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Please mind the closing doors; the Dungeon-bus is leaving the station!

November 3, 2012

Finally, as my life starts to resemble some form of normality again, since all my essays have been handed in and I’m back home from a wonderful visit to my girlfriend, I have time to write a new post. This post contains some of my thoughts I had during a discussion with Milday and Doone on the topic of why raids and dungeons just felt better in WoW Vanilla and what had changed in the way dungeons and raids are designed. Tying in to that a recent run in the Blackrock Depths instance in WoW also fuelled its own share of thoughts into this post.

As I have pointed out previously I am still subscribed to WoW, but most of my activity in Azeroth consists of roleplaying and I am not very keen on the whole end game, nor rushing my character to max level. As a testament of this my sturdy priest maintained itself on the rather pitiful level of 34 (considering there are now 90 levels) for something that approached 2 months. This did of course not bar him from visiting Outlands, Northerend and a host of other zones tailored to characters with a much higher level (part of the fun in roleplaying in those zones was actually getting there). Anyway during my absence from the blog I nevertheless decided I would slowly level the Priest and another Rogue up so I could satisfy my curiosity for the zones in Pandaria (Blizzard why did you put a level-lock on your freaking portal to Pandaria? Why?). As much as I enjoy levelling I also enjoy dungeons and I dislike a lot of the changes to a lot of the quest lines in the Old World, hence I decided to brave the cesspit of the Dungeon-finder. My Priest has during his levelling period worked on his tailoring and enchanting professions, so when the formula for “Smoking Heart of the Mountain” drops, I promptly need on it and get it without any hassle. When I after a semi annoying but in the end successful dungeon run (how often do they fail anyway) try use the formula a read text on it catches my mind: “Requires Black Forge”. For those who do not know the Blackrock Depths instance contains a “Black Forge” and “- Anvil” that certain crafted gear, mostly crafted with the blacksmithing profession, require. Anyway long story short I promptly got my trusty tank to “two-man” our way to the forge and through many adventures, nearly suicidal pulls and some orientation problems we finally found it.

So how does this brief synopsis of my adventures in BRD have any relation to the topic I was going to talk about? Well you see it describes one of many things that have been thrown off-board in WoW’s (and many other MMOs) development; the idea that dungeons could be something more than just a tourist bus through an area, where you after a successful tour are awarded with better-than-standard-gear. A dungeon should in my opinion be treated like any other visual setting in the game. It should be immersive and contain everything I expect that setting to have. A city should have houses with special functions (inns, prisons, seat of power etc) to explore; a forest should have trees (duh), wildlife and caves and rivers; a tower should contain several floors with several rooms that serve certain functions applicable to the tower. Is it a guard tower in the wilderness? I want a garrison with sleeping areas, an armoury, a training yard etc. Is it a mage tower? I want a library, a study, anything to make it convincing. But nowadays dungeons are more a tourist tour through a secluded area of the game and it is so wrong and lazy!

If we were to look at the layout of some Vanilla dungeons and raids and compare them to the ones we have in the more modern expansions of WoW, such as Wolk or Cata (and most likely MoP, but I don’t have any first-hand experience with the dungeons or raids there so I will leave that out), we can find some explanation as to why the more modern dungeons feel underwhelming when compared to the older ones. For this purpose I will look closer at the instances of Blackrock Depths, Blackwing Lair and Karazhan from Vanilla (while Karazhan was released in TBC, it was designed during Vanilla, thus falling in the category of a “Vanilla dungeon”, as far as layout goes), Halls of Origination, Gundrak, Blackwing Descent and Ulduar from Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm.

Firstly we can look at some things like the sheer size of the dungeons. Blackrock Depths is a city in its own right, with several sections containing structures like a bar, a garrison and prison, all fitted out with their individual small rooms and cells that serve only as decoration. BRD contains 19 boss encounters. Karazhan is a veritable maze (I cannot count the times our lovely Priest healer got lost there) and contains 12 boss encounters (per run). Blackwing Lair is also fairly large it has huge amounts of trash and some sections of the dungeon, an entire floor actually, are only devoted to these. All in all it contains 7  boss fights. On the other hand Gundrak contains 4 to 5 boss fights, depending on your difficulty setting and all these bosses are connected to each other in the way of boss room, hallway, and boss room. There are no intersections or small rooms along the way, like in BRD for example. Halls of Origination follows this same layout, although the hallways are longer but four of the 7 bosses actually reside in their own corners of a wide open floor, with next to no trash between them. Blackwing Descent contains 6 boss fights and the trash is only located in the hallways connecting the boss rooms. There are no other rooms except boss rooms. Ulduar sports 18 boss encounters with some longer and shorter hallways between them, yet the trash is actually kept to a minimum, yet the raid is given the choice in which order to do some of the bosses. Out of this brief description we can clearly see how the “decorative elements” of rooms/cells, intersections etc. have been cut out of the designs of the dungeons. We can also see that the number of boss encounters has diminished; all the 5 man dungeons (BRD, HoO, and Gundrak) were the largest of their respective expansion and we can see a significant drop in the boss encounters in these. And it is fairly logical to assume that the less boss encounters there are, than usually the smaller the dungeon.

Now why is the size of the dungeons important? Should we not have a chance of being able to run our 5 man dungeons, without having to plan a 3 hour “gaming-shift” in advance? And are the number bosses really that important?

The reason why size (pardon the pun) matters in this case is that it conveys its own share of realism and thus immersion. Blackrock Depths for instance is a dungeon set in the dark iron dwarf’s capital city of “Shadowforge City”. It would be more than a bit underwhelming to be in a city (a capital nonetheless!) without it having houses and places to explore would it not? It would undermine the fantasy that we are in a city! The number of bosses does not really matter. After all I enjoy Blackwing Lair almost as much, as my all-time favourite Karazhan, yet BWL has far less bosses. But as I stated before; the more bosses we have the more rooms and hallways we have (if we don’t do a Trial of the Crusader type of instance) and thus more opportunities to create these “decorative elements” and make the dungeons itself an immersing experience. And I am totally in favour of having smaller more easily runnable dungeons, but that does not mean they have to have no “decorative elements at all does it? Or must all dungeons run on a rigid course of hallway, boss room, and hallway and boss room? It certainly makes them efficient and easy to develop, but to me that does not make dungeons an adventurous place that tries to immerse me in its setting; it makes it into a tourist tour of the dungeon, forcing you to only adhere to a set path to complete the dungeon! My main point here is that the effect that dungeons are supposed to convey has changed over time. In the olden days they were a setting and its job was to immerse you in that setting. If you were in a city there should be everything you expect there to be in a city and so forth. Nowadays the purpose of dungeons is solely to give you better gear and tour you through a secluded area of the game.

Another thing that made dungeons like BRD great was the fact that they were tied into other activities in the game. Amongst these were long (attunement) quest-lines, class quests and crafting. Why did it make them great? One word: Interactivity! The reason a lot of people enjoy computer games has been labelled escapism. We “escape” (I like the word transfer more) ourselves to a different reality and get a creative output through it. The more we can interact with this artificial reality the more convincing and more enjoyable it is, as it allows us to “transfer” ourselves more fully into it. This is the reason RPGs sell, they market themselves as “interactive stories”. Crafting as an activity in the game is pure interactivity as you create something through interacting with different items in the game world. The reason why it is important to also tie crafting for example into a dungeon is because makes the dungeon a more interactive, a more immersive place. Quests do this in the same way by tying the dungeon to the world outside of the dungeon. I am not saying every dungeon should be related to crafting because the exclusivity of giving this sort of interactivity is what makes it fun. If you overdue it, it becomes quickly boring by virtue of being mundane. It would also overcomplicate things of crafting could only be done in dungeons or if every dungeon was related to professions.

A wise (wo)man once said that, the reason many players of older generations of MMOs feel bewildered while playing the new generation of MMOs, is that whether or not the MMO was a theme park or  a sandbox, both tried to be world simulators and that is not the case anymore. I think this is what lies at the heart of why the development has gone the way it has gone. I just wish we could see more actual cities like Shadowforge and actual Temples like the Sunken Temple (the old one) and not the shallow replicas we have in the form of Grim Batol and Gundrak. I wish once more to be an adventurer in a dungeon full of exploration, not a tourist on a bus piloted by the developer, sightseeing their pretty but shallow creation.

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