4 billion stars

Elite Dangerous has 4 billion+ stars. Cool concept, and as a programmer I can see how the tech behind that would be neat to develop. But I sort of feel there should have been a meeting where a designer stood up and slammed his fist onto the table and said “NO! That’s stupid”. “Cool” does not automatically translate into “fun”; “cool” is a few degrees from “cold”.

The engine doesn’t have that great of a repertoire so it’s really not 4 billion distinctly unique systems. Not even millions of exciting combinations.

WWIIOL made a similar mistake – played on a half-scale map of Europe, the largest map of any game at the time. It had only a hundred towns because they were man hour intensive to build.

It’s a mistake to think that all that empty space will somehow feed the player’s imagination. When text games still ruled the earth and curmudgeonly developers were decrying this idea of graphics, they weren’t entirely wrong.

The brain is a pattern engine and play is all about patterns. So it’s no surprise that players tend to find patterns and do it quickly and given a half-scale Europe represented by 16 tiles, what they quickly come to recognize is a series of repeating tiles…

So ED’s “4 billion stars”, given the current repertoire of stars and planets, is good for a couple of weeks or months of exploration before players begin to see “yellow star, red star, gray thing with rings”. Once they reach that, the 4 billion stars collapses into a central core of “gameplay” and an outer shell of “tedious, why the hell is that there? can I uninstall that part? will my computer run faster?”

So not only do I think that the 4 billion stars was maybe unnecessary overkill, I could see myself reading a Post Mortem in a future “Game Developer” magazine with Michael Brookes saying “well, we should totally have just had a few hundred thousand stars. A billion was a million too many, never mind 4 billion”.

It’s worth noting that, right now, there are just stellar bodies, and while they’re fairly varied you can’t get close enough for them to be all that interesting. Honestly, I’d rather look at 2d pictures of real moons and planets than at lower-res 2d pictures of simulated moons and planets that, wait a second, look a lot like someone photoshopped photos of aforementioned real moons/planets to look a little less like themselves.

Although you can stumble across some potentially exciting configurations such as a star that’s a light second from a black hole, there’s no “simulation” going on or any fancy animations so … what you’ll see is a star (black hole is black).

There’s been past talk of allowing players to go to the surface of planets in ED, but … hmm, seriously, who is the target audience for that on an ongoing basis? Is it going to be a level of detail where you could get down on the ground and see unique species of plants with a type of leaf you’ve never seen before?

Or will you be seeing a vague flora color from a few hundred feet above the ground? If it’s the former, then you could spend years just observing a significant portion of ONE planet, so whats the point of 4 billion of them? The latter is just going to be repetitive and lose everyone’s interest within a month or less…

Parts of ED are the game I’ve waited 22 years for, and then I see where they’ve made stupid mistakes that I thought developers had stopped making 10 years ago and I shudder.

In their forums you find the old faithful “we’re breaking new ground here…” because, hey, nobody had done an Elite MMO before, I guess? I mean, there’s literally nothing new or unique about the game. Missions? Just because they don’t call them quests, erh, they’re still quests. Unidentified Signal Sources! WTF those are spawn instances, even duplicating the Matrix Online pattern whereby – like a loot roll on crack – you have to enter them to find out what quest they’re for or what’s in them.

Writing this has been a bit of a stream of consciousness, trying to figure out my own feelings about ED and I think it comes to this.

Unfortunately, I don’t think they yet understand how MMOs work/develop/grow. They’re continuing to talk about future development, but I’m starting to think that ED may already have died. I don’t know what their sales figures are like, but I’m guessing they’re still seeing sufficient sales that peak concurrency is stable or rising and – based on their experience of box sales – that looks good to them. Even though ED doesn’t charge a subscription, an experienced MMO developer would see that they’ve already entered the long tail.

I’d hazard a guess that they’ve probably sold somewhere around 300-400k units, and are seeing around 10-20k peak concurrency, although I may be being over generous… The Mac port, maybe 50k units. The Xbox port, wow that’s a tough call. Probably anywhere between 50k and 250k units. The Xbox One is a games console bereft of games and, well, this is a sandbox.

One Comment

I’m checking a way to adapt Trade Dangerous on Android ;-)

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