‘Elite Dangerous: Horizons’ Lead Designer Says Player Colonization 'Makes A Lot Of Sense'

Elite Dangerous: Horizons - The Engineers
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If you ask lead designer Sandro Sammarco, there’s never been a better time to be part of the Elite: Dangerous community. We’re now halfway into the game’s second season of content, collectively known as Elite Dangerous: Horizons. Planetary Landings is available on Xbox One, giving console owners a chance to explore atmosphere-free planets like their PC counterparts. The Engineers was also released on both platforms, introducing basic loot and crafting systems, making it possible for players to assemble powerful new enhancements for their ships. Frontier is also supporting the Rift again. Elite even had its first brush with killer AI earlier this month.

Through it all, Frontier has maintained an incredibly close relationship with its player base. The studio frequently hosts Elite: Dangerous live streams, featuring members of the dev team, which double as Q&A sessions for the game’s growing community. Things can sometimes get hostile, particularly when Frontier isn’t releasing information on a new feature as quickly as some players might prefer. But lead designer Sandro Sammarco believes the ongoing dialogue is vital to the continued success of Elite: Dangerous.

“I’m really pleased that we’re still taking the community with us,” Sammarco told iDigitalTimes. “Maybe that sounds, a bit, kind of shallow. But, honestly, I’m on the forums all the time. The people are very passionate. Sometimes, maybe too passionate. But it’s worth it.”

The game’s recent flirtation with AI rampancy is a perfect example of how Frontier uses input from the community to take a lemon of a situation and make sweet, refreshing lemonade. When the game’s NPCs began assembling impossible super weapons and hunting down players with a newfound aggressiveness, much of the chatter on Elite: Dangerous forums and community sites was exactly what you’d expect: players vocalizing their unhappiness over their increasingly expensive losses. But some fans wondered why these specialized weapons weren’t available for purchase in the first place. The core structure of Elite: Dangerous had always encouraged players to work together, they argued, so why not let players build ships and squads whose success or failure would hinge on such teamwork?

Frontier had no reason to exclude such creations, particularly after NPCs had already gone to the trouble of proving the game could support them. So an influx of new weapon tech is coming to Elite Dangerous: Horizons this summer.

“It wasn’t our intention to create these roles but we’ve got these tools. Let’s go down that path,” Sammarco said. “In an update soon, we’re going to give players the ability to specifically choose — at cost, nothing is free in this life — but we’ll give them the ability to choose the experimental effect they want. So they can create that personalized ship that’s theirs and does exactly what they want it to do.”

Elite Dangerous: Horizons - Squad
Elite Dangerous: Horizons Photo: Photo: Frontier Developments

As many players have already discovered, that update actually went live this week. Of course, not everyone is interested in intergalactic combat. Specialized roles might sound nice to those for whom combat is an integral part of the Elite: Dangerous experience. But part of the reason Frontier’s slightly-curated take on space exploration has proven so popular is because the studio gives its community options. Sure, you can round up the parts needed to create the ultimate battle squadron, hopping from system to system in search of bigger and better fights. But many Elite: Dangerous players just want to deliver some high-value cargo or subtly shift the political alignment of a particular region of space. And Sammarco says it’s just as important for Frontier to prioritize the needs of those players.

“There’s people going, ‘Oh, it’s space truckers…’. I’m like, ‘If you get your kicks from being that hauler, that’s great!’ I want to support you,” Sammarco told iDigi. “If you want to be a pirate, I want to support you as well. I want to support everyone. We want everyone to blaze their own trail, to do their own thing and have fun. That’s why we’ve got different modes. If you want to play by yourself, that’s totally fine. If you want to get in there, in Open [Play], and get into it with everyone else, that’s equally fine. We want to spread the appeal, in that way, as much as possible because the game is undeniably quite focused. It is a genre game. Maybe it’s not always for everyone. But if you like it, we want to make sure you absolutely love it.

“As long as you say, ‘You know, I’m a bit partial to flying a spaceship. That’s a cool idea.’ Right, that’s it. You’re ours. We want to make you happy.”

To that end, Elite: Dangerous’ recently launched Engineers expansion revamped the mission generation process, discarding the randomly generated player tasks in favor of requests that directly impact nearby systems. Looking for work near an ongoing blockade? Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to deliver food or medical supplies to a planet or space station in need. On the flip side, ignoring certain missions can help destabilize  a region, particularly if the requests go unanswered by a large swath of the community. Don’t expect solo play to suddenly be comparable to Star Citizen’s single-player campaign, Squadron 42, but that isn’t really the goal for Frontier, either. Elite: Dangerous is, and probably always will be, a sandbox game first and a space opera second.

“That’s not to say that we don’t like story. Clearly, the game is a giant sandbox, but I think, as people have maybe started to guess now, story is going to start coming a little to the fore now,” Sammarco said. “We had this giant plot line for [Emperor's Dawn]. We thought, this is going to be really cool, a schism in the Empire. Emperor's Dawn are going to make a play and they're going to assassinate the emperor. And we’ll get loads of people supporting them.”

But that’s not quite how things turned out. Turns out the community wasn’t quite as sympathetic to Emperor's Dawn , or the organization’s anti-government ambitions, as Frontier was expecting.

“I think people unanimously decided, ‘Emperor's Dawn, they’re the bad guys,’” Sammarco said. “And they punished them so badly in all of the community goals and events and other things that we did. I’m really pleased that we were able to say ‘You know what, the players have spoken’ and they won. Emperor's Dawn is no more.”

Elite Dangerous: Horizons - Surface
Elite Dangerous: Horizons Photo: Photo: Frontier Developments

Sometimes, the story and sandbox can be tied together in truly inspiring fashion. If you’re even remotely familiar with Elite: Dangerous , there’s a good chance you heard some discussion about the Unknown Artefacts that began appearing last year . After months of head-scratching, players discovered that delivering too many of the alien items to a single destination eventually causes the station to be shut down. It’s not a permanent shuttering, and players aren’t sure why operations inside the facility grind to a halt, but the downtime can be absolutely devastating for those trying to trade in the region. Naturally, artifact dumping has become a standard part of the community’s toolkit for economic warfare, despite fears spreading the artefacts could have negative consequences in the long run. These are the kinds of experiences Frontier wants to see more of as the studio continues to expand Elite: Dangerous.

“There’s going to be more. Clearly, the Empire and the Federation are being slowly drawn into conflict. A more open conflict. Sabers are being rattled. Shadowy organizations are pushing. And we’ve got, you know, aliens,” Sammarco told iDigi. “The galaxy, especially human space, has been very stable. Going forward, that’s probably going to change. We’re not afraid of big changes if we think the drama is there and the gameplay is there.”

Those conflicts will continue to escalate during the latter half of Elite Dangerous: Horizons. For obvious reasons, Frontier isn’t ready to say much about upcoming narrative events; however, the studio believes fans will appreciate many of the ideas being discussed at the studio’s U.K. headquarters. The studio isn’t ready to commit to any new features, but it hears the frequent calls for players to be able to establish a more permanent presence out among the stars. When asked directly whether players would ever be able to colonize planets or build their own star ports, Sammarco would only acknowledge that such creations could fit into the studio’s vision for the game

“It makes a lot of sense. And I think it’s no secret that it’s a nice goal to be aiming for,” Sammarco said. “But what we’ve always done with Elite , and as long as we can we’ll continue to do it, we’re going to take the steps in moderation. We want to build the foundation.”

“[Elite] is a service rather than a single project. As a designer, I’ve worked on lots of games. And they get done and you’re kind of proud of them. But you look back and go ‘Oh, but that’s broken. And that’s really rubbish. And I wish I could change that,’” Sammarco added. “It’s so satisfying, in Elite, in that every time there’s an update, every single time, no matter what the key features are, we always go ‘Oh, let’s shove some fixes in. Let’s tweak that, make it a bit better.’ We get to make the core game better with every single update going forward…so, absolutely, the idea of commanders having permanent stuff, that they own, is completely plausible. Unfortunately, I can’t say any more than that.”

But what about the features the studio has already announced?

It’s been nine months since Frontier first confirmed piloting your ship wouldn’t always be such a lonely experience. Since then, we’ve seen our first glimpse of the character customization options that will be introduced in Elite Dangerous: Horizons: the ability to land on barren planets throughout the Milky Way, a revamped mission system and several other new features. Only a handful of the promised features are still missing, and only two expansions remain before Frontier turns its attention to whatever comes after Horizons. Frontier probably has a better idea of when we can all expect to zip around the galaxy with our friends, right?


“I can’t say too much. It’s definitely Season Two.” Sammarco told iDigi.

“The reason Sandro can’t say too much isn’t because I’m throttling him on this one,” Michael Gapper, Frontier’s PR and community manager, clarified. “He can’t say too much because we ended up delaying [Elite: Dangerous Update 2.1]. We delayed it and that made it better.

“We could have put it out the door then and there. But our community understood,” Gapper added. “Everyone was disappointed, but they understood. And I think it you look at the community now … people are glad it came out because it fixed so many of the little things they really wanted to be fixed. And that’s because we gave it extra time. The reason we’re not putting a timeline on when the next update is and the next update after that, is because if that happens again we don’t want to disappoint people.”

The answer won't be popular with everyone. Even I was a bit guilty of frustration at the news, given Star Trek: Bridge Crew’s E3 2016 presence, but Sammarco was quick to remind players how much work goes into a project like Multi-Crew. The system isn’t intended to be a one-off party experience, like Ubisoft’s Star Trek tie-in or mobile hit Spaceteam. Frontier has already confirmed fully-crewed ships will be more effective in combat. But it takes a lot of work to bring that vision to life. And every time the scope of Elite: Dangerous grows, so too does the amount of work required to implement Multi-Crew.

“It’s a really big feature as well. Lot of permutations, lot of ramifications,” Sammarco added. “The bigger the game gets…every time you add more to it, it’s got to connect to more slots. And we’d rather spend the time to make sure it plugs in correctly, in all those different aspects, than just chuck it out there.”

Sadly, that means there’s a pretty good chance Multi-Crew won’t be the next feature we see in Elite Dangerous: Horizons. Frontier isn’t ruling out the possibility. It’s impossible to know when a member of the dev team might make an amazing breakthrough, or if implementing Multi-Crew will prove less time-consuming than expected. And Gapper says whatever feature is ready for public consumption first will be the feature Frontier releases next. That said, the studio expects the commander creator to be ready well before Multi-Crew, and the same will probably be true for the ship-launched fighters, too.

“From a designer point of view, when the bosses say ‘We’ll take the time it needs for it to be good’ that’s really good new for us,” Sammarco admitted. “Fans are like ‘Oh no, we have to wait longer’ but for us it’s like ‘Yes! We can make it better. We can get it right. It’s the long game, not the short game. And Elite is nothing if not the long game.

“Everyone wants the best but you’ve got to have that journey for it to be worthwhile.”

Early in the interview, I’d mentioned all the variables that seemed to be lining up for Frontier. With many VR consumers’ focus shifting to multiplayer experiences, and the Multi-Crew system still expected this year, it doesn’t seem crazy to think Elite: Dangerous’ momentum will continue to build among those with a Rift or Vive at their disposal. A recent price drop should also help sales in Steam, Xbox Live and other digital marketplaces. The studio’s attention to detail can be frustrating for fans, many of whom have grown up in the era of Early Access and would like to see new content released more frequently, but extensive preparation gives Frontier more options down the line.

“The cockpits are so detailed that behind your seat is detailed. Like, the back of the seat. You can’t see it. There’s no way you can see it. Even with the free cam, you can’t see the back of the seat. But it’s so detailed,” Gapper added. “One day, you will be able to and that’s why it’s important to do that. That door behind you, someday that door will open. Hopefully.”

But what about those with more ambitious plans? Is it crazy to think that one day we could see players leading their own fleets? Maybe even building a faction that could one day rival the various organizations introduced in the Powerplay update?

“It’s not crazy at all,” Sammarco told iDigi. “If you look at some of our bigger ships…they don’t have cockpits. They have bridges. Big panoramic views. Everyone’s got their own seat. It all adds up. It’s pointing in a very nice direction.”

Be sure to check back with iDigitalTimes.com and follow Scott on Twitter for more Elite: Dangerous coverage throughout 2016 and for as long as Frontier continues to support Elite: Dangerous in the years to come.


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