Privateer-style games are part of the ultimate power fantasy layer of modern culture. They let you begin as a mere thug, small merchant, or inconsiderable courier and then rise to the oligarchic power level to influence the political space around you. Basically, the main crucial difference between a privateer game and a standard RPG is the need to struggle with an economic system. Well, in theory.
Elite was one of the first privateer games released in 1984—I was born too late to play it. The following games in the series also passed above me, so I had no reference point when I got to Elite Dangerous. My pal was one of the first backers of the game on Kickstarter, and he let me crash several of his spaceships during the beta. I purchased the game much later, snatching it bundled with Horizons expansion.
The game’s initial promise is neat. Get yourself a spaceship and go wander off doing whatever you like. Get into mining, discover new worlds, trade, try out head-hunting business, go rogue and take your chances with smuggling, or maybe even try to move up the ranks of one of the political powers. Also, the game simulates our real-life galaxy on a one-to-one scale, which elevates the whole premise to the mindblowing tier.
I failed to get into EVE Online in the past, so I expected Elite Dangerous to become a more easy-to-learn substitute for my space MMO ambitions. In the last six years, I conducted several playing sessions—expeditions of sorts. Some were relatively short, with the game shelved within a day, and others lasted for weeks. All of them ended with Elite Dangerous repeating the fate of EVE Online—getting the hell out of my hard drive. There is one aspect that these two games have in common—I would prefer to read about them than actually play.
Now, it’s important to clarify something: I like Elite Dangerous as an idea and as a game. I like having various occupation options and being able to switch them as I please. I don’t consider such gameplay boring—I like the concept of ‘podcast games.’ I enjoyed most of my time mining, exploring, and trading stuff. The only major problem I have with this game is its horrible greed—and I don’t mean it in a usual micro-transaction sense. I mean the in-game experience—the game doesn’t reward you enough for your efforts.
There are no content rewards for missions (because there’s no plot), and payments are low. The good stuff begins only when you rank up your rating, but it takes time to grind yourself to the top. You count every penny trying to save for some minor upgrade that will slightly improve the rate of your future income. Risky stuff brings more money, but insurance in case of destruction is not cheap—so it’s not significantly better to be a smuggler than an honest trader.
This experience hits too close to home—I have enough money struggles living under capitalist exploitation in real life, and I don’t want my videogame escapism feeding me roughly the same pleasures. No, thanks. I came for power fantasy! All I want is to purchase an Orca and have a decent living doing passenger tours to spectacular space vistas! Am I asking too much?
And while mining those damn minerals, trying not to get ambushed by bandits, I read and listen to Sagitarrius Eye—one of the best fan-fiction manifestations ever. And when I return to the station and sell those damn minerals for dirt cheap, I hear news and rumors that there is some plot in this game after all. Somewhere out there, there are aliens, and there are political rivalries, and there is action, and mystery, and whatnot. But it’s not for me—I’m too poor to have fun.
I’ll never play Elite Dangerous again. But I’m always up to a new issue of Sagittarius Eye.