When I first booted up Elite: Dangerous, I dreamed of being a space pirate. “Captain McKirk” appearing on a ship’s targeting system would surely strike fear into the hearts of players throughout the game’s universe. But the reality was slightly less exciting, and it involved coffee. Lots of coffee.
That, and a splash of human trafficking.
When I first opened the game’s galaxy map and zoomed out, peeling back the layers of thousands of twinkling stars—each with its own system of planets, space stations and mysteries—I should have realised how insignificant I was. In Elite: Dangerous I am a grain of sand; a spec of dust; a bean of Brazilian java.
It’s a feeling familiar to anyone who’s ever played an “MMO,” a “massively multiplayer online” game like World of Warcraft: sparks of grandeur quickly extinguished by the studded boots of reality. What makes Elite: Dangerous different is scale; rather than playing the role of a lonely elf wandering a sprawling fantasy world, you’re the pilot of a spacecraft in a 1:1 scale recreation of our own Milky Way. Without guidance, you’re given a ship and unceremoniously dumped into the void. There’s money to be made, and it’s up to you to figure out how to make it.
Every action you take can potentially affect the power balance of the various factions that control the territories and space stations hanging in the blackness, but initially you’re best served by focusing on self improvement, upgrading your ship’s weapons, thrusters and other doodads.
But even with that accomplished, when you’re a lone ship in a galaxy of 400 billion star systems your chances of becoming infamous are as good as finding a lone flake of golden glitter in the Sahara. Appropriately it took an actual pirate reducing me to space debris for me to come to terms with this fact. The assault jettisoned heroic deeds and bold adventure from my brain, and I settled in for my virtual life as an intergalactic long haul driver, my cargo hold filled with the finest unroasted.
BECOMING A COSMIC TRUCKER
Earning a few thousand credits per trip, it was a simple life: I’d take a job and fill my cargo hold with the good stuff, ready to trek six or so light years to the delivery point. Next I’d hyperspace-jump to a new system, pulling away from the heat of the sun (or suns), and “supercruise” to my destination, slowly bleeding speed upon approach until I could jump out of the fast travel state and the stations popped to life in front of me.
The challenge comes when another player tries to pull you out of supercruise with an “interdiction.” Imagine someone sprints after you and tries to empty your pockets as you leave the house on your morning jog—that’s an interdiction, basically. (In other words it’s like living in Lincolnshire, England, which I can attest.)
Then there’s the docking. Oh, the docking. It often goes like this: I request docking and the station’s reply appears on my HUD: “Docking request denied”. Okay, I’m out of range, so I close in. Then: “Docking request denied.” So I try again.
Sometimes I’d be denied docking for a good ten minutes. This process would go on to become the thing I feared the most when I moved on from coffee, though for now it was just an inconvenience. It was the space equivalent of a car park being full—you have to grab that space before someone else does, but you need the station’s permission first or its defenses will rip you apart. Now imagine doing that with a trunk full of contraband, while off-duty cops circle closer and closer.
The actual docking procedure varies slightly from station to station, but your first task is generally to locate the entrance. This being space, stations rotate to provide simulated gravity to their citizens, making that task alone an art form unto itself. On one of the most common station archetypes, the slowly rotating cuboctahedronic mass of metal known as the Coriolis, you learn to look for the one side that’s rotating counterclockwise, as that���s where the letterbox-shaped opening is.
I would post myself through the station’s maw and slowly approach the allocated landing pad, making tiny adjustments to my ship and flapping about near the target zone. I’d usually remember my landing gear around the time my hull was touching down. Too late, in other words. A message once popped up in my comms from another player as this farce unfolded: “Are you alright mate? Lol”. If I wasn’t so bad at this I’d have lol-ed him into the fucking sun.
Eventually these procedures became second nature. When stations were full—at least on the Outpost style stations with their exposed landing zones—I’d hang around near occupied landing pads, voicing my impatience at the pilot delaying me below. Time is money after all, and I really wanted to get a new ship with a bigger cargo hold. I was once in such an inconvenient position that the pilot accidentally crashed straight into me as they embarked—half of my earnings were spent on repairs.
Maybe that’s why that contract on the bulletin board was so tempting. Alongside a typical one to ferry some everyday components across the galaxy for 3,000 credits—requiring about four jumps—was one with two jumps for 80,000 credits. Enough to buy a new ship and fit it with a few upgrades, in other words. But the cargo wasn’t coffee.
A PIRATE’S LIFE FOR ME
I’d done a bit of reading about smuggling in Elite: Dangerous. It was risky—with officials trying to interdict you, and scanning your cargo hold whenever you exit supercruise—but these slaves would net me 80,000 credit if I could actually deliver them.
From my research, the best way to smuggle was to use a mixture of Silent Running and Cool Running—which isn’t a Jamaican bobsled team, unfortunately. Silent Running stops your ship from expelling as much heat by keeping that heat locked up within. Obviously this can cause overheating, which lights up any nearby scanners, leaving you vulnerable and damaged. Cool Running turns off all non-essential systems, causing a layer of ice to creep along the glass of your cockpit.
Both of these tactics seemed to require a level of skill beyond my own, and every forum post about them suggested I equip heatsinks I couldn’t afford. So I just winged it.
I evaded an interdiction on approach to the station, my hands shaking as the Coriolis station zoomed into view. I quickly sent out a docking request. “Docking request denied”. Shit.
I strafed and thrusted my ship towards the metal mass, looking for the entrance, and tried again. Success this time. But my brief swell of relief was soon overshadowed by the message that popped up on my HUD: “Cargo scan in progress”. Double shit.
It hadn’t come from the station—I’d been followed. So I did the only thing I could: I diverted all my power into my engines and boosted toward my destination as quickly as possible, the whole time craning my head around and looking for the opening. I was being pursued, so I gunned it, rotating my ship in sync with the station’s opening. A speeding warning popped up, but I just fired on through, slamming on the brakes as soon as I entered the belly of the Coriolis. I somehow docked perfectly and turned in my human cargo for a cool 80,000 credits. If only “Lol Boy,” as I’d dubbed my earlier taunter, could see me now.
It was one of the most intense and rewarding experiences I’ve had in a game. Elite: Dangerous isn’t always as thrilling as it looks in the above trailer, but the intense thrills that it can offer are masterfully opened to you in tandem with your proficiency within the game. The tiny adjustments you make as you dock are what keep you engaged at first, until you eventually master those. Then you move on—some to honest work, and others to the cosmic slave trade.
Being a space trucker, supplying hot beverages to cold colonials throughout the galaxy, is blandly compelling. And when you want to advance down your career path, morally bankrupt or otherwise, the option presents itself. I’ve smuggled people, drugs and stolen goods and I still haven’t been caught. I have no doubt that one day I will. Maybe you’ll be the player who collects the bounty. Or maybe Captain MckKirk will appear on your ship’s HUD and you’ll do the smart thing—jettison your coffee beans into cold, hard vacuum, allowing me to claim them, before I turn you into space dust.
Kirk McKeand is a ronin writer for various outlets and you can find him on Twitter @MckKirk.
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