If you’ve ever played a space sim of old, or maybe even a space sim of not-quite-so-old you might be familiar with how combat can often play out. Two ships approach one another, moving fast enough to close the distance and to maybe become harder to hit, while simultaneously trying to get a lock on the opponent who is also hauling an inordinate amount of ass. Fire is exchanged, but ultimately each ship zips past the other. Now each has to turn around to face one another again, and the dance continues until one participant is dead. This is the dreaded “joust”. It’s widely considered to be boring gameplay with little skill involved, as participants only need to survive longer than everyone else in order to be declared the winner (or at least, “not the loser”).

Star Citizen suffers from jousting syndrome because in ship-to-ship combat, ships can crank their speeds up as high as their engines will allow. Speed is used as a part of defense, and with resulting distances quickly reaching upwards of 1000m after opponents pass, its trivial to make a turn for another run; maneuvering as a tactic is almost completely ineffective as ships rarely stay within a “reasonable” distance. CIG has long offered a speed “soft cap” as a suggestion in an attempt to get players to self-control their roll, and skilled combat players will take advantage of speed to keep distances between themselves and their targets small, but I don’t think I’m misreading the room when I say that the overwhelming majority of players are laying into the throttle to use speed to their advantage.

Starting with Squadron 42, the single-player game set in the Star Citizen universe that’s being concurrently developed alongside Star Citizen, CIG has come up with what they believe to be the answer that solves the problem of jousting and brings pilot skill into the equation. They call it “master modes”.

In master modes, there are two ways to fly. The first is “standard control mode” (SCM). When flying in SCM, a ship behaves almost exactly as it does currently in game, with one single exception: the maximum speed will be limited somewhere between 200 and 300m/s. The goal of this mode is to keep combat speeds “slower”, removing the chance of jousting pass overshoots, and make maneuvering meaningful and effective.

The second mode is called “quantum control mode” (QCM) or just “quantum mode”. Here, a ship prepares to make a long-distance jump. Switching to QCM is the exact inverse to SCM: max non-quantum speed increases significantly — over 1000m/s or more, depending on capabilities of the ship. The downside is that all other ship functions become unavailable, including shields, weapons, missiles, boost, and countermeasures.

Temporary quantum boost UI.

In between we have a new function called “quantum boost”. This feature is used (probably from the standard control mode) to quickly cover distances smaller than those which demand a full quantum jump (planet to planet, planet to moon, etc.), but which are large enough to make flying at 300m/s a complete waste of time (OM point to ground destination, or Lagrange point to nearby station).

The reason offered as to why the modes were split was basically that the world of Star Citizen is so damn large and will only be getting larger. Right now, leaving the city of Lorville on Hurston requires a pilot to reach an altitude of about 10,000km before the quantum drive will lock onto a distant destination. Personally, I throttle up to 100% when leaving any atmosphere, and while this helps, it really depends on the ship I’m flying. If all ships were relegated to a max speed of 300m/s… well, I’ll let you do the math (because it’s late and I don’t feel like doing it). CIG has learned somewhat that they cannot rob Peter to pay Paul, so QCM is useful not just for quantum travel, but also for leaving atmosphere.

CIG also wanted to make fighting against capital ships better for the cap ships. Right now, smaller ships can whizz by and land shots, but cap ship turrets have trouble tracking a small target at high speed, so currently, cap ships — despite their size, ordinance, eventual armor, and shields — are at a disadvantage. With slower combat, smaller ships will need to stick closer to the target, and their reduced speed means turrets will track better. Combat against cap ships becomes deadlier for everyone except the cap ships, and this is really as it should be.

And Now the Editorial Section

I think I agree with SCM. I have played an OK amount of Arena Commander and have done in game ship bounty missions against NPCs, and jousting is always a major issue. I actually prefer to use the “soft cap” decision to limit my speeds, but that puts control of the battle in the hands of my opponent who can make themselves harder to hit by opening the throttle but slowing it down to get a bead on my slowly flying ass. A forced slower combat speed puts everyone on a more level playing field. The inclusion of quantum boost is a nice concession to the pain of having to leave atmosphere.

I wrote this post last night, finishing the first draft around 10:30 while on Discord with Mindstrike, and as usual I hammered him with a run-on sentence regarding my thoughts on something Star Citizen. My knee-jerk reaction to QCM was that it was a very bad idea that will ultimately punish PvE players, industrial ship players, and players who fly anything large with slowly regenerating shields. In a game which is barreling headlong into a form that looks to follow in the ill-fated footsteps of some of the worst player alienating MMO titles of the past decade, it seemed par for the course.

However.

After sleeping on it, I think I might be OK with QCM, especially when it’s understood that the presser video above represents the “tier-0” version which will certainly not be the version we end up with.

I’d like to address some aspects of the system as presented, though. In preparing this post, I re-watched the above video on Twitch where the entire CitizenCon presentation exists as a single, non-stop video. I got it in my head to monitor the recorded chat as well, so I got the community reaction in real time.

It Will Kill PvP/It’s a Gift to PvP

This is the obvious take and was my initial take as well. As primarily a PvE player and someone who has been around the block enough times to recognize that no MMO that focuses on PvP to the detriment of PvE survives long, the idea that the only way to escape an unwanted confrontation is to switch to a mode that shuts down every single last defensive item the ship offers reeks of malicious negligence. One thing that sort of turned me around was how both PvP and PvE sides interpreted the exact same feature as being either a boon for themselves or a bane for The Others. Also, a post from CIG on Spectrum cleared up how the shield depletion works when switching to QCM, and it’s not quite as bad as it sounds at first blush. I’m not 100% on board, but I’m also not completely off the trolly either.

Pirates Will Camp QT Endpoints

Not for nothing, but they can do this now, and if they bring a Mantis, they can stop players from spooling and leaving at all. Currently all ships have more or less matching max speeds, making it almost impossible for a ship under interdiction to run from determined player pirates. With SCM/QCM, dropping from QT into an ambush presents both sides with a choice. For the unfortunate soul who wandered into this mess, they can either quickly switch to SCM and try to fight their way out, or they can stay in QCM and get the benefit of full speed. For the pirates, they can stay in SCM and try to beat the target into submission or…well, basically that’s it. If pirates attempt to enter QCM, they can’t shoot, and if they can’t shoot, they can’t stop their target. Right now, ship armor isn’t implemented, and I think that’s where community distaste against the system stems from: once armor is added, ships will be harder to one-shot, but right now shields are the only mechanical defense a ship has. Considering this system won’t make it to the PU anytime soon, this actually becomes a non-issue at this time. It was also mentioned in the video that some ships might have abilities that prevent the switch between SCM and QCM, but if a ship has to enter QCM to jump, and remains in QCM after the jump or interdiction, then such a device becomes moot.

Industrial Ships are Screwed

Industrial ships were not mentioned in the presentation, and I suspect this is mainly because the SCM/QCM changes are focused within the single-player Squadron 42 where such ships probably aren’t player-flyable. Ships like the Prospector, Mole, Vulture, and Caterpillar are not combat vessels and as such cannot really defend themselves even now against even a semi-determined PvPer. Admittedly, this mode split still doesn’t do smaller industrial ships any favors except that maybe they’ll be able to detect incoming ships, shut down operations, and switch to QCM before the interloper reaches them. Larger ships, however, have a different issue.

Large Ship Shields Take Forever to Charge

This is probably one of the most valid issues that the live chat raised because large ships like the Crusader C2 or Drake Caterpillar are massive cargo ships and are therefore popular targets for “legitimate” pirates. Now, ideally these pilots will have escorts to at least take any heat off of them, allowing them to spool and jump, but we all know that this is not always feasible (CIG hasn’t even broached the topic of AI wingmen). Even though CIG affirmed that entering QT before shields have shut down puts the remaining shield energy in escrow to be returned when QT ends, ships with slowly-charging quantum engines will no doubt see those savings drain away before their QT engine becomes available again after cooldown. Still, switching from 0% shields in QCM to SCM in anticpation of a fight means that large shield generators will take a painfully long time to get to the point where they are feasible. Some weapons (or all weapons, I’m not entirely sure) actually interfere with shield regeneration, so this problem becomes compounded. The best bet in this case would be to wait and see what the armor situation is for these large ships, as being tough nuts to crack might be the only way these larger ships survive. I do think, however, that CIG is going to get an earfull from cargo haulers about how this new system hurts them.

So? Good or Bad?

I had originally only seen the same results that many people in chat saw: that one mode had guns and shields, and the other had nothing. SCM was a solution to one single problem: active ship-to-ship combat. But because the Star Citizen world is so large, reducing speeds overall was a dumb idea, so they needed to add a “fast mode” but quickly realized that they were just restoring what they had just removed.

One word that got stuck in the craw of half of chat was “choice”. The devs said that SCM/QCM gave players a “choice” between fighting and fleeing. Many players didn’t see this as a choice at all, since for some players who weren’t good at combat, who aren’t playing Star Citizen for combat, or who were in a non-combat ship could only really choose death with shields or death without.

On deeper reflection, I see the give and take of this system. SCM ships do have shields and weapons and therefor have a martial advantage, but they’re slow: 200-300m/s is barely tolerable outside of combat. QCM ships are (currently) defenseless to an extreme measure, but they have speed on their side and can quickly put distance between themselves and their attackers. It will result in a choice, heavily weighted in favor of aggressors, in that players who wish to avoid combat will have to identify potential threats early and make a choice to switch to SCM and hold their position, or to switch to QCM and leave the scene before the interlopers can even reach them. This makes Star Citizen more of a perpetual “fight or flight” simulator and less of a “play-how-you-want-to-play sandbox” that CIG is trying to sell the game as. Even during an interdiction, which usually happens during or immediately after QT, traveling players should still be in QCM and should always immediately slam the throttle open to widen the distance.

Right now, this system exists in the current internal build of Squadron 42. Many of the features being added to SQ42 will make their way to the Persistent Universe eventually, including the master modes. The real issue, though, is what is master modes work for SQ42, but fail miserably for Star Citizen? Despite my cautious acceptance of master modes in the PU, I still firmly believe that CIG is going to have a very rough future if they continue to find ways to force PvP and force grouping (a path littered with bodies of other games who also maintained that a PvP-centric game with little to no PvE was the ‘future of the genre’). They will need to convince PvE players that Star Citizen respects their time and their play-styles as much as they apparently respect those of PvPers. Master modes are a big question-mark for the PU right now; although the system is designed for SQ42, I think they’ll need to get it into the PU ASAP so players can really test it before it becomes institutionalized in the single player game. If the community suffers because of master mode, then it’ll be back to the drawing board; if master mode turns out to be serviceable at a minimum, then CIG needs to know before it costs them a chunk of their community.

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