Massively Overthinking: Fixing boring MMORPG dungeons


Earlier this month, MMO genre luminary Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street tweeted something from someone on his Ghost MMO team that’s going to resonate with a lot of MMORPG fans, I suspect.

“One of our engineers described running dungeons in MMOs and especially WoW as sitting in traffic – nobody wants to be there and they just want it to be over as quickly as possible,” he wrote. “How did we get here? How do we break that mentality? I like dungeons. I want to be in them.”

Naturally, we’re going to take a stab at answering his questions in this week’s Massively Overthinking. Is the staffer right? How did it happen, and how should devs and players fix it?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): At least for me, I think I felt this the most in WoW. There was some of this in Asheron’s Call 2, as completing dungeons could give a ton of XP/cash via repeatable quests every few days/week, but that was a smaller game that would get new content monthly. It was also non-instanced, so while people could camp the dungeon and cheese it, it did also mean you could meet new people mid-dungeon.

Instancing in particular, I think, fundamentally changed dungeons, especially when paired with tons of XP and random, high-end gear for those who ran it multiple times. Early MMOs would have guaranteed drops but long timers for the boss to reset. So on the one hand, you may have only needed to do content once, and barely so if there were tons of people. But on the other, it wasn’t always necessarily challenging, especially for really good items.

In between all that, though, there have been fun dungeons, not just because of cutscenes and loot, but immersion or storytelling that could be used. Again, AC did this well. I remember one dungeon in particular was found via a purchasable bar rumor that told you to follow a trail of apples to the dungeon and find a family heirloom in some now abandoned tunnels. I think the item was found on a relative in zombie form, though I don’t think you told the NPC how you got it; they were just kind of like, “Oh yay, I got my family treasure back!” It was funny and dark without being too over the top. A nice, light touch.

Project Gorgon does stuff like this too. It’s not as if we don’t see this content, but I feel like it works best when it’s low-key. When dungeons become treadmills, not only do they lose their charm, but any they may have started with gets grinded down into common dust. I think the genre has attracted a lot of grinders who like this, so we won’t see it go away, but having more Project Gorgon-esque titles as options can help dungeons (and other features) feel magical again, if you can invest in those worlds.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Sure he’s right. A lot of MMO dungeons were always like sitting in traffic, long before WoW, just with variations. Ultima Online dungeons were like driving around the block very slowly waiting for a parking spot and then suddenly bank robbers show up and hijack your car. EverQuest dungeons were a really long roadtrip but you broke down halfway there and you decided to just hang out and drink with your mates instead. By the time the genre got to the instanced layout of World of Warcraft, Blizzard had added a tape deck and a moon roof to polish up the experience, but it was still sitting in traffic.

Tortured metaphors aside, the most fun dungeon experiences I ever had in going on 27 years of playing MMORPGs came when the dungeon experience was about hanging out with cool people and getting to do cool shit. It wasn’t the loot or the gearscore or the world first or whatever, and it’s nothing to do with instancing either. WoW has cool people and cool shit, but as long as I’ve known it, those things have always been secondary to the loot ladder: That’s what the developers rewarded with their overall world design, and so that’s the type of playerbase it attracted and held onto. And as long as that stays true, a broad section of the MMO populace is always going to look at the polish in WoW dungeoneering and find that it’s not enough; they become frustrated when they realize the fundamentals are off, the motivations and incentives are out of sync. It’s way too late to fix WoW, but future games should hard dodge those motivation traps.

This is big part of why I grew out of MMOs in the WoW mold, and why I keep going back to places like City of Heroes and Guild Wars 2. They’re about cool people and wild mechanics – not loot hierarchies.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I think that dungeons are at their best when they’re integrated into the world of an MMO. And I’m not talking about open world dungeons versus instanced ones; I’m talking about how they’re folded into the world either through story association or lore, be it part of a main quest step along the usual leveling routes or as a delve to explore because rumors of its danger and treasure were overheard.

I also think that making dungeons an apex activity as opposed to part of the journey through the MMORPG overworld is also a problem. It makes them feel too mandatory, and having some of the best gear stuffed within their confines kind of encourages repeat visits, which breeds familiarity, over-refinement, and ultimately boredom.

As for how to fix it, I’m going to approach this with pie in the sky thinking as opposed to any sense of engineering and coding logic, so with that in mind: Rotating encounters in dungeons so they feel fresh, perhaps some lockout on phat lewtz getting into those delves (or better yet commensurate rewards for doing other activities), and perhaps having a sort of “decay” mechanic where the Big Scary Stronghold pretty much is razed to the ground or otherwise tapped out because so many heroic souls rampaged through the place like a murder hobo tsunami.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I love the idea of a slow, methodical, roleplay-infused dungeon crawl of the kind you find among a group of friends playing a tabletop RPG. But can that translate into an MMO? Possibly, but most games aren’t designed for it, and even if they changed format for a dungeon, players would probably hate it.

Dungeons are killboxes for groups, and speed and efficiency are the names of the game. You can try to introduce puzzles (DDO) or brief dialogue choices (SWTOR) or clever mechanics, but at the end of the day, it’s a way to loot more than an experience in and of itself. And since you can’t put a bookmark in a dungeon run, there’s a time pressure to complete it before you need to log out.

I mean, there are players who deliberately form groups in, say, Elder Scrolls Online with the intent to soak up the story of a dungeon and be a tourist there, and so I think that MMOs that allow for those sorts of groups to form and advertise might be the way to go.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I’ve never been into the raid and ultimately the dungeon scene either, so I’m far from an authority. From the experience I do have, I’d lean into the issue being related to gear drops and increased focus on it being for the elite players. The mindset itself annoys me.

To bring it out of that state is hard. Maybe if dungeons were less a time commitment. Not that the overall dungeon should be short, but regular checkpoints could be an option. I know I rarely have two+ hours for a single raid session. But 30 minutes to an hour for a dungeon is doable.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I think this is an area where players and devs share blame. I think how grindy MMOs used to be (and sometimes still are) pushed people towards prioritizing efficiency… but then players took it way too far and made hyper-efficiency the only way to play, at least in the eyes of much of the community.

I think it’s easy to single out WoW for this, and it does suffer from the problem pretty badly, but I’ve seen this people rush their way through dungeons like their life depends on it in pretty much every MMO I’ve ever played.

Since this is partially a community problem, I don’t think there’s a simple game design solution, but something devs could do that would help is just design dungeons that respect people’s time better. One of the things that’s really thrown me for a loop in WoW after being away so long is just how much trash there is. It’s crazy how much you have to wade through between bosses. No wonder people try to blitz through it as fast as they can; it’s called trash for a reason, you know. So I think eliminating or at least greatly reducing trash mobs would help a lot. TSW did this, and it was great.

I’m also gonna disagree with Chris and say I think making dungeons a necessary part of leveling or experiencing the story is a great way to fill them with people who are there because they have to be, not because they want to be. When they’re more focused toward endgame, people are there because they enjoy the content or want the specific rewards. I think dungeons as endgame only becomes problematic when they’re the only endgame, and people have no other ways to progress their character, but you can say that about any kind of content.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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