MMOs have gone through many changes over the years, both good and bad. But there’s been at least one change that I think has left us worse than we were before–DPS. DPS (Damage-per-second for the uninitiated) has become the bane of the MMO genre. We have become so obsessed with this one concept that it has changed the way MMOs are designed, consumed, and critiqued–and not to our benefit. Now before you start foaming at the mouth – hear me out and let me explain myself. Let’s look at beginning years, hopefully without the rose-colored glasses this time.
The Way it used to be
In the beginning, damage was something to be managed in MMOs. The mark of a truly great rogue, mage or any other damage dealer class was that ability to keep high damage, without pulling threat from the tank. You were squishy, so if you pulled threat, you died quick. Making sure that you did enough damage without doing too much was an art form. As a rogue, my focus was always on not pulling aggro. Whenever I would see that red border, I would vanish or feint, dropping my threat and saving myself from an ignoble death when the mob looked at me funny. Or god forbid, I would intentionally break my rotation to lower my damage.
Playing a damage dealer required nuance and situational awareness. Being the top of the damage charts was pretty useless if you died every pull because you couldn’t control yourself. But this is no longer the case.
Now the conversation is around who can eek out another 2 points of damage per second, and if you pull threat, it was the tank’s fault for not holding threat. If you died while chasing after your DPS record in a dungeon, well it was the healer’s fault for not healing you. Threat management for damage dealers is a non-consideration in today’s MMO Meta. We are obsessed with meeting what someone else considers ‘acceptable’ levels of performance, always measured in DPS and nothing else.
And it all started with just some Jerks. Some Elitist Jerks and the rise of TheoryCrafting.
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly theorycrafting became a big thing. According to WoWWiki, “Theorycraft is the attempt to mathematically analyze game mechanics in order to gain a better understanding of the inner workings of the game.” For WoW, sometime between launch and the end of Burning Crusade, theorycrafting started becoming mainstream, in no small part because of sites like ElitistJerks.com ElitistJerks (EJ for short) came onto the scene due to their second-to-none theorycrafting. As a Rogue playing at the end of The Burning Crusade, a guildie saw I wasn’t doing great DPS and pointed me to the site. I read all about the rotations, downloaded the spreadsheet to plug my gear into and planned out everything I needed to be the best rogue I could be.
For a lot of people, sites like EJ made them better at the game, and therefore they enjoyed the game more. In this way, theorycrafting was a really positive influence because it took a really complicated and overwhelming task of understanding all subtle interactions, and wrote them out in an easy to understand format. People played their classes better and enjoyed the game more because they become more skillful.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows here. As time went on, more and more people started relying on theorycrafting not as a means to learn to play your class better, or the ultimate min/max guide, but instead as the baseline of performance. We subtly shifted throughout the Wrath years to a model where if you weren’t hitting a specific DPS number than the theorycrafters had calculated you should be able to hit at your level, you were labeled a bad and often booted from dungeons, raids or groups in general. Instead of helping people enjoy the game, it became a tool to differentiate the ‘good people’ and the ‘bad people,’ with the unspoken sentiment that the good people deserved to play the game, and the bad people did not. In short, people used DPS to bully and make fun of other players.
DPS Meters are Devil
But theorycrafting wouldn’t have had the same impact without a tool easily measure your DPS, and that of the rest of your group. Enter Recount. Recount is a damage meter for World of Warcraft. It would measure your overall damage, your DPS overall, and your DPS for a given fight. It also measured various other stats throughout combat, but the damage meters were easily its claim to fame. It gathered this information by parsing the data in your combat logs for you and your party and presented this data in real-time as you were playing the game. It was very easy to see if you were ‘carrying someone’ through a dungeon or a raid. Carrying is a term used colloquially in MMOs to represent a person who isn’t doing their fair share of the work in a party. It’s also used to describe someone who isn’t meeting damage expectations of one or more people in the party, regardless of whether it causes any problems.
As a rogue, this was really helpful and helped me get my rotation down, and I could in real-time see how I was getting better. As I got more skilled, I saw my total damage and DPS inch up and it was a great feeling. But as I was doing PUG raids (before the LFR), it wasn’t quite so fun. People would post damage logs in party chat, and if I, as a rogue, wasn’t in the top 3 I was told to pick it up or they would replace me because they weren’t ‘carrying’ anyone through the raid. I was never a top-tier player but I was good, probably a little bit better than the average player. But I was kicked out of raids for being 5th in damage out of 10. One time, I was even kicked because I wasn’t first in overall damage.
It wasn’t that I was bad as a player – we rarely had any problems downing the bosses. But it’s because I wasn’t hitting some arbitrary number that someone else decided I should be capable of. This happened because a raid-leader had real-time feedback to my performance, and a theorycrafting website to set the standard against which I was to be judged.
This fanatical devotion lead to people striving more and more to get higher and higher numbers, ignoring mechanics and demanding healers and tanks keep them alive while they chased the biggest possible number. Your knowledge of the utility aspects of your class was irrelevant. Your knowledge of fight mechanics was irrelevant. Everything else in the game took a backseat to how much damage you could do.
It’s easy to forget that WoW wasn’t originally designed for every player to be min-maxed all the time. With the advent of theorycrafting and DPS meters, the genie was out of the bottle, and they couldn’t really put it back. As it became more and more mainstream, content which was originally turned to a wider range of skills and character builds became too easy because everyone was now playing at much higher level. So WoW adjusted and started making content more difficult, but as they did that it became apparent that although players were overall doing more damage, they weren’t necessarily more skilled. Complex mechanics were seen as ‘unforgiving’ and ‘too hard’ for the majority of the player base and WoW adjusted again. The inclusion of iLvl took some guessing out of who would be running a dungeon with what gear. This allowed WoW to tune fights higher by ensuring a certain DPS could be met by most of the players.
It’s also during this time that WoW started the “Bring the player, not the class,” which to achieve meant homogenizing damage abilities across the board to ensure that no one class was preferable over another, except in the most extreme circumstances. Area of Effect (AOEs) became standard, and every class was given one. Abilities which might have made one class more desirable than another were scoured. The only real metric by which you could measure a damage dealing class was by how much damage they actually inflicted because there was no other differentiation – everything else was superficial and irrelevant when compared with the biggest possible number.
Our obsession with this number even spills out into monetization conversations and the concept of pay-2-win. If someone can buy something from a cash shop that allows them even the most minuscule edge in damage, we see it as the most egregious and unforgivable sin in gaming. We don’t care what else you sell you in the cash shop, as long as it doesn’t impact how hard you hit something else.
Now, we take it as self-evident. Of course damage dealers want to have the highest DPS, otherwise why play a damage dealing class? To some extent, this was always true and always will be true. But not to the extent that damage output is considered above and beyond all other metrics. The obsession with DPS and damage output has skewed our perceptions of what gaming should be and what’s important in MMO gaming because … well, because reasons.