s the public version of the game, called open, where players have a chance of bumping into each other and coming into conflict. There’s also the solo version of the game, where players are all alone with only the NPCs to keep them company. And then there’s the so-called “private groups,” where players can participate in a shared universe cut off from everyone else.

That means Elite is at the same time an online MMO, a private playground for small groups, and a single-player experience. But the Milky Way galaxy that players inhabit is, itself, a single environment shared between all three versions of the game.

Cruising along a rare ringed star at Skaude AA-A h294, a star system that the community has dubbed Collection of Wonders.
Cruising along a rare ringed star at Skaude AA-A h294, a star system that the community has dubbed Collection of Wonders.
Commander Valstrax

That means a single player can start a session in solo mode at point A, transition into a private group to meet up with their friends at point B, and then pop up in the open version of the game at point C. Progress carries over. When s player moves between modes, they keep their progress. They also keep their inventories and all the money they earned along the way.

Combined with board flipping and other exploits, that means that Elite was made broken. And that’s fine. The majority of its community is still happy with the results, which is a multiplayer spectacle on a galactic scale.

But that also means that Elite isn’t really an MMO at all. It’s more like a hybrid of an MMO and an open-world sandbox. And that makes some players angry. And some of the angriest players are the ones heavily invested in player-versus-player combat.

Just like any multiplayer online game, there are plenty of players who dedicate all their energy to killing off the other players simply because they can. So that’s why Distant Worlds 2 organizers have created a safe haven inside a collection of private groups. Everyone participating in the private groups has been asked to buy into a non-violent ethos. Anyone who does damage to anyone else while inside the groups gets kicked out.

But that doesn’t mean that the 12,000-plus explorers on the Distant Worlds 2 expedition are entirely safe from the players who want to kill them.

Iridium Wing

By being embedded within the Distant Worlds 2 expedition, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with a number of different groups who have come along for the ride. There’s a team of geologists whose focus is on tracking and charting all of the in-fiction geysers and lava tubes they can find. There’s a group of explorers ranging out ahead of the fleet, hellbent on being the first to discover the most beautiful stars and the deadliest black holes. There’s even a dedicated role-playing group whose game master is hosting a tabletop RPG from inside the game.

And there’s also Iridium Wing, a small group of role-players with around 40 active members. The group was formed a little over three years ago after an unfortunate in-game event.

In 2016, one player in Elite: Dangerous who goes by the handle Commander Carbonheart was returning from a six-month long solo trip into the unknown when he was ambushed by a heavily armed NPC and destroyed. Tens of millions of credits, along with valuable exploration data that could have been used by the larger in-game community, was lost in the blink of an eye.

After that incident, Iridium Wing vowed to protect vulnerable explorers, players who regularly travel unarmed to move more easily between distant stars. Iridium doesn’t travel with them for weeks or months at a time. Instead, they meet up with them discreetly as they make their way back into civilized space, which tends to be crawling with other players and malevolent NPCs. Iridium Wing attracts players with a very high level of skill at PvP combat. They all roll around in heavily armed and armored ships, and practice tactics designed to keep them and the ships they’re escorting safe in the final leg of their journeys.

Iridium Wing is a team of specialists and the best at what they do, just like the Fuel Rats who help players stranded far from home and the Hull Seals who help to repair other players’ damaged ships. And the members of Iridium Wing know how to exploit the world of Elite to their advantage.

The view from inside the Ellaisms Remnant, a blue nebula with a powerful neutron star lurking inside.
The view from inside the Ellaisms Remnant, a blue nebula with a powerful neutron star lurking inside.
Commander Nodlezz

As the game has changed over the years, the developers behind Elite have added more and more powerful weapons to the game. Those who put in the time — or who board flip enough times — can create weapons vastly more powerful than any of the human NPCs in the game. And that’s not all, according to Fouzan “WinterCharm” Alam, the founder of Iridium Wing.

“What people don’t realize is that they also made shields extremely effective,” Alam told me during a recent conversation on Discord. “In a fully-engineered build it can take 20 minutes of direct fire for an NPC to bring down those shields. It’s hilarious and that sounds funny and it does sound like a bit of an easy button.”

Explorers don’t commonly outfit themselves with those kinds of shields because of their weight. But Alam does, because when it comes to protecting vulnerable explorers like Commander Carbonheart, anything goes.

“Even [other players with] fully-engineered builds will take five to six minutes to take down my shields,” Alam said. “If I was to use that build in a nefarious way against an unoptimized ship, that ship would be dead in 30 seconds.”

Because these weapons exist inside the game, and because Elite allows players to blink between private and public instances with impunity, there’s no way that Iridium Wing would be able to protect even a small group of explorers for the entire 18 weeks it will take to complete the first leg of Distant Worlds 2. So they’re not really trying.

Only four members of Iridium Wing have joined up for the journey. Over the last few weeks, they’ve spent most of their time driving off the occasional angry NPC and providing support for individual explorers and miners who request their help on Discord.

“It’s a massive player population that’s partaking in this,” another member of Iridium Wing, who goes by the handle Commander SRVVR, told me on Discord. “The size of Iridium Wing is nowhere near big enough. I would argue that there is not a large enough group that could provide 100 percent protective services for over 10,000 players. [...] So our role has been staying true to our focus; providing dedicated, direct escort services for explorers that request it.”

In effect, everyone knows that the fleet is vulnerable. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t players taking the opportunity to drive that point home. They call their own expedition Distant Ganks 2, and they’re trying to kill as many unarmed players as they can.

So far, by their own accounting, Distant Ganks 2 is getting the job done. They claim to have shot down more than 1,200 participants in the Distant Worlds 2 expedition. All of those kills, members tell me, come from open play.

That amounts to roughly 10 percent of the entire fleet so far.

Understand that there are only 57 people taking part in Distant Ganks 2. For how long they can keep it up is anyone’s guess.

What makes Distant Ganks 2 so disheartening is that many of its victims are likely those players simply unaware that there is any risk in playing the open version of Elite. The original Distant Worlds expedition had only a little more than 1,100 participants. That means that many of the thousands who have have shown up to participate this time around are new to exploration at this scale. Many are also uninformed of the danger lurking all around them, too green to know that if they’d just join a private group they’d be able to have almost the exact same experience without the risk.

Commanders NJFree, Blckadefan, and Mokel Delorean parked peacefully on the way to Distant Worlds 2 Waypoint 4.
Commanders NJFree, Blockadefan, and Mokel Delorean parked peacefully on the way to Distant Worlds 2 Waypoint 4.
Commander NJFree

Members of Distant Ganks 2 stress that, from their perspective, that doesn’t make them bullies. They tell me that they have every right to play the game the way they want to. Those other players should have known the risks when they started out.

“We are doing our own expedition,” said the member of Distant Ganks 2 with the highest kill count so far, the infamous Commander Harry Potter, “to gank where no other ganker has ganked before.”

To me, that statement is incredibly sad. It’s a perspective shared by many on the Distant Worlds 2 expedition. Many wish that Harry and his friends would just leave them all alone.

But there are others who enjoy being hunted. I found one post on Reddit, from a user who goes by the handle teltrab:

I think this adds to the game overall.

I recently (Sunday I think) arrived at the asteroid base at the first DW waypoint (playing in open). And as I approached the destination, knowing it was also primetime, I grew apprehensive. I hadn’t seen a soul on the trip out having taken a somewhat circuitous route to find more unexplored systems but when I dropped on-grid at that omega system it was busy! I headed directly to the asteroid base at max speed, cycling through targets all the way, when I registered a familiar name, Cmdr Harry Potter. Pointed right at me. I immediately started to jump, but just a fraction of a section into the jump I was interdicted. My heart was hammering, I had all that exploration data, but more to the point... I was gonna die! I was in VR so comms wasn’t an option, I’d have been dead before I found the keyboard. So i boosted, put full pips to shields for the first incoming volley and then switched them straight back to engines for another boost. I never saw may attacker, I kept them behind me and I ran. My shields (pitiful explorer shields) were almost gone after one hit and buy the time I jumped back to supercruise were offline. INTERDICTION DETECTED almost immediate afterwards. This time i got out with no shields and 23% hull, i risked a few more hull points and crashed out of supercruise almost immediately this time. Then picked a random direction and boosted and boosted and boosted. No one entered my instance. They either gave up, got bored or did fly to my wake point but were out of sensor range by the time they landed.

At this point I gave up, logged out and took the VR headset off, my heart was pounding and I was shaking... Over a game! And I am not ashamed to admit that when I logged back on half an hour or so later, I arrived at my destination in Solo. Open was pretty much suicide in that situation, and I couldn’t be arsed to fly all the way back out there. I think I will finish distant worlds in open, but not at waypoints.

In four years of regular playing, all in open, and always being careful, this is the fourth time I have been interdicted and immediately fired upon without warning or reason. Four, in the same number of years, less than the number of fingers on one hand.

It’s very rare (if you fly safe and switched on) but the threat of it adds a little spice the game.

Clearly, Harry and the other members of Distant Ganks 2 are adding something to the game. But, when you look at the situation from another perspective, what Distant Ganks 2 represents is a kind of rebellion against the structure of Elite: Dangerous itself. Those who are participating in killing unarmed, inexperienced players — without consequence and largely for sport — are merely pointing out for the team at Frontier through their actions exactly how their game is broken.

A rare ringed white dwarf, located inside the Collection of Wonders.
Commander TheWanderer

Through their actions, these players are demanding change. They are refusing to participate in the illusion that Elite is living up to its promise of creating a realistic galaxy. In a way, the members of Distant Ganks 2 see themselves as the true believers. Like the thousands of players participating in Distant Worlds 2, they’re having a lot of fun. Yes, it happens to be at the expense of other players. But who’s to say that they’re wrong?

Right now the one-sided battle rages on. Every day the members of Distant Ganks 2 go hunting for easy kills. Every day the leaders of Distant Worlds 2 shepherd their community further into the black, warning of the danger that follows them and working to mitigate it as best they can.

Eventually, things may reach a kind of equilibrium. As word spreads among the fleet that open is a dangerous place to play, more and more players will leave for private groups or solo play. Social media and Discord will continue to bind the Distant Worlds 2 fleet together into a single, massive group even if the infrastructure of the game itself keeps them divided. Meanwhile, the players embarked on Distant Ganks 2 may become more and more hungry for easy victories as time goes on. But they don’t have thousands of other players to help them, to support them, or to encourage them. The further they travel from their home bases, the more desperate they are likely to become.

Perhaps, when there’s no one left to kill in open, Harry Potter and his friends will simply turn back. Or maybe they’ll find another way to force their will on the thousands of other players in the game.

What is for certain, however, is that both the Distant World 2 expedition and the Distant Ganks 2 players hunting them down are helping to make the next version of Elite: Dangerous different than the one that exists today. Maybe that means a single, unified galaxy where everyone can play fair and play together. Maybe it doesn’t. That’s up to Frontier to decide.

For now, both groups must live side by side, each one in its own parallel version of the exact same galaxy, each one playing the same game but living by a different set of rules.

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