For many players, lure off Elite dangerous is the freedom to explore the Milky Way galaxy, to see stars and planets that no other player has ever seen before. For others, it’s the battle, where you can test your satiety against other players or alien enemies that can easily snap your ship in two. But for a few, the real drawing makes other people miserable.
Unlike other professions in Elite, being a garbage bag requires hard work, creativity and the will to be the kind of asshole who thinks outside the box. Like when a group of players cultivated a bunch of rare items, and then dragged them 22,000 light-years away to harass a terminal cancer patient. The small episode set the bar quite high, but recently a group of players arched over it as a team of heavily armed Olympic gymnasts.
Last month, a group of players worked to create a deep-space gulag, an in-game space prison designed to quietly capture new players and take advantage of their work. And they almost got away with it.
Our story begins with a man named Jason. I do not use his last name or the handle in the game for privacy reasons. He has been playing games in the Elite series since 1984, and now he shares the experience with his children. His youngest son is seven, and although the game is rated for older players, Jason makes sure his youngest boss always plays with supervision. On January 29, the supervisor was his 10-year-old sister.
“Someone is approaching them in the game,” Jason told me over Discord. “Fly up with them and start talking in chat. I like to think that I have ingrained a certain degree of security smart online, so my daughter took over, left the system and called me. ”
“She talked me through the meeting and what had been said,” he continued. “Turns out the rumors I had heard elsewhere [were] genuine.”
Jason’s children had received a rather lucrative proposal. They were encouraged to fly to a fleet operator – a mobile, player-owned base – and exchange some simple items for a large amount of currency in the game. When the money changed hands, a group of players would help them build a new starship, fly them to a mining claim, and help them break apart asteroids. The goal was to work together to grow Void Opals, one of the rarest and most expensive items in the game.
The offer sounded too good to be true, and the girl’s “foreign danger” instincts kicked in.
If his older sister had not intervened, Jason’s son would have been forced to sell the invalid opals for far less than their market value. Other players then export the goods to another system and profit from his work. To make matters worse, Jason’s son would have been trapped in that mining system, stranded more than 800 light-years from the populous center of the game galaxy. There had been no way back other than to destroy his new starship and effectively begin Elitegrinds again.
“I praised her for doing the right thing, [and] reinforced the message with my boy (who the truth should have jumped right in the van), says Jason.
As it turns out, many older players jumped in the van in front of him. At least a dozen – probably more – had already been caught, pressured to work for low wages in a star system they had little hope of ever escaping. Polygon spoke to four bosses who had been captured in this way. Looking at the details of the scheme, it was actually quite clever.
The perpetrators hung out around star systems heavily populated by new players, many of whom were brought into the game with a free gift at the Epic Games Store in November. They said they were looking for recruits, and offered to give these players money to buy a better ship, but also to train in how to grow invalid opals and a free trip to a good place to find them. Behind the scenes, they took advantage of in-game systems to isolate these new bosses from everyone else in the game.
First, they demanded new recruits to join a private instance of Elite called a player group (PG). Playing in a PG is a good way to ensure that you can meet friends and allies, but it also prevents you from seeing anyone else. Contributing to that isolation was the fact that all of this happened on Xbox One, which has a significantly smaller player population than the PC version of the game.
Travel in Elite achieved by folding spaces and “jumping” between star systems, by using a nearby star cluster as a kind of lighthouse. Once in PG, players were instructed to equip a new starship in a specific way that limited the range to less than two light-years. As a consequence, they were not able to travel to another star system without the help of a Fleet Carrier.
Fleet carriers are relatively new too Elite, and was added to the game only last year. After a buggy the first couple of months, they quickly became the preferred way to travel long distances thanks to their 500 light-year jump range – almost five times longer than any other ship in the game. But they also helped isolate these new players even more. When they were first put on board with their specially built mining rigs, recruits were ferried 800 light-years from the heart of the Milky Way and took root. Their only game options? Mine Void Opals and sell them back to the carrier that brought them in for about one-sixth of their fair market price or self-destruction.
Some bosses actually took their catch pretty well.
“I actually felt amused by the whole situation,” one told me on Discord. I mean, I really wanted to help, but to see how deep some people can get into this spark of curiosity. That’s why I wanted to participate in the first place. My current state of mind is that I am an adult who understands the consequences of decisions and blaming “My consequences for someone else are simply wrong. This is a classic case of good versus evil that keeps the balance.”
Others had very opposite reactions. A handful quit completely. Still others tried to reason with their prisoners, but they say they were quickly called down or otherwise silenced on Discord. But a brave boss actually tried to get help. They called in Fuel Rats – a player-organized faction in Elite dangerous dedicated to rescuing players who have run out of fuel.
“Do fuel rats rescue pilots trapped mainly in concentration camps?” reads the chat log, which the sender on duty that night replied with confusion – “oO”
The sender assumed that the player was referring to a mechanism in the game that puts abusive players in “prison”, and sends them to a prison ship for major crimes and offenses against AI-controlled ships. But it quickly became clear that something more sinister was going on.
Fuel Rats are a good bunch. In fact, they recently logged 100,000 rescue numbers, an achievement that was celebrated by Elite dangerous publishes Frontier Developments in the game. But they do not actually offer a service where they save people from labor camps. So the Fuel Rats called in the specialists. The newly formed group is known as Hull Seals, and performs high-risk repairs and other oddball rescues.
A player called Commander Modemus was placed in command of the rescue effort, and by using various Hull Seal assets – including several own fleet carriers – they started a rescue operation. After several weeks of work, around a dozen novice leaders have been pulled out and brought to safety. He tells Polygon that they believe that as many as 15 more players are still trapped, although at least some may be willing participants. The operation is now under the control of another player, Commander Either. Those interested in helping – or being rescued – are sent to the New Pilots Initiative Discord server. The whole affair will soon be discussed in detail on the Squeaking Fuel podcast.
To get his side of the story, I jumped into the perpetrators’ Discord channel. (EliteThe Code of Conduct prohibits naming and disgracing other players, so I will not reveal the name of the server or the people I met there. But to put it in context, you know that the server itself is named after one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite Panzer divisions.) What I found, even in the entrance lobby, was a small community comfortable with heinous racial abuse and harassment – hardly the place for a 7-year-old.
Things started heartily enough. When confronted, however, a member pushed back the claim that they were duping players. Everything was overboard, they claimed, and the players were allowed to come and go as they pleased. All the opposite, they said, was “a pathetic sob story.”
Other players that Polygon spoke to denied these allegations.
When I asked the perpetrators if they were aware that they had almost caught a minor being a miner, the Discord moderators kicked me out. Later, one of them reached out via direct message and claimed to be the creator of the scheme.
“It was really just for the giggle,” they told me. “In reality, anyone can destroy and find their own way. And the fleet operator we produced before anyone else got involved would also allow anyone to drive back and forth. As some players did. ”
They said that persuading the commanders who were caught in the “caught” scheme was too high – it was just a very aggressive recruitment effort for their PG. I asked for numbers on how many other players were involved, but they refused to share that information. I asked them if they would continue to do so. That was when their tone changed.
“Considering that the cat is out of the bag, and people will now try to emulate my method, yes,” they said. “Not only do I want to keep doing it, I’m going to step it up a notch. I’ll be recruiting harder than ever before. Me and my cohorts are going to build the biggest noob army this game has ever seen. We will really be able to shape the galaxy with our wealth and influence. All this publicity has thrown us crazy. And we do not want to go into private play as some say. We will do it in the open air. So everyone can witness the glory. ”
Frontier Developments is in contact with the New Pilots Initiative about their rescue efforts. Even now, other player groups are coming together to start their own rescue missions on Xbox One. At least one carrier has been placed in the system, following in the wake of the perpetrator’s own ships. They are set up to sell the parts needed to escape the gulag at a reasonable price.
Reached for comment, Frontiers PR and communications manager said his team is monitoring the situation closely.
Our estimate is that fewer than 20 commanders have been affected by the behavior of a small minority of players.
We do not tolerate the behavior of these rogue commanders, but we have welcomed the steady efforts of community groups, such as the Fuel Rats and Hull Seals squadrons, to bring the affected commanders to safety – an attempt supported by our own community team.
We continue to monitor both the situation and in game communication and will not hesitate to act if it is found that players have violated our guidelines for society in any way. We always encourage all players who have problems with the live game to log out and contact our customer support team who will try to solve any problem as soon as possible.
In the spirit of our prominent player-driven narrative, a Galnet bulletin will be released in the next few days to alert players and inform them of the potential dangers of boarding unknown fleet carriers.
Because minors were involved, we contacted Discord to inform the company.