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EVE Online theorycrafting and history

History of a Ship: Echelon

(Apologies for the radio silence — a medical emergency killed most of my spare time for the last week.)

CCP likes to do limited-edition ships whenever Eve hits an anniversary, or has a major feature launch. The last few releases have mostly been reskinned versions of T1 frigates; however, even when they were unique ships, most of them either were never useful to begin with (the Primae) or ceased to be useful due to balance changes.

So, let’s talk about one that is useful: the Echelon.

Echelon hull

An Echelon was awarded to every account who logged into Eve during the release of the Incursion expansion in late 2010. This expansion added Sansha incursions to the game; prior to the expansion’s official release, CCP actors did a number of live events to drum up excitement for incursions.

During these live events, a wormhole would appear near a planet, and Sansha ships would spawn around the wormhole and “steal” citizens from the planet to turn into slaves. (This is why the first name of all Incursion rats are the name of a solar system in Eve; that’s the system they were taken from.) The wormholes were targetable, and CCP hinted that running data analyzers would have some effect on it. I assume that this was a complete lie, and CCP just wanted some people to show up in scanning ships — more targets. :)

That said, the Echelon was released with this in mind: a dedicated data-analyzer ship. It has a single mid slot, and no low/high/rig slots; it’s only capable of fitting a single module in that mid slot, the Purloined Sansha Data Analyzer. (One was handed out with each Echelon.) At the time it was released, the hacking minigame didn’t exist, and data analyzers simply had a chance per cycle to unlock the can; the Echelon’s scanner was simply average.

However, when the hacking minigame was instituted and all data analyzers were redesigned, the Echelon and its custom analyzer was included in that redesign pass, and became fantastic. In particular, until you have Hacking V trained and can use T2 Data Analyzers, the Echelon is the best ship in the game for Data Sites — you need a Covert Ops or Astero with a T2 Analyzer and two hacking rigs to equal it.

Listed as a virus strength / virus coherence pair: (bigger is better for both numbers)

  Echelon Heron
CovOps & Astero
(hacking rigs)
Hacking I 40/90 25/50 30/70
Hacking IV 40/120 25/80 30/100
Hacking V 40/130 35/110 40/130

Even a perfectly skilled hacker, with the best ship and modules in the game for it, can only tie the Echelon.

Of course, there’s a flip side: the Echelon can’t fit a probe launcher, or a propulsion mod, or any sort of tank module. So, you’ll have to probe out the site with another ship, and then switch to the Echelon to hack it. But that may be an acceptable tradeoff for quiet systems and players with low SP.

If you don’t have the Echelon, they’re quite cheap, despite being a limited-issue ship; a ship and its matching module can be found at Jita for 7.5M isk total. Quite cheap, given that the nearest comparable ships for hacking cost 20M or more each.

Update: A sharp Reddit commentor also points out that, if you have multiple Echelons sitting around, you can get a rather funny set of items by reprocessing the Purloined Analyzer.

Modules With A Story: Hellhound Drones

(Apologies for going quiet for a few days — went out with the family for the Fourth of July!)

If you asked people what the rarest drone in Eve is, most people would talk about the “Augmented” drones (fast drones with split damage types that can be built with parts from Rogue Drone cosmic anomalies), or the Gecko. Incursion runners will probably know about the Shadow, the rare Sansha fighter-bomber that can be acquired from incursions.

But there’s a truly rare drone out there that very few know about: the Hellhound.

Entity, kindly showing off some Hellhounds in a equally rare ship.

The Hellhound is one of the rare cases of an developer item in player hands.

If you download the Eve Database and examine the item types table, you’ll find many items marked as unpublished — ammo, ships, modules, and more. The primary effect of being unpublished is that the item cannot be searched for in the Market, or in an item type search in Contracts.

Most unpublished items are simply unused items and unfinished artifacts from the CCP development process: They’re an idea that CCP devs liked enough to try implementing on a test server, only to find that the item wouldn’t really work out well in live play. The idea would be canceled, and was never launched in TQ, but the remnants of it remain in the database.

There are also a few unpublished items that were once part of normal play on TQ; these items were disabled by CCP for various reasons. If you still own them, they remain in your inventory, but CCP marks them as unpublished so that they can’t be sold on the Market — mainly so that newbies don’t accidentally spend billions on a useless item. This is the case for deployable minefields [1], most of the canceled skillbooks, and some old collector’s items.

The Hellhound drone, however, qualifies for both of these. It was a developer experiment for an ultra-powerful variant of the Ogre, and was never meant to get into player hands; however, due to a typo, it was accidentally added to the drop table for a structure in a certain mission. A few days later, when players started posting on the forums about them, CCP promptly fixed that typo and removed the source of them, never to be seen again. However, they allowed players to keep the drones that had dropped up to that point.

In 2012, CCP changed their mind, and attempted to remove the Hellhound (and other unpublished-but-extant items) from the game entirely; however, they ended up adding them back due to player outcry.

I don’t know if anyone who owns a Hellhound has actually bothered using them in PvP; until this spring, they were simply a clone of the Ogre II heavy drone, with slightly higher DPS. When the Kronos expansion came and readjusted all drone damage upwards (to compensate for the nerf to the Drone Interfacing skill), the Hellhound was left out of that adjustment pass; as a result, it now has significantly lower damage than any of the normal drones in use today, making it simply yet another collectible artifact of Eve history.

1: There’ll be a post in a few weeks about minefields. They once existed, and they weren’t nearly as cool as they might sound.

Missiles in Early Eve, and Cruise Missile Kestrels

If you had the fortune (or misfortune, as it sometimes was) to play Eve shortly after launch, you’d remember that missiles used to be very, very different from today — and different from any other weapon system in the game at the time.

Missile launchers existed in similar varieties and meta-levels as today, but had names that denoted their capacity.  For example, all heavy launchers had a 50m3 capacity for ammo, and all had names starting with H-50.  (For example, “H-50 ‘Arbalest’ Heavy Launcher”.)  Likewise, you had the M-12 Standard Launcher, the A-3 Assault Launcher, S-110 Siege Launcher, and so on.  The crucial difference between those days and today is that any missile launcher could load and fire any ammunition that it could fit in its bay.

For example, a single reload of a plain M-12 Standard Launcher I could hold your choice of:

  • 40 rockets
  • 12 light missiles
  • 2 heavy missiles
  • 1 cruise missile

Regardless of what missile type was loaded in it, it’d fire every 14 seconds before skills.  The same was true for larger launchers; a meta-0 siege launcher could hold 10-20 cruise missiles / torpedoes or 40ish heavy missiles or hundreds of light missiles/rockets, but always fired every 20 seconds before skills.  In general, smaller launchers featured faster firing rates (meaning higher spike DPS) but had less flexibility and more frequent reloads.

Assault launchers were particularly different back then: they had frigate-sized fitting requirements, and were intended to be a midpoint between the standard launchers and the rocket launchers of the era.  The rocket launchers in retail launch and Castor had a tiny capacity and could only fit 3-4 rockets per reload, but had miniscule fitting requirements and fired incredibly fast; assault launchers were roughly in the same space that rocket launchers occupy, with the added bonus of being able to load 4-5 light missiles if you needed to engage at long range.

With missiles working like this — and with the fact that missiles of this era were AOE weapons with splash damage — the dominant frigate of the era was a Kestrel with four standard launchers, loaded with cruise missiles.  Loading cruise missiles meant that they could only fire off a single volley before reloading, but it allowed them to put out extremely high spike damage: A single cruise missile of the era did 300 damage to targets at its center, meaning that a single volley of four cruises was sufficient to one-shot frigates and smaller industrials. [1]  Stow a few lights in the cargohold just in case, and you were good to go!  Needless to say, cruise Kestrels were fantastic for high-sec suicide ganking as well, where they were known as “KamiKestrels.”

Eventually, during the Castor Period, missiles were refactored into the groups that we know and love today.  Some collectors still have Kestrels squirreled away with cruise missiles loaded in their launchers; however, using them in combat is considered an exploit.

1: At this time, all ships had roughly 1/3rd of the base HP that they do today, across all sizes and classes.  CCP would eventually bump up the base HP for all ships during Red Moon Rising, in the interest of making combat take longer and be less brutal; from there, most ships have slowly crept upwards in base HP over repeated rebalances.

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Missing Skills: Black Market Trading

If you poke around EveBoard’s list of the characters in Eve with the highest SP, you’ll notice that a few pilots have some skills trained that aren’t found on the Market.  Where did these skills come from?

In many cases, these are skills that were added for an upcoming feature and made available early (through market seeding, agent LP rewards, or NPC pirate drop tables), only to have that feature canceled.  CCP would stop seeding the skillbooks on the market, but any of the already-purchased skillbooks in people’s inventories would remain.  If you had already injected the skillbook and trained it up early, the SP would stay in your head, forever useless. [1]

After their cancellation, skillbooks for these lost skills would occasionally show up on Contracts for huge prices, catering to collectors, but are otherwise not widely available.  CCP even makes a nod to collectors for some of them: the description of Astronautic Engineering, should you find one of those rare skillbooks, will read: “Skill and knowledge of Astronautics and its use in the development of advanced technology.  This skill has no practical application for capsuleers, and proficiency in its use conveys little more than bragging rights.  Can not be trained on Trial Accounts.”  Out of the 6.7M players currently being tracked by EveBoard, only 143 characters have this skill — bragging rights, indeed!

Some of these skillbooks eventually get removed from the game entirely: for example, Mobile Factory Operation and Mobile Refinery Operation have been marked in the Eve item database as “unpublished,” and will no longer appear in-game in Market or Contracts searches.  But, the skillbooks definitely existed in the past, and were being traded for billions of isk each, as late as 2010.

However, there’s three of these lost skills that are particularly special: they never had skillbooks created for them in the first place! They are:

  • Genetic Engineering
  • Mnemonics
  • Black Market Trading

The first two of these skills, if you were lucky enough to have them, were removed from all character sheets (and their SP refunded) during the Crucible expansion.  However, the Black Market Trading skill can still be found in some players’ sheets.  How did you get these skills?

These three skills were obtained during the old character creation system.  Today, when you create a new character, you always start with the same balanced attributes, and eleven skills: the appropriate turret skill and frigate skill for your chosen race, and nine common basic skills.  But, this wasn’t always the case.  Character creation used to completely and totally suck:

  • Your choice of character race, family, and occupation determined your base training attributes; certain races would learn skills faster than others, in certain fields.  This is why, in Eveboard’s global ranking, the vast majority of the highest-SP characters are either Gallente Intaki Reborn or one of the Caldari Deteis — they had the highest Perception score, which is used in the most skills.
  • Your choice of occupation would also determine what skills you started with.  Not only was there a wide variation of starting skills, but some skills were worth more SP than others — a character could start the game with as little as 6,000 SP, or as high as 300,000 SP, depending on their choices.
  • No matter what you picked, you were pretty much useless at the start of your Eve career.  Today’s “ten days to get into a competent PvP Catalyst” simply wasn’t happening back then.  On top of that, you had learning skills to do first!  (Eve used to have meta-skills that gave you permanently higher attribute points, making all other subsequent training faster: the first order of business on any newly rolled character was training up those skills to 5.)

If you think Eve is unfriendly to newbies today, then trust me — it used to be much worse.

So, when your choice of race/family/occupation determined your starting skills, some of those combinations included unique skills that could only be received on birth.  Black Market Trading, the only one to still exist, was obtained by rolling a Minmatar Vherokior Retailer.  There is no other way to obtain this skill: you need to have a character of that combination, created prior to the character creation revamp in late 2006.

What does Black Market Trading do?  Officially, the skill description states that it reduces the chance for high-sec Customs Agent NPCs to detect contraband — boosters, and certain roleplay / mission items such as the Khumaak — in your cargohold.

BMT in game, on one of Nam's cyno alts.

However, repeated testing indicates that the skill is broken (or never implemented) and doesn’t actually affect the game.  So, it remains simply a memento of how much better Eve is today, and a good story to tell.

1: Sometimes, forever is a short time.  For many years, Salvage Drone Operation was one of these canceled skills; when CCP eventually implemented them, nearly five years later, they simply reused the existing apocryphal skill, and started seeding the books again.

History of a Ship: Ishkur

This will be the first in a series of articles that talk about a ship’s past and present.  Let’s open with the Ishkur, the drone-focused Gallente assault frigate.  The Ishkur is generally overshadowed by other frigates today… but it used to be one of the most overpowered ships in Eve!

The Ishkur was added to Eve Online during the Castor era.  Castor was the first expansion after Eve’s launch, and one of the hardest to document: the initial expansion added the baseline mechanics for Tech-2 ships (both flying them and building them) to the game.  Then, over the course of Castor’s “lifetime,” a series of micropatches were slowly trickled out that added/revealed individual classes of T2 ships over multiple months.  When the Ishkur was introduced, it was by far the most powerful AF in the game, and even competitive with most cruisers.

In The Beginning: Drones Were Broken

During the Ishkur’s golden years, Eve’s drone mechanics were very different from today.  Individual drones did significantly less damage, but there were three things compensating for that:

  • The Drone Interfacing skill actually gave you an additional +1 drone control per level, instead of a flat increase to drone damage.  This stacked with the Drones skill, meaning that a character with Drone Interfacing V could control ten drones total.
  • There was no drone bandwidth mechanic.  Players could put out, and control, any drone that they could fit in their drone bay, up to a limit of 10.  (Or less, if they didn’t have perfect drone skills.)
  • The Gallente T1 drone hulls — the Vexor and Dominix — got an additional +1 drone control per level of Gallente Cruiser/Battleship.

This was interesting, because it gave a great deal of flexibility and power to pilots who were willing to specialize their training into drones:

  • The Thorax, given its 50 m3 drone bay, could choose between carrying five medium drones (for optimal performance versus cruisers), or ten light drones (making it a flexible frigate-killer).
  • The Vexor‘s 100 m3 drone bay could hold five mediums and ten lights, and deploy all 15 of them at once with max skills.
  • The Dominix had room for fifteen heavies, or a huge variety of heavy, medium, and light drones.
  • The Ishtar and Ishkur didn’t get the +1 drone control skill of the Vexor or Dominix; instead, they had ship bonuses that increased the size of their drone bay.  This would both add flexibility and directly add DPS potential to the ships:
    • The Ishkur started with 25 m3, capable of deploying five lights; with Assault Ships trained to V, it grew to 50 m3 of drone bay, and could deploy ten lights or five mediums.  (Or some mix between.)
    • The Ishtar started at 125 m3, and could grow up to 375 m3 at HAC V, giving it Dominix-level DPS and flexibility.

These mechanics also had some side effects that could be badly abused.  For example, if a Dominix dropped a full load of heavy drones on a gate and then warped out, any ship with a drone bay of 25 m3 or could warp in, scoop in each drone (filling its drone bay) and redeploy it, repeating until it had control of all 10-15 drones.  A Thorax or Arbitrator camping a gate with ten heavy drones out (or a Vexor with fifteen of them) was horrible to fight!

This didn’t last forever, of course; whenever drone ships were brought to a fight, intolerable lag would follow, as the servers struggled to track hundreds of drones.  (In fact, some alliances had agreements to only bring turret/missile ships to wars.)  CCP eventually removed most bonuses that allowed additional drones to be controlled: Both the Drone Interfacing skill and the Gallente hull bonuses were changed to a +20% damage bonus, effectively doubling (or tripling) the damage of all drones, in exchange for all conventional ships being limited to five drones.

However, even after this change, there was no drone bandwidth mechanic.  The Ishkur still benefited directly from its +5 m3 drone bay bonus: at Assault Ships V, it could choose between carrying either five mediums or two waves of five lights.  Of course, most players with that skill preferred to do the former.  This made the Ishkur an absolute terror — a dualprop Ishkur with five Valkyries and a nosferatu module was very hard to hit with medium guns, was quite sturdy for a frigate, and did over 400dps between Valks and blasters.  Ishkurs were capable of engaging both frigates, cruisers, and even some battleships with relative ease.

The Other Shoe Drops

Finally, December of 2007 brought the Trinity expansion, and drone bandwidth mechanics were added to the game, limiting the Ishkur to five lights.  Since then, the little drone wonder has never regained its crown.  (The Myrmidon and Eos would also be crushed by this change.)

Between 2008 and 2012, the Ishkur still remained a somewhat popular hull, despite no longer being the clear king — at the time, the Enyo had only two mid slots, so the Ishkur was considered the superior tackler and more well-rounded.  In 2012, the assault frigates were rebalanced in Crucible 1.1, buffing the Enyo, and the Ishkur dropped even further in popularity.

Today, the main challenge that the Ishkur faces is that it’s considered a weaker version of its blaster-oriented brother, the Enyo.  The two hulls have many similarities: identical resist profiles, the same number of low/mid slots, and common bonuses to hybrid turrets.  The Enyo, however, has higher base armor/hull HP, more generous power grid, a fourth turret hardpoint (to use up that power grid), a stronger damage bonus, and a bonus to turret tracking; the Ishkur retains its largely useless drone bay bonus and a bonus to drone durability.

In theory, the Ishkur should have superior flexibility due to drone DPS — i.e. reduced weakness to neuts or tracking disruptors — however, in practice, the Enyo is usually the preferred ship on TQ today.  The peak damage on the Enyo is far higher, and the extra grid ends up being useful for more than just fitting an extra turret.  Also, drones have their own weaknesses: they can be shot down, or smartbombed away, or abandoned accidentally after a fight.  On top of that, the total DPS of five lights (even with a Drone Damage Amplifier module) doesn’t really compensate for the fourth turret of the Enyo.

Typical Fits of Today

All this said, if you really want to fly the Ishkur, you won’t be disappointed — while no longer the king of AFs, it’s still a reasonably solid pick, especially if you only have Assault Ships trained to 3 or 4.  (The Enyo really needs AF 4 or 5 to shine.)  This is a reasonable starting point:

[Ishkur, Baseline MWD+Scram+Web]
Damage Control II
Small Ancillary Armor Repairer, Nanite Repair Paste
Adaptive Nano Plating II
Drone Damage Amplifier II

Limited 1MN Microwarpdrive I
Warp Scrambler II
X5 Prototype Engine Enervator

Light Ion Blaster II, Null S
Light Ion Blaster II, Null S
Light Ion Blaster II, Null S
Small 'Knave' Energy Drain

Small Anti-Explosive Pump II
Small Auxiliary Nano Pump II

Acolyte II x5
Hobgoblin II x5

This is a fairly tight fit on grid, and may be 1% over if you don’t have Armor Rigging IV or Advanced Weapons Upgrades V trained.  In that case, you can either use an implant to get 1% more grid (either the EE-601 or the Genolution CA-1), or replace the Small Auxiliary Nano Pump with something else suitable: a drone durability rig might be good.

This will perform well against both frigates and cruisers; in most fights, your goal will be to operate at roughly 4km away, putting you out of range of the highest-damage close range weapons but still in range to use your nosferatu module.  If you’d like a little more survivability versus cruisers or battleships, you can consider replacing the web with a tracking disruptor (use a ‘Balmer’ Series Tracking Disruptor I to save on CPU) or even an afterburner (replace both rigs with Ancillary Current Routers) to mitigate incoming damage.

Micro Smartbombs and Titan Kills

The first few Titans to die in Eve were killed via subterfuge, while the pilot was offline.

When initially introduced to the game, the Titan’s doomsday device wasn’t the single-target capital killer that is today; instead, it was a massive AOE weapon that hit everything on the grid for a nice chunk of damage, more than enough to kill anything smaller than a battleship or command ship.  (And even a battleship would die to a DD if it didn’t have at least two 1600mm plates fitted and all hardeners active!)  Furthermore, the original DD also didn’t lock you in place, or disable your jump drive, when fired.

This meant that a competent Titan pilot was capable of killing every Interdictor in a fight with a single press of a button, and then immediately jumping out to an emergency exit cyno.  Heavy interdictors didn’t exist yet — the Titans had been added to the game in December 2005 (with the first ones exiting build eight months later), but HICs wouldn’t be added until December 2007 in Trinity.  During this era, a Titan with an attentive pilot was generally considered impossible to kill.

It should be no surprise, then, that the first two Titan kills in the game were due to the players logging off with aggression.  (The aggression timer was not visible on your screen, back then.)  If a pilot logged out while aggressed, they’d stay in space for 15 minutes with all modules inactive — an easy kill if you could probe them out and get dreadnoughts on field.  The first one, an Avatar piloted by Cyvok, would die because he had fired a DD less than fifteen minutes before hand.

However, the second one (an Erebus piloted by WOTANKN) was killed due to a spy.  How?  The spy was sitting next to the titan in a covert ops, as the titan was waiting out his timer and preparing to log out.  Right before the titan pilot logged out, he hit the titan with a single pulse of a micro smartbomb, refreshing its aggression timer.  The titan pilot finished logging out, having not noticed the damage, and the unpiloted hull was promptly probed out and killed.

A micro smartbomb has a 2km range and does a whopping four DPS (30 damage every 7.5 seconds).  It is useless in nearly every sense of the word.  But, sometimes, even the most useless modules end up having a use. :)

(It would take until June of 2007 for a Titan to die while piloted — the Revelations II expansion added the ten-minute “no jumping” timer to doomsday devices, and less than 36 hours after the expansion arrived, an overconfident Avatar met its demise in Teneferis.)

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Deep Safes — Ultra Deep Safes and Sov War

I mentioned in my last post about deep safe spots that the Poseidon technique could be used to generate very deep safes (300AU or more away), and that null-sec alliances found these very valuable during sovereignty wars.  Why was this?

To understand, let’s turn back the clock to five years ago.  The player base was much smaller at that point, and fights were much smaller — seeing the Local count above 200 anywhere outside Jita meant that some major event was going on.  A fleet of 100 ships was considered serious business.  The server was not nearly as optimized as it is today.  Time Dilation didn’t exist.  Weapon grouping didn’t exist.  Drone AI was dumb as bricks, and so were most player’s ship fits.  (And so on.)

The Black Screen of Welp

If a large fleet (> 100 hostiles) had set up a camp on a gate or station, and you jumped or undocked into it, there was a very good chance that you would die without ever seeing the grid.  Why?  There’s a huge list of things that the Eve server needs to send you whenever you perform a session change, most notably three things:

  • The list of players in the system, and their standings relative to you
  • The list of objects on grid — ships, drones, wrecks, etc.
  • Data about the objects on grid needed for graphical rendering — what turrets each ship has on their guns, etc.

Eve Online in 2009 was not very good at this task.  In fact, when the servers were heavily loaded, it would still be sending this data to you by the time that your 60-second jump-in cloak wore off, and you became lockable and shootable.  Entire fleets were lost without ever firing a shot — they’d simply get a black screen on jump-in, and a few hours later, they’d wake up in station, podded without ever even seeing the ship that did the deed.

Because of this, when alliances went to war over sovereignty, the actual warfare would start playing out several days prior to the actual system invasion.  You’d stage players in a system and have them log off, days ahead of the actual attack.  On the day of the attack, everyone logged in after downtime, as quickly as they could, and set up camps.  Whoever got their full fighting force into the system first would win the conflict, as simple as that.  (And, needless to say, this was usually easier for the defender to do.)

Ultra Deep Safes To The Rescue

How did players work around this?  You’d use the Poseidon technique to create an extremely deep safe, 300 AU or more away from the nearest celestial.  You’d then light a cyno in that safe-spot, and bring your fleet into the system (at that empty grid) via Titan bridge or jumpdrive.  The locals would warp to the cyno to kill it, of course; however, the 300 AU warp took so long that you had a very good chance of getting your entire fleet into system, and giving them time to finish their session changes and load grid, before anyone could arrive at the cyno.  At the very least, it gave you a fighting chance.

The End of Deep Safes

CCP never really intended for people to create deep safes; while it wasn’t quite considered an exploit, it was certainly based on unexpected and unintended Eve mechanics.  In the summer of 2010, as part of the Tyrannis expansion, CCP made two changes to eliminate deep safes:

  • They fixed the bugs in emergency warps that enabled the Poseidon technique for creating deep safes.
  • Attempting to warping to an existing ultra-deep-safe bookmark would fail.  (And, later, these unwarpable bookmarks would be deleted entirely from players’ clients.)

However, some of the deep safe bookmarks were just barely close enough to their system’s star that they didn’t get caught in CCP’s heuristics for what constituted a deep safe, and are still around.  If you’re lucky enough to have these bookmarks, make good use of them, and appreciate the days that resulted in their creation.