Most MMOs have some kind of combat system as a major basis for character advancement and progression. Jumpgate is similar in some ways, however as an action MMO, combat tactics are quite different than in other familiar and more RPG like MMOs.
When we approach combat we consider that at the core we must have various roles with both strengths and weaknesses. A dangerous temptation in design is to pick a favorite and overpower it. Avoiding super weapons is a critical part of balance and so the first rule is to design for weakness. As an example, our first two classes of ships were light and heavy fighters. The benefits are reasonably obvious. Light fighters are quick and nimble and heavy fighters are well armored and more heavily armed. The weaknesses are a bit trickier. Should light fighters have less weaponry or less armor or both? Should they have access to less powerful shields and if so, how is this accomplished? Most importantly is how this is communicated to the player and is it actually fun?
Early on our lead systems designer, Jay Ambrosini, came to the correct conclusion that all of the preliminary balancing was best done in a PvP context. The reasoning is that in PvE, the player needs to feel powerful, but in PvP the fight needs to feel balanced. Once ship classes are balanced in PvP, its not as hard to make the player feel powerful in PvE, but the opposite is not true. We spent many weeks playing just the first class of ship, the light fighter, in teams of 5 or 6 in order to evaluate what it was that made those ships fun to fly and fight. After daily battles, you begin to see what makes those ships work. We also started with the mid level ships as opposed to the low or high level ships. This is primarily because you can find the center point and then work upwards and downwards from there.
With just one class of ship tactics are the easiest to work out. It's mostly people figuring out how to effectively fly inside the map, find cover, maneuver through tight areas and avoid missile lock-ons. It took a lot of time to get all of the various pieces working correctly, but eventually we were having a lot of fun and looking forward to the daily play tests. It wasn't until this point that we added the second class of ships which were the heavy fighters. Jay decided quite early that he wanted the classes to feel VERY different as opposed to having lots of small differences. Thus, the heavy fighters had considerably more armor, came armed with mortar AOE weapons, but were much slower at turning and accelerating. Initially this lead to heavy fighters being almost indestructible at long range and nearly useless at close range. This proved to be quite frustrating as neither side felt they could respond once the condition for victory had been set. Specifically, light fighters had no chance at range if they didn't see the heavy coming in, and heavy fighters were unable to break a fight once the lights got in close. We tried a number of things but what helped a lot was adding a combat boost consumable, mines and chaff. Chaff allowed the light fighters to overcome the heavy missile fire while combat boost allows the heavies a chance to get some distance. A tactic that worked quite well was to mix a few lights with a heavy so that the lights can chase off and incoming enemies and let the heavies stay further back and fire devastating missile and mortar fire.
A third class of ship was then added which we decided should be a more nimble and less armored fighters. One of the PvP maps is a traditional capture and hold scenario and thus rushing to the capture point is a key tactic. Also, being able to zoom around the other fighting ships to draw fire proved to be a very useful tactic. As with the light and heavy fighters it took many weeks of iteration to get the basics of the class defined.
The other thing that was interesting is that many times you have to give a change a while to see if it is good. After many months of playing, some people on the team become quite proficient at playing in very advanced ways; small changes in weapon damage, range, ship speed and anything else. It's difficult to decide between reacting to feedback from a change and having the patience to wait and see if the initial feedback changes after a few days of getting used to it. An example of this is that we changed the missile lock system to take into account line of sight. This was initially a huge disadvantage for heavy fighters and met with some initial criticism. After some time, however, we determined that it was the right decision.
I think that the key thing to understand is that tactics are the result of distinct and strong variation, simple rules and easy to understand advantages and disadvantages. Once you have that, people use that information to create very complex and interesting combinations.
It's very tempting to just throw a bunch of classes of ships together in order to say things like “our game has 15 classes of ships!” but this, we believe, is the wrong direction. People want meaningful and strong choices and not lots of meaningless, empty choices. Currently we plan to have 4-6 classes, but they will each have nearly endless possible configurations within those groups. I also suspect we will continue to add more classes and equipment which will continue the balanced and varied tactics available. Much of this will come from more extensive testing as many thousands of players will provide much better information than our group of developers working alone can.