The one thing I find lacking in today’s MMORPG design is the lack of interesting dungeons. The current trend is to create a series of hallways and rooms that house trash mobs, then bosses, then more trash, then a final boss. There is a lack of creativity these days that is really depressing. Ever since WOW’s most popular dungeon, Scarlet Monastery, development studios have used more and more science and data points in their design. Since then dungeons have been more about efficiency of time and increasing the ratio of rewards and time.
So what should we expect from Wildstar? Are we going to go old school in dungeon design, dungeons design to occupy your afternoon? Or are we going to get dungeons design for the person who had 30 minutes to burn? Keep reading as we go over the evolution of dungeon design.
Before we start, let us be clear in that both approaches have their merits and there is room for both design theories in an MMORPG and we’re not talking raids here. Sometimes you have enough time to do an old fashioned dungeon crawl on a Sunday afternoon and sometimes you just want to kill a big baddy before dinner time. So before you comment on how much of an idiot I am, for whatever reason, let me just clarify that the game needs both types of content. Unfortunately, the current trend in MMORPGs only gives us one kind of design.
The Old School Design
Let’s reach back into the mists of yesteryear at take a look at one of the most popular dungeons in Everquest: Lower and Upper Guk. Back then Everquest was designed with non-instanced content. Most, if not all, of these dungeons were expected to house multiple groups around the clock. Gameplay was different in that there really wasn’t a beginning or an end to the dungeon, you spent your time hunting spawns. In reality it was more of a “zone” than a dungeon.
However, you did treat it the same as any other dungeon you’d expect to do. It was a place you went to get loot and gain experience, so I think it’s fair to compare these dungeons to their instanced cousins. Take a look at the maps that we’ve provided. The design is incredibly different from what we see today. There are multiple paths to the same destination. The design doesn’t push you from one point to another. There are also different targets to go after.
Not only that, there were dead ends, places where you could get lost; you actually felt the depth and weight of the levels above you. There was definitely a feeling of being “in” something. There were reasons to actually turn around and go in another direction.
Old School Turns New School
One of the biggest complaints from old school players about Wold of Warcraft is that the dungeons have turned into “McDungeons”. Pieces of content that you can consume in in 20-30 minutes where design is simple, and often enough a straight line. But Warcraft didn’t start off that way.
One of the best dungeons Warcraft has ever put out is probably Blackrock Depths, or BRD. It pretty much was the full package that often took you 5-6 hours to complete. Even then, you could go in and pick your path and be finished with your goal in an hour or two. It had a myriad of quests, it had a raid entrance in it, it also had scripted events. Blizzard has never made a dungeon like this one again.
The great thing about BRD was that you had short cuts, different themes, different areas and you could choose which way to go. If BRD was recreated again today, it would probably be split up into 4 or 5 smaller dungeons, and that would be a shame. There is very little difference between BRD and the older dungeons described above.
The turning point in dungeon design was Scarlet Monastery. It was originally designed as a hub for four instances spanning around 10 levels. With the use of internal metrics, Blizzard determined that it was incredibly popular. They deemed that if players can pick and choose sections of dungeons to do, they can design bite sized chunks of content that even more players can experience.
They took this design theory to heart and by their first expansion this is how they design nearly all of their dungeons. Even if it wasn’t a hub of multiple instances, the theory of short dungeons that can be completed in a timely fashion was the way to go. Just take a look at the picture below. While the dungeons appeared large in size, there really is only one path to follow.
Scarlet Monastery v1.0
When Warcraft’s popularity skyrocketed, other studios had to take note and the design theory of smaller dungeons became cemented in the genre. One of the more successful MMORPGs in recent times is RIFT, and their design is no different.
The main complaint for these style dungeons was that there wasn’t much design at all. Ultimately, if you took away the art, they became large room, hallway, large room, hallway and then final room with a teleport outside. You worked your way from the beginning all the way to the end and you were done. While this design allowed players to gain loot and fight bosses in a very time efficient manner, players lost the sense of place. You no longer had choices to make and the sense of enormity or awe was gone. Dungeons became playgrounds to play in and get rewards for beating.
There have been some variations like Guild Wars 2 and some of the Dungeons and Dragons Online maps that you can look up if you like. Some of the best dungeon experiences to-date do come from games like DDO.
That ultimately brings us to the real question: What kind of design theory will Carbine Studios use with Wildstar? There has been mention of dungeons and adventures being two types of content to do in the elder game. Combine that with the desire for games to go back to their roots of difficult and interesting content, we just might see a combination of the design theories described above.
In our opinion, we’d love to bring back the old sense of dungeon crawls where you can get really immersed and lost inside something. We would love to feel the sense of accomplishment of defeating a boss that took hours to get to or to dig your way through a dungeon and find a rare spawn that most players didn’t spend the time to get to. There is something to say about the road less traveled. We think that Carbine knows what we’re talking about.
That’s not to say we don’t want smaller and faster dungeons. There is a place for shorter experiences that don’t force you to set aside your entire evening to do. This type of content is necessary for any MMORPG to be healthy these days.
What about you? What is your favorite dungeon of all time and would you rather have shorter and more streamlined experiences or do you yearn for the days of a 3-5 hour dungeon crawl?