A Day in the Life of a Space Bounty Hunter

Those who read my prior post, A Day in the Life of a Space Trucker, might be interested to know I’m still flying, and I’ve graduated from running cargo to shooting criminals out of the sky. Elite: Dangerous with a flight stick and VR helmet remains one of the most immersive experiences out there, and as you’d expect, blowing other ships up in virtual space is entertaining. For those who haven’t gotten to try VR yet, experiences like this are what you can expect when the first consumer headsets ship in late 2015.

Virtual Cockpit

[ My virtual cockpit. In my basement. Because I take my games seriously. ]

So what’s it like to be a bounty hunter in Elite? Pretty fun! At the moment, one of the most efficient ways to find criminals and earn bounties is to fly out to your local system’s Nav Beacon, a hub for ships coming and going from other systems. Some of these ships, inevitably, have pilots flagged as Wanted, meaning they did something the system authority considers bad.

Note: All screenshots that follow were taken in the Oculus Rift, which is the reason for the odd resolution. Each is essentially “half” a shot, what would be presented to my left eye.

My Viper Cockpit

[ Sitting in the cockpit of my Viper, ready for take off. ]

What horrible crime did they commit? Who knows! I’m paid to shoot them down, not debate criminal law. Though, just for reference, in the world of Elite: Dangerous there is one penalty for every infraction, even minor ones such as scratching paint or stealing food. Death. Firey, laser-induced death.

My typical gameplay session involves hopping into my Viper space superiority fighter (putting on my Oculus Rift DK2), leaving my local station, jumping into Supercruise, and dropping out at a Nav Beacon.

02 - Off to the Nav Beacon

[ Cruising around from the dark side of a planet as the sun begins to rise. Gorgeous. ]

I then fly around scanning ships as they arrive, almost like a traffic cop zapping passing vehicles with a radar gun. Except if my radar gun flags you as “speeding”, I will most likely try to kill you. So it’s a bit different.

03 - Scanning

[ Time to find out who’s been naughty or nice. ]

If a ship comes up “Wanted”, it’s time for me to go to work. I can attack that ship unprovoked without becoming Wanted myself, and blowing it up earns me credits I can use to improve my ship and weapons, thus allowing me to blow up more ships. It’s like the Circle of Life, except with Death.

04 - Mahilda

[ Let’s see if Mahilda has been a naughty girl. ]

Because I’m a mercenary (and not a “space cop”) I’m not required to engage every lawbreaker that enters my crosshairs, and I often don’t, even if they are Wanted. Knowing who to engage and who to leave well enough alone are critical calculations for profitable bounty hunting. Engaging a ship that’s more heavily armored and armed than me, or a wing of ships when I’m flying on my own, costs ammo, may damage my ship, and may even end the Circle of Death (with my death), which means I’m paying a big chunk of insurance to get a new ship. I’m here to make credits, not spend them, so how do I make my decision?

05 - Mahilda Clean

[ It seems she’s a law-abiding citizen. Good for her! ]

My first point of data is the Wanted pilot’s combat rank, which I see when I scan them. Every pilot has a combat rank (ranging from “Mostly Harmless” to “Elite”) which, for AI, tells you how hard they are to defeat, and, for players, just tells you they’ve blown up a lot of other ships. I can drop a “Mostly Harmless” pilot in seconds, while a Master or above pilot in a good ship may prove challenging.

Other factors in my decision include the presence or lack of System Authority Vessels (Elite’s overzealous “space cops”), who will aid me in taking out dangerous criminals or groups of criminals if I engage nearby, and the estimated worth of a bounty. Blowing up tiny cargo haulers (in addition to being laughably easy) yields next to no bounty, and really, what could a cargo hauler have really done that was so horrible to warrant death? He probably stole some food or something. For his sick spouse and kids.

08 - Wanted No Challenge

[ This guy honestly isn’t worth my time. ]

In addition, in the chaos of a multi-ship engagement (with multiple “Clean” pilots engaging a “Wanted” pilot) it’s not uncommon for a stray shot from a friendly pilot to tag me or another Clean ship, resulting in an instant “Wanted” flag for the poor soul. I generally let those pilots go, out of common courtesy if nothing else. Remember how I said Elite’s space cops are “overzealous”? This is where they prove it.

If a friendly ship accidently tags me in a multi-ship dogfight, they’re immediately flagged Wanted and, as mentioned, there is only one penalty for scratching another ship’s paint with a stray shot. Death!

06 - Tomah Wanted

[ Tomas Ekeli is wanted. Tomas Ekeli is about to have a very bad day. ]

Shooting down people who’ve previously helped me take down criminal pilots leaves a bad taste in my mouth (not to mention these ships are worth next to nothing, with tiny bounties) so I leave them to system authority and hope they have the sense to jump to Supercruise before they’re blown up.

09 - Dropping into Six

[ Tomas is already busy shooting at a law-abiding citizen. I slide in behind him and deploy hardpoints. ]

Should I choose to engage, I usually get to start the fight, because pirates rarely attack a fighter with no valuable cargo. I drop into the enemy fighter’s six, open my hardpoints, and say hello by unloading everything I have, inflicting as much damage as possible before they react and evade.

10 - Saying Hello

[ ~Please allow me to introduce myself. ]

Poor pilots often become fireworks before escaping my crosshairs, while skilled ones may evade and give me a real fight. Dogfights among equally maneuverable fighters and skilled pilots in Elite: Dangerous often turn into two fighters flying in an endless loop (imagine a wheel with a “north” and “south” point spinning endlessly) with occasional shot opportunities.

11 - Attempting Loop

[ Tomas is attempting a loop. Spoiler: It doesn’t work. ]

Assuming neither of us changes direction or breaks off and engages our afterburner (in hopes of getting enough distance to turn and get a shot) this can go on for a while. This type of dogfight is where a headset like the Oculus Rift proves its worth – I can constantly look “up”, out of the top of my cockpit, and track an enemy ship even when it’s not in front of me. So that’s cool!

12 - I Can See You

[ I can still see you, Tomas. ]

Upon taking heavy damage, an enemy pilot may disengage and attempt to jump into Supercruise. This is a clean getaway unless I have a Frame Shift Wake Scanner, which allows me to track them into Supercruise and follow them. Since I’m primarily facing simulated pilots who exist to ensure I have fun, these dogfights usually end with the enemy ship exploding and a bounty credited to my ship. Because it wouldn’t be fun if every AI pilot jumped to Supercruise when you were about to kill them, would it?

13 - Bad Day Ends

[ Tomas’ bad day ends in fireworks. Of death. ]

Ultimately, the credits I earn from shooting down criminals are just a promise, not mine, until I return to a local station and “cash in” my bounty vouchers.

14 - Back to Station

[ I have to get back here alive to get paid. ]

This is why bounty hunters must be careful not to push their luck, especially when they’ve accrued a sizable bounty voucher. If any enemy ship manages to destroy you, all those promised credit vanish, and you’re on the hook for the insurance cost of your ship. As your ship and the components you’ve bought for it improve, this becomes very expensive very quickly.

15 - Reward

[ Thank you for risking your life to keep us safe. Here’s some credits. ]

I’ve yet to face a human pilot in Elite: Dangerous (playing on the “lawful” side of the universe) but given my prior experiences in PvP, I imagine this will be an even more pulse-pounding experience. I also imagine the chances either I or my opponent will attempt to disengage at a certain damage threshold would be much higher, which makes hunting human pilots a less attractive proposition for a hard working bounty hunter. Especially when I can lose all my credits with my ship.

So, if I do someday encounter a Wanted player, I might engage just for the novelty of it, but after trying it a few times, I’d probably leave them well enough alone unless they shot at me or something. The risk/reward calculation just isn’t there, especially when AI pilots are much easier to kill.

16 - Random Beauty Shot

[ It’s a beautiful game. ]

Ultimately, after nearly twenty hours of flying and blowing up Wanted (AI) criminals, I’m still enjoying my experience with VR in Elite: Dangerous, which is an encouraging statistic for future VR games having a long shelf life when properly designed. Blowing up naughty pirates and escaping Interdiction by their angry friends remains a great virtual experience, and one I hope many people will be sharing with me in December 2015 and early 2016, when the first VR headsets become available to consumers.

17 - Heading Back for More

[ I’m NOT the Law. I’m like the Law’s cousin. Or roommate. ]

Until then, know that CMDR Captain Sunshine will be keeping the space lanes clean of lawbreakers (so long as the criminals are easy to kill) and ensuring that criminals don’t escape justice (unless they’re in a wing with other criminals – or an Anaconda – or an Elite Viper pilot – or I don’t feel like it at the moment). If none of these things is true, however, look out, lawbreakers! Justice is coming for you! (maybe)

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