Formation Combat: Relevant or Redundant?

Combat is central to much of EVE's gameplay, from simple 1v1s to massive blob(fleet) clashes. Despite the depth of preparation options in ship fitting and fleet composition, the engagements themselves play out in a fairly predictable way. A target is selected and pilots scramble to achieve their optimal weapon ranges to settle into an orbit and achieve the highest speed possible to reduce incoming fire. Of course there are other subtleties to consider, especially in multiple ship engagements, but that is the basic essence.

I've just been having an engaging and thought-provoking Twitter conversation involving @Mandrill, @SpaceKazz, @CCP_Sisyphus, @ktouborg (CCP Soundwave), @DrVerikan and others, but the limitations of 140 characters was making the discussion difficult.

Would some kind of formation mechanic add any depth to the combat experience?

Personally, I'm not convinced that preset formations would be of value, however what about the simple introduction of a 'match speed and direction of target' option? We already have a 'keep at range' option, but this simply makes the ship attempt to move directly away from the target then perform all kinds of ridiculous and unsafe manoeuvers at slows speeds to maintain the distance. As a result, it is pretty useless.

If the ability to match speed and heading to a friendly or enemy target were available, how might this impact on existing gameplay options?

If the mechanic was kept simple and the onus was on the pilot to reach the appropriate range before hitting the button, pilot skill and situational awareness and knowledge would still be a key factor. The decision remains with the pilot on what distance would be of use, but once that had been achieved, the ability to shadow another ship in this manner may have applications.

Fleet Arrangement
A blob is so-called because it is a disorganised collection of ships, fleeted together but arranged pretty much at random in a spherical formation. Being able to match speed and direction could give rise to more thoughtfully arranged blobs with central or back-line sniping ships, outlying tacklers, vulnerable ships placed appropriately before an engagement begins. It would be key that the formation holds together through warp, but it would allow a more tactical spread of ship types to be able to execute an attack plan with a “playbook formation”. Of course, once the combat itself begins, all hell will break loose and the individual pilots will have to respond accordingly.

This could give rise to American Football style set plays, all laid out the moment a fleet comes out of warp, with ready-placed bait ships, micro-jump drive enabled frontline squads, well-placed sniping support and other subtleties.

Follow the Leader
Being able to match speed and heading to the FC could make fleet movement more user friendly. It would provide an alternative way of aligning a fleet to the next jump point. Once a fleet pilot has jumped through a stargate, he could manually align to the designated destination, or align with the FC. The speed matching would prevent faster ships from straying too far from the fleet. Of course, if the FC is in a rapid vessel, he would need to consider slower fleet members.

Mirrored Behaviour
A distant target is only an icon on the screen and an entry in the overview. Without CCP T0rfiFrans' promised picture-in-picture functionality, it is difficult to determine what the target might be up to unless you want to decipher the transversal and velocity data in the overview columns. Having a pilot in fleet who is mirroring the target's behaviour might give early warning to his intentions.

In conclusion, could such a mechanic provide any additional depth to the build-up to an engagement, or even to the combat itself? Is there an application for manual formations enabled by a 'match speed and alignment' function? Or does it “make EVE too easy” as some have suggested? There are undoubtedly other applications that players might exploit.

I'd welcome your input.