I'm make no apologies for the length of the post. I have a lot to say and there is no "tl;dr".
It's worth pointing out, as always with my posts, that I only play PVE, usually with a team of one or two friends that I can rely on. I don't care about PVP, and I think it's really silly and a waste of time to attempt to balance the same systems for both PVE and PVP when the threats and abilities used are nothing alike.
Now that you know where I'm coming from.
There's been several threads lately about ship balance. Cruiser captains feeling like escorts make them obsolete, escort captains feeling cruisers have a self-entitlement complex with their requests for buffs, sci-ship captains just feeling indistinctly saddened by life. Massive, heated, circular threads about buffs and nerfs ensue. In the spirit of maybe building a foundation that we can move forward from, rationally, I've made this thread.
There's a fundamental flaw with the way STO works, and it revolves around the purpose of these ship classes.
In the universe of classic Star Trek canon, "cruiser" type ships are the default and most numerous vessel of the Federation because the Federation is primarily an organization for exploration, research, diplomacy, and colonization. They build cruisers because they have the flexibility to host a summit, defend a convoy, deliver colonists and fabricate a colony, and explore a strange particle cloud all on the same mission. Many of us grew up with The Next Generation... How many times did you hear "The Enterprise is being refitted for its next mission"? Rarely. Because it already had all the stuff it needed to do pretty much anything.
Escorts were introduced because they were more efficient at filling a needed role in a destabilizing galaxy, which was combat patrol. They were small, quick, efficient in materials and manpower, and aggressive. They delivered all the firepower of an advanced cruiser without the bulk of also carrying industrial fabricators, fancy scanning systems, and everything else that cruisers needed to deliver on their multi-role mandate. Escorts were not intended to go on missions that could range to years in length or to perform advanced research or provide logistical support. They were built and fielded to fight, which they do well, while cruisers and science ships were still built and fielded for other missions.
Now we look at STO, and realize: Every single mission is combat-based. Mission events that require scanning or beaming are just buttons we push before enemies leap out at us. Every ship has the same cargo capacity, the same technological and sensor abilities, the same mission endurance and range. The only thing that actually relies on your ship's equipment and realtime performance metrics.... is combat. "Escort" type ships are designed specifically for combat, at the expense of all areas which are not combat, which is why they seem to be favored so much: Every game mission favors their strengths and turns a blind eye to their weaknesses.
To make other ship types seem useful and appealing while sticking to the basic ideas of Star Trek, a total overhaul and massive expansion of mission gameplay and strategies would need to be done. There would need to be non-combat missions focused on areas that cruisers and science ships actually hold the superior hand for. As an example, instead of saving a planet from an implausibly massive fleet of enemy ships, maybe we need to save a planet from a sudden onset of extreme volcanism. Science ships would probe the planet's crust, identify the currents in the mantle and use precision drilling and blasting techniques to settle the planet down. Cruisers would mine the system's asteroid belt for materials, then build seismic dampeners and reinforced habitat domes that would keep the inhabitants safe. Meanwhile the escort are somewhere else shooting the bad guys.
These kind of sweeping overhauls seems utterly beyond the ambition or budget of a game pushing several years of age. Basic concepts like these need to be decided in the early design stage of a game. So in realistic terms we're pretty much stuck with all the missions being combat-based. Which mean we need to come up with some way for each type of ship to succeed in combat, to prevail over enemies, to an equal extent. Teamwork is a fine and noble goal and I'm all in favor of synergy between careers and ship types, but every ship also needs to be an equivalent solo combatant as well. If they aren't, you force some ships/players to only play with teams that can complement them, instead of allowing them the freedom of choice. And obviously that's not cool.
So, let's decompose. What is the core essence of each ship?
For escorts it's pretty obviously all about aggressive offense. They have the best guns, the best agility, the most tactical abilities, the highest bonus to weapon power, the most widgets that boost damage output. Simple and direct, the escort is all about going in with the volume set to 11 and making as many kills as they can before they do a 180 and fly off to recharge. The escort's combat toolkit is all about the overwhelming initial barrage and getting away before the enemy counter punches (if they survived).
What are cruisers then? Some say that the cruiser's role is to tank.... but tanking alone does not win fights, it leads to stalemate. In order to win by defense, you have to be able to outlast an enemy, hurting them more than they hurt you, and winning by the inevitable erosion of their endurance. Therefore: the cruiser's combat toolkit should consist of things that change the balance of power in prolonged engagements. In cliched fantasy imagery, cruisers should be the heavily armored, shield-carrying, mace-swinging guy that deflects, blocks, and outright absorbs everything you try to do to him until you get too tired to properly defend yourself.
And science ships? They have limited firepower, somewhat weak hulls, and lots of weird particles. Many science bridge officer abilities offer "crowd control" of various kinds, which is all well and good but controlling the crowd doesn't win battles. Making the crowd go away forever wins battles, and neither boff science abilities nor science ship's built-ins facilitate this. Similar story with their little surgical gimmicks; pricking the enemy in a soft spot is cool, but making them go away is what's going to end the fight. So without extreme firepower or extreme endurance, what HAVE they got? While the escort just bulldozes through the enemy and the cruiser wears him down, the science ship combat toolkit is filled with techniques to evade, misdirect, and neutralize the enemy so that their attacks and defenses are simply ineffective.
What does this mean in practical terms... i.e. What are my suggestions to make things more "balanced".
Escorts are fine. They're a handy baseline. They have a role, they fill their role, and everybody's happy.
Cruisers should be given three key abilities aimed at strengthening "victory through endurance":
1.) Lift the "sensor analysis" mechanics from science ships and graft it onto cruisers, but instead of only increasing damage output, it also stacks shield resistance and threat generation against the specific target. In other words, the longer a cruisers fights a given enemy, they more damage they will do, the less damage they will take (from that enemy), and the less likely the target is to pay attention to anybody else.
2.) Increased shield transfer speed. With a twist. In keeping with the spirit of getting in the enemy's face and just outlasting the hell out of them, a cruiser's ability to focus their shields is essential. Currently this requires the use of tactical teams, which cruisers are very limited on. The boosted shield transfer speed should be somewhere between what tactical team does and what automatic rebalancing does, BUT rather than being automatic to adjust to all threats in a dynamic way (very useful for escorts as they fly all over the place) this bonus only kicks in when you use the arrow keys to focus your shields to a specific quadrant, presumably toward the enemy that you have selected to relentlessly pound into submission.
3.) Insta-death protection. Sometimes incoming hits just roll ridiculously well on a critical, and even the toughest ships can be wiped out or nearly wiped out in the blink of an eye. Such weapons make a mockery of a ship class supposedly all about endurance and durability. Make it so that a cruiser can never lose more than 1/3 of its hull in one second, and by implication, never more than 1/3 its hull from a single weapon hit. Though, the ship does take an "injury" every time this protection kicks in if the difficulty and mission parameters allow injuries.
Science ships get the biggest and vaguest changes:
1.) Overhaul abilities effects in general, with the intent of making science able to disable and neutralize enemies to the point that even with their low firepower they can win the same fights as escorts and cruisers. As a random example, Tachyon Beam removes a couple hundred points per second of the enemy's shielding, coupled to a long cooldown on the beam itself and sympathetic cooldowns on many other science abilities. Which means you have an ability specifically designed to remove shields that is much worse at doing this than even a single weapon mount on a ship with full power to guns. Instead of just stripping paltry amounts of shield, make the tachyon beam reduce their shield "hardness" so that they take more damage, and also reduces their ability to recharge. These abilities, in general, should be aimed at making the enemy's attacks or defenses ineffective in a meaningful and specific way.
2.) Overhaul abilities in general for greater "up time". For a science ship, its abilities ARE its weapons. Compare the merit of having 2 copies of Cannon:Rapid Fire (66% "up time") versus 2 copies of...well, most science abilities. Keep the shared cooldowns for systems of abilities, but make the actual cyclic time on abilities faster, so that the player basically chooses one tool from their toolbox at a time to focus on, rather than being forced by gratuitously long cooldowns to use everything in sequence even if it's not really the best tool for the job at hand.
3.) Change the subtargeting abilities to modes rather than events. In other words, rather than firing one single shot at the enemy's engine for minimal impact, turning on Subtarget:Engines would make ALL shots affect the engines to some degree until you turned that mode off, at the cost of all shots doing reduced damage to shields and hull. Subtargeting would then be more of a strategic choice rather than an occasional poke in the eye. Target the engines until you can outmaneuver the enemy and get into their weak weapon arc, then switch to targeting their weapons while your tachyons and charged particle bursts bring down their shields, and finally switch to targeting the shields to keep them suppressed while you work on their hull.
So. There you go. Congratulations if you survived. My thoughts on ship roles, ship balances, the problems we face, and both idealist and realistic ways to address those problems.