Sunday, November 1, 2009

Putting the RTT in Rah-Tah-Tah ! (part 2)

[Continued from part 1]

I had lasagna, it was good, thank you.
Both my stomach and heart are heavy now, as I contemplate the sad fate of the overwhelming majority of players in territorial warfare, reduced to roleplay the cattle in a game of stampede for the sake of supposed Epic-ness.

So, how do we reverse the trend and bring that dreadful 1/15 ratio closer to 1/1 ?
At a glance, we can increase the proportion of players landing in the Command and RTT categories, reduce the relative headcount of grunts, or both.

The perfect fit.

Empirically, from team-oriented FPS and ball games, we can wage a good team size for each individual to matter a great deal is no more than 16, and north of 4.
Less than 5 and a single defection/incapacitation impacts your team too heavily (that's tantamount to a titan doomsdaying in the middle of a non-plated fleet) plus variety suffers (you can't cover all basic roles). Over a dozen, it becomes tricky for members of the team to maintain constant awareness of the roles, status and whereabouts of their teammmates.

That includes the team leader for which multitasking explodes into chaos when more than a few units have to be accounted for in real time, unless he/she lumps similar units together to make things easier on command — and then we go back to the faceless grunt predicament.

Luckily, EVE already provides for an in-game representation of such a team: the Squad.

At 10 members, including one Squad Commander, a squad is perfectly sized to provide for a reasonable diversity of roles and can afford some losses before losing usefulness, yet is small enough that every member counts and gets a pivotal part to play in the execution of a mission.

Ten Battleships, or carriers, or dreadnaughts or even frigates can prove to be a force to reckon with under the right circumstances, and a mixed group of various ships such as 2 pointer scouts, 2 healers, 2 tacklers and 4 heavy DPS boats could form a discrete, autonomous and flexible unit capable of many newsworthy exploits.

How comes we don't see any of those on most battlefields ? Two reasons:
  • Fleet Commanders can't be arsed to micromanage too many independent units ;
  • the numbers game makes any subtlety moot.
The second point is a huge can of worms and leads us to go after the N°1 funkiller in nullsec EVE, a.k.a the blob ecosystem, which I'll try and slice to bite-sized morsels in my next entry… For now we'll just have a look at why FCs can't handle armies of more than a few active brains, and how to address that.

FCs are in the same position any squad member or commander is: they can only keep track of so many things at once.
An upper limit for most people is between 3 and 7 items they can continuously keep track of in the course of a complex task, before the bookkeeping hogs most of their resources and they can't move anything ahead.

FCs have to account not only for their troops, but for the enemy's numbers, types and positions on the battlefield, not to mention the intel streaming constantly from afar to let them know about stuff coming their way. With that in mind, the leader of each combat group has precious little brainspace left to keep tabs on every frigate in his fleet, so the natural impulse is to reduce the part of the equation he can, and that's you.
By lumping you and the other 150 battleship pilots together into a single unit, he makes things a bit more manageable.

Of course, a Fleet Commander has a tool at his disposal to reduce complication, if not complexity, and that's the middle-rung in a fleet hierarchy: the Wing, and its Commander.
By entrusting Wing Commanders to discretely manage the minutiae of individual ship types, roles and pilots inside their unit, a Fleet Commander is blessed with no more than 5 Wings to worry about at any given time.

With each wing led by a commander, himself ruling over up to 5 squads, each squad staffed with a leader and enough team-ready brains onboard to act as a single unit, you'd expect things to go smoothly and make for a lot of opportunities for individual pilots to shine, right ?
Works for me, and would for you, too, because you'd never be a faceless grunt anymore if your combat group was guaranteed to incorporate no more than one leader and 4 to 8 other units besides yours.

Alas, Fleet Commanders don't delegate to Wing Commanders …because they usually are Wing Commanders themselves, and manage a fleet as an oversized wing.
Furthermore, most FCs have never personally flown in a formal squad, be it as leader or member.

Sounds like it would be easy enough to bring that contradiction to the FCs themsleves, but as any alliance leader will tell you: Fleet Commanders are a rare and precious breed you don't want to alienate.
Most fleet commanders are self-selected and subject to a serious case of Peter's syndrome: they got there because they could successfully lead a wing of 40-80 pilots to victory repeatedly, and are willing to take on the thankless chore of doing that every day and night in your alliance name, as long as nobody meddles with their end of the business and they're provided with enough cannon-fodder.

In non-news: Convenience beats Quality, again.
As a result, most FCs are used to lead undisciplined hordes of spacenerds which on the whole can't be relied to align in synch to a celestial, and they're not ready to bet a battle or their reputation on the odds that some of the nublets under their command may actually be able to think for themselves.

When successful wing commanders become new FCs, they enter the unforgiving rotation of 4'o'clock morning alerts on cellphone, which is enough to wear out any goodwill one may still harbor for n00b players and innovative strategies in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile, anyone who can lead an informal roaming squad is fast-tracked to FC'ing in a swim or sink fashion, without a stop by the Wing Command post, because who wants to fill a role nobody gives a crap about, given the choice ?

Along came a prophet,
…and he was promptly nailed to a door.

When the rare, the weird FC shows up who's willing to actually use Wing and Squad commanders, he's quickly discouraged by the three worst curses of initiative: inertia, lack of means, impossible expectations.
  • Inertia because other FCs don't want things to change, lest they risk being questioned about how they do stuff, and the first rule of FC'ing is: don't mess with my shit or I bail ;

  • Lack of means: because the Fleet Management tools are broken when it comes to flexibility, and organizing a fleet is so painful and time-consuming nobody wants to take the blame for forcing that unto others ;

  • Impossible expectations: as a consequence of the two points above, if you piss off the existing brass and slow down fleet formation even more than usual, you better get miracle-grade results on your first sortie, or you can expect to get planked for it.
The outcome is easy to predict: FCs are cranky and overworked as a rule, WCs are non-existent because the role doesn't exist or sucks too badly, so they bail out of nullsec alliances, along with good Squad leaders, and turn pirate or go play empire and lowsec wars, where there is room for small-scale tactics.

With the current dynamics of territorial warfare (which really is most of nullsec warfare), this sorry state of things is unlikely to evolve: it would take a radical change in game mechanics that heavily favors smarts and flexible tactics over raw numbers to authorize/force current alliance strategists and FCs out of their old ways, a question we'll look at in the next episode of this series: Dicing the blob.

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