Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Location, location, location!

In the cat-and-mouse game that is lowsec piracy, location is everything. Here's what that means, from a pirate's perspective:

Jump gates. Several elements are significant when fighting at jump gates. First, the presence of sentry guns, even at lowsec jump gates, determines the circumstances under which one might engage. We outlaws are at a disadvantage at jump gates, as anyone may freely fire at us with no penalty, while we ourselves will incur sentry gun fire if we initiate hostilities against a pilot who is not an outlaw. Gate-campers typically trust in their defenses to shield them from the combined power of their target and the sentry guns, but pirates in frigates are generally out of the fight.

All of my mates are outlaws; if one of us is attacked at a jump gate, the rest of us must let him sink or swim on his own. Even a fellow corp member in our gang who is in distress may not benefit from our back-up; were we to engage a ship that has attacked him, we are guilty of "assisting an outlaw" and the sentry guns open fire. This is why a law-abiding pilot at a jump gate may find himself utterly ignored by a menacing fleet of outlaws in light ships.

The second element to consider when fighting at a jump gate is the "cool down" period enforced by jump gate operators. Simply stated, no ship is cleared to jump through unless he has avoided all combat activity for at least 60 seconds. For the gate-camper, this may mean that one must be able to destroy the target before the target reaches jump range of the gate; otherwise, the target may simply approach the gate and jump through, while the attacker must cool down for 60 seconds, allowing the prey ample time to escape. For this reason savvy pirates will have a tackler on the other side of the gate. These mechanics encourage fast, agile ships; the attackers need ships that can quickly and lock onto their prey, while the supposed victim needs a ship that can quickly align and enter warp before being tackled.

There are several ways to defeat gate camps in lowsec, particularly the ill-prepared ones. Most effective is a cloaking device: simply give the order to align to your next destination, then immediately activate your cloak; when aligned, deactivate the cloaking device and engage your warp engines. This makes it difficult for the hostile ships to lock their target in time. Another useful technique is to make use of warp core stabilizers; campers can only tackle you, then, if their combined warp disruption capability is more than your warp core strength. Very fast ships may find it easy to simply speed out of tackle range before warping off, while moderately agile ships (especially ones with some significant tank) might opt to make best speed back to the gate and return from whence they came.

In spite of these obstacles to lucrative PVP at jump gates, gate-camping and fights of opportunity at jump gates remain popular. The reason for this is that ships at gates are simply vulnerable. To go from one system to another, most ships have to approach and jump through a jump gate. Canny lowsec survivors that are aware of the pilots in local and move from safe spot to safe spot just can't avoid passing through these choke points if they wish to leave the system. Add to this the extra vulnerability of outlaws, and one can understand why much anti-pirate and pirate-on-pirate action takes place at jump gates.

Stations. Certain pilots seem to specialize in fighting within docking range of space stations. This combat style requires patience and the ability to capitalize on one's opponent's mistakes. Space stations share several elements with jump gates, in that pilots may escape the fight even if tackled, there is a 60-second cool-down period to enter a space station, ships can't leave a station without passing through the undock area, and sentry guns are standing by. On the other hand, when a ship docks up it is truly safe, with no worries of what lies on the other side of a gate. Further, either party in a space station fight may have a stable of ships just inside from which to select when re-emerging from one's hangar, and often repair facilities await inside.

Fights at space stations are sometimes characterized by the term "docking games." Heavily tanked ships are content to take their chances by attacking any ship that undocks, knowing if their target has teeth they can live to fight another day as long as they can tank the return fire and sentry gun damage just long enough to outlast the cool-down timer. As ships engage one another outside a space station, it is common to see one or the other docking and re-docking to repair, change ships, or deny the other a victory.

Pilots adept at this sort of combat are alert for opportunities to maneuver their opponent outside of docking range, especially when a space station has a relatively small docking range. They may ram their target to force it away from the station (a tactic known as "bumping"), or fly well outside of docking range themselves to draw their eager foe away as well. Once the target is well clear of the dock, its impulse engines can be stasified while the attacker shifts his attack into high gear.

Take advantage of the temporary invulnerability a space station affords immediately after undocking; if you find yourself camped, remember that your foes can't touch you until that protection expires, or until you activate any module or change course. You can return to the space station immediately if you desire, but do it quickly before you can be bumped away. The best way to escape such ambushes is to have an "undock safe" already prepared: a point immediately in front of the space station's undock point, and far enough away you may warp to it. Since you leave the space station at speed, and your destination is straight ahead, you'll enter warp almost immediately even if your ship is large and clumsy.

Celestial objects. Certain heavenly bodies, such as stars, planets, moons, and known asteroid belts, are pre-programmed in every ship's navigation computer. Because every pirate out there will be able to warp directly to such objects, and because pilots are on their own in lowsec once they leave the relative safety of jump gates and space stations with their sentry guns, you are at your most vulnerable when you are at a celestial object.

Many foolhardy pilots brave the dangers and go to lowsec asteroid belts, whether to mine ores thought to be more profitable than those available in highsec, or to fight no-name pirates ("rats") that lurk nearby. Pirates are well aware of this, and the first places they scan when hunting are asteroid belts. You are warned. I would go so far as to say that if you are ratting or mining at a belt, you should just assume that any other pilot who shows up in local frequencies is probably on his way to attack you at that very moment. If your attention wanders for just a moment at just the wrong time, the first sign of danger that may penetrate the fog of your negligent brain is his red-flashing icon on your computer's overview; you have but seconds to warp away--and perhaps not enough seconds to align and engage your warp engines before his sensor-boosted targeting systems have you locked.

Two types of pilots are found at asteroid belts, really. First are pilots so inexperienced they have no idea what danger they are in; second are pilots looking for--and ready for--a fight. Pirates hope you're the former, but are typically prepared for you to be the latter. Simply by checking your employment history I have a pretty good idea which category you're in, and if you're inexperienced enough I have no problem trying to kill your ship outright no matter what you're flying, or at the very least holding you down while backup arrives. If, on the other hand, I think you're looking for a fight, I have to evaluate our relative ship capabilities and backup potential. Are you bait? If I know you're bait, and engage anyway, will you know that I know you're bait? If so, will you run away, figuring I must also be just the tip of the iceburg that is my fleet, or will you stay, thinking your trap is sufficient to the challenge? Suffice it to say that plenty of combat goes on at asteroid belts, one way or another.

One interesting feature of combat at asteroid belts is--get ready for this--the presence of asteroids. These can be helpful or unhelpful. If your attacker is in an interceptor that is moving fast enough to nullify your weapons, try to get him to run into an asteroid; he'll come to a screeching halt, and for a few precious moments your drones, missiles, and guns can pound away. On the other hand, nothing is more agonizing than trying to warp out, only to find your ship corralled by an asteroid or two.

Pilots with more experience, but without enough time in the local system to have acquired a set of safe spots, will frequently mitigate these dangers by simply never going to an asteroid belt at 0 kilometers. As they maneuver from point to point to scan for targets or threats or to pursue prey or evade pursuit, they may warp to the local sun, planets, or moons. This remains dangerous, as an opponent can pinpoint their location at 5 degrees and often determine at exactly which heavenly body you are located, and warp themselves to that same body. This in turn is often complicated by everyone's ability to warp at any range from 0-100 kilometers. Nevertheless, what with fast interceptors and multiple fleet members warping in at a series of ranges, it is common for fleets to end up engaging one another at celestial bodies.

Deadspace. Many pilots work for agents who assign them missions that take them to deadspace pockets in lowsec systems. There are also previously undiscovered asteroid belts, sites of archeological interest, criminal bases, and other uncharted points of interest. These areas are much safer than celestial objects, as pirates don't have their coordinates in their navigation systems and so often must glare with frustration at a potential target they can pick up on their sensors but cannot approach. Just remember, "safer" doesn't mean "safe."

A significant number of pirates are adept at the use of combat scanner probes; these probes are remotely piloted and, with time, can provide their user with your exact location, a set of coordinates to which they can warp. Frequently, pirates work in teams with one ship fit for probing and at least one other ship ready to press the attack. This is a lucrative specialization, as many "mission runners" or "explorers" depend on the remoteness of their efforts for survival. Such pilots therefore are often fit with expensive specialized modules, and are considered real prizes by the pirates who hunt them.

One interesting feature of certain deadspace pockets (especially those accessed through acceleration gates) is natural phenomena that disrupt microwarp drives. Mission-runners are typically expecting this and are prepared, fitted with afterburners rather than microwarpdrives; but frequently an attacker is focused on fighting in "normal" space and is gimped in deadspace by having a microwarp drive rather than an afterburner. This makes pirates in ships that rely on their speed for their efficacy, such as interceptors and nano-ships, more vulnerable than they would like.

There is no need to panic in the presence of probers. Before they can get an accurate fix on your location, they must get at least four of their probes within a few a.u. of you. Shorten the range on your on-board directional scanner, make sure combat scanner probes (including Sisters combat scanner probes) show up there, and stay alert. Check your scanner every 30-60 seconds; if you do see a probe, start checking even more frequently. If you see more than two probes within about 4 a.u., get out, even if it jeopardizes your mission.

Safe spots. The final category might well be termed, "anyplace else." A safe spot is typically created at a random spot in space. Some are "safer" than others, when factoring in drive-by sightings, range from celestial objects, etc. The only way for a pirate to pinpoint your ship's location (necessary if he is to attack you) is through the use of combat scanner probes, so the same caveats apply as for deadspace pockets (though microwarpdrives work just fine at safe spots).

Some people, I'm sorry to say, feel entirely too safe at safe spots. They warp to a safe spot and then leave the bridge unattended while they spend time with crew or family members, or even take a nap. Meanwhile, they're being probed, and eventually killed--sometimes alerted by onboard alarms reporting they're already targeted, sometimes not alerted at all until they find their escape capsule floating in space.

I've killed ships and looted their wrecks at each of these locations. I'm kinda ashamed to admit it, but I've been killed and plundered at each of these locations as well--in fact, I've lost ships at "safe" spots more than once.

Welcome to lowsec, but remember: one place is not the same as the others.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Fighting fair

Oft do I hear the lament, "Nobody fights fair anymore." Well of course not!

People seem to have the idea that "a fair fight" consists of two equally-matched opponents risking it all in a thrilling space battle. But if one were to stop and consider for a few moments what "equally-matched" could possibly mean, it becomes clear that there is no such thing as a fair fight. Consider this short list of factors that contribute to one's ability to win a fight:
  1. Skills (in broad terms, skills affect speed, DPS, EHP, agility, and the modules one may fit; in more narrow terms, skills affect speed, the damage capability of the turrets one may fit, the range of those turrets, the rate of fire of those turrets, the tracking of those turrets, the damage capability of one's drones, the number of drones, the range of the drones, the speed of the drones, the hp of the drones; they affect the actual HP of one's ship, the resists to various damage types one has, one's scan resolution, one's manuverability; they affect the size of one's turrets and the tech levels of one's modules). In other words, fighting completely fair has to start at the beginning of a pod pilot's training.
  2. Ship and modules. Two equally-skilled pilots may make different choices as to ship (e.g. Incursus or Tristan) or modules (e.g. web or tracking disruptor). Even ships with roughly the same fitting could actually have modules with different meta levels. Further, two ships fit identically could still load different ammo. So fighting fair has to take into account one's fitting bay.
  3. Numbers. More is better. This is easily controlled, unless you don't find it easy deciding which members of your gang don't get to get in on the killmail.
  4. Pilot experience. At what range to fight? Traveling at what speed? Which modules to activate, and when? Which ammo type to load? Which drones to deploy? Shoot the ship, or take out her drones first? Fly into that asteroid field, or steer clear? Should I use up my own cap to suck up theirs? Good answers to these questions come from native intelligence and experience, and an intimate knowledge of the other pilot's ship, modules, experience, and personality doesn't hurt, either.
Now, tell me if you can how to balance these factors to end up with a truly fair fight? Bah, there's no such thing as a completely fair fight. Furthermore, it is foolish to want a fair fight. In the history of combat, any good commander is looking for an edge, whether it comes from numbers, armament, terrain, intelligence, politics, logistics, whatever. The people who complain about a battle being unfair tend to be the losers.

On the other hand...

I do actually believe that the combat we engage in is fair. Let's back things up a little.
  1. As a pilot, I am free to choose which skills to train, which ships to spend my money on, and how to fit that ship. Sure, I can't have it all, but the information is available to me to help me understand the trade-offs. No other pilot in the game makes these decisions for me.
  2. As a pilot, I am free to roam lawless space's asteroid belts, or stay huddled in my hangar. I get to decide whether to undock, and where to go and what to do if I so choose. The information is available to me to assess the risk of any activity: system security levels, recent kills, pilots in space--all are publically available information. In the system where I am--in the place where my ship is vulnerable--I have further intelligence on every other pilot: their security status, their employment history, and their tenure as a pilot.
  3. As a human being, I get to choose whether to live a solitary existence, or whether to build relationships with others. Society with others can be a powerful deterrant, and having friends who are willing to risk themselves for my sake can make all the difference in whether I win or lose a battle. If I do have such friends, I get to make the decision whether to fly with or without them.
  4. Finally, in many instances I get to decide whether or not to engage. The judicious use of coverts ops cloaking devices, warp core stabilizers, safe spots, and speed cover a multitude of combat vulnerabilities once one has made the decision to share space with combat-ready vessels of all types.
If I know that my ship could be destroyed within seconds of undocking, what do I mean by claiming "Unfair!" when it happens? If I know that some pilots don't honor their word, yet I agree to a duel anyway, how can I claim it isn't fair when I get blobbed? Have they somehow exploited the laws of physics or broken some civil law? If I myself seek to win fights by countering my foes' advantages with advantages of my own, how is it fair to prohibit them from doing the same?

The basis for fairness in New Eden is free will (I get to choose how to prepare myself and my vessel), full disclosure (I have access to information that helps me assess risks), and actual rules (everyone knows that anyone may attack anyone in any system of any security status).

No fair fights in New Eden, you say? "All is fair in love and war," says I.