I’d like you to take a look at something for a moment.
That is a map of the Great Gubal Library, one of the dungeons that was released in Heavensward. Here’s another map:
This one is for Amdapor Keep Hard Mode, one of the dungeons that was a part of XIV well before the expack.
What’s the point of these pictures? To illustrate how far removed dungeon-diving has gone.
The problem with those maps is that those dungeons are, literally, designed as hallways. They don’t feel like an experience so much as they do a Tunnel of Love. If, of course, the point was to be murdered by monsters instead of snuggle time.
I have a real big problem with how MMO’s do dungeons now. They don’t really offer anything beyond a tributary away from regular progress–a speed bump that is almost immediately forgotten unless it can be efficiently farmed. Sure, the aforementioned XIV tried to make dungeons a regular part of advancement, but ultimately it still felt like it was some annoying wall in the way instead of a part of the story.
If the point of dungeons were to create group content that challenges people, then either something went awry in MMO Developer School or the definition of the word “challenge” got changed somehow. Dungeons are as optional as being sold car insurance while you’re at a rock concert–sure, you could listen to the salesperson, but why would you? And the only dread I’ve ever felt about entering a dungeon is dealing with a PUG.
So what’s to be done about it? Actually, this has already been done correctly before. By a couple of different titles.
Let’s start off with the grand-pappy: Wizardry. This was one of my first-ever forays in to the whole “dungeon diving” style of RPG game. It isn’t exactly a compelling thing from a narrative standpoint, but you still felt a sense of tension as you pushed further and further in to those grainy, labyrinthine walls. Every time I ran in to an encounter, I honestly sat up that much straighter because most of the time I wasn’t sure that I was a match for the things I faced. It’s not really intuitive design, but if I were entering a maze, I would probably know about as little about whatever the hell was menacing me as I did in that game.
Another game that’s done this whole thing right is The Legend of Zelda series. Zelda 2 notwithstanding, these dungeons are always a big part of the game, and they’re always a fun challenge, and they’re always something you look forward to when you play these games. They mix together a flawless stew of puzzles, traps, combat and power progression in a way that feels so natural, you wonder if MMO devs ever had a childhood with these things.
Dungeons should incite a sense of mystery and intrigue. You should be both afraid and curious about them. You should feel like plumbing those depths are a natural thing yet at the same time a completely insane activity.
The pace of many MMO players can be summed up as “breakneck indifference”. A good dungeon should force those same players to slow down. They should require some planning and forethought. They should demand that your steps are measured and your progress carefully mapped. If you’re going to enter one of these grand tombs or creepy castles or whatever, you should take along people you trust and who can watch your back as well as watch themselves, not people who are trying to dash through every hallway. The only time you should hear “Go! Go! Go!” is if you’ve triggered a poison gas trap and you’re running away from it.
Of course, the proliferation of guides, walkthroughs and other metadata pretty much renders all of these hopes pointless…but I still feel like dungeon diving in an MMO could be an event instead of another place to get shiny. And hell, there’s tech out there which can make maps randomly generate. Someone made this point already much better than I could. This isn’t hard to do anymore. It shouldn’t be.
Sometimes you have to look backwards as well as look around to see that the answers were already written before the questions were. If you’re going to make group content that will be remembered, there’s no shame in this realization. I urge it, frankly. There’s more to a good dungeon than just ramping up enemy HP pools. This stuff should make you feel like you achieved something without a pop-up window telling you.
you reminded me of the dungeons i played in games before wow in the mmo genre, where they were very much places in the world, and not really at all in the format we know today. you might do something akin to a clear trash towards the boss for a piece of loot in them depending on the game, or you might find them as perhaps a more dificult and more rewarding or different sort of reward vs other kinds of areas thing in the world. you often saw other groups of players while doing them, passing by to get to a boss in the dungeon or to another spot in the dungeon or like swg’s so called bunkers interupting your clearing to get the loot sort of deal (which maybe swg’s bunkers were a precursor of sorts to the wow style, perhaps ironically based on the popular narrative of that game).
wow’s early change to this general paradigm was to instance the dungeons into their own seperate bubble. you no longer saw other groups in them, but they weren’t yet so much what we would come to know in the years since. they were still sprawling open ended often affairs with series of quests and such and would take hours to full complete and a group might go into one with specific set of objectives from teh list of available ones the dungeon offered. the leveling dungeons were the more linear ones, and even then they evolved during the leveling progression to be more branching and open ended.
it was in wow tbc that really showed the first big foray into what we’ve become accustomed to. these very narrow linear perhaps story/rp driven experiences that had certain time of trash before a certain number of bosses. it was also in tbc that the party size limit on wow dungeons became codified at 5 people, instead of in vanilla being able to clear most of them with 5 intended level people but welcoming up to 10 players into the inistance.
in tbc however we still had that very strong focus on using marks on trash mob groups to determine who would cc what and dps what first. and it utterly destroyed most players pug or guild group in voice, far more than the vanilla wow experience which was a looser experience and less well defined. in wotlk however we got a new even further codified iteration of this paradigm where gone was marking mobs to communicate who would cc what, in favour of aoe dps burn all the mobs. it was generally regarded as a much more pleasant experience than tbc by most people, but would also be seen, extending to the raids which followed similar axiom while dropping the previous wow versions’ attunements and other barriers to entry, as being too easy, as show cased in the perjorative slur “wrath babies”. which was contrasted by early cataclysm’s endgame dungeons which initially returned to tbc paradigms of requrign marks on mobs and cc and such, as per visible popular social media/forums/blog post comment sections and forum feedback. however this proved to be an incredibly unpopular move and the forum zergs campaigned heavily for a return to the wotlk paradigms of dungeon clearing, which was given by blizzard, and ultuimately ironically perhaps resulted in cata’s endgame 5man dungeons being considered the easiest ever, ignoring the early reception to them.
ultimately it’s largely the wotlk style of dungeon design that we’d see derived from heavily in every game from warhammer to rift to final fantasy xiv 2.0 to wildstar, with some addition of novelty like once called cheats in dbm style telegraphs, which for example wildstar devs claim allows them to tune the dungeon/raid content much tighter and more dificult than without. while gw2 and sto attempted to spin this design paradigm in an iterative fashion to include classic 3d platforming game elements to some folks’ delight and to others’ rejection.
tl;dr, blame wow for everything. as usual 😀
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P. Mersault said:
The MMO dungeons i enjoyed most were the contested dungeons of EQ2. Not instanced, in part spanning huge level ranges where you’d have to go do something else for 10 levels and then return to finally see everything. Some of them also have raid bosses tucked in, just for the fun of it. It’s nice to turn a corner and find yourself- even in a full group- attacked by a dragon intended for 2 or 4 groups of players ten levels higher than you are.
Sometimes there are no ingame maps. Sure, there are addons and websites that can “help”, but you’re also free to explore them on your own.
Other than that, i agree. I think today’s dungeons in MMORPGs are manifestations of the skinner box design MMOs often are today (at least for players who love PvE progression).
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C. T. Murphy said:
The single best dungeon in any MMO, regardless of nostalgia value, is Nektropos Castle in EverQuest II. It blends story, adventure, and actually feels like exploring a dungeon. Nothing I’ve played since or before comes close. Even those large dungeons of old were mostly just static caves with lots of scary places to get lost.
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