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I focus almost exclusively on PvP, whether solo, small gang, or large bloc warfare. In the past, I've been a miner, mission runner, and faction warfare jockey. I'm particularly interested in helping high-sec players get into 0.0 combat.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Fallacy of the N+1 Problem

When CCP announced the capital changes, two thoughts struck me immediately.  The first was delight at the prospect of supercapitals being more vulnerable through losing their ewar immunity.  As it currently stands, blobs of supercapitals are incredibly difficult to pin down and fight, particularly in lowsec.  So difficult, in fact, that they’re a broken fleet concept, far too strong.

The second thought was that Archon blobs would be a thing of the past.  A split between damage dealing and repair abilities, coupled with the requirement for the new capital priests being in triage – and unable to receive incoming reps – means capital fleets will face the same choices and vulnerabilities as subcaps, albeit with a larger tank and greater consequences.

Both of these mean, I hope, that supercap and capital fights are more likely to result in some kills for each side, a critical factor affecting the enjoyment level of all parties.  It’s no fun having your entire fleet dunked without even a single kill to show for it.  I suspect we’ve seen the end of that for capital fights.

However, one thought that pointedly did not pop into my mind was, “This is a solution to the N+1 problem!”  Part of that reason is because it clearly isn’t.  The other part is because there is no “N+1 Problem”… not as folks tend to think of it.

Let’s talk about the less confrontational bit first.  Rebalancing capitals ultimately served to split fleet roles among more ship types, and pretty clearly represents a punch to the face of boot Archon fleets and slowcat feets, which can operate completely without subcap support.  CCP is pushing for a “combined arms” approach to fleet warfare.  Why else would they split damage dealing via drones and fighters from the repair ability of triage carriers?  As further proof, carriers will no longer be able to carry or field drones, only fighters.

I’d call that a pretty clear argument that the capital rebalance is meant to re-introduce the need to make choices to fleet doctrines that had become stale and remarkably uniform.  It does nothing to allow smaller fleets to survive and succeed against larger fleets.  In fact, by requiring the new repair capitals to be in triage to dish out reps, it opens the door for those triage capitals to be destroyed much more easily, further expanding the effectiveness of large fleets at quickly eliminating targets from smaller fleets.  Yep, these changes exacerbate the advantage of larger fleets.

But, more simplistically, they cannot solve the “n+1 problem”, because “n+1” isn’t a problem.

At its core, players state this problem thusly: It is a problem that players are always incentivized for bringing more members to a fight, and that all things being equal, a fleet with equal numbers and fleet comp, plus one extra ship, will do better than a fleet that doesn’t have that extra ship.

Let me phrase it this way for you.  Is it a problem that in an MMO, the fleet that can bring more numbers has a distinct advantage?  I’d argue that it’s not.  If there’s one law that an MMO should adhere to, it’s that “Players who team together in greater numbers should have an advantage over those who do not.”

And, to be frank, that’s even overstating the situation.  After all, it is possible for a small group of high-sp players to completely wreck a large group of pilots flying cheap ships.  Throwing isk at the problem CAN produce results – look at Machariel fleets, for instance.  And a high-skill – real, player skill, that is – pilot can destroy multiple less experienced enemies.

All three of these demonstrate that not only isn’t “n+1” a valid complaint, but it’s not a problem even if it was.  In the end, the “n+1 problem” is a way for smaller groups to complain about well-organized enemies (and they almost always mean the Imperium).  But that’s not really a problem of the utter dominance of superior numbers, but rather the result of Pandora’s box – IT resources, external applications, and business-like organization – being opened.  Nothing is going to put those evils back in again.

And is that really a problem?  The principle of the central position and local superiority can still win fights.  Superior numbers isn’t unstoppable.

And, when you are talking about equal ship types/tiers, skill levels, and tactics, is it so wrong that more leads to victory?

We are playing a massively multiplayer game, after all.


  1. I see the N+1 problem more in the sense of FCs often only needing to add "numbers" - as opposed to skill - to their fleets. It would be fine if more numbers meant using them in a combined, skillful, tactical and meaningful manner, which is not the case for uniform fleets that have been so prevalent for a long time now.

    1. And yet, well-oiled fleets can defeat larger disorganized "F1 pusher" fleets. Look at the effectiveness of T3D fleets vs larger fleets. To fly a T3D properly, you need to manage modes along with neuts, guns, ewar, and possibly self-reppers, after all.

  2. The 'n+1' problem should be defined as a stalemate concept. As in, there is no way to defeat the equal opponent without bringing more people in, which leads to runaway escalations, i.e. BR-5B. The ability of current capital meta fleets to prevent any losses until a critical mistake or a minimum of numbers are fielded in opposition should be the focus of the 'n+1' debate, not that larger numbers will defeat your opponent. Its that larger numbers are the only way to win.

    Your example about smaller groups wrecking larger groups is way off the mark, considering we are speaking about capitals. A smaller capital force cannot score kills against a current capital PL/CFC class opponent unless they can drastically outplay, simply because the mechanics prevent a single loss in this scenario. Its not about isk or numbers. But the perceived notion, real or imagined, that they need more than they could ever field to kill one ship is why the 'n+1' concept keeps going.

  3. "Here is what these people think. I rephrased it to ~the 'same' thing~. This same thing is not a problem."

    Not exactly honest writing, I think.

    More importantly, I think you forgot these words: "Up to a certain point". Skill, ISK, Upshipping, all will 'beat' N+1 "up to a certain point". Beyond that point, you'll have no improvement. 100 Sleipnirs fitted with max bling and max implants will still do very little to 1000 Megathrons.

    So, what do I complain about when I complain about N-1?

    The presence of a skill floor that means 'the good' are only slightly better than 'the pathetically useless'. Piloting of every shade should be a challenging, enjoyable activity. Anchoring, Broadcasting, Keep at range, all represent a skill floor which you have to be deliberately stupid to get below. .

    Eve also has a 'brain to brawn' problem. Too much is dependant on too few people: the FC and Logi Anchor (and Logi). Two guys can effectively wield 250 people, doing all the thinking and work for them.

    Basically, N+1 is a problem because adding people brings advantages, not drawbacks. If it was a logistical and personnel challenge to operate a fleet that increased beyond 30-50 exponentially, then N+1 would not be so strong.

    Because it is not, you can effectively wield a sledgehammer formed of unskilled, unthinking peons that will beat a smaller but more skilled fleet almost every time.

    Finally, Eve suffers because this game doesn't have a 1 account, 1 character to player limit. If it wasn't possible to multibox with characters, then headshot-ing would be a more effective practise. Similarly, one character, one account leads to meaningful gameplay that is avoided by having alts.

    PS, suffering comms chaos isn't an in-game challenge.

    1. Please don't use that 100 vs 1000 example - it just damages credibility (who would ever expect the 100 to win? Really?). There is no Thermopylae in EVE now that gate lag is continually being fixed - unless you want to try holding large fleet battles in asteroid fields, or within mission areas or in the middle of a complex, or other structure filled warpable site. I get that you were using an extreme example, but it still defies belief to begin with, and wasn't the original implication of the core post. It's a bad debate tactic and negatively impacts the position of the discussion.

      Next - of course larger numbers of well trained well equipped pilots will win. Even more so if their spies warn them what the enemy is bringing. This is true in the real world also. I don't agree with the idea that this should not be true in-game for exactly this reason.

      I also don't agree with the idea that following the chain of command (FCs and logi anchors) is bad either. Following orders in combat gets results. People wandering off on their own gets your own side killed rather than the enemy.

      Remember, large nullsec fights are the battle of the somme, waterloo, or agincourt. With cavalry charges (warping and interceptors) included! But with voice comms so that the commander actually remains in control of his army, rather than relying on subordinates to correctly interpret his orders.

      If you want the dirty dozen, look to the cloaky bastards of this game, or the gang fights, destroyer pilots, interceptors/dictors. The new warp jump destroyers who may be used to rip out the beating heart of the logi/FC (if FCs haven't already spotted this possibility, I'll find a hat to eat).

      If you want to fix capital N+1 then the new carrier changes are good. If you want this done at subcaps, ask that they apply the triage mechanic to subcap logi also. If you have a complaint at the multiboxing issue, then complain about how gang links can work off grid, in system, behind a pos shield. This (and the fact we don't have our cloak-removing radar structures - and I say this as a sometime recon pilot myself) is the real issue.

      The key to correctly using the N+1 argument isn't to say "larger fleets led by proper FCs win fights" because this is what should happen. It's to say that "N+1 when backed up by broken mechanics like archon blobs, sentry assignments, abused gang links is a horiffic thing, please fix these terrible mechanics" as this is very true, and gives the argument real, fact-based, evidence given weight. Broken mechanics are bad, and we should keep holding CCP to account for them - these are what the argument is really about, and what we should focus on, and fixing them will eradicate N+1 being a problem at all, because currently N+1 is only really supported by the above broken mechanics). Resolving these broken mechanics, (rather than the smokescreens and mirrors they hide behind) is what will solve these problems for the better health of our game and gameplay enjoyment. Attack the cause, rather than the symptoms.

  4. Good point of view. N+1 is only a symptom of lacking alternatives. In a medium sized encounter you can challenge an enemy bigger than you with better ships like attacker in T1 your fleet in HAC. Or with different attack ranges, you fight a close range enemy? Shoot them from afar. Even experienced fleets can end up at the receiving end by mistakes of their FC or the genius trick of the enemy. But what do you do against a slow cat wrecking ball? Bring Titans or more cats (thus, N+1 is seen as the problem).

    What eve lacks is the counter against huge fleets. With the new Doomsday Weapons we may get that back a bit, but fielding a Titan is still something only the big players will do. I hope it happens and with the capital changes ahead, the slowcat won't be as invincible as they currently are. AoE weapons are the key to counter huge fleets relying on FC and Anchor only.

    And of course there is the F1 Monkey factor, where even the worst player in the right ship can contribute enough to the fleet that it is financially a good decision to SRP even that dude. People complain about dumping down eve, but have you heard complains about “ctrl+click broadcast target and hit F1” as dumping down? I guess you don't believe that is a challenging game mechanic. Your experienced fleet can counter this monkey factor in some terms as your good pilots can use EWar in a way no FC could teach to the F1er. If the odds are overwhelming like 200 vs 50, even your good pilots will die. But that's OK, as you said an MMO should reward those who manage to rally more people.

    But if there are 1000 vs 200, why isn't there an option for the 200 to throw a huge bomb costing multiple billions to kill say 600 of those? It needs to be too expensive to throw at lesser numbers but a viable option if you are out numbered. Should there be a limit where it is rewarding to rally people? Are AoE weapons enough counter to too big fleets? Maybe we need other drawbacks for increased fleet size (like signature bloom with rising fleet numbers)? I am neither a game designer nor a high level FC not even a regular large fleet attendee.