June 11, 2013

Question From A Newbie: "How do missiles make any amount of sense?"

Alright, missiles. A relatively divisive topic most people do not understand well. Let's take a look at some of their unique features, how they differ from turrets, and when they're appropriate to use. First, what kinds of missiles are there?

Missile Types

There are two types of missiles for each class size: guided, and unguided. Guided missiles (light missiles, heavy missiles, cruise missiles) typically have longer range, move more slowly, and apply damage in infrequent, large lumps. Unguided missiles (rockets, heavy assault missiles, torpedos) are shorter range, and work in a flurry of explosions.

It really should be mentioned that for all intents and purposes, the term "missile" includes rockets. They function by the same mechanics.

How do missiles "hit"?

If they can reach their target, missiles always hit. That doesn't mean they will necessarily apply appreciable amounts of damage, but they will hit. But... what do I mean by "if they reach their target?"

Missiles do not have "ranges". Instead, they have two attributes that determine how they fly: velocity and flight time. When launched, a missile undergoes a period of acceleration in which it ramps up to its top velocity, while chasing its intended target. It continues to do so until it either hits, or runs out of fuel (flight time). If the latter happens, it simply vanishes.

In the most simple terms, this means that a missile's "range" can be approximated by multiplying the velocity and flight time. For example, a 5000 m/s missile that travels for 5 seconds has 25000 m range.

What happens if the target is moving, though? Missiles do not travel in straight lines to their targets, so due to the curvature of the path, their effective range goes down as the target gets faster.

This seems like a very poor characteristic, doesn't it? I should tell you, though: it's not! You can still use it to your advantage. Suppose your missile ship with 10 km range is fighting a turret ship with 15 km range. Consider the following situation:

You just hit someone from outside both your "range" and his range, by having him "run into" your missile! Of course, this can work the other way too: if you're chasing someone and using missiles, you might not hit due to the missile having to travel the extra distance to "catch up" with your target.

How do missiles do damage once they hit?

Missiles have two properties that are used to determine damage: explosion velocity (not to be confused with the velocity of the missile itself) and explosion radius.

Explosion velocity is the most straightforward. If the target is moving when an explosion goes off next to them, the blast wave will hit them at a relatively slower speed, doing less damage. Or, in other words, if the target's velocity is greater than the missile's explosion velocity, the target will take reduced damage. You can picture this as trying to slap a friend that is running past you by swinging your arm in the same direction he is running in. The slap would not hurt him as much as it would if he were standing still.

Not to be confused with the "walking away from an explosion" effect.
The second factor is explosion radius. If the explosion is larger than the target's signature radius, the target takes reduced damage.

"Wait, what? Bigger explosions do less damage?" Yes. It is a bit counter-intuitive at first sight, but it makes sense if you imagine it like waves on a lake. A paper boat floating on a lake (representing a small, low signature radius ship) will not be capsized and will gracefully glide over a large 1 meter wave (an explosion with a large explosion radius). A larger boat made for people would be easily capsized by such a wave. Similarly, a very small wave would be effective at delivering its full energy to the paper boat, and possibly sinking it. The small wave would also deliver that energy to a larger boat just fine, but it does not have the required force (damage) to do much to it.

These two factors for damage can compensate for each other when one would reduce damage and the other wouldn't. For example, if a very fast large ship gets hit by a small explosion radius missile, it may still take almost full damage, despite its speed.

So, what are missiles good for?

Anything you want to use them for! They make excellent weapons for running missions due to their typically long ranges and immunity to tracking disruption, and they also work in ship to ship combat because of their unique mechanics. So, instead of telling you what they're good for, have some tips:

  • Target painters and webs drastically increase your missiles' damage output. Use them when you can.
  • When fighting a turret ship, try to abuse your lack of "falloff" and "tracking". If their turrets naturally have poor tracking, orbit very close and make them unable to hit you -- you will still hit just fine. If their turrets have naturally low range, keep distance and hit them from outside their optimal.
  • Missiles have perfect damage type choice. If your ship doesn't specifically get a bonus towards a single damage type (e.g. Drake bonusing kinetic damage), try to carry a variety of missiles, to choose the right damage for the right target.
That's it! Have fun!