Let’s begin by taking a look at how fighters started out, to see how they got to the point of needing a redesign.
The first playable release of the game only had combat missions, and the way fighters worked was heavily influenced by that. My understanding of how the campaign would work was at that point quite fuzzy, and so once the campaign did come about, fighters had to be adjusted to fit in. This led to some awkward mechanical interactions and obscure rules.
For example, if you have any ships with flight decks in your fleet, then you can’t lose fighters permanently. However, you can still have fighters in your fleet if you don’t have any carriers, they just don’t get any replacements in combat, and if you lose all of them, you permanently lose the wing. And if you do have carriers deployed, and lose all the fighters in a wing in combat, they may get replacements or be lost for the duration of the battle, depending on whether any flight decks were available at the exact moment the last fighter was destroyed.
Very much a “good enough for now” state of affairs, and something that’s been gnawing at me for a while. It’s too much of a mess to continue ignoring indefinitely, but why clean it up now, seemingly when there’s exploration, salvage, and everything related to work on?
The answer is, of course, that fighters tie into those things. Can you recover fighters through salvage? Can automated defenders use fighters? What about the eventual/upcoming skill revamp? That certainly needs to include fighters. Despite being a relatively small part of combat, fighters are still a part of that foundation, and it’ll help moving forward to finally have it be solid.
There’s a side issue of fighters being under-powered – left behind after skills were introduced – but that’s tangential. Making them more powerful is trivial, so as much as that’s a balance issue, it doesn’t require a redesign as the solution.
One of the things I wanted to focus on was keeping the mechanics simple. It’s very easy to go off into the woods and come up with something over-complex because it’s neat, because it “makes sense”, or because it’s interesting from a systems point of view, but doesn’t actually make for good gameplay. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the new fighters work.
Fighters are now something you install on carriers, rather than being members of your fleet – essentially special weapons. Fighter LPCs (“Limited Production Chips”) can be bought at markets or found as salvage, and go in your cargo until they’re installed.
Like weapons, fighter LPCs cost ordnance points to install, with better fighters costing more. Each carrier has a number of fighter bays, which limits the number of fighter wings that can be installed.
There’s a bit of a trap here – it’s tempting to balance fighters against other weapons in terms of their cost. If we do this, however, carriers would need an obscene number of ordnance points – to support both fighter bays and normal weapon mounts. But then, a ship that’s ostensibly a carrier could instead invest those points into hullmods, flux vents, capacitors, and so forth – becoming a more effective direct-combat ship. That a carrier should remain powerful while giving up on fighters doesn’t feel right.
To address this, fighters are balanced around a base cost of zero for the “worst” fighter. (Hello, Talon interceptor! We meet again.) Better fighters cost more ordnance points, but are still superior to weapons point-for-point.
But won’t that mean that carriers will be fitted with fighters exclusively, since they’re better? There’s certainly a benefit to giving up some weapons to install better fighters, but so long as the fighter cost increase over the baseline is balanced against the increase in effectiveness, there are tradeoffs to consider.
For a more specific example, you could have a wing of Talons for zero ordnance points. A Broadsword wing costs 8 points, and compared to your weapon and hullmod options for those 8 points, a Broadsword wing is really good! But compared to 8 points spent elsewhere and a free Talon wing? It starts to look more even.
Much like with installing fighters on a carrier, the idea is that fighters are a carrier’s weapons, and that a carrier can be a ship the player will want to pilot themselves, rather than always being relegated to an AI-controlled support role.
When you deploy a carrier into battle, all of its fighter wings take off from its flight decks; there’s no option to deploy wings separately from the carrier. A carrier can keep producing replacements almost indefinitely – it won’t “run out” of fighters until it hits 0% combat readiness. Fighter wings also can’t be ordered to do things from the combat map – so, for example, they can no longer capture control points, or attack a target from across the map. These were all strategic options that came at the expense of what the carrier itself could do. To replace these, there are now ways for a carrier to control its fighters.
First off, there’s a new control to order fighters to “engage” or “regroup”, functioning very much for fighters like the “hold fire” toggle does for weapons. When ordered to regroup, fighters will escort the carrier. When ordered to engage, well, it depends.
If you target a friendly ship, the fighters will go to escort it. If you target an enemy, they’ll attack. Different fighters have different maximum ranges at which they can operate, and these (usually) greatly exceed the range of normal weapons.
Finally, to increase the interactivity and skill involved in using fighters, several carriers have new fighter-specific ship systems, replacing their humdrum defensive drones. For example, the Astral-class carrier has a “Recall Device”, while the Heron has a “Targeting Feed”, and the Gemini sports “Reserve Deployment”.
The above is the baseline; some specific tweaks were still needed to make it all work out gameplay-wise.
If you’re fighting against an enemy carrier, and they can keep replacing their fighters indefinitely, then destroying them doesn’t feel like you’re making progress – and, unless you’re taking them out more quickly than they can be replaced, you’re really not. On the flip side, if you’re controlling a carrier, and can wear an enemy down by sending a never-ending stream of fighters at them, that’s not exactly fun either.
To solve both issues, there’s a “replacement rate” stat for carriers, sort of like the flux bar for weapons, but for fighters. It’s a measure of how stressed the fighter bays are by producing replacements, going down when they’re working, and going up when they’re idle. While fighters are ordered to regroup, the replacement rate holds steady if it would otherwise go down.
When piloting a carrier, this means that you’re encouraged to send fighters in in a wave, and then regroup to minimize the stress on the replacement rate. Trickling out fighters and sending them to engage constantly will tank the replacement rate, making replacements come out slower and slower, until the enemy can easily handle them.
When fighting against a carrier, this means that even though fighter replacements are theoretically unlimited, individual kills matter because they stress the replacement rate.
(Why not use flux instead of a new meter? That’d be nice in theory, but would require fine-grained controls over which fighter wings get replacements, much like weapon autofire can be controlled. This, I think, is too much in terms of control complexity, especially as a carrier still has weapons to manage.)
There’s a related issue with bombers and such returning to the carrier after carrying out their attack run. There needs to be an incentive for the enemy to shoot them down, and a reward for them making it back in once piece. Making returned fighters re-launch very quickly (within a second or so) solves both.
Let’s say you’ve got your Astral-class carrier, the biggest in the game, fitted out with a perfect set of wings. Design-wise, what do we want to happen if you send those en masse to attack an Onslaught-class battleship?
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the answer is “not much, if anything”. Ideally, the Onslaught will not be harmed, and will take a good portion of the fighters out to boot. Consider what would happen if fighters did do significant damage when used this way. That would make the ideal carrier loadout a set of wings that can deal this kind of damage, and all the engine boosts you can stack, to take out enemy ships from a safe distance. There wouldn’t be much decision-making involved past putting together the loadout – just send out fighter wave, rinse and repeat.
Instead, what I’d like is for fighters to be a support weapon. Mostly ineffective if used on their own against a target comparable in size to their parent carrier, but extremely effective when combined with other ships – or with direct support from the carrier itself.
Fortunately, it’s not difficult to make fighters ineffective on their own. Solid point-defense weapons have an easy time taking out most incoming bombs and torpedoes, and what’s left impacts on shields. A few AI improvements later (mostly involving not getting locked down by insignificant damage and being able to vent flux while under such fire), a frontal fighter assault is where it needs to be in terms of efficiency – down in the dumps.
Now, how do we make them effective in a combined-arms situation? One obvious tactic is to use the presence of allied ships to flank an enemy. Most ships aren’t going to have the same concentration of defenses from the flank or rear, so this is certainly viable. Load up with torpedo bombers, flank the Onslaught, and send a dozen torpedoes up its tailpipe. Nice and clean if you can pull if off, but flanking with a large and slow carrier has its own challenges.
Another way is to simply attack when an allied ship has driven up enemy flux, leaving them more vulnerable. Or is it? This sounds good on paper, but often doesn’t play out that way. Point-defense weapons don’t generate much flux, so a ship isn’t that much more vulnerable when its flux is high. A ship mostly reliant on shields might be, but many ships will shoot everything down just as well as they did on low flux.
In fact, this is part of a larger problem. Suppose you’re sending in a few bomber wings. If they don’t score at least hits on shields, they haven’t done anything useful. But how much gets through can be down to luck – a flak cannon missing a shot slightly, or aiming at a lone torpedo instead of a few clustered together, to take better advantage of its area damage. What this means is stacking up on as many bomber wings as you can is a good idea, to give the best chance of some bombs or torpedoes getting through.
So, as is, you’d want the maximum number of bombers, and you might still get foiled entirely by concentrated point-defenses, even when acting in support of an allied ship. Not good for loadout variety, and not good for fighter effectiveness.
To encourage fighter loadout diversity, and to make them effective when they need to be, what we want to do is have fighters that work well together – the combined force becoming, to use a cliche, more than the sum of its parts.
In the case of bombers, what’s better than just more bombers? Well, they already have trouble scoring hits against point-defense, so a fighter than can help bomber payloads get through point-defenses would be a good fit. Enter the Broadsword:
Tough and agile, the Broadsword carries a point-defense jammer that draws defensive fire away from high-value targets like bombers and their payloads. However, it can falter if faced with the need to deal the killing blow itself.
Under the hood, the “point-defense jammer” is a hullmod that makes point-defense weapons target the Broadsword first. Presumably, the jammer operates by emitting a high-strength signal that leaves other targets invisible, but does nothing to hide the source of the jamming.
After some fiddling with the Broadsword – its speed (to make it arrive just before bombers) and hitpoints (to make it survive long enough) – this works! Mixing Broadsword wings in half and half with bombers results in many more bombs and torpedoes getting through than for pure bombers, and most importantly, the hits are reliable.
Importantly, when used alone, fighters still can’t do much – these hits will be absorbed by shields – but used against a high-flux target, this makes all the difference. Bombers in a direct engagement go from rolling the dice to being reliable assistance.
Now, the Broadsword isn’t the only fighter that can combine well with bombers or even other fighters, but the PD jammer was the missing piece needed to make bombers finally click.
In other effective combinations, the Longbow carries a Sabot anti-shield missile that pairs well with bombers carrying high-explosive payloads. The Gladius works well with interceptor swarms, giving them more damage and a bit more toughness. The Warthog does great anti-armor damage, but needs help to get through shields – help which can even come from its parent carrier. The various interceptors can be combined counter enemy bombers, as well as rapidly focus down weaker targets.
In total, there are currently 14 different fighter types (including the new Khopesh Rocket Bomber and Claw), and there are fairly distinct roles for all of them. There are a few cases of “this bomber is better than this other one” (the Dagger is just not as strong as the Trident), but the latter is extremely expensive, leaving the Dagger a comfortable niche.
All in all, I’m hopeful that these changes will meet the main goals – making carriers an interesting flagship choice, improving fighter variety in terms of which ones actually get used, and sanding off all the rough edges that have been there for so long. Naturally, we’ll have to see how it plays out, and I’m sure some adjustments here and there will be necessary.
Then, of course, there’s addressing how fighters scale up as player skills come into play, but that’s another topic.
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