Friday, November 19, 2010

3. Intelligence: Cut through the fog

Okay, you want to engage only on your own terms, and you want to achieve combat superiority…the question now is that Hurricane ratting at the top belt. You’re pretty sure your ship is better than his, but it depends on his fit and skills. You also wonder whether he might not be bait for an entire blob. In this game of rock-paper-scissors, is he the paper to your scissors or a rock poised to smash down on you? That’s the trick, isn’t it—knowing the answers to these and a thousand other questions.

What’s wanted is intelligence (“intel”)—not something high-functioning between your ears so much as some good data with which to work. Warriors throughout history have bemoaned the fog of war; in this article I’ll suggest ways to cut through much of that fog.

The most basic source of intel available to every pilot in New Eden (except those in worm-hole space) is the local communications channel (“local”). This channel starts by helpfully counting the number of pilots sharing the same solar system. That number alone bears on a few interesting questions. If the number is high, then others have probably already observed the Incursus ratting the asteroid belts; the fact that none of them have attacked the Incursus may suggest the Incursus is their friend (and thus may have backup) or he may be a feared combat pilot. Many pilots in local always means one should consider the fact that one’s target may be able to call for quick backup. But then, it can also mean that someone is likely to be vulnerable in space, whether mining or ratting or fulfilling some mission; it’s worth looking around some. And pilots with lots of friends in local may lull themselves into a false sense of security.

In addition to the total number of pilots in space, “local” further offers the identity of each and every one. Take a look at that list. Any pilot who is subject to a 15-minute Global Criminal Countdown timer (“GCC”) may be so indicated by a red skull (whether this actually is the case depends on your overview settings). This tells you there is a pilot on the hunt in the same star system as you. It also tells you that sentry guns will shoot at him on sight—so while you’d have sentry guns on your side if it comes to that, it’s unlikely he’ll go near them in the first place. If you’ve identified any pilots, corporations, or alliances as particularly friendly or hostile, you can see indications of this next to each pilot’s name—pilots with excellent standing can have a blue symbol, for example, while pilots with horrible standing can have a red symbol. This makes it convenient to see at a glance how “on guard” you should be.

Take advantage of even more free intel afforded you by the list of pilots in local! Right-click a pilot’s name, then select “show info.” Note the pilot’s security status. A high security status means the pilot probably won’t initiate hostilities with you, unless perhaps you yourself are an outlaw. Setting out bait is unlikely to work with such pilots. Quite possibly, they’re combat-inexperienced. A low security status, on the other hand, means the pilot has a history of attacking people for no lawful reason. He’ll probably attack you if he thinks he can win, and he’s likely to be experienced and to have a plan.

There are two tabs of information on each character particularly helpful to a combat pilot. The first tab I go to is the Employment tab, which provides a complete record of a pilot’s past employment. How far back does this record go? The older the pilot, the more skills and experience he potentially has.

The Employment record provides useful intel not only about how much skill and experience a pilot may have, but what kind skills he is likely to have learned and what kind of experience he is likely to have gained. If you see a string of PVP corps in that history, you can bet the pilot is both skilled and experienced in combat. If you see a string of mining corps, he may be skilled but likely has devoted much of his studies to industrial pursuits rather than combat, and while he may or may not be experienced at evading combat, he probably doesn’t have much experience in actually fighting. Long gaps in an employment record could indicate periods of inactivity, in which case the pilot may not be as skilled as his age would suggest. However, watch out for pilots who seem to have several years in NPC corporations (corporations not controlled by actual players)—that is a sign of a player’s alternate character (“alt”), and that could mean a scout or support pilot of some kind.

After gleaning what I can from the Employment tab, I’ll check a pilot’s Bio tab. Is it full of links to contracts? Does the pilot use it to remind himself what sorts of damage rats can tank? Does it assume you’ve just been ganked, and claim enjoyment of your loss? Such information can be a real clue as to what you may be up against. Just realize that the Bio tab is less reliable than the Employment tab; while the Employment tab is generated by the authorities based on public records, the Bio tab is under the complete control of the pilot, and many a pirate has used the Bio for misinformation.

With time, you’ll find yourself collecting a body of useful knowledge. Especially if you hunt in a series of “home” routes, you’ll start recognizing people by name. You’ll look at local and recognize this pilot as a macro mission runner, that pilot as a POS maintainer, and the other pilot as a pirate. You’ll get to the point where you know what ships that pirate likes to fly, and what tactics he likes to use. I know some pilots who make written records of every encounter they have with another pilot, noting ship types, tactics, associates, etc. While I myself don’t often write this sort of thing down, I’ve never complained when a gang member informs me “he never flies alone; he always has a Falcon alt nearby.” You might want to start creating your own intel files of such useful information!

In the Tuskers, we have an Intel section of our forums for sharing information of use to us all. We have a list of known Falcon pilots there, for example. We also describe traps we fall prey to, so that our mates won’t make the same mistake we did. We note which corporations work with each other. We describe “prize targets” we’ve observed, rich vessels in space and any vulnerabilities we discover about them. We identify major threats in the area, and discuss ways to deal with them. If you have the opportunity to pool intel like this, do it!

Many pilots post records of their kills and (less frequently) losses on publically-accessible databases known as killboards. One widely-used and long-running killboard is BattleClinic. Just look at the intelligence bonanza a killboard can provide! What ships a pilot tends to fly, how he fits them, which other pilots show up with him on killmails, whether he fights (and wins) against other combat ships, or whether he sticks to weaker prey, which systems he is active in, etc.—useful intel indeed. If you’re sizing up the situation in a solar system, you could do worse than take a few moments to check a pilot out on the killboards.

Finally, let’s consider the role of scouts in acquiring intel. A scout is some other pilot who looks around and reports what he observes. “Local” provides useful information; having access to that information before you or your gang jump into a system can be even more useful—send a scout in ahead of you. As you size up the numbers in local, you may determine your gang has the advantage—but what if there is a hostile gang sitting at a gate ready to jump into your system? Having scouts watching those gates would be great. Is that pilot’s Falcon alt nearby? How many corpmates can the target call on for backup in the surrounding systems? Will the next ship to jump into our gate camp be a rich cargo vessel or a camp-busting gang? These are all questions scouts can answer.

A scout can be in most any ship type that is difficult to detect or engage. Some scouts like to fly in rookie ships, making themselves beneath notice for many. Others like to fly ships fit to tackle, so they can hold down a target while their gang warps in. Yet others prefer ships that can warp while cloaked and probe out targets.

It’s useful for a scout not to be in the same corp as yourself or your gang. You don’t want people connecting you with your scout, if you can help it. You want people to underestimate your gang and to underestimate the threat posed by the scout. Many players have two EVE-Online accounts primarily so that they can have an alt scouting for them—it’s just that valuable.

A scout can go ahead of you or your gang, looking for targets (and probing them out and/or tackling them if those are options), locating gate camps, and keeping an eye on things in that direction. A scout can trail behind you or your gang, watching out for gangs stalking you or juicy targets coming from behind. A scout can "shadow" a hostile fleet, reporting on its movements and composition. Multiple scouts can fan out through several systems, covering you from all directions or finding the best targets in the least amount of time.

By paying attention to local, keeping records, checking killboards, and employing neutral scouts, you can achieve more PVP success. All else being equal, the pilot with the best intel will not necessarily win—but the pilot with the best intel should be able to make sure all else is not equal, and that the inequalities are in his favor.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

2. Achieve combat superiority

It’s all well and good to fight only on one’s own terms, but what should those terms be? When should you choose to engage, and when should you choose not to? The short answer is: Engage when you have combat superiority. In this article I discuss a number of factors that enter into the equation for determining combat superiority.

First let’s consider numerical superiority. While “blobs” are often denigrated, the truth is they are a valid way to win fights. All else being equal, the gang with the most ships wins.

Next we have hardware superiority. Most pilots easily recognize the importance of flying a hull recognized for its combat prowess well-fit with the right selection of high-tech modules. As CCP constantly tweaks combat mechanics in the quest for balance, and as creative pilots and alliances test new setups in real combat situations, the flavor-of-the-month hull and setup can change. For this reason I won’t be providing lists of hulls and how to fit them, but in a later section I will suggest a philosophy selecting and fitting out ships.

Any pilot serious about winning in PVP needs to understand why each module is or is not selected for fitting. It’s better to mess around with your setup and make some stupid choices—revealed in the crucible of combat—than to ignorantly copy a setup gleaned from BattleClinic without understanding why that setup was put together.

Your goal should be to make an intelligent choice regarding the setup of your ship. Chances are, you’ll end up with a “cookie-cutter” setup (so called because they are de facto standards that many people fly)—there’s a reason why one setup is passed over by most pilots while another is appreciated by so many—but seek to understand the philosophy behind it, and you’ll recognize when game changes signal the time to re-evaluate your ship’s fit. For now, just remember: all else being equal, the ship with the most well-conceived setup wins.

It won’t be long before your planning how to fit your ship directs your thoughts to a third factor in combat superiority—skills. Many popular modules require a minimum skill level of some sort just to be fitted, and the ultimate capabilities of most ships and modules are affected by at least some skill. So you won’t be able to fit that T2 gun, for example, without having the relevant specialization skill, and the higher your skill in that specialization (and in such things as Gunnery, Controlled Bursts, Motion Prediction, Rapid Fire, Sharpshooter, and Trajectory Analysis), the more effective your gun will be—it will lock faster, shoot farther, fire more rapidly, hit more often, and do more damage per shot.

Don’t focus too narrowly in evaluating skills to train for. Many pilots concentrate on obvious weapons and “hit points” skills and overlook the so-called “support” skills; wiser pilots recognize that support skills can be just as decisive in battle. “Support skills” are skills that affect your ship’s energy grid and capacitor, your motor and warp speed, and the like. Support skills can directly impact the damage you do and the damage you can absorb, but they can also less obviously impact your ability to win battles by increasing your ability to dictate range or get out of a losing fight. Leadership skills, when they are applied as gang bonuses, can be every bit as powerful as multiple levels of gunnery skills, as useful as an expensive faction module, or as powerful as rare mind implants.

I recommend PVP pilots only fly a ship when they can fly it fully T2-fit with all relevant skills at least level IV. (Often the time taken to get a skill to level V is better spent getting some other skill to IV.) The reason is that, all else being equal, the pilot with the most relevant skills wins.

A fourth indispensible factor in the combat-superiority equation is PVP experience. While much about PVP can be learned from a book, there’s no substitute for actual practice. I’m good enough at PVP that you’re reading my guide, but I can remember vividly times when I “froze” in the rush of battle: my mind simply shut down, and I just sat their staring stupidly at the screen as the red-flashies had their way with my ship. Human athletes train so that during a competition their muscle memory and instincts take over; their experience enables them to quickly grasp what’s going on in a contest, and their minds are freed up to focus on higher-level obstacles to success. In the same way, PVP experience conditions the mind to “automatically” take certain basic actions, freeing up the mind to focus on more complicated barriers to coming out on top.

The first time you get ganked, you may be excused for freezing up and doing nothing. Adrenaline is coursing through your veins, you are overwhelmed with flashing symbols and scary noises, and a hundred ideas are all vying with one another for your attention. Chances are it won’t be until minutes or hours later that you’ll truly begin to appreciate the true nature of the situation you were in and what you might have done to get away or even to turn the tables on your attacker. The next time you get jumped that idea will spring to mind—and it won’t be until minutes or hours later that you’ll truly understand what was different about this time or why some silly thing you did worked. As you gain experience, it will become harder for others to catch you by surprise, you’ll think more clearly under pressure, and you’ll be able to do multiple things right without really thinking at all.

For this reason, I’m a big proponent of the advice that inexperienced combat pilots stock up on 10-20 cheap T1 frigates and just go on a PVP spree until all are lost. It’s much more affordable to lose a T1 frigate than a T2 cruiser, and the lessons are learned just the same. Furthermore, the lessons are learned through personal experience rather than filtered through someone else’s written account. At the end of the day, there really is no substitute for experience. And, all else being equal, the pilot with the most PVP experience wins.

A fifth element contributing to combat superiority is force multiplication. If we think of the two sides of a battle as having a series of hulls of X effective hit points (EHP) and a series of weapons dealing out Y points of damage per second (DPS), we can think of a force multiplier as something that has the effect of providing more X or Y for the friendlies or less X or Y for the hostiles. One might of gang bonuses as a kind of force multiplication--and legitimately so; leadership bonuses and gang assist modules can easily enhance one’s fleet’s DPS and EHP by more than 20%. Still, electronics warfare (EWAR) and logistics most frequently come to mind when discussing force multipliers.

We discussed EWAR a bit in the previous section, in the context of evading or breaking tackle. Now consider how EWAR affects DPS and EHP. The Falcon is probably the most infamous EWAR platform in New Eden, with a full array of electronics countermeasure (ECM) modules. In melee, a single ECM module can jam a hostile vessel’s targeting system, effectively subtracting that ship’s DPS from the battle—and Falcons equip several such modules. In other words, without dealing any DPS itself, the Falcon just disrupted the DPS-EHP balance of the fleets engaging one another. Tracking disruptors diminish the hostile fleet’s DPS by decreasing the effect of their turrets; target dampeners diminish their DPS by diminishing their effective range. Target painters effectively increase the friendly fleet’s DPS by enhancing her ships’ tracking and increasing the damage dealt by each volley.

Or consider a small gang being supported by a pair of logistics ships. Most PVP ships either do not repair themselves at all, or fit one (usually) to three (rarely) repairers of some sort. Logistics ships such as Scimitars or Guardians can apply multiple remote repairers to whichever ship the hostile fleet primaries—and they can do it again and again. If each ship in the fleet drops its own local repair modules, they can use the space for other modules that enhance their DPS or tank; the 4-8 remote repairers on the pair of logistics boats are effective in repairing any ship in the fleet. Instead of being able to kill a ship in a matter of seconds, the hostile fleet may find they just don’t have the DPS to kill it at all. And if they do manage to kill a ship, taking say three to five times longer to do it, they have had to absorb much more DPS themselves in the process. Logistics ships often operate at a distance and can be hard to attack directly, but as they often operate in pairs (or more), attacking one logistics ship still leaves the second to repair its shields or armor.

You know what I have to say next: All else being equal, the gang with the best force multipliers wins.

The final factor in achieving combat superiority is tactics. All else being equal, the gang with the best tactics wins. There are so many common tactics to consider, I’m choosing to write more on tactics in a later installment in this series.

I’ve briefly discussed combat superiority in terms of numerical superiority, hardware superiority, superior skills, superior PVP experience, and force multiplication (really a subset of both hardware and skills), and I’ve mentioned tactical superiority as well. Each element of combat superiority has been described as potentially decisive—all else being equal. The problem, of course, is that all else is rarely equal. One may and often does have superior numbers and PVP experience but inferior skills and hardware; or one may count on superior PVP experience and force multiplication but not really know what they’re up against. For that reason, I consider PVP an art rather than a science; as much as we play a game of hard-coded numbers, fixed sets of hulls and modules, and a wealth of documentation, we also play a game of random number generators, frail humanity, and deceit.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

1. Fight on your own terms

My years of solo and small-gang PVP have convinced me that successful PVP means fighting on your own terms—choosing your fights. If you’re out in a Thorax, you may want to attack a Stabber but stay away from a Drake. If you’re in a small 3-man gang, you may want to engage a gang of 4 but not a 20-ship blob. You may be willing to pit your Dramiel up against a blaster boat, but not a Rapier. As you evaluate your chances in a given matchup, you’ll be eager to engage, eager not to engage, or perhaps not sure what the outcome might be. The point is, fight when you want to fight, and not when you don’t want to.

But what does this mean? It means you need ways to be able to force a fight when your opponent is unwilling, and to evade a fight when you yourself don’t fancy your chances. Simple enough when stated like that, but not always so easy in practice.

The technical term most often used for avoiding unwelcome attention is “running away.” Your spaceship has both engines and a warp drive; use them to flee. You need to keep a sharp eye on local (to see if there are any potential aggressors in system, and who they might be), a sharp eye on your directional scanner (perform frequent 360° scans), and a sharp eye on your overview to avoid unpleasant surprises.

It is important to be prepared to get out fast.

It can’t be that simple, right? Right. While many pilots enjoy pre-arranged duels (and that is certainly a valid form of PVP), for me, PVP is all about nonconsensual combat—I assume the majority of the ships I attack would run away if they could, and the majority of superior ships and gangs would hold me down and kill me if they could. There are modules that prevent one’s target from running away. The direct countermeasures for engines and warp drives are stasis webifiers and warp disruptors/scramblers.

Stasis webifiers, or “webs” as they are popularly known, are applied to a target ship to reduce that ship’s speed. Ships that are slower than yours shouldn’t be able to escape yours. Webs may be stacked for increased effect. If you worry about being webbed yourself, your only real remedies are to be agile enough and fast enough to keep out of web range (not a remarkably long range, though some ships have bonuses to this) or fast enough to remain faster than your opponent even while webbed--letting you increase range until you are, again, outside of web range.

Warp disruptors degrade their target’s ability to warp away. Most ships (again, there are a few exceptions) have one point of warp strength that enables them to warp; a warp disruptor removes one point of warp strength from its target. With zero warp strength, the target is unable to warp. (Incidentally, this is where the term “point” comes from when declaring a target is tackled.)

Warp scramblers have a shorter range than warp disruptors. Balanced against this disadvantage, however, are three real advantages: (1) warp scramblers remove two points of warp strength from their targets, (2) warp scramblers use less cap than warp disruptors, and (3) warp scramblers also interfere with (read “disable”) microwarpdrives, significantly reducing the speed of any target actively using a MWD.

The choice of disruptor or scrambler is a tough one. If you fit a disruptor, you’ll find ships using their microwarpdrives to speed out of range, and often you’ll find you don’t have the grid to fit a MWD yourself. If you do have a MWD, there’s always the chance your target will use his own warp scrambler to turn it off. But if you fit a scram, you’ll find yourself missing tackles as your targets warp off before you get into scram range. Few are the ships designed well enough to allow you to fit both a warp disruptor and a warp scrambler, both an afterburner and a MWD! Make your choice and build your tactics around it.

In nonconsensual PVP, so important is the ability to prevent one’s target from warping that I consider a warp disruptor or scrambler the only module absolutely necessary for PVP. In gangs, however, not every ship needs to be able to tackle; as gangs increase in size, the ability to specialize in a role becomes more important. Interceptors are specialized tacklers, and often have enhanced tackle ranges and speeds that allow them to tackle others while remaining free to escape themselves.

In null security space and wormholes, pilots must be wary of warp disruption spheres or “bubbles.” These devices create fields that can not only disable your warp drive, they can pull you right out of warp if your destination is close enough to the bubble.

If you don’t want to be tackled, you have several common choices. First, you may rely on your speed to keep out of range or escape a bubble. This means you have to keep your eyes open so you can react in time; all the speed mods in the world won’t help you if you aren’t paying attention.

Second, you could use warp core stabilizers (sometimes called “stabs,” confusing since inertial stabilizers are also sometimes called “stabs”). Warp core stabilizers add a point of warp strength to your ship, a direct counter to warp disruptors or scramblers (but not bubbles or the few ships fitting warp disruption field generators with focused warp disruption scripts). WCS are rarely used on combat ships, however, because they interfere with targeting. Only fit one or more WCS modules if it is not important for you to target quickly: haulers frequently fit several WCS, as do certain bait ships, smart-bombing ships, and less agile "travel-fit" ships merely moving from one point to another with no thought of combat.

Third, you could make it difficult for a would-be tackler to even get you on his overview. Ships have to warp somewhere, and the most common warp destinations are common celestial objects such as jump gates, space stations, planets, moons, asteroid belts, complexes, and the like—objects that are equally easy for any pilot to warp to. If you’re at an asteroid belt ratting, it is a simple matter for an attacker to warp to that same asteroid belt. But anywhere your ship can go you can make a bookmark and return; by bookmarking some random point in space, you have created a warp destination that is extremely difficult for others to reach: a “safe spot.”

The simplest safe spot is made by creating a bookmark while traveling from one celestial object to another. Anytime I pass through an unfamiliar star system, I create a simple safe spot by creating a bookmark in mid-warp as I travel from one jump gate to the next. It is basically impossible for anybody to re-create that bookmark on their own—the tools at our disposal just aren’t fine enough.

However, pilots may use combat probes to identify the precise location of your ship, and if you’re “probed out” you could find yourself in trouble even at a safe spot. For this reason, I recommend taking the time to make better safe spots. Your basic safe spot, along the route between two celestial objects, means you’ll have other ships passing by, and even if you’re not within scan range of any celestial object, you’ll show up briefly on pilots’ overview as they pass. Once they know you’re there, they can probe you out quickly if they have the tools.

A better safe spot can be made that is out of directional scanner range not only from celestial objects, but from any point along any route between any two celestial objects as well. If you can imagine a triangle in space formed by celestial objects A, B, and C, try to first get basic safe spots in the midpoint between, say, A and B and A and C; then to get a better safe spot bookmark the midpoint between AB and AC. Look for ways to do this where the final result will be outside of directional scanner range not only of A, B, and C, but of routes AB, BC, and AC as well. Your goal is a safe spot where you won’t accidentally be seen by other pilots. They’ll still be able to probe you out, but without seeing your ship in space they may not bother, perhaps making the false assumption you’re docked up or cloaked.

I won’t get into the mechanics of combat probes here, as excellent probing guides already exist. I will just say probing skills are very useful for getting fights with expensively-fitted ships deluded by a false sense of security. The life of a mission runner must be mind-numbingly boring, and it is hard for them to resist the urge to get up and stretch while their ship tanks the pitiful NPC rats and their drones to their dirty work. It is remarkably easy to probe out and tackle mission runners; you may be worrying they’ll see your combat probes or notice your ship at close range as you negotiate a series of 3-4 acceleration gates, but chances are they’re reading a manga book or changing the channel on the TV.

If you do find yourself tackled and in a battle you don’t wish to fight, all is not lost. If your ship still has some speed, you may be able to simply fly out of tackle range and warp away (good luck with that); it happens. Or it may not be so simple, requiring a series of sharp turns that your opponent fails to follow quickly enough that allows you to slip the tackle. A common tactic used by ships tackled in asteroid belts is to maneuver so that the tackling ship runs into an asteroid belt; for a few moments his speed drops to zero, affording his would-be victim a few moments to speed out of tackle range and escape (or a few moments for his would-be victim’s drones or missiles to do full DPS and destroy the tackler). You may be able to maneuver your tackler into bumping into a stargate, acceleration gate, space station, etc. Failing that, several electronic warfare (EWAR) solutions can help.

Electronic counter measures (ECM) work by jamming a ship’s targeting systems. If your ECM module or ECM drones “work,” your opponent will lose target lock on you and his tackling modules will disengage, giving you a few moments to slip away. The problem with ECM is that any given module or drone has only a small chance of working; to increase your odds, you’ll have to fit several ECM modules or a full flight of ECM drones. Using racial ECM modules makes it more probable you’ll escape one race’s ships, while making it less probable you’ll escape the other three races’ ships. No matter what, there's always just a "chance"--little or great--that you'll jam the enemy.

Sensor dampeners are another EWAR option, and their effect is not chance-based. These “damps” act by increasing the amount of time it takes for a ship to lock on to a target, or (more relevant to breaking tackle) reducing a ship’s targeting range. If you can reduce your attacker’s targeting range low enough, you’ll be outside of that range and can get out. Unfortunately, all too often it takes more damps than one has fitted to do this effectively.

A final EWAR path that is quite popular is the use of energy neutralizers (“neuts”) to drain a tackler’s capacitor. Without power, his stasis webifier and warp disruptors deactivate; and without power, his microwarpdrive or afterburner likewise shut down. Within seconds, that ship goes from being a blindingly-fast tackling god to being a dead-in-space paper-tank free killmail. Just be sure you don't "cap out" yourself in the process!

You’ll notice that these EWAR options don’t merely allow one to escape when tackled, they actually present the choice of escape or counter-attack—exactly what we want when we seek to engage on our own terms. And what terms may those be? Watch this blog for more!