HOW TO BUILD A SPACESHIP
From rough sketch to final model, here’s how Frontier creates the spaceships of Elite Dangerous.
There are over 30 flyable ships in Elite, and every one has its own distinct personality. These craft are the real stars of the game, and the thing every commander aspires to own—whether they’re an explorer, trader, bounty hunter, or pirate. But how are they built? It’s something that has always intrigued me, how an idea makes it from someone’s mind to a spaceship that can be flown in-game. So I asked how Frontier does it, focusing on the latest ship to be added to its growing space garage: The mighty Chieftain. “The Thargoids have returned,” says Sandro Sammarco, lead designer of Elite Dangerous, referring to the mysterious aliens that have been tormenting pilots across the galaxy. “And their arrival has inspired the Alliance to build a war fleet, including a new ship called the Chieftain.” This combat-focused ship is manufactured by Lakon, most famous for its Type-9 freighter. It shares some design elements with that ship, but is a very different, and deadlier, beast. The idea behind the similarities is that the ship has been created quickly, on the fly, as a response to the looming Thargoid threat.
“The Empire, Federation, and Alliance are currently the three big superpowers in the game, and they control huge swathes of space,” Sammarco continues. “They don’t generally like each other very much, and have been close to war. And with the arrival of the Thargoids, the Alliance decided it had to protect itself and its people. So they commissioned Lakon to build them a range of new war-ready ships, including an experimental craft, the Chieftain, designed to battle Thargoids.”
And so, although this isn’t the case with every ship in Elite, the Chieftain was born from a story necessity; a way for the Alliance to fight back against the alien invaders. “Players have been clamoring for Alliance ships for a long time,” says Sammarco. “So we really wanted to make that happen anyway, and the arrival of the Thargoids was the perfect opportunity. This is the right time to introduce more ships, especially if they’re built for combat.”
Knowing that the Chieftain is an alien hunter gives Frontier’s designers a starting point. “When we create a
“When we create a ship, we like to give it a broad role”
ship, we like to give it a broad role. There is a crossover sometimes, because we have ships that are good at several things, but in this instance we wanted to lean into one role at the expense of others. The Chieftain is all about space superiority, about outmaneuvering your opponent. It’s similar to the Vulture, one of our heavy fighters, in that respect. But that ship is more expensive, so it’s nice to have a more affordable version with those capabilities.”
The ship backbone
Frontier has something it calls the ‘ship backbone’; a design chart plotting every ship in the game and the niche it fills. “It roughly illustrates things like value and effectiveness. At the bottom you have Sidewinders and Adders, and at the top there are monsters like the Anaconda. It’s only an approximation, but it gives us an idea of where a ship fits. In the Chieftain’s case, it sits somewhere in the upper-mid range. This is where ships are still fun to fly and maneuverable, but are starting to show some real teeth in combat.”
This is an important step when it comes to designing a new ship: Figuring out where it sits in the hierarchy, making sure it doesn’t fill a role another ship already does well, or be so overpowered that it throws the whole game into turmoil. “For balancing we think about the loadout. How many guns is the Chieftain going to have? It’s a warship, so it’ll have a stack of them, of course. But it doesn’t have to beat other ships in its class in terms of the size of its guns, because it’s going to be behind them, dodging their fire.”
The backbone helps Frontier weigh new ships up against others in its class, to make sure it doesn’t massively outclass them. “With the Chieftain we looked at the baseline of other ships in its range and worked from there. This speeds the creation process up, especially compared to the early days of Elite Dangerous when there were no precedents, no backbone, and everything had to be created from scratch. We’re getting better at balancing new ships, and we’re happy with where the Chieftain is sitting on the chart.”
Creating a ship is a collaborative process. The 3D and concept artists will work closely with the designers and writers to make sure a new ship works in all areas: From aesthetics, to function, to purpose. “Sometimes what’s happening in the game will drive us towards designing a particular kind of ship. The lore, the progression of the story. And in those cases it’s not just about where the ship fits on the backbone, but how it serves the narrative.”
When a ship slots neatly into the backbone, Frontier starts thinking about what makes the ship desirable. “I call it the shtick,” says Sammarco. “I can say it’s a combat ship, but there are other combat ships. What makes me, as a player, want this one? There are instant wins in the fact it’s an Alliance ship, and a Lakon ship, which gives it a distinctive styling and lore. A car manufacturer will ask, ‘What do our customers want? What will sell this car?’ It’s the same when it comes to designing ships for Elite.”
Chart Att ack
One of the biggest selling points of the Chieftain is the position of its hardpoints. “A ship like the Imperial Clipper has trouble in combat because the hardpoints are fixed to the wings and spread far apart. This makes hitting
things that are close to you difficult. But with the Chieftain, there are two mounts on either side of the cockpit, very close to its centerpoint. They’re like a predator’s eyes looking forward. And the other guns are on two lines across its back, dead center. It’s basically perfect for dogfighting.”
The Chieftain has the most concentrated set of centerline weapons in the game, which solves the problem of making it desirable to the playerbase—especially for pilots who love combat. But it doesn’t have the biggest guns, so there’s a trade-off for that accuracy. It has less internal space than other ships in its class, which is a problem for traders. And its jump range is relatively limited. The designers have to make sure any new ship they introduce is balanced against the others, which is where that backbone graph proves invaluable. So while the Chieftain is definitely a formidable, powerful vessel, it has its share of weaknesses too. It’s only fair.
“The ships in Elite Dangerous are more than the sum of their parts,” explains Sammarco. “The actual experience of flying them is more than just the numbers that define their flight model. We’ll tweak its maneuvreability, maybe take its shields down a bit. It looks tough, so we make sure it has reasonably strong armor and quite a lot of health. A nice, robust ship, but with weaker shields than similar craft. We build these trade-offs in, because it keeps things interesting.”
Before a ship is rolled off the production line, it’s prototyped and extensively playtested. “It’s at this stage where we catch some of the most obvious flaws,” says Sammarco. “It could be too quick, too powerful, or spin out too easily. So we’ll tweak its performance based on that data.” After that, Frontier will usually test a new ship out in a closed beta, letting real players—the harshest critics—get
their hands on it. “We had a great response to the Chieftain in the beta. Our players know more than us. They’re playing Elite Dangerous all the time, and we love tapping into that knowledge.”
Based on beta feedback, some changes were made to the maneuverability of the Chieftain. “People complained that it was too slidey and not particularly controllable. So we tightened its thrusters up, and it’s far more responsive now, going where you want it to go before it starts sliding all over the place.” Frontier puts great trust in its community, but they will tweak ships after launch if
“Our players know more than us. They’re playing Elite all the time”
necessary. “For all the testing we do, and the community does, this is a complicated game with a lot of moving parts. So we’ll look at the data and make changes.”
This, Sammarco says, is a fact of life when it comes to developing an ever-expanding, constantly evolving game like Elite. “When I started in the industry, which was a long time ago, you’d beaver away for a year, maybe two, then it would go out. And barring any patches to make sure the game works, that was it. It was done, and you would move on. But Elite is a live game, and we’re still adding new content three years later. It’s brilliant and terrifying, and there’s a real inertia to anything we add. We have to make sure everything doesn’t topple over when we introduce a new element.”
The Chieftain was finally released into Elite Dangerous on February 27, as part of the first chapter of the free Beyond expansion. Almost immediately after it was made available, it generated some heated debate within the game’s community. Some commanders are critical of its weak shields, but others find it to be a hardy fighter that’s well suited to venturing into Resource Extraction Sites—areas of space where wanted criminals can be found and their bounties claimed. You can’t please everyone, and almost every ship introduced into the game splits the community. But that’s the beauty of Frontier’s diverse hangar of ships: There’s one for every kind of pilot.
BOTTOM: The ‘face’ of the ship is an important part of its design. Frontier wanted the Chieftain to look intimidating.
TOP LEFT: Throughout the many design iterations of the Chieftain ship, the four engines were always there.
Now that multi-crew ships are a thing, designers have to consider where other players will sit.
TOP: The early 3D blockouts get increasingly complex as the design is iterated on.
BELOW: The Scarab buggy in this image gives you an idea of just how big the Chieftain really is.