How to Create a Space War, One Alien Arms Race at a Time

An arms race is coming to popular PC game Elite Dangerous as pilots throughout the Milky Way prepare for the return of the Thargoids. But humanity has a lot of ground to make up just to get on even footing with the long-awaited invaders. And the community is about to learn that war with the Thargoids might be more demoralizing than Elite Dangerous fans expected.

We spoke with Frontier Developments CEO David Braben and Elite Dangerous Horizons lead designer Sandro Sammarco at E3 2017. Both assured Newsweek that major changes will come to Elite Dangerous in the game's next expansion, The Return. And those changes begin with the return of a near-mythological threat: Thargoids.

The Elite Dangerous community's pursuit of Thargoids has persisted for about two years, ever since the first Unknown Artefacts began to manifest throughout the galaxy. Dozens of players speculated about the nature of the devices, confident the alien devices were the first evidence that humanity's old nemesis would soon return. That resurgence took longer than many fans expected. But eventually, the interdictions began. Then strange vessels were spotted on the surface of barnacle-laden planets. And now Frontier says the Elite community can expect to see Thargoids in much greater numbers before the year is out.

Elite Dangerous
The massive universe of Elite Dangerous is about to get even bigger. Frontier Developments

"The Thargoids you see [in old Elite games] are not the same ships as the Thargoids that we're seeing now," Sammarco told Newsweek. "We don't know anything about them. We know they're Thargoids. We know that something happened with the Thargoids in the past. But various organizations have made it their business to cover up and reveal information according to their own plans. Which we're not really aware of. We don't know why. It just turns out that all we're really left with is a lot of myth and legend. Conspiracy theories."

Frontier Developments keeps a massive tome in its Cambridge office with a full history of the Thargoids. And that trove of information covers a timeline that includes both the original Elite games, the 2014 reboot and all of the in-universe time between. But the community will only have access to small slice of that data. And they'll have to work for every scrap of it. Some might uncover new information while exploring. Sammarco says The Return, and the events leading up to Elite's next expansion, will include "some interesting discoveries to be made." And commanders will have the opportunity to test their mettle against Thargoid ships when The Return hits PC and consoles in Q3. But there's a reason the aliens' reemergence is the start of a new arms race. Elite Dangerous players weren't as prepared for this war as they thought.

"Not only do we not know what they are. We don't know why they're back. And worst of all, we don't know how powerful they are," Sammarco said. "Human ships in Elite Dangerous have been developed over a long period. They're really good at killing human ships. And we've made an art form of killing each other. That's what we do. But versus an alien race, it's got one fatal flaw: it's all human technology. It's designed to kill humans. But what players are going to find is that maybe their super pimped out fully engineered hotrod ships aren't as well-equipped to take on Thargoids and aren't quite as well-equipped to defend against them."

Both men take a moment to make clear that the Thargoids aren't an unstoppable force. Nor were they created to be Elite's version of the Empire or the First Order. They're just a fellow organic species in the universe; one with with its own beliefs, cultures and goals. They don't exist solely to eradicate humanity. But that doesn't necessarily mean they're friendly visitors either. The whole point is to offer something that Braben likes to call "properly alien."

"I've always hated the idea of aliens as just being [humans with] stick-on ears or [different] foreheads," Braben said. "They're similar to us but just might drink tea instead of coffee. Where something is properly alien, it has a completely different cultural attitude. It might exist in a different atmosphere. In different temperature bands. It might not breathe. It might interact in a different way. It might see a different frequency. If a human were to touch an alien, it might burn the alien. Or the alien might burn us. The chances of us being in the same temperature band are quite low. And so it's all of those things that make aliens properly alien. I like aliens that are properly alien, in the sense that you can't immediately understand what's going on."

Braben is particularly intrigued by planets with significant quantities of methane and ammonia. He believes life could thrive there, thanks to the warming effect CO2.

"I've always been fascinated by carbon-ammonia chemistry because I think it should be just as possible to have life where you've got a temperature band that is roughly about 100 centigrade cooler. Between 70 and 100," Braben told Newsweek. "There are a lot of interesting things to look at with a planet that has methane or ammonia chemistry. It's quite possible to heat that up using CO2. It's very hard to go the other way. So trying to see how different lifeforms might conflict in the future is fascinating."

Up next was a teaser for content Frontier says will arrive before The Return. The video shows a surface recon vehicle (SRV) tailing an unidentified drone unlike any seen in the game thus far. After a short trip, the drone and its tail enter a series of underground passageways reminiscent of the buried ship in Prometheus. The facility's purpose isn't made explicitly clear and Frontier wouldn't answer any questions about it. But it seemed to be a factory of sorts. Whether or not its creations were organic, we couldn't tell. But Frontier says its not the only facility of its kind in the game. And it's up to players to figure out what and where they are.

Of course, the prospect of war has some players concerned. Space truckers and deep space explorers don't typically keep the heavily-armed ships one that you'd expect to see trying to hold its own against a Thargoid. But Braben says plenty of folks who won't be severely impacted by the aliens' reemergence. At least not right out of the gate.

"It's not going to affect the whole galaxy at the same time. It's going to be in an area," Braben said. "So players can choose to engage with it or not. Same with player organizations."

"There won't be any one person or group who can mess it up for everyone," Sammarco added. "We've put a lot of time and effort into making this new chapter feel right for everyone. It's there to be experienced. As David said, Elite is a giant game. You don't have to go where this thing is going to start kicking off. Initially, it won't be on your doorstep."

Frontier says players shouldn't think of the Thargoids' return as an isolated incident. No one knows how the next few months will play out but the Milky Way's newest residents are here to stay. The upcoming arms race should give humanity the tools its needs to protect settled space. Eventually. But The Return won't just be a short story about defeating a new threat. It's a major (and permanent) shakeup of the entire galaxy. New alliances must be forged and war efforts will need undertaking. And with Elite Dangerous: Legendary Edition heading to PS4 this summer, there will be more pilots seeking safety in numbers than ever before. Frontier won't commit to any new features. But Sammarco says some new options may be on the horizon.

"There's nothing to announce," Sammarco told Newsweek. "But we'd be lying if we said we hadn't considered what the evolution of group play might be. Whether it's Wings, Multi-Crew or maybe something additional. It's something we're very interesting in exploring."

Elite Dangerous is currently available for PC and Xbox One. The game heads to PS4 on June 27 and its next expansion, The Return, debuts in Q3 2017.