Why are MMOs so obsessed with dps? (And when can I get some?)

The whole MUD genre on which MMO’s are based is dedicated to the superiority of dps (dps = damage per second, it’s a shorthand for damage focussed classes). You get experience mostly by killing things, as per the D&D model. You may not always be in groups. The people who kill things the best solo are the ones who bring the highest damage, so can kill faster. Killing things quickly is an advantage in PvP also. There are other aspects to being a good soloer such as not needing to rest between kills, but the way MMO design is going at the moment, it’s not acceptable to balance dps with low downtime.

In fact, there is literally NO PART of the game in which being a dps class does not confer an advantage. With the only possible exception of being able to get groups quickly, and that isn’t connected to game mechanics, but just to the laws of supply and demand. So as soon as a class with useful/necessary abilities for a group gets overpopulated, it loses any group-getting benefits. And still doesn’t get to solo as fast as a dps class.

I have real issues about classes being balanced with respect to their popularity. But it’s undeniable that players flock to the more effective classes. Who can blame them? If a MMO can be won, it’s by learning the best and most effective ways in game to reach a player’s goals. Picking a good class is one of those ways. Plus its fun to feel powerful and not fun to feel weak.

So damage is king, and dps classes are needed for all parts of the game and can excel at them all. By contrast, healers and tanks are needed for anything group based but usually ‘balanced’ by being less good soloers. I don’t find this a good concept of balance, but the general idea is that healers and tanks are more survivable so don’t need as much damage capability. Its pretty clear who is getting the short end of the stick here.

Ah, but classes aren’t balanced around soloing ability. Well, maybe they should be. Because it’s tedious to always feel like a second rate citizen whenever you have to do something on your own. And no one has a group on call 24/7.

Healers who dps/DPS who heal

You don’t have to browse any forum about any new MMO for very long before someone asks the question, “Will healing characters be forced to heal?” Replies are a mixture of:

  1. players who want a character which has healing capabilities but mostly gets to dps, and can keep up with the dps classes
  2. players who prefer to always stand at the back and heal, and want everyone else on the thread to know it
  3. dps players getting upset at the notion that any healer could out-damage their characters. Because it’s ‘not fair’
  4. trolls those who feel the need to chime in on either side of the ‘don’t tell me how to play my character’ general debate

There is pretty much no type of class in the game that generates so much hatred among the player base as a healer who doesn’t heal. I always thought it was interesting that any character that can cast a heal on others gets labelled ‘a healer’ straight out of the gate, even if it does other things more effectively. So if you pick a character like that, you get the label of healer as soon as anyone sees your class. Don’t want to heal? Then you’ll get the label of ‘rubbish healer.’ And if you are good at dps on a healing class, expect to be labelled very quickly as ‘overpowered.’

A lot of this comes down to perceptions of balance, and also the popularity of different roles. But leaving other people’s selfish expectations aside, there are lots of reasons why these types of classes are popular.

The Tank-Mage Syndrome

“Tank-Mage” is a kind of slang for a character that can do everything and has no weaknesses. The dps-healer can seem like this from the outside. It is as accomplished at killing things as a specialised dps class. But it is also very tough and survivable because of being able to heal itself. People are quick to claim that this is somehow unbalanced, and I’ll talk about that further down. But in general, being balanced means that a class’s strengths are balanced by its weaknesses. If a class is perceived to have few weaknesses and lots of strengths, the whines will begin. Plus it can get groups easily by being able to fill either a healer role or a dps role on demand.

This latter is a strange argument because the actual balance for a class being flexible is that people may ask a player to fill a role they don’t prefer. One benefit to playing pure dps is that no one ever asks you to heal. As a dps-healer, you will be asked to heal IF there is a shortage of healers and you are available. You may brush it off and say no, but there will be some pressure.

But there’s a lot of appeal in a self-sufficient class. And in practice, the classes that fare best in solo PvE (like grinding, levelling if you like to quest solo, etc) are the very self-sufficient ones that can kill quickly and keep downtime to a minimum. A lot of people love good soloing classes. If that’s a part of the game that is important or gives people a good advantage for the rest, it shouldn’t be surprised that players flock to the classes and builds that are good for it.

Other players don’t dislike the idea of healing but don’t want to be stressed out by having other people relying on them as the only healer in a group. They find it less stressful to be mostly dps but able to help another healer out by throwing the odd heal where needed. And as a bonus, they get to be much better at the solo game. So mostly dps with a bit of group support is exactly what they want.

So really it sounds ideal. A character that can heal in groups if needed, or lay down dps just as well as the dps classes. If you at all like healing, why would you not want that? And this really explains why people ask so many questions about healing classes in new games. They’ve played healers with a heavy dps handicap, and they didn’t like it. It feels as though the game is penalising you because you chose a support class. That’s craziness, and it cannot be good design.

Why are dps players such jerks?

It comes down to players who picked pure dps classes feeling that their role is threatened. If another class can do everything that you can do and other stuff as well, you could be excused for wondering what the point is. I’ve noticed when I have played dps that the other players get very competitive, way more than I ever found with a healer or a tank.

Not only that but some people don’t ever play any class with a support aspect, which means they never really had to think about how best to support a group, other than by killing things as fast as possible. In their view, picking a class with a narrow specialisation means they should be absolutely the best, and the role of other classes is to help them to kill things faster (by tanking/ healing/ buffing etc). And … oh yeah … it just so happened to be a specialisation that meant they were great at all parts of the game.

Perils of Class-Based Design

Oh class-based games, how I hate you and love you. The perils of class design is that every class needs to fill a special niche in order to make sure they don’t get left out of any content. So if one class already fills the melee dps niche, don’t expect your healer-hybrid to seriously threaten their domination. People love classes though, I think it’s because they like to know exactly what role is expected of them. In a sense, you can really identify with a class. I think it’s lazy design and hope that someday we’ll get back to more skill based design choices but I see no sign of it any time soon.

I predicted confidently when I first read the class list that although healers in WAR might put out decent damage, it wouldn’t be close to the pure dps. Or if it was, it would be much more limited. That’s how class based games work. If it wasn’t the case, a large proportion of the player base would be crying foul.

Every time I’ve played a game which promised good dps for the healers, it’s been nerfed or else they’ve been forced to severely cut back their healing. The smite cleric nerfs in DaoC are legendary. Priests in WoW got heavily nerfed in beta due to doing ‘too much’ damage (they did later fix shadow priests for TBC, and that’s probably the best spec for a healer-dps that I’ve seen so far.) LotRO actually had to give minstrels more soloability by adding a stance to switch to dps at a penalty to healing. However much we beg for our new healers to be good damage dealers, I don’t think a game would go live with that design choice.

And as long as they stick with the “dps is king” motto, it’s going to be more of the second class citizen.

(NDA note: in case it needed to be said, this is not a comment on what is currently in beta. It’s my prediction for the state of play when the game goes live.)

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10 Responses

  1. Good read.

  2. I enjoyed the article. I personally feel that there is something to be said about the ill will afforded to ‘healing classes’.

    However as you point out the whole genre is based on killing things, so it stands to reason that killing things faster would confer some advantage.

    However, I would disagree with the idea that “In fact, there is literally NO PART of the game in which being a dps class does not confer an advantage.”

    Two examples, and I’ll use healing classes because that’s the focus of the article.

    1. When death is permanent. If you cannot be rezzed, being able to survive longer has a huge advantage because it’s more forgiving when you take on an opponent that is stronger than you.

    2. When HPS is higher than DPS. I’ll use a WOW example for this. Take an evenly geared Warlock and a Resto Druid and have the warlock ‘just’ DPS and the Druid ‘just’ heal. The warlock cannot kill the druid before he/she runs out of mana, even using life tap.

    Of course you need ‘some’ DPS to kill anything, but I would disagree with the assertion that pure DPS has an advantage in every situation.

    The other thing that I really think needs to be considered, and wasn’t addressed in this particular article is crowd control.

    Frankly, crowd control can be the most advantageous of any ability because you effectively (depending on the type of CC) prevent or severely hinder your opponent from performing any action, be it DPS, Healing or whatever.

  3. Pretty well thought out.

    All I have to say, is that after 4 years of Prot. Warrior in WoW, I’m rolling Bright Wizard in WAR. I am DONE trying to defend ignorant DPS classes…worst players ever.

    And yes, the Smite Cleric nerfs were legendary…I remember them well. Still, for awhile, it was fun destroying MOBs and Players alike with little more than two spells….and the healing, that was nice too…and buffs. Man…DAoC had some cool spell effects. That really was a great game…

  4. Interesting article. I have played primarily DPS classes although interestingly enough my first WoW character was a Disc/Holy priest which I played for a LONG time.

    Can DPS classes be ignorant – YES but not all and like everything there is exception to the rule. Is DPS the answer to the game? Absolutely not you said it yourself you need all the support classes to progress. I don’t think DPS is good at every aspect of the game and I would argue that you need a healer and a tank for every aspect of the game. DPS becomes two a penny and they loose their niche role as you describe it. It can be hard to get in to groups for any content. I felt sorry for the poor rogues in WoW who often had this issue.

    WAR is different though. WAR is about PVP however you slice it and this is where the Hybrid (Tank-Mage) as you refered to becomes king or Queen of the hill. The dynamics of the game in PvP are not predictable they are not tank and spank. This means you need a class that can adapt quickly to the changing situation of the battlefield and this is always best done by a Hybrid. Druids were always best at PvP in WoW in the arenas they dominated. So if I were a betting man I would expect to see Warrior Priests and to a lesser extent archmages probably do best at WAR. Having said that WAR seems to be a range heavy game so the archmage might pip the warrior priest.

    Worst class in pvp tend to be tanks unless there is a distinct battlefield goal that requires it i.e capture the flag. Tanks did fairly well at that but never held a
    feather to ye olde druid once again who lets face it was, tank, healer, dps in one.

    The key to this all will be that no one class has this distinct upper hand in PvP. Everyone wants to go in to a battle feeling they can contribute equally to a fight. Sadly it often seems like an impossible task and I still maintain the changing dynamic of the battlefield means Hybrids always stand out above the rest.

  5. I think the most important thing to realise about WAR is that it is a group PvP game at heart, and a group is always more than the sum of its parts.

    Put simply (and being very careful to only use information that is in the public domain), every archetype brings something unique to the table that increases the survivability and effectiveness of the whole group. Tanks really do hinder the opposition and mitigate group damage, healers heal and supplement damage, and dedicated DPS types have the extra damage necessary to overcome sustained healing.

    With level, gear, organisation and player skill being equal, a balanced group of 2 healers, 2 tanks and 2 DPS, should beat an unbalanced group of 6 healers, 6 tanks or 6 DPS every time.

    6 healers should find that they cannot output enough sustained damage on a single target to bring it down while at the same time heal the damage being dealt to themselves, especially when being hassled by the tanks and DPS of the other group.

    6 tanks will certainly not have enough damage to pose much of a threat to a balanced group, and again, especially while being hindered by the other group’s tanks and DPS.

    With focussed fire, 6 DPS types might have some success, but focussing fire means that the rest of the balanced group are being left unhindered. Unhindered tanks are more dangerous and troublesome, unhindered DPS can deal out even more damage, unhindered healers can heal and damage more effectively and efficiently.

    The focus on group PvP in WAR absolutely necessitates a paradigm shift in our views on class effectiveness. We need to start thinking about what particular groups are capable of through class synergy, rather than what each class is capable of in isolation.

  6. “It comes down to players who picked pure dps classes feeling that their role is threatened.”

    AMEN to that. Nothing irks me more than any player going on and on and on about their dps, then mewing like a starving kitten when someone else tops their damage without breaking a sweat. Well, it irks me but then that last part makes me laugh.

  7. Unwise: Oh, I agree totally. A balanced group is the best way to do things, and it really doesn’t matter who does which role in a group — they are all needed.

    But when the group splits up for the night and people wander off to farm some gold or kill some animals to butcher/skin/etc, the dps classes have an advantage. So they’re just as valuable as healer/tanks within a group, but more useful outside it. That’s just down to design issues, if you could farm by playing bejewelled then no class would be favoured.

    I think with Solo PvP, it’s going to depend a lot on the specific game and how it’s tuned as to whether the hybrid has enough mana to heal herself and kill the other player before they run out of health/mana/ etc. The best solo classes in WoW aren’t necessarily hybrids for example (warlock, for one).

  8. I always found that in DAoC, apart from when they had a “must have” ability – a hybrid was a bad choice for a gank group.

    Say you have 4 spaces for DPS and healing – if you take a healer/nuker in all 4 spots you’d think you’d do well – but the healer/nuker can’t heal while they’re nuking and they can’t nuke while they’re healing – so they’re effectively a bad healer or a bad nuker whenever they’re performing a particular task.

    (if they’re not worse than a pure nuker when going all out for damage then there’s no point to the pure nuker ;))

    When you had a full group and control over it – you’d be far better getting two dedicated pure healers and two dedicated pure DPS – that way you have 2 people healing the best healing possible at the same time as 2 doing the best damage possible.

    If you were duoing or in a smaller group though – assuming you weren’t fighting impossible odds you’d not be taking quite so much damage that you need a pure healer healing constantly – and having someone able to swap between healing and extra damage was actually an asset (certainly more useful than just a DPSer and no healing ;))

  9. @spinks

    If we are only talking about solo grinding, then yes, it’s hard to engineer a system where DPS classes haven’t got an advantage, but I really don’t think WAR is going to be the kind of game where you’ll be required to spend much time soloing.

    Everything fun happens in a group, be it RvR, Scenarios or PQs, and Mark Jacobs stated that the crafting system isn’t going to require you to go out and farm hundreds of mobs. It’s meant to be something you do as you go along, or in the gaps between battles. Also, it seems evident that due to the limited scope of crafting, the economy is not going to play as large a role as in other MMORPGs. All the best gear will come from joining a group and finding something to kill.

    In fact, there has been no indication so far that any activity in WAR will benefit from sustained solo grinding. Of course there could be some situations where solo DPS is useful, but equally, there could be situations where the higher solo survivability of tanks and healers is just as useful. However, when it comes to progressing your character, grouping will be where it’s at.

  10. Very good read..I like the article.

    “People love classes though, I think it’s because they like to know exactly what role is expected of them. In a sense, you can really identify with a class. I think it’s lazy design and hope that someday we’ll get back to more skill based design choices but I see no sign of it any time soon.”

    That’s what Mythic at first intended doing the tactics system and beta testers complained because they couldn’t say how they where specced. It’s not only design laziness, but people are used to say “hey..I’m a nuker..even though i play a healing class”.. It’s hard to drop such things people are used to say/think.

    Frankly i had never the problem of getting solo PvE content done as a healer..even in WoW with my Holy/Disc priest. Solo PvP was another thing.. 😉
    The def-tanks had more of a problem both in PvE and PvP .. actually they were totally useless in PvP. I’m looking forward to test a blackorc as an alt to see how Mythic solved this.

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