EVE Evolved: To blob or not to blob

To blob or not to blob, that is the question. Blobbing in EVE Online has always been a hot topic for debate on the forums and a tough issue to tackle for developers. At its simplest, blobbing is a PvP strategy in which massive fleets are used to completely overwhelm the enemy. Although the term blob usually has negative connotations, fleet warfare is a strongly advertised aspect of EVE and is required for 0.0 alliances to take and hold space. When two or more sides in a conflict can field massive numbers, huge fleet battles can ensue.

What is a blob and why is it undesirable?
The word "blob" is one of the most widely misused terms in EVE and it's one that few people agree on a definition of. To some, a fleet is only a blob if it has hundreds of ships in it. To others, a gang of 15 battleships hunting their lone frigate would be considered a blob. For the purposes of game mechanic discussion, a blob is really just a fleet that's so large it causes normal fleet warfare to break or encounter problems that make it a lot less fun for those involved.

The basis of the blob is the universal constant in EVE warfare that more ships is always better no matter what your target is. If you have a choice between fielding a small gang or a large one, the larger gang is almost always the better choice because it gives a higher chance of victory with fewer losses. What makes a blob undesirable is that once fleets get above a certain size, fleet warfare is not nearly as fun as it should be.

Do you hate blob warfare? Read on to find out why blob warfare isn't as fun as it should be and how the blob problem could possibly be solved.

Epic fleet battles with over 200 pilots per side are often plagued with lag to the point where pilots are lucky if they can even fire their guns. When lag isn't crippling pilots, massive fleet battles are far from being the kind of epic space battles seen in classic sci-fi like Star Trek or Star Wars. Rather than split off into squadrons of ships that go after separate targets, the most effective way to fight an enemy fleet is to have all of your damage-dealers focus their fire on one target at a time. The faster you can kill someone, the less effective enemy active tanking becomes and the faster the enemy fleet loses ships.

The only reason for damage-dealers to target different people is if they won't lock their primary target in time before he's killed. The end result is that the optimum way for a group to fight any battle is to bring as many ships as they can and focus fire on one target at a time. Unfortunately, when fleets get very large, the number of damage-dealers focusing on an enemy target is so large that he will be killed within seconds once targeted. This gives pilots virtually no time to react before they're killed, which isn't much fun at all. Although most pilots agree that this style of fighting is less fun than smaller gang warfare, they still form the largest fleet possible because a larger fleet will always be more effective.

CCP's attempted blobbing solutions:
Over the years, EVE's developers at CCP have introduced a number of changes in the name of counteracting the problems associated with blobbing. Their efforts have yielded a number of handy game mechanics but none of them have yet reduced the effectiveness of the blob.

  • Gang structure was changed to include different wings and squadrons. Some players hoped that this would make different wings/squadrons choose different targets. Damage dealers still focus fire on one target at a time and still kill them before they have time to react.

  • The titan was introduced with a doomsday device that can destroy all small ships within 200km. Although this brutal piece of anti-fleet weaponry could effectively destroy a large fleet in one shot, it didn't discourage large fleets or focus fire.

  • Bombs and Remote ECM Burst were introduced with hopes that they would counter blobbing. These specialist area effect weapons have done little to change the size and composition of fleets. Focus fire is still the most effective combat strategy.

I believe that these strategies all failed because the problems associated with blobbing were never adequately defined. When bombs were introduced, EVE developer Tuxford explained how bombs were designed to counter a phenomenon he called the "power ball" . Starting with the incorrect assumption that ships had to remain physically near each other to be effective at focusing fire, the idea of countering the power ball with an area effect weapon was fundamentally flawed.

Problem solving:
The first step toward solving any problem is defining it. With regards blobbing, the problems we want to fix with it are those that stop fleet warfare being fun. The issue with large fleets causing the server to lag is something that CCP are always tackling with hardware upgrades. The only gameplay issue that I think needs resolving is the fact that in huge fleet battles, focus fire can kill people before they have time to react. Being killed before having time to react is no fun at all and removes the option of calling for remote repairer assistance.

To solve this problem, we need to come up with a solution that satisfies the problem at hand without affecting other avenues of gameplay such as small gang warfare or mission-running too much. As it's clear that anti-blob weaponry will not work, my favourite solutions involve a form of mild stacking penalty being imposed on multiple people attacking one person. The best solution in that category that I've seen involves a new idea called "noise".

The basic idea with "noise" is that targeting an enemy ship causes targeting noise which interferes with further locking attempts on the target by slowing them down. This ingenious system is essentially a stacking nerf on targeting speed against a specific enemy. In principle, this system means that if an entire fleet of ships target one person, they'll each finish targeting him at different times over the course of a minute or so. The damage being dealt to that pilot would be increased over time rather than coming all at once, giving him some time to react.

The other major benefit of the noise system is that it's more efficient for damage-dealers to form smaller squadrons and have each squadron go after different targets. If it takes the first 16 ships an average of 30 seconds to target the enemy but takes an average of over two minutes once you reach 20 or so, for example, it would be beneficial to split into squads of 16. Squadrons will target their respective enemies much more quickly in smaller groups than if they all go after one target. The option is still present to order more than one squadron to attack the enemy or to use larger squadron sizes for difficult enemies but lock times will be increased.

Potential pitfalls:
As with any major game change, this solution has a few problems that need to be worked out before it becomes viable. The first major one is that the noise system can be circumvented by calling multiple targets. You could attempt to target six enemies and by the time you've killed one, the next target should be available. Once you've acquired your targets, your gang is free to focus its fire as before. A simple fix to this pitfall is to reduce the number of ships that a player can actively acquire to one or two. The ship would retain the same maximum number of targets but could only be actively acquiring one or two at a time. Target acquisition could also be canceled at any time.

The second major pitfall is that people can target friendly pilots to make them noisy and therefore harder to target. It has been suggested that gang/fleet members should not add noise when they target someone but it's not guaranteed that two people on the same side of a battle will be in the same fleet. One solution for this could be to remove the noise on a target after the targeting process has been finished. That target could then be immune to noise generated by the pilot who locked him for a few minutes. Constantly generating a lot of interference on a friendly ship would then be impossible as once you've locked your friend, he becomes immune to noise from your target locks for several minutes. This has the bonus side-effect that once one squadron have all locked their target and started attacking, the target's noise is dropped to zero again and a second squadron can target him just as quickly as the first if they need backup.

In summary:
Overall, this potential solution makes complete focus-fire in fleet combat an inefficient method. Fleets that split into squadrons and manages them well could very well win against fleets with superior numbers. I think that a change like this would definitely make fleet battles more diverse and interesting, not to mention epic. Squadron-based fleet combat could breathe new life into a now somewhat stale avenue of 0.0 warfare. Although bringing a bigger fleet is always better, I think everyone taking part in the massive fleet battle will be having more fun.

What's your opinion? Does this solution present any major drawbacks that haven't been addressed? Have you thought of a simpler solution that might do the trick?