Modern role-playing games really haven't gripped me in the same way that the older ones have. The reasons for that are manifold, but one of the biggest is in the way that developers have begun to adapt new mechanics and ways of presenting information which is at odds with the complexity that I expect from a good RPG. The influence of titles like World of Warcraft is felt far and wide - sometimes for the better, as in the case things like interface design, but also, in many cases, for worse as well.
In this article I'd like to discuss what I think is the single biggest issue with modern RPGs compared to their predecessors from the 80s and 90s - the prevalence of Damage Per Second as a gameplay concept.
In order to get into why DPS, in my opinion, isn't a good thing for RPGs, we need to take a closer look and examine what sorts of goals DPS tries to accomplish. Some of these are obvious, others, less so, as are the reasons and consequences:
All in all, DPS represents a far more drastic paradigm shift in RPG design than some may realize. It's not simply about communicating a number in a more player-friendly way, it's about completely overhauling the base mechanics of games in order to accomplish fundamentally very different goals from modern RPGs.
The DPS Problem
As an exercise in game design, the development of DPS is actually quite fantastic. Make no mistake, when I think about game design, I think about problem-solving, and DPS, if your project goals are in line with what it accomplishes, is possibly one of the best systems design decisions you can possibly make for an RPG. But, I'm also of the opinion that DPS has fundamentally damaged much of the uniqueness of RPGs, the depth of their mechanics, and has in general led to far more boring games.
The first major issue I have with DPS is the most fundamental: standardizing damage types. While some games using DPS do tend to also maintain multiple damage types, the majority do not, instead treating DPS as a be-all, end-all number. Even those games that do have those different damage types tend to have only cosmetic effects. By contrast, the Infinity Engine games made famous by Black Isle were built around the Dungeons & Dragons rules, and as such multiple damage types were in play in any given battle. For example, instead of "physical" damage, there was slashing damage, crushing damage and piercing damage, all which affected different types of armor and different creatures differently (i.e. quipping staves or maces was critical when fighting skeletons, as slashing and piercing damage were significantly less effective), which promoted diversity in the party and made min-maxing less effective, and meant that even a "simple" fighter had wide utility value and some tactics to consider.
This leads into the second major problem, which is almost a direct consequence of the first: standardizing character classes. In games which feature DPS, that DPS tends to completely remove any uniqueness in gameplay from different types of characters. It doesn't matter whatever permutations of a class you are playing - in virtually every game of this sort I have found that almost all of the differences between characters were not in gameplay, but in aesthetics. The fantasy of playing as a barbarian wielding a two-handed sword, versus the one of a svelte assassin backstabbing foes, is definitely a compelling one, but ultimately the only real difference in gameplay tends to come down to ranged vs. melee, and tank vs. damager - distinctions which already existed in other systems and, by virtue of the inclusion of DPS, have less depth to them than they would otherwise. For all their "diverse" character classes, most MMOs I've played have all classes feel pretty much identical, with the only major exception being Diablo III, which still pales next to earlier games in the series.
The end result of this are games that feel significantly less replayable and also tend to be far more boring, both in single-player and multiplayer contexts. When I'm playing a single-player game and the only difference between my character is what the loot I use looks like, that is not conducive to a varied gameplay experience - it means that if I ever go back to playing the game a second time, I'm not going to play it significantly differently, and even during the course of a single play-through, if DPS is all that matters, chances are I'm also going to get very bored very quickly. In an MMO, DPS has the effect of making distinctions between different character classes contingent largely on support abilities, i.e. aggro management vs. healing vs. buffing, and this tends to make different characters interchangeable with one another - one fighter is the same as any other, one cleric is the same as any other, and so on. This becomes overly formulaic and reduces the uniqueness of your given character significantly, even though creating a unique character and growing him/her in power according to your wishes is supposed to be one of the biggest draws of an RPG.
DPS also tends to get in the way of good equipment systems. Most more traditional RPGs did have their fair share of very standard weapons - a long sword +1 is obviously going to be a linear upgrade over a standard long sword. But, interesting distinctions between exotic weapon types were made possible by the differences between damage ranges and attack speeds. For example, a sword may do 4-8 slashing damage, while a scimitar might do 2-10 slashing damage - it's a small difference between these two, but it can influence your equipment selection and the way you build your character when combined with other mechanics. For example, maybe if you have a lower chance-to-hit, your decision to use a weapon will be different than if you have a higher chance-to-hit. The same applies if we are talking about 1 attack per round vs. 2 attacks per round. These small distinctions in equipment selection made some RPGs more "fiddly" to play for certain gamers and added a little more to wrap one's head around, but it's this in-depth tinkering and decision-making that made them interesting to play in the first place.
In other words, DPS is very much responsible for the push towards making RPGs glorified action games instead of a distinctive genre with complex systems-driven interactions. By making character advancement more linear, character classes less distinct, and gameplay more predictable, it robs RPGs of the more simulation-oriented gameplay they became successful for.
The reason I bring this up isn't because I hate DPS and I think that DPS is something that shouldn't exist - on the contrary, it has worked very well for certain games. My problems with it are mostly caused by the way in which it has helped transform RPGs from a unique style of game with their own nuanced rule systems, towards action games with glorified progression systems. DPS has definitely been a boon as far as marketability and mainstream appeal goes - just like leveling up, it's an easy carrot for players to follow that is basically foolproof in significance - but generally speaking, all the classic RPG fans I know are very much aware of the differences in gameplay that DPS brings. The ones who have embraced it are primarily not of the same community that originally supported RPGS in the first place.
That's not to say that DPS, is solely responsible for this degradation in RPG gameplay, and many of those effects of DPS are secondary in nature and can be altered. For example, DPS doesn't force developers to use only one damage type, but it does certainly encourage it, and once you've started to create DPS with all the nuance and depth of the older systems by adding additional modifiers on top of it, well, we've really just come full circle and made DPS obsolete anyway. DPS is a trend that's critically approaching the same level of saturation as XP progression in shooters, and I'm afraid that it's slowly taking us down the road towards homogenization of genres.