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Getting started in Elite: Dangerous

A beginner’s guide to the biggest MMO around

A white and red starship coming in for a landing inside a lush, green space station. 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.

Elite: Dangerous, the spacefaring game from Frontier Developments, is disgustingly big. It’s a massively multiplayer online game that takes place in a realistic model of our Milky Way galaxy. It contains more than 400 billion star systems, many with dozens of planets to explore. But what tends to bewilder and befuddle players more than the sheer size of the thing is figuring out how to spend your time once you get in there. Here’s my step-by-step guide to getting started, and tips on what to do once you’ve got the basics down pat.

Know your controller

The biggest barrier to entry in Elite: Dangerous is just getting your mind around the interface. There’s a lot of buttons and a lot of vocabulary. At first, focus on simply learning to take off and land without bashing yourself to bits. Here’s the button maps for the four most popular controllers to get you started. The two joysticks I’ve selected here, the Saitek X52 and the Thrustmaster T.16000M, are supported natively on PC. Just plug them in, find the right listing via the in-game Options > Controls menu and you’re off to the races.

Print these maps out, put one on your iPad or just tape it to the bottom of the TV. You’re going to want it around for the first few weeks while you get your wits about you. After that, it should become muscle memory.

Many joystick and HOTAS (hands-on throttle and stick) sets have hat switches, multidirectional buttons that let you access Elite’s in-cockpit menus. Some, like the Saitek X56 shown here, have tiny little joysticks mounted to them. You’ll use these for fine control while docking.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

Do these tutorials first

When Elite: Dangerous launched way back in 2014 there wasn’t much in the way of an on-ramp. That’s all changed thanks to a brisk set of handy tutorials. They won’t take up all that much of your time, but they will help you understand the basics of how to move around in the game.

Elite is very much about the joy of maneuvering. First things first, do the Basic Flight Training tutorial. Then move on to Docking and Travel Training. Try out the Combat Training just to get the basic concepts, but don’t sweat it right away. You’re still quite a ways out from mixing it up with the AI let alone other human pilots. Your goal should be to get faster and faster at moving to and from landing platforms in different star systems.

Come back to finish up the Advanced Combat Training, Mining Training, SRV Training and Ship Launched Fighter Training when you need them.


Make some money

Everyone starts out in Elite with the same ship, called the Sidewinder MkI. It’s a perfectly capable vessel for tooling around, but job one is going to be to upgrade it to something larger and more capable.

One easy way to do that is to start trading goods. Reddit user Commander Masark put together a fantastic guide that is best described as a speedrun from the Sidewinder all the way to the Anaconda, one of the biggest ships in the game. If you simply want to build wealth above all else I would follow it line and verse.

Taking Masark’s advice then, as a solo player you’ve got two options right off the bat: You can either park yourself close to a nearby star and start blowing up wanted ships, or you can start taking passengers between stations. The goal is to get to 200,000 credits, and it shouldn’t take that long at all.

Be a vigilante

When you jump to a new star system you’ll find that the star has a Nav Beacon nearby. If you’re just starting the game, leave the station, enter supercruise and target the system’s central star. As you get closer there will be a circle on your HUD very close to the star that you can target called a Nav Beacon. Get within one million meters and you’ll be able to drop out of supercruise.

If you did the tutorials this should all be a piece of cake.

There will be a few other ships in the area. Target them one at a time and bring the nose of your ship to point toward them. On the left side of your HUD a scan will begin, indicating that one or more of them are wanted by the authorities. Deploy your hardpoints and get to work blasting them to bits. There’s no fine for shooting down wanted ships. In fact, you’ll earn a bounty that you can turn in under Starport Services > Contacts.

With a Sidewinder, you’ll want to make sure that you’re not biting off more than you can chew. Only go after ships of similar size like other Sidewinders, Haulers, Eagles and Adders. Likewise, you’ll want to make sure that the AI isn’t too formidable, so only attack Harmless, Mostly Harmless or Novice pilots.

Be a bus driver

Ferrying passengers around the populated part of the Milky Way, otherwise known as The Bubble, is a great way to familiarize yourself with your starting star system’s closest neighbors. It’s also a great way to get some practice with navigation and docking.

As you fly around, I recommend keeping a physical log. Write down the names of the systems you travel to and make notes about what you find there. Learning which systems produce agricultural goods and which ones produce tech will go a long way to jumpstarting your trading career down the road, and finding a bunch of Imperial or Federation contacts is the first step in grinding faction credit later on.

To be able to accept passenger missions you’ll need a cabin. Thankfully they’re not too expensive. Once docked, open up Starport Services > Outfitting. Cabins will be listed under Optional Internal. Once you’ve got one installed, you can find fares on the Starport Service menu along the left-hand side in the Passenger Lounge.

Passenger hauling is a basic kind of mission, and missions do expire. Once you take on a mission you can find details on it later by going to your Target > Transactions panel on the left-hand side of the cockpit. Read all mission descriptions carefully as some passengers have different needs than others.

All the flyable ships in Elite: Dangerous. The starting ship, the Sidewinder MkI, is on the left-hand side.
Simon Janich

Upgrade your ship

You should be able to get 200,000 credits banked through bounties or passenger missions pretty easily. Once you have it, it’s time to purchase an Adder. Hopefully you’ve found a star system that sells them and made a note of it in your log.

The Elite community has a whole ecosystem of helpful tools out there that feed off of Frontier’s data feeds, and the first one we’ll introduce you to in this guide is called Coriolis.

Ships and ship components are somewhat randomly distributed throughout the Elite universe. You won’t be able to buy everything at every starport. Coriolis allows you to create optimal builds and work backward to the components you have available to you. It’s a good way to try before you buy, so to speak. But know that there’s no depreciation with ship modules, and buying and returning them in-game is unlikely to lose you any money. Coriolis is just a lot more convenient.

Here’s a good baseline for an Adder, but depending on what you have available you may have something slightly different when it’s all said and done. As you travel, keep checking in on the Starport Services screen to see what other modules are available and upgrade as you’re able.

Managing power

A sample of the power chart from the Coriolis web application. A similar chart can be found inside the Starport Services > Outfitting menu and inside your ship at the bottom of the Systems Panel (the right-hand panel) > Modules tab.

There are two things to keep in mind as you build out your Adder. First, power is limited by your ship’s Power Plant. When your weapons and modules are active and deployed, they draw power. If you don’t have enough power, systems will begin to shut down.

When you add weapons to this baseline build know that there’s plenty of overhead with 12.5 percent more power available. Add a few Burst Lasers to the small hardpoints and you’re good to go, but if you decide to mount a medium weapon as well it’s possible that you could go over. If that happens, you’ll need to deactivate and/or prioritize your systems to shut down in a graceful manner when you open your hardpoints for combat.

An image of the Systems Panel > Modules tab on my Asp Explorer, the Evelynne Christine.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

As an example, let’s look at the Systems Panel > Modules tab on my Asp Explorer, the Evelynne Christine. Life Support is a priority, so I’ve made that a Priority One system along with my Heat Sink Launchers. I don’t do a lot of combat, so I’ve made my Beam Lasers and my Ballistic Cannons Priority Two. Finally, I’ve made my Cargo Hatch a Priority Three system. All of this is adjustable from inside the cockpit.

What will happen if I go over my Power Plant’s output is this: Life Support and Heat Sink Launchers will always stay active. My Cargo Hatch will be the first system to shut down, followed by my weapons systems. I’ll be able to manage heat and keep breathing while I make a run for it, without any weapons to protect myself with and dumping cargo as I go to make myself lighter and hopefully distract anyone shooting at me.

Modules can be loaded onto your ship and then deactivated. In this way, you can fill a larger ship with tons of weapons as well as all the gear you might need to do mining and exploration and then switch between all three configurations on the fly. To activate or deactivate a module, select it on the Systems Panel > Modules tab and then hit the fire button to open a pop-up menu.

In the image above you can see that I have two Heat Sink Launcher modules on board the Evelynne Christine. When I’m out exploring I sometimes get too close to a star and have to pop a Heat Sink to keep from burning up. Once I’ve emptied the first launcher I deactivate it, activate my secondary and start plotting a course for home to restock the ship.

Managing jump range

The biggest improvement to your quality of life in Elite will be to increase your jump range. Jumping farther means jumping less, getting you where you want to go faster and with less down time.

The best way to get a higher jump range is to purchase a better Frame Shift Drive. Ship modules are rated by their class, with higher numbers indicating more capable modules. A Frame Shift Drive rated 5A will take you farther than one rated 1F.

The Starport Services > Outfitting screen shows the minimum, current and maximum jump range along the bottom.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

Another way to go farther with each jump is to strip your ship down to the bare minimum. Since I have a lot invested in my ship I run with very strong, very heavy bulkheads to protect me. But if you’re running your first Adder, who cares if it blows up. They’re cheap, and you can just buy another one.

Take off all your weapons, remove your scanners and sensors and fill the ship with empty cargo space and passenger cabins and you might be surprised how far you can go. But remember that cargo counts against you. Take that into account before you start making long distance hauls.

Also, make sure that you have enough money in the bank before you do something stupid. New ships aren’t free, and it’s actually possible to go into debt in Elite. On the screen above you can see my credit balance in white, and below that is the “rebuy cost” to replace my ship and everything in it. For your first Adder, it’s unlikely that you’ll need to shell out anything over five digits to get another one.

Image: Frontier Developments


Outside of taking down wanted criminals and running passengers and cargo around per Commander Masark’s instructions, one of the most enjoyable things to do in Elite’s early game is exploration. It’s something you can do with a Sidewinder MkI, an Adder or any other starting ship.

Start by setting yourself a goal. Over Christmas last year, I decided that I was going to get 1,000 light years outside The Bubble and see how many Earth-like planets I could find along the way. Playing casually, I made it back to my home system just after the new year with several million credits worth of discoveries to cash in and three new Earth-like worlds to my name. If you ever stop by Wregoe EG-Y D30, you’ll find Commander TheWanderer’s name on the fourth and seventh planets, one of which has ammonia-based life. That star and those planets will always have my in-game name attached to them and it will be shared between all platforms.

But you can also earn credits, and plenty of them, by scanning stars, planets, moons and asteroid belts that other commanders have already visited. Since the most recent round of updates it’s actually quite lucrative. To get started you’ll need a Discovery Scanner, a Fuel Scoop and a Detailed Surface Scanner. All three can be added to your ship through Starport Services > Outfitting > Optional Internal menu.

Scanning planets

Once you’re in a new system, you’ll fire off the Discovery Scanner like a weapon from a hardpoint from within supercruise. It will detect, within a certain range, all of the nearby planetary bodies. The better the scanner, the farther out into the system you’ll be able to detect planets. This will add a bunch of new contacts to your Target Panel > Navigation tab (the left-hand display inside the cockpit). Select one and fly toward it. Once you’re close enough, your ship will automatically conduct a detailed surface scan.

When you return to The Bubble you can cash those scans in for money under the Starport Services > Universal Cartographics tab. Discovery data can only be sold once you land somewhere at least three star systems away from the discovered system, and the farther out you go the more your discoveries are worth.

How to scoop fuel

Fuel Scoops will allow you to skim the corona of a star and gather fuel for the next few jumps. But be aware that not every star can be scooped.

Remember that a star is a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace where hydrogen is built into helium at a temperature of millions of degrees. Stars come in different sizes, have different temperatures and different gravitational pulls. You can only realistically scoop at classes O, B, A, F, G, K and M. You can remember that with the graphic below, or with the acronym “Oh Be A Fine Girl And Kiss Me.”

To scoop fuel, you should be in supercruise. Fly around a star at a shallow angle. Once you’re within range a temperature gauge will show up in the middle of your screen. Try to keep the ship’s temp below 80 percent of maximum and once you’re at the right distance pull all the way back on the throttle. Your ship will give you an audio cue once your tanks are full.

You can’t ever slow down to zero when in supercruise since the minimum speed is still a significant fraction of the speed of light, but given the relativistic distances we’re dealing with, once you have the throttle pulled back you may as well be parked. Once you’re topped off turn away from the star and throttle back up.

Using the Galaxy Map you can easily plot a course from one place in the Milky Way to another. Just be aware that once you leave The Bubble you’re by and large on your own. Choose fast routes or economical routes, but always make sure that you’ve got enough fuel in the tank to reach a scoopable star.

If you find yourself way out on the fringe without enough gas to reach the next scoopable star you’ve only got two options. The fastest thing to do is self-destruct, which is an option on the Systems Panel > Functions tab down at the very bottom. Once blown up, you’ll find yourself back at the last station that you docked at and in need of a new ship.

Alternately, you could call the Fuel Rats, an in-game group of seasoned Elite veterans who will show up and help you out of a jam. Their website has complete instructions on how to call for help on every platform, including consoles, and how to comport yourself from start to finish.

You can’t actually tip the Fuel Rats for the help, so the least you can do is have good manners when they show up to bail you out.

o7 and good luck out there, commanders. Fly safe.

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