For many players, the allure of Elite Dangerous is the freedom to explore the Milky Way galaxy, to see stars and planets that no other player has ever seen before. For others it’s the combat, where you can test your mettle against other players or alien enemies that could easily snap your ship in two. But, for a dedicated few, the real draw is making other people miserable.
Unlike other professions in Elite, being a dirtbag takes hard work, creativity, and the willingness to be the kind of asshole that thinks outside the box. Like when a group of players farmed a bunch of rare items, then hauled them 22,000 light-years away in order to harass a terminal cancer patient. That little episode set the bar pretty high, but recently a group of players vaulted over it like a team of heavily-armed Olympic gymnasts.
Last month, a group of players worked to create a deep-space gulag, an in-game space prison designed to quietly trap new players and exploit their labor. And they almost got away with it.
Our story starts with a man named Jason. I’m not using his last name or his in-game handle for privacy reasons. He’s been playing games in the Elite franchise since 1984, and now he’s sharing the experience with his children. His youngest son is seven and, even though the game is rated for older players, Jason makes sure that his littlest commander always plays with supervision. On Jan. 29, that supervisor was his 10-year-old sister.
“Someone approaches them in-game,” Jason told me over Discord. “Flies up alongside them and starts talking on in-game chat. I like to think I’ve ingrained some degree of online safety smarts, so my daughter took over, left the system, and calls for me.”
“She talked me through the encounter and what had been said,” he continued. “Turns out the rumors I had been hearing elsewhere [were] true.”
Jason’s kids had received a rather lucrative proposition. They were encouraged to fly to a fleet carrier — a mobile, player-owned base — and exchange some simple goods for a large amount of in-game currency. Once the money changed hands, a group of players would help them build a new starship, fly them to a mining claim, and help them break apart asteroids. The goal was to work together in order to farm Void Opals, one of the rarest and most expensive commodities in the game.
The offer sounded too good to be true, and the girl’s “stranger danger” instincts kicked in.
If his older sister hadn’t intervened, Jason’s son would have been forced to sell off those Void Opals for far less than their fair market value. Other players would then export those commodities to another system, profiting from his work. Making matters worse, Jason’s son would have been trapped in that mining system, stranded more than 800 light-years from the populous center of the in-game galaxy. There would have been no way back other than to self-destruct his new starship and effectively begin Elite’s grind all over again.
“I praised her for doing the right thing, [and] reinforced the message with my boy (who truth be told would have jumped straight in the van),” Jason says.
As it turns out, many older players jumped in the van before him. At least a dozen — likely more — had already been trapped, press-ganged into working for low wages in a star system they had little hope of ever escaping. Polygon spoke with four commanders who had been trapped this way. Looking into the details of the scheme, it was actually quite clever.
The perpetrators hung out around star systems heavily populated by new players, many of them brought into the game by a free giveaway on the Epic Games Store in November. They said they were looking for recruits, and offered to give these players money to buy a better ship, but also training in how to farm Void Opals and a free ride to a good spot to find them. Behind the scenes, they were exploiting in-game systems to isolate these new commanders from everyone else in the game.
First, they required new recruits to join a private instance of Elite called a Player Group (PG). Playing in a PG is a good way to make sure you can meet up with your friends and allies, but it also cuts you off from ever seeing anyone else. Contributing to that isolation was the fact that this all happened on Xbox One, which has a markedly smaller player population than the PC version of the game.
Travel in Elite is accomplished by folding space and “jumping” between star systems, using a neighboring star cluster as a kind of beacon. Once in the PG, players were instructed to outfit a new starship in a particular way that limited its range to less than two light-years. As a consequence, they were unable to travel to another star system without the help of a Fleet Carrier.
Fleet Carriers are relatively new to Elite, and were added to the game just last year. After a buggy first few months, they quickly became the preferred way to travel long distances thanks to their 500 light-year jump range — nearly five times further than any other ship in the game. But they also helped to isolate these new players even more. Once docked on board with their custom-built mining rigs, recruits were ferried 800 light-years from the heart of the Milky Way and left to rot. Their only gameplay options? Mine Void Opals and sell them back to the carrier that brought them in for roughly one sixth of their fair market price or self destruct.
Some commanders actually took their entrapment pretty well.
“I actually felt amused by the whole situation,” one told me on Discord. “I mean, I genuinely wanted to help, but seeing how deep some people can get into this sparks curiosity. That’s why I wanted to participate in the first place. My current state of mind is that I’m a grown up that understands consequences of decisions and putting a blame on my consequences to someone else is simply wrong. This is a classic case of good vs. evil that keeps the balance.”
Others had very much the opposite reaction. A handful quit the game entirely. Still others tried to reason with their captors, but they say they were quickly shouted down or otherwise silenced on Discord. But one brave commander actually tried to get help. They called in the Fuel Rats — a player-organized faction in Elite Dangerous dedicated to rescuing players who have run out of fuel.
“Do Fuel Rats rescue pilots trapped in essentially concentration camps?” reads the chat log, to which the dispatcher on duty that evening responded with confusion — “o.O”
The dispatcher assumed that the player was referring to an in-game mechanism that puts misbehaving players in “jail,” sending them to a penitentiary ship for high crimes and misdemeanors against AI-controlled ships. But it quickly became apparent something more sinister was going on.
The Fuel Rats are a good bunch. In fact, they recently logged rescue number 100,000, an achievement that was celebrated by Elite Dangerous publisher Frontier Developments in-game. But they don’t actually offer a service whereby they save people from labor camps. So the Fuel Rats called in the specialists. Known as the Hull Seals, the newly-formed group performs high-risk repairs and other oddball rescues.
A player in the Fuel Rats named Commander Lead was among the first to start organizing a rescue. Commander Modemus was put in command of that effort and, using various Hull Seal assets — including multiple Fleet Carriers of their own — they mounted a rescue operation. After several weeks of work, around a dozen newbie commanders have been pulled out and brought to safety. He tells Polygon that they think as many as 15 more players are still trapped, although at least some may be willing participants. The operation is now under the control of another player, Commander Either. Those interested in helping out — or getting rescued — are being directed to the New Pilots Initiative Discord server. The entire affair will be discussed in detail soon on the Squeaking Fuel podcast.
To get their side of the story, I hopped into the perpetrators’ Discord channel. (Elite’s code of conduct prohibits naming and shaming of other players, so I’ll not be revealing the name of the server or of the individuals that I encountered there.) What I found, even in the entry lobby, was a small community comfortable with heinous racial slurs and harassment — hardly the place for a 7-year-old.
Things started out cordially enough. When confronted, however, one member pushed back on the assertion that they were duping players. Everything was above board, they claimed, and players were allowed to come and go as they please. Anything to the contrary, they said, was “a pathetic sob story.”
Other players Polygon spoke to refuted these claims.
When I asked the perpetrators if they were aware that they had nearly entrapped a minor to be a miner, the moderators of the Discord kicked me out. Later, one of them reached out via direct message, claiming to be the creator of the scheme.
“It was really just for the giggles,” they told me. “In reality anyone could self destruct and find their way. And the fleet carrier traffic we produced before anyone else got involved would also allow for anyone to hitch a ride to and fro. Which some players did.”
They said calling those commanders caught up in the scheme “trapped” was overstating it — it was just a very aggressive recruitment effort for their PG. I asked for numbers on how many other players were involved, but they refused to share that information. I asked them if they would keep on doing it. That’s when their tone shifted.
“Considering the cat’s out of the bag and people will now try to mimic my method, yes,” they said. “Not only will I keep doing it I’m going to step it up a notch. I’m going to recruit harder than ever before. I along with my cohorts are going to build the greatest noob army this game has ever seen. We will truly be able to shape the galaxy with our wealth and influence. All this publicity has thrown us into a frenzy. And we will not go into private play like some are saying. We’re going to do it in the open. So all can witness the glory.”
Frontier Developments is in contact with the New Pilots Initiative about their rescue efforts. Even now, other player groups are coming together to launch rescue missions of their own on Xbox One. At least one carrier has been positioned in-system, following in the wake of the perpetrator’s own ships. They’ve been set up to sell the parts needed to escape the gulag at a fair price.
Reached for comment, Frontier’s public relations and communications manager said his team is monitoring the situation closely.
As you well know, Elite Dangerous is a sandbox based in a 1:1 recreation of our milky-way, with the ability for Commanders to blaze their own trail a fundamental tenet of the game. We are continuously surprised by the way in which players choose to role play within the galaxy.
We are closely monitoring the situation with our Community and Live Game teams. Our estimation is that fewer than 20 Commanders have been affected by the behaviour of a small minority of players.
We do not condone the behaviour of these rogue Commanders however we have been delighted by the stalwart efforts of community groups, such as the Fuel Rats and Hull Seals squadrons, to bring those Commanders affected to safety — an effort supported by our own community team.
We continue to monitor both the situation and in game communications and will not hesitate to act if players are found to have breached our community guidelines in any way. We always encourage any player who is experiencing difficulty within the live game to log out and contact our customer support team who will endeavour to resolve any issue as quickly as possible.
In the spirit of our emergent player driven narrative a Galnet bulletin will be issued in the coming days to alert players and inform them on the potential dangers of boarding unknown fleet carriers.
Because minors were involved, we have reached out to Discord to inform the company.
Update 1 (Feb. 5, 10:38 a.m. ET): The original version of this story summarized the first few sentences of the statement from Frontier Developments. We’ve included the developer’s full statement for additional clarity.
Update 2 (Feb. 5, 3:05 p.m. ET): The original version of this story stated that the perpetrator’s Discord server made a reference to a German Panzer division active during World War II. Following the publication of our story, the server moderators reached out. They maintain it is instead a reference to an active United States infantry division. We have adjusted the story accordingly.