Murf and Syl both have great posts up about DPS and The Holy Trinity. In the long and lively comment thread following Murf's piece (on which he offers extended commentary here) I chipped in with a lengthy ad hoc homily on how EverQuest, as usual, Got It Right. Which, of course, it did.
The trouble is, like a lot of other cultural experiences that have passed into folk-memory, the decade-old EQ gameplay experience is hard to communicate meaningfully to those who didn't encounter it when it it was in its prime. As the years roll on it becomes increasingly clear that you had to be there to understand just how very, very much more fluid, complex, intelligent and interesting the quotidian combat mechanics of a bog-standard, leveling PUG were in the MMORPGs of the first half-decade of the 21st century.
Just telling people how it was back in the day is hardly likely to convince anyone who didn't get to experience it for themselves. And, of course, there will always be pushback from those were there but who thought the things I'm portraying as positives were largely problems to be solved. That, after all, is how we got to WoW and thence to where we are today.
It might be easier if we'd had YouTube and Twitch and all the rest of the streaming, videoing self-recorders to document the everyday lives of a few of the half-million people playing EQ at its peak. Moving pictures do trigger emotions well. At the time, though, I rarely thought to take a screenshot during combat let alone a video so words will have to do what they can alone.
In discussing DPS and The Trinity in the light of the experiences of those days a key point that should be remembered is that DPS often wasn't thought of as a full role at all. Even when it was credited with being a bona fide job it was seen as a highly specialized one. Most six-person groups would only take one pure DPS class, maybe two at a push if they were different classes.
When compiling a group, something I did often once I gained the confidence and couldn't con someone else into doing it, I'd usually allow just one space for pure DPS. Since Mrs Bhagpuss often played a rogue or a monk (DPS of a sort although a lot more useful and versatile, being one of the best pulling classes in the game and a very fair off-tank when required) it didn't generally leave much opportunity for anyone else to fill that slot in groups that she or I were leading. Consequently I didn't get to meet all that many DPS specialists, which might have colored my view if it wasn't for the fact that there weren't all that many of them looking for groups in the first place.
Everyone just had so many more important things to think about and so many more interesting options. There was so much to do in those days. Really, who would want to play pure DPS? Even most of the Wizards had probably rolled that way for ports. The long list of key tasks, all of which featured well ahead of just inflicting damage, included but was by no means limited to tanking, healing, slowing, hasting, pulling, crowd control, mana replenishment, buffing, debuffing and, of course, rezzing.
While all that was going on the DPS just somehow filled itself in in the background. The tank did a lot of constant DPS to hold aggro, almost everyone did their bit and it added up just fine. Having more than one person who was only going to stab things in the back seemed like a huge waste of resources.
For the other five non-DPS-specialists, as I said, dealing damage was something you'd fit in between all the other things that were taking up most of your attention. You'd throw in a nuke when you could, apply and refresh your dots as the opportunity allowed, but it was the bit no-one particularly cared about. If you missed a round, or several, no-one would either notice or care. As a cleric I prided myself on never doing any damage at all. If I had to smite it was a sign something had gone badly wrong.
That general lack of interest, affection or desire for causing damage is one of the biggest differences between MMORPG combat then and now. Another, and the underlying reason, I believe, that perceptions on what's required have changed so much, is that over the years combat got faster. Much, much faster. It isn't just that DPS has somehow, perhaps almost without anyone meaning for it to happen, become an end in itself. That's merely a symptom. The real problem is the inexorable pick-up in pace that still hasn't peaked.
MMO combat used to be almost stately; highly tactical, it was more about thinking than doing. Increasingly the reverse is true. Modern MMO combat isn't necessarily less complex but it requires an entirely different set of skills, ones far closer to other forms of video gaming, where everything, all the time requires action, reaction, movement. Like the shark, if a group isn't moving forward it's dead in the water, or so the wailing and moaning that breaks out should anyone dare to pause to take a breath would seem to suggest.
When we did dungeons more than a decade ago no-one, and I mean no-one, cared how fast we did them. I cannot recall a single time when anyone commented negatively on how long it took to kill a mob, let alone complained that it took too long. The important thing was that it died and we didn't and that was a function not of patience but of difficulty.
Mobs were tough. Tougher than you. Always. The idea of racing through a dungeon never arose because it would have been impossible. Even though the standard respawn time was somewhere around a now-unimaginable 18 minutes, still in normal dungeon play it was often difficult for a full group to clear a whole room before the respawns began.
Difficulty levels in EverQuest peaked (unintentionally, as we discovered years later) in the Gates of Discord expansion but even by the time we got to Planes of Power, for players in my weight class each single pull was taking 2-3 minutes with another 1-2 minutes recovery time. If we managed twenty pulls in an hour we'd think we were kings. Most sessions it was four slow, arduous, careful pulls followed by a misstep that sent anyone left alive running for the zone-line yelling "Train to zone!". And that was outdoors!
In dungeons that louche, lax, relaxed attitude wouldn't wash. There, the focus was on a) getting in b) clearing a space and c) holding it. If the group was very confident we might "crawl", moving through the dungeon, doing a) and b) repeatedly as we moved from one room to the next while foregoing c) altogether. If we did, we knew we were almost certainly going to get in above our heads and wipe, eventually. We wouldn't even attempt a crawl unless we had a porting class (druid or wizard) with us to get us out when we'd had enough. There was no Gate spell, recall or hearthstone for half the classes in the game. Either you got a port or you walked out. And you weren't walking out.
Before the arrival of the sixth expansion Lost Dungeons of Norrath, (one of my personal favorites and the one where I and many, many others
finally learned how to play effectively and efficiently in groups), which introduced the Instance to EQ, all dungeons were both persistent and open. Everything respawned. There were many roamers and some of them were other players and groups. About every mob you saw was powerful enough to kill any one player-character easily. Many were powerful enough to wipe the whole group. It wasn't always easy to tell which was which.
As I recall the main problem was too many people wanting to volunteer their own, particular skills and the discussions of their relative merits that always followed. And if you were crawling through the dungeon you'd have that discussion afresh at every junction, every doorway. Old EQ vets often reminisce about the social aspects of grouping but in my memory we talked far more about game mechanics than we did about our real lives. That's one of the things I miss most about the silent groups of the modern game - that technical to and fro.
Despite all the preparations situations frequently got out of hand. When they did, everyone in the group needed to be able to think on his or her feet, to adapt and innovate. DPS was rarely a solution to a problem because no one character ever had the resources to just burn something down. Just a single add might tie up most of the the groups resources. More might mean a wipe and a wipe might mean ten or even twenty minutes just to get started again. At such moments the last thing you needed was someone standing around blasting away and hoping for a miracle.
There would be times, many times, when a bad pull, a resisted spell or a roamer arriving at an inopportune moment meant all six players going into triage mode. As a cleric I remember so many fights where every member of the group was dealing separately with adds, moving them into corners, locking them down, taking them out of contention using whatever tactics their wits and their spell selection suggested. I had to keep all of them and myself alive long enough for order to reassert itself. When it was all over we were either sitting down recovering our breath and our mana and laughing our heads off or lying on the dungeon floor hoping like fun that someone with a rez had managed to camp out. Oh, wait...that'd be me.
That was what passed for a normal leveling session back in the day. Is it any wonder people who had that nightly experience find the current vogue for speed-runs unsatisfying? Not least because in some important ways we aren't playing the same kind of game at all.
Over the last couple of years I've done dungeons in FFXIV and Fractals in GW2. I'm not for a moment suggesting they are easier. In some important ways they are much harder. But it's the kind of challenge that I don't enjoy. Everything comes down to dodging out of shapes on the floor, countering specific scripted events or burning hard and never stopping. It's a young person's game now. When I was younger it was almost the opposite.
In essence the core gameplay of MMORPGs like EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot consisted of risk assessment and resource management. They were first and foremost games of strategy, planning, tactics and logistics. More chess than Twister. Combat was merely how the gameplay expressed itself.
That's why DPS didn't seem to be anything special and why it's so hard to take it seriously now, (although I'm quite sure that Mrs Bhagpuss, as a dedicated DPS specialist herself, would have a different view. She did then, too). Of course, even back in the day there did have to be DPS. Progress would have come to a halt without it but then so it would had the pulling stopped or the mana run out or no-one was slowing (even by the time we reached Velious fighting unslowed mobs had become like trying to stop a buzzsaw by grabbing the blade).
It was a game of specialists and the loss of a key role might mean a rest for the whole team while a replacement was recruited, although usually someone had a second-best to offer. We'd muddle on with that while the group leader sent tells to find something more suitable.The one role whose departure would never bring pulls to a halt was the DPS specialist. Without him or her little would change except that the fights would take longer and no-one much minded that.
The thing is, for all we talk about it now, back then nothing was ever all about the Holy Trinity. It was a game designed around collective responsibility, around creativity, around imagination. There was rarely much agreement over who was theoretically best in class for each role and function and even if there had been it still came down to who was available.
We filled the roles with the best people we knew not the best classes and that applied equally to DPS specialists, the few we encountered. If I couldn't find the best people, though, I'd go with whoever we could get and then we improvised. With six spaces in the group and many classes able to handle multiple responsibilities we could have filled more slots with more DPS classes even then. We didn't because there weren't that many LFG. DPS was not what most players wanted to be doing most of the time.
It's not what I want to be doing most of the time now, either. It never has been. And yet for years and years it's almost all I do. Solo, duo, group, zerg: all the games, all DPS, all the time. At least that's how it feels. DPS players may feel they have the short end of the staff with the long queues but that's just a marker of the way what was once a niche specialization has grown to overwhelm an entire genre.
Whether the engine of change can be thrown into reverse I very much doubt. Those slow, thoughtful, careful, groups, who took each goblin on its merits and watched neither a clock nor a meter are gone for good. They say you can't win an MMO but it seems you can win a genre. Good game, DPS. We're all in your world now.
LOTRO: Back to Lothlorien
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