No, this isn’t about Star Citizen.
During the last decade, space has been one of the most underrepresented settings in videogames. Regardless of the genre, with the exception of strategy, very few games involve flying around in spaceships and even less have any sort of meaningful multiplayer.
But it seems like lately, space is making a resurgence. We have Elite: Dangerous, which is somewhere between single-player and an MMO depending on your preference, Fractured Space as a MOBA and the upcoming arena style space shooter: Dreadnought. Of course, there’s also Star Citizen, but that’s so far off going into specifics would just be speculation.
Each of these games caters to a slightly different audience, but they have one main theme: blowing things up in space with your friends. Both PvP and cooperative multiplayer dates all the way back to Wing Commander: Armada (1994), but recent technological advances have allowed for much more diverse and immersive gameplay.
That’s why I find it interesting as to how Elite: Dangerous, Fractured Space, and Dreadnought have all managed to miss an opportunity that many players have wanted since the first time they saw Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. That is, of course, the fantasy of participating in a massive scale PvP battle with ships of all sizes ranging from starfighters to dreadnoughts.
However, I’m also not saying that any of these games are particularly bad because of this. Personally, there are aspects of each one that I enjoy and think that they do well, respectively. But there’s always a part of me that wants just a little bit more.
So far, the only space game to truly allow a large amount of players to participate in PvP with a wide range of ships is EVE Online. Even in other smaller scale multiplayer games, players are almost always limited to a few similar types of ships. In EVE, however, players can control everything from a tiny interceptor to a massive, station-killing Titan. Nothing is off limits and many times a group of smaller fighters can take down the bigger ships.
Of course, there are a few reasons why EVE can handle these scenarios better than a typical space shooter can. Most obviously is that it’s an MMORPG with a click-to-target combat mechanic. Players don’t need to worry about aiming or having direct line of sight in combat. Additionally, the game is made to scale incredibly well and it’s very easy to zoom out and witness hundreds of players in a single battle zone.
This type of battlefield has been seen countless times in single-player experiences. These usually range from the lone Starfighter who needs to take out dozens of battleships on their own to weaving in and out of both friendly and enemy capital starships.
One of the most iconic combat simulators of all time is FreeSpace. The single-player campaign was done extremely well and there were multiple battles that really demonstrated scaling properly. Instead of being an invincible one-man army, the hero had to rely on support from their NPC counterparts. No matter how hard you tried, you weren’t going to bring down a battleship on your own (for the most part).
Unfortunately, the magic does die a little once you discover that a majority of the fights are scripted. That’s why allowing players to have control of the larger, and smaller, vessels simultaneously would make an exciting experience for everyone. If done correctly, while providing some level of balance, this would simultaneously fulfill the dream to be that heroic starfighter and the captain of a legendary battleship.
How would it Work?
The idea sounds simple at first… and then very complex. Anyone can throw a bunch of battlecruisers and fighters into the vacuum of space and hope for the best. However, then comes the issues of balance and making it work with the game engine. Not every game would be able to do this the same way, but there are ways that Elite: Dangerous, Fractured Space, and Dreadnought could handle this, which is why I specifically singled out these titles.
Despite having MMORPG aspects, Elite: Dangerous is also the most realistic of the three games, which makes it the most difficult to pull this off. There are already a handful of capital ships in the game, but they’re all NPC controlled and technically can’t even be destroyed. The largest player-controlled ships are about the size of a corvette. Although the Imperial Cutter is massive compared with the Eagle MkII, it’s not in the same league with the Interdictor or Farragut and those are only cruiser sized.
Elite: Dangerous has already stated that multi-crew functionality is coming to the game, and that probably means larger ships in the future as well. It’s still unlikely that we’ll see player-controlled capital ships anytime soon, if ever, and that’s for a very good reason. Going back to the realistic aspect, capital ships in Elite: Dangerous do massive amounts of damage, can take a beating, and would require a lot of players to operate. Attempting to balance player-piloted capital ships, and figuring out the logistics of what each player’s job would be, is not an easy job.
More realistically would be major invasion events where waves of NPC controlled capital ships fight each other and players choose sides to help out. There could be specific, anti-capital weapons made available for this sort of thing to help small vessels during the events and players could earn special rewards. It could also play a role in faction warfare similar to Powerplay but focus on a few very specific systems with massive scale battles in order to drive large numbers of players together.
This would definitely be the most difficult to pull off in Elite: Dangerous due to the massive scope of the game and everything that would need to be considered. However, if it was successful, it could lead to one of the most rich space simulation experiences ever created.
Fractured Space is on the other end of the spectrum, in almost every aspect, when compared with Elite: Dangerous. It’s a lobby-based MOBA where players take control of massive capital ships and attempt to destroy their enemy’s base.
On paper, this sounds like the perfect design to at least deliver the fantasy of being in a powerful battleship and blowing the hell out of base turrets and smaller crafts. Unfortunately, the game decided to cut out a lot of the content MOBAs usually include; it’s more like arena combat with a few pseudo lanes.
Instead of having waves of AI controlled units moving down structured lanes, players can warp to Alpha or Beta Sector that act as lanes. Each lane has an outpost for each team and three mining facilities that can be captured to improve ship capabilities. In order to open up the enemy’s base to attack, players need to control both outposts in a single lane.
The lack of AI units and turrets basically turns Fractured Space into a game of cat and mouse where players are constantly chasing each other to control key warp points. Many of the ships are well designed and the combat is definitely fun, but it would have been so easy to add in some smaller enemies to add more depth to the game.
The addition of NPC waves, base turrets and powerful neutral (mercenary) ships could make the game more interesting. This would definitely cater to that feeling of being an all-powerful admiral that can annihilate squadrons of fighters with a single push of a button. It’s more difficult to appreciate the scale of battle when everything else on the field is just as powerful as you are.
Out of the three, Dreadnought would have the easiest time implementing something like this mostly because it wouldn’t need to change the core gameplay or remove its current game modes. In Team Deathmatch, there are already smaller squads of NPC fighters that fly around, but they don’t actively engage the capital ships. They’re more there for aesthetic purposes and don’t even offer points when destroyed.
This means that the idea of adding NPCs is already in the game, even though it’s very limited at this time. The current game modes could stay the way they are, but also add a new one similar to Attrition mode in Titanfall. The battlegrounds in Dreadnought are already packed with land masses or space stations. Simply expand those a little bit and drop tons of AI opponents in the form of turrets, anti-aircraft vehicles, and squadrons of fighters. While it’s already fun to blow the crap out of enemy capital ships, it would be way more fun with the little guys mixed in.
Furthermore, a carrier class ship could allow players to control, and even take over, groups of fighters or bombers. There are already hangar mods that can be installed on the larger vessels, but having one entirely dedicated to this would add even more gameplay depth.
The point of this article isn’t to criticize Dreadnought, Fractured Space or Elite: Dangerous. Each game already fills a niche in the world of videogames and fits well into its distinct genre. These are simply ideas that could fill the fantasy of many potential players and something that hasn’t really been done before. There isn’t a game on the market, besides EVE, that allows players to participate in large-scale battles with varying sizes of allies and enemies. In Elite: Dangerous, most of the ships are small, and in Fractured Space and Dreadnought they’re all very large. It would be way more exciting if we could combine these ideas. If even a little bit.Related: Dreadnought, Elite: Dangerous, Fractured Space, MMORPG, MOBA, Shooter, Space