Friday, 7 December 2012

No Retribution for Old Drones


Retribution has been a largely well-received patch to EVE Online. I use the term "patch" deliberately as there hasn't really been any significant content added to constitute describing Retribution as an expansion. I'm not alone in this thinking - even CCP Soundwave described it as a "patch" on air during the New Eden Open.

But this is no bad thing. This third patch in a series of broad fixes over the last eighteen months has seen EVE Online's core gameplay and usability receive a lot of polish that was desperately needed in a game designed well over a decade ago. I've been particularly pleased with the introduction of the tracking camera, something I've long lobbied for here on Freebooted (see Fanfest Flashback: The Spectacle of Combat [April 2011], BB30: Director Mode [Nov 2011] So Beautiful, I Can't See It [May 2012]). It has received a lot of positive feedback too, so I can only hope that we might see more camera functionality and a suite of tools as described in those posts sometime in the future.

But not everything has been so universally embraced. The new Bounty Hunting system has seen a lot of folk getting upset on the forums, but this was predictable as people unaccustomed to the threat of PvP start looking fearfully to the skies as the targets on their heads grow. It looks to be an entertaining and emergent system which seems to be working as intended. It's certainly amusing. The revised Crimewatch system is neat and clear, although the soon to be fixed lack of persistence on the safety feature is a nuisance.

After a development period spanning almost a year, the Unified Inventory has finally achieved the degree of usability and flexibility to equal the system it replaced. I still feel it was a shame that some bad choices were made in its delivery and implementation, but we're through the worst of it now, so let's leave that one alone. Other areas of the UI have benefited from a facelift.

The revised soundscape adds a magnificent layer of immersive depth into New Eden, with a host of ambient noises and new effects to be heard. The dynamic music-scape heard in null-sec is fantastic - hugely atmospheric. I hope there are plans to introduce more regionalised personality to the soundtrack. There does seem to be a lack of bass in some of the new weapon sounds, making them sound weaker than before, which is a bit of a shame. The removal of the Jukebox has been a controversial decision, but CCP TorfiFrans did give reasons for this in a recent Devblog (see the section entitled "If thy jukebox offends thee, hack it off").

Time for Drones v2.0?

One of the most significant controversies arising from the Retribution changes, or at least the one causing the most noise on the EVE-O forums, is the AI changes to NPCs. Now less predictable, with some of the far more challenging Sleeper AI being implemented, NPC "rats" across New Eden have apparently taken to massacring players' drones. I've not yet had the opportunity to investigate this phenomenon, but anything that refreshes the tired mission system that CCP have no intention of improving upon sounds good to me.

Reports of the degree of anti-drone violence are varied, with primarily solo mission runners feeling the pinch. Many are complaining that the new AI behaviours have made drone boats non-viable as mission ships, whilst others are claiming that players simply need to adapt.

It may simply be those who can no longer sleepwalk through missions using drones as a passive DPS system who are being the most vocal, however this does throw light on an area of EVE's antiquated gameplay and UI that desperately needs some love. Improvements elsewhere in EVE are increasingly making drone-based gameplay the most prominent ugly sister. It would be great to see the following tweaks:

  • Improved Interface - With increasing need to micro-manage drones in time-critical combat situations, an intuitive means of doing so is desperately needed. The present drone interface - a right-click dropdown menu buried within a clunky drone management window - is awful. It would be great to see a clear and simple, button-driven panel allowing the organisation and command of flights on drones. A number of solutions spring to mind, all of which would be better than the existing system. See the below mock-up by Ruato (made in 2006!) for an example. [Edit: it should be noted that the existing keyboard shortcuts are an alternative drone control option, but that is no excuse for a diabolical UI.]

Circa 2006. The drone interface was considered bad even then!

  • Drone Fozzification - CCP Fozzie has done a great job of rebalancing many of the ships in EVE. Have drones been slated for review? Or are they considered to be fine as they are? Certain drone types remain as unused as many of the pre-tiericide frigates and cruisers, so I suspect there may be some work for He Who Juggles the Numbers.

  • V3 the Drones - These poor little fellas have long been overlooked for some visual love. First and foremost - give them engine trails, it'd look fantastic as they whizzed around and it'd mean that they'd exist as more than just a HUD "x" when viewed from a distance. Also, give them a redesign so they don't look so ridiculous when they fire sideways from their fixed forward-facing weapons.

  • Revised AI and In-Depth Drone Gameplay - If we've got to micromanage them, make it fun - perhaps making drone-based gameplay more involved. If the launch-and-forget days of mission farming are over, why not give the player a little more control over the behaviour of his drones. Beyond the passive/aggressive settings, why not allow the player to define more specific behaviours, from target priorities to range thresholds and tactics. Perhaps flights of drones could have a command drone within them to provide boosts, or maybe bonuses could be given for using particular formations (speed improvement for 'chevron' formation, accuracy boost for 'sphere', damage for 'cluster', etc.)

With no sign of CCP relenting on their singular focus on spaceships (they have now quietly and completely abandoned all work on avatar gameplay - read the final paragraph of CCP Unifex's October forum post), and will presumably press on with their programme of refinement and polish. Surely drones have to be on the to-do list somewhere.

[I've copypasta'd the drone-related portion of this article into the EVE-O Features & Ideas Discussion. Please take the time to go show your support for drone revisions by following this link to the thread and upvoting/commenting.]

25 comments:

  1. NPC Frigates are now death on your drones. Also dozens of NPC ships might unexpectedly decided to switch targets and alpha your drones. Letting your drones stray more than 10km from your ship is now usually a death sentence. If you lose your drones, which are the primary weapon system for ships such as the Dominix, you are doomed. Contrast with missile launchers and turrets which cannot be shot off your ship.

    I'm not against the new NPC AI in principle but I AM against adjusting the NPC AI but not adjusting the NPC missions.
    Example : Guristas missions are madness now. Permajammed and no chance to send drones after jamming ships as they will get slaughtered.

    I have leet skillz so I can handle the changes but new Gallente players who try to use drones are in for a world of hurt. Way to go CCP for making an entire race obsolete.

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  2. Cheers for the clarification Lodewijk.

    So if I'm understanding correctly, assigning drones to NPC targets a long way from your ship is likely to result in their destruction, making "sniping" drone boats ineffective. But what about close range stuff? Can droneboat "brawlers" work? If pilots must actively manage aggro on their drones, can this be mitigated by keeping them close and redeploying as required?

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  3. Yes keeping them close works up to a point. Some missions can deal so much alpha suddenly that you have no chance to rep or recall your drones even if close. And T2 drones are expensive so losing a few might as well not have bothered to do mission. New players won't be able to use sentries without training for a long time either and regular drones versus sniping PVE ships won't end well.

    Note that it is no longer possible to log off if under NPC fire so if you lose your light drones and scrambled by NPC frigates you are toast in battleship. Can't escape, can't log off.

    So it depends on the mission. Some are unaffected, but some are suicidal now. On a sidenote, lots of eve-survival tips now say to attack frigates with your drones which will lead to hilarious results :P

    I am speaking for the solo and the drone-user L4 mission runner perspective. These are not an insignificant part of CCP's clientbase, who are pretty miffed right now. In their war against bots they've totally overshot their goals and are griefing legitimate paying customers.

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  4. I heard a rumour that running EWAR on your mission boat (for example a target painter) increases your threat and reduces the likelihood that they'll go after your drones. Having not run any missions though, I can't say whether that's true or not.

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    1. Yes. Also RR the drones makes you logi so they hate you most.

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  5. Awwwwwwwwwwwwww... is the whole rest of New Eden finally getting some of that good ol Sleeper love? LOL

    Wormholers been accepting drone losses as a cost of doing business as 'twere... HTFU baby!! It's EVE! BUAHAHAhahahahahaha!!!

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    1. Wormholers also make a few MILLION isk in one site... one drone loss is meh. But if you lose a whole flight (unlikely in WH's) all that profit you would have had just went to new drones. Also, WH people are unlikely to run things solo.

      So STFU and don't think of just yourself think of everyone as a whole.

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  6. The trick WH pilots have been using for years is drop your drones, pull them back, and drop them again. The sleepers will no longer notice them. :ccp

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  7. AFAIK they are still working in team avatar. Nothing big told by now but some of the NDAed stuff from the coming CSM meeting might relate to that.

    Hopefully we see something for avatars in 2013. I'm almost certain we will but just almost.

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  8. @Chanina I meant to link to the announcement (and will fix that shortly), but CCP Unifex quietly announced on the forums in October that Team Avatar will no longer be working on avatar gameplay. He said:

    "The team worked together to put a pre-production and production plan together using what they had learned over the previous months and also the lessons learned from the Incarna efforts from last year.

    The result of that planning highlighted that right now, we do not have the time or people to build this without impacting what we can deliver for our players who are flying in space. To create this will mean a considerable investment which will take time to put together and also a new focus for us just at a time when we as a company have another new game coming into the EVE Universe (yes DUST 514, I’m looking at you).

    So, all that being said, we have a great concept to expand the EVE Universe but now is not the right time for us to take that step. It’s a step I very much want to take but I want to take it when it won’t mean removing developers and focus from flying in space. So, for the time being, watch this space with regards to exploration gameplay for EVE avatars. The Avatar team will now be turning its attention to features it can put out for EVE in our winter expansion and beyond."

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  9. I will send the SNS Space Potato to it's death this weekend then. Alas for that great (big fat) ship.

    On the upside - Retribution came through new drones. My single salvage drone on my miner turned up with 400k of Tripped Power Circuits on it's first run out.

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  10. I'm not against NPC aggro switching. But, if drones have to be such a pain to be used, so should every other weapon system. Let NPCs shoot off turrets as well. Let's hear some of that HTFU now!

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  11. @Anonymous - Now that's a great idea. Critical hits and subsystem targeting to take out specific turrets and modules would be fantastic.

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  12. Anon said...

    "...make a few MILLION isk in one site... one drone loss is meh."
    "...lose a whole flight (unlikely in WH's)"
    "WH people are unlikely to run things solo."
    "So STFU..."

    LOL (1) try 100 million...
    (2) have lost multiple whole flights, I re-load 'em like ammo, cause that's what they are...
    (3) Run C3's solo allatime...

    You shouldn't type and show your everyone ignorance... =]

    Matt... Sleepers switch targets but, they 'tend' to concentrate on the highest DPS or largest sig radius 1st, and drones, if they provide a significant to large part of your DPS will draw their attentions the same way... and they flat HATE logi and Ewar, Webbers etc.

    I have lived exclusively in holes for going on 2 years... launch > return > launch does not save them... launch at distance does not save them, launch in their face, does not save them... What we do DO, is pull em as soon as they get aggro... try and keep the damage limited to shields if you can, carry enough to have 2 flights and cycle em allowing time to regen... bu, you'll still lose some with the higher class Sleeper AI even that aint enough...

    Wipe your tears, tell em yer proud of em... and send them to their fate.

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  13. I just experimented in a L4 Worlds Collide mission with my missioning Rattlesnake (had to blow the dust off). I found it a little more involved, making tactical decisions to switch between drone types to avoid damage and exploit weaknesses in the NPC fleet. I tried sentries and an assortment of other drones of all sizes. I quite enjoyed the challenge and didn't lose any drones.

    It certainly wasn't a quick process though, so I can imagine the min-maxers will hate it because it hurts their ISK/hour ratio. But I couldn't care less about how quickly the ISK comes in - it was a more engaging tactical experience. If it took me all evening to crack a single L4 mission, but I enjoyed it, then it's time well spent.

    Mindless ISK-chasing is a soulless experience in my opinion.

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  14. Target painters work well. After losing many drones with a web on my Abaddon, I swapped it for a target painter, then painted any ship that I sent my drones after, or, if I could tell which ship was attacking my drones, I would paint that one.

    I still had to recall drones, and some still got injured, but I lost none this time. The new rats really do hate EWAR, and TPs have much better range than webs.

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  15. "...it was a more engaging tactical experience."

    "Mindless ISK-chasing is a soulless experience in my opinion."

    Quoted for Truth...

    THIS is why I treat my Drones like ammo... they are 'smart weapons' but still just weapons. I try and use them to best effect, but in the end 'him' a dead wreck I can salvage is the conclusion I am looking for... how fat the wallet grows come after.

    Kudos Matt!

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  16. @TurAmarth: "how fat the wallet grows come after."

    But you're still expecting that your wallet _does_ grow fatter in the end. And being in a WH, you have a nice safety margin here.

    Mission runners on the other hand operate on a much smaller profit margin. I would not be surprised if there are missions which drone-pilots simply can't run anymore for a living because they'd always lose ISK on them.

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  17. I haven't done any Security Missions in a very long time so i've just been reading various player's account of attack of the updated NPC's in missions with the Sleeper AI added to all EVE NPC's. As well, watching in Help Chat in game and seeing people groan about their Drones getting slaughtered.

    Reading the comments as well I can't but help think back to my time when I used to be an active Tank in WoW for years. And maybe I'm incorrect here, but what this seems to appear to me is the NPC AI now more selectively acting on Threat Aggro Mechanics or what they perceive as higher threat to themselves from player source whether it be player ships, use or EWAR or their player ship drones.

    Its seems to remind me of when I used to Tank in WoW, Raid/Dungeon Bosses and their cronies. They will go after whomever they have the highest threat on them and whomever while tanking rises above the highest level of the primary threat maker, changing target to that source other than the tank. Group healers was always considered a high threat source to the NPC target due to their healing skills and dumping all that healing on the tank. As well high dps players with lots of dps to surpass the tank threat level on active target since tank often had lower dps but made up for it with abilities generating threat to target to maintain aggro control of the NPC's.

    Thinking of this in EVE as it relates to the new NPC AI, while there are not necessarily threat abilities as like what a WoW Tank has to generate Threat on target maybe the new EVE NPC's perceive threat in some similar way. Maybe the use of EWAR does causes something to similar effect if and when used on the NPC target as well. In EVE I guess you can say maybe the use of EWAR or things like Target Painters while adding more dps, maybe somehow generate more likely perceived Threat to the NPC AI as vs just going after the Drone who may not be the source of the actual EWAR.

    Thus maybe having enough threat on the target NPC before you throw Drones on it helps to lesses NPC threat to them before they are killed eventually. So maybe the use of EWAR on the NPC target somehow likely helps generate more threat (somehow) to the NPC target while doing damage and keeps the NPC from slaughtering your Drones but more DPS as well on target.

    Maybe i'm totally incorrect, but thats what it seems like to me reading other account of how the NPC's seem to act.

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  18. Druur, you may be right... I gave up missioning back almost 2 years ago when we found C2 sites paid better and were more fun than World Collide, my fav mish in Empire at that time. And, as a Matari, I have never been greatly invested in drones... they have always been add on DPS or a way to have some Ewar w/o losing a mid I needed for shields...

    Ardent, I feel you may the right of it... mostly. But they do aggro switch across multiple targets sometimes seemingly at random and also occasionally focus fire (which the higher class do more and more of and better at it too)... Overall thier aggro does 'seem' to be tied mainly to Ewar/Logi/highest DPS and mostly in that order... and they do seem to focus fire on drones a bit more as they seem to know (IE are coded so) they can take down drones quickly and get back to working on the ships.

    But... they will also concentrate on "soft targets " regardless of value. When Mab and I were trying Ventures out for the first time I had 2 Salver Droans with me to try out...

    When the Sleepers spawned to defend the Grav site, Mab and Spiral reshipped to Ducks but I stayed in my Venture and very easily speed tanked the Sleepers, never saw a jot of red even in shields. But as long as I was on site “I had full aggro”... an 'unarmed' and 'untanked' ship which the Sleepers could NOT hit at any range as long as I was at speed (2600ms/CAP stable) and all the while 2 Ducks were hammering on them.

    I lost my 1st 2 salvage drones because they got full aggro from the Sleepers when I set them on the 2st wreck, again ignoring the Drakes killing them... so go figger huh?

    No please don't get me wrong, I sorta 'feel' for the guys moanin’ out there, it's a change and a big one for them, and change often hurtz... but

    (1) we been dealing with Sleeper AI for years... and
    (b) I also believe that CCP is doing their job when they "Stir the Pot"...

    CHANGES generate INTEREST and keep thing NEW... EvE is not a game for those who want a static, dull, unchanging game they can 'game' (as a verb) w/o risk... Risk = EvE.

    CCP is just doing their job to keep us on our toes... keep us interested... and to keep giving us something new to do and learn and try and win against...

    A course, this does give me cause to pause to wonder what is next for holes... Scary thought that is... =]

    Kudos CCP.

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  19. Good article that has spawned useful discussion on surviving the new drone AI. Agreed also that v3 drones would continue the trend of MOAR PRETTY that I've so enjoyed.

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  20. Great post. Personally I think the biggest issue is really the UI. There are so many things wrong with the drone UI at the moment. The truth is it's actually a good example of what's wrong with the EVE UI as a whole. Right clicking to reveal a menu of commands? In the future? Really?

    That aside a revamp of the drone UI if done properly could add additional gameplay, and increase the enjoyment of using drones (is there any now?). Possibly even creating a greater sense of immersion in a futuristic space travel environment where robots with guns do your bidding. With the current state of the UI, I'm just not feeling it. :(

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  21. Remote repping your drones seems to be the best way ATM, while throwing in some ewar at the same time (target painters being reasonably useful at the same time).

    I've now run a good number of missions in the last 2 days and lost only two drones of mine. And I wasn't paying much attention at the time. ;)

    Haven't found/run Worlds Collide yet.

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  22. I think that is a good thing but annoying. afk mission running, afk plexing, boting is harder. Good thing

    annoying yes... will i adapt yes, did i adapt after losing three drones yes

    if you are solo mission running, you see a ship that is not longer locked on you and you kill it... when you are not solo, well

    some kind of indication of which ships are attacking the drones would help a long way for mission runners...

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  23. Simukz said... "some kind of indication of which ships are attacking the drones..."

    Not hard, if yhou are solo, very not hard... watch your drones shields & armor, if one starts to go down check which NPC's no longer have you RED boxed, they have switched aggro to your drones leaving you yellow boxed.

    I make 2 to 3 attack groups, lauch a full group and then pull individual drones when they show RED shields back to bay and launch one from one of the other attack groups... this gives the drones shield time to regen.

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Lay it on me.