While we tire of relating everything back to the ongoing pandemic, there is something resonant about a development team working hard in 2020 to allow a community of players to get out of the spaceships (which they’ve called home for some six years now) and let them step walk on the surface of planets for the very first time.
And it’s not just the one planet either. Elite Dangerous’ new Odyssey expansion is providing on-foot access to planets across all 400 billion star systems in the Milky Way. Of course, such projects have been tried before, and there have famously been both issues and delays. But the Elite Dangerous team is working off the back of a successful six year stint to date, and a supremely well-engineered universe.
Throughout all those years, and more with development of Elite Dangerous dating back to 2012 at least, the game’s creators have long looked forward to this moment.
“It would be fair to say that the on-foot experience has been in our minds since the inception of Elite Dangerous,” says game director Piers Jackson. “It’s something we’ve played around with for a number of years, experimenting with different ideas for gameplay, but Odyssey in its current form started taking shape around the beginning of 2019.
And the team to bring this next evolution of the game to its player base? “We’ve averaged around 100 developers working on the project with a peak of around 140,” Jackson reveals.
With a couple of years of development time and a sizable headcount, the team could have completed the development of a substantial standalone game. So how does creating an expansion on this scale compare to a wholly new project?
“In terms of its scale, and in large parts its development, Odyssey can definitely be compared to a new game,” says Jackson.
“What Elite has leant to Odyssey is a foundation and principles on which to build – core experiences to transpose down onto the surface of planets – the vision of freedom for a player to forge their own way in the galaxy, the wonder of exploration and, of course, the danger.”
And this desire for more personal exploration doesn’t just come from the team: “Players have been asking for on-foot gameplay from day one, you can go all the way back to the Kickstarter campaign and find a ton of discussion.”
Which begs the slightly unfair question of why it’s taken so long? “It’s always been something we wanted to bring to the game but it had to be a meaningful experience and we always had to balance that with our desire to enhance and develop the in-cockpit gameplay,” says Jackson.
FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT
Coming back to the idea of extending the core experience and values into the on-foot gameplay, Gareth Hughes, lead designer, explains how the existing experience, and the franchise as a whole, has defined Odyssey.
“As with Elite over the past four decades, players will be able to forge their own path and take their own approach to the game – whether that’s fighting for factions as a mercenary, stripping wrecks as a scavenger or pursuing discovery in its purest form, exploring planets and their organic life from an entirely new perspective.
And that freedom needs to operate at two distinct levels, Hughes explains: “One of our core design principles when designing Odyssey has been to ensure that we offer player choice at the macro level – the type of activity they want to engage with – but also at the micro level – how they want to achieve their chosen goals.
“For example, players could be tasked with stealing important data files from a heavily guarded settlement. Some players may choose to armour up and shoot their way in with heavily upgraded weaponry, while other players may instead choose to infiltrate using specialist tools and devices to gain access and avoid detection and conflict.”
Another example are assassination missions, where players are given a name and told the planet and settlement, but have to locate the target themselves, by say hacking into a computer network. Alternatively, they can just indiscriminately wipe out the settlement entirely – it’s not efficient, but it works.
And they’re not in it alone of course. “Players will have complete flexibility over whether they want to have these experiences as a solo player, in a team with their friends or alongside random players they have encountered along the way.
“Odyssey will transform the multiplayer experience in Elite – to date players have been able to wing up with team mates for missions or appear as virtual crew members, but in Odyssey they’ll be able to physically board fellow commanders’ ships and travel the stars together.”
And, as we mentioned before, that means all the stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way.
“We won’t be setting any limits here” stresses Hughes. “Elite Dangerous contains more than 400 billion star systems, and light-atmospheric worlds such as those opened up in Odyssey are found within many of them. Players will also be able to disembark their ships and SRVs [Surface Recon Vehicles] on the non-atmospheric worlds introduced in Horizons [the previous expansion], opening huge opportunities to understand those planets better than ever before.”
On many of these planet’s surfaces new settlements will be waiting to be discovered offering opportunities for new missions, intense combat and plenty of looting, explains Hughes.
“Ports and Outpost will become social hubs where players can meet, team up and choose the missions and activities they want to experience together. These locations will also be a great place to show off the latest armour, weapons and decals players have earned.”
Those planet surfaces need to be detailed and believable of course, so how did the team go about creating the planet surfaces for literally billions of worlds? And how has it moved on from the vehicle-based exploration found in the earlier Horizon update?
Lead programmer Dr. Kay Ross explains: “In Odyssey we are changing the process in which we generate landable planet surfaces. Where before we had a generator for rocky surfaces and one for ice surfaces which both took Stellar Forge inputs,” Stellar Forge being the core procedural generation engine in Elite Dangerous that is responsible for detailing everything in our galaxy.
“We now have terrains and terrain materials of various different types and scales which are deterministically selected and blended together depending on the Stellar Forge driven properties of that planet,” Ross continues.
“Landable planets are still classified between rocky, icy, rocky ice, high metal content and metal rich depending on what emerges from the Stellar Forge simulation, but their terrains are dependent on those simulation values more than these discrete titles. Terrain shapes, styles, and combinations are mixed together, meaning there is a lot of variation within these classes.
“As with everything in Elite Dangerous, the planets are full sized,” unlike say No Man’s Sky, which chose to use miniature planets as opposed to realistic-sized ones. “And so it is a challenge to ensure that the resources we make work on all scales, work with each other, and provide detail all the way from orbit to the surface. I think we’ve done a grand job selling the scale of these things.
“Across a planet there is now a large scale mask processed which determines different zones of types of terrain based,” Ross expands. “The mask depends on things like how gravitationally stressed the planet is, the crust thickness and if the planet is, or has been, tectonically active.
“These zones mask out further subzones of terrain and material types, and follow the flow patterns laid out by the layer above it, creating a seamless landscape across the planet.
The planets look varied and interesting then, but how has the team added interactivity to these vast landscapes?
“They’ll be populated by a variety of elements that the player can interact with including settlements, flora, different points of interest such as ship crash sites, and social spaces inside planet ports,” Hughes explains.
“When approaching a planet in their ships players will be able to scan the surface at a distance to search for and highlight the things that they wish to investigate more closely.
“All of this content is hand crafted, resulting in a high quality experience, but it’s also affected by the background simulation to create a huge amount of variety and ensure that each element feels bedded into the game world from a thematic and narrative perspective.
That experience also has to be meaningful to ship-based play, adding opportunities without making previous ones redundant, says Hughes.
“We’ve always been aware that Odyssey needs to feel like a layer that fits over the existing ship experience, the two elements have to feel seamless and not compartmentalised. While offering many new experiences for players, Odyssey also transposes many of the core game loops from ship gameplay and adapts them for on-foot experiences, creating a real sense of continuity between the two.
“At the same time we’re aware that some new players attracted by Odyssey’s on-foot gameplay may find that they are overloaded when also trying to get to grips with flying a ship,” Hughes notes, and they’ve come up with their own Uber service to tackle it.
“To help on-board these players – and also to give more experienced players the chance to put their feet up – we’ve added a new service to the game called Apex. Apex is essentially an interstellar taxi service that will deliver you to a variety of destinations, for a relatively small fee. This allows players to navigate the galaxy without the complexity and risk of flying their own ship, which is especially useful when venturing into hostile territory.”
FACE TO SPACE
One reason to get out and about in titles such as Mass Effect, is to interact with NPCs and pick up missions. But with a perfectly functional ship-based UI already existing for that in Elite Dangerous, how has the team ensured that settlements and space ports aren’t simply a more unwieldy version of the UI writ large across
“Elite Dangerous is a living galaxy with a plethora of minor and major factions vying for influence in the different systems and settlements scattered throughout the galaxy. One of our proudest achievements with Odyssey has been bringing that background simulation to life inside our stations, outposts and beyond,” replies Hughes.
“The influence of the background simulation now manifests itself in a much more physical and human way, from the background chatter between faction NPCs to the tone and thematic presentation of the locations themselves.
“One key area where this can be most keenly felt is in the difference obtaining missions; the mission board offers a quick and efficient way to pick up regular missions but engaging with a physical faction representative offers more nuanced missions with greater personality and narrative depth and also the opportunity to barter for a better reward.”
All of this sounds amazing, but the whole space sim genre has come under greater scrutiny in recent years, after both No Man’s Sky and Star Citizen struggled to manage expectations of their fans, both in terms of ambition and delivery.
“Our focus for the Odyssey campaign has really been to show people what’s real – we’ve avoided the big CG reveals and every asset we produce has been made either with in-engine footage or with pure gameplay,” Jackson explains.
“I think what’s great here is that our community puts a huge amount of trust in us – when we set out to build Elite Dangerous it was really, in terms of scale, one of the most ambitious video game developments ever and not only did we deliver on our promise but we’ve followed that up with six years of incredible content.
“That being said, we don’t take that trust for granted so we’re revealing Odyssey little by little with everything we show being absolutely true to the player experience.”
And that brings up to one final question, given the recent tribulations with Cyberpunk 2077, will Odyssey run well on last-generation hardware?
“Absolutely! We’ve worked incredibly hard to ensure that performance remains consistent with the classic Elite Dangerous experience and we’re pleased with the results that we are seeing. We remain absolutely committed to bringing a great Odyssey experience to all of our Commanders on whichever format they choose to play Elite Dangerous.”