The latest dev-blog is out, and it's one of those that's designed to hurt my brain. Go give it a read. I'll wait.
Short version: CCP is changing all non-wormhole, non-Incursion rats so that they will target-switch the same way wormhole and Incursion rats do. As a side effect, the rats will "try" to target player ships of about the same signature radius as the rat ship. So frigs will try to attack frigs, cruisers will try to attack cruisers, et cetera. In addition, rats will now switch targets to drones if drone threat goes high enough.
First off, we're told by CCP FoxFour that this is -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- the first step of many. The old AI code is going to be thrown out in favor of the "Level One" AI code. Once in place, the devs will then be able to make modifications to the AI that they're not able to or uncomfortable doing to the old code.
All well and good, but I can't help thinking that breaking this without some initial positive steps is going to end up hurting more players than it helps. In the section of the dev-blog titled "Why we are doing this", there are five reasons listed. Three of them are for the benefit of CCP, not the players. The other two aren't being implemented this winter. That's worrisome.
Let's look at the positive first, though, because it's a big one. This change will make it functionally impossible to AFK sites using drone boats. Try it and eventually the AI is going to go after and kill all the drones leaving the AFK boat doing no DPS. CCP lists this among the five reasons: "to try and close some exploits." That is undeniably a big huge positive step, the mission equivalent of going after mining bots. You'll get no argument from me that this is a good thing.
Still, there's some worrisome negatives and they come in a lot of flavors.
First, it's going to make it a lot more difficult to bring new players into high-level missions while more experienced players tank them. Somewhere out there, Marlona Sky is saying "good!" and yeah, I understand where this perspective comes from. But in a game where prices are increasing rapidly, new players are in danger of getting priced right out of the markets. Effectively taking away a major income source for new players is not exactly a step in the right direction here. CCP FoxFour's response to this is that newer players should bring frigates into the L4s instead of battleships, but this strikes me as no solution at all. If the Level One AI is going to set its frigates attacking player frigs, isn't that going to mean the new player is going to find himself webbed, scrammed, and attacked by the mission's six or eight or ten rat frigates?
Second and related: it's pretty common these days for an initial tank ship to enter a site or mission and be followed by a lot of glass cannon DPS ships. It's obviously CCP's intent for that to change so that any ship entering the mission or site can potentially tank it. But that's also going to mean that the total DPS of a mission/site group will be reduced... maybe substantially reduced. That's going to reduce mission/site income for everyone. That effectively makes this change a PvE nerf for everyone.
Third worrisome factor: in mission groups today, it's also quite common for a tank ship to be followed by salvaging looting ships. This change is going to delay Noctis pilots and other salvage ships, further slowing down their work. Salvage prices are already a little bit nuts and making salvaging even MORE annoying isn't a good thing. Still, initially this is probably going to be a somewhat more minor issue since salvage prices aren't anywhere near historic highs yet.
Fourth, this is going to require a lot of testing at the high-end. The site that kinda sprang to mind for me is the Guristas 10/10, called "The Maze". Despite living in the north for about a year, I've only done this site once. But I still have vivid memories of that Citadel Torpedo firing station that ends that site. When I would hear NC pilots talk about doing this site on comms, there was always a very specific custom-tanked ship that was brought in just to manage the enormous ship-breaking DPS coming off that torpedo. There are a number of other null-sec sites and missions that fire similar weapons. Something's going to have to be done about them because asking everyone in the site/mission to be able to tank that isn't practical.
Fifth: people who make a living out of ninja salvaging or can flipping in missions are going to have to be a lot more careful. But who cares about them, right? If they're put out of business, that's no big deal.
Finally, as I mentioned at the top of the piece, this change doesn't really do anything to make the missions more fun, interesting, or engaging. For that FoxFour tells us we have to wait for the next iteration and of course we've seen how CCP can sometimes forget that part...
So overall, I'm cautiously optimistic about this one for putting AFK drone boats out of business. But it's also going to hurt a lot of legitimate players who are just using PvE to make ISK for other needs. And the newer you are at the game, the more this change is likely to hurt you. So let's hope the second iteration of this change happens very soon after the first. I'm all for making PvE more engaging, but this change alone doesn't do that.