OK, so I am posting this not in the general discussion because I don't think we need another thread with everyone going berserk on this. Further, this is not intended as another rant against he rework or any particular skill. If you are looking for that, go somewhere else. Constructive criticism, analysis, and logical input is highly appreciated; venting, ranting etc. not so much.
This is intended more as some analysis and reflection on the commander skills (both before and after the latest rework), based mostly on my thoughts and experiences over the past two weeks, as well as some forum posts and discussions on twitch. Despite this being quite the extensive topic and me writing this being definitely part of the thought process, I will try to keep it short and structured. I also tried to structure this around some key questions and issues I identified while going over this and I am sure I have missed something. You may skip parts, though I might refer to previous sections (a lot) or some related things will come up numerous times. I have also been informed that my writing can be verbose and long to read.
Disclaimer: This is written from the perspective of an average random player. I don't play coop, nor competitive. So, take any thoughts on these topics with a heaping pinch of salt. I am sure the game has provided you with enough of it by now. Also, I play mostly Cruisers and DDs with a bit of BBs, but have little love for CVs. Thus I cannot comment on their skills and how they are affected by this.
Wall of text incoming, you have been warned...
What is actually the role of captain skills? Are they just buffs to ships?
OK, sounds basic but I think it is actually helpful to ask these questions to understand the impact of commander skills, their supposed influence on the game experience, and how they could/should be balanced. The first and obvious answer would be that commander skills should buff certain aspects of a ship to give the player a competitive edge as a reward for them playing the game over time. Classic examples for this in WOWS are the Concealment Expert (CE) skill or Basic Firing Training (BFT), which are a straight buff to a ships characteristic. This is actually not a bad idea, though it has a number of downsides as well. First, it is basically a copy of the module system, where certain modules enhance the ships characteristics (rudder mods, concealment, range mods), and therefore feels very much like an extension of this, instead of being its own thing. Second, with skills being straight up buffs they quickly become mandatory and players are at a disadvantage when they don't have access to them. The concealment expert skill is a perfect example of this, with it being almost mandatory on most DDs. This puts a strain on players to quickly gain as many commander points as possible in order to be competitive with the rest of the players (assuming you do care about this).
The last downside of skills being straight up buffs is also something that comes up a lot in the discussion of the skill rework: build variety. With skills being designed as straight buffs to the ships, it will be not too long before players figure out the best min/max build for the available points for each ship, with little variation. This can also be seen for the modules, where most players use one or two variations of the standard 'cookie cutter' build for a given ship. Few ships have different builds of roughly equal popularity, such as range vs reload mod. See the whole discussion about the Unique Upgrades on this. More on this point also in the next section.
What build variety can there be if skills are only buffs/nerfs to ships?
Considering most ships are already designed around a certain play style or national characteristic/gimmick, the captain skills really can't alter the characteristics of a boat too much or they would be overpowered on other, more specialized boats. There are skills that can make a Gearing into a DPM machine which can take on Harugumos and Smalands? Now imagine the same build on those boats and you see how this just escalates into another arms race, rendering 21pt captains ever more necessary for the competitively minded players among us. Similarly, skills that buff or compensate certain weaknesses of a ship are just part of the same min/max calculations. Survivability Expert (SE) is the best example for DDs, or Fire Prevention (FP) on BBs.
As a consequence, having just buffs or buffs with minor nerfs cannot really be expected to lead to a great variety in captain builds when the basis for how the players play the game (the ships) is already the defining factor. If your skill system is designed around buffs with maybe some minor nerfs then build variety is not really something that is feasible. The exception to this is when you have skills which more or less do the same thing as other skills, with minor differences. An example would be Adrenaline Rush (AR) versus BFT (or whatever it is now called). But the net effect - how the ship is played and which buffs are to be achieved - is the same. The only real game changer in this regard is a switch in the meta, such as going from randoms with 12 players and a wider tier spread, to ranked with 7v7 and a very select tier spread, or Divisions. Prime example might be Clan Battles, where the roles of ships might change drastically as players are now much better coordinated and builds can be very specialized and tailored to a clans strategy and ship composition.
Another factor in this is practicability. When grinding a tech tree line, players often train up captains and build up skills which are expected to work throughout the grind to T10, with maybe a change somewhere around T6-T8 required to account for changes in the line. You won't grind the german or USN tech tree line and then respec your captain every other ship to build, no player could realistically afford that.
Similarly, many premium ships are sold around their unique and interesting playstyle and thus also cannot be expected to be run 'optimally' with different builds. Two examples from my personal collection are Massachusetts and Georgia. The first is the example of the USN secondary brawler ship and players are (at least before the skill rework) encourage to build her as a secondary BB, with the only real question being whether to use IFHE or not. Or to put it bluntly: If I wanted to build my Massa with a tank/sniper build, I'd bought an Alabama instead. Georgia on the other hand can work both with a Massachusetts captain spec'ed for secondaries, but also with a regular USN BB captain as the ship itself has unique attributes (fast + speed boost, good 2ndaries, vulnerable citadel) that make her ambivalent in play style.
In essence, with skills being designed around buffs to ships there won't be much build variety as players will quickly figure out the best min/max build for each ship and even complete ship lines.
Are there different ways to design captain skills?
I think so, yes. Matter of fact, there are already a few skills in the game that do this, with the two most prominent examples being Priority Target (PT) and Radio Position Finding (RPF), with an honorable mention of Incoming Fire Alert (IFA). These skills are not designed to give your ship better reload, alpha damage or damage resistance, but they give something very valuable to the player directly: Information.
Whether the individual player uses this is of course up to them, the few discussions on the use of these skills I have seen have been very intriguing. Instead of pure mathematical arguments ("you get X percent better reload, vs Y percent more alpha") it came down to arguments about how players approach the game, how they gather information, and how they process them. The amount of information PT or IFA can provide a player who is used to using them can be invaluable, while other players who never developed the skill or - depending on your point of view - the need to rely on a particular crutch don't feel the loss at all. Similarly, RPF can be used on DD hunters to find them more quickly, or on torpedo boats for those RPF predictive torpedoes. Personally, I believe skills which benefit the player directly are much more interesting and provide the variety that simple buffs cannot. This can be either through direct information like RPF and IFA, or through more indirect information sources like PT.
What about those skills with significant downsides or conditional skills?
The "trade X for Y" skills actually have some potential. One example I like was the old torpedo acceleration skill, which traded range for faster torpedoes. Similar, having for example more DPM for the cost of less gun range might be interesting. However, in some ways these tradeoffs are already in place when players had to decide between taking BFT or AFT (assuming you only got 4pts to spare in this example). Further, there is a potential that these skills might not be worth it at all to most players, or if they are stronger that they are just broken on some other ships.
Conditional skills like they were introduced in the latest rework have some potential imho, though the danger of unintended side-effects should be obvious by now. On the plus side, conditional skills have the potential to actually synergize with other skills (Deadeye really goes well with CE, and CQE main battery buff benefits from secondary range). However, their more intricate function requires primarily two things: feedback for the player on when the skills are working (this is for the UI team), and - more importantly - much increased scrutiny from the balancing department a.k.a "the spreadsheet".
So, I don't think conditional skills are the way to go.
Skills influence the meta, do we really want that?
In addition, WG should be aware that skills which require or at least benefit a certain play style actually impact more than a the player using them. Deadeye has shown us that if a significant part of a teams firepower stays at range while remaining mostly effective, other players on the team are NOT taking up the slack and move in for the caps. Instead, these players are faced with even more danger pushing in as they have less close support and are thus the only target for a team to shoot at. In short order, these players then learn to be less aggressive and stay at a distance. Pair this with new combinations of meme builds for cruisers with zero concealment and long range DPM and you suddenly have a massive shift in the meta, even for those players who oppose it.
If disruptive changes like these are indeed intended, then even more thought into the design of skills is required. In the case of deadeye, some measures would be needed for new builds to counter the influence of the tanking BB in the back. An example could have been a more stealth and speed focused heavy cruiser skill combination, which allowed CAs to push up closer with their DDs while staying more or less safe from long range fire. One major caveat is of course that any defense based on concealment is a moot point with the levels of CV spotting currently in the game. In any case, I don't think it was a good idea to drive the meta so much with captain skills like deadeye, be it intentional or unintentional.
Conclusion, for now...
There are plenty more things on my mind that are not really completely though out, yet. For once, I have not gone into the actually skills that much yet, and we could certainly analyze individual ships and where they stand now as examples for the questions up top. For now, it is way past midnight in my timezone, so at this point I would like to stop and leave this open for discussion or comment. I will probably edit or add more to this over time, depending on when I have the time and energy to think about this some more.
And if you made it this far, thanks for reading that huge wall of text. If you didn't, then I don't care...