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).
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.