Header art by Redline XIII.
Cloaking is breaking the EVE Online. Yeah, we’re going there. Hold onto your butts.
Information and the fog of war define military conflicts. All the way back in the 5th century BC, Sun Tzu was talking about knowing the enemy and yourself. Here’s a hint: he wasn’t talking about the enemy general’s hair color. A huge component of warfare consists of finding the enemy to discern the enemy’s strength and capabilities. Failure in reconnaissance can mean disastrous defeat. Success can bring victory.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean
In 217BC, the Romans were being invaded by Hannibal. Eager to punish the Alps-crossing, elephant-deploying general, a Roman army under the command of Consul Gaius Flaminius numbering 30 thousand failed to employ any reconnaissance units. In the ensuing battle at Lake Trasimene, the Carthagenians ambushed the Roman force, killing half and taking the rest captive.
In 1914, the Germans were steamrolling through France. The war was going great for the Kaisar; his front line divisions were moving to encircle Paris in a mere month. The French needed a miracle. They didn’t get one. They fell back on sound military tactics bolstered by new technology. Aerial reconnaissance found a gap in the German lines. In the resulting First Battle of the Marne, General Gallieni ferried troops from Paris via taxi cabs to the critical point and stopped the German attack, saving Paris. According to Generaloberst von Moltke (the Younger), that loss cost them the war.
On 21 May 1941 Pilot Officer Michael Suckling flew a reconnaissance mission in his Spitfire over Bergen. From 25 thousand feet, Suckling took pictures of a large ship in the port. Upon returning to England, the interpreters determined that the photographs were of Bismark. The photographs sent the British fleet into motion, and the resulting battle has became a legendary piece of naval history.
In modern warfare, militaries have dedicated reconnaissance units. The United States Marine Corps has their recon and force recon units; the Russian forces have Spetsnaz. Every single officer learns the importance of reconnaissance in their schools. In the mission planning process for the Marine Corps, two of the steps involve reconnaissance. It is a critical component to military operations that EVE fleet commanders take for granted.
In EVE Online, information gathering is both simple and perfect. Right now in World War Bee, both sides, Mittens’ Kittens and Test Invasion Please Stand By, have deployed massive armies of alts to enemy systems, most on the same grid as important staging keepstars. All a player has to do is log in the alt, turn on the cloaking device, set up a stream, and go AFK until the server comes up the next day. Perfect information is available to commanders; this is a bad thing.
Even CCP recognizes that perfect information is a bad thing. Last year CCP implemented a Blackout. While millions of pixels were already spent writing and commenting on the Blackout, I should note that, despite the misguided chaotic intent and the poor implementation, the Blackout was trying to solve a real problem that exists.
Let me repeat that for emphasis: the Blackout was an attempt to solve a real problem.
Looking Back at Last Year
At the time, I criticized CCP for their attempts at a Chaos Era. To many, the Blackout felt like more of an attack on players than a change to try and solve the problem of perfect information.
Between the Drifter attack and the Blackout later, null sec players felt like CCP was attacking them, especially when key devs and the CEO were talking about how terrible EVE should be.
CCP can address the problem of perfect information in other ways that won’t divide the EVE community like the Red Sea. The first issue that CCP can address is cloaking.
EVE if up to me, would be a very harsh, dark, dystopian place where bad stuff happens.
EVE should be an absolute hellscape of terribleness.-CCP Falcon
Cloaks Suck; They’re Too Good
Cloaking is utterly perfect. Once a ship has cloaked up, it is totally undetectable. Sure, they can be decloaked if something comes within 2 kilometers, but space is fucking huge. Dear reader, you should be able to tell how completely overpowered cloaking is by the amount of adverbs in this paragraph.
[Editor’s Note: There are precisely three adverbs in the first 750 words of this article. All three are in that paragraph.]
Cloaking is easy. All it takes is for the player to press the button. They will remain cloaked until the server goes down, or they press that button again. Cloaking doesn’t even take capacitor to use, unlike every other utility high slot.
Once a ship is in position, all the player has to do to keep their reconnaissance bot running for another day is press one button and set up a stream. And there’s not a damn thing the other side can do to stop it.
Limit this $&!#
The first thing CCP should change is the perpetuity of cloaking. Cloaking should be time limited somehow. The best way I see how to change this is to have a cloaking device use fuel a la cyno. Using fuel brings a complex play and counter-play into scouting. To keep reconnaissance pilots fueled up would require cycling them in and out, or for the supporting organizations to organize underway replenishment. Additionally, since cargo space is limited, pilots will have to choose whether to carry more cloaking fuel or liquid ozone for a cyno. The use of fuel would also allow pilots to predict when their cloak will expire and plan accordingly. In one step, CCP has made cloaky camping more complicated in a meaningful way, making those that run cloaky alts with competence and skill more valued to their organization.
Another simple way to manage limitless cloaking is to have the devices break in the same way as an overheated module. The basic T1 cloak module takes damage at the rate to where it is broken after some number of minutes of cycle. And yes, any change to cloaking would have to make the module a cycle module rather than a simple off/on switch. Better cloaking modules could last longer. This changes the mechanics somewhat. Refueling the Listening Post/Observation Post (LP/OP) cloakies is eliminated and instead forces them to refit with a new module, repair with nanite paste in space, or dock up to refit. This actually has the benefit of making cargo size irrelevant—a hauler with charges in the back has the same cloaking time as any other ship.
The other main problem with cloaking is a total lack of counter play. If someone is cloaked in a system, all the system owners can do is grin and bear it. Even if someone knows that a ship is cloaked on a certain grid, space is all the synonyms of big. I’ll skip some of the math and say that the chances of finding a cloaked ship on a grid is somewhat less of a chance than CCP bringing back Empress Jamyl. (HA! It’s been awhile but that felt gooooood.) The chances of someone finding a cloaked ship somewhere out in space in a system is worse than my chances of becoming the queen of Saudi Arabia.
One way for Sov holders to deal with cloakies in their system would be for CCP to introduce a sov structure that can emit an anti-cloaking pulse when triggered. Obviously, this structure would need to have a decent cooldown time and a spool up time to keep it from imbalancing tactical engagements. The cooldown time should be measured in hours; the spool up time should be minutes or seconds.
If the cloaky pilot is at the controls, paying attention, it should not be too much of a problem for them. All they have to do is wait out the recloak timer and press the button again. They might want to relocate, but hey, I’m not going to tell anyone how to play. Offering a short prayer to their God that the scanners that will be trying to find them suck might also be in order. If the cloaky pilot is not at the controls, they get to learn a valuable lesson about going AFK in someone else’s space.
As far as a tactical approach to decloaking, the balance between finding a solution that would be decent for finding cloakies on a certain grid and not breaking a tactical fight is rather difficult. Even a 200 kilometer radius decloak-ping on a ship would make finding a cloaked ship on a grid not that much easier, while the potential to impact fleet fights of such a module is incredible. I am, however, simply one writer. I have faith that the tens of thousands of players and CCP devs can come up with a solution.
Regardless, going forward, there has to be counterplay to cloaking. If the answer to a mechanic is to grin and bear it, that’s not a good mechanic. CCP has to put in counterplay to cloaking. Even if they do not change cloaking, CCP must add in counterplay.
Value Added: Or How I learned to Stop Worrying About the Nerf Bat and Love the Carrots
If we’re going to fix cloaking by adding in counterplay and nerfing the way that cloaking works, then we’re (and by that I mean CCP) going to need to feed the playerbase some carrots. There’s not a lot that can be done to cloaking to make it better on a tactical basis. Blackops as a whole are an effective, if niche doctrine. That is not to say there are not some ways to improve cloaky ships.
In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, there was a Klingon bird of prey that could fire while cloaked. If it wasn’t so easy to warp off after shooting, firing while cloaked might be a decent mechanic. As it stands, drive-by, cloaked shootings would be imbalanced. Adding that in would require some other mechanics overhauls. However, it could be cool if the other problems are fixed.
One of the best carrots to give cloaky ships and their pilots is to make cloaked ships’ pilots not show up in local chat. That’s right. If a pilot cloaks their ship, their name should be taken out of the local chat. So, a pilot flies their ship to their LP/OP, sets up, hits the cloak, and no one knows they are there. Of course, if someone is paying attention, they might know, as there’s always a short time where a pilot is not cloaked after gate cloak before they can activate the module: at least one server tick.
This is the best for both worlds! Reconnaissance and counter-recon playing cat and mouse, each working to deny the other in a cosmic game of Spy v. Spy. Gate camps start to matter to keep enemy reconnaissance ships from entering their systems, as reconnaissance ships will be entering and leaving their LP/OPs on the regular for some kind of resupply. Most importantly, though, it gets pilots—players—out in space making things happen.
It won’t be easy, but it can be done.
Cloaking is broken. Cloaking has been broken since time immemorial. However, there are ways that CCP can fix cloaking to make it more engaging for players on both sides. CCP themselves have publicly recognized the problem and tried to fix it with the Blackout. That might not have worked, but if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try, try again.