Many players are excited about the upcoming introduction of advanced active radar missiles like the AIM-120 to the game, but there are also concerns about their impact on the game’s ecosystem, especially on air RB. Some people hastily suggest just enlarging the aerial combat maps, advocating for not only extra-large maps in air RB but also introducing maps of the scale used in air SB. However, when discussing game experience and tempo, they revert to proposing an increase in the player limit per battle, this approach is akin to a never-ending cycle of “adding more water to the soup, only to then add more ingredients to compensate.”
Observing and comparing the current top-tier air RB on standard large maps and extra-large maps, it’s evident that even with long-range missiles like the AIM-54 and R27ER, the gameplay on extra-large maps is not more exciting or engaging. There isn’t a noticeable increase in high-altitude players engaging in more sophisticated Beyond-Visual-Range (BVR) combat. These extra-large maps often result in scattered low-altitude group battles, making mutual support and impact harder. This leads to asymmetrical forces in each area, some players know their destiny when they know they are outnumbered and other teammates are too far away to help, while some players even spending most of their time without encountering an enemy, significantly diminishing the gaming experience. Overall uncertainty increases, while local certainty does too, contradicting human semiotic pleasure mechanisms.
The development of War Thunder’s air RB over the years has formed a perfect ecosystem: CAS players prey on AI, low-altitude players prey on CAS players, mid-altitude players engage the low ones and then team up, while high-altitude players descend to tackle the remaining groups after their small-scale high-altitude duels. This food chain is based on the gamble of whether to risk becoming an easy target to prey on weaker ones or to ensure one’s safety at the risk of missing out on easy targets. Each player’s choice in the food chain depends on their aircraft’s capabilities, skill level, and combat objectives. Typically, skilled players opt for the mid to late stages, ensuring they last till the end and significantly influence the battle’s outcome.
It’s important to note that simply having more or fewer players at any stage doesn’t necessarily benefit the overall battle. Each stage has a significant impact on the course and outcome of the battle. In this format, the overall tempo of air RB battles is predictable, but the subtle variations in player count and aircraft types at each stage still produce a myriad of unique battle scenarios. This slight unpredictability within an overall predictable framework provides the “fun” humans seek, as opposed to excessive unpredictability, which leads to anxiety and stress rather than enjoyment.
As the Air RB enters the era of third-generation jet fighters, the changes in aircraft and missile capabilities have altered the dynamics within the established food chain. Players at different levels of combat - low, mid, and high altitudes - no longer observe a clear hierarchical distinction. Every stage can strike at others, especially the low-altitude players who can not only target CAS players but also pose a significant threat to mid and even high-altitude players. High-altitude players, apart from surprise attacks, don’t have a distinct advantage over lower tiers anymore. The so-called “stage” in the food chain have become less defined, disrupting the combat rhythm that players had been accustomed to for years. However, players have made adjustments, such as collectively opting for sideways flight to avoid direct confrontations. This tactic allows some players to engage the enemy first and then others to gradually turn back to the center of the map for group battles, somewhat maintaining the rhythm/pace of combat. But since sideways flight is two-dimensional, unlike the three-dimensional dynamics of low, mid, and high-altitude combat, it significantly limits the battle’s flexibility and intrigue. I won’t elaborate on this much (a typical example being that players flying sideways at a distance can’t join group battles as flexibly as those at high altitudes, nor can they engage each other directly like high-altitude players can). If the active missiles are introduced or if maps are enlarged without thought, and AI targets are dispersed across these extra-large maps, even this last semblance of an agreed-upon rhythm/pace of combat will be disrupted, leading to chaotic and disorganized battles.
My recommendation is to focus AI distribution within a concentrated area of the map to maintain a central core of combat activity, then maintain the scale of aerial combat maps (or slightly enlarge) while setting up three different airfields – front, middle, and rear – for players to choose their takeoff points freely. Players wanting to engage in CAS and those targeting them would take off from the front airfield, engaging first; the majority, who prefer not to join the battle too early or miss group fighting opportunities, would take off from the middle airfield, easily targeting the survivors of the initial skirmish who are at a disadvantage in terms of ammunition and position; and the top players, who aim to have the final say in the battle, would choose the rear airfield. This allows them ample time and distance to reach optimal altitudes and engage in BVR combat before swooping in to clean up the remnants of the group battles. This strategy would adapt the established food chain and combat rhythm to the new era of high-speed and long-range capabilities. Considering the current strategies of late takeoffs and sideways flying, setting up these three airfields is unlikely to result in everyone choosing the foremost airfield (except perhaps initially as players adjust to the new changes). After all, playing defensively often provides a tactical advantage, and only less skilled players might be forced to attack weaker targets or AI to ensure they don’t end up with zero combat achievements.