Monday, November 2, 2009

Dicing the blob (part 1)

As seen earlier, the nature of fleet commander as a role makes counter-intuitive to trust anyone's judgement but his own to make the right decisions.

Under pressure to think fast and account for many factors simultaneously, Fleet Commanders also face the responsibility for any losses their fleet incurs, and potentially the blame for defeat. A natural response of some people to that kind of stress is to let their inner control-freak grab the weel in an attempt to bring a semblance of order to a chaotic situation. For better or worse, the type of people who end up commanding fleets usually host such an inner monster, gnawing on its chain and waiting any opportunity to take over.

Not even the worst control freak will attempt to micromanage a combat group of 40 pilots, however, much less a 300+ men fleet, so the next best thing is to wield the entire gang like a gigantic mace, and go for the application of maximum force on a single point as a straightforward way to bring the pain to the enemy.

For being crude, this tactic is fairly effective when going for reasonably static and large targets on an open field, which is precisely the sort one faces in nullsec territorial warfare, both pre and in Dominion: outposts and various sovereignty flagpoles and switches (POS and modules, HUBs, FLAGs and STOPs) all qualify.
Because all parties involved have to conveniently rally around these hotspots in a fairly predictable sequence, the ability to apply as much brute force as possible on short notice to a suitably ranged and sized enemy fleet is also deemed beneficial.
In the absence of other incentives to do so, splitting the fleet into discrete, semi-autonomous wings or squads brings no sizable benefit for the price of a steep increase in perceived complexity and uncertainty for the Fleet Commanders.

Thus, the option of hurling a single giant ball of pain in the general direction of the enemy is too tempting to pass,

…and a blob is born.
No matter how much everybody hates the blob, no alliance leader in EVE is prepared to lose a territorial battle, not too mention a war, for the sole sake of style or giving their fighters a good time: 0.0 selects unusually competitive players for leadership, who will go to any length to win. As long as game mechanics support blobbing as the most readily available winning strategy, it will remain the prevalent model for all warring territorial alliances.

There are two obvious ways to flush the blob off its N°1 place on the podium: nerf it, or boost other strategies.

Nerfing is the first impulse of the angered game designer when facing pesky players who soil his pristine vision by squirting 'emergence' all over the place. But the blob is not a design feature as much as it is an adaptation of the players' strategies to the game mechanics, and as such can't be directly nerfed: as long as throwing more and bigger ships at the same problem increases the odds of solving it, alliances will keep doing exactly that.

Plan B is to introduce counters, or rather intended penalties to deter FCs from relying on blobs: the titan doomsday and mothership Projected ECCM burst were in their time touted as anti-blob weapons.
Projected ECCMs proven largely unusable due to flawed design, while the titan doomsdays were met first by bigger blobs (due to the DPS penalty imposed on regular ships by the new 'requirement' to tank doomsdays) then by an arms race for doomsday firepower resulting in… titan blobs ! Way to go.
Although better 'counters' could be devised, they are unlikely to put sufficient pressure on strategists and FCs for them to let go of a proven and convenient strategy as long as no significantly better alternative is available to them.

That leaves Plan C:
cook up the books
…so that other tactics beat the blob to a squish.

The mission objective is now clear: design territorial warfare mechanics such as a fleet divided into many autonomous small combat groups (squad sized whenever possible, and never bigger than a wing each) can reasonably out-perform one or two blobs tallying twice its player count when attacking, and thrice when defending sovereign space.

[The requirement for even higher better-than-blob performance in defense is there to account for the fact most territorial invasions are only attempted when the attackers are reasonably confident in their numerical superiority, and the defenders usually make do with what they have at the time — if we want wing/squad-centric strategies to prove inherently superior to blobbing, they must remain so under those exceedingly unfavorable numeric odds.]

Here's how to do it:
  • Force differentiation and variety:
    Blobbing relies on simplicity and homogeneity, and blobs are giant meatshields spewing a lot of DPS. As such, they favor the largest affordable ships with the most damage output available: BSes in a cyno-jammed system, then capitals. Shaping the battlegrounds so that a diversity of ship classes get the advantage in the course of a single battle will see an homogeneous blob more frequently on the wrong foot than the good one compared to a mixed formation.

  • Multiply simultaneous hotspots:
    Even in an open field battle, there is such a thing as overkill. If 40 BSes are shooting the same primary BS, it will be vaporized before most of the collective alpha-strike is accounted for. By multiplying the hotspots for simultaneous action, an edge is given to the fleet who can sensibly divide and assign its numbers to separate targets.
    Dominion goes a step in the right direction with the idea of occupying stargates to unlock access to sovereignty flagpoles, then shoots its forward foot by using anchorables with hard-timers for that (see below).

  • Get rid of hard timers:
    Hard timers are the most blob-friendly design elements one can imagine, especially when they are known of everybody.
    Not only do hard timers set a date in advance for all to meet over a single hotspot (a.k.a a blobfest), but they increase the efficiency of blobbing by supporting steamroll strategies: once a hard-timer is triggered, there's typically nothing much anyone can do around this hotspot until the countdown runs out, which means a blob is free to move on to the next target to trigger its timer, etc.
    Speedbumps are necessary to mitigate timezone metagaming, but they can revolve around dynamic decay/recharge rates, or conditions that can be modified by players' actions. One of many ways to pace a rapetrain, for ex, is to require of the conquerors to consolidate/maintain their hold over seized sovereignty flags/switches — lest they revert to the defenders.

  • Finer grained sovereignty with stronger defensive benefits:
    This is roughly the opposite of what Dominion proposes, as it would mean you can start gaining significant sovereignty below the solar system level (planetary sounds good), with the possibility of several sovereignties coexisting/competing within a single solar system.
    This allows to significantly boost defensive benefits of sovereignty across the board, as they would not only benefit the system defenders, but also the attackers — provided they manage to gain a foothold on a planet and consolidate it (see above the hard-timers issue).
    Finer-grained sovereignty without hard timers also means several semi-independant sovereignty battles can rage simultaneously in a system, further increasing the benefits of splitting the blob and adding depth to territorial warfare tactics.

  • Long-distance relationships:
    We can make it work… EVE is not Starcraft, each solar system is not supposed to be a map entirely disconnected from the rest of the universe. Sovereignty at the constellation scale not only adds context, but the status of solar systems directly surrounding a battlefield should inform the strategy and objectives of competing alliances.
    Strengthen the sovereignty defenses of systems deeply embedded in friendly space, and you create an incentive for attackers to attack from the outside-in, on multiple fronts whenever possible. Require that stargates be seized on both 'sides' of a jump to trigger the switch you need to access an enemy flagpole in a coveted system, and separate combat groups are needed to watch over them. All those options are available at minimal server load costs to encourage or force strategists to spread their armies over more ground.

  • Separate sovereignty contests from pew-pew:
    Another thing CCP half-heartedly tries in Dominion with disruptor fields, only to shoot its other foot by bringing pew-pew back in.
    In EVE, establishing sovereignty has always been about raising flagpole structures, yet challenging sovereignty is — in Dominion more than ever — about destroying said structures, not capturing them.
    What if it was possible to take over a sovereignty flagpole by hacking the airlocks to drop in a bunch of Marines and Exotic Dancers, plus a few crates of moonshine, while the owners are suitably distracted ? What if disabling or taking over a flagpole or a stargate depended on mounting and using special equipment on your ship, rather than shooting a barn ?
This last bit is the topic of the next entry in this series, but downtime is over, go do something useless.

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