Saturday, November 28, 2009

Drone herding

Droonies are the reason many a EVE player has found himself mumbling in his sleep or waking up in cold sweats, as they're probably the most fickle, hard to balance and messy factor in EVE combat, ever since mines and missile splash damage have been removed from the game.

Fighters epitomize the drone problem. They cost an arm, or at least a good cruiser worth of ISK and minerals, deal and soak about as much damage as a NPC cruiser, and have the AI of a 1980 digital alarm clock for brains, and yet, they're overpowered.

At the heart of the issue lies the fact a single pilot finds himself in command of a disproportionate total sum of firepower, not because drones are 'too good' as such, but because the drone paradigm has been 'One Ring nerd to bring them all and in the darkness bind them' since the beginnings of EVE.

This mixes badly with the nature and mythos behind Carriers and Motherships which call for the ability to deploy not one or two lonely drones, no matter how tough and full of teeth they are, but swarms of them.

Drone control, new generation.

As often, the answer is in the question: "How can we allow carrier and MS to launch lots of drones, without granting excessive power to the carrier pilot ?".
Yes, you've got it too: separate the ability to carry and launch drones from that to control them effectively.
And the tools are almost there, too: delegating drones has been available in game for a long time now, yet is seldom taken advantage of, because there's little incentive to do so.

I'll spare you the numbers (that's the new cool thing around here,) but the general spirit is: Carriers/MS can still launch lots of drones/fighters, but they only enjoy full bonus from skills/mods on a limited subset of that number. Meanwhile, delegated drones and fighters now can benefit both from their shepherd ship skills/mods bonus, and/or from cascading bonus granted by their owner.

• Carrier:
• Mothership:
Thus a Carrier pilot with lvl4 in both Racial Carrier skill level and Advanced Drone Interfacing skills will be able to field/command the following drone/fighter amounts (assuming no DCU equipped):
  • Carrier: field 9 (5+4), command 8 (4+4).
  • Mothership: field 17 (5+12), command 12 (8+4).
Fitting DCUs on top of that will only increase the count of deployable drones by up to 4 or 5, but the number of drones/Fighters the Carrier pilot can efficiently command on her own will remain the same.
It is still possible for the Carrier pilot to order all the drones she can field, but any drone(s) deployed beyond the limit of what she can efficiently command will operate at their base attributes, with zero modifiers from skills, ship bonus or fitted modules/rigs — unless assigned to another pilot.

Thus it is better to delegate drones to…

Drone Herders.

A drone herder is a sub-capital pilot that has good enough skills and a properly fitted ship to make good use of the drones/Fighters entrusted to her by a Carrier/MS.

To be delegated regular drones is easy: all you need is the basic Drone skill trained to decide how many drones you can handle.
For Fighter-type drones, your Drone Interfacing skill must be trained at least at lvl1, and your level decides how many Fighters can be included in your total drone herd.

These basic requirements only allows drones/Fighters to be delegated to you, but are not enough for you to make the best of them.

Drones and fighters modifiers work much like leadership bonus:
  • in order for a bonus to cascade, the Herder must have at least lvl1 in the primary skill requirement for that drone type.

  • for every bonus that can cascade to a drone-herder, the best one among available modifiers is selected between the Owner carrier ship/pilot and the Herder ship/pilot.
You fly a Ceptor,  and have Drone Interfacing lvl4, you can be assigned up to 4 Fighters (say one of each race) and one other drone type (let's say a T2 Heavy Repper Drone).

Assuming you have Repair Drone Operation trained only to lvl 1, you will benefit from the lvl5 skill of the Owner on your assigned T2 repper drone, since Repair Drone Operation is the primary skill requirement for that drone type.
On the other hand, if you don't have Fighters at least lvl 1 trained, you won't inherit the modifiers from the Owner pilot/ship, and will operate the Fighters with their base attributes.

  • Unless flying a Carrier/MS or a very special ship, one can never control more than  5 drones / Fighters are once, combining self-deployed and assigned droonies.

  • Drones or Fighters set to Guard or Assist a target remain under the command of the pilot that ordered them so, since there is no transfer of control. As such they count against their Owner total command count, unless they have been ordered to guard/assist a target by a Drone Herder.

Why, oh why ? 

The benefits of this model are multiple:
  • It encourages Carriers and Mothership pilots to delegate their drones/Fighters, rather than use their boat as a SoloPWNmachine. This is up to the pilot, but not delegating means lesser efficiency on the whole.

  • It creates a new specialist role: Drone Herder, which somewhat helps smoothing the path (training wise) for wannabe Carrier pilots, while offering a viable career development to sub-capital drone specialists who don't want to make the switch to capital ships (yet). As a result, drones become a platform to bring more players into the action, instead of stealing frigate/cruisers jobs.

  • It allows more flexibility in balancing: by deciding which modifiers apply to specific types of drones, which can cascade down from a Carrier ship/pilot to Drone Herders, etc, much finer granularity is available to balance drones/Fighters.

  • As a corollary of the above, it makes easier to introduce new drone types or rework exiting ones, and to allow Carriers and Motherships to deploy fair numbers of drones/Fighters at once, since they're more likely to be spread across more than a single grid at once.

Final notes.

Drone Herding works best with decent ergonomics for drone management, such as an improved Drone Control interface, the ability to save drone sets and to easily identify and team up with Drone Herders for Carrier/MS pilots. This is beyond the scope of this introduction to Drone Herding, and will be covered in followups.

The first draft of that model was much simpler, and harsher on the self-sufficient urges of Carrier pilots: it called for the straightforward removal of all bonus and modifiers on drones/fighters deployed from a Carrier/MS unless they were assigned to a Drone Herder… I kind of liked the idea myself (and yes, I've some experience flying drone carriers), but the hurt seemed at bit too much in retrospect.
Thoughts ?


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