Monday, December 10, 2012

DPS and the Decline of Complexity in RPGs

Modern role-playing games really haven't gripped me in the same way that the older ones have.  The reasons for that are manifold, but one of the biggest is in the way that developers have begun to adapt new mechanics and ways of presenting information which is at odds with the complexity that I expect from a good RPG.  The influence of titles like World of Warcraft is felt far and wide - sometimes for the better, as in the case things like interface design, but also, in many cases, for worse as well.

In this article I'd like to discuss what I think is the single biggest issue with modern RPGs compared to their predecessors from the 80s and 90s - the prevalence of Damage Per Second as a gameplay concept.

Why DPS?

In order to get into why DPS, in my opinion, isn't a good thing for RPGs, we need to take a closer look and examine what sorts of goals DPS tries to accomplish.  Some of these are obvious, others, less so, as are the reasons and consequences:
  1. Unifies multiple damage types under one number for easy comparison.  Many modern RPGs, especially those built using the MMO model, tend to be very loot-driven compared to older titles.  The motivation for the player isn't just uncovering the story, it's "look at all this awesome stuff I got that looks so cool and epic."  DPS streamlines the time and effort spent comparing loot significantly - no more damage ranges to work out, no more calculating average damage, no more figuring out if you want X or Y variation on your damage output (i.e. higher max damage or smaller damage range).
  2. Is more consistent in actual gameplay, which makes things more predictable for the player.  Similar to the above point, most modern RPGs are not built around the idea of getting critical strikes, knocking down enemy defenses, and so on.  Rather, they tend to be focused more on threat and aggro management between enemies (which forces the player to attack certain enemies in a certain order to distribute incoming damage more effectively).  Combat is less about finding the most efficient ways to defeat your enemies, and more about being able to survive for X amount of time.  This allows for far more controllable encounter design - now you know why for some reason, when you're playing an MMO, enemy groups always seem to take exactly 30ish seconds to defeat.  It has nothing to do with combat quality and everything to do with making the player spend a pre-determined amount of time on the activity for pacing reasons (and in the case of MMOs, to artificially inflate the gameplay time spent with the hopes of getting additional subscription or cash shop dollars out of the player).
  3. Allows for character builds to be balanced and standardized more easily.  In recent years, the idea of game balance in RPGs has become something of a holy grail, generally as a result of the rise of MMOs.  In the MMO environment, which is predominantly social, interactive, competitive and collaboratory, players both want to feel like they are useful to the team and in the world by themselves, but also don't want to feel like any one players is significantly more effective than them.  The standardization of damage output through DPS makes it easier for developers to create that sense of every player being equally effective.  In a single-player context it means that you will likely know how much damage output the player has at almost any stage in the game, based on their equipment and level.
  4. Removes chance-to-hit mechanic.  In older RPGs, it was possible for characters to miss attacks completely, usually contingent on a die roll and a to-hit chance.  In modern RPGs, chance-to-hit has almost been completely removed, for two reasons.  The first comes down to animation - all animations are created with the expectation that the player will actually connect with an attack, and creating an entirely separate set of animations that correctly depict misses in a way that looks good is fairly difficult.  The second is more a matter of simple player ego-stroking.  Nobody likes to miss attacks, as it adds a degree of unpredictability to gameplay and makes players feel less effective than they are.  DPS, by giving a constant damage output the player can rely upon, "solves" these "problems."  It also allows developers to make missed attacks a function of certain skills and spells, like a "Miasma" spell that makes the player miss attacks 50% of the time, but otherwise never any other time. 
  5. Gives a reference point for additional systems to base themselves off of (i.e. DPS determining spell damage, to give magic users a reason to use certain gear). One of the biggest challenges of developing an RPG system is that often fighters and wizards had completely different ways of dealing with problems.  Fighters would have a fairly stable, consistent damage output that could be more or less relied upon, and it was usually simple "physical" damage if a game did have distinct damage types.  Wizards, by contrast, usually have extremely low damage output with standard attacks, to the point of being almost totally ineffectual, but made up for it both in huge "burst" damage output (i.e. an area-of-effect fireball), as well as in the secondary effects applied (lingering damage-over-time, fire damage type bypassing armor, etc.).  This worked well in party-based games where it wasn't imperative for every character to be the same level of effectiveness all the time.  In MMOs and single-character RPGs, however, which have become the norm these days, developers must rely on the player having a very consistent base level of effectiveness which is not compatible with this system.  By effectively making fighters and wizards cosmetic variations of each other and basing each around the DPS mechanic, suddenly, the classes are much easier to balance.
 All in all, DPS represents a far more drastic paradigm shift in RPG design than some may realize.  It's not simply about communicating a number in a more player-friendly way, it's about completely overhauling the base mechanics of games in order to accomplish fundamentally very different goals from modern RPGs.

The DPS Problem

As an exercise in game design, the development of DPS is actually quite fantastic.  Make no mistake, when I think about game design, I think about problem-solving, and DPS, if your project goals are in line with what it accomplishes, is possibly one of the best systems design decisions you can possibly make for an RPG.  But, I'm also of the opinion that DPS has fundamentally damaged much of the uniqueness of RPGs, the depth of their mechanics, and has in general led to far more boring games.

The first major issue I have with DPS is the most fundamental: standardizing damage types.  While some games using DPS do tend to also maintain multiple damage types, the majority do not, instead treating DPS as a be-all, end-all number.  Even those games that do have those different damage types tend to have only cosmetic effects.  By contrast, the Infinity Engine games made famous by Black Isle were built around the Dungeons & Dragons rules, and as such multiple damage types were in play in any given battle.  For example, instead of "physical" damage, there was slashing damage, crushing damage and piercing damage, all which affected different types of armor and different creatures differently (i.e. quipping staves or maces was critical when fighting skeletons, as slashing and piercing damage were significantly less effective), which promoted diversity in the party and made min-maxing less effective, and meant that even a "simple" fighter had wide utility value and some tactics to consider.

This leads into the second major problem, which is almost a direct consequence of the first: standardizing character classes.  In games which feature DPS, that DPS tends to completely remove any uniqueness in gameplay from different types of characters.  It doesn't matter whatever permutations of a class you are playing - in virtually every game of this sort I have found that almost all of the differences between characters were not in gameplay, but in aesthetics.  The fantasy of playing as a barbarian wielding a two-handed sword, versus the one of a svelte assassin backstabbing foes, is definitely a compelling one, but ultimately the only real difference in gameplay tends to come down to ranged vs. melee, and tank vs. damager - distinctions which already existed in other systems and, by virtue of the inclusion of DPS, have less depth to them than they would otherwise.  For all their "diverse" character classes, most MMOs I've played have all classes feel pretty much identical, with the only major exception being Diablo III, which still pales next to earlier games in the series.

The end result of this are games that feel significantly less replayable and also tend to be far more boring, both in single-player and multiplayer contexts.  When I'm playing a single-player game and the only difference between my character is what the loot I use looks like, that is not conducive to a varied gameplay experience - it means that if I ever go back to playing the game a second time, I'm not going to play it significantly differently, and even during the course of a single play-through, if DPS is all that matters, chances are I'm also going to get very bored very quickly.  In an MMO, DPS has the effect of making distinctions between different character classes contingent largely on support abilities, i.e. aggro management vs. healing vs. buffing, and this tends to make different characters interchangeable with one another - one fighter is the same as any other, one cleric is the same as any other, and so on.  This becomes overly formulaic and reduces the uniqueness of your given character significantly, even though creating a unique character and growing him/her in power according to your wishes is supposed to be one of the biggest draws of an RPG.

DPS also tends to get in the way of good equipment systems.  Most more traditional RPGs did have their fair share of very standard weapons - a long sword +1 is obviously going to be a linear upgrade over a standard long sword.  But, interesting distinctions between exotic weapon types were made possible by the differences between damage ranges and attack speeds.  For example, a sword may do 4-8 slashing damage, while a scimitar might do 2-10 slashing damage - it's a small difference between these two, but it can influence your equipment selection and the way you build your character when combined with other mechanics.  For example, maybe if you have a lower chance-to-hit, your decision to use a weapon will be different than if you have a higher chance-to-hit.  The same applies if we are talking about 1 attack per round vs. 2 attacks per round.  These small distinctions in equipment selection made some RPGs more "fiddly" to play for certain gamers and  added a little more to wrap one's head around, but it's this in-depth tinkering and decision-making that made them interesting to play in the first place.

In other words, DPS is very much responsible for the push towards making RPGs glorified action games instead of a distinctive genre with complex systems-driven interactions.  By making character advancement more linear, character classes less distinct, and gameplay more predictable, it robs RPGs of the more simulation-oriented gameplay they became successful for. 

Closing Thoughts

The reason I bring this up isn't because I hate DPS and I think that DPS is something that shouldn't exist - on the contrary, it has worked very well for certain games.  My problems with it are mostly caused by the way in which it has helped transform RPGs from a unique style of game with their own nuanced rule systems, towards action games with glorified progression systems.  DPS has definitely been a boon as far as marketability and mainstream appeal goes - just like leveling up, it's an easy carrot for players to follow that is basically foolproof in significance - but generally speaking, all the classic RPG fans I know are very much aware of the differences in gameplay that DPS brings.  The ones who have embraced it are primarily not of the same community that originally supported RPGS in the first place.

That's not to say that DPS, is solely responsible for this degradation in RPG gameplay, and many of those effects of DPS are secondary in nature and can be altered.  For example, DPS doesn't force developers to use only one damage type, but it does certainly encourage it, and once you've started to create DPS with all the nuance and depth of the older systems by adding additional modifiers on top of it, well, we've really just come full circle and made DPS obsolete anyway.  DPS is a trend that's critically approaching the same level of saturation as XP progression in shooters, and I'm afraid that it's slowly taking us down the road towards homogenization of genres.