Instead, a single ship sits alone in the depths of space, completely isolated from its fleet, providing a system-wide boost to all ships beneath it in the fleet structure. That fleet booster will never see either its fleet members or the enemy ships. Pretty much the only meaningful gameplay that ship needs to do is watch short scan for probes and incoming ships, and remaining aligned to quickly warp out to escape anyone trying to take it out. Its function is very similar to sitting at a safe and hoping you don't get probed down. For all intents and purposes, it's not playing the same game as anyone else in system. When attacking, by default you'll need a probing character with Virtue implants to be able to get a 100% lock on a halfway decent boosting fit.
And yet, links are viewed as absolutely essential to any well-run fleet. Even some individual and small-gang pilots (I use individual to refer to multiboxing individual pilots running multiple ships; they are not solo) will absolutely require links before undocking.
The demands of large fleets and small gangs are very different, and whether fleet boosts are present or absent affects each differently. In most large fleets, links help increase survivability, but not necessarily viability; they keep ships alive, but the fleet would operate similarly with or without links. In other cases - such as doctrines that rely on additional webbing range or glass cannon sniper fleets (Tornadoes, slippery pete Tengus) that need additional lock range - links are absolutely vital to effectively fly the doctrine. A slippery pete doctrine that operates within a Maelstrom fleet's lock range stands no chance, for instance.
For small gang work, links can often mean the difference between using and not using a given ship. many kiting ships, for instance, rely on a speed advantage - often coupled with implants - to maintain range, and without it, they simply wouldn't have a role. Links also provide a meaningful advantage when facing the blob; without links, the solo pilot doesn't stand a chance, so no fight happens.
It's a thorny problem. And CCP has decided to tackle it. Finally.
The "Link Problem"
Links are a touchy subject, and evoke a lot of emotion. On the one side, defenders hold links up as a vital means of countering the blob. They rightly point out that solo roaming has been strangled over the years, with more and more pilots simply giving up and leaving the game. The blob rules all, they argue, but links offer a means for individual pilots to even the odds a little. For several years, the solution to any problem in Eve has been to throw more pilots into the fire. It's an inelegant solution that undermines the individual skill of certain pilots. Some people don't enjoy waiting for an hour for fleets to form up and reach a destination, and simply want to get out into the action. Links help those pilots get into the thick of things and face the most likely scenario they'll face: fighting outnumbered with no backup.
Also on this side are pilots who have suffered more than enough cancelled fleets because one side couldn't find enough link pilots. The only thing worse than spending an hour forming up is for the fleet to be cancelled due to a lack of link pilots. Why welp a fleet into an enemy that does have links if you don't. Because it confers such an advantage, it has become a requirement.
On the other side are those who absolutely hate links. They point to the boredom of flying them - which partially explains why so few pilots actually want to fly them. An FC often flies a link ship on a second account, effectively raising the barrier to entry for running a fleet. After all, the enemy will have links; if you don't, your fleet will die and people will think you're a horrible FC, so your reputation and ability to run fleets in the future will suffer. So, you toss out the isk to build or buy a link character to rectify the problem.
And then there's the vast majority of players who met individual roaming pilots that use links. It's not as much that these pilots use links in 1v1 fights to secure victory, but rather that these pilots preen and pride themselves on their killboard stats. Those players who condemn solo link pilots express frustration at the invisibility of the links; killmails don't show links. They're offended that their killers gloat and drip with pride over a fight that is essentially an execution. These link roamers - so they say - are missing the whole point of PvP, and are playing on "easy mode" to the point that their kills are without any meaning at all.
At its core, though, the issue with links comes down to two factors: boring gameplay and their invisible nature. For many, any efforts to re-envision links depends on fixing these two issues. Link ships should be interesting to fly, and both enemy and friendly fleets should have some visibility into the presence of links so it affects their decision-making.
With that context, let's look at the rebalance proposed by CCP in the latest devblog.
Finally, a Comprehensive Mining Overhaul!
Well, not quite... but these link changes do affect mining. I have little practical experience with mining - the last time I mined was seven years ago - but there were a few things that intrigued me about the ramifications of the proposed link changes on mining. First, of course, is the Pulse Activated Nexus Invulnerability Core, a module clearly designed for it's acronym, PANIC.
While the stats for this module won't be released until the next devblog, the description is troubling. "This module can be used to make yourself and your industrial allies invulnerable for a limited time if needed for any reason." Does that mean a mining fleet can activate it and use the time to warp away? Or, does it contain some side-effects that would ensure that the affected ships remained on-grid the whole time (for example, immediate zeroing of your speed)? The specifics of this module are critical. However, it could have dire consequences for the survivability of mining ships that can't be bothered to perform the basic safety maneuver of staying aligned to something.
The second element of interest is the range extension for mining lasers (up to double their range!) and the reduction in cycle time by up to 44%. That sounds like a tremendous boost to mining fleets, though I'm not certain what the mining yield boost was for the Rorqual as it exists today. However, the added risk of bringing the Rorqual on-field with the mining fleet is an added cost. Whether this ends up being an effective nerf for mining fleets will depend on how likely they are to put a Rorqual on-field. Right now, that's just not something that's done. I suspect we're going to see a lot of Rorquals dying before those pilots realize they need to have an exit cyno ready in case a gang passes through.
Area of Effect
This is the big one, and a change I was counting on. Starting in November, you'll be able to see every ship contributing to your death. This is a very good change, but it's also a huge nerf to command link pilots.
Rather than a ship somewhere in a system hitting a module and instantaneously applying a bonus to every fleet member, the link ship will now have to be on grid, sitting amid the ships it's boosting. While a rework of fleet boosts consisted of nothing more than "bringing them on-grid", there was a lot of speculation about what that meant. Options ranged from sitting somewhere on the new 10,000-km grids to having to be right on top of the fleet. CCP ratcheted up the risk factor by a thousand-fold by requiring the links to be right with the fleet.
And when I say right with the fleet, it's clear CCP wants the link ships to be in the thick of the fight. They want those command ships primaried by the enemy fleet. Two factors suggest to me that CCP doesn't intend on the range of command bursts being larger than, say, a large warp disruption bubble. The first is the fact that skills are going to increase the range at which command busts affect ships. The Leadership, Wing Command, and Fleet Command skills will all modify command burst range, up to an 88.5% increase if all three skills are maxed and the bonuses stack directly. That tells me CCP is looking at a pretty tight range.
But secondly, command bursts will also apply regardless of the position in the fleet structure of the link ship. Currently, fleets are structured painstakingly so that command positions - fleet and wing commanders - are given to link ships, many of whom never actually show up in grid. From a tactical perspective, this is highly limiting because it prevents wings or squads from operating independently. Under existing mechanics, a fleet couldn't split up to attack multiple targets, but rather would need to be called out ("DPS ships A-L, warp to target. DPS M-Z, hold position). Because command bursts can be applied by any pilot, I'm curious to see if fleet tactics adapt to the return of fleet leadership functions. Are we on the verge of seeing the Squad Commander role being born to help support Fleet Commanders? I hope so.
This "anyone can apply" aspect creates another problem that CCP has already anticipated. If two pilots were to both apply links, which one takes precedence? Surely, a first-applied or last-applied policy would create more problems than it solved, with highly skilled link pilots being overridden by fresh link pilots applying inferior links. Rather, the strongest link will win out, with links not being stackable.
Though, part of me misses the fun that would ensue from awoxing spies joining fleet and constantly applying very weak links to sabotage a fleet... Well, we can imagine!
Additional interesting notes are that taking a gate, docking, or (presumably) taking a jump bridge or titan bridge would negate the bonus. Nothing in the devblog, however, suggested that taking an acceleration gate would cancel the effects.
The actual bonus itself will be an area-of-effect bonus applied to all ships within the bonus range upon activation of the module. Whether a ship gets the bonus depends on where that ship is at the moment of activation. As a result, you can drift - or warp - out of range and still benefit from the bonus for the duration of the boost effect. That duration will be between 60 and 130 seconds, depending on the skills of the boosting pilot.
Here's one area I think might benefit from a second thought. Granted, getting to that 130-second duration (actually, 129.375 seconds) requires a command ship pilot to have a command mindlink implant and maxed skills. However, many link pilots already have maxed leadership skills, which are currently a prerequisite to fly command ships. I suspect most link pilots would already be able to fly max-duration links.
That means, of course, that most pilots using links will have the effect of those bonuses for a little over two minutes. On the fleet side, that's intriguing, particularly following the destruction of a link ship. Your links die? Fight on, you've got perhaps two minutes left to sort a new command ship to take over. In the meantime, you can continue to enjoy the benefits.
But in a small-gang environment, links will remain largely unchanged as they are currently proposed. You want to bait a character in a faction warfare site? Just sit on the outside of the gate with a cloaked command ship about 5 km away from the gate and your harmless looking frigate right on the gate. When your target warps to the gate, attempt to engage with your frigate and decloak your command ship and activate your links. If he sees you and slides, slide in to follow him and attack him on the other side. You'll have just under two minutes left of links - very few 1v1 fights last longer than even a minute, let alone two minutes. Separating a link ship from a PvP ship in a FW site does nothing to address this problem.
Proposed Fix: CCP can completely eliminate this problem with one of two possible fixes. First, forbidding the fitting both of a cloak and command links simultaneously would not only ensure that any ship fitting command bursts would be visible on dscan, but it'd also add consequence to choice when fitting strategic cruisers, a demand often made by players. The second option would be for activation of an acceleration gate to cancel out any boosting effects, similar to the way taking a stargate would.
Another big change is the reduction of existing mindlinks down to five basic kinds of command bursts: armor, shield (good name change from siege), information, skirmish, and mining. The individual effects these specific modules provide will vary based on the type of ammo fit. In effect, one command burst will do the work of three - albeit only one effect at a time.
I love the possible applications for this mechanic on small gang roaming. The way you fight a larger brawling vessel is quite different from the way you fight a small, fast target, and having the ability to tune your links with a little lead time is something I look forward to. Remember back at the top, where I talked about the trouble with boring boosting gameplay? This solution brings decision-making back to the mechanic. From that perspective, it's a great touch.
Now, CCP states that the ammo itself will be cheap, a lot of it can be loaded, and it'll have about a 60-second reload timer, all of which suggests that link pilots will be using those links freely and that we'll see different kinds of links being brought online at different stages of a fight. Dynamic adjustments based on the situational context? Yes, please.
While the area-of-effect buff serves as a heavy nerf to existing link gameplay, the fact that link pilots will be able to pull a number of effects from their bag of tricks is a huge buff. This fact, in particular, should serve as a valuable counter-balance to the added risk of having your link ship on-grid and amid your fleet.
Still up in the air are whether link ships will appear on the lossmails of any ships killed by pilots the link ship boosted. I certainly hope they can figure that out, but I suspect the mechanics for that would be the same as the mechanics for logi ships appearing on killmails, as well.
However, isn't it time to bring these kinds of support vessels onto the official record? I admit, it's a pet peeve of mine that so many PvPers set false expectations among eager young PvPers about how well they can perform by creating videos in which they pretend to be fighting solo, only to be linked the whole time. I see many pilots talking about how wonderful certain ships are, only to point out that they depend on drugs, links, and perfect skills to fly correctly.
As a person who wants to introduce as many people to PvP as possible, I see the effects these kinds of expectations have on young pilots. They expect to be able to solo entire fleets themselves. They try to duplicate the experience of these PvPers, not knowing that the real secret to their success isn't individual pilot skill, but the advantage provided by links. When those young pilots die, they become discouraged and despair that they'll never get it. So, they either stop PvPing or playing the game entirely, or decide only to fight in fleets. In other case, though, we've lost a solo PvPer. And that's a shame. This discouragement becomes a force driving more players to use blobbing as a solution, and that's definitely not a good thing.
A killmail is supposed to show the vital facts leading to the loss of a ship. Isn't whether the opponent used a link ship a pertinent fact that directly contributed to the kill?
Overall, I'm fairly impressed with these changes. I love the decision to connect the benefits of link ships with the risk of bringing them on-field. Fits across the board are going to change in dramatic ways, with probably a wholesale abandonment of sig-reduction in favor of heavy tank, probably with some warp core stabilizers thrown into the mix.
I really like the area-of-effect nature of these command bursts, but the existing proposal does nothing to prevent over-sized link ships from affecting fights inside FW plexes, nor does it affect the "surprise, links!" factor. As it stands right now, this change should have little effect on 1v1 fights, should make links more common in small gang roams (as link ships could serve as heavy tackle), and should make fleet fights very interesting.
However, does it fix the key problems with links, boring gameplay and their invisible nature? I think it's safe to say that the gameplay should be much more exciting and lively, so that's certainly true. A good link pilot will need to dedicate him/herself to the task and make several high-importance decisions regularly. That sounds like a much more engaging time to me.
As to visibility... I still see the same problems with individual or small-gang roaming, and this change really doesn't address it. Given the length of engagements in those situations, link duration might as well be fifty years. Without some sort of modifier to prevent over-sized links from affecting battles in smaller FW complexes, any limitations might as well not exist.
It's a good start, but I think we need a little more consideration.