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I’d like you to take a look at something for a moment.

Gubal-map

That is a map of the Great Gubal Library, one of the dungeons that was released in Heavensward.  Here’s another map:

AKHM-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.

“Honey, is that an ogre up ahead?”

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.

“Hey, screw you buddy!”

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.

This bunch of squares > pretty much every MMO dungeon out there.

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.

Nobody should ever see a snake-haired floating cyclops head and think “Eh.”

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.

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