The minutes of the Winter Summit obscure many things behind the NDA, but one thing has become obvious: several CSM members have asked for a rebalance (read: nerf) of certain ships and weapon systems. According to a certain consensual wisdom, the chief offenders which supposedly skew the current PvP meta in unacceptable ways are stealth bombers, Tengus and Ishtars.
To begin with, a little nuance is in order. The aggravation voiced by CSM members and other public commentators is only directed at specific aspects of all three ships. For the readers who are not aware of what those are, I will quickly explain each one in turn.
These frigate-class ships can fit a covert-ops cloak and therefore offer the ability to warp while cloaked. What really makes them unique however, is the ability to fit battleship-size torpedo bays and bomb launchers. It is the latter feature in particular that is the focus of criticism. When employed in sufficient numbers, a swarm of bombers can decimate a battleship fleet with their area-effect bomb explosions. Since bomb damage depends on signature radius, they are particularly effective against shield-tanked battleships and battlecruisers. Consequently, this ship class is accused of constraining the nullsec fleet meta to ships of low signature, which means armour tank and ideally something smaller than a battleship. This brings us to our next two “problem ships”.
Like all strategic cruisers, the Tengu has many different potential configurations but there is only a very narrow selection of those which are considered to be overpowered (i.e., railgun fit versions). Using the full potential of T2 and faction ammo types, this type of ship can engage very effectively at a number of different ranges.Their damage output tends to be low and some specialized configurations have abysmal EHP levels, but again in large fleets they become very effective when maneuverability and low signature radius is a prime concern. Particularly in nullsec they gain an added advantage because of their immunity to warp-disruption bubbles, but it is the versatility of medium railguns which made them a focus for the rebalance demands.
In the times where long-range damage projection and small signature radius are the staple of many fleet concepts, the Ishtar is a logical choice. As the only one of two cruiser-sized ships that can launch a whole flight of sentry drones, the Ishtar offers both at the same time. Similarly to the Tengu, their individual damage output is nothing too impressive, but they compensate for that in several ways. First, their large drone bays offer them the ability to choose widely between different drone types and thus ranges, damage types and overall engagement profiles. The drone-assist mechanic also allows them to stay independent of the main battle and have others direct their drones for them. When used in that way, they can be very fast when fit with a shield tank, and that forces an enemy to deal either with them or with their drones because they can maneuver around the battlefield freely. The Ishtar is almost as much maligned as the stealth bomber when it comes to fleet operations because of its many advantages.
The Source Of The Problem
Each one of those ships has come to prominence because of certain prior developments. When it comes to stealth bombers there was one specific change which made them so incredibly easy to use in large numbers. The Crucible expansion (winter 2011) brought the change that cloaked ships would no longer de-cloak each other by proximity. The result was that coordinated bomber attacks became much easier, especially for multiboxers who could give the same commands to multiple bombers at the same time. Aptly enough, players predicted what would happen. In the meantime, CCP has declared input replication a bannable offense, but that has not stopped the bomber fleets of amassed individual pilots.
The same expansion also laid the foundation for the current rail-Tengu meta, but it took some time for that shift to come. Even during my last days in nullsec during 2013, many people considered it ridiculous to use railguns on the Tengu. Back in those days, the large fleet meta still dictated missiles. Despite them being sub-par in many PvP applications, their excellent long-range damage projection made them very successful in combination with 100MN afterburners. Incessant complaints by players eventually lead to a nerf of all heavy missile types and that was the beginning of the end for both the missile-fit Tengu and the Drake in the strategic fleets of nullsec.
The emergence of the Ishtar as premier fleet-PvP ship came comparatively late. The reason was twofold. During the HAC rebalance of 2013, the Ishtar received a specialized 7.5% bonus to sentry drone optimal range and tracking speed per level and an operation distance range bonus for all drones which had previously only applied to scout and heavy drones. Furthermore, its old drone-bay bonus per level was replaced with an increase of base drone capacity. All HACs also gained a reduction in microwarpdrive signature bloom. Those changes made the Ishtar a highly maneuverable dedicated long-range sentry platform especially when fitted with a shield tank.
Or Maybe Not?
You will probably have noticed one common theme when it comes to the supposed problems those ships cause for the PvP meta. They only manifest in major nullsec fleets when those ships are used in large numbers. Elsewhere, bombers either do not function the same way like in lowsec and highsec, or they are simply not used in such numbers like in wormhole space. Tengus are seen with entirely different configurations in wormholes, the only other place where they are widely used for PvP. There they are most likely to be armor-tanked ECM ships or cloaky short-range gankers. The Ishtar is also widely used in lowsec, but because fights there hardly ever escalate to the same numbers and feature a lot of smaller ships like frigates and destroyers, the effectiveness of sentry drones is reduced. An Ishtar fleet can be a tough force to fight, but hardly something lowsec players gripe about with the same regularity.
It is not a new phenomenon that nullsec theorycrafters design fleet doctrines which end up causing widespread calls for nerfs. The reason why the heavy missile launchers were reduced in range, for example, resulted from complaints that 100MN missile Tengus were overpowered. We had complaints about Drakes, Hurricanes, tracking titans, drones on dreadnaughts, drones on supercarriers and so forth. Each time the complaints came, they were, to a large extent from the players involved in nullsec fleet warfare. The irony is, that current problems are the result of similar protests. Players clamoured for medium railguns to be improved in performance, for HACs to become more useful and for cloaked ships to not decloak each other. In fact a recent attempt by CCP to make the latter undone was scrapped again after widespread objections.
There is a lot to be said for accepting feedback from the playerbase, but there is a major caveat when it comes to listening to the vocal crowd of nullsec players who mostly fly in massive fleets and tend to repeat the same grievances over and over again because of their strong group mentality: everything becomes overpowered when used in large numbers. Way back when, Goonswarm won against much more powerful fleets of experienced players by attacking with large numbers of T1 frigates. HERO coalition forces have recently achieved victory against Pandemic Legion in very similar ways. While the more elite players did complain about such tactics and still do, nobody would have called for nerfing the Rifter or Maulus because that would clearly be ridiculous. Asking for a more specialised or more powerful ship to be cut down a notch is much easier to rationalise, but in the end it is often just as baseless.
Manfred Sideous recently stated in his Cap Stable CSM interview that a form of apex force will always exist because players will try and find the most optimal way of fleet combat and use it to the utmost. Endie of Goonswarm said in a similar interview that the current state of affairs is largely due to the players gaming the system. Those two individuals can definitely be considered experts when it comes to strategic fleet warfare, and their statements show that nerfs will not help, they will only degrade ships for every other role except large fleets. Power creep is a danger for MMOs and developers need to be wary of its lure, but what we see in EVE these days threatens to become the opposite.
Now we might want to nerf Tengus, then the next ship that replaces them in the strategic doctrines, and the next and so forth. Major powers who can bring sufficient numbers of people in mediocre ships after every ship type has been weakened will just have to attract more people. Players will have to concentrate into ever larger forces to counteract a runaway nerfing tendency, and those who cannot or would not become part of a vast coalition are left with underperforming ships which are hardly feasible for anything but massive fleets. In addition to that, rising demand because of necessarily increasing numbers would also drive the prices of widely used ships up.
There’s Got To Be A Way, How Do We Kill It?
I will stop mincing words and say it right here: to cry for nerfs of ships which are widely used in large fleets is in many cases nothing but laziness. Of course there are ridiculous things like the doomsday-through-a-cyno of old or the fact that ISBoxer made it possible for one person to annihilate a battleship fleet by running a dozen bombers at the same time, but in most cases there are ways to counter an enemy doctrine. Often enough, players come up with them by themselves if CCP does not nerf ships. The CFC for example found a very good counter against the Pandemic Legion Navy Apocalypse doctrine used during the Fountain War by fielding sensor dampening platforms against them. Bombers could easily be reduced in effectiveness if people wouldn’t concentrate into dense fleets and anchor like they do, but rather fly in smaller groups and looser formations. Railgun Tengus can be damped or tracking disrupted, Ishtars are very vulnerable to hit-and-run attacks by smaller ships.
The main problem is, that in TiDi blob-warfare there is no room for such tactical diversity. The hundreds of people in each fleet should preferably fly a limited number of different doctrine ships because everything else becomes too difficult to manage at that scale. Furthermore, massive fleets often include many players with little experience in individual tactics and FCs compensate for that by keeping things simple. The only remedy would be smaller and more diverse fleets, but as long as there is no reason to scale such operations down, nothing will stop the continued emergence of a handful of doctrines which appear superior in comparison to others. If there really is a thing that needs to be curtailed in this game, then it is that tendency. No matter whether it is 1500 T1 frigates or 150 supercaps, the ever escalating N+1 game would have to be limited in one way or the other.
As proof of concept, I would not even have to look elsewhere but EVE itself. Places where PvP is subject to limiting factors tend to generate much less objection to ship performance. In wormhole space the limiting factor is mass. In lowsec it is the Factional Warfare plexes and the lack of bubbles and bombs. In highsec it is the aggression mechanics and the war-declaration system. In all those areas there are problems with finding satisfying PvP engagements, but none of them seem to result in a PvP population that is constantly calling for ship nerfs. In nullsec, there are no limits enforced by game mechanics and thus players develop their strategic fleets to a point where they become a limiting factor in themselves.
Instead of complaining that some ship is overpowered, the players of nullsec will have to take on board that their own organisational structure and fleet tactics are a major contributor in the creation of a small number of effective doctrines. Wormhole players for example, have long accepted that their fighting environment compels them to use certain ship types over others. They do not complain about it, but rather enjoy their signature PvP meta. Most importantly, I would implore CCP to remain continuously mindful of who they are listening to. Nobody in their right mind would consider nerfing Catalysts despite the endless stream of complaints by highsec players that they are too effective at suicide ganking. The same sober approach should be applied elsewhere as well. In the end, it is also much more rewarding for the players themselves if they come up with their own solutions, rather than being granted their wishes and become like spoiled children.
Tags: balancing, doctrine, nullsec, pvp, tarek
Former nullsec spy (no not under that name of course) and current failure at lowsec solo PVP, Tarek spends his time not logging in to the game as much as he keeps thinking about its social and metagame nature and sharing some of those thoughts with the CZ readers.