On Dungeon Design, or: why dungeons became boring

Like many another among us bloggers, I have lamented the passing of the good old times more than once. Coming from WoW, it will remain my gold standard for the foreseeable future to gauge every other MMO, for better or worse; and if anything, at least its still immense weight of millions of subscribers makes sure that this comparison can’t be completely useless.

Dungeoning is one of the most discussed parts of WoW and other MMOs. Typically though, this discussion focuses on how to create crate groups, and how WoW’s cross-server dungeon finder has transformed dungeon runs from social experiences or recruitment opportunities for raiding guilds into asocial speedruns. On the other hand, among those that are playing SW:TOR, the dungeon finder makes an unlikely comeback as blogger favorite and favorite wish for the next patch, because without this tool, it seems nigh impossible even for socializers to coax other people into dungeon runs. What with all the, I don’t know, talking, and inviting, and god forbid, running to the dungeon entrance being so last decade!

Two Types of Dungeons

However, I don’t want to discuss the dungeon finder in detail, other people have done that enough recently. There is a different topic, though, that goes hand in hand, and that’s dungeon design. For WoW, the largest shift in design came actually long before the introduction of the dungeon finder.

In Vanilla, dungeons were typically one of two types: either linear, or open and non-linear (or somewhere in between). Let’s look at the original endgame dungeons:

  • Scholomance was linear with some nooks and crannies, and an optional portion (Jandice’s basement) that you only did if someone needed the warlock shoulders.
  • Stratholme was non-linear, though in practice, it was split into two sub-instances of which you only did one (live or dead side), and either of them seemed to have a “preferred path” (though different from server to server) to go through that you typically didn’t extend or deviate from.
  • Dire Maul was non-linear, to the point that not only each of the three official sub-instances was non-linear, but there were even connections between the three that were very convenient for some of the quests.
  • Blackrock Depths: WoW’s poster child of non-linear dungeons, this was a massive dungeon crawl that was either admired or feared (or both). It was a whole city, actually larger than many of the horde and alliance cities that you could visit, with several subareas that you might not have seen even after a dozen runs.
  • Blackrock Spire: the two parts (upper and lower) looked similar, but in fact their design was vastly different. Lower was a non-linear group instance, while upper was a mini-raid with what probably was the most linear path through a dungeon in vanilla WoW.

Compare that to Burning Crusade:

  • Hellfire Ramparts, Blood Furnace, Shattered Halls: corridor-room-corridor-room.
  • Slave Pens, Underbog, Steamvault: room-corridor-room-corridor-room.
  • Auchenai Crypts, Mana Tombs, Sethekk Halls, Shadow Labyrinth: room-corridor-room. In spite of the name, Shadow Labyrinth was one of the most linear instances in the expansion, it didn’t even feature any views of the outside, or an illusion of vertical depth. It was a flat sequence of rooms connected by exactly one corridor each.
  • Mechanar, Botanica, Arcatraz, and, lest I forget, Magister’s Terrace: I think you can guess by now.
  • Escape from Durnholde and The Opening of the Dark Portal are fully scripted and therefore linear, even though Durnholde should get an honorable mention for the attention to detail and the fact that you could just go and hang out in old Southshore before or after your dungeon run.

With the introduction of heroic dungeons, we got more choices at the level cap – if you could finish them; some, like Escape from Durnholde were notoriously difficult and almost impossible without raid gear. However, from a dungeon design point of view, there was less choice, because they all followed the same pattern. And I can think of only two Lich King and Cataclysm instances that were not completely linear: The Nexus, where the decision was simply whether you wanted to clockwise or counter-clockwise, and the Halls of Origination with their optional wing.

Dungeon Design and Automated Groups

This simplified dungeon design predated the LFD finder, but it was necessary for it. Without dungeons that were a) of roughly equal length and b) linear, the dungeon finder wouldn’t have been accepted that easily.

If the dungeons are of greatly differing length, a player doesn’t know how long a dungeon run will take, and if you ever played in a dungeon finder group, you know that speed is of the utmost importance. Every minute spent in a dungeon without rushing to the end reduces the badges/time ratio and is frowned upon.

If the dungeons are non-linear, you will have different goals in the group. Some will want to do an optional area, others want to take a specific route to pick up something on the way. Only a completely linear dungeon ensures that the goals of all group members are the same.

So there you have it. Dungeons need to be all similar to each other and highly linear to work well with a fully-automatic LFD. On the other hand, even if you had 50 dungeons available, if there’s no variation in the design, they will become boring. So, in fact, the dungeon finder requires dungeons to be boring to work. Those old vanilla dungeons? To homogenize their length, they got split into several dungeon finder parts. And good luck getting people to continue further after you got your loot bag. Or remember Oculus? Most of my groups lost at least 1-2 people before the first pull, because people hated it for being so different. Oculus was like the blank in the dungeon lottery.

A pack of Haribo Color-Rado.

I hated these as a kid. 50% yummy, 50% eww.

LFD requires you to hit one button, then rush through randomly chosen content. People don’t like variety if they don’t have choice over it. If your only input is hitting a button, you expect homogenized output. Everything else is frustrating. Ever had one of these packs of sweets that are half gummy bears and half liquorice? The difference is that you don’t grab stuff blindly and have to eat whatever you grab, even if you hate liquorice. (Yes, I hate liquorice! There, I said it.) It doesn’t work that way with the dungeon finder. You have to eat whatever dungeon dinner is chosen for you, so it better be always the same so it doesn’t offend anyone.

I just wish the SW:TOR players that the introduction of a dungeon finder won’t make liquorice out of all their dungeons.

4 thoughts on “On Dungeon Design, or: why dungeons became boring

  1. I, for one, greatly miss the dungeon sprawls of yore. You’ve highlighted a decidedly disappoint aspect to modern trends.
    Great post!

    1. Thank you for the kind words!

      I agree with you, I loved dungeon crawls. The main trigger for this post was that I returned to LotRO for the time being, and found a dungeon to my liking there (Goblin-Town). In fact, I originally wanted to write about that, but then I got more and more general, and in the end, I cut the whole LotRO story out because it didn’t fit any more.

      Maybe later this week. That’ll give me time to get screenshots too.

  2. I think the Dungeon Finder tools exist for one reason only, and that is to bring people into dungeons that wouldn’t normally go there.

    I don’t normally do dungeons, at all. Compared the rest of the PvE experience they are generally…uh…inconvenient. If I want to play through an MMO’s storyline, doing the dungeons generally means overleveling the content of the storyline, and in this way, it ends up putting me in the same boat that canned PvP does.

    For all that though, I did some of the dungeons in Rift, simply because it was so easy to get into them – with the push of a button rather than the waste of a half hour ride. Personally, I have wondered – if those finder tools weren’t in place, would the use of dungeons justify the amount of developer time that must go into them to get them creative and balanced enough to be enjoyable?

    1. I think the dungeon finder serves a (at least) dual purpose: while leveling, it enables you to do dungeons you couldn’t do any more because you couldn’t find people, because everybody was soloing. At the level cap, it is part of the whole grinding system.

      As for the problem of outleveling content when you do a dungeon: if a game has a level curve that makes you frightened of doing dungeons, because you’ll outlevel content even if you try no to, that is quite bad design. Yes, it is that way with low-level WoW, but I think we’ve all seen the arguments and can agree that it is, indeed, bad design. 😉

      Finally, dungeons were one of the few things I enjoyed in Rift in the long run, as far as “content” in the classical sense goes. Rifts got old too fast; I’m genuinely worried Trion built part of their fate on what looks like a one-trick pony.

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