This is going to be a very long post with an in depth description of engineering in general, the thermocore specifically, the balance between reactors and different forms of cooling, and it is intended to give the developers an in depth analysis of high skill engineering and what mechanics come into play. Reading through previous suggestions on this topic, i noticed the developers responding that they did not get much feedback on this matter, so i hope that such a detailed post on the matter will be very helpful.
In the most recent patch (Beta 26.5), multiple changes were brought to engineering as a whole: overclocking causes faster loss of stability, reactors with higher heat output lose stability faster, and fire killer grenades no longer cool reactors. On top of this, the thermocore was changed to have less heat gain (160% instead of 230%), have a significantly higher maximum temperature, and less output (38K instead of 46K, a 17.4% decrease)
The current meta for engineering is to run reactors hot enough that they lose stability: making use of the maximum temperature (a couple hundred degrees past the temperature at which it starts losing stability) to stop the reactor from heating up further allows maximum power output while losing stability, to then quickly cool the reactor when stability is very low. The reactor regains stability while heating up, and once it is close to maximum stability, you stop trying to cool it and let it lose stability again. This allows getting a lot of power without using much coolant or having to limit the power output of the reactor very significantly for long periods of time. This is a high risk, high reward playstyle, heavily rewarding people who pay good attention and can manage stability loss effectively without letting the reactor blow up (especially when you get boarded and your engineer has to make sure they don't die or let the screens get hacked, situations in which they would no longer be able to cool the reactor properly). The high stakes of playing this way also make the game much more exciting and enjoyable. Of course, playing this way is optional, and many crews prefer the safer style of having core safety be on. My suggestions do not intend to take away from said safer playstyle, and to an extent even help it, but my main goal is to promote the enjoyable and exciting gameplay of living on the edge.
The old thermocore took this to an extreme - you had to run it at maximum temperature to use it properly (or else you would be missing out on a lot of output), but cooling it down when stability was low was significantly more difficult, and without cutting the power output of the reactor significantly, it was actually impossible to do so with coolant alone. Additionally, it had the downside of needing to heat up: After a jump or other downtime, the reactor took a while before reaching a high enough temperature to actually provide more power than other reactors (65% temperature was the break-even point with the second best reactor, pf antimatter). Using the reactor optimally required a very skilled engineer playing very actively, and it was a true test of skill while also being incredibly enjoyable. The benefit of these costs was a massive 53.3% higher power output than the pf antimatter, but only while the ship was actually losing stability (it was virtually impossible to get a lot of output out of the reactor without it overheating).
The result of the way it worked meant that without reactor safety being off, the reactor was virtually useless - which gave it a bad rep among engineers who didn't know how to properly handle unstable reactors (as seen in previous feedback given about the thermocore, where it was explained to be bad due to it being incapable of being used without overheating - this is merely people not understanding that the entire point of the thermocore was to overheat it on purpose). With reactor safety off, the reactor could be used properly, and it was incredibly fun to use, while also being an incredibly good reactor.
In the beta 26.5 update, the heat output of the thermocore was lowered, while the maximum temperature was raised. This means it takes significantly longer (about twice as long without using overclock) to heat up the reactor, and thus significantly hampering its use early on in a fight. This does NOT make the reactor easier to use, because using it properly involves losing stability at maximum temperature, in which case no heat is gained due to there being a maximum. Running the reactor any colder than its maximum temperature takes a very large amount of coolant and it requires significantly limiting the power output of the reactor, which completely negates the power output advantage the themocore has, in addition to making it very costly to run . Once the reactor is losing stability, it now also loses stability significantly faster due to it having 160% heat output (higher heat output was made to cause extra stability loss). In addition to this, the thermocore also had its power output reduced significantly. From 46K to 38K, a 17.4% reduction. This means that it now needs to have around 80% output at maximum temperature to have the same power output as an equal level pf antimatter, while this used to be 65%. This means that to actually benefit from the thermocore, you need to have it at maximum temperature and at least providing 80% output, however, it is not possible to cool it (even with high coolant) when providing more than about 78% output. Thus, the reactor will always be gaining heat (and reaching its maximum temperature, losing stability) when being used. Due to it losing stability significantly faster with the change, and the inability to cool it with fire killer grenades, and it being impossible to keep it stable while providing enough power to be worth using (worth using being more output than the pf), the thermocore is now no longer the best reactor, yet it is still by far the hardest to use, incredibly rare, and incredibly expensive to purchase and upgrade.
To restore the thermocore to its previous glory, where it was both a very effective reactor while being a very fun one to use that tested the skills of the engineer using it, i would suggest the following two changes:
1. Restore its power output to 46K with a gain of 4.6K per level, instead of the current 38K and 3.8K per level.
2. Remove the increased stability loss from a reactor with >100% heat output. There are very few situations where this effects reactors that are not the thermocore in a meaningful way, there is currently no way for the engineer to detect other sources of heat causing increased stability loss, and it's a massive unnecessary nerf to the thermocore.
Additionally, the fire killer grenade was changed to no longer cool reactors. The fire killer grenades were unbalanced when used with a normal reactor, but they were exactly what was needed for a thermocore. Being able to cool the reactor very quickly with grenades allowed keeping the output close to 100% since you did not need to severely limit its power output to reduce temperatures, but if you cooled it too far, you'd also lose power output. The balance of fire killer grenades and thermocores was an intricate one, where the engineer had to cool the reactor enough that you could regain stability, but keep it close enough to maximum heat that you did not lose significant power output. This required using a very large amount of grenades, which in turn required the engineer to resupply them, and created a very active playstyle where one had to always keep track in their mind of where the reactor temp would be (which one could estimate with enough experience engineering) while being elsewhere in the ship to resupply grenades, so that they could return to the reactor on time to cool it before it overheated again.
Fire killer grenades on normal reactors were incredibly powerful. You could spam them at it to cool it a lot, due to there being no penalty to cooling it that much (contrary to the thermocore, where that results in a loss of output). This allowed running a reactor overclocked at maximum output without it overheating, which definitely was unbalanced.
Fire killer grenades additionally are not very good at putting out fires compared to a normal fire extinguisher, which currently leaves them with very little use on board of a ship.
To try and fix the above issues (thermocore eating up all your coolant in a single fight due to not being able to be cooled by grenades, the loss of the gameplay mechanic of having to mentally keep track of temperatures and figure out when it's safe to resupply grenades, grenades being unbalanced at cooling normal reactors, and fire killer grenades being bad at putting out fires on a ship) i would suggest a few changes to the fire killer grenades:
1. Return the power of cooling a reactor to it, but have it be able to cool the reactor all the way to 0 degrees - cooling it this far would cause the reactor to shut down just like hitting maximum temperature (regardless of if the reactor safety is on or off), punishing people for overuse of grenades for cooling. After the ship goes back on, the reactor would have to get set back to its normal minimum temperature to avoid thermocores from being stuck at 0 output due to having 0 temperature, which in turn means 0 heat generation and thus no way to ever warm them back up.
2. Increase the range where the grenades put out fires and increase the fire extinguishing power of them before they explode. This would allow shooting it into rooms with large flames and then moving on to put out other areas, and allow actually putting out multiple rooms before it's out of ammo.
3. Fire killer grenades should not cool an overclocked reactor. People would still be able to turn off the overclock, cool it, and then overclock it again, but this would require micromanaging the reactor and add gameplay depth instead of simply being able to spam them at a reactor to keep it cool through the overclock.
Excessively cooling the reactor would thus come at the cost of not being able to overclock it (you have to stop cooling to overclock and stop overclocking to cool), adding an opportunity loss.
4. Increase the price of fire killer grenades. Having them cost more credits would make them a more significant investment, which would help balance out their effectiveness.
These can also go combined with tweaking how much it cools the reactor if needed, or changing the magazine size of the grenade launcher. Fire killer grenades cooling reactors is a fun gameplay mechanic in my opinion. Fire extinguishers were not a fun mechanic, and i am glad those no longer cool reactors.
If fire killer grenades are changed to cool reactors again, the thermocore should return (closer) to its old heat generation and returning to the old the maximum temperature (230% heat output, 3600 max temp, additional 360 max temp per level) so it is still difficult for the engineer to keep the intricate balance of how much you need to cool it. Additionally, lowering the maximum temperature actually benefits the reactor (which is why i consider the change to the maximum heat in beta 26.5 a nerf), as it will be easier to heat it up to get full output in a fight, while also punishing people more for overcooling it, as it will be easier to lose a large portion of your reactor output if you cool it too far (which adds skill based gameplay).
While the thermocore definitely is difficult to use, and not suitable for many engineers, its design specifically caters towards those with the skills to use it. Its design allows for very fun and skilled gameplay, which i would prefer to keep around. While i understand the intentions to make it more accessible in this update, the actual results of many of them is that it's significantly more difficult to actually use it properly (as in, overheating it and losing stability) but easier to use it wrong (keeping it stable while heavily limiting output to stop it from overheating, in which case a normal reactor would be far superior), while not having enough reward in power output to make said extra difficulty (and the very large amount of coolant you need now that fire killer grenades don't work) worthwhile.
The patch notes mention making it more manageable, but i disagree with this. Its difficulty is the cost for the high power output it provides, and i feel like the reason it is seen in such bad light by many players is due to them not understanding it. The patch notes mention suggestions for the type of tips to provide new players, and i feel that informing them of the advantages of turning off reactor safety will help a lot. Many players are unaware of how useful this feature is for any reactor, or are misinformed about the risks of having it off. This would also help experienced engineers, since their less experienced captains would be more aware of what they're doing, and not freak out as soon as the reactor safety is off.
On the other changes in the update i would like to point out that overclocking causing faster stability loss is a very good change, since overclocking was in a desperate need of having a downside, but i feel that the stability loss increase is just slightly too much. I have not played extensively enough with the new update to be entirely sure if the overclocking needs adjusting however, and if it does need adjusting, it is only a minor amount.
Lower than 100% heat generation causing stability to be lost slower is additionally also a good mechanic (and gives a nice upside to the sylvassi reactor and the experimental processors that reduce heat gain), even if losing it faster at more than 100% heat generation causes the issues i mentioned earlier. Please keep the lower stability loss with less heat as that is an interesting mechanic that can be used for benefit with specific ship components, but remove the faster loss with more heat.
In addition to all of the above i would suggest one other change: increase the amount of coolant a ship can carry. Currently, it is very easy to use up a lot of coolant in one fight (especially for less experienced engineers), leaving the ship without any, and a ship can easily go half a dozen or more jumps before being able to buy new coolant. A 50% to 100% increase in coolant storage would allow a ship to make more use of this mechanic (and will help cool reactors with less help of fire killer grenades), while not giving a ship so much that it would make it easy to keep the reactor cool all the time. Coolant currently feels a lot like an emergency resource for difficult fights, and not like a mechanic that actually gets used in combat. A ship that uses more coolant would of course still have to spend more credits on purchasing new coolant, which should balance out having more coolant (especially with the recent change that causes coolant to be more expensive at higher chaos). Having more coolant would also make help newer players out, since new players often have trouble fighting enemies, but feel that coolant is too important to use in a normal fight, and are discouraged from playing as a result. Having coolant additionally be extra cheap at chaos 0-2 would encourage use of it early on, without punishing new players who use a lot of it in the early game.
EDIT: fixed a few typos
EDIT 2: I read through some of the replies to the previous update (26.4) on steam, and saw a few people mentioning thermocore was unplayable due to the fire extinguisher change. While this change definitely impacted the thermocore significantly, it was not a matter of it being unusable without fire extinguishers, but more a matter of it being significantly easier when you did use one. It is however entirely possible to get very close to optimal output from a thermocore without the extinguisher. Fire killer grenades being able to cool reactors was not very common knowledge, and some players are not even aware of the existence of fire killer grenades. The ammo cost, accidental overcooling when using too many, and need to refill fire killer grenades result in a far more balanced and engaging method than extinguishers, while still providing the external source of cooling that the thermocore benefits so massively from. If the thermocore and grenade changes are reverted (and the adjustments to grenades to better balance them with normal reactors), it should be made clear in the patch notes that the grenades are a valid method of cooling a thermocore, so that these players understand that it is still very usable even without fire extinguishers. While i understand well that some of these players would not have the skills to use a thermocore if the 26.5 changes are reverted, it would be a shame to miss out on the exciting skilled gameplay of the thermocore as it was when there are other options that don't involve significantly weakening it.
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Only the reactors heat output affects stability, so only the thermocore and sylvassi reactors are affected currently2. Remove the increased stability loss from a reactor with >100% heat output. There are very few situations where this effects reactors that are not the thermocore in a meaningful way, there is currently no way for the engineer to detect other sources of heat causing increased stability loss, and it's a massive unnecessary nerf to the thermocore
The thermocore goes between 2% and 100% of its max output based on temp, so even negative temperatures won't kill it1. ...After the ship goes back on, the reactor would have to get set back to its normal minimum temperature to avoid thermocores from being stuck at 0 output due to having 0 temperature, which in turn means 0 heat generation and thus no way to ever warm them back up.
Why not have the range increase with level?2. Increase the range where the grenades put out fires and increase the fire extinguishing power of them before they explode. This would allow shooting it into rooms with large flames and then moving on to put out other areas, and allow actually putting out multiple rooms before it's out of ammo.
Which is a lovely change that should stay.Additionally, the fire killer grenade was changed to no longer cool reactors.
Counter Point: Using fire-killers or extinguishers is a bad engineering habit, and leads to people not using coolant.
Breaker of all the things