Rethinking Nullsec

Nullsec is broken. It’s clear to everyone directly involved in nullsec and to anyone else who’s paying attention. It’s been broken for years, and what we’re seeing today is simply the result of those problems being allowed to grow unchecked.

Some of this is our fault as players. We’ve gotten good at this game, and our organizations have gotten even better. Anytime CCP throws some new problem at us, we’re superb at figuring out a way to overcome or bypass it. We’ve taken it to the point where the amount of time and effort devoted to keeping nullsec working is simply beyond the ability of most players, and few organizations are left that can keep up.

Still, it’s not fair to blame the players here. Players will always eventually end up playing optimally within the game mechanics, regardless of whether those mechanics are detrimental to the game as a whole. In small games, the community can often prevent this, but as a player base expands the community norms lose power and game mechanics take over.

Most of nullsec's current circumstances are the result of old problems. Some, such as alliance sprawl, go back as long as we’ve had alliances, but the worst of it can be traced to Dominion.

In 2009, CCP deployed Dominion sovereignty and supercapitals. Shortly prior to that, fleet broadcasting was added, which made logistics ships work properly; when combined with the removal of AOE doomsday, this made them viable as on-grid repair ships. Since then, these three systems have been continually troublesome and have only been touched when they were so game breaking that they could not be ignored.

When these problems were young, small tweaks would have sufficed to fix them. Today they are so entrenched that all but the most draconian of nerfs can be bypassed through sheer force of will and manpower. Eve as we know it today in nullsec is the same game we were playing five years ago, and we’re too good at it.

What the game needs is not small fixes or tweaks to slightly broken systems. Eve needs radical change. CCP needs to take an axe to the problematic systems rather than continuing to apply lipstick to pigs. They need to throw away boring gameplay and drop in something that is at the very least not so thoroughly understood.

On Difficulty

The typical and obvious response to problematic mechanics is to make them harder. It's the simplest way to deal with the problem. Under many circumstances it results in a simple, sane, and correct solution. In the competitive arena that is nullsec, however, it tends to be counterproductive.

The most recent example of this is the 50% increase to cap fuel usage. This change is directly targeting the major coalitions that regularly abuse their capital fleets for cross-galaxy engagements at short notice. As far as actually hurting them, it’s not really meaningful. They have the income to support it - and their pilots don’t pay for their own fuel anyways - so what do they care about fuel costs?

Those actually being hurt by this change are the smaller groups that can’t afford to fund their member’s fuel costs. The major coalitions are happily bouncing around the galaxy while "lesser" organizations are watching the costs pile up. All while the pilots operating their capitals for personal use are being punished for a problem they have no part in.

This is a typical result of CCP's attempts to balance nullsec. When things are made more difficult, it doesn’t slow down the isk- and player-heavy coalitions; instead, it prevents the weaker groups from being able to compete. Those weaker groups then have to make the difficult choice of either disbanding and joining other groups, allying themselves with stronger groups (coalitions), or being crushed by their competition.

Making things harder simply reduces the number of groups that can compete. Real fixes require making the activity unnecessary rather than trying to punish those who use it.

Admittedly, this is an argument that has been made before. But it is necessary to understand how we got here, why so many of the attempted fixes have failed, how to go about fixing them, and why this isn’t something that can be solved with a few tweaks.

There are four main problems at the root of things, all years old. Those big four are capital ships, remote repairs, sovereignty, and nullsec income models. None of them stand alone - they are so deeply intertwined that a change to any one of them will reverberate through them all.

Capital Ships

The Mittani wrote an excellent article entitled ‘Apex Force’ covering this particular part of the problem. Of the big four, this is probably the best understood, with anyone taking an honest outside look agreeing that it’s a problem. As such, I’m going to skip it here and assume in everything coming up that it has been properly fixed.

Remote Reps

The least addressed problem has been remote reps. Since they were first brought into fleet doctrines, they’ve been a problem that has steadily grown. The problems they bring up have previously been discussed by FearlessLittleToaster.

The first question any FC asks when they form a fleet is “Do I have enough logis?” It has become an absolute requirement to have sufficient logistics ships to keep your fleet alive - you know your opponent will be trying to do the same. Once a fleet has sufficient logistics, the only way to defeat it is to do enough damage to ensure a kill before logis can lock and cycle reps. This has led to an arms race between tank and damage, with fleets using tankier ships to attempt to survive the incoming alpha-strike - and more ships to ensure alpha-strike kills.

This single effect, more than anything, has driven fleet sizes upwards. By setting a minimum time-to-kill before a target becomes effectively unkillable, players are forced to bring enough damage to win that race. Years of EHP inflation has only served to drive that minimum damage higher.

It’s not just large fleet fights where they’re problematic. Nowhere is the problem of remote reps more obvious than in small scale fighting. CCP themselves recognize this problem officially in the rules of the alliance tournament by restricting teams to a single remote repair ship. The only type of logistics that aren’t a major imbalancer are the T1 frigate logis, which die easily enough to not be an issue.

Much of the difficulty with carriers and supercarriers is their infinitely (i.e. until the server breaks) scalable spider repair capability. While eliminating the spider tank is not sufficient to fix them, it is part of what is required to do so.

Along with the problems logistics cause, they’ve also taken much from us. Prior to logistics, weak, expendable fleets could crash into much larger, more valuable fleets with the opportunity to at least inflict some damage, sometimes managing to to come out ahead despite being completely wiped out.

With the rise of logistics, this is no longer possible. A weak fleet that attacks a stronger fleet faces massacre without inflicting any damage at all. If your fleet doesn’t have enough damage, or doesn’t have enough logistics, engaging is a waste of time; the terrible outcome is all too predictable. There is no longer any logic behind saying “screw it, we’re going to lose but we’re going to take some of them with us.”

There seem to be only two reasonable ideas for dealing with the problem of remote reps.

The first and simplest is to nerf the tank on logistics ships. At the very least, an FC could maybe kill enough of them to come out ahead. I’m not really a fan of this because it doesn’t significantly change fights, it just ensures that logistics die, and die early, rather than nothing dying.

The second (and more interesting option) is to end in-combat reps entirely. Simply disallow the remote repair of ships that have the 60 second aggression timer. A new shorter timer might be viable, but the existing timer is pretty close. I’m sure many of you will be groaning at this, but please bear with me.

While the removal of AOE doomsdays made the biggest difference, the addition of broadcasts set the stage by making it possible for logistics to quickly lock those who needed repairs. Prior to broadcasts, logistics were still used in a so-called pit-crew mode. The logistics would set up at a POS or in a safespot for damaged ships to warp to, get repairs, and re-enter the fray.

Under that model, tacklers were much more important, as was manual piloting. Being able to prevent the target from warping out was key to getting kills. On the other side, the defending pilot’s skill mattered too. Instead of keeping at range on an anchor and broadcasting for repairs, the defending pilot had to worry about how they were going to warp out and if it was even possible. Far more player ability was required to stay alive, and the number of pilots able to escape and return to the fight made a difference.

It would be silly to take an entire class of ship and force them to sit at a POS during fights, though. They need a new role, one that adds to the fight rather than nullifying it. Their overall place doesn't need to change too much - supporting the work of the main fleet is and should remain their job.

Instead of remote reps, give them new "assistance modules", with logistics having hull bonuses to all of them. Add remote armor/shield hardeners, which allow the targeted ship to survive longer, but do not prevent an inevitable death. CCP could create highslot versions of remote sensor boosters and tracking links, allowing logistics to use them without ruining their fit. Even things like remote damage boosters may be a good idea. There are numerous other possibilities to allow logistics more diverse roles in a fight.

With logistics having a bevy of options for on-field assistance as well as remaining important for pit-crew work, the removal of in-combat reps wipes out some of the worst problems facing fleet fights without making logistics unimportant.

One flaw in this plan: bombs. Bomber harassment would result in the eventual death of any fleet as long as they dropped a bomb at least once every minute. As bombers are already troublesome enough, being hit by a bomb probably shouldn’t trigger the no-reps timer.

There is a possible variation on an aggresson timer based mechanic, which is to implement a stacking penalty instead. This eliminates the bomber issue, but would require capital remote reps to have reduced repair amounts on subcaps. Otherwise, the problem of logistics ships just becomes the problem of triage carriers, further expanding the gap between the big and small alliances.

The idea of removing in-combat reps entirely is a bit extreme, but radical change is what is needed. Even if such a radical change proves impractical, remote reps are a major problem that needs to be dealt with.

Just another evil goon.