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Gamasutra: DPS and the Decline of Complexity in RPGs

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Gamasutra: DPS and the Decline of Complexity in RPGs

Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Mon 10 December 2012, 18:20:06

Tags: Eric Schwarz

Eric Schwarz has penned another righteous screed for Gamasutra. Following in the tradition of his excellent polemic against cooldowns from earlier this year, this time he's criticizing the concept of "DPS".

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.​

After reviewing the design goals of DPS-using systems and why those systems came to be, Eric concludes that, while effective, DPS tends to be at odds with certain classic CRPG mechanics.

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.​

And in closing:

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.​

You damn right.

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