Saturday, 19 September 2015

The Race Goes To The Swift

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.

That meant there were often group discussions before each pull over how to proceed. Having been in a particular spot many times before did not preclude these discussions. We did the same dungeons nightly and yet we went through the same debates every time. Experience helped but variations in group membership, spawns and, especially, roamers meant circumstances were often far from predictable. Just deciding whether the Cleric should Lull, the Enchanter Mez, the Bard do that weird song thing they did, the Monk FD pull or whatever might take as long as the fight itself.

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.


  1. What a wonderful post.

    I've never played EQ, but from the sounds of it early WoW (where I started) still had at least some traces of this kind of gameplay. The average dungeon took two hours, and you wanted to bring different classes for things like buffs and crowd control.

    Part of what drove me away from WoW was the insane speed that people expected in the group content after the introduction of the dungeon finder. One of my last dungeons before I unsubbed had everyone rush off the moment they spawned in, kill things without stopping, and leaving all the loot behind because again, looting would have required a second of pausing to click on the sparkles. It felt absolutely inane to me, yet apparently it's exactly what a lot of people want from their MMO experience.

    I'm hoping that just like with the whole theme park / sandbox discussion, there will eventually be some sort of pushback in favour of slower and more cerebral gameplay again.

    1. Vanilla WoW is a very intriguing bridge between the old and the new. Some of the developers working on it were big EQ players and part of their intent was to make a better EverQuest. They certainly made a more successful one.

      I'm heavily disadvantaged in commenting on the transition because by the time I finally bought a copy of WoW it was about halfway through the WotLK period. I'd been led to believe, by people I knew who had played Vanilla and by a lot that I'd read, that even in the early days WoW was a much-simplified version of EQ. Dumbed down was the phrase often used.

      Coming in with low expectations I actually found WoW to be much better than I expected and the more I read about what it had been like in its early days the more I wished I'd played back then. I think, though, that no matter how much more complex Vanilla WoW was than it became later, it was always, entirely intentionally, an easier version of the DIKU-MUD format, pared down and made accessible to a non-specialist audience.

      If things had stopped there it would probably all have worked out for the best but you know how it is - once you start sawing the legs off the table to make it stand straight you end up with a flat piece of wood lying on the floor.

  2. I honestly think you need to name WoW as a primary culprit here in establishing the MMO combat of the next generation. While it may be true that vanilla was still somewhat slower, I do not recall a time where our holy trinity groups were about versatility or being creative - it was always very much 3 roles set in stone, in a way more than later when WoW went a bit more hybrid. WoW made trinity combat incredibly straightforward and it's never been a big CC game (or one for many different strategies). What you describe as EQ's combat sounds more like a collective effort at mob-herding really, certainly more appealing than all the fastfood dungeon grinds for loot in WoW later.

    In the end, this too is encounter design; classes go from there and adjust. When you don't have continuously the same unforgiving mechanics for some roles but not others, combat opens up to more options. But today's MMOs usually offer tank&spank and that's it.
    I would also argue that the early MMO audience was just different - more about adventure and trying out new things and seeing how far you can go. It was not as competitive yet or meritocratic as it became later on, with one big focus on endgame. You only care about 'slacker DPS' if you have a competitive mindset, frankly that's what bugs me about healers/tanks bashing DPS (or Murf's rant). Why is it such an issue that not everyone carries their weight in the exact same way - what happened to diversity? If you're not tank/healer material and can't take the pressure, play something else; there should be some role or class for people to do that. MMOs are not a rat race.

    1. See my reply to Shintar re WoW. WoW changed everything, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

      I think you are spot on about the change in audience. Even when EQ was the big beast in the MMO jungle with half a million subscribers the entire MMORPG genre was a rounding error in the accounts of the video game industry. Leave aside that ordinary people hadn't heard of MMORPGs - most gamers hadn't heard of them.

      The people who played MMORPGs back then were mainly people who'd played either MUDs or tabletop RPGs or both. They weren't schoolkids or FPS players or someone's grandmother playing to keep in touch with the grandkids on the other side of the world (although a surprising number were of that kind of age). They were people who liked thick rule books, roleplaying and complexity.

      WoW broke that niche wide open so that anyone willing to play a video game at all was likely to be found playing WoW. No-one really knows for sure how that happened but ease of access, soloability and reduced complexity were surely all factors. There's no reason we shouldn't have niche MMOs again with the same or greater complexity as the old ones but they will always be niche and part of the problem for the last decade has been that WoW's vast success has made even a niche of 100,000 subscribers look like abject failure.

  3. This was a really interesting read for me as someone who has never played Everquest. One of the things I miss the most about early WoW (Vanilla/TBC) was that crowd control was a big deal in dungeons. As a hunter I was technically a pure DPS class but if I wasn't crowd controlling on every pull then that was really unusual. It was also normal for heroic dungeons to take a good few hours and the more difficult ones required voice chat of a sort.

    I do kind of miss those days.

  4. great post but many players even right at eh beginning of EQ were counting DPS as a metric. Also fast pace was already being pushed early on even tho the game was playable at a slower pace you ahd groups out htere that were clearing 4-5 camps worth of mobs because of proper DPS utilization by all the classes including support classes etc. and use of things like regen tics(sitting for the moment your regen tic happened to increase resource sustain) which also tied into agro management cause it allowed you to do more damage without pulling agro as a caster due to only getting the agro penalty for sitting for fractions fo a second rather than all the time while resting.
    Also the pace was very much up to the player through alot of hte mechanics you mentioned these were all used to squeeze dps out of the group pulling/CC were all used in good groups to reduce downtime of DPS from your entire group.

    But I do agree that DPS was the role you can play without in EQ1 the most but thats more because it was available from every class than because it was not important. EQ like I said let you set your own pace nowdays games/communities have higher standards for pace(something many of us like I said also had back in EQ just it was not required).
    What modern games lack is depth to combat in forms of resource management pulling/cc and cross class benefits more so than they are too fast/frantic. Along with persistent and meaningful worlds/progresion+pacing but thats a different topic and combat only ties into it.

    having proper DPS along with a couple trics like that med kiting trick i outlined and pull tricks like FD splitting faction/distance splitting using things like snares roots mobility kiting LOS etc. were what set good groups that plowed EQ even in the most difficult GOD areas. And allowed for things like train busting etc. You make EQ sound like a lot harder game than it was the toolsets just had a lot of depth and took a lot of knowledge and skill to fully utilize the content was never actuality tuned hard it was just gated by good design and depth.
    Alot of the reason I think games are so frantic nowdays is they are desperately trying to add difficulty for the highest calliber of player but they are doing it wrong like you say they are just adding simple mechanic saturatino and pacing difficulty not alot of depth and teamwork difficulty.

    1. I agree with all of that! Honestly, I could have written a 10,000 word thesis on group management and tactics and still left out half of what was going on in a normal session. It's the complexity and depth of options that set EQ (and other similarly-structured early MMORPGs) apart from what the genre has become.

      People certainly did parse damage right back even when I was first playing. None of the guilds or regular groups I ran with ever used any kind of formal parsing that fed into deciding who to include or exclude but many of us, me included, did parse our own and the group's damage out of curiosity. The reason I still have some chat logs going back to 2000 is mainly because I was parsing damage from them. I actually ran more add-ons in EQ than in any other MMO, even those that were designed to be played with Add-ons.


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