It’s now been a full year since I made that crazy convergence proposal, and with Clans having launched, I figured it was a good time to re-examine where we’re at, what some of our lingering balance issues are, and what can be done to address them. Fear not, citizen – I’m not going to beat you over the head with accuracy penalties; this time, I’m going to lay out a way to address many of our current imbalances (jumpsnipers, high-alpha, pinpoint damage in general, time-to-kill, and underperforming chassis) simply by making an adjustment to the way heat penalties work. The Short Version is the TL;DR for the entire article. That said, I highly encourage you to read the whole thing for a more thorough understanding of the potential benefits.
The Short Version
The Problem: Ghost Heat falls short in adequately addressing high-alpha damage, particularly in the case of pinpoint weapon combinations (and especially paired with jumpjets). Even after nerfs to jumpjets, nerfs to the PPC, a Gauss charge mechanic, a Gauss limit, and ballistic speed and falloff nerfs, the poptart continues to reign supreme because of its high-pinpoint-damage, low-exposure capability. The arrival of the Clans has only amplified that problem (jumping Timber Wolf and 60-point-alpha Dire Wolf). The root of the problem with Ghost Heat’s current implementation is the arbitrary way weapons are linked together, which lets the vast majority of weapon combinations avoid any penalty altogether. In addition, it’s very difficult to explain and communicate to players.
The Solution: Change the way heat penalties work. Each ‘mech’s reactor would have an Energy Threshold of 100 units that dissipates at a rate of 100 units/second; each weapon and piece of equipment would have an associated Energy Draw (example values: 12 for a medium laser, 50 for a PPC, 80 for an AC/20) that adds to the Energy Threshold. When the reactor is overloaded (Energy Threshold > 100), a heat penalty would be applied; 110, for instance, would result in a modest heat penalty, while hitting 200 would mean serious trouble. With all weapons linked together, there would be no dodging alpha limits with odd weapon combinations. Additionally, if jumpjets had an Energy Draw, it would effectively put a lower limit on in-air alphas (thereby balancing poptarts with ground-based snipers). There would be an Energy Threshold meter on the HUD next to the heat meter. It would look a lot like the dH/dT meter from MechWarrior 2. It is important to note that between the quick dissipation and the relatively small weapon energy draw values, this scale will not affect DPS over time – heat is still the limiting factor.
The Good: It balances extreme alphas of all kinds (particularly pinpoint) – regardless of weapon combination, it’s an elegant option to address poptarts, it’s easily explainable and displayable to users, it retains and increases the value of aiming skill, it could help revitalize underperforming chassis (higher Energy Threshold for an unpenalized 3xPPC Awesome), and it improves combat pacing by increasing time-to-kill.
The Bad: A couple weeks of time from an engineer and an artist would be required to make it happen. For the player, there’s questionably added complexity, but I would dispute that. There is one more thing on the HUD and one more value to look at in the Mechlab, but I think that’s ultimately much more sensible than, “Surprise! You killed yourself.” The penalty is there now; it just doesn’t make any sense.
Why It’s Worth It: We’re now in month 15 of the Reign of the Poptarts – 15 months of preposterous bunny-hopping absolutely dominating the game. Even with SRMs back, it’s not enough. How can you beat speed, range, minimal exposure, and extreme, concentrated damage? The answer is not to continually nerf jumpjets, jumpjet chassis, Gauss, ballistics, or PPCs at the expense of non-offenders – it’s to make the heat penalty flexible enough to deal with all alpha strikes. They can add a Gauss/PPC restriction and continue to nerf jumpjets or other weapons, but how many of these one-off mechanics do we need when a global solution would alleviate the problem entirely?
A Hurricane of Bandaids
Join me, if you will, for a brief retrospective in game balance changes since this time last year. Ghost Heat’s shortcomings are apparent after looking at all the other balance changes that have followed and the current state of the game. In the months since Ghost Heat’s inception, a large number of additional mechanics and balance changes have been implemented in order to shore up the gaps:
- PPC heat increased from 8 to 10
- PPC speed decreased from 2000 to 1500
- Gauss charging mechanic
- Gauss charge limit
- Autocannon speed reduction
- Autocannon falloff reduction
- Highlander mobility nerf
- Jumpjet thrust nerf
- Incoming fall damage change
- Possible incoming jumpjet heat
- Possible incoming jumpjet thrust nerf
It’s a hurricane of bandaids that – even with SRMs back as a legitimate option – has thus far still failed to kick the poptart off of the throne, and it’s time to re-assess the approach being taken. A heat penalty, in itself, is not a bad plan. On the contrary, I’ve long argued that alphas need to be balanced separately from individual weapons. A single PPC is just another gun; two of them paired with a Gauss Rifle all hitting a single component is an entirely different matter.
As a brief aside, that’s not to say I don’t agree with many of those changes. The Gauss charge mechanic is fine, jumpjet nerfs were needed, and autocannon speed and falloff adjustments were a good plan. But they’ve all failed to solve the problem – everything that has been done thus far has chased the problem from build to build. And now that Clans are here, we’ve got a whole new world of broken.
The Dire Wolf is here, and as I predicted, 2xERPPC + 2xGauss is incredibly broken. Some will say, “Well, duh – it’s a Dire Wolf – it should be powerful,” but that fails to recognize just how broken a 60-point alpha is, even against other Dire Wolves. The Dakka Wolf doesn’t stand a chance. Mediums are instagibbed. Lights pop like never before. There’s a difference between powerful and broken.
Watch this. And this. I didn’t play particularly well in either round, but no one else had a chance. I could put 50 damage on any component I wanted, and there wasn’t a damn thing any of those other ‘mechs could do about it. It’s low-risk, high-reward, and that’s not how it should be; the more a playstyle forces you to expose yourself to the enemy, the higher the potential reward should be.
Issues with Ghost Heat
Where It’s Avoided
The biggest problem with Ghost Heat, in my eyes, is that it’s avoided in the Mechlab rather than in-game. You shouldn’t be able to configure your way around the alpha limit, and that’s exactly how it currently works. It hurts the players that least need the penalty (newbies and casuals) while leaving those that deserve the penalty the most (seasoned veterans that know where to aim on every single ‘mech) unscathed. The heat penalty could be a great way to balance the pace of combat and increase time-to-kill; instead, it’s nothing more than an inconvenience to be danced around in the Mechlab.
Ghost Heat’s shortcomings can largely be attributed to the way weapons are linked arbitrarily, which causes gaping holes in solvency and plenty of collateral damage. The immediate problem – and the one that has been a problem from the start – is that ballistics and PPCs aren’t linked. They have a perfect synergy, and pretending like 2xPPC + 1xGauss is more legitimate than 3xPPC is preposterous.
And then in terms of arbitrary collateral damage, the list is virtually unending. Why is 16 missiles penalized (4xSRM4), but 24 missiles (3xSRM6 + 3xSRM2) okay? Why is 7xML (35 damage) penalized, 3xLL (27 damage) penalized, but 6xML + 2xLL (48 damage) just fine? Why is 3xLRM10 a bad thing, but 2xLRM20 a good thing? 2xAC/20 is broken, but 1xAC/20 + 2xAC/10 is legit? How would I explain that to a friend or anyone else?
I’ve always been a big fan of exposing information to the player instead of hiding mechanics. Ghost Heat is truly a mystery in this regard. Even the name “Ghost Heat” is a derogatory term that originated from its mysterious, unseen mechanics and weird math. In-game, there’s no documentation, help, explanation, or notification save for one, small warning in the Mechlab. Calculating the heat penalty is impossible based on in-game information, and, as far as new players are concerned, it might as well be witchcraft.
Beyond Ghost Heat: Time-to-Kill
Let’s face it: time-to-kill has never been lower. SRMs can finally hold their own weight again – and believe me, I’m happy about that – but I ultimately don’t think equally overpowered weapons are the way forward. Many players – myself included – have long wished for grittier, more drawn-out combat that’s not so biased towards peek-and-alpha gameplay. Even before poptarts reigned supreme, the Splatcat was the dominant build because of its insane alpha.
The low time-to-kill that we currently experience is largely attributable to the non-existent cap on most alpha damage. People fire everything they can and then pop back behind a corner or ridge, and it makes for boring, standoff gameplay. Requiring snipers and even brawlers to take two shots instead of one would reward superior aiming skill and increase time-to-kill by lowering the average amount of one-click damage.
I get it: don’t stand still, don’t get caught in the open, and don’t make mistakes. But should a light really be susceptible to being legged in a single shot from 500m? Should a medium be dead or disarmed after a single alpha? Ultimately, I think the game is too unforgiving: take one wrong step, and a side gets sheared off in an instant. Focused fire will (and should) always destroy targets quickly, but one ‘mech shouldn’t be able to evaporate fresh components with a single volley.
Again, values and names are subject to change and only there for demonstrative purposes.
Though it could be named or explained in a number of different ways, I’m going to call these concepts Energy Threshold and Energy Draw. Energy Threshold is the amount of energy the engine can safely produce in a short timeframe, and it’s capped at 100 units by default (could be different based on chassis, variant, or engine size if desired). The Energy Draw is how much energy a weapon, jumpjet, or other piece of equipment adds to the Energy Threshold when used. By default, the Energy Threshold dissipates at 100 units per second.
When the Energy Threshold exceeds the cap, the energy spike causes the reactor to burn hot, and a heat penalty is incurred. If you barely exceed the cap (~110), it’ll be a mild penalty; if you exceed the cap by a fair amount (~150), you’ll take a moderate penalty; if you greatly exceed the cap (>200), you’ll be in serious trouble. As soon as the heat penalty is applied, the Energy Threshold is instantaneously reset to the maximum without penalty (again, 100 by default), where it can continue to dissipate at its normal rate.
Each weapon (and piece of equipment, if desired) would have an associated Energy Draw, just like every weapon generates heat. It would be a readily available number in the Mechlab, and there would be an associated UI element in-game (likely right next to the heat meter). Take a look at the dH/dT meter at the bottom to the right of the heat meter to get a general idea of how it would look and how quickly it would dissipate. Also in video form.
This scale can be used to balance LRMs, SRMs, lasers, autocannons, PPCs, jumpjets, ‘mech chassis, and any other future equipment you throw at it. Because everything is tied to a single scale, there’s no dancing around the penalty – you’re forced to space your shots out or take extra heat. The ability to balance the alphability (so to speak) of a weapon or ‘mech is a key piece of the puzzle.
A constant dissipation rate of one, unpenalized alpha per second is a much better way to do things than an un-seeable, half-second, hit-or-miss window. Currently, firing 2xERPPC 0.51 seconds after another 2xERPPC will leave you toasty; firing 2xERPPC 0.49 seconds after another 2xERPPC will leave you dead.
All that does is encourage macros and make players feel like they got screwed by a fraction of a second. The constant dissipation of the Energy Threshold system would make the penalty much less all-or-nothing, netting the player an appropriately small penalty as opposed to the full, death-inducing heat for firing a split second too soon.
Easily Explained to the User
Both in the Mechlab and in-game, a penalty like this needs to be explained. A sad, little warning in the Mechlab isn’t enough – particularly when a single alpha on some stock builds (Nova or Warhawk) will quite literally kill you. I’ve seen more than a few Novas kill themselves because, “I didn’t know smalls and mediums were linked.” The heat penalty and its consequences need to be explained up-front. The Energy Threshold exposes everything to the user so that there’s no mystery or surprise.
Can Balance Poptarting and Other Equipment
If jumpjets had an associated Energy Draw like weapons, it would effectively decrease the maximum alpha in the air, solving poptart superiority. If a 35-point alpha is okay on the ground, a 25-point alpha in the air is more than enough. Poptarting is the winning strategy because it minimizes your exposure like no other – there’s no reason you should be able to do what grounded ‘mechs but without getting hit in return. Though I agree jumpjets need adjustments and balancing, I think this is ultimately a much more surgical solution than trying to kill the poptart using jumpjets.
The Energy Threshold could also be used to balance other equipment if desired. When Clan Targeting Computers drop, everyone will take the one-ton computer because there’s nothing better you can get for a ton. ECM, similarly, is always taken when it can be. Adding a constant Energy Draw (effectively slightly lowering a ‘mech’s maximum alpha) to certain equipment would force a choice between single-click damage potential and utility.
Can Balance Underperforming ‘Mechs
You know how everyone’s been begging for the Awesome to get a 3xPPC excecption? This system would make it incredibly easy to say the Awesome has an Energy Threshold of 150 and can therefore alpha more than other ‘mechs. You could also play with the dissipation rate, making some ‘mechs excel at sustained dakka. This would be a great and simple way to revive some of the underperforming chassis. If there was a choice between a slim profile and a big alpha, people might actually give the barn doors another look.
With a one-second, constant dissipation (instead of what is now a half-second, instantaneous dissipation), it would further limit burst DPS. Even now, it’s relatively easy to ping someone with two, 2xPPC spaced a half-second apart. A full-second window would increase the skill required to hit the same component on a follow-up shot, allowing for more drawn-out fights. Even brawlers would be forced to space out shots, affecting a slight change to the usual shoot-and-shield repetition. Right now, there’s no reason not to alpha in most cases, and it hurts the pace and diversity of combat.
Helps Bracket Builds
Bracket builds will never be top-tier, but they shouldn’t feel as useless as they do now. A large part of that is because you’re currently going to get massively out-sniped by a dedicated sniper or massively out-brawled by a dedicated brawler. If, however, alpha damage was limited in a reasonable way, taking a mixed build wouldn’t feel nearly as pointless.
Consistency and Fairness to All Weapons
Ghost Heat’s rigid approach to linking weapons means there’s a fair amount of collateral damage. The Awesome, known for it’s 3xPPC build, gets shafted into a 20-point alpha because it doesn’t have a ballistic slot. How is that fair? 7xML get a penalty, 3xLL gets a penalty, but 6xML + 2xLL doesnt? Why? With Energy Draw, each variant and weapon can be balanced individually and surgically while leaving no room for edge cases and odd combinations to avoid the penalty.
Try not to get caught up in minutiae; these are just an example of a starting point. To save you the pain of looking through all the numbers, here’s an idea of how the current numbers would affect various weapon combinations:
No Penalty (0 < Energy Draw<= 100)
Small Penalty (100 < Energy Draw <= 125)
- 3xSRM6 + 2xML
- 2xPPC + 2xML
- 1xLRM20 + 1xLRM15
Moderate Penalty (125 < Energy Draw<= 175)
- 2xPPC + 1xGauss
- 2xPPC + 2xAC/5
- 3xSRM6 + 1xAC/20
- 6xML + 1xAC/20
Large Penalty (175 < Energy Draw<= ∞)
- 2xPPC + 2xGauss
- 1xAC/20 + 1xGauss + 1xPPC
- 4xLL + 2xPPC
- 6xML + 1xAC/20 + 1xSRM6
Don’t like the numbers? Think medium lasers should have a higher limit and the Gauss Rifle should be penalized more heavily? Chill. These are numbers that are close to what I would expect to see from PGI, and not what I would have personally chosen. Regardless, they are – again – just a starting point to demonstrate the concept of an unavoidable alpha limit with a bias against pinpoint damage.