New expansion for Elite Dangerous will add tens of thousands of locations to the game

An SRV on the surface of Stuemeae DX-A d1-989 during the Distant Worlds 2 expedition in 2019.
Image: Commander Korver

Elite Dangerous is a comically large video game, with more than 400 billion star systems in all. It’s so big that players have only ever seen .042% of it with their own eyes. With Elite Dangerous: Odyssey, the game’s first paid expansion in more than five years, developers are adding even more to discover. The upgrade will allow players to traverse billions of worlds on foot for the first time, leaving the comfort of the game’s traditional vehicles behind entirely. But that’s not all.

The team at Frontier Developments is also adding entire new systems of gameplay. They will focus on first-person combat, solitary exploration, and even stealth in built-up areas. Supplementing that experience will be new social spaces — tens of thousands of them — plus entirely new settlements to discover.

Polygon spoke with lead designer Gareth Hughes to learn more about Elite Dangerous: Odyssey. To hear him tell it, a game long derided as being a mile wide and an inch deep is about to get a whole lot deeper.

Here’s everything we know about Odyssey, and how it will change the spacefaring game when it releases in early 2021.

New social hubs

Since Elite launched in 2014, players have only ever experienced the game from inside a vehicle. More often than not, that’s been one of the game’s 40-plus starships. The Horizons expansion, released in 2015, also added the Surface Recon Vehicle (SRV), which players can use to zip around on the surface of planets. With Odyssey, players will get their own Neil Armstrong moment, setting virtual foot on the surface of unexplored planets where no one has ever gone before.

For most players, that “one small step” will come a little later in their in-game journey. For many, the on-foot journey will begin inside one of the game’s new social spaces. That’s where they can come together with other players and get missions from non-player characters (NPCs) in person.

Hughes tells Polygon that there will be three types of social spaces: Planetports, Spaceports, and Outposts. These will be added to the game at pre-existing locations all around the Milky Way, depending on the types of structures already in place.

Small orbital stations — little mining outposts, perhaps, or trade depots with just a few landing pads — will get Outpost social hubs. Meanwhile, larger starbases — the game’s iconic 20-sided-die-shaped Coriolis starports and massive, spherical Orbis stations, each with a dozen or more landing pads — will get Spaceports. Finally, large surface installations — think Survey sights and Observatories, each with as much capacity as a large starbase — will get Planetports.

Based on information provided to Polygon by the player-run Elite Dangerous Star Map (EDSM), those additions alone will add more than 40,000 new interior spaces for players to hang out in. But don’t expect them to look and feel all that different from each other. While Hughes said that his team is working on adding variation through things like flags and banners, there will only be the three unique layouts at launch.

“They’ll certainly feel different between planet Planetports, Spaceports, and Outposts,” Hughes told Polygon. “It’s difficult for us to generate [...] the vast amount of content that this could take to make them unique.”

Social hubs will primarily be built for efficiency, Hughes said, with quest givers and vendors positioned in roughly the same location from site to site. Players should expect more intimate interactions, including questlines with lots of dialogue. But the architecture will look very much the same from place to place.

“Time is money in Elite,” Hughes said, “so we didn’t really want people to have to find it laborious to engage with these [social hubs] when they’ve got stuff to do. So we’re trying to find that really fine balance between them feeling unique within the three kind of categories that I outlined, that they’re efficient to navigate through, and they have a real visual punch.”

Some of that visual punch will come from massive windows. For instance, in Spaceport social hubs, players will be treated to full, 360-degree views of the inside the drum of a busy space station. When NPCs and other players come in to dock, those sitting inside the social hub will be able to watch them fly around in real time. For a game where some players spend years on lengthy expeditions, explorers can now look forward to the potential for a warm welcome upon their return. All they need to do is let their friends know they’re on the way back, and the local cantina can easily be filled with well-wishers.

In addition, the NPCs inside these new social hubs in Elite will differ based on what factions are in control of them. That will bring to the forefront an often overlooked part of the game that has been present since launch — the complex system of political and economic conflicts that make the game’s populated area (known as “the Bubble”) such an interesting place to hang out in.

Fans and developers alike call it the Background Simulation, or BGS for short, and it will play a new and important role in Odyssey.

The BGS

A Spaceport social hub, situated inside the spinning drum of an existing Coriolis space station in the world of Elite Dangerous.
Image: Frontier Developments via YouTube

A lot has been written about the so-called Stellar Forge that was used to create Elite’s version of the Milky Way. In the past I’ve called it a galactic rock tumbler, which used all the real-world scientific information that it could find to place the stars and their accompanying planets into the game world. But, running alongside the Stellar Forge was another system that procedurally generated the in-fiction groups, alliances, and little wars that dot the Bubble.

Take, for instance, my home star system of Ross 263. There are seven different NPC factions present in the system right now, including groups such as the Ross 263 Independents, Ross 263 Transport Company, and Silver Galactic Incorporated. To date, those factions have only ever been represented by an entry on a list and a still image of a random character. In Odyssey, those characters will finally come to life.

Visiting the massive Doi City starbase today, I can take missions from all of these minor factions. And, just like other complex massively multiplayer games, I will earn cash as well as faction credit depending on who I work with. Faction credit is already a major gameplay component in Elite, which players use to unlock permits that allow them to visit high-security star systems as well as top tier starships. But, what many players in Elite don’t realize is that taking on missions actually changes the fate of these minor factions within the Background Simulation.

As players take on missions for a faction, they can actually increase that faction’s control over a given star system. This in turn allows those factions to take control of the built-up areas within it. Factions can go to war against each other, driving out competitors from neighboring star systems or indulging in internecine battles against their closest neighbors. Systems can boom, raising the rewards for any player taking missions in that area. They can also bust, resulting in missions focused on ferrying food and shelter to the system’s impoverished residents and refugees.

“It’s not just that the Background Sim changes the game for everybody,” Hughes said. “It’s that everybody can change the Background Sim.”

Hughes told Polygon that the BGS and the factions that maneuver within it will play a huge role in the tone and timbre of the gameplay options available in a given star system. In fact, groups of players can actively push the BGS one way or another through concerted effort, creating the kinds of on-foot, first-person missions that they prefer to experience.

That player-directed influence will play out most clearly in Odyssey’s newest, largest, and most dynamic new planetary locations. They’re called Settlements, and Hughes says they will provide entirely new ways to experience the game.

Settlements

Two players travel through a Settlement. The red portal is the airlock on a habitation building. In the distance is a production building, themed here as an industrial space with smokestacks.
Image: Frontier Developments via YouTube

When Odyssey launches in early 2021, “thousands” of new Settlements will be added to the game. They will show up on the surface of existing planets, but also on newly accessible planets with thin atmospheres. And each of them will have one or more factions vying for control.

Settlements will be larger than social hubs, Hughes said. Each one will comprise multiple buildings, with each themed to match the nature of the Settlement itself.

“We have production buildings,” Hughes said, “which is where they’ll be processing ore in an extraction settlement, or dealing with the agricultural output of an agricultural settlement, or dealing with the industrial output of an industrial process. So they’re almost like factories, right, but themed factories for that settlement type.

“We have power buildings, which is kind of like a reactor, which is the source of power for the entire entire settlement,” he continued. “We have other buildings, which are habitat buildings, which is where the guys in the settlement actually stay and live — although we don’t always have habitats, because sometimes we like to infer that the workers are kind of flying in and then fly back out.”

Once players arrive at a Settlement, they will be able to transition smoothly between exterior spaces — the dusty surfaces of distant planets — and these themed interior spaces through airlocks. Once inside, they’ll be able to breathe without the help of their spacesuits. Missions might require them to visit a given location, to retrieve a specific item, or to kill a certain NPC.

Alternately, players can just roll in on a Settlement uninvited and do whatever they want. Options include looting the place stealthily, or killing every NPC they can find and making off with everything that’s not nailed down. If there’s combat, Hughes also said it can be of the combined arms variety. That means players on foot can be supported by other players inside wheeled SRVs and even starships, all working toward the same goal.

Whatever players do inside these Settlements, of course, will have a direct outcome on the factions that control it, and the BGS that dictates who is in control of which parts of a star system.

“The BGS can also start to infer difficulty of settlement, through which faction’s controlling it,” Hughes said, “including what the quality of their combat guys are. So, again, it’s an indirect way of allowing players to increase their power in the game and still have challenges, because what we didn’t want to find is that you go to a settlement and it feels exactly the same as every other settlement — especially if combat kicks off.”

A rising tide

Concept art showing a new in-game vendor, called Apex Interstellar Transport, that will serve as a king of taxi service.
Image: Frontier Developments via YouTube

Of course, Elite Dangerous isn’t the only spacefaring game out in the wild right now. Eve Online has been running its complex economic and political systems for the better part of 15 years. Meanwhile, No Man’s Sky has captured the attention of players around the world with its own brand of galaxy-spanning procedural generation and esoteric world building. But the Odyssey update, on the surface at least, appears to bring Elite ever closer to its main competitor — the lavish, sprawling, multi-genre games in the Star Citizen universe.

We asked Hughes how he has been inspired by the other, hugely popular games in the spacefaring genre.

“I’m really pleased that there’s other competitive games in the space,” he said. “I think it maybe just builds interest for all of us. If our player base is looking at other games and being excited by them, and then with Odyssey, if we kind of start to come into their on-foot space as well, I think it’s just good for everybody.”

“I think Elite’s always been fairly unique in its execution,” he continued. “It’s found its own kind of identity. [...] I think if we look too hard at what others are doing, then really, we’re just starting to create a facsimile. And I’m not particularly interested in that. I like to be inspired by other people. That’s as far as it goes for me, I think. I like the fact that Elite has a unique identity, and I’m not really that interested in moving it closer to other games.”

We’ll learn more in the months leading up to the launch of Elite Dangerous: Odyssey in early 2021, which is expected to arrive simultaneously for PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.

Comments

How does elite dangerous compare to Star Citizen?

One is a game, one isn’t.

You can literally play both right now.

okay. One is an actual finished product, and one is in a perpetual Alpha state.

Yes, imagine that, a space game with a scope larger than any space game as of yet, taking more time to develop than other space games.

Currently, there is more to do in SC. SC’s problem at the moment (short of the many features not added yet, is that it’s buggy). Currently the are four things you can do in ED. Bounty hunt, run cargo, mine or explore. ED is universe scale and attempts a 1:1 representation of our universe, but most of the systems are barren. You can land on and drive around planetoids that have no real atmosphere. ED is miles wide, but as shallow as a puddle.
SC has all the same things except exploration. SC is not ,and was never planned to be universe scale. SC has significantly more to do and better ways of doing them, but like I said, it’s very buggy. SC does not have the breadth of ED. You can land on fully atmospheric planets with oceans, not just barren planets. Planets have true climates.

It’s interesting watching both companies work towards the same goal from opposite ends. Frontier built a weak facsimile of what they wanted and built on that towards this. CIG on the other hand is attempting to make a game that comes out fully realized. Neither are easy tasks, both are currently enjoyable. For a good idea of what SC is doing feel free to check out this video from Digital Foundry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OngP6uEfQoE

You can follow it up with this" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TUFcerTa6Ho

and this if you care more this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqXZhnrkBdo

ED getting space legs is long overdue and I hope it comes with SIGNIFICANTLY more depth for the game.

Totally correct. I’ve played both and there is more "to do" in SC, but it’s buggy af. In the end, it’s makes Elite really the only game ready for prime time.

Funny thing is, I completely disagree with you. ED works well, and has a number of communities built up around it that work together to enrich the game. The Fuel Rats. Hull Seals. FleetCom and the DSSA. All things that I’ve written about. All worth the time. SC doesn’t work well at all, and even the fledgling communities that I’ve found popping up inside it quickly break up as the bugs impede their work in game.

I will take this moment to tip my hat to Fuel Rats. Helped me in a pinch when I first got my wings. Swift and professional. Those guys do a good work over there.

Listen I love ED, but I’m not talking about the game’s community, I’m talking about the game. Yes, the community is an important part of an online game and should be considered but that’s not what I’m talking about.

ED works well … if all you use it for is taking screenshots for Polygon articles. Try and actually play it and you find a very different story. Every single part of the game is mired in bugs. Thousands and thousands currently live on the issue tracker. And with every update Frontier breaks it more. Take the recent Fleet Carriers update. Made the game unplayable for a ton of people, crashing whenever jumping in a busy system. And Frontier marks those bug reports as INVALID, telling people to check their internet. Now Frontier has given up trying to fix this update. After one fix attempt broke fuel mining, instead of fix it, they just gave out compensation by changing a number to double the fuel efficiency.

I think the main difference is that there is more in Star Citizen in terms of gameplay activities and in first person a lot of the PvE content is far more compelling. In ED it is a true sandbox and the PvE is mostly grind rather than entertainment, ED needs the player community.

I’ve always said they were two games approaching the same problem from different ends. I’ve got both, but for me it is telling that tED got far less interesting after it left beta, the expanded universe made it a more lonely and daunting experience and I couldn’t have a friend at frontier dump credits in my account so we could actually play the game rather than work the game. It also just takes way to long to set up my HOTAS and while it was compelling in VR, VR makes the travel times less bearable.

That being said I never play Elite, it has too much time suck moments, and I don’t mind a calm grind, but I don’t want to be able to read a book while I play. I do though go back to SC fairly often when there is an update cycle, and give it a play often with a few local friends(that I made via the game). That being said I discovered the trick to stability in SC was a newer computer for me, if you remove your own system performance from the issue it is WAY more stable.

I think though both are kind of licked by the dark horse of no mans sky, which takes the best bits of both concepts, simplifies it a bit and strips out some of the good bits of both. I am really liking NMS with the latest update and it is my first time back in a couple of years and loving it. When SC is more finished it will be my go to, and I’m still really excited for the single player, but till then I’ll be in NMS for my fix.

As someone who is relatively new to ED (lol), I’m having a damn good time with it. I feel like both NMS and ED are basically kneecapping the arguments for SC.

I play ED and NMS pretty regularly.

I often wish they were just combined into a single game. I like the survival, base building, and planet exploration of NMS, but it’s space ship mechanics leave so much to be desired. The opposite is true for ED. Sure, you can land in planets, but why would you? There’s nothing to do there, and they look about as good as the random bullshit side planets in the first Mass Effect.

I love reading the twisting knots of the SC apologists.

Cool, thanks for the insight. It’s clearly tells us that you have an idea of what you’re talking about and completely dismantled everything I said.

People love to hate what others enjoy

Currently the are four things you can do in ED. Bounty hunt, run cargo, mine or explore. SC has all the same things except exploration.

I can’t wait until Star Citizen adds:

  • VR support
  • A fully-working flight model
  • Server meshing (not 50-player capped servers)
  • Player/ship refueling/repair/healing
  • Stable physics
  • Faction warfare
  • Faction reputation
  • A few dozen star systems to explore
  • Aliens to battle/research/trade
  • Aliens structures to explore
  • Scientific mysteries
  • Lore-filled wrecks and bases
  • Dynamic economy
  • Crafting
  • Equipment modification
  • Guild mechanics
  • Functional tutorials
  • Functional NPCs with AI
  • Black holes
  • Orbital mechanics
  • Fleet carriers
  • Sharable discoveries
  • Full MMO persistence
  • Actual stability

One is what the other wish to become, and the other needs so long time, that when it’s finished nobody would care or what even could be one more, it’s vaporware.

I’ve never played SC, but in ED you have to be able to set your own goals. On top of basic things you can do on your own time (mining, exploring, bounty hunting, etc), there are also missions you can accept. They’re often a variation of one of the other tasks, but sometimes the missions have you attack a surface base or some other variety.

If you like grinding and unlocking stuff though, there are a lot of paths to unlock. There’s the basic grind to get money to buy upgrades and ships.
There is also a grind to unlock Engineers that can give you upgraded components. To unlock a specific engineer you may have to be friendly with a certain faction, get a pass for that system, get a certain number of supplies, unlock other engineers and so on. Then once the engineer is available, you may have to run a mission for them. Then you can purchase items from them over and over to get better stuff each time.

You may set a goal for yourself to visit earth. Sounds simple, but you have to be friendly with a certain faction. That means doing missions for them. Sometimes a mission will pop up to just "donate money" to gain rep. You get rep by bounty hunting targets with bounties for that faction. There are multiple ways to grind to that goal.

If you want to fight aliens, I think you need specific weapons. That’s another path to grind out.

When the aliens, Thargoids, first started showing up, people discovered bases. By collecting certain items and plugging them into certain places, you could unlock the base and explore the inside. The community got together to solve these puzzles.

They’ll also have community events to build/repair bases and stuff like that.

There is also a Power Play mode that I never really tried. You join a faction and try to gain territory for that faction. There is a specific process to take over an area. If you play that mode, exploration is more difficult because you’ll show up as an enemy if you wander into the territory of other factions. I’m not sure how popular that mode is.

I’m not huge on grindy games. So I just got to the point where I got a decent bounty hunting ship and a small jack-of-all-trades ship and put the best standard gear I could get on them. There is a website to help build your ship. You have to worry about power limits and stuff. I enjoyed designing a ship online almost as much as playing the actual game.

So you’re free to set your own goals. Sometimes you can just do what you want without some grind. I can’t go home and start mining. My ship just isn’t made for that. I’d have to do some bounty hunting and get enough money to buy a good mining ship. I can’t decide to transport tourists out of the blue. My ship doesn’t have room for living quarters. The fun in the game is figuring out what you want to do and finding a path to get there.

Agreed. It’s like any MMO, set yourself goals/projects and work to achieve them. If you’re bored in the bubble go on an expedition. Go on an expedition as a Fuel Rat and support the party. Decide you wanna build the fastest boosting ship in the galaxy or the biggest hull tank mining ship (not that you’d need that for mining but you get the idea) If you have something to work towards the "grind" is far more rewarding

Commander, if you’re reading this and have not gotten your Hutton mug yet, be sure to fly out to Hutton Orbital to get one. Plus the alcohol is quite rare in trade and only can be bought at that space station. o7

I’ve got two mugs, one from DW and the other from DW2. I’m good for mugs.

Don’t forget free Anaconda?

Looking forward to this. I think "thousands of locations" kind of oversells it, since despite having thousands of star systems in a huge to-scale galaxy, you run into the same 3 or 4 planet models the game has available to explore. Maybe I’m just spoiled by NMS’s exploration, but exploration just isn’t an appeal in Elite for me.
What is appealing though is learning things in the game, and Odyssey at least promises a wealth of new experiences that will be welcome. Being able to walk around space stations is a fantastic surprise-inclusion too, and while I won’t get ahead of myself and hope for walking inside ships, it’s nice that FDev didn’t just go with their classic 1-feature-&-done approach. The expansion is shaping up to be quite an experience

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