Foundational Fleet Design

2021-06-25

Header and inset art by Cryo Huren

Ok, so, first off, this isn’t what you think. Yes, this article is about fleet design. Yes, I’m Goonswarm’s Fitting Director. No, it’s not about how to design fleets for fighting wars between nullsec empires in EVE Online. In fact, it’s about designing fleets for fighting wars between highsec powers in EVE Online. Because this is the Foundation Quadrant, and CCP could stand to take a step back and look at how they’re doing things.

The Foundation Quadrant provides CCP a big opportunity for that. I mean, really big. The quadrant, which started on May 4, “aims to celebrate the identity of the four Empires of New Eden, as well as the incredible 18 years that have passed since EVE’s own founding. It represents the pride in the history of these four Empires that have become the cornerstones of New Eden, pride in players’ own accomplishments, and pride in the collective journey that’s propelling EVE toward its third decade.” This quadrant is all about the empires.

The cynical soul might say, “Sure, it’s all about the five login event campaigns they can tie together real fast.” And there might be some basis to that. Capsuleer Day hit in May; then each of the empires will get their own login event for Federation Day, Liberation Day, Foundation Day, and Union Day. But I prefer to be optimistic. This quadrant’s about breathing life into the actual lore and setting of EVE. It’s about the part of EVE that more players wish they had cause to care about . . . than actually care about it. That’s harsh, I know. But it’s true. And CCP’s got a chance to fix that.

CCP Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of articles, like this one, come up on a lot of different sites that have come and gone. INN/TMC, TiS, EN24, Crossing Zebras, New Eden Post, blogs like Jester’s Trek, and on and on. And over the years, we all kept telling CCP similar things. Among them: you have to look at the whole game, holistically. You can’t just try to fix null, or just try to fix j-space, or just try to fix capitals. You need to get a solid grasp of how it all fits, how it all comes together—how it does… and how it should. And great news! They listened! They set up their ‘ecosystem team’ to take a look at the whole of things, to see how it fit together, and how they could try to take a holistic approach to fixing the game.

Sure, maybe we’re not all thrilled with the results of them listening. Maybe a lot of us are ready for Scarcity to be done already. Heck, maybe some folks have gotten so fed up, they’re unsubbed until it all settles down again. This is a new way of doing things for CCP. They were never going to get everything right on the first try.

Even if they don’t get it perfect right away, taking that step is a win. But economics isn’t the only place it needs to be done, and a quadrant about highlighting and celebrating the empires is the perfect time to go further. Doing so will even highlight underlying problems in approach that create some of the balance and meta issues that keep cropping up, year after year after year.

New Eden

The first thing to understand is the political situation in the New Eden cluster itself. A lot of players in null have only the vaguest idea of the actual political climate among NPCs. New players don’t really get any picture of it, either. And the Triglavian Invasion didn’t help clarify . . . anything. You wind up with players who think each of the empires is only out for itself, and assume “Faction Warfare” means there’s some kind of massive all-out wars going on when . . . there isn’t.

Only 100LY across, the cluster is a fairly dense region of stars. At one point, the hyper-mobile jump drives of all capitals only got them 5LY per jump. In reality, the closest star to our sun is around 4LY away. So New Eden’s pretty tightly-packed. At the same time, New Eden is home to three different types of space, by security status. Highsec/Lowsec, the space the empires control, is only about 40LY across. And yes, Battletech nerd that I am, I have to fight all the damned time to not refer to these interior regions of relative civilization as “the Inner Sphere.” So, shut up.

In this interior zone (hah!), we have five significant military powers: the four empires, and CONCORD. CONCORD, of course, is funded by the empires, and exists to keep them from breaking into open warfare with one another. Specifically, it was proposed by the Amarr shortly after the Minmatar Rebellion to make sure they didn’t get swamped by the Federal Navy. The Gallente, who are always more eager to talk people to death than shoot them, jumped on-board as long as the Republic was included. The Caldari were brought in as well, and there you go.

Faction Warfare

In terms of the political situation, the faction warzones aren’t really war, no matter how much the militias like to see them as real wars. Rather, they’re a consensual agreement between the four empires, none of whom actually want to win or lose. In the wake of some rogue naval groups and loyalist capsuleers (players, working with NPC groups like the Defiants) actually doing some serious crap that mattered, the empires decided things needed to change. They wanted a way to keep loyalist capsuleers close, without letting them disrupt their actual diplomatic efforts. So they pressured CONCORD, and CONCORD set up a system where loyalist capsuleers shoot one another, have fun, and get paid to work for their empire, all while the empires can (usually) safely ignore them.

At times, it’s been hinted that the upper levels of the empires might even see the warzones as a kind of bloodsport league. Really, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out they’re selling merch, too. In the end, FW gives the bloody-minded and disruptive an outlet, while still letting CONCORD maintain . . .

The Balance of Power

CONCORD works to maintain rough parity between the two blocs. The Amarr in the southwest are allied with the Caldari in the Northeast (I know – it’s only a mutual defense pact; shut up), while the Fed and the Republic align NW/SE. The Amarr have the largest navy, but it’s also the oldest and most in need of updating. The Caldari have the smallest fleet in terms of ship numbers, but it’s also the most modern. The Feds have the most powerful fleet, albeit aging, and the Republic Fleet is larger than the State’s, but not as modernized.

And yes, for everyone who wants to make some snide joke about duct tape and floating scrap heaps, that means the Minmatar have more modern ships than the Amarr. Even if the basic tech level employed is slightly lower, it’s running more efficiently. CCP’s done a good job of reflecting this with the updated models for a lot of the Minmatar line. 

So we have the largest fleet aligned with the smallest fleet, and the most powerful teamed up with the not-as-small-but-not-as-powerful fleet. Rough parity, right? Well . . . no. Not even close, in fact . . . and it’s because CCP appears to have stopped actually thinking of the balance of power back in 2005 or so.

What the Meta Tells You About Fleet Design

Some time ago, a wise person (I don’t remember if it was me, so I’m not taking credit, but I won’t tell anyone else not to say it was me . . .) said that the nullsec blocs are basically the empires’ warfare laboratories. We spend months throwing everything we’ve got at one another, figuring out fleet compositions, figuring out ship fittings, figuring out how to hyper-optimize hulls to do things they really shouldn’t. And then we spend those same months figuring out how to beat that set-up. It’s an endless arms race of tools and tactics. The empire navies would have to be collectively staffed by idiots not to carefully watch what we do. So what have we done? And what does that tell us?

Among other things, it tells us the balance of power is completely, utterly, screwed.

It’s All In The Bonuses

Why is the balance of power screwed? Because of hull bonuses, up and down the different ship lines. Before we get into the specifics, though, consider what the dominant fleet metas have been in EVE over the last five years:


The centerpiece of the venerable BaltecFleet, in use for almost a decade. When was the last time you saw Hyperions used for major bloc warfare?

  • Battleships
    • Megathron
    • Apocalypse
    • Rokh
    • Machariel
  • Battlecruisers
    • Ferox
    • Drake
    • Hurricane
    • Tornado
  • HACs
    • Muninn
    • Eagle
    • Cerberus
    • Sacrilege
    • Ishtar
  • Tactical Destroyers
    • Jackdaw
  • Assault Frigates
    • Harpy

And really, that’s been it. Most of those hulls are either Amarr or Caldari. All of those hulls that get defensive bonuses are Amarr or Caldari. Not a single ship that gets the normal Minmatar or Gallente racial defensive bonus (improved local repairs) has been a serious contender for dominating the meta. The last time one was, it was the Maelstrom, nine years ago. That wasn’t because of defensive bonuses, though; it was because of 8 1400mm Howitzer Artillery IIs. Maelstroms simply delete things. But now, Tornados do the same thing, cheaper. And without a defensive bonus.

So the people who optimize fleet performance never use the defensive bonus of two of the empires. That’s not surprising, though. Those empires get a bonus that applies to one ship’s repairs. No one ship is going to withstand an entire fleet’s firepower. The resist bonuses of the other two improve the performance of every logistics ship attempting to give remote aid. But those two empires are on the same side.

One whole side of the “Balance of Power” is, as it turns out, completely outmatched in the kind of fleet warfare the empires’ navies have to be preparing for. That’s what navies do.

Who Does What Now?

Don’t get me wrong: the navies of the various empires have a lot on their plates. Fleet combat is only a part of it. But then when we look at ships to fill the “solo patrol boat” or small picket group role . . . things tilt the other way. The Empire and State end up unable to support small-scale operations. There’s no way to send a single Logistics cruiser with a trio of combat vessels—alone, an Osprey, Augoror, or their T2 variants, are basically useless. Yes, you can fit an Augoror with 5 small reppers and run it solo, but that’s a serious edge-case. Neither the Osprey, nor their T2 brethren, can duplicate that feat.

Both sides of that are problems with the empires’ fleet design philosophies (which are actually CCP’s philosophies behind those empires’ fleets). And that’s the problem, really. None of the empires actually have a navy with the capabilities to do . . . navy things. And that makes no sense. There is no reason each of the four empire navies should have such glaring holes in their capabilities. Each empire has – not including industrials, transports, shuttles, freighters, and corvettes – fifty-one different ship classes. That is more than enough to cover all the bases. And covering those bases can only be helpful to CCP.

Fleet Design For Fun and Profit Actually Being Useful

I’m not going to sit here and claim to know all of the things a space navy would have to do. Hell, I won’t try to claim I know all the things a blue-water navy needs to do. Or a green one, for that matter. But it’s definitely something CCP should take some time and consider. I’m sure they’ve all read the Horatio Hornblower Mary Sue In Space Honor Harrington books. And they’re probably familiar with other franchises with space navies, like Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, etc, etc. So let’s take a look at just a few of the things we know the navies of EVE do.

Shoot Other Navies

This is pretty obvious. The biggest concern of a fleet is other fleets. The biggest concern of a navy is other navies. The tools, doctrines, and practices of a navy must include “What do we do if we’re attacked by another nation? What do we do if we attack another nation?” These are the concerns that create the need for a massive navy, after all. So, all four of the empires’ navies really do need to keep this in mind for fleet design.

Over most of empire space, that’s a readiness issue, but in the faction warzones, it stands to reason that there are rotations of fleet groups that come in, get live-fire experience against their opposite (and occasionally capsuleers), and rotate back out again.

Shoot Pirates

Hostile navies aren’t the only concern though, obviously. There’s also pirate activity. In EVE, that isn’t really “piracy” as we think about it. Nobody’s hauling down passing freighters, leaving the crew adrift in escape pods, and stealing the ship and cargo for sale in a nearby port.

But pirate groups still engage in organized criminal activity. And the navies still need to attempt to disrupt it. That means breaking forces up into decentralized collections of small task groups that handle patrolling interplanetary space within a system. It means hunting for pirate stargates. You know, so the location can be handed off to mission agents, who hang out in medieval taverns looking for murderhobo adventurers hire players to go deal with them.

But even if they’re handing off the heavy lifting, those small groups still need to be able to function. They still need to survive and work as a unit. And that means those units should be tailored to fitting that role. You don’t use a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier to get some grounded container ship out of the Suez Canal, right? And you don’t use Tempest Fleet Issues to go patrolling the ass-end of Jorus. (I mean, look at it. It’s a 0.7 security system 13j from Hek, and a billion jumps from anyplace people actually care about. Nothing’s happening there.)

That’s the role where ships like the Cyclone, Vexor Navy, or Incursus shine. Small, self-sufficient groups of these ships don’t need the power of numerous logistics ships. They can be mobile enough to evade larger groups of enemies. And if all they’re doing out there is running around in circles sniffing their own tails, you’re not wasting a lot of operational capability.

Shoot Anything Coming In The Door

The first two broad points are about the things navies need to do out in the space between celestials. This point is more about their roles on static locations: gates, planets, moons, stations, the sun, etc. All the things that don’t move in a star system.

These are places the navies should have good coverage, either via planetary defense satellites, station guns, quick response and customs, whatever. And yes, that should include lowsec. CONCORD might not be out there, but if the Amarr Empire can’t defend its lowsec holdings, do they even really hold them?

Gates are the big one here, but it’s true of all the static locations: the navies should have the capability to lock things down – or at least try. This role differs from the others in scale and capability. Groups need to be larger than the isolated patrols, and able to do more than just report back. Customs / grid control forces need to tackle people, and prevent them from warping off.

At the same time, they need to be basically everywhere at once, so it’s not something you can devote massive forces to. And maximum coverage with minimal forces means . . . speed, and ranged tackle. Which once again, we find fully half of the empire navies woefully unprepared to do.

At every scale, in every role, at least two of the navies are unsuited to the task at hand. That’s bad fleet design. And every time, it’s two navies on the same side of the balance of power. It’s either the Amarr and the Caldari, or it’s the Gallente and the Minmatar. It’s never, for example, the Amarr and Gallente. And that means the balance of power is decidedly unbalanced.

Arms Races and Espionage

Arms races are nothing new. We’ve seen them IRL. We’ve seen them in EVE. First empire to get a T3D working, remember? But arms races tend to be aggressively competitive. That’s the “race” part. And part of the aggressive half of that term is espionage. You don’t want the other side getting ahead, so if they get a breakthrough, you want to steal it as fast as you can. Steal the plans. Steal the research. Failing all that, steal a working model and reverse engineer it.

Is there any reason to think the Amarr wouldn’t like to have the ability to point things at 48km? Or that the Republic looks at Caldari shield resists and thinks “Pfft. OP munchkins”?

Sure, maybe there’s super-secret designs we don’t know about. Maybe there are advanced research projects so amazeballs, they’re kept under wraps even though they might have saved billions of lives and twenty-seven star systems during the Triglavian invasion. Maybe those exist, and there’s a vast shadow war being waged via industrial espionage.

But for everything else, there’s Jita 4-4. They don’t even have to steal it! Just buy a BPC and reverse-engineer it. You know, that thing empire engineers do so well that they’ve already released improved versions of four Triglavian hulls. And those were made by a group with thousands of years of technological divergence and a singularity power source that seems to violate all sorts of laws of physics.

Sure, we can make improvements on the Rodiva, but Lacheses, do they work by magnets, or something?

The Real Advantages of Revamping Fleet Design

We’ve covered why CCP blindly sticking to the way the empires have always approached fleet design is silly. It breaks immersion, and makes sure none of the navies can adequately perform their duties. All in all, it’s just bad. But let’s be honest, “This is dumb and bad, and you should feel bad” has never been enough to get CCP to change what they’re going.

If we want CCP to overhaul their approach to empire fleet design, we need more. We need to show just what the advantages are for them, and how it makes their lives easier in the long-run. And remember, “fleet design” isn’t about how you design a Republic fleet, or a Caldari fleet, etc. Fleet design is about how you design the Republic Fleet, or the Caldari Navy.

Advantage One: Freedom

Right now, CCP devs are trapped in a legacy system that they didn’t design. In some cases, that provides convenient shorthand, like “This is an Amarr hull; it gets 4% armor resists per level.” They don’t really have to think about much. But just because the dark side of fleet design is easier, quicker, more seductive . . . that doesn’t make it better. Or, you know, good.

Instead, overhauling the approach to fleet design means CCP can overhaul hull bonuses. Rather than bonuses based on race, bonuses could be based on role. Yes, there’s already some of this, with the split between “role bonus” and “[racial hull skill]” bonuses. But let’s face it, most of the bonuses from racial skills are exactly the bonuses the role demands.

Do only Gallente need longer point range? Do only the Amarr use armor? Obviously, we’ve already seen that’s not the case. Shifting the bonuses every navy would actively seek to reproduce from racial bonuses to role bonuses means CCP can get creative. They can express the proclivities and quirks of the empires; they can showcase what makes each group interesting. And they can do this without making any of them painfully incompetent at the things they’re supposed to do.

Advantage Two: Balance and Uniformity

By making sure bonuses are all about the role each hull is intended to play in naval use, CCP also gets a huge advantage in ship balance. If there are basically four ships for each role, then it becomes easy to see when one role is dominating the meta. It becomes even easier to figure out why, and make sure that no one ship or role is used to the point of marginalizing everything else.

If HACs are too dominant (and there’s actually a case to be made that they’re not, but this section was already getting stupidly long), then you simply revisit the role you see “fleet HACs” playing in the fleet design of empire navies. Narrow the huge pile of bonuses they get. Do they really need all those bonuses and the ability to fit an ADC? Or do other hull types need their roles expanded?

[Author’s Note: “Fleet HACs”, for the record, being things like the Eagle, Muninn, Sacrilege, and Ishtar, vs “skirmish HACs” like the Deimos and Vagabond. The balance between the two is a whole other mess, that I’m going to split out, along with the “Are they really OP?” question, into another piece.]

Advantage Three: Ship Use!

This is a result of the other two, and it should be obvious that’s the case. When you can provide a wider assortment of ships that can competently perform a needed role, you get a wider assortment of ships being used. And people get into them quicker. You don’t need to have everyone training up a different set of racial frigate, destroyer, and cruiser skills because they have to get into a different flavor-of-the-month battlecruiser.

But that kind of “ship use” isn’t even what I’m talking about! No, I’m talking about the kind of ship use CCP keeps telling (and showing) us that they want. The kind that could be considered ‘combined arms’ in the EVE environment. When you have defined fleet roles – useful fleet roles – and ships to fill them, you create an environment where those roles get filled. It’s an environment where you get fleets that look like fleets, instead of 75% of your fleet being there to just anchor up and press F1.

Fleet Design Begets Fleet Composition

Think of capital ships, with the roles to be capital ships. They’re command-and-control points, not just bigger ehp blocks with bigger dps numbers. A single carrier sits in the middle of a 100-ship fleet, its NSA coordinating telemetry. Frigates fly on the edges, and the distance between them works just like it does in real signal tracking and astronomy: the greater the distance between detectors, the better the resolution. More detectors—more frigates – improve signal strength. They all combine for better target tracking and motion prediction, so missiles and turret accuracy improves.

Destroyers, just inside the frigate net, ready with defender missiles for hostile bombers, or looking for chances to snipe enemy frigates to degrade hostile fire control. Cruisers fill support roles in the fleet: logistics, heavy tackle, dedicated EWAR of all sorts. Attack Battlecruisers provide firepower at lower cost, while battleships sit as the mainstay damage dealers of the fleet, keeping hostiles from getting close enough to the carrier to make it all fall apart.

Elsewhere in the constellation, outrider groups of cruisers like Thoraxes, Ruptures, or Omens skirmish to secure secondary objectives. Each group has a few heavily-tanked Combat Battlecruisers, and maybe even a Command Ship running operations.

That’s what CCP keeps showing us in their trailers: combined, well-defined fleet structure. It’s what they keep telling us they’d love to see happen in the client, too. Well, CCP, it doesn’t just happen by chance. You’ve got to design for it. And designing for it means you have to ask yourself ‘what does each navy need, and how are they getting it?’ Because right now, you’ve built navies that mostly resemble running brick walls into one another. And half of them were never given any bricks.

Post-Script

On the June 12 Meta Show, Brisc Rubal lauded the upcoming Black Ops changes and said he’d heard no complaints. That’s worrisome, because complaints there are, right in the feedback thread. My own complaints about the CovOps changes gave rise to this article. Others have centered on CCP apparently forgetting – again – that increasing the inertia modifier on ships degrades their maneuverability. Or that the Black Ops ships all get buffs to their damage output . . . except the Sin, which gets bonuses to logistics drones.

A few posters have also rightfully pointed out that all of this “make them even more glass-cannon-y” isn’t going to make them more likely to be used for combat. It’s still a single 2b+ ISK hull that’s recently become more of a pain in the butt to replace. Worse, the Black Ops line doesn’t get as much tank as the faction versions of the non-BlOps hulls. Heck, with the loss of the third rig slot, it’s hard to give them the same tank you can get on the vanilla T1 hull.

2b ISK for a Panther that can’t take as much punishment as a 360M ISK Typhoon? Hell no. The Panther’s got non-combat utility applications like bridging. Sure, it’s fun to drop a group of BlOps on an unsuspecting target, but I’m not actually risking the ship when I do it. And really, neither will anyone else. Hell, I doubt the empires would do something that dumb. Nor should they. Utility ships are utility ships.

In attempting to fix a problem only CCP saw as one (people aren’t throwing away their stupidly-expensive utility ships!), CCP has highlighted the real problem. They don’t actually consider what roles ships have, or why, and what roles ships need to fill, in effective fleet design.

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Comments

  • Gee Poloskei

    wow this is a fantastic post. its what we all want eve to be. thanks for taking the time to write this i hope people take time to meditate on what you have written. i always point to blizzard when it comes to game design and they are kings at it, especially the perfect balance of Starcraft back in the day. ccp should really aim for blizzard perfection.

    June 25, 2021 at 10:11 PM
  • Noob

    Holy shit.

    That was a great read.

    Well done.

    With the caveat that the sorry state of Eve media is such that it is entirely possible that the (paraphrased) Eddie Murphy theory of “give a starving man a cracker and he’ll ask if it’s a Ritz” applies.

    But still…

    June 26, 2021 at 2:45 AM
  • Mr Augur

    Nice Read. I would like to add that Fleet mechanics should also be improved. As for now Fleet mechanics is like one big party system without any spacial function except Fleet warp in most cases. I know it may work well when you design people to specific wings or squadrons but it also is work mostly as warp Group.

    June 26, 2021 at 12:28 PM