Friday, November 9, 2012

The Permaproblem

Last week, CCP Fozzie made a post on the Features and Ideas section of the Eve Online forums introducing a series of E-war changes being proposed for Retribution.  Many of you have been actively chiming in on these changes in the comments, which is awesome.   I'm happy that the developers are taking the time now rather than later to tweak these modules, because of the fact that so many of the rebalanced ships depend on them for their primary role.  Damps need love, TD needs tweaking, TP's are still useless for a lot of things, but the real discussion here for me centers around what are arguably the most controversial module in the game - ECM.  I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and I wanted to take some time and share my concerns about these changes.

As I've spoken to Fozzie about, I really don't like flat out nerfing ECM even as a temporary holdover.  I think its masking the underlying problem - ECM isn't a particularly interesting mechanic in a lot of ways.  First of all - unlike other E-war modules, ECM is binary - it either works or it doesn't.  And when it does function - it's effects last for a fixed period of time (20 seconds), a variable which does not change whether the effect is applied by an ECM drone or an ECM module.

I presume as most would that when ECM was originally designed by the developers, the random success rate of its application was a response to the fact that its effect was fixed, and there needed to be some way of modulating it through skills, rigs, and other upgrades.  The result is that using ECM drones or an ECM module is like playing a slot machine - and the more you upgrades you have, the better chance you have of hitting the jackpot.   This is something that is almost completely unique in EVE's mechanics - the only other example I can think off of the top of my head is the success rate of the "mini-professions" codebreaking, analyzing, and salvaging.  Everything else you can do is a direct result of piloting skill, the only random element is what your enemy brings to the table.

Compounding the fact that ECM relies on waiting for a dice roll is the frustration for the victim once a jam is successful - he is now out of the fight for 20 seconds - quite a length of time in a gang situation.  And 1 vs 1?  In solo PvP, one lucky successful jam can allow a much weaker ship to toast his attacker before he can fight back - lending to its popularity on even non-bonused ships.  No other module is as powerful at tipping the scales in a pilot's favor.  Team Game of Drones is approaching this by introducing new skills to increase your sensor strength and resistance to jamming - but this doesn't affect the fact that one lucky diceroll is as powerful as the effect doled out by griffins and blackbirds.  

Griffins, Kitsunes, Blackbirds, and Caldari recon ships are bonused heavily enough for success rate and have enough midslots that they can chain these lockdowns one after another, essentially increasing the chance of getting that lucky dice roll not by how you throw the die, but by simply grabbing larger handfuls of dice.  This doesn't even need Caldari ships, either - any gang can load up on ECM drones and form a cloud around an opponent and keep them "permajammed".

From the slot machine mechanic, to the fact that players are mostly frustrated by jam *duration* not just how often you get jammed, I think there are far more elegant solutions to this than simply making you get jammed less often.  Increasing sensor strength through has other ramifications too - like hiding your ships from probes.   It would be easier for Fozzie to just reduce the success rate of the modules than implement skills to do the same thing (and he'd skip on the side effects).

Personally, I'd much rather a plan be put in place to have jam length reduced by sensor strength, and have ECM drone functionality match that of ECM Burst modules - breaking locks, but not having a fixed-duration jam.  This creates a synergy between scan resolution dampening (which slows lock times) and the ability to pop locks, to create the "permajam" effect players only have to roll the dice for right now.  Drone users, additionally,  could make use of shorter jam periods to relock, switch targets before getting jammed again. It would also justify the new skill addition by having sensor strength be more valuable an attribute than simply reducing the opponent's chances of a jam. 

The real benefit of this is that in large scale fleet situations, more ECM ships and larger clouds of ECM drones could still permajam a key enemy vessel, but that in smaller situations, being jammed wouldn't take you out of the fight for the often-deadly 20 second window.   If you could start relocking immediately, or even in 5 or 10 seconds, your survivability rate goes up substantially.    This takes care of the scaling issue in a tangible way.  This doesn't remove the current usefulness of ECM as "chaff" dumped out to interfere with kiting enemies that are keeping you from an escape, but it does mean that one really unlucky dice roll won't negate the years of time you've spent learning to duel in frigates.

My main concern here is this - there doesn't appear to be any such plan for the future of ECM, other than this current fix.   I suspect that a lot of this has to do with the fact that ECM already is out of place in EVE Online as a random effect, and the devs would prefer to replace it entirely with something thats works more similarly to other forms of E-war.  The difficulty of coming up with a compelling replacement probably led to this weaker short-term solution, out of reluctance to further commit to the random model.  The result is what we've seen posted so far: essentially a shot of morphine to ECM victims, but not the true fix that ECM really needs.

My advice to the development team is this: chance-based doesn't have to be a dirty word in game design. Don't let perfect be the enemy of the good, in this case.  Take poker, for instance.  Poker is a game with a random element - you have zero control over the cards you are dealt.  But the individuals who end up in the tournaments every year are not by any means random.  If we give players the ability to have more control over the situation despite the "unlucky draws"  built in to ECM, we can create a more skill-based mechanic without needing to face the scary prospect of throwing it all out and starting over.   

Modulating jam length based on sensor strength and killing the 20-second lockdown on drones are both popular player proposals. They address many of the frustrations that players have with both ECM as a game mechanic, as the frustrations many of you have right now with the prospect of new "mandatory" skills to inject and invest time in.

If you've got other amazing ideas, I'm all ears (just post them in the forum thread too).   But I think we all need to send the message to CCP that band-aids aren't the way to go with something that is as critical as damage and logistics in fleet compositions....let's take the time to make this truly more interesting and fun.


  1. Fozzie said again and again there are future plans for radical ECM changes, so how the fuck do you claim that there are no such plans u whining excuse for a CSM member.

    1. To be fair, Hans did write this:

      "The difficulty of coming up with a compelling replacement probably led to this weaker short-term solution, out of reluctance to further commit to the random model."

      Which is a strong suggestion that more radical plans are in store for ECM, and what we're seeing is simply a band-aid fix for the intervening time period.

    2. As an ECM pilot. (just cause I like the total randomness of my survivability) I really am not a big fan of band aid fixes, as I find it ends up always going too far and the "proper" solutions take much longer to be implemented since the issue is not a hot topic anymore. (and since people hate ECM any subsequent buff to it is very difficult to sell to the populace)

    3. Oh, I think CCP plans on doing something, someday, but they don't have any current agreed-upon plan that is merely set back by technical issues. If they do, they haven't shared them yet with the CSM for feedback, and Fozzie is usually the first to do so. The fact that he's not committing to anything internally is a sign that CCP is still very much trying to figure out what they want to do with this module, regardless of the confident-sounding public messaging.

      And as long as that debate is still going on, that means its the perfectly appropriate time to give them feedback on what those radical changes should look like. But frankly, the players have already given them sensible ways to make ECM more interesting and fun that DONT require a radical overhaul. My issue is that CCP is often either too ambitious (and postpones good change because its daunting) or too touch-and-go, patching something lightly and throwing it back in the drawer only to get distracted by another project. The recent proposal to ECM mechanics is a perfect example of this ongoing trend.

    4. "too ambitious" and "too touch-and-go" sound more diplomatic than lazy and inconsistent =)
      I think your solution is an interesting way to fix binary mechanics by looking at the non-binary elements of the equation. I'm just disappointed CCP is once again showing an inability to think through their solutions.

  2. This is exactly the sort of post you should be writing on all the major Retribution features. This is transparency. It lets people know where you stand on each feature and how it was implemented by CCP.


  3. The problem I see with the ECM 1v1 comments is this. An ECM ship stands no chance vs any other ship unless they have the ability to permajam the enemy. I was in a BB fighting a merlin and even though I had him permajammed (and thus could escape anytime) I could not break his tank with my launchers and was basically a stalemate with wasting ammo. I had to break off the engagement as I did not want his friends to get on grid and basically end it for us. Reducing my ECM chances will further mess with this very small survivability rate as BBs already have.

    1. This is an excellent point, and another reason I don't like the flat nerf to jam chance.

      Just as the randomness is a clunky way to modulate a binary effect, the effect itself is so powerful that making ECM ships paper thin is also the only real good option for balancing against it. Hopefully in the long run ECM will be adjusted such that some of the core survivability of the platforms themselves can be increased and allow ECM users more time on the battlefield enjoying the game.

    2. It is kinda lame to give rl examples but this is what i would base an ecm ship->

      It is basically a toned down fighter but still has a bite, much more expensive and requires more training (and +1 crew but not related to eve sadly). Maybe a falcons/rooks mid slots can be reduced but its base tank and firepower can be increased as u say. But I also wonder how much of current falcon issues can be traced back to its cloaking ability.

  4. I would simply dump ECM (and ECCM) as a failed mechanic.

    Get back to sensor damps as the methodology of screwing up opponents ability to deliver damage.

    1. There is nothing "failed" about ECM. Like every other EW module out there there are a perfectly useful series of medium and lowslot modules, implants and other ways around them. People refuse to use them, so people die to ECM.

    2. But ECM is NOT a failed mechanic. People are just too whiny because they engage a target expecting it to be 1 way, and are surprised when it has ECM backup. But that ECM backup could just as easily be a logi/t3 or anything else. Nobody has ever engaged a group with a known ECM ship in it and not expected to be jammed. It's the people that are unprepared that are the ones claiming it's OP and that it doesn't work.

  5. The biggest change they could make to ECM is to alter the boats specialized for it. Specifically their speed. Maybe, shave some of the fitting space off of ECM boats.

    I respect that EVE needs a force multiplier like ECM, otherwise it's just "who brings more wins". The problem is that in SMALL groups it is too difficult to deal w/ both the opposing fleet AND their ECM. ECM boats have spectacular range, and can be built for speed. Thus they are difficult to catch, and once you have caught them they will just ECM your interceptor (the person, not the ship) because you can't send more than one guy in a 4 v 4 to go deal with the ECM boat.

    Either shave off fitting, capacitor, or build in a speed module penalty of some kind (cap, fitting) to make MWDs difficult to run at the same time you are running ECM. That way they will be more a part of the fight, and less a really annoying spectator. There is even some realworld (meaning an RP explanation) for this change, in that most EW devices on a military scale (not talking cellphone jammers here) are built in to LARGE / SLOW MOVING planes and ships.

    Frankly, we rarely muster groups larger than 4, and any ECM boat other than the Falcon is no real threat. Between cap-kill, ECCM, FOF missiles, if you can't find a way to deal with Griffins and Blackbirds then you shouldn't be griping that ECM is too strong. You should be griping that you're bad.

    Also... where are all of these gripes coming from? As someone who loses probably a ship a day I can't remember the last time one of my fights was ruined by ECM.

    If I had a dime for everytime I've lost a small, fast, agile ship to an insta-locking T3 though..... (shakes fist in rage)

  6. One way to get the ECM effect to be less binary than it is now is to, rather than reducing maximum targets to 0, instead reduce it by an amount based on the strength of the ECM. If your maximum targets is 10 and you get hit by a weak ECM, maybe you go down to 7. If your max is 4 and you get hit by a strong ECM cycle, then you go down to 0 (much like the current system).
    I admit that it doesn't fix the 1v1 situation but it's a start. Can others work with this?

  7. ECM pulses *should* act like a field around the ship/s that has a random chance to deter missiles. This is an active defense module just like a shield booster etc.

    my other choice for what to do with ECM... is to have it VISUALLY impact your UI/HUD and interfere with its actual display...

    The intensity/number of these effects is dictated by the strength of the jam vs target sensor strength.

    stuff effected:-

    chance to
    Switching off:- shield armor hull readout

    swtich off/interfere with:- ability to see who is locking you.

    Tactical overlay malfunction/flicker.

    Switching off/flickering brackets.

    Switching off/flickering your ewar effect icons.

    switching off/slowing overview colum update speed.

    this sort of thing would have a more visceral effect on actual combat... and IMO would be a more realistic addition to the game as a whole...
    its the kind of module that *should* ask more of a pilots skill in order for them to operate under its effects, rather than effectively deny them participation in the fight.