Tamriel Infinium: How Elder Scrolls Online made me a believer in public dungeons again

Here we are at Princess Tower.

Most folks have their own goals and gameplay that they enjoy in MMORPGs. For me in Elder Scrolls Online, it’s gradually bringing a game map to full completion. It’s so satisfying ticking off the boxes from the zone guide and getting to explore all of the nooks and crannies of these realms.

Thanks to the zone guide, I’m encouraged to jump into activities that I might not otherwise. Oddly enough, I’ve found myself warming up to one feature that it is pretty common in ESO but could be considered a relic of the past in other MMORPGs. And that’s the use of public instances — delves and public dungeons — that litter the landscape. I actually kind of love these now, and I thought I’d spend a column pontificating exactly why.


Delving deep

When I first came to ESO, I had no idea what a “delve” was supposed to be. It’s not a term that has a universal connection with MMOs, so it was only after running through a few of them that I got the picture. A delve (signified on the map by a torch) is a smallish instance that holds very little in the way of difficulty. It’s a mini-dungeon that can easily be soloed, with only one boss tucked away somewhere inside.

Public dungeons are the next step up. These aren’t proper four-player instances, but rather open spaces that offer increased difficulty (usually in greater packs of mobs) and multiple bosses or potential objectives. They’re also larger and more sprawling in scope.

Both public dungeons and delves are shared instances, meaning that anyone in the area can jump into them alongside of you. This is what makes doing them kind of unpredictable, because in one you might not see another living soul, while another might sweep you up in a little zerg of sorts as players informally group while working toward the end.

It should be put right out there that neither of these are significant time wasters nor do they offer a lot in terms of gear rewards. You’re certainly going to get better loot if you do a dungeon, trial, or raid.


More rewarding than you’d think

So if delves and public dungeons don’t really advance my gear stats, why bother? I mean, other than just checking off that box for the zone guide?

I shouldn’t have to say this (but I will): There are a lot of ways that an MMO can be rewarding, both intentionally by the devs and incidentally by adventure. These public spaces dole out different kinds of rewards that I appreciate.

For starters, I like how I’m usually getting three things done at once in a public instance. I’m clearing it by beating the boss, I’m usually running an associated quest, and I’m picking up the skyshard that’s always tucked away in these places. Three completed tasks for one quick trip is a good, good feeling!

But what I like even more is that these are instances that are fun to romp through and enjoy on a visual level. Remember when you were a kid and you’d get to explore a new playground, a maze, or a funhouse? You weren’t doing it to get anything out of it other than the sheer experience of checking it out for yourself.

The developers and artists clearly unleashed a lot of creativity on these instances just to make them visually appealing. I am forever taking screenshots of some of these fantastic little tourist traps, glad that the effort was put in to make them more than a generic mine or jail block.


Stepping stones to grouping

I jumped into MMORPGs a little after the very early era where most all dungeons were, in fact, public. The instanced dungeon only started to come into vogue in the mid-2000s; prior to that, devs would create dungeons that were part of the world itself. Players would sometimes dive into them together to camp certain bosses or see what they could see.

While ESO’s public dungeons and delves are separated into their own instances, they retain some of the flavor of those old-style public spaces. Modern dungeons (including the ones ESO has) are so focused and channeled that there’s little in the way of exploration or “messiness.” With delves and public dungeons, I’ve noticed that there are multiple paths that offer different options to going through.

And the more I think on it, the more I see these spaces as being essential stepping stones to grouping up for tougher dungeons. Getting players comfortable with grouping has long been a holy grail in MMO design, and it was once thought that public quests were the way to go. But perhaps this was already solved a long time ago when public dungeons were a thing? It certainly seems like encountering others while going through a delve and lending a helping hand might be a more natural way to get someone curious about doing this on a more formal basis.

In any case, while delves and public dungeons might not seem that essential to progression, they’re standout features in my day-to-day adventures across Tamriel. I’m quite glad they’re there.

Traverse the troubled land of Tamriel in the Elder Scrolls Online! Justin Olivetti and Ben Griggs will be your guides here in Tamriel Infinium as we explore together the world created by ZeniMax and Bethesda in one of the biggest MMOs in the genre.
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