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B-R5RB and the Death of Drone Assist February 10, 2014

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EVE Online.
Tags: , , , ,
4 comments

Or how I will end up  pressing F1 again.

Drone assist is going to be brought down to size by CCP in a somewhat blunt force sort of way.

But this is a good thing… at least in my opinion.

I have mentioned drone assist in passing before.  I even predicted the nerfing of drone assist in my 2014 predictions post, though that was an easy one. (Though I am still only partially correct at this point.)  But I figured it might be time to talk about what drone assist really is and why nerfing it might be a good thing, as well as why CCP waited until now to announce they were going to do it.

Drone assist first showed up on my radar back in the Fountain war as part of TEST’s “we can’t seem to stop being poor, so no more expensive ships” Prophecy fleet doctrine.  They tried to use it at G95F-H and had little success.  But it was clearly a coming doctrine.

So what is drone assist?  For the purpose of illustration, I will describe what I have experienced.

After the war in Fountain, when drone assist was making its self felt, CFC high command declared that the feature was over-powered and that we would prove it by abusing the feature until CCP fixed it.  We docked up our Baltec Fleet Megathrons and bought new ships for two new drone doctrines, Prophecy fleet and Dominix fleet.

As far as I can tell, my investing in a Prophecy was a waste of ISK.  I have never undocked it. (Same with the promised “non-ironic” Ferox I bought.  I suspect now that the Ferox doctrine was just a troll to unload some excess hulls.)  But Dominix fleets became quite the thing and I flew with the great green space potatoes on several occasions, tearing up a hostile fleet now and again.

Domis in a green sky on the way to battle

Dominix fleet ahoy

Here is how a Dominix fleet operation plays out.

We moved to our destination.  The FC warps us around until he finds a good spot for us.  When he is satisfied, he calls for the fleet to stop in space and deploy the drone indicated.  For Dominix fleet, this means either Bouncer II or Garde II sentry drones.  Everybody then assigns their drones to the designated person, usually the FC.  And then we all sit around while the FC kills stuff, getting on kill mails via our assigned drones.

The fleet generally sits idle, though the doctrine has energy neutralizers fitted on each Domi, so sometimes we fly into range to use those.  That was what we were doing at B-R5RB.  (In fact, that was all we were doing in B-R5RB.  Drones were veboten.) But usually we just sit.

We just sit because sentry drones are special.  They are long range sniping drones with negligible mobility.  They have enough motion to get back to your ship, but only if you haven’t strayed very far.  So unless we want to abandon the drones… which we do when the situation calls for it… we just sit on them while the FC does his thing.  No pressing F1.  No aligning.  No nothing.

Garde drones... maybe firing, maybe asleep...

A Domi and a pair of Garde sentry drones

What the FC does is target hostiles.

Every time the FC targets a hostile, all of the sentry drones assigned to him align and shoot at the target in mass volleys of firepower.  In a Dominix fleet with 150 Domis along and on station, which is a good but not great fleet turn out, that means a potential 750 drones acting on the FC’s command and putting out something like 250K hit points worth of damage with each volley.

That is enough damage to sweep battleships and battlecruisers off the field with a single volley, and sufficient to worry any capital ship pilot that doesn’t have logistic repair support.

This is, of course, any fleet commander’s ideal situation.  It is what we always try to achieve in any fleet doctrine, the focus of fire by the whole fleet on a single target in order to blow it out of the sky.

But with guns or missiles, human factors make this concentration of fire difficult.  People have to be in position, have to lock up the designated target, and have to fire all of their guns or launchers at that target when the FC says to.  But people won’t see the target, or will be out of range, or will have the wrong ammo loaded, or will split their guns and shoot multiple targets, or will just be slow in performing even if they do everything correctly.

So damage output from a standard gun or missile doctrine ships tends to look like a bell curve, with more and more guns getting on target over time until the maximum amount of damage is being put on the hostile ship.  This gives the hostile fair warning.  He will see a bunch of ships in his overview locking him up.  He will see damage start to build.  If he is on the ball and has decent logistics support, he will have to time to call for reps and will have a decent change of survival.

With drone assist, damage comes on like a wall with all drones firing as one for all practical purposes and, with only one person targeting, any warning of the incoming pain likely lost in the clutter of the overview.

This advantage made drone assist fleets the way to go.  The CFC did it, and our enemies in the south, N3 and Pandemic Legion did it as well.

In fact, our foes were using the feature much more effectively than we were.  Their slow-cat carrier fleets, with a spider-web of self supporting armor reps and remote capacitor boosting, and a mass of drones on drone assist, were pretty much unassailable by sub-caps.  Some changes to Domi fleet went through to try and counter this, as well as a push towards dreadnoughts, but the only way to break the slow-cat doctrine was with super captials, super carriers and titans.  And our foes held the advantage on that front.

So CCP had a problem.

First there was the effect drone assist had on combat, with the perfect FC alpha attacks by obedient drones while most of the players sat about waiting for orders.

And then there was the load problem.

For purposes of combat, each drone is a ship, and the server running the system where the battle is running has to keep track of each and every one.  And with drone proliferation, server load went up.

Each little "X" is a drone...

Each little “X” is a drone…

And so we ended up with fights like the one at HED-GP or at E-YJ8G, where there were a lot of pilots involved and where the number of drones being launched just compounded the server load issues.  We fought the node and the node won.

E-YBadMessage

I am sure CCP wanted to do something about drone assist because of the server load issue alone.  They put up a Dev Blog about HED-GP and the load caused by drones. It was clearly an issue, and the predictions seemed to favor more node crashes as the war went on.

But, for in-game political reasons, CCP could not tinker with drone assist.  While both sides were using drone assist, it was clearly working better for N3 and Pandemic Legion.  So to nerf it in the middle of the Halloween War would mean nerfing the prime effective doctrine of one faction.  That in turn would lead to very shrill cries of favoritism in the forums and elsewhere.  So CCP had to sit on their hands and hope that the nodes would hold.

Then came the titan bloodbath at B-R5RB.  (Now in infographic form.)

Wait, what?

Wait, what?

In the wake of that, Pandemic Legion and Northern Coalition pulled out of the war, pretty much deciding the outcome.  There were battles left to be fought, but the course of events had achieved an inevitability.  The colors on the influence map would move, systems would change hands, and the war would splutter to an end.  Side agreements kept some areas untouched while the heavy weights extracted concessions from the lesser alliances.

CCP could safely announce that drone assist was being nerfed.  After the next Rubicon patch, a single pilot will be limited to having 50 drones assigned to him.  That isn’t the most elegant of solutions, being rather a “one size fits all” sort of thing that impacts carriers, which can launch more drones, than sub-caps.  But it will complicate the use of drone assist in large fleets and remove the “all drones on target” aspect of the feature.  The hope appears to be that we will all go back to other fleet doctrines.  I still have a couple Megathrons tucked away.  And there is that Ferox.

I think they could seal the deal on drone assist by changing things so that only the pilot assigned the drones gets on the kill mail.  That would cause a good deal of internal pressure in various alliances for dropping the doctrine… or at least people would stop assigning all their drones, holding some back to get on kill mails.  We do love our kill mails.

This seems like it might be enough for now.  I still fully expect to see a further run at this, with perhaps new skills that handle both the ability to assign drones and how many drones an individual pilot can can control through assignment.  Maybe we’ll see that in the fall expansion.

Of course, the fact that the war was in its denouement did not stop shrill complaints about favoritism.  This is EVE Online, where the forums will get shrill about most any issue… or non-issue.  But the comments were probably less shrill than they might have been.

So it looks like the writing might be on the wall for drone assist.  Unless/until somebody figures out a loophole to exploit.  This is EVE Online after all.

In the mean time, we will all have to pay attention in fleets once the change is in place.  Even having to stay engaged enough to target the right hostile and press F1 will be a step in the right direction for me.

The Malthusian Trap of HED-GP January 20, 2014

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EVE Online, Null Sec.
Tags: ,
6 comments

I rolled over and looked at the alarm clock Saturday morning.  I had just enough time to get up, start up my computer, and get into one of the fleets headed for the battle over the timer in the system HED-GP.

Instead, I went back to sleep while something like 4,000 ships converged on that system in the Catch region.

I was tempted to go along.  I was in the staging system and I had ships ready. And I think it is pretty obvious by now that I don’t mind going on a big event like this, even if it has fiasco painted on the side in large neon letters.  But I stayed in bed while many of my comrades in arms… or foes… took up the battle cry.

The fleets clashed, and the result was a system lost and a great big red spot on the recent kills map of New Eden.

The red spot in Catch

The red spot in Catch

Kill charts from DOTLAN

Kill charts from DOTLAN

Like many others, I watched from the outside as the battle was streamed.  Twitter was alight with updates.  And on Jabber updates and calls for pilots, first to get into the system and then to cover the extraction of capital ships, went on for 10 hours.  EVE Online did not handle the battle… gracefully.

Null sec blocs are in a Malthusian Trap of sorts.  The performance improvements done by CCP back in 2012 allowed fleet engagements to be bigger.  And so they got bigger as the null sec blocs engaged in their own version of the race to the sea, with each side adding allies and piling on with more ships in order to win the important fights.

Up through the war in Fountain, which culminated in the giant battle at 6VDT-H, things held together.  There were warning signs however.  CCP fumbling the node management at Z9PP-H and just the general behavior at the peak of the 6VDT-H fight indicated that we were nearing another limit.

Waiting on 6VDT-H station

Waiting on 6VDT-H station

But since then, big fights have pushed nodes beyond their limits.  Nodes dying, or behaving badly, have become the norm.  The null sec blocs have expanded their operations to consume whatever extra room time dilation offered.  The spirit of Malthus is no doubt laughing happily that he has been proven right yet again.

Time dilation was a good idea, but it did also contain within it the seeds of its own demise.  Yes, we can harp on about drone assist and how that has sped up the problem.  Both sides have been profligate in their use of drones and show no sign of cutting back.  But I am pretty sure that if CCP turned off all drones in the game tomorrow that it would not buy us all that much time before we started hitting the node barrier again.  Time dilation slows down the area of the fight, but allows the rest of space to solider on at normal speed, so the ability for alliances to pile on while a fight is still in progress has been greatly enhanced.

And pile on we have.

Asakai, already a year old in EVE lore, was a prime example.  The allure of getting on a titan kill mail put pilots in motion all across New Eden.  Back in November there was the Long Guy Fawkes Day, where I was in a fleet that pretty much crossed half of space to arrive in time for the fight.  And crash the node.  And we have carried on, with node crashes, or at least performance degradation to the point of the game being unplayable, becoming more common as battles become giant pile-on affairs.

And so CCP sits in the middle, having tried to make things better, but ending up with nearly the same problems they had two years back, compounded by a few new twists.  The forums seem full of people either indignant that CCP hasn’t fixed this yet or very smug because they knew this was how things had to end up.

So CCP is in a bind.  If there was an easy fix, they would have done it already.  There are a couple band-aids they could apply.

Nerfing drone assist was on many lips even before this fight.  I am not sure how much that would change things for N3, which favors capital ships in general and carriers specifically.  They will still use drones either way.

They could put population caps on systems, as they have done with Jita.  Of course, that would just lead to both sides rushing to pre-fill contested systems in advance of timers.

Or they could just tell the null sec blocs to “suck it” for now.  Null sec players aren’t any sort of majority in the game.  But then CCP loves to use those big fights and changing colors on the sovereignty map for publicity.  Your low sec gate camp, your wormhole fight, your factional warfare gains, they do not get covered by the BBC.   Big fights in null sec get coverage.  And I am sure CCP is loathe to let go of that publicity.

So I suspect CCP will spend a lot of cycles looking into the problem, which will take time and pull people away from other potential features, which in turn will make nobody happy in the short term.

Posts with actual details or observations about the battle at HED-GP: