Elite Dangerous: A Burro muses on space missions (AKA “Death by 1,000 procedurally generated yawns!”)

Another mission, you say…

There is a place in Guild Wars 2, a small human outpost near the front line of the war between Man and Centaur, where something wonderful and exciting can happen to you if you are lucky to be there at the right time. The first time this happened to me I had no idea it was in the game and therefore no idea it was going to happen and by the time it had finished it had changed the game for me forever. Before I tell you more about that place and what happens there, I should give you a little background. Guild Wars 2 borrowed an underdeveloped idea from Rift which had in turn borrowed it from War Hammer but it was only GW2 that came close to getting it right. The idea was Dynamic Events and it allowed the game to react to your presence, kicking off a pre-scripted event as you passed through an area. On the surface that wouldn’t be anything worth writing about but Dynamic Events were more than just triggered events because a player’s actions could influence their outcome and then that outcome could trigger a new event which in turn could trigger further new events, all chaining together to form an unfolding storyline that you became caught up in until it was played out. Now in this human town, the name of which escapes me, you might be lucky enough to hear NPCs chatting about a patrol about to set off and if you did you could volunteer to join the patrol and help out. Once you (and your follow players – these quests scaled up and down as players came and went at any point in their narrative) had set out with the patrol you were part of what was to become one of the most ambitious Dynamic Events ever put into the game. The patrol was to check on various camps and way points, each deeper into the Centaur territory and each bringing a fresh assault. The attacks had to be defeated and camps set up before pressing on, all the time being driven on by a charismatic NPC captain until the patrol, swollen by players and NPCs alike, decided to take on the Centaur main camp. This led to an all-out, multi-phase assault on the stronghold that ended up with the patrol fighting the main Centaur boss. All of this was in the open world, not a closed off instanced dungeon, and it was exciting as hell every single time I took part. The feeling of daring do at the outset, of desperate struggle during the patrol and of emboldened heroism throughout the assault was palpable, yet the devs managed to make me feel like that without ever crossing the line into making me feel like a dull untouchable superhero. My choices and decisions mattered, both to myself and to the other players and NPCs of the patrol because at any point we could fail. It was breathtaking.

Now in Guild Wars 2 I played an engineer called Jurak Gearwright in GW2 and with a quick fast forward of a few thousand years to Elite Dangerous I’m piloting Jurak’s direct descendent, William, around the Milky Way and something seems to have been lost in the intervening millennia because the missions in ED suck like a turbo charged Dyson. Waaaaay back in beta the devs introduced ‘Branching Missions’ and I wondered if they would become like the Dynamic Events of GW2 but despite my best efforts I could never find any missions that went past the initial ‘hand in’ point. It’s been a recurring dev claim throughout several updates that the missions were being altered to add more variety and branching and I’ve yet to see any that don’t fall into the following categories: trade, smuggle, steal, kill and locate. And apart from the always annoying NPC trying to get you to swap sides I’ve seen no branching at all. You get a mission, do a mission, hand it in and you’re done. Missions do not seem to branch and do not seem to lead on to other missions – I say ‘seem’ because I could be wrong as my game time is not stratospheric and I am bored.

I’m bored of my bulletin board missions having no impact or effect. I’m bored of my gameplay not leading into areas I haven’t dreamt up in my wee brain. I’m bored of cut and paste missions from cut and paste stations found in cut and paste systems everyfriggingwhere the game. A friend of mine has posted about a conversation we had today and it’s a really good read that at first seems to be at odds with my views but in reality shows, I think at least, that we are both coming at the same point in different ways. Both of us are lovers of the Elite universe and are glad that Elite Dangerous has been made. Both of us enjoy RPing in and out of the game about our in game experiences. Both of us love the size and scope of the universe crated by Frontier Developments. Where we do split, I think, is on the matter of depth versus breadth. It would seem at first glance that I’m calling for a deeper game offering stronger, linear story telling and that just isn’t what ED is about – ED is an open sandbox where you make your own reason for existing or you just don’t play. But I don’t agree.

What I want isn’t exactly a hand-crafted narrative designed to drive me along a storyline not of my making but rather the introduction of a system that can chain missions together to lead to some kind of meaningful change in the game state. Let me explain by way of an example.

Current mission: I pick up a mission to recover military plans from a system following a never specified incident (why the military can’t get their own effin’ plans is beside me but hey, they’re paying). I fly to the system and start the boring and repetitive task of signal source hunting. Eventually I drop into a signal source where the RNG engine in the game decides I’ll find the wreck of a ship with cans of military plans floating around. Quite often the wreckage of the ship raises questions I’d like to look into, as does the fact that whoever destroyed it left the plans floating about in bleeping cans, but there is nothing more complicated I can do than scoop the plans up and fly back to the mission’s starting station to hand them in. The biggest threat at this point is being scanned and fined and even then that[‘s just because the mission becomes a net Credit loss as opposed to anything approaching dangerous. This is dull after a short number of identical missions, trust me.

Better Idea (1 of many): I pick up the mission and fly to the system. For a start the location should be a system with active war zones or some other type of conflict that would explain the presence of military ships and plans. The mission brief should contain last known coords so I can head, using the compass, to the right location but this should be a race against time as other agents are also after the same things. Getting the plans should involve hacking the ship’s computer – only tech and supplies should be in cans, not bloody data! At some point I’d have to escape as other forces come in *or* when I get there I see other forces leaving and they have the data. The mission is then chained to a chase and interdict mission. At the point of interdiction other missions could chain – the ‘enemy’ could pay me off to not only leave them alone but to even take false data back to the initial client *or* I am congratulated by the first client and informed this was a test and they would like to use my skills on a far more dangerous mission. This could even be a recruitment exercise for one of the new Powers in Powerplay and further missions could be chained here.

You see, that wouldn’t need a hand-crafted storyline, just a far richer mission generator that can link missions together to give them a sense of narrative greater than that of your average Yodel driver. As it is the game is just like my 9 year old son with his homework – doing the bare minimum to get by whilst promising me that the absolute best is being done *and* that that more effort is coming at some point in the future. I have to put up with that from him, I don’t from my game.

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3 comments

  1. I am with you… From my experience quests when done for the sake of giving players something to do are just pointless, if they are there to build on what has gone before and offer choice and or interaction it adds a whole new layer of depth to delve in, and we are not talking vast ocean depths, strangely enough the player joins the dots and imagines the connections quite simply between the connected quests even when both regarded alone are quite basic together they become remarkable…

  2. The sad thing is that from a technical point of view the developers are correct, mission branching is implemented and happens in the game. From all i know, we have these two variants:

    1. You can pick up a mission which requests the delivery of slaves. Instead of bringing slaves, you then abandon the mission and then can turn in the mission to the authorities, means you report the slave trader. I never tried that, i can’t tell what this option is worth.

    2. You pick up a hunting mission. It doesn’t matter if it’s an assassination mission or a hunt for a number of pirates/smugglers/traders/authority. When you fly to the destination system somebody will bother you (check your chat window) while you are in supercruise. He’ll tell you that he has something you might be interested in and you should follow him. He then leaves supercruise and leaves a low energy frame shift wake behind.

    Now comes the first showstopper: getting close enough to this frame shift wake to have target lock and actually be with him when leaving supercruise. It uses the same mechanic as when flying to a station, but it’s in open space, so you have no reduction of your flight speed due to planetary mass in the vicinity. Thus going for such a frame shift wake is a challenge, on one hand it times out after a little time, on the other hand you really have to crawl towards it and even then need a bit of luck. (When playing around with this, i more than once had the problem that i had it right under my sights, was motionless and it was just barely out of range. Then i nudged my throttle just a tiny bit forward and pulled it back again immediately, but this tiny burst of speed was enough to overshoot it. )

    If you then went all the effort, checking the chat window, locating the frame shift wake, carefully crawling to it and exiting supercruise there, this is what happens: the guy will send you a kind
    of “mail” to your coms window and jump away. You then can check the message at the coms window, which inevitably is the request that you don’t get blood on your hands but stop the mission.

    Now you can either ignore or delete this message and just carry on with your mission or accept it, which changes your current mission to a new goal: go to some other place, get a compensation for abandoning the original mission and be done for.

    And now to the numbers: i am not 100% certain the numbers are corrent, but i think the two missions i personally tried this with had a payout of 150k and 200k credits. The payout for abandoning the hunt in each case was less than 5k credits.

    So indeed, from a technical point of view the “branching” is implemented, but from a gameplay point of view it’s so utterly worthless that the time coding this would’ve been better invested about anywhere else. (But hey, isn’t that a pattern lately? I mean, PowerPlay also is a great idea, but the actual design and implementation are terribly bad. )

    And a small sidenote on the GW2 thing: it’s not all sunshine there, either. I remember one of those eventchains, where my girl would really have liked the trait from. We tried to do it, but players there always did the first 80% of the chain, then failed it intentionally. By restarting it and they were able to farm better rewards than they could’ve gotten by completing it. So while GW2s implementation of chaining events is the best i am aware of, small mistakes in the reward structure in the face of a mostly reward driven community can also turn this one into a mess. 😦
    (But at least it could be fixed with only very minor changes. )

    1. Hi Sylow and welcome to the blog. Thanks so much for posting your thoughts. I do hope that once FD are past the Xbone release they will turn to the task of adding some much needed depth to the galaxy but this might not come for a very long time and only then in dribs and drabs. By that time I will be playing something else but maybe ED will have the draw to pull me back 🙂

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