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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.