Forty years I’ve been at war. A war with no battles, no monuments… only casualties.

Posted by on Apr 26, 2013 in Progress Report

"Re-verify our range to target... one ping only."

Well, you’re a shite for shore eyesh…

Progress has been strong this week. Target 32k, actually achieved 36.5k. More than a week ahead of schedule.Today’s quote is from one of my favourite films, ‘The Hunt for Red October’. You might be asking what a film about a stolen Russian submarine has to in common with a space opera set in the 34th century. The answer is quite a lot actually.

I’ve got to a stage in the story where the ensemble of characters is mostly aboard ship in the process of tracking, chasing, locating and generally trying to hide from or find each other.

Cast your mind back to the original Elite and the Frontier games and you’ll recall the ubiquitous ‘scanner’. A very late addition to the game, this elegant piece of design allowed you to spacially locate your adversaries (and you’ve just *got* to use a Sean Connery voice for the word ‘adversary’!) in three dimensions with a quick glance. The ‘periscopes’ or ‘golf clubs’, as they were often referred to, gave you height and depth information. Very clever indeed.

The Scanner as seen on the ZX Spectrum Elite. 3D Spatial Radar.

The Scanner as seen on the ZX Spectrum Elite. 3D Spatial Radar.

There was a similar setup in Frontier and FFE. Quite how this scanner actually worked was never revealed. It appeared to be some kind of radar with a relatively limited range. Objects would drop off the scanner after only a few dozen kilometres, it was a short range system. No version of Elite, that I’m aware of at least, has a ‘long range’ system of any kind.

In Elite:Dangerous, we’ve seen in the Dev Diaries that you’ll be able to pick up heat signatures. As ships move about and fire they’ll heat up, showing up more to infra-red sensors. We’ve been looking at this in the Writers’ forum and we’ve come up with the concept of ‘passive’ and ‘active’ scanners for the sake of the fiction.

This takes us back to the submarines. Military subs have sonar, which allows you to ‘ping’ sound energy into the water. If there is something there, the sound energy bounces back. Measure the time and intensity and it gives you a distance and bearing. You can lock your torpedoes on target and fire away, Commander!

Active Sonar

Active Sonar shows you what’s out there, but advertises your own position.

There’s a downside though to this ‘active’ type of scan. The moment you ‘ping’, you announce your location to anyone who might be listening. If an enemy sub has sneaked in behind you, you’ve given them what’s known in submariner talk as a ‘firing solution’. Suddenly you’ll have a torpedo bearing down on you, apparently from nowhere.

What military subs do most of the time is sneak around as quietly as possible (the term ‘Silent Running’) hoping to hear the noise the other subs are making (engine revolutions, propeller noise, even onboard chatter from the crew), slowly sneak closer (minimising their own noise) in order to gain a ‘firing solution’. This requires some very sensitive equipment and computer processing to determine what you’re picking up. This is your ‘passive’ type of scanning.

An accoustic signature from a passive sonar array.

An accoustic signature from a passive sonar array.

Fast forward into the future. You’ll have active scanners as in the earlier games, but with the same downsides as the subs. If you can see them, they can see you. This may not be desirable in some situations. You can’t sneak up on someone this way and you can’t hide.

If you don’t want people to know you’re there, you have to switch to passive scanners. This assumes someone else is giving off a heat signature (or other emission) you can track. If you’re all playing the ‘I’m not moving and staying quiet’ game, it’s a stand-off. Another quote from Red October – “The hard part about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch.”

Slow your ship and cut all energy emissions. Your ship will be almost invisible to a passive scan, but now you can’t move. I don’t know how this will play out in game, but the indications are that we’re going to be experiencing that kind of tension in certain situations. You’re going to have ‘fog of war’ problems, your sensor data will be incomplete. Will you risk an active scan? Or is that the last thing you should do? Decisions, decisions.

This is absolutely fabulous for my story though. The tension, the lack of knowledge and the stress that develops from this allows you to write a really gritty scene. It’s not so much about the fight (as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs) it’s about the jockeying for position beforehand. The characters in question don’t have all the facts at their disposal. They’ll be trying to make the right choices given the data they’ve got. Sometimes that will work out well, sometimes it’s going to go all Admiral Ackbar on them.

I really think he should have seen it coming, don't you?

I really think he should have seen it coming, don’t you?

What else have we been talking about? Windows.

Not the operating system, but the things you look through. Spacecraft in Elite:Dangerous will have cockpits with windows. That seems to be something of an aesthetic decision rather than a practical one, but it’s one I’m rather pleased about, partly because that’s how I’ve already written my scenes, but mostly because it ‘feels’ right. I like the idea of looking outside the ship.

This does give you a few practical problems though. Some things in space are very bright (Stars and brightly illuminated planets for example). Some things are very faint (Remote Stars, ships at range and so on). Human eyes can’t perceive very wide ranges of exposure level, so you’re not going to see faint objects out of your window if there’s a bright object shining light on you. Every space movie bar none makes this basic error; you can always see ‘everything’. It’s why some nutters think the moon landing pictures are fakes – Well, duh! There aren’t any stars in the sky! – actually that evidence in favour of them being real.

You can never see this with human eyes. The stars would be too faint to see with the glare of the planet.

Looks pretty, but it’s not realistic. The stars would be too faint to seen with the glare of the planet.

Another problem is distance. Even a big ship at a range of a few dozen kilometres isn’t going to be all that easy to see, particularly if there’s not much illumination. Forget trying to see a Viper or a Cobra at that range. Realism is a pain sometimes!

Your window is going to have to be supplemented by something else. Fortunately the ‘holofac’ technology from The Dark Wheel has been retained in the ‘Canon’. So we have free standing holograms in Elite:Dangerous both for communication and information display.

"Where's the START button in Windows 1337 ?"

“Where’s the START button in Windows 1337 ?”

Your window will be supplemented by head up displays (HUDs) that will give you extra information about your surroundings. I’m guessing that these will include infrared sensors, telescopic zooms and the like. We’ve been told to expect an in game screenshot before too long – but I doubt I’ll be allowed to share it with you. Sorry!

So back to you guys. What do you think of the submarine warfare motif for starters? The technology in Elite:Dangerous (with the exception of Hyperspace) seems to be relatively ‘low tech’ compared to many other space opera universes. How’s that sitting with you?

Comments as always. See you next week.


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  1. Hi Drew, I absolutely loved the tension in The Hunt For Red October when they were trying to hide their sounds and navigate silently. Great cinematics combined with awesome storytelling. Something that would be fantastic if you could factor it in into your book.

    I think it will be fun if tech in E:D will be limited. It heightens tension and prevents that for every shortcoming that a commander might have a tech-solution will be available.

    On an other note: I just completed reading your OOLITE saga. And I just wanted to say THANK YOU for giving the community that story. The only problem I have is that I finished it to soon… I have 11 months to fill up with other books. Does anyone have any suggestions of recent hard science fiction BESIDES what I already have in my bookcloset:
    – L.E. Modesitt (The Elysium Commission, The Eternity Artifact)
    – Joe Haldeman (Peace and War)
    – Greg Bear (EON, Forge of God)
    – Asimov (Foundation Trillogy)
    – Alastair Reynolds (Revelation Space series)
    – Kim Stanley Robinson (Mars Trillogy)
    – David Brin (Earth, Existence)
    – Stephen Baxter (Xeelee)
    – Peter F. Hamilton (Nights Dawn, VOID)
    – Arthur C. Clarke (Rama series)
    – Douglas Adams (HHGTTG)
    – James P. Hogan (Giants series)

    That’s generally what I love to read.
    Thanks for any suggestions.

    Cheers and happy Writing/Reading!

    • I agree about Red October being great and the tension well orchestrated.

      As for book suggestions, one of my favourites was another James Hogan novel called ‘The Genesis Machine’. Not sure if it qualifies as ‘Hard SF’, but if you’re in a dark mood then I loved the Gap series by Stephen Donaldson. Again, also not sure if it’s hard enough, but the Riverworld series by Philip Jose Farmer.

      • Thanks Dave,

        I’ll look into these titles.

      • Anyone who includes the HHGTTG in their list can’t be *too* particular about how hard their SF is, so I’d like to recommend the entire SF works of Iain M. Banks, and especially his “Culture” series. (strongly suggest you read them in order)

        • I get what you mean Diziet Sma but I’ve always read as much SF as I can. And as much as i like the tongue in cheek humor of the HHTTTG trillogy in 4 no 5 NO 6 parts 😉 my mind just needs some HARD SF every now and then. Whether they are about nanobots eating the planet, black holes tearing a galaxy apart or Multi facetted space battles .. I don’t care 😀

          I’ll check Iain m. Banks, he was on my “to read” long list a year ago so: no reason not to check him. But in the meanwhile I’ve found the HALO trillogy by Greg Bear so they’re first in line.


    • Glad you enjoyed the Oolite Saga, Commander! I cringe a bit when reading the first two now, they could do with a refresh. Parts 3 and 4 are better though. 🙂

      • I am happy to report I enjoyed all 4 of them. I can see that as the author and heaving reread them a few times you must see some issues. I can honestly say that the stories are still very readable for someone with a fresh perspective. Don’t bother changing them: they made you the writer you are now. It is the journey that defines you not the destination.

  2. I’ve always loved stealth as a mechanic and the submarine genre for this very reason. When David Braben mentioned the heat scans in the Kickstarter it made me very happy!

  3. Great update as usual Drew.

    The difference in the various methods of detection, dependant on range/tech/environmental noise etc, adds a very real dynamic, and should keep us all on our toes, and on the edge of our seats. Nice.

  4. As much as I love Hunt for Red October, I have to say I’m not a great fan of the ‘submarines in space’ trope. Sorry! Doesn’t make much more sense than aeroplanes in space, really. Space combat would a very, very different thing from any existing kind of warfare we’re familiar with. (of course, I know we’re going to have the airplanes, because Newtonian flight turned out to be too much for some people to handle in Frontier/FE. Submarines might still be avoidable, though)

    I keep linking to this site over and over, and I realise it may be getting tiresome, but I have to bring up Atomic Rockets again, particularly the section about ‘Detection’ –

    It’s very related to the talk of the day here and should be an interesting read – even if the realism in ED is not intended to be quite as hardcore as that site’s owner would probably like.

    You are spot on with the division of sensors into ‘active’ and ‘passive’. What you might not realise is just how powerful and hard to hide from even passive methods of detection would be in the emptiness of space!

    Still, I can see that hiding/detection cat and mouse play is tempting as an idea for a game mechanic as well as a fictional device. Okay, so maybe we want stealth anyway. We still want to be realistic. Looks like we have a problem here.

    But maybe things are not so bad after all – as someone pointed out to me in the forums before, even if it’s possible to detect ships from the other side of the solar system, the information “only” travels at the speed of light.

    When talking about ED we’re talking about a universe where even tiny ships like Eagle have FTL drives that allow them to travel interplanetary distances in a matter of minutes. This means that any intel you gather using passive sensors from distances larger than a couple of light minutes would be hopelessly outdated!

    So if you want ‘long range’ scanning to be useful, it has to be done using some type of FTL scanner which uses particles that travel at superluminal velocities. Since this tech is imaginary, you can invent any limitations to it that you want.

    I don’t know what are FD’s exact plans for stealth and detection and I don’t have a precise proposal for how it ‘should’ work but I do ask that the people figuring it out will consider these realities.

    • Thanks for the link, Captain N. I hadn’t read that through in detail before. Definitely worth reviewing and I’ll pass on to the writers’ forum. (Edit : Done!)

      This is likely to be one of those ‘suspension of disbelief’ requirements for the novel to be consistent with the game, but I’ll certainly pay attention to it.

      And how ‘hard’ should Elite fiction be, given what we’re going to see in game? We’ve already got hyperspace (impossible), FTL comms (impossible), visible lasers (impossible), manually flown ships (extremely unlikely), a tramp-steamer trading model for the universe (extremely unlikely) and no signicant AI (very unlikely IMHO).

      It’s a toughy! 🙂

      • Thanks, Drew.

        I don’t mind writers (and game designers!) bending reality, but it’s always better when it’s done deliberately for a good reason and from an informed perspective rather than simply out of ignorance.

  5. SUbmarines as an analogy for space travel have always been my favourite imagery, and it’s purely the fault of Star Trek II: Wrath Of Khan. Meyer based that film on Silent Running, and the submarine analogies are manyfold.

    But it made for some GREAT action sequences, so hopefully the same will be true for Elite. 🙂

    Great update as always, Drew. Thanks.

    • Atleast with Wrath of Khan there was the ‘Mutara Nebula’ which acted as an ‘ocean’ that limited line of sight and ruined the scanners. Ok, we know nebulae aren’t that dense, but at least form followed function in that example.

      The suspense makes for readability, if not accuracy.

    • The earliest “submarines in space” sequence I can recall is, of course, the original Star Trek episode Balance Of Terror. But the most overt use of this trope has to be the Wing Commander movie.

      Almost everything in one pivotal sequence is played as though it’s submarine warfare, from weapons that act like depth charges through to crew members whispering in case enemy sensors detect them (although how that would work in the vacuum of space is one of the movie’s many technical issues that is never addressed).

      If that’s not enough, for that full-on WWII submarine vibe they even have Jürgen Prochnow playing one of the ship captains.

      • One of my favourite TOS episodes. Particularly good now with the digital makeover.

    • Silent Running was a movie with a Garden of Eden type environment, with bunny rabbits and everything, on a spaceship much like Project Genesis built in a moon.

      Run Silent Run Deep was a cat & mouse chase between a Sub and a ship much like when Khan and Kirk were battling it out in the nebula.

      It’s possible that the Wrath of Khan referenced both movies.

  6. Jurriaan, I’m late to the show, and my booktip isn’t even hard SF. But since you’ve got David Brin in the list, try to get a copy of the old “The Practice Effect” – about a world where things become better the more they are being used. It’s a nice little story which made me constantly think about how our world today would look like if that law of physics would exist.

    • Thanks Ingo! I’ll see if I can find the book somewhere. And: A wizard is never Late: he always arrives at the right time 😉

  7. The Elite: Dangerous universe is beginning to develop a distinct personality, and the submarine motif fits within it’s predominantly low-high tech approach. I think Frontier are taking a consistent and logical approach to the tech that will be used, but often the design decisions deemed necessary emphasise retroactive consistency, gameplay, and the design vision mean that the universe has drifted somewhat from the harder SF feel of the Frontier games.

    I think writing a credible work of SF in the universe as it stands is still perfectly possible, but I think the criteria for that credibility now incorporates elements of space opera rather than hardcore SF. It’s taken some mental readjustment, but fundamentally E: D about stories: those in the fiction and those the players will make for themselves. As such, having this low-high tech approach and creating a unique setting with its own personality is likely to make for more enjoyable reading, writing, and playing.

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