Thursday, April 28, 2022

DPS. It Stands For "Don't Pour Scorn".

put up a very interesting post a few days ago, in which she talked about that old favorite the damage meter and the problems, both practical and psychological, adding one to a game can cause. Any discussion of damage meters is de facto one about the DPS role itself, of course. Damage meters, almost by default, relate most directly to DPS classes, although these days many mmorpgs expect everyone to be DPS, even if they also have other responsibilities. 

The post is as much about the role as it is the way it's measured, something that very much comes out in the lengthy, interesting discussion that follows in the comments. I've mentioned my long-standing feelings on DPS as a role too many times already (Tl:dr version  - it isn't one.) but even as I sense myself setting up for another vault over the old hobby-horse it occurs to me once again that most of what I think about mmorpgs is based on playing EverQuest almost twenty years ago.

Self-knowledge is notoriously hard to come by but mmorpg blogging is a useful excavatory tool when digging into your own psyche. We belabor the same topics over and over, those dead horses we love to flog, an exercise that can either result in the mental equivalent of repetetive strain injury or the growth of new mental muscle-tone. 

I'd like to think the result is more often the latter although I suspect that might be wishful thinking. It is ironic, given the extreme and often self-conscious efforts I make not to let myself settle into a rut where music or literature are concerned, the way I allow myself to trot out trite tropes from twenty years ago without seeming to notice how unfit for purpose they've become.

In the specific case of Shintar's post, my immediate reaction was to trash talk the very concept of "rotations", something I claimed I'd never used "on any character in any game". I did throw some smoke over the claim by adding the descriptor "hard" to "rotation" but even so it's a pretty bald statement to make. Could it really be true?

No, it couldn't. If I take the time to dig back into my mmorpg past, I can think of a few characters I've played who did indeed have a particular set of spells or abilities that they habitually triggered in a specific order so as to have the most effect. What is true is that I never consciously set out to create a strict rotation for any of them. I just worked out what seemed the most likely order to get the result I wanted and fell into using that. As Nogamara wonders in another comment in the thread, was I just "lucky in mostly picking the correct rotation by myself and thinking "this was natural"?

Here's the thing: if I didn't use any kind of rotation, how the heck would I even be able to play EverQuest II, where at any given time I have a hundred and twenty hot keys on screen. Literally - ten hot bars of twelve keys each. The most you're allowed. (If I could have more, I would. There are quite a few things I have to open other windows to use.)

Looking at my Berserker, fully half of those one hundred and twenty keys are combat abilities, mostly attacks plus some buffs/debuffs and self-heals. Of those sixty I normally use about half in most fights, around thirty separate actions, each of which I trigger with a mouse-click. It's a lot.

Every one of those abilities has a tool-tip that describes what it does. Some of them are several paragraphs long. I have a working understanding of the more important functions but mostly I've grouped the abilities in a rough approximation of when they might work best together. On some other characters, where I've judged synergies to be more critical, I've tried to align them in the order they should be used. If I'm paying attention I even click them in the order I've placed them.

In a normal fight against a regular opponent I'll usually only have time to trigger the most important abilities once or twice. I'll generally stick to the ones that primarily do immediate damage and that have the shortest cooldowns. I also like to use all the knockdowns because the sight of mobs falling on their backsides amuses me. Also it reduces the damage I take, which may or may not be more significant.

In longer fights and especially on Bosses, I can end up using most of the sixty combat abilities numerous times so it would be ridiculous for me to claim I don't follow any kind of rotation at that point. It would also be less than accurate to describe whatever rotation I have as much more than making sure I hit everything on cooldown, remember to refresh all the short-term buffs and use my Ascension abilities in the order that means I get an extra refresh.

It is a rotation but not much of one but then it doesn't need to be. Playing solo, the only thing that really matters is that I don't get myself killed. Short of that, it doesn't make a lot of difference whether it takes me five, ten or fifteen minutes to get the job done. 

Of course, I'd rather it was five but I come from a background where in a normal, solo play session I might not kill more than eight or ten mobs in an hour of continuous hunting. Not boss mobs. Just regular, outdoor creatures.

When I played a Druid in EverQuest back in 2000-2001, I think each of my dots used to last something like three minutes. I had several of them and a fight would consist of rooting the mob, laying all the dots on, then sitting and waiting. Usually I got to refresh those dots once before the mob died, meaning most "fights" lasted about five minutes. Later, when I perfect quad kiting, I'd hope to get all four mobs down before my Ensnare ran out. It lasted about fifteen minutes. 

I had a rotation then, too. It's just nonsense to pretend I didn't. It was even a fairly consistent one, if not actually strict. I only had eight spell slots. Most fights consisted of casting Ensnare, then some version of Root, then all the dots I had, probably some variation of Flame Lick, Immolate, Stinging Swarm, Creeping Crud and Drones of Doom. If I was impatient I might cast a nuke, most likely something in the Ignite line. Nukes were very mana-inefficient, though, so I tended to avoid them. 

All the caster and hybrid classes I played behaved somewhat similarly, solo. In groups, my play was far more situational, which is where I got the idea that casting the right spell at the right time was the key to good, social gameplay and also the idea that concentrating on DPS was selfish and solipsistic. "Selfish" was a commonly-held opinion of people who chose to roll Wizards, the prime DPS casting class, in those days. Rogues, people mostly just pitied.

I'm fairly sure I've written a detailed post about this before and I don't want to reiterate the same descriptions of how I used to play a Cleric or a Druid as a main healer in a group. The point is, as a healer, I felt my role was to do as little as possible so that when I was called on to do a lot very quickly I would have plenty of mana in the tank to get the job done. Any kind of "rotation" there would have been an anathaema to me because it would mean I was wasting mana by casting something other than a heal when it was needed.

I also played a Beastlord in the era when that class was the Swiss Army Knife of many groups. Mana was less of an issue there, what with the class having the second best mana regen buff in the game and also a bloody great tiger that never ran out of steam.  

As a BL I had certain responsibilities, primarily Slowing the mob as soon as possible, keeping it Slowed for the entirety of the fight and maintaining various buffs for the group. I also patch healed,  cured, dotted, debuffed and meleed. The tiger off-tanked. It was a full life, playing a Beastlord.

All of those were fundementally situational, not least because they frequently had to be co-ordinated with other members of the group. Any rotation, such as it was, would have been limited to making sure everything got refreshed when it faded or re-applied when it was resisted. Yes, in the broadest sense the same buttons might be pressed in the same order each fight and there was definitely a sense of actions falling into a pattern but there was never any hint of activating a pre-determined series of key-presses against a timer.

Those early EQ experiences have colored everything I've done in mmorpgs since. It took a very long time before I was able to stop trying to bend every new mmorpg into the shape EQ made. I think it was probably Guild Wars 2, with its would-be mould-breaking new approach, that finally shifted the paradigm for me but it's taken a lot longer to calm the shudder I feel every time I hear someone talking about the importance of DPS and the need for an appropriate "rotation". 

Even now, my instinct is to read any such thing as an expression of self-centered, self-aggrandizing hubris. In the milieu that formed my personal mmorpg values, people who thought that way were the kind you didn't really want in your group. To be thought one of them would be mortifying.

Times have changed or maybe they've just turned full circle. Whereas open world content has largely moved to a Time To Kill model, where fights are measured in seconds, as Shintar rightly points out, when it comes to dungeon bosses "there's inevitably a lot of time where you just attack one big opponent for minutes on end." I fear I may have fallen into the trap of conflating disparate experiences into an unconvincing and unrepresentative gestalt.

For most of what I do, any idea of a rotation would be at best superflous, more likely fatuous. How many times would I even get through even a simple rotation more than once? I don't think it even counts as a rotation if you can't get through it the first time, does it?

When it comes to those long, attritional fights, though, the ones I complain bitterly about having to grind my way through at the end of Living World or Adventure Signature Questline instances in GW2 or EQII, I'm grateful for anything that shortens the agony. Ideally, I'd prefer it if developers would come up with another, more interesting means of holding our attention but since that's unlikely I'll settle for learning to maximize my efficiency, if that's what it takes.

It's time I revised my unthinking dismisal of DPS as a role, not least because these days DPS is mostly what I play. I never planned on making the change but somehow it happened anyway. I guess if you end up mostly soloing a shift to a DPS focus is inevitable.

For many years I thought of myself as primarily a healer in mmorpgs. It was my preferred role and I fancied myself pretty good at it. To be a healer, though, you need someone or something to heal and it's been a long time now since I grouped regularly, let alone as a healer. I don't even duo much any more and healing myself or my pet doesn't count. 

As for the other role I really enjoyed back in the noughties, the one I tried to grab as much of as I could and could never get enough, it barely exists today. I used to relish being the one responsible for things like snaring, slowing, debuffing and generally making it harder for the mob to operate effectively. Crowd control was an extremely responsible position in a group back then. Now it's become what DPS used to be; something everyone's supposed to be able to do in the background while they're concentrating on something more important.

Or maybe that's just in GW2, where "CC" means "reduce the Breakbar" and not much more. I'm not sure I've ever seen anything actually "controlled" by one of those abilities, not least because no effect ever lasts more than a few seconds.

And that's the key to it. How long a fight takes. For DPS to matter much at all fights have to be longer than an eye-blink and the same is true of using skills situationally, the way I prefer. What I mostly come across are either ultra-short fights, where neither skill nor judgment seem to matter at all, or massive hit-point sponges that have to be worn down over time with a firehose of damage. If it's a boss, occasionally there'll be a quick round of Simon Says or The Floor Is Lava just to keep you awake. 

Even when there is a "situation", the only way to address it is through a formal set of behaviors learned from a dance manual. The old school response of winging it, making up strategy on the fly, something which seemed to serve most groups I healed for very well back in the early 2000s, probably never makes it out of beta these days. By the time most of us ever get to see the content there's already an accepted strat up on YouTube and woe betide you if you haven't watched it and committed the moves to memory.

The same with rotations. I say I don't use them and I certainly try not to but I can't pretend I don't even know what they are any more. When I go to Metabattle for advice on what gear to buy and what skills to slot, I can see the builds also come with a detailed description of what buttons to press and in what order.

I have no intention of taking that advice. It's too much like work for my liking. I'll muddle along as I am, following my own guiding principle: if the mob's dead and my character isn't, I must have done everything right. 

What I will try and do from now on, though, is recognize the new landscape and my changing place in it. Shintar descirbes DPS as "by far the hardest role in SWTOR's more demanding group content" because you have to both keep that meter ticking as fast as possible and also not falter in your dance steps. It must be like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time and we all know how hard that's meant to be.

That kind of dedication deserves respect. Grudging, maybe, but respect all the same.


  1. The paragraph long skill tooltips in EQII would be greatly improved by putting comma separators in the damage values since, if you're in the latest content, the values go into the millions and are often somewhat specific numbers or ranges of numbers and I cannot, at a glance, differentiate easily between numbers written out as 1567901 and 15827310.

    I do occasionally go look up rotations if I seem to be doing very badly. WoW actually tells you, in game, what your best attacks are for your spec, but even there I used and addon once in a while that would literally show you which attack should be next for optimum damage, just to get myself into the swing of things. Especially when playing a class I haven't touched in a while.

    But mostly I just muddle through if I seem to be succeeding.

    1. I hadn't thought about it but it's odd that they haven't redone the tool tips to the new formatting that does use commas or periods or scientific notation or whatever the choices are. It's hard to imagine some poor intern had to sit there and transcribe all those seven and eight digit numbers by hand and in fact I have a feeling they adjust in real time according to buffs you have that affect them, so they must be auto-populating from somewhere. It's not like someone would have to go in and adjust each one individually.

      That said, I haven't been out to kill anything since the patch that changed the notation. I've just been hanging around my Mara Estate or East Freeport docks doing the Overseer missions. For all I know, it changes when you first use it or maybe there settings I need to change. I might have to look into that tomorrow.

  2. Well, I'm glad I inspired such a flexing of the mental muscles!

  3. I don't claim to understand much of it myself, but I'd love to hear more from someone who has a good overall grasp of the fundamentals across different games. The problem is that most of the theorycrafters tend to be really specifically esoteric for their one particular game (and class/profession) of interest. Rotation and priority also have a tendency to be semantically confused with each other.

    I think the bigger concept seems to be one of "skill priority - which buttons should one ideally be pressing at any given moment?" For some games and situations, this might even be an interrupt or counter for your opponent's cast, placing higher stress on good timing.

    A skill rotation is then a subset of that bigger concept, a loop that one relies on when the goal is to do the most amount of damage in a given time, given cooldowns and cast/animation times that flow together in such a way that it is possible to press a sequence of ABCDEF skills and repeat them without change.

    But what happens if cooldowns and cast/animation times don't sync up in such a way? Then apparently it goes back to a skill priority list - press A if it's off cooldown, then B, etc.

    Do skill priorities and ideal rotations change at different latencies? Surely a 30ms ping person might be able to fit in more skills than one with 250ms ping? Should variations be experimentally and practically tested in-game, and where? On a practice combat dummy? In a real encounter scenario where one may have to deal with mechanics, being forced to stay at different ranges or move at various intervals?

    Do games like Dark Souls have a "rotation" if one is basically just trying to squeeze in attacks during optimal windows where the boss isn't about to hit you? Or is it just a skill priority choice between a limited set of actions (light attack, heavy attack, spell?)

    At some point, it goes a little too deep down the rabbit hole for moi. One has to draw a time/effort line in "sciencing" what is essentially entertainment.

    1. Several excellent points there. As usual, there's a lot more going on than the shorthand suggests. The whole "animations" thing is another one I took years to understand. I read so many different people making comments about it, sometimes saying they wouldn't or couldn't play certain games because of the animations, others talking about how one of the reasons WoW was so successful was because of how well-synced the animations were, even patch notes talking about frames having been removed from animations to make them more effective... I knew what an animation in this context was but I had no real understanding of why it mattered as anything other than an aesthetic.

      That was mostly because I very rarely look at my character or the enemy during combat. I look at the skill bars. Again, it all goes back to EQ, where I learned most of my mmorpg language and habits. I had those eight spell gems and a spellbook that obscured the entire screen when I meditated, which I did most of the time in groups. My gamepaly largely consisted of a static screen image of an open book and a lot of sound effects. I learned how to time my casts by watching my mana bar refill, standing up, clicking a spell gem and sitting down again. Animations were not an issue!

      Anyway, writing another post in a comment here. This is a very big topic and it deserves a lot more delving into, preferably by people who understand good deal more about it than me. Suffice to say that I manage to muddle through somehow and have plenty of fun without annoying people I group with too much, which is probably good enough.


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