Thursday, April 2, 2009

Stealth Bomber and ECM ships - Proposed changes

So CCP has been busy with proposals to rebalance a couple classes of ships - ECM ships and Stealth Bombers. I've spent a couple days mulling over these changes and theorycrafting with corpmates, and I've got some drafts of what I think these ships ought to ultimately look like.

First, ECM. There are seven ECM ships - Griffin, Kitsune, Blackbird, Rook, Falcon, Scorpion, Widow - but the problem is the Falcon. Unfortunately, balancing the Falcon requires changes to other roles in order to make it all make sense, and thus we're getting a wide-ranging change, with the attendant difficulties in pleasing everybody. The Griffin, Kitsune, Blackbird, and Widow are fine as-is, and are generally agreed to need no changes. The Rook would likely also be fine if the Falcon got nerfed down to the point where the Rook was noticeably better at ECM, instead of its sole advantage being the laughable bonus to missile damage, though a slight buff to ECM strength(to 25% per level, say) might be worthwhile as well.

At present, the Falcon gets both the important bonuses - ECM range and ECM strength - along with the covops cloak, and has no drawbacks. It needs to lose one of those bonuses. Which one depends on what role you want the ship to fill - the "brawler" or the "sniper" - and I would say that it's best to give it the opposite role to the Scorpion. If the Scorp is still a range ship, the Falcon should be short-range, if the Scorp is short-range, the Falcon should still be effective at fleet ranges, but with an unboosted ECM strength. In its place, either give it a missile damage bonus(similar to the Pilgrim's drone bonus), or maybe give it a cloaked velocity bonus like the Black Ops get, so it can at least retain some of the positioning advantages it has at present.

The Scorp is the final piece of the ship puzzle, and its fate is in the air because of a very interesting proposal made to remove its ECM range bonus in favour of a missile damage bonus, thus making it into a far more interesting solo/small gang ship. I'm of the opinion that too many ships are dedicated damage or dedicated ECM ships, and some more interesting crossover designs, like the Arbitrator is currently, would be a useful addition to the game, so I lean towards the role of the torp Scorp. However, the Scorpion is an important ship for long-range fleet warfare, and the removal of its range bonus makes it ineffective in this role. I don't fly in 0.0 blobs myself, so I'll defer somewhat to the judgment of those who do, but if the Rook (and Falcon) would make adequate replacements for the Scorpion, and the higher costs are not crippling, then it would be best to switch the Scorpion into the short-range role and let the small gangs play with it. If the removal of it would harm fleet warfare too much, then leave it as-is, drop the Falcon's range bonus, and make it play in the mud like all the other Force Recons.

And for you naysayers out there, yes, I am aware that there's a good chance that what I said above translates as "Nerf the Falcon and leave everything else alone". There's a reason for that: the Falcon is the problem. It's not game-destroying, but it is on the powerful side, and it is simply not fun. "Adapt or die" is a good maxim, but it's simply bad game design to make the most annoying tactic also be the most powerful one - it pisses off your players for no good reason.

There are two other ancillary changes being proposed in this rebalance as well, and I'll go over them briefly. The ECM range changes are an unalloyed good - ECM is not just the most powerful form of electronic warfare but also the longest-ranged, which is ludicrous. Damps and painters can justify a 200km reach(though oddly, neither actually get it, which would explain why nobody bothers with them), ECM cannot. The SDA changes, on the other hand, seem to entirely miss the point. The module still affects ECM only, giving it yet another advantage over other forms of electronic warfare, and it it still an auto-fit on pretty much all ECM ships. They need to either remove the module entirely - which, for practical reasons, they cannot - or they need to make it have some competition instead of being another case where CCP fits your ship for you. In both cases, they need to make it fair when compared to other forms of EW as well.

Ideally, I want about three "SDA" types to exist at the end of the day. There should be one that increases EW strength at the cost of range, likely EW range, but could also be targeting range if you want some more interesting ship fits. There should be one that increases EW range at the cost of EW strength. Lastly, there should be one intended primarily for ECM that is scripted to alternately increase or decrease ECM cycle times, to give players flexibility in how they want their jam cycles looking(it would still apply to other forms of EW, but it would have minimal effect there). This would make players actually need to make some decisions in how their low slots work instead of just fitting 3x SDA mindlessly, and would give players more options while making the ships less powerful at their current role of permajamming everything.

Yes, this is a nerf - three of them, really(Falcon range, ECM range, SDA lack of penalties). It is, however, something I believe to be a fair and reasonable nerf, that is eminently necessary due to the utter annoyance level of Falcons.

On the topic of stealth bombers, however, I am genuinely confused by CCP. The stealth bomber currently has an anti-support role - it uncloaks, pops a frigate, and slinks away. It's not a good role at present, but it's clearly defined and reasonably executed. Of course, it's also supposed to have a bomber role, but we all know how well that works. The role that CCP is putting it into, however, is entirely different - stealth bombers are now supposed to be anti-battleship frigates. The problem is, they've given it no bonuses whatsoever to actually filling this role. Yes, switching cruise to torp gives it a bit more DPS, but it also means that you're solidly within the range of the best anti-frigate weapon in the game - the Warrior II - and you're not actually gaining enough DPS to justify the dramatic drop in survivability that this implies. At the same time, they're throwing away its ability to do anti-support work, and it's still out-DPSed in the same role by the Raven, any pulse ship, and for that matter many sniper ships, trivially. You don't balance T2 ships towards low-skill players, and there is no reason a high-skill player would ever use a bomber instead of just using a battleship. The current conception of a torp bomber, with no further bonuses except a trivial damage bonus, has got to go. Get rid of it, start with a blank slate.

We have a valid model from history of what a small "ship" that is supposed to kill large ships looks like. Ironically, we called them torpedo bombers too. Take the biggest weapon you can, fit it on the smallest hull you can, and launch a pack of them at the nearest big, nasty enemy battleship. You're made of paper, and you can expect to take losses against anything even remotely capable of defending itself, but you'll punch far above your weight. This could be a new hull, or it could be the existing SB redone, but here's what it could look like in game terms.

- A standard Stealth Bomber's high slots will be 1x Covert Ops Cloaking Device, 1x Bomb Launcher, 3x Stealth Missile Launcher(new module)
- Covert Ops Cloaking Device has no bonus to cooldown - when you drop cloak, you are exposed for 30 seconds
- Bombs get all the standard "make them not suck" bonuses - reasonable cost, better fire control, etc.
- The Stealth Missile Launcher carries 10 torpedoes as its ammo, no more. Rate of fire, with max skills and 2 BCU, approximately 3 seconds.
- The ship also has a hidden bonus that gives all missiles(but not bombs) fired by it a 100% resistance to the racial damage type.
- The Stealth Bomber has no cargo. None whatsoever. In order to reload, it must visit either a station or a corporate hangar.

The tactics here are simple enough to understand. Get a group of 8-10 SB together - any more and the bombs would just kill each other - make a run on an enemy blob. Launch bombs, ripple-fire torpedoes at heavier targets, try not to get blown to kingdom come, and then run the hell away once you've done your job. This would actually provide a genuinely effective method of attacking battleships with frigates, though of course said frigates are still expensive(after insurance, they cost about the same as a battleship), and are still fragile as anything.

If you want some numbers, a group of 8 max-skill bombers will do 64k AOE damage with their bombs, and a further 266k targeted damage(assuming Dread Guristas torps, which is reasonable in such small quantities), all of one type, assuming that they manage to survive the full 30 seconds and get all their weapons fired. This is enough to kill four well-buffered battleships and seriously damage any others in bomb range. However, the losses on the bomber side would, in practice, be painful and likely lower this damage significantly - drones, battleship weapons, and fire from support ships would likely wipe out much of the incoming wave. Furthermore, just because the cloaking device can be reactivated after 30 seconds does not mean that you can cloak - you are still under all the regular restrictions on it, and if you are tackled you're now flying a ship with no weapons and no tank, which means you're dead.

This would provide a bit of genuine choice to larger-scale combat - your stealth bombers deliver a powerful blow, but it's an expensive one(the above SB wave would likely cost a quarter-billion, all-in), and one that is not easily repeatable short of spending quarters of billions on additional waves and dedicating 8 additional pilots to the job. Furthermore, the fact that there would now be a frigate-range combatant worth considering would force a change in fleet composition - you'd need an actual screening force, both to protect your force from bombers(faster lock and kill = fewer torps launched) and to clear away the enemy screen to give your bombers a chance.

At first glance, this may seem overpowered, but I'm not actually convinced it is. The damage numbers look rather appalling, but that's only 1107 torp DPS per bomber for the duration of the run, plus bombs. It's higher than a battleship can put out, but it's also got none of the other advantages of a battleship - no tank, no HP, no staying power, and it's more expensive to lose. It'd be stunning in a lot of contexts, but it'd also be a waste of cash and manpower in many others. It's unexpected and novel, and thus I can understand why CCP won't go for it - they don't like doing risky things to game balance, and instead prefer doing inane things that don't rock the boat - but it would seriously change a lot of combats for the better, introduce an entirely new form of gameplay that still fits well within Eve, and turn an underutilized ship into a serious part of fleet warfare. I think this is an entirely reasonable change, at least as a platform for further balance testing, and one that would be far superior to the current changes that cost us a ship with a bad role in favour of a ship with a laughable role.

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