We learned earlier this month that Elite Dangerous is getting the "Space Legs" expansion that has long been dreamt of by fans. Assuming they've been pining for an Elite-flavoured homage to Battlefield, they may have cause for optimism. However, if theirs is the dream of taking tea on Lave Orbital's promenade before buying a fridge magnet from the departure lounge, it might be better to reign in those expectations.
While the focus for the Odyssey expansion is to allow players to slip out of their space chairs and set about doing tasks only ambulation will allow, all that we can be confident about from what's been announced so far is that those tasks will largely be the same stuff players are already doing on four wheels: experiencing barren planets, taking on procedurally-generated missions and shooting stuff as a consequence. No doubt Frontier is holding a few surprises back for the early 2021 release, but it's fair to say that what's been teased has been a bit underwhelming. Without giving Frontier the benefit of the doubt, best estimates are that we'll end up with either Horizons 2.0, or Elite's take on Dust 514, or some slightly incongruous assimilation of both.
For the record, in spite of its fatal PS3 exclusivity, I liked Dust 514, CCP Games' console FPS that for a while was plugged awkwardly into the Eve Online mothership. Moreover, I'm sure I'm not the only one who would welcome a giant leap forward to go with the small steps Horizons first made when it was released... crikey, almost five years ago. However, my point is that I fear Frontier are treading on dangerous ground, not so much by how little they've revealed, but by the very idea of implementing ambulation in the first place.
I'm just not sure space legs can peaceably coexist with a space game's core gameplay, not without diminishing it, or, at best, taking development resources away from advancing what should be the focus. I say this as someone who once advocated strongly for ambulation to exist, as part of a title's natural evolution from mere space game to enduring sci-fi universe. It's something I still wish for, but in the same way I'd like there to be world peace and harmony. Realistically, it's just not achievable in the span of a single game's life, even one as predisposed to survive as Elite is.
I mean, just look at Star Citizen, the poster boy for space legs. Don't get me wrong, walking around the stations and worlds of the Stanton system is undeniably impressive, but what does it add to the game? I'll tell you: at least 10 minutes just to get into your ship. Yes, it's immersive and the views are frequently stunning to behold (and being able to walk the halls of your ship with friends is something else), but many critics have pointed out that Star Citizen would be much closer to release had CIG concentrated on the stars rather than citizens.
Grafting legs onto spaceship gameplay has always been problematic. Anyone remember Mace Griffin Bounty Hunter, which combined space combat with first-person action? It was ok, but neither half made the case for a convincing whole. Likewise Earth & Beyond, Westwood's swansong, a space MMORPG that had you running around stations whenever you docked, no doubt in an effort to make curious Everquesters feel less alienated by the setting. It wasn't too intrusive a feature, but it was all a bit pointless. Then there was Eve Online's infamous Incarna expansion (released this very day nine years ago), which was to introduce "walking in stations", but after five years in development featured only its absurdly isolating "Captain's Quarters" - rooms so poorly received that in-game protests and redundancies soon followed.
I have a number of problems with the Odyseey announcement, but my biggest worry is that by focusing on something that either isn't necessary or isn't feasible, Frontier now has a free pass to not address the things that are. Evolving the economy, shared resource gameplay, server structure and the like are all cited as priorities by more experienced players than me. I get that exciting new features are needed to bring in new players, but as CCP found to its cost, when you put all your efforts into the new without keeping on top of the old, it leads to greater and greater frustration. And if the new turns out to be more of the same, or less than players expect, things could get ugly.
If Frontier needs to find inspiration when it comes to developing expansions, then yes, Eve has plenty worth looking at. Incarna, however, should never be one of them.