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Som Pourfarzaneh : Building Better Dungeons

By Som Pourfarzaneh on March 27, 2015 | Columns | Comments

Building Better Dungeons

Looking back, it doesn’t seem that long ago that I was blundering through the halls of Gnomeregan, plundering the riches of vanilla World of Warcraft with a pickup group that probably knew even less about the game than I did.  I was in grad school with eons of free time on my hand (yes, you read that correctly), and would look forward to noobing my way through the next level-appropriate dungeon for hours, with a healthy anxiety that my random group would disband after a total party wipe and require me to start the whole thing over again.  Dungeon runs were 2-3 hour affairs that turned into whole afternoon or evening activities when I hit the level cap and started 40-person raiding with my guild at the time.

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Not long after the launch of The Burning Crusade (or maybe concurrently - some of those games kind of run together), I got deeply involved in other dungeon-heavy MMOs, including The Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, and the original Guild Wars.  Although very different in terms of gameplay, all of these games’ dungeons have one thing in common: they take a heck of a long time and coordination to complete.  The commitment required to undertake them certainly was a hallmark of the genre at the time of their development, and even somewhat of a feature from a certain hardcore perspective.

Thankfully, the industry has evolved considerably since then, and developers have been explicit in thoughtfully designing dungeons in counterpoint to the old hat represented by what you’d find in vanilla WoW and similar games.  Blizzard began scaling World of Warcraft’s raids in response to the unwieldiness represented by its 40-person deals, and developers like Trion Worlds introduced dungeon-like content in the form of Slivers to encourage instanced play without requiring as much time and coordination.  Likewise, Guild Wars 2 came out of the gate with an entirely different design approach for dungeons, with relatively straightforward Story Mode dungeons that would unlock subsequent Explorable Mode versions for players looking for a greater challenge.

Like adventuring, crafting, PvP, and player housing, dungeons represent a tent pole topic in design that tends to polarize game communities.  Speaking very broadly, the kinds of comments that you’ll see about dungeons in a particular game is that they’re too easy, too hard, or too much of a waste of time.  The general ethos behind dungeons in most games is to provide an instanced, carefully scripted experience for a small group of players that can’t be delivered in the open game world (with a few exceptions in the form of open-world dungeons).  Creating such dungeons that are varied, fun to play, and with a fair amount of interesting mechanics that are complex but accessible is a tremendous balancing act.

The argument for a one-size-fits-all design mentality for designing dungeons doesn’t hold water, as that would presume a parity of scope and gameplay between all MMOs under the sun.  Is there, however, a clear path to making dungeons better in general?  Trash mobs, for example, comprise a common trope in MMORPG dungeon gameplay, and serve the binary purposes of artificially extending the dungeon experience and encouraging participation in the economy through loot vendoring and armor repair.  They’re otherwise very uninteresting, and add to the rote that plagues most MMOs (they’re just not fungeons, amirite?!).

I’m not suggesting that dungeons full of bosses and no trash mobs are the way to go, but I do think that there is the potential for every aspect of each dungeon to have meaning.  Whether it be through scripted events, set piece reveals, environmental puzzles, or boss fights, dungeons have the unique opportunity to engage a small group of players in a closed environment, which is infinitely more difficult to do in an open world scenario.  Furthermore, there’s a way of doing this that allows for a sliding scale of difficulty and complexity, as represented by WoW’s Flexible Raids and GW2’s Story and Explorable Modes.  Approaching design in this manner of course requires considerable buy-in and resources, but dungeons are already high on most developers’ priority lists.  One needs to look no further than the positioning of dungeons in recent games like WildStar and The Elder Scrolls Online to recognize their importance as features.

It’s difficult to ensure that every single activity in a game, particularly one as enormous as an MMO, has meaning, and there’s no doubt that objects like trash mobs exist because it’s easier (and less expensive) to copy and paste than it is to hand craft something completely new for each part of a dungeon.  There’s also no good way to try to cater to everyone’s gameplay demands without having your game lose its identity in the shuffle, and players will always complain that dungeons are too easy or too difficult.  Still, dungeons comprise an important part of most MMORPGs’ gameplay experience, and often suffer from the same kind of grind that pervades a lot of MMOs.  They’re a natural starting point for discussing how to provide smaller, more scripted gameplay experiences that have more meaning and impact, which can in turn affect the design direction of the game as a whole.

What do you think are some ways to build better dungeons?

Som Pourfarzaneh / Som is a Staff Writer at MMORPG.com and a Lecturer in Media, Anthropology, and Religious Studies. He’s a former Community Manager for Neverwinter, the free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG from Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment, and is unreasonably good at Maze Craze for the Atari 2600. You can exchange puns and chat (European) football with him on Twitter @sominator.