Where do you rest on the spectrum of humor? If you find yourself giggling and snorting at dumb jokes, groan-worthy puns, and satire so unsubtle as to be featured in a Wayans brothers movie, then you were the target audience for NCsoft’s Dungeon Runners.
Unlike other MMORPGs that took themselves and their convoluted lore very seriously, Dungeon Runners skewed RPG and MMO tropes left and right. This was the kind of game that would feature farting goblins and a home town called “Townston,” where you would indulge your inner six-year-old while playing a pretty fun action-RPG.
And it was a fun game, too. Dungeon Runners brought the Diablo format to the MMO market in 2008 and gave players a few memorable years before it literally blew everything up with an atomic bomb. In today’s edition of The Game Archaeologist, we’ll be looking back at this underappreciated title and its struggle to stay alive amid a shifting market.
The bizarre saga of Dungeon Runners can trace its roots all of the way back to 1986, if you can believe that. This was the year that TradeWars 2002, an online multiplayer space simulator, released for bulletin board systems and struck it big. The game was so popular during the ’80s and ’90s, in fact, that studio Realm Interactive purchased the rights to make a 3-D version in the early 2000s. NCsoft came along in 2002 with an offer to publish Trade Wars: Dark Millennium as the title was undergoing beta testing.
However, in 2003 the publisher and developer abruptly changed tacks and turned Trade Wars into a completely different game called Exarch. Exarch retained a bit of its sci-fi flavor, but instead of focusing on large-scale trading and space combat, it became more about adventuring through a futuristic world as a fighter who could use plasma guns and swords. The fast-paced action-RPG combat style of Exarch appealed to players who tried it out at E3 2003, as it was meant to be a more streamlined and intuitive MMO than other titles on the market.
While it looked promising, Exarch didn’t entirely come together to release as a massively multiplayer product. Instead, the title went dark in development for a couple of years only to resurface as the retitled Dungeon Runners.
Much of the Exarch’s design was carried over to Dungeon Runners, including the MMOARPG format, but the remaining sci-fi elements were fully scrubbed out in favor of a more tongue-in-cheek fantasy setting. NCsoft ran a beta for a good part of 2006 before finally launching the game in May 2007. Some industry veterans, such as The Realm Online creator Stephen Nichols and World of Warcraft composer Tracy W. Bush, were part of the team that attempted to give this title as strong a release as possible. X-Men comic book artist Joe Madureira was also tapped to create the unique visual style of the game.
With the option to play as a heavy weapon-swinging Fighter, a spell-slinging Mage, or a crossbow-shooting Ranger, players weren’t exactly overloaded with character creation options. However, this got them down on the field, where their primary order of business stayed true from start to end: Kill, loot, repeat.
Dungeon Runners followed Guild Wars’ format of being more of a hub-and-instance game than a true MMORPG with an open overworld. Players would form parties (or not) and then head out into a series of thematic instances to take on mobs and look for all of the treasure that they were hiding. A limited PvP server mode was offered later in the game’s life (which changed the town of Townston to “Pwnston”), but the core of the game remained PvE.
Despite its quirky nature, stylized yet chunky graphics and its satirical slant, Dungeon Runners got a decent promotional push from NCsoft during its runs. For starters, while the game initially launched as an online-only download, the publisher did cough up money to put out a box release in the stores at a later date.
Additionally, Dungeon Runners was configured to be a hybrid free-to-play offering, something that was only starting to gain momentum in the west around that time. Its free-to-play setup was subsidized by ads that were always showing on the top of the screen, many of which seemed to advertise other NCsoft titles like Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa or Exteel. There was also the cash shop, and while this shouldn’t surprise you, the store currency was called TURDs — for Townston’s Universally Recognized Dollar.
Yes, the jokes ran through the entire game, and for some players, that was part of the charm. You’d get bizarre quests, geeky references, industry in-jokes, and celebrity impersonators left and right. Players even attacked NPC gold farmers to vent their rage at such activities going on in other MMOs. The message here was clear: We don’t take this game too seriously and neither should you.
It wasn’t a perfect game, of course. Dungeon Runners lacked an auction house, struggled with performance issues, and was criticized for dividing its population up among premium (subscription-only) servers. But for most, it was an enjoyable diversion and even the occasional mainstay MMO.
While it was never meant to be one of the top-tier MMOs on the market, Dungeon Runners struggled to find widespread recognition from the get-go. Its development team was slashed to a mere handful by 2008, and the free-to-play offering — which was pretty novel at the time — wasn’t able to pull in the crowds or make a sustainable profit. An effort to bring the game to the PlayStation 3 was scrapped as well.
“Dungeon Runners just isn’t cutting the mustard”, Stephen Nichols admitted to players in 2009. “If she were a ship, she’d be taking on water. Yeah, she’s been taking on water for a long time now. Are my cryptic references too hard to decipher? The game just isn’t profitable. And, the first rule of business is to be profitable!”
By 2009, NCsoft had enough of floating Dungeon Runners and decided to pull the plug. By December of that year, players had been informed as to the shutdown (which would include a free copy of City of Heroes and Guild Wars to those who were subscribed to Dungeon Runners), and a mysterious atomic bomb appeared in the middle of Townston’s square. Players kept checking the bomb to see how much time was left, as it counted down to the January 1st, 2010, shutoff date. Finally, the day arrived, and Dungeon Runners entered the not-so-exclusive club of shuttered NCsoft titles.
For those missing the title over the past nine years, there’s a ray of hope thanks to a recent fan emulator effort that seeks to revive it as Dungeon Runners Reborn. Will NCsoft turn a blind eye to this project if and when it releases? We’ll just have to wait and see.