This year’s roadmap: There’s no major update to Elite: Dangerous until 2020…
*pause for gasp of horror*
But can we expect crickets chirping until October 2020, while the Thargoids burn human civilisation to the ground and the player-base are mostly racing to beagle point on Distant Worlds 2? Probably not.
There are several schools of thought on what the 2020 road map might be. Reading the forums recently, I can summarise these into three general categories of commander or viewpoint.
The first sign that we won’t be hearing crickets and watching tumbleweed for a year or two, has already been detailed in an interview on Lave Radio.
Will Flanagan, Frontier’s community manager, has announced that there are going to be some developer managed events in game over the coming months. Citing the Salomé event – where commanders escorted a VIP from game fiction to a new location in-game, but were betrayed by the notorious CMDR Harry Potter and the VIP was slain. These will replace the Community Goals for a time and will be on a larger scale.
While we can expect the odd bug-fix, there is also the possibility of other content as well. On a number of occasions, it has been discovered that content (such as the Type-10) was already in the current game, waiting for a switch to be thrown to reveal it. Adding new items on planets or even new ships could be done without a major release, so mother-hubbard’s cupboard isn’t bare - we are just eating out of the freezer until the new fridge is delivered!
My own view, is that Frontier have hit the limits of what the original Elite: Dangerous game engine & network code can accomplish and need to reboot the whole thing. With six years hindsight. How ambitious their new content will be (or not) may just be wishful thinking on my part. Clearly the addition of squadron carriers was not possible, or the possible implementation wasn't good enough (in Frontier's view) without modifying the game engine. The Ice Worlds also got held back, most likely because a newer generation of the graphics engine was required for the desirable results. So it is not inconceivable to speculate that the "new era" of Elite will bring an updated graphics engine and a new model for object persistence in the game.
The coming two years of updates will probably end in something major, but what will come before then?
What could we expect?
There are a few ships that never made it past concept art or early render stages. Such as The Hunter, the Type-2, the Panther LX (heavy trader) and the Imperial Explorer. There are also many ships from the previous Elite titles going back to 1984 that are not (yet) in the game.
Pie in the sky you say?
We went from CMDRs pranking ED Lewis (below) with a paper Krait in 2016 to flying one in game in 2018.
So a new ship and maybe a couple of variants are not beyond the realm of possibility.
Ice Planets and Squadron Carriers
These two are "big ticket" items, which are unlikely to appear until the "major" release. Because the squadron carriers would need some kind of alteration to the Background Simulation (BGS) to allow them to relocate more than once a week (like megaships currently do) then they just are not possible in the current game - hence the removal from Beyond. Also, stations are heavily scripted and complex options in the game, which would mean for carriers to be something more than a modified outpost or megaship model, the game needs new features.
Ice planets were first announced at Frontier Expo in October 2017 and were due for release in the Beyond Q4 update. Frontier showed off some early in-game renders at LaveCon 2018. Sadly this feature didn't surface (pardon the pun) and was pulled from Beyond to be added at a later update (as of August 2018).
Why? Probably because the physics of icy surfaces, the way snow and ice behave and the inclusion of frozen fog required a new set of features for the Elite: Dangerous graphics engine. Hence the delay.
What other features are on the table?
Powerplay is overdue some fixes and Frontier might be able to make changes without doing anything they would deem "major".
Space lifeforms are still being discovered. What percentage have been found and if any more are up Frontier's sleeve remains to be seen. There could also be planetary lifeforms and structures yet to be revealed.
Permit locked systems. There are (if you've not seen one) something like 60-70 star systems that commanders cannot visit due to permit locks. Around half can be unlocked with in-game actions. The rest are a mystery. Frontier could be holding these systems and (in some cases) whole sectors locked for use at a later date. Could that date be now? Could we gain access to a few new systems that might, for example contain Thargoid home planets?
Engineers could have new upgrades added to their list and indeed we could see more engineers added in Colonia.
With the "developer led community events" we might see a new megaship set up a third "bubble" somewhere the other side of Saggitarius A. The addition of stations and altering their state seems to be an existing function of the background simulation (BGS) so would you choose to live of "the far side" of the galaxy?
What won't we see?
The two things we've been waiting for since Horizons dropped in 2015, although truth be told - we've been waiting for these since the KickStarter in 2012. Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) walking or floating around ships and stations - what Lave Radio and others have christened "space legs". Also we won't see atmospheric planets (water worlds, gas giants & earth-like planets). We're also unlikely to see heavily populated planets without atmospheres either (no cities).
The initial release of Elite: Dangerous doesn't mark the end of development. We intend to continue expanding the game both with new content and new features. A good example of this is planetary landings. We have an ambitious goal for landings to include new gameplay and a rich variety of worlds to explore. To achieve our goal we want the planets to come to life. We also want to add leaving the ships so you can explore space stations or board enemy vessels or even just to look around your own.
-- Elite: Dangerous KickStarter 2012
Basically anything that requires a new game mechanic or changes to the graphics engine is not going to show up until mid-to-late 2020.
Is this good or bad?
Well, for anyone hoping for more content this year, probably bad. At best we'll have a slow drip of new items in the game. Just the Thargoid and Guardian content tailing off and maybe some new items added.
If we get something truly impressive in 2020, then very good. But technically impressive and impressive to play are not the same. Currently planets in Horizons have tectonic plates which is how the mountains and valleys are calculated. While scientifically and technically amazing as that is, from the perspective of a player it doesn't really matter. They are more concerned as to why all the boulders are floating a metre above the surface.
If Frontier simply deliver the minimum features required to inject Squadron Carriers and Ice Worlds into the game, I think the player-base will be very unhappy. After four years of Horizons (and seven years of game development) if we don't see the addition of a significant new feature to the game, such as EVA or Atmospheric Worlds, then Frontier's credibility with the community will suffer. Frontier have called it a "major" release and "a new era". Since CMDRs paid £80 to £120 for the "Lifetime Expansion Pass" we've seen only one paid expansion in four years, so the major update needs to be something that lives up to a four year wait.
That's a big bowl of hype to fill and a lot of hungry CMDRs waiting...