EVE Evolved: EVE Online vs. Elite: Dangerous

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Like many EVE Online players, I grew up playing early sci-fi games like Elite and its sequel Frontier. In fact, CCP's recently released stats on the distribution of ages within the EVE community shows a peak around 29 years old, meaning that most players grew up in that same gaming era. A big part of what initially drew me to EVE Online was the prospect of playing the same kind of massive trading and space exploration game with other people, and for over 10 years it's scratched that sci-fi sandbox itch. I've watched EVE grow from a relatively unknown game with around 40,000 subscribers and laggy cruiser skirmishes into a vast game where thousands of players wage war for territory, profit, or just the adrenaline rush of PvP with something valuable on the line.

Now that Elite: Dangerous is finally here, I want to see whether it can scratch the same sandbox itch as EVE and to what extent the two games can be compared. Both feature customisable ship fittings, open-world PvP with a criminal justice system, and real financial loss on death, for example, but the end result is two very different gameplay styles. And both also have that same intoxicating notion of exploring the unknown and try to make you feel like you're in a living world, but they take very different approaches to world design, content, and travel. Elite may not be a full-fledged MMO, but with a sandbox made of 400 billion procedurally generated stars and an open play mode that seamlessly merges players' games together, does it matter?

In this edition of EVE Evolved, I compare my experiences in Elite: Dangerous to my experiences in EVE Online and look at their differing strategies with regard to server model, active and passive gameplay, and the new player experience.

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The first few moments in-game

I recall my first few moments in EVE Online vividly: I was dumped into empty space with a rookie ship, a 10-minute tutorial, and a virtual slap on the backside. The user interface looked complicated as hell, and my first experience with combat was shooting a station and getting turned into scrap metal by the sentry guns. It wasn't long before I found myself in an asteroid belt carefully approaching a veldspar asteroid at 10% speed because nobody told me EVE had no collision damage.

I felt as if I'd just been dropped into the deep end and had to figure everything out for myself, but that was a big part of EVE's charm for me as I love figuring things out. I spent weeks searching through the market for new ships and modules that looked interesting, asking my corpmates questions and reading up as much as possible about the game on various websites.

Starting Elite: Dangerous for the first time was a surprisingly similar experience! There were tutorials for most areas of the game, but it still very much felt like being dropped in at the deep end. The standard ship controls were clumsy and unintuitive with the mouse and keyboard, and most of the user interface has to be activated with strange keyboard sequences since the mouse is busy aiming my ship. It feels as if the game is designed for a controller rather than mouse and keyboard, but I eventually found a control scheme that worked for me after playing around with the settings. My first experience of combat was once again shooting at a station and being turned into scrap metal, and this time accidentally ramming my ship into an asteroid didn't work out so well.

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Hands-on vs strategic gameplay

One of the main points of contention regarding EVE is the huge amount of downtime between activities. Going from one system to another involves a lot of waiting, with the player issuing commands to warp or dock at a station and then waiting for the ship to do it automatically. Even exploration in EVE has a ton of downtime, mainly involving travelling around the galaxy with the system scanner window open to find cosmic signatures and then using the probe mechanic to pinpoint valuable combat sites to tackle. There's no getting away from the fact that EVE is a very slow-paced game and more about strategy and planning than the actual action.

Elite took that stance and ran in completely the opposite direction, giving literally everything a hands-on game mechanic. To dock at a space station, you have to manually match your rotation with the docking port and fly in, then locate the right landing pad number and carefully touch down on it while facing the right way. It's a tricky manoeuvre to pull off, and if you try to land on the wrong pad or don't exit the station quickly enough, the police will nuke your ship. Warping is even manually aimed and there's no autopilot, so you have to watch out for players (or the police if you have a bounty) trying to pull you out of warp with an interdiction module. There's very little downtime in Elite, and you definitely can't go AFK and expect to be safe.

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World-building and sandbox gameplay

Much of the criticism being levied against Elite: Dangerous right now is for its poor social tools and handling of multiplayer. If you choose to play Elite in Solo mode, then you won't bump into any other players, but you'll still be playing through the Elite servers and will still need to be online to play. The Open Play game mode throws you into the galaxy with other players, but you're actually in just one of hundreds of instances, each with a limit of up to 32 players. It's essentially a seamless lobby system that tries to match you into an instance with players of the same skill level, and that's led to a few problems.

Playing with friends is currently difficult because you frequently end up in different instances, and there are reports that players can evade PvP by simply quitting and logging in again to hopefully get matched into a different instance. This heavily fractured model is the polar opposite of EVE Online's single-shard sandbox, which has only one instance of each star system and can support thousands of players flooding into any one at a given moment.

I've written before about how EVE's single-shard design leads to more cohesive communities and makes actions in the game world much more meaningful, and I still believe that's true. Territorial warfare in EVE is significant only because there's a single copy of each star system to fight over, and piracy is an actual threat only because you can't bypass it by switching instances. News of wars and other player events are also a big deal to EVE players because they all happen on the same server and so are relevant to every single player. Elite's heavily instanced nature means it currently isn't capable of that level of interaction, which I think makes the gameplay a lot shallower.

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EVE's original developers often said that Elite was part of their inspiration, but they've always been two fundamentally different games. EVE has always been a more strategic game that rewards players for learning the game mechanics, outwitting their opponents, grouping together for planned activities, and working out the optimum ways to do things. Conversely, Elite: Dangerous is an action game that favours practise, twitch-based skill, and ship progression. The limited social tools and lack of group gameplay in Elite really harm what could be an amazing multiplayer game, so I really hope that's one of the first major features to get some post-release attention.

Having played it for a few days now, I can honestly say that Elite: Dangerous is the sequel to Frontier that I've always wanted. It's still a primarily solitary experience based around exploring a galaxy and progressing to larger ships, but now it's got shiny graphics and is interspersed with the occasional freelance player on the same journey we are. But no matter how addictive Elite's minute-to-minute gameplay might be, the constantly changing nature of its instanced server model means it lacks the sense that you're in a real living world or a sense of how many other people are playing. It's missing that one element that makes MMOs special, and that puts EVE Online in a class by itself: persistence.

Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the bi-weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to